Seeing rhizomatic learning and MOOCs through the lens of the Cynefin framework

The Change11 course has brought me many realizations, but none so useful as the Cynefin framework. As i suggested in my last post, i’ve been working on bringing it into my decision making at my day job. In the last four weeks it’s occurred to me that it is also an excellent way to help clarify some of my thinking around learning as well. In trying to describe rhizomatic learning, there are two critical challenges that I’ve not been able to voice properly.

1. How is this not simply anarchy?
2. How are people supposed to understand the basics?

I certainly don’t see my classrooms as anarchic, though they sometimes slide off in that direction. In a very real sense, my job is to keep the classroom from descending into random patters of behaviour, and keep it to the topic that we are supposed to be covering. That’s the difference between having a class and simply hosting a party.

I also am not particularly interested in ‘teaching’ the basics. It’s a troubling word that… basics. I often find myself thinking that things like ‘definitions’ are basic concepts, whereas experience tells me that knowing enough about a concept to describe it is actually a pretty profound statement of understanding. By basic here i mean ‘turn on the computer’ rather than define a computer.

Still, the energy and creativity that can come from the unexpected and the toolkit that can come from having ‘acquired the basics’ are very handy to have when we are trying to grapple with a complex world. Therein lies the problem…

MOOCs as a structure – and rhizomatic learning as an approach – privilege a certain kind of learning and learner. The MOOC offers an ecosystem in which a person can become familiar with a particular domain. Rhizomatic learning is a way of navigating that ecosystem that empowers the student to make their own maps of knowledge, to be ‘cartographers’ inside that domain. It suggests that the interacting with a community in a given domain is learning. The community is the curriculum.

MOOCs offer a complex ecosystem in which you ‘can’ learn, not one where you ‘will learn.’ It doesn’t come with many guarantees. Rhizomatic learning is a complex way of learning, not the easiest way to learn to tie your shoes.

This is the germ of an idea that i’m getting out of the Cynefin Framework. Lets see if i can convince you… first, the framework.

Enter the Cynefin framework

This is the core of the Cynefin framework as developed by Dave Snowden. Five domains of decision making. Broadly speaking the framework offers a categorization for separating the different kinds of decisions that can be made, and the differing approaches required for each. The following is gleaned through pouring over the cognitive-edge website, reading through articles like this one, and watching the excellent videos Dave has online.

Simple issues: A relationship between cause and effect is observable. A thing can be easily categorized, and established best practice applied. See what’s coming in. Make it fit a category. Make a decision. This is ‘best practice’.

Complicated issues: There is a right answer, but it isn’t obvious. There is need to analyze. Several different ways of doing things, all of which are legitimate if you have the right expertise. This is ‘good practice’. See what’s coming. Analyze towards a solution (perhaps by contacting an expert). Make a decision.

Complex Issues: No connection between cause and effect. Safe fail experiments. If an experiment succeeds, it gets amplified. If it fails it gets dampened. Amplification and Dampening should be predetermined. Try something. See what happens. Amplify or dampen.

Chaotic Issues: Move very quickly to stabilize the situation. Any practice will be novel.

Disorder: Is the space of not knowing which of the domains we’re in. In this space people tend to fall back on their preferences for action. For the bureaucrat (simple domain) all failures are a failure of process. For the Deep expert (complicated domain), all failures are a failure of time and resources for research. For complexity workers (complex domain) all things require a large amount of resources/opinions/concepts to be brought to bear to search for a solution. For totalitarians (chaotic domain), everything is chaotic, and all decisions should be made directly by them, and immediately acted upon.

How the Cynefin framework can help people with MOOCs
If you are looking for ‘best practices’ in a given domain, the MOOC is a fantastically inefficient way of acquiring them. The simple domain described in the framework is no doubt a useful end of the educational realm… its the domain that allowed me to remember my timetables, and where to attach the wires on a light switch. ‘Best Practices’. You might find them in a MOOC, but who would know where to look.

If you are looking for ‘good practices’ a MOOC is probably a better option than for simple practices, but it’s still not exactly designed for that. Good practice decisions involved deep content experts using years of experience to offer guidance. Mentorship works like this. Working with an expert guide can be a wonderful way to learn… but it’s not how a MOOC is built. A MOOCer kinda needs to find their own way, and outside of paying for someone’s time to help guide you, it’s not built on the mentorship model.

If you are looking for a ‘chaotic experience’ MOOCs are probably a little tied tight for you. We tend to pull together materials, and have expert centred discussions that are fairly restrictive. If you’re looking for chaotic experiences where you need to put your foot in the ground and ‘do anything’ you already have the internet. You don’t need a MOOC.

The complex domain is where the MOOC really shines. If you want to try things, see how it goes, and build from that response, a MOOC is just the ecosystem you need. In it you can find people to try ideas out on, to work out the knowledge in the content domain that you’re interested in. Probe, sense, respond sounds just about right for a MOOC.

Rhizomatic Learning
And that description of how to act in a MOOC sounds just about right as a description of rhizomatic learning. The knowledge lives in the community, you engage with it by probing into the community, sensing the response and then adjust. Just like the rhizome. It is a learning approach that is full of uncertainty… not least for the educator. But its one that allows for the development of the literacies that will allow us to sharpen our ability to participate in complex decision making. Dealing with the uncertainty is what the learning is all about.

Here is an excerpt from the cognitive-edge website from a blog post written by Gary Wong

Fuzzy is better than Sharp when setting vision
Question: Which bird is a better predator? A sharp-eyed hunter that could pinpoint a specific animal 3 miles above ground or a half-blind bird that would pick up anything that moved, including rolling tumbleweed?
Answer: In a stable environment, pick the sharp-eyed bird. Hunting is easy and pickings are tasty. Ah, life is wonderful.
In a changing environment where windstorms, drought, or human intervention can drastically alter the food supply, go with the half-blind bird.

and so…
It’s that complex domain that interests me in learning. I think most of what i criticize or, at least, what concerns me about education is the movement between the complicated and simple domains. Our bureaucracies encourage simple domain learning, things that can be tracked and analyzed. Research goals seem to attempt to take things from complicated domains and shove them down into the simple one. Our world is increasingly one where complex decisions need to be made… and thats the kind of education i’m interested in being involved in.

Looking back at the worker, soldier and nomad, it seems to apply very well here. The nomad learns in the complex domain.

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25 thoughts on “Seeing rhizomatic learning and MOOCs through the lens of the Cynefin framework

  1. Looking at the Cynefin framework tonight, I see strong resemblance to a Greimas square, which is probably why the framework looked so familiar and made so much sense to me the first time I saw it.

  2. Thanks for this, Dave, worth bookmarking for future reference. I ‘get’ the Cynefin thing a little better now with your explanation and your ability to relate it to situations for which moocs may or may not be well-suited. This line jumped out for me “If you’re looking for chaotic experiences where you need to put your foot in the ground and ‘do anything’ you already have the internet. You don’t need a MOOC.”

    Your description also validates why I flat out rejected the idea of developing goals for my participation in moocs. For me, the complexity of a mooc lends itself to exploration and expeditions as noted in Jaap’s blog today http://connectiv.wordpress.com/2012/03/06/learning-goal-and-teaching-goal-change11/ Goal setting feels too simplistic and contrived for a complex environment. Your thoughts?

  3. Hi David:
    Please find enclosed the link to a post I just published in my blog related to your recent contribution on MOOCs and CYNEFIN framework.

    http://cor-ar.blogspot.com/

    In the post you say: “ Lets see if i can convince you… “. I admit I worked hard to try to understand the ideas proposed. Still not totally convinced.
    I would appreciate if you could return some feedback.

  4. Hi David: (sorry if this is a repeat from yesterday but today i cannot see my comment )
    Please find enclosed the link to a post I just published in my blog related to your recent contribution on MOOCs and CYNEFIN framework.
    http://cor-ar.blogspot.com/2012/03/moocs-cynefin-framework-and.html

    In the post you say: “ Lets see if i can convince you… “. I admit I worked hard to try to understand the concepts proposed. Still not totally convinced.
    I would appreciate if you could return some feedback., Osvaldo.

  5. This has me thinking Dave. I’m not sure that the basics aren’t really complex not because of what they look like when taught, but more so, because humans are trying to learn. And perhaps part of the trouble is ‘the basics’ are situated as a simple matter that can be encapsulated. Think about the lines of flight that can/do emanate from what appears to some (depending on where you are situated) as basic and how those lines of flight–sparks of creative musing allow us to contemplate, experience that which we had not intended, did not know, are wowed by.

    Complexity is a matter of how we come to name the experience, just as simple and complicated are. The seemingly simplest of algorithms can be complex, depending on how we situate it. Nothing is actually stable, including that which we classify as simple, complicated, and complex. That’s the rhizome.

  6. II was coming at similar thinking in the early stages of this Change11 in my blog post on MOOCSs and wicked problems .

    I prefer the Cynefin five domain framework to the wicked problem framework which in various guises uses 2, 3 or 4 domains.

    Give the difficulty inherent blurry & shifting nature of wicked problems that arise out of their complexity, MOOCS seem to have something several process elements that ideally suites them as problem solving methods that can bringing together the insights from many diverse participants and stakeholders.

    To solve wicked problems, good practice, best practice and the evidence base will be of limited use- a guide to strategy generation and selection perhaps. Perhaps they can help come with answer what is going one here.

    This so because each wicked problems is be definition unique. In system characterized by complexity, small difference can produce very different outcomes. What has helped in some places my be harmful in other places. To solve wicked problems, we need to mobilize learning in a network. MOOCS are good method to mobilize learning in diverse network with out trying to impose a one way of seeing the problem.

    Coherent solutions and strategies are more likely to emerge out of the complex adaptive processes of a good MOOC than many other forms of learning.

    You may like to read my earlier #change11 blog post on in Can Collective Learning be mobilized to solve Wicked Problems

    The questions that still drive are:

    * What are the relative strengths & weaknesses of the wicked problem literature and the Cynefin framework?
    * How does this fit with rhizomic learning?

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