Rhizomatic Learning and MOOCs – Assessment

I received a question on twitter today about one of my favourite fist slamming on the table topics, assessment, and figured i would use the opportunity to put down a few thoughts about rhizomatic learning and how it impacts the way I see MOOCs.

(post/pre-script) This post has taken on a rather anthemic tone… i just thought you might want to be warned :P

What’s a MOOC?
A Massive Open Online Course, in my mind, is a way of trying to use the internet to get lots of people talking about a specific thing. As has been mentioned by others lots of great learning happens on the internet already. There are discussion forums, and websites and communities everywhere that people go to and learn things with. Those things are often massive, mostly open and obviously online. The massiveness and the openness are critical. They provide enough weight of opinion that things generally agreed upon as reasonable are seen as reasonable – “One should not use power tools drunk” – but things that are the subject of differing opinions – “you should use renewable forest trees” – are represented in this way as well. These same advantages apply to the MOOC, but it’s the ‘course’ bit that makes it different. The word course implies lots of institutional things, potentially, but what is at the core of its meaning is a time based, sequenced series of topics that reflect a certain context. We will cover these topics, over this time, with the intent of achieving that goal over there. It’s an invitation to a conversation. It’s not, in my opinion, as cool as a community, but it offers the potential for community to form because it allows for a rallying point for discussion.

Rhizomatic Learning – What are we teaching?
This means different things to different people. I like to think of it as the practical results of some very particular philosophical views on knowing. The philosophy that informs it (see A Thousand Plateaus) posits, among other things, a world that is uncertain. This has great potential, in that it means knowing can be shaped, it is flexible, responsive, resilient – like the rhizome itself. It is also a world where looking for what is ‘true’ is mostly a question of looking for who has the power to define it as true. Where things are not tidy, where the complex web of ideas is less like a perfect spider’s web and more like water dripping through broken glass. It’s not a mystery novel with a person who-dunnit who you just don’t know about yet, but more like everyday life, full of decisions that have no right answer.

How the MOOC serves this
One of the great affordances of a MOOC is that it has the potential to bring together so many divergent opinions. There are certainly power structures, places where the people who are ‘running’ the course of things have the chance to set a tone or a context for a given discussion. There is also room for dissent… room for multiplicity. We can, as we did in the first MOOC (so called) have people who think that connectivism is and isn’t a pedagogy having a discussion about how it might be applied. These two need not actually agree with each other (or the facilitators, Stephen Downes and George Siemens, who to my knowledge don’t even agree on connectivism) in order to learn from each other.

That’s the beauty of the process, and the power implicit in the potential of the internet. The Personal Learning Environment (PLE) is not ‘a place i have created that holds all my learning’ but rather ‘the traces of my journey, implicit and explicit, where i have carved out my own personal understanding’. We can learn together, differently.

What this means for assessment

What we are learning is contextualized by each individual differently, according to their experiences, their understanding and purposes,


The things that are learned are not definite, but flexible and complex


Assessing what someone ‘knows’ is an act of enforcement of a given point of view, not a(n apolotical) helpful guideline to learning

Why do we teach?
This is the question that I am continually asking myself, and asking others. Why do we engage in the process of teaching? Is it simply the enforcement of norms of a society that we wish to live in? I hope that it is not.

I teach in an attempt to lure more people into the context that I’m familiar with. I want people to have some understanding for how words are used in the contexts that I’m familiar with, how the discussion is shaped, what things some people consider important. I teach to learn from their reactions to those ideas, to further push my ideas forwards.

I teach (as much as one can) in a MOOC because i like having the opportunity to start a conversation about the things that I care about.

So how do we assess in a MOOC?
‘We’ do not assess in a MOOC. I might develop a method by which I assess what I’m doing. I might pay someone (a prof, tutor, consultant) to help push me in a given direction. The MOOC, however, can only have a single model for assessment insofar as it is enforcing a particular point of view. We may create communities of practice, or networks or groups or mentorships that allow us to track our learning in myriad ways, but there is no sense, I think, in which it makes sense to assess, in the centralized – this is what to know – sense, a MOOC.

Why would we bother?

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15 thoughts on “Rhizomatic Learning and MOOCs – Assessment

  1. Interesting.

    If we assess based on the acquisition of skills and the retention of content, we can do that using any format of “information delivery” and assessments (formative and summative).

    And yes, I agree that it’s the assessment (of content and skills) that enforces the single point of view, and we see that everywhere.

    Perhaps in a MOOC of any size and kind, the goals should never be the acquisition of content and skills, but something else, so the single-view assessment model just doesn’t apply. The difficulty is what replaces it.

    If we don’t do it this way, what do we assess? In our little SMOOC, I feel like I’m assessing passion and productivity, the desire to explore and understand, activity in pursuit of wisdom, etc. To me that is much easier (and philosophically better) to assess than the kind of content and skills assessment I feel obligated to use with my history students. It’s also not closely related to the content in the same way as in my history classes.

    I don’t think it’s right to just assess elements like “participation” or “conversation”, because it is possible to engage in discussion without any understanding of (or interest in) the topic. As you say, you want to bring people into the context instead. So if we instead assess reflections and artifacts of learning within the context (passion, productivity, exploration, understanding, activity), we may need to accept that these things are not only not content-based, but they may not be related to teaching or the course as causative.

    It’s the same problem as giving an A to a top history student, who came in an A student and goes out of my class an A student. The class and my teaching didn’t cause his success, but rather just created an environment in which he could excel. I think we do that in MOOCs too. Which makes assessment more about marks we give for taking advantage of a learning opportunity than anything specifically they’ve “learned” as a result. Would we even call that assessment?

  2. I tried to address the replacement in my ed366 class this year with the way i built the learning contract. Assignments were all pass/fail, and you had some choice as to which you chose. The assessment of pass/fail was what I like to think of as a simple test… “did you make a reasonable effort to work on this”. If not, i would ask you to try again.

    Reasonable effort is not the kind of science that people are going to like, but it feels more honest to me.

  3. If I have it right, in the Ed Tech Weekly #204 session you suggested that success is learning to learn rhizomatically, the above post perhaps elaborates a bit further on that point.
    If I’m interpreting you correctly from the and what you’ve written above, the traces of the rhizome offer a picture of the learner’s journey and efforts (reflections, summaries of learning, etc.).
    I think you’re just saying that because you have to assess learners due to institutional requirements you’d have to view it as a review of an individual learning experience. So I don’t think you’ve gone far off from your earlier thought. Or maybe I’m off-base!

    Something I’ve been thinking about: I am starting to see learning in MOOCs as an exercise in building democracy. It’s messy but it helps build capacity, as Alec once said to me. That translates to (21st Century) literacy. If we can develop this literacy en masse, the possibilities could be amazing.

  4. Pingback: OU MOOC

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