rhizomeI participated on the P2PU course called ‘Rhizomatic Learning – the community is the curriculum’ (#Rhizo14)   on a previous post I talked about how it was an unplanned participation driven mainly by my own need to be a helper – I knew the organiser Dave Cormier from my DS106 connection and somehow I found out he wanted some help on Google Plus.  I volunteered and he accepted my offer.

I made a choice to only use the social media spaces I normally use for the course. I only engaged on Twitter and Google plus. I went to the course site only to get links for G+ and access link not to join the discussion. I do not have a Facebook account and did not participate there. I used Netvibes and created a dashboard just for the course, fed by the hard work of Matthias Melcher – he made it so easy to follow everyone’s blogs.

In this post I want to use a recent talk by Stephen Dowes to help me explain my learning.  For me, this MOOC very much reflected what Stephen describes in this talk as ‘a MOOC of one’. It raised a lot of questions about the role of online educators on a cMOOC. My experiences of open online learning have been limited to Digital Storytelling 106 (DS106) and H817open, a MOOC on open education taught by Martin Weller where I learnt about the possibilities of open digital scholarship and about DS106. As my first open education experience – it has a special place in my open learning life as does Martin Weller who introduced to so much I value on the open web today.

It is worth me disclosing here that I consider DS106 an example of best practice of what learning on the open web can be. I also believe that its power is not due to the technology or its design, but to the actual people involved in the learning process. They could make a group of people learn inside a paper bag and even paper bags get to register for it! No other MOOC does that, for sure.

All this said, any other course I attend has a lot to live up to in terms of alignment with my own pedagogy of engaging the contemplative mind in any educational endeavour. I believe in the transformative power of awareness and educational presence. This is what I offer my students over and above my extensive academic practice. This matters enough to me that in order to practice what I preach I stopped a full time teaching career in 2012 and entered a 3 year supervised part-time buddhist retreat – in order to put in place the lifestyle that allows me to practice offering full attention to those I engage with.

In plain English this has meant letting go of ‘being important’ and embracing an ongoing inquiry into the quality of the inner mind and its interactions in the world. As Pema Chodron often reminds us, when you stop to be in truly in the present moment the demons are all right there to walk with you. They are. I have made a commitment to open up my life, no longer too busy to attend, but with all the time in the world to watch my own demons and offer a better quality of awareness to the few students I still choose to work with. This choice has led me to the open education movement and the many shared themes it has with life as a contemplative in the world, particularly the shift to self-disclosure on the open web. I am a-work-in-progress still unpacking all the threads that are part of this inquiry. Even this blog was set up to challenge my own thinking, by blogging ‘from the other side’ of what I take as given. My last book ‘Lived Time’ was my inquiry into how to make a change between a life driven by the clock, and the one I am fortunate to have now driven by awareness…on a good day at least!

So, when I did DS106 as a course for the first time in 2013, life was already set up in such a way that I could give it my full attention.

The situation was different with Rhizo14 as I intended my participation to be bounded. I had little interest in the subject matter as I have been using self-directed pedagogies in my teaching for nearly 20 years. My intention when joining was very much one of supporting Dave Cormier as he set up this learning experiment. I was also interested in seeing how an approach that relied on extreme learner control in its design strategy would play out online. I am used to working this way in my face to face work, so my background questions on joining were the  two key questions Stephen raises in his talk:

  • What is it to teach in this type of environment?
  • What is an educator supposed to provide in a self directed learning environment online?

In what follows I borrow liberally from Stephen’s talk. I wanted to bring a different voice into the sense making process, rather than use conceptual frameworks already operating within this course. I suggest you listen to the audio before you continue reading – so that you can judge for yourself where my gaps in understanding may be. This post is intended as a personal reflection and I offer it under my usual health warning for this kind of post:

recite-16601--717716810-1u39sqrThe post is a long read, but I make no apologies for this. I engaged with the course for 6 weeks and have learnt a great deal.

In order to tackle the questions above, rather all encompassing life questions in any educational inquiry in my view, I want to walk through Stephen’s ideas and connect them to Rhizo 14. I want to do this to bring a different perspective to the ideas we have explored on this course, but one that is related as I see Rhizo14 as being based on the same theoretical principles as the work of Stephen Dowes. I will end this post with ‘the rules of the game in a cMOOC’ as I understand them today. My hope is that these may help others to make good choices for their own participation. Some of these online experiments do hold to a rule ‘sometimes things have to be believed to be seen’ and those more risk averse amongst us may need more concrete guidelines for what to expect.

See full blog post: http://bavatuesdays.com/theyre-here-2/ CC by Jim Groom

What does it mean to teach in this environment? What does it mean to become and open online educator in the sense intended by cMOOCs generally and Stephen in particular? Stephen asks the question thus: What does it means to ‘become one of anything’? A doctor? An academic? A psychologist? A contemplative? A Rhizo14 organiser?

What do we mean when we say we have become a doctor, or ‘one’ of anything?

The usual answer to this usually uses some form of the conduit metaphor of language.  The language of the expert professor in the lecture hall ‘carries’ knowledge to the head of the student. Or as Stephen puts it:  ‘authority throws content at you traditionally’ and then you become a ‘one’. Does this imply that you become the same as all other doctors or all other psychologists? If it were a question of being a passive receptacle of reified knowledge then so long as you ‘carried’ the same knowledge as others you would have earned membership to the club of doctors or psychologists. Stephen concludes, as have many others before him, that content is not enough to make you one of anything.

So, what was Rhizo14 setting out to create? A one of what? Stephen uses his own courses as an example and he says for example in CCK08  they were setting out to create educational technologists and makes the joke that we (‘edtechies’) love recursion and love to create more of what we are!  May be the clue is in the title:

  • ‘rhizomatic learners’
  • ‘people who knew how to build community’
  • ‘educators who encouraged learners to develop their own curriculum’?

In the way that CCK08 was seeking ‘to create’ educational technologists, Rhizo14 was seeking to create what? All of the above? Any of the above? Anything else that a participant could think about? Stephen used as example here, a past participant whose learning goal was to ‘call me and George techno-communists’ and this does not seem relevant to becoming an educational technologist, though some readers might disagree. This was an acceptable learning goal in CCK08 as he describes it.

The talk then moves on to discuss what Stephen understands MOOC to mean. Let’s tackle Rhizo14 from that perspective.

Massive understood as having a design that is scalable, as you add more the course continues to teach without loss of quality of teaching; this is not the case in a traditional lecture room with a professor at centre. As you ‘add more and more students in massive lecture halls it is not the same as you and your friend figuring it out over a coffee’. So would Rhizo14 scale without changing the nature of learning it was designed to offer? It seems to me that we need an answer to the question: ‘A one of what?’ before we can answer if it would scale.

Open understood as gratis and libre but also ‘free as in you can do what you want with it’. I can answer this unequivocally – Rhizo14 was open in all of these senses including the latter. The design was such that Dave Cormier was only a self-described ‘party host’. The party host was absent for most of the experience bar the weekly questions and introduction video. Party guests could do whatever they wanted at the party. This was the initial narrative at least, what actually played out at the level of group process was different from this in my view. I will come back to this later.

Online to enable access to all and not about the technology. The use of multiple social media spaces, the course site and participants setting up scrappers and blog hubs meant that access was really enabled for all, you chose your preferred technology and you could participate. I created my MOOC of one by participating on G+ daily, Twitter most days, Diigo irregularly, P2PU just to collect info, Facebook never. If my need for inclusion had been high, then I think I would have felt excluded from what some called Rhizo14FB. I do not think it is coincidence that Dave and his partner, Bonnie Stewart who was also acting as an informal party host were active on Facebook. This created a sense (for those subscribing to this model) that the ‘centre’ of the course was Facebook. I have read some blogs implying that the Facebook experience was central and those not on it did not build deep relationships on the course. Thankfully, I have very low inclusion needs, and I would not reinstate my Facebook account even if it promised a date with George Clooney. My MOOC of one was just right without FB.

Course in the simple sense that it is an event that has a beginning a middle and an end and that means finite involvement for participants. Stephen joked that if it were a community you might be stuck with it #4life. There was a lot of talk on Rhizo14 about what it was and what it was not. A great deal of it people asserting personal views without substantiation and advocating rather than inquiring together. I will give the last word on this to Matthias,

“All interpretations of the word ‘community’ that I can think of (including Wenger’s COPs), do not match this MOOC as a whole. There may be parts of it who may indeed feel like a core community, but this subset cannot be identified with, nor extended to, the larger set. And I am not sad about this, because there is still the chance for resonance (e.g. extending beyond the one topic of common interest, towards secondary topics and empathy like, say, Sarah’s storm) that may gradually create a sense of belonging and long-lasting connections. But this does not need group-think.”

A view that acknowledges that deep relating is gradual, takes time and may or may not lead long lasting connections after the course has finished.

Stephen’s understanding of what he created with CCK08 was that a MOOC was

‘a set of interactions between the participants where content is a minimal part’

Rhizo14 met this criterion by the bucketload. There is nothing in this definition that speaks to quality of interactions, and if we add to this the notion of ‘open’ as in ‘you can do what you want with it’, Rhizo14 met this criterion. Groups met with different ground rules, interests, in different spaces at different watering holes. They did what humans do so well in new situations: gather in their tribes and by definition exclude those not in their tribe, or try to ‘convince’ those outside ‘it’ to join it; some did their MOOC of one with barely any connections, I can think of at least one person in the G+ community who made several attempts to participate in their own terms, but got little engagement from others to their posts – of course engagement may have happened elsewhere.  I guess that given the criteria discussed so far, this was a MOOC of one that was entirely within the bounds of expectations in a cMOOC; some ‘took sides’ as different labels were thrown into the discussions, some made attempts to bring convergence to the divergence. There were a set of interactions between participants and each did with ‘it’ what they wanted. There was no need for group-think as Matthias said. Let me unpack this a little.

I practice insight dialogue as part of my contemplative pedagogy practice – have done for many years. What I read and heard in the different watering holes was more akin to discussion in the sense that Bohm defines the word than dialogue.

‘The word “discussion”, which has the same root as “percussion” and “concussion”. Discussion really means to break things up. It emphasizes the idea of analysis, where there may be many points of view. A great deal of what we call “discussion” is not deeply serious, in the sense that there are all sorts of things held to be non-negotiable, untouchable, things that people don’t even want to talk about. Discussion is like a ping-pong game, with people batting the ideas back and forth in order to win the game.’

The weekly questions had the intent to surface those untouchables in how we see our educational practice. The lack of instruction (and I use the word purposefully here) on how to hold a space for genuine dialogue showed through in my view and led to a loss of quality in some of the interactions. This is why a lot of discussion happened which was then ‘arbitrated’ by the hosts and other participants. I read again, as I do many times in a year, Bohm’s definition of dialogue,

“Dialogue” comes from the Greek dialogos: Logos means “the word”, or “the meaning of the word”, and dia means “through” (not two—a dialogue can be among any number of people; even one person can have a sense of dialogue within him-or-herself if the spirit of the dialogue is present). The image this derivation suggests is of a stream of meaning flowing among us and through us and between us—a flow of meaning in the whole group, out of which will emerge some new understanding, something creative. When everybody is sensitive to all the nuances going around, and not merely to what is happening in one’s own mind, there forms a meaning which is shared. And in that way we can talk together coherently and think together. It is this shared meaning that is the “glue” or “cement” that holds people and societies together.”

In my MOOC of one I did not see this kind of interaction happen a great deal. It happened offline with a few people I met and now treasure as new connections with common resonances which might develop into deeper connections over time. I leave it to others to read the above and assess their own Rhizo14 experience against the notion of dialogue and discussion. A number of us who wanted to engage differently chose to continue conversations on email, Skype, or wikis – what was interesting to me here was that somebody had to name the interactional issue – I can no longer engage in 140 characters, can we talk? – and then options opened up that fitted our own learning preferences more.

Stephen argues that having done several of these MOOCs over the years he now has a sense of what works or what does not work. I imagine Dave feels similarly as he has been involved in MOOCs for a while too. The design of Rhizo14, I have to assume, is the current state of what Dave as an educational technologist believes works for massive open online courses. Of course, it all hinges on what we mean by ‘works’. If we mean it meets criteria so far discussed then it did work.

The notion of ‘works’ was discussed on Rhizo14 under the heading of self-remediation – what do educators need to do to enable students to ‘self-remediate’ or -in more traditional terminology – to self assess. This is a complex issue, that in my view requires explicit instruction for those new to self and peer assessment. In my nearly 20 years doing this work, I recognise the struggles human beings experience when asked to stand up and create rigourous criteria for assessment in a Masters level qualification where they are not only assessing themselves but also others. This process takes a long time and is independent from the content of the course. Stephen talks about how in this work he has come to expect ‘complaint week’. Students want to be told what to do and see themselves as containers for knowledge the educator has to fill. Students expect ‘the path, the process and the knowledge, and instead we give them a mess’. Yes, I recognise this clearly from my own work in self-managed learning. Online or offline it seems the human struggle to look in the mirror and stay with information rather than abstraction is alive and well.

Stephen further argues that cMOOCs do not subscribe to an operational definition of expertise: learn the right sequence, follow it and you are an x. Is it then about function? If I follow a similar method to you then I am an x. cMOOCs do not offer a specific method for anything – they offer little content and encourage students to do what they want with it.

Is it then about teleological explanations, asks Stephen? That is, if you satisfy a set of objectives then it follows that you become an x. No. None of these ways of creating an x work well. Stephen turns to Nagel to say we can only know our own subjective experience and it is we (each individual) who create a series of experiences that lead us to decide we have become an x. This leads him to the conclusion that it is the having of experiences that will determine success in becoming an x. Stephen connects this to experiential learning and says it has much value. However, experiential learning is not enough either. Subjective experience generally and how we feel in particular is pretty unreliable as we psychologists know well.

Being an expert in anything, having the ability to solve ‘the problems at the end of the chapter’ is about a way of seeing the world. A MOOC can offer a

network layer of support that gives people the interaction they need to have in order to feel what it is like to be a such and such…in our case what it is like to be an educational technologist. So we set about to teach them to be like us.

And in this context we ask how does learning happen, and Stephen offers a ‘big answer’ and a ‘little answer’ both of which he sees as limited. The big answer is that as we look at the world we construct, make meaning out of perceptions we have out there in the world and this equals learning. The Little answer is that we make sense our own cognition. We take mental content and make sense of it. He raises the homunculus problem here: There is nobody to do the constructing, there is no constructor. In talking about making sense, you have to ask: Who is making sense? And this leads you to infinite recursion and having to postulate many a homunculus ‘inside our heads’ making sense.

These limitations (as he sees them) lead Stepehn to postulate a different explanation.

‘Networks learn without a homunculus making sense in each node.’

He uses the notion of a self-organising network as a model that describes behaviour across all natural systems. This resonates for me with Maturana’s notion of autopoiesis in biological systems, though I imagine Stephen’s notion is more grounded in complexity and chaos theory. I assume this because he talks about the ‘design principles’ for self organising networks,

  • autonomy of individuals
  • diversity to enable becoming one ‘where one is not the same as others’
  • interactivity leads to creation of knowledge by participants, the knowledge is emergent without anyone controlling what counts as knowledge.
  • openness no barriers to communication or entry. All messages are allowed – no veto.

He believes that these principles should obtain when you design a MOOC if you want to maximise ‘learning in the network’. Learning will happen automatically in any ‘self organising perceiving and reasoning network’ his description for each node in the network as well as the network as a whole – think fractals and third person accounts. There is no sense here that a relational view need even be considered by the educator designing a course of this type.

Did Rhizo14 instantiate these principles?

Assume autonomy of individuals in the network. The course was about supporting self-direction, hence the design intention was to assume autonomy of participants.

Diversity understood as ‘being one is not the same as being the same’. How I understand this is that learning to become an x, is not the same as learning to be the same x as every other x! The issue of diversity is interesting to me in relation to Rhizo14. I feel the course attracted very different types of people, but that this diversity was managed out through a group dynamic that excluded what the majority did not approve as the ‘received view’ of what it meant to be a ‘rhizomatic learner/educator’.

This meant some people left or remained quiet as they realised what the majority supported. I feel that the majority (unsurprisingly to those who know power dynamics in groups) looked to the hosts for what was okay/not okay. I did not see much by way of supporting the importance of diversity in action rather than theory.  I did see judgment of academics, theory, linearity, explanation, reification, and books. You were definitely the right kind of ‘one’ if you believed in emergence, non-linearity, poetry and art rather than theory and explanation.

Were ‘all messages allowed?’ I believe this was the design intention, the practice was different as people left and may have been silenced by a vocal minority. If we take, the design principles above as best cMOOC practice then no intervention and allowing ‘all’ messages – including those of a personal/offensive nature – would have maximised learning in the network.

Interactivity where interaction between networks members is what creates knowledge. Yes, the design intention was this and nobody was in charge of what it meant to be a ‘rhizomatic learner’ (x) or the type of knowledge that the network created.

For example, It was ‘allowable’ to attend a Rhizomatic Learning course and make a choice to do so without reading the theory that explained what the terminology meant. One blog comment concluded ‘thank you for the suggestion that I read the theory, I have not and I will continue without reading.’ Others claimed that they could become an x, by intuitive understanding of what the original writing meant without ever reading it. Some believed that becoming an x necessarily implied understanding as well as reading of the underlying theory. I argued for intervention in the group dynamics to encourage dialogue rather than confrontation, others felt that they were there to connect with ‘old MOOC friends’ no mention of rhizomes of the metaphorical or garden variety. Yet others used the spaces to advertise their ‘wares’ in the form of their ideas or other courses. All messages allowed and openness instantiated through the permissive approach – multiple spaces and no direct intervention.

Stephen’s talk towards the end moves from the massive to the one.

No matter how large the network is by design or chance, from the participant perspective it is always ‘a MOOC of one’ with them at the centre. Given the design principles stated above, it follows that it is okay for each person to want something different from it as ‘each person is also a self organising perceiving and reasoning network itself’. Learning happens automatically if design principles are met. So the person is at centre, not the course site at the centre, this is ‘a web not a website, a personal web’ and technology needs to support learning on this open web.

Stephen suggests we need help ‘self organising into being what we want to be’ and I understand this is the role of the educator from this cMOOC perspective. From that perspective, Rhizo14 offered a number of spaces for people to self-organise, there was no fixed content (there was little content at all from P2PU but a great deal being exchanged by participants in the different spaces), sub groups emerged and gelled, individuals were added to existing personal learning networks. As there was no standard to reach, no minimum requirement to meet, the course could not but be a ‘success’ just by having people signed up and engage over the 6 weeks – wether they were gossiping about other participants, discussing critical theory, creating video and poetry, all messages allowed. I am a little uncomfortable with this circular definition of success. The course cannot but succeed if anything that happens is defined as success.

Here is my issue with this.

Whilst I support it ideologically, and can see how it may work when x=educational technologist or parachutist as both of these require the individual to perform external actions that show what it is they have learnt and may even work if x = digital citizens as there is the digital output from the 6 weeks to show that something was learnt, it would not work with x = brain surgeon.

Stephen’s talk implies that a MOOC of one only has internal standards. Self organising perceiving and reasoning networks are pattern recognisers. I am one of those, so I recognise I have become an x when what I know matches the pattern in the larger network which I can absorb without conscious awareness.

Each person ‘creates the course they want, it is unique to them and they know it when they have become’ an x. I personally would not want to be operated on by somebody who has learnt to be a surgeon in a MOOC of one, and graduated when s/he ‘felt’ s/he had ‘become’ a surgeon but may be I am alone in this.

Relying on participant interaction for learning to occur may work when you have highly qualified and experienced participants and when standards can be only internal, but when we think about scaling this approach be ‘open to all’? I fear the narrative around success would change. Dave himself is clear that cMOOCs work with professionals, but not with 17 years olds. He also describes the type of problem they best address are complex ones, rather than simple ones.

So Rhizo14 as a model for continuing adult education without a need for assessment can work for those who are already self directed learners, but Rhizo14 as an experiment on the future of higher education as a whole is not what the originators intend.

I believe that the idea of a MOOC of one, does describe in the third person what the learning experience may be like for us all. From outside the system, sense making is happening. This leaves out the relational perspective – how I relate to myself and to others in the larger network. It leaves out a political perspective also; whilst complexity and chaos theory can be descriptive of natural systems (and the rhizome is of course and example of one) education is a normative activity.

In my view educators have a duty of care towards their students. Self organising networks with immutable design principles allowing whatever is happening in the ‘nodes’ to happen have no ethical intent. Designing cMOOCs with this type of approach needs a strong health warning to remember Godel’s incompleteness theorem. Learning will be maximised in the network if you follow these design principles, but at what cost? What kind of learning? Who decides on competence? These questions matter and humans’ inability to apply the principles above (due to our many unconscious dysfunctional patterns) in a detached way is only ignored by those who are arrogant enough to forget that we really are not as smart as we think we are. If you doubt this, may I recommend a more traditional xMOOC to correct your ignorance? Here is a sample video to help you see how little insight  on our own behaviour we have, and hence the inherent difficulties that exist in assessing competence.

Wanna do a cMOOC?

Go ahead. You need to remember there are no safety nets, your cry for help will be labelled a complaint and will be left to the ‘network to resolve’. Here is my current understanding of the rules of the cMOOC game:

The educators will,

  • give you a mess and ask you to add on to that
  • not tell you or others what to do but will express themselves freely
  • ask you to spin off and create your own version of the course
  • not expect you to engage on the course website, there will be no requirements or assignments to structure your learning
  • not offer order, least of all a ‘right’ order for you to learn. They will express personal views in the service of diversity and autonomy as applies to their own role
  • not intervene to change the nature of participants relationships, the network will take care of all messages. This seems to have no exceptions.
  • encourage interaction between participants and offer minimal content to enable you to create knowledge, any knowledge that you see fit.

If this extreme learner control feels right for you and you understand the potential consequences to a sense of safety in learning implied by the rules above, then a cMOOC may be for you. In my experiences so far most people will be lovely and helpful, and those who are not can be deleted from your MOOC of one as you see fit. There will be no content to speak of that is not generated by participants, the host does not see it as their role to ‘fill the container that is you with knowledge they pour in’. Some participant content will be awesome some will not. All messages allowed.

I read somewhere that when there is low intervention by the educator, then students will step in and offer emotional support to peers in online communities. I saw this happen in Rhizo14. It has a flavour of pyramid selling for me. Whilst it is true that cMOOC educators are offering their time for free, it is also true that it is their name and research that is associated with the work that is done by participants in the name of learning. Dave himself, only half jokingly, states (talk linked above) that the work participants do ‘does his research for him’.

A significant number of participants on Rhizo14 are either practising or retired academics, the quality of the work they do ‘for’ him is likely to be high. Educators and researchers are used to offering free labour to their institutions so this just taps into our usual patterns. There is a part of me that is not altogether comfortable with the ethical implications of these arrangements. Autonomy and self direction are presupposed, so we participate as much or as little as we choose – I understand that and I am still not altogether comfortable. Clearly this is applies to many other courses online and offline, not just Rhizo14 and not just cMOOCs.

I will resist the temptation to dilute my words by ending with how in fact this Rhizo14 experience was life changing.  I still have no idea why Dave and others find joy in using the ugly rhizome as a metaphor for learning. It was not life changing, and mostly I did not enjoy it in the way I enjoy life in DS106. I met and liked a few people, I had some fun conversations, made some digital art, and I agree with Stephen about the C in MOOC. A course is a course because it has a beginning, a middle and an end. It has now ended, leaving my personal learning network a little richer, but my self organising brain much like it was before I ever entered the rhizome – whatever that means. Did I pass? Hell, all I had to do was turn up and interact – of course I passed. In truth, I prefer my learning environments more like this:

But then being a fragile flower fits more with the self-image I like to hang on to before I turn to dust than an ugly weed. Vanity is definitely my favourite sin 🙂 

I am grateful to both Dave Cormier and Bonnie Stewart for their willingness to experiment and set up this cMOOC. Thank you both for your engagement. It may not have changed my life, but then I am not in need for my life to be changed. This was after all my third cMOOC.

Kicker TK 🙂