Adamson, C. (2012) Learning in a VUCA world, Online Educa Berlin News Portal, November 13

VUCA is a new term to me, although what it describes – volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity – is not. This is certainly what online educators are increasingly familiar with.

This year’s ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN conference will hold a plenary session to discuss learning in a VUCA world and the ways that knowledge workers learn to innovate. As Clare Adamson writes:

The systems under which the world operates and the ways that individual businesses operate are vast and complex – interconnected to the point of confusion and uncertainty. The linear process of cause and effect becomes increasingly irrelevant, and it is necessary for knowledge workers to begin thinking in new ways and exploring new solutions.

While the VUCA world may seem like a scary and unpredictable thing, preparing a company for any eventuality is a massive opportunity for innovation, learning and change, and it should be treated as such. 

One of the most important ways that knowledge workers can interact with the VUCA world is through constant learning and access to new information and new processes. School-based learning is an essential part of personal development, but allowing employees to learn in action is one of the most important steps toward readiness in a VUCA world.

This looks like being an interesting session, although the focus will be more on learning in the workplace. Nevertheless, it’s worth thinking through the implications of  a ‘VUCA’ world for learning in post-secondary education .

There are two different kinds of questions for instructors in post-secondary education:

  • how do you prepare learners to cope with and  indeed even exploit volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity?
  • how do instructors and course designers also best work within such an environment, which certainly applies not just to technology developments, but also to external factors that bring pressure on universities and colleges to respond in ways different from tradition? MOOCs are a good example.

The first question is the most challenging. Certainly a traditional transmission model of education, with the subject expert telling students what they need to know, then testing them on how well they have learned what the master has taught, is not going to cut it. In a VUCA world, you will still need to know ‘stuff’, but when the ‘stuff’ itself is rapidly changing, less certain, and more distributed, you need other skills to cope.

Preparing students

My answer to the first question is to create learning environments that require students to deal with VUCA. Students need to develop the key knowledge management skills of knowing where to find relevant information, how to assess, evaluate and appropriately apply such information. This means exposing them to less than certain knowledge and providing them with the skills, practice and feedback to assess and evaluate such knowledge then apply that to solving real world problems. Indeed, part of the process should be learning to identify problems as well as solutions. This is going to be a dynamic, ongoing process, and will most likely involve social networks and other sources of input to the learning from outside the institution. But also within this process there will be ‘stuff’ that still needs to be learned.

Designing learning

I have written before about whether the traditional ADDIE instructional design model is flexible enough to cope with new learning environments. I think it is far too rigid to deal with VUCA. For instance, even setting prior learning outcomes is fraught in a VUCA environment, unless you set them at an abstract ‘skill’ level such as thinking flexibly, networking, and information retrieval and analysis. However, these abstract skills need to be grounded in real world contexts. Research has shown that there are limits to the transfer of knowledge and skills across different subject domains or different contexts.

This means designing learning environments that are rich and constantly changing, but enable students to develop and practice the skills and acquire the knowledge they will need in a VUCA world. I have seen several examples of this. For instance, in UBC’s ETEC 522, ‘Venture in Learning Technology’, students have to explore new technologies, see a possible application, then develop a an implementation strategy for a business built around that application. Each year there a are new technologies, and the course is refreshed and renewed each year, as much by the students’ interests as by the faculty’s.

Another example is the historiography course where students use the Internet to identify and evaluate historical sources, then use these sources to write a history of the last 50 years of a city in another country, including the development of a theme or narrative. Blogs, wikis and social media are used, to identify sources (people still alive for instance who lived through certain events) and to share information. Each year there are new sources coming online, different cities and different themes are chosen. Students are learning a range of other skills besides those of an historian. At the same time, some of the the core skills of a historian are being taught.

In particular, we need  a variety of design models that are highly flexible and adaptable so that the design can respond to different student interests, new knowledge as it becomes available, and an ever-changing external environment. Such course designs need though to meet certain criteria that we know are associated with student success in even VUCA-like environments:

  • a certain structure in which the learning takes place (for instance a virtual learning environment that has certain constants, such as student-managed blogs and wikis, a core knowledge base, clear deadlines for work),
  • clear and well-defined student learning expectations (e.g. regular demonstration of learning through portfolio work, clear assessment criteria), and
  • plenty of feedback and communication at three different levels: instructor – student; student – student; and student – external world.


I have only scratched the surface here, and I certainly don’t have all the answers. Nevertheless, to prepare students for a VUCA world, we need to move away from fixed curricula, information transmission, and passive learning. There are many different possible models that will be developed, but these too need to be grounded in practice, and in particular should take account of the research into how students best learn.


1. Can you share an example of a course design that enables students to cope with a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world?

2. Do you agree that we need more flexible design models for learning in a VUCA world – or will ADDIE still cut it? Do we have good design models for a VUCA world already?

3. Are there dangers in focusing on the uncertain and trying to help people cope with the unknown, rather than focusing on what we do know?

4. Is VUCA just the latest business fad that will fade into oblivion soon – or is it a significant development that needs to drive the way we teach?



  1. 4. I don’t think this is a fad as the idea has been around for some time (although I never heard the term). In a constantly shifting environment Agility is much more valuable than Accuracy. Online learning is littered with failures caused by experts recommending large investments based on knowing what the future was likely to hold that put organisations on a path that was difficult to change.

    Investment in reusable content is an interesting case. Early large investments over-estimated the demand for re-use and also the rise of cheap rapid methods of developing content. In addition, they did not predict the tolerance of low or amateur production standards as demonstrated by user generated content on Youtube. Many lecturers prefer to rapidly develop their own simple content rather than use external, even free, content.

    In a way the MOOCs are a VUCA type solution. The transmission (x) parts can respond to changes each time a course is delivered and the constructivist (c) parts can deliver on the higher order learning objectives (Yes, we do have MOOCs that combine both).

    2. Will ADDIE cut it? Only if you can use it and cut your design and build costs. Do the math, but be conservative in estimating the amount of reuse you will get and don’t underestimate your maintenance costs. Personally I don’t use it. Do a rough design, build it (beta, if you like), and then continuously improve it. A few iterations should quickly get you to a good level of quality.

    A corollary of the VUCA theory might be; Continuous Improvement beats Good Design

  2. Although I have never heard the term VUCA berfore – I agree with Brian’s comments.
    Today teaching and learning is much different as is the type of students we are encountering. I believe the VUCA style of teaching allows for the development of critical thought and applied learning relevant in light of today’s information access and overload via the internet. Catering teaching styles to allow students to seek the information out there (which we all are doing anyhow these days), assess it and critically evaluate sources of information is essential in today’s internet ‘learning’ evironment especially as information available is changing daily. I agree that we need to think and carefully structure a teaching plan using a VUCA approach using transparant assessment and feedback to student’s learning to appropriately and fairly prepare students for this paradigm shift in teaching and learning. I believe that an VUCA approach is not a fad but a significant development that needs to drive the way we teach to allow for effective learning today and even more so in the future.

  3. […] vídeos, y el aprendizaje híbrido. Los FCD serán desarrollados en respuesta al artículo “VUCA (abreviatura en inglés de ‘volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environments’): entornos …, el cual ofrece una descripción bastante buena de lo que la enseñanza en línea […]


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