An introductory Arduino class design

Last weekend was Oscar’s 11th birthday party. For those of you in the know, that is the age that kids receive their letters of invitation from Hogwarts and, therefore, we were having a Harry Potter themed birthday party. I admit I probably went over the deep end on this. The kids and I made magic wands out of 3/4in maple dowels. Bonnie made an awesome Harry Potter cake. Bonnie and I designed three ‘tests’ for the ‘Initiates of the Maple Wands’. 1. Potions class (we made bath bombs… they only had their magic wands for stirring… super messy – super fun) 2. History of Magic (bonnie ran a lively version of mostly Harry Potter themed Jeopardy) 3. Muggle studies (We made a security system on the arduino platform)

(links to my introductory arduino posts and here)

I started working with Arduino hardware at the beginning of 2016, thinking of it as a potential platform for real world projects for kids. I have ZERO electronics background, so it really took me a year of playing with it on and off to get my mind around how you could use it with kids and still make it fun. Most of the introductory lessons I saw online involved “attach this wire to a light, make the light blink” kind of activities that are designed to provide a SET OF SKILLS in small steps along a linear pathway. I hate this approach to learning. I wanted something that got to a useable project very, very quickly and then allowed for discovery after the project was built.

A word on what Arduino is
It’s a tiny computer platform that you can attach to little sensors. You can use it to build a project that senses when a bird comes to your feeder and counts them, or takes their picture, or opens the feeder door. There are other platforms out there (rasberri pi, microbit) but this one seems to have the balance of flexibility and power that I was hoping for. If you put ‘arduino kit’ into the googles, you’ll see the price range and possibilities. Here’s a collection of cool projects that people have done.

Choice of project
I very much wanted to kids to have some level of success on their project in the first 15 minutes of the class – so i couldn’t have something that was too complicated. I expected that the kids wouldn’t have any prior experience (with the exception of my kid). I was also going to send the project home with each of the kids in the hopes that they would experiment with it, so I had to keep the price down. I decided on making an alarm system that would buzz when someone when someone got close to it. I cobbled the project together from various online examples. Project cost was a little less than $15 each at the end of the day, when you include batteries etc… It took a fair amount of prep. Just sayin.

Classroom design
I wanted us to get to work very quickly, so I didn’t even explain what the project was when we started. I was pretty sure that they wouldn’t really understand/be paying attention, so I jumped into talking about stuff right away. All their parts were hidden in a little cardboard box on the table when they came in. I got them to open it and lay all the parts out in front of them. I was hoping for the surprise ‘unboxing’ part of the process to give them a sense of adventure/excitement. Mostly that worked.

Arduino box

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I got them to hold up the battery first. Everyone got that one right :). From there i got them to hold up the breadboard, the Nano, the wires, their friend… just a quick roundrobin so that each table would probably have someone that knew what each part was named. Important to note that though i did preload the code on each of the Nanos, i left the code printed out on the table and made no reference to it. One kid asked what it was and I said “meh, it’s just the code, don’t worry about it for now”. This only took a couple of minutes and we moved right along to wiring things up.

The arduino system can all be connected together without a soldering iron using jumper wires. I guided them through ‘what connects to what’ in a basic, step by step manner. Put the proximity sensor in the breadboard. (student: “what’s a promix… what’s a whatever you said” me: “someone hold up their proximity sensor” it wasn’t long until they just started asking each other). From there i got them to plug in the wires one at a time, establishing that each table confirmed that each set was setup (minus the power, I made them all hide their batteries back in their little boxes). This took about 10-15 minutes.

Attaching the battery
I made a big production out of this. Attaching the battery wrong gives you a good chance of frying the board, so we talked a fair amount about safety, about caring about their work, about being good to the machine. I told them that I had fried one of them that morning (which i had doing last minute prep). So they attached their battery… and about half of them worked. Working being the really annoying buzzer started to drone when someone ran their hand in front of their sensor. Much troubleshooting of wiring ensued. It was at this point that we started to talk about ‘what the project could be used for’. “I could scare my cat!” “it could protect my wand!” “i could use it to keep my sister out of my room!”

The moment
You’ll note that no one has really ‘learned’ anything at this point. It’s mostly been call and repeat, simple domain stuff. There was a trap in the middle of this lesson that was really ‘the beginning’ in a sense. I had changed the code on one of the projects to make the buzzer sound like a police siren. When that project started working the room went silent for a second… and then blew up. “why doesn’t mine do that? How did you do that? What’s that?” When i got them settled (and got the police siren unplugged) i explained that the code on his project was different than the code on theirs. “can i change mine? Can i do it?”

The code
So I got them to look through the code (on the paper on their tables) and figure out where they needed to change the code to make the sound change. We changed the frequency, we changed the delay, we changed… we made a lot of noise :). Then we started uploading new code to each of their projects (I was only working with one computer). I also started to refer to the code when people were asking me “i unplugged a wire by mistake, where does it go?” Then our hour+ was up and it was time for Pizza. I struggled getting them out of the room to go eat pizza… which I’m calling a victory. For the rest of the party, kids would walk out of the movie, the pizza, whatever, and ask if i could upload updated code to their project. We got an idea of what the code was… a teaser in a sense.

The point
This was an interesting challenge. I don’t particularly like a ‘structured activity’ but with something as complicated as an arduino project, the kids have a fair number of things they need to know just to be able to follow basic instructions. I really wanted to start the project in the middle and work my way back to most of the basic skills, so that we hit them in context. From that first class we should be able to modify the existing project, add pieces to it, or wander off into new projects as we go along. I even included a light snippet in the code which could easily lead to the damn blink project if people really want to do it. Some of them may learn to code, some may do more of the artistic work or the planning work… i don’t really care.

I want them to understand what code is (not necessarily ‘how to code’)
I want them to get a sense of how the digital part of the world they are growing up in works
I want them to dream up projects, learn to research them
I really want them to find the parts of this they like to do, and find friends who are interested in the other parts – the ultimate 21st century literacy
Also safety. That too. And confidence confronting uncertainty

I’ve heard back from what two of the kids did with the project they took home. One kid apparently terrified his cat – which i guess is a successful adaptation of the project, though maybe not the one I would have chosen :). The other kid I heard back from took the little box, cut holes in it and turned the project into a robot that protects the side dresser of his bed. Four of the five kids want to come back, and, with the other kids who’ve expressed interest, we’re going to be looking at 7 or 8 kids in our little arduino club to start. I’ll keep testing out the design and see what happens. How does this look in a class of 25 or 30? Don’t know yet. One thing at a time 🙂


Project parts
Arduino Nano
Jumper wires
9 v. battery
9 v. battery connector
Proximity sensor
Mini breadboard
Small box

Things I learned
You need to have two or three sets of spares of everything. It’s so easy for this stuff to stop working. Having a spare working project on the side so you could check parts would be super useful for troubleshooting “is this broken? Nope, it works over here! Ok then it must be something else”

The cheaper Nano version I used requires a special CH34X USB-SERIAL DRIVER. The standard one is called FTDI. It’s the way your computer talks to the Nano over USB.

Be very careful when plugging in the battery power. I fried one of the nanos getting the ground and the power lines mixed up.

The code I used.


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Designing online learning from the ground up for k12

I’ve been facilitating a variety of conversations in the passed few weeks here in PEI working towards a plan for k12 education. It’s been a fascinating glimpse into all the hard work that goes on behind the scenes in the system. This week I moved to a part of the work that I’m really excited about. We’re talking about what a fully online course could look like. There has certainly been lots of experimentation by teachers in online spaces here in PEI, and we’re going to build on those as we can. Our goal is to lay out a pedagogy for online spaces that takes full advantage of the affordances of the web and tries to make a rich, welcoming experience for students.

I thought I might lay out my initial discussion topics here and see what you all think. I’d love your feedback on them. This list is not meant to be exhaustive in any way but rather is an attempt to get experienced f2f educators thinking about how the web is different and how it can be, in some ways at least, better.

Why are we going to teach online?
At the start of any project, I like to get a clear sense of why something is being done. There are tons of reasons to want to put a course online, it may be that you are interested in providing more flexibility for students, you may want to develop digital literacies, you may want to offer new and interesting choices. It’s also a good time to clear up a few issues. A good online course, for instance, is not going to save anyone money, at least not in a straightforward way. You still need the same student/teacher ratio, students still need to be evaluated and guided and nurtured.

A clear sense of the goals, and which goals are the most important will go a long way towards keeping a complex project like this one on track.

Translating good practice to the web – It’s not a tool problem
It is easy, and understandable, that a person considering teaching online be worried about what tools they will be using. The tools, however, are just that. They are the things you use to teach, not the teaching or the learning itself. Just like your whiteboard or a storybook is not the teaching, the tools and resources you’ll use online are not the goal. We need to think deeply about our f2f teaching practice, the little things we do to encourage, to calm, to help students see – we need to think about how we are going to make the heart of teaching happen online.

We’ve been doing a variety of exercises where we try and visualize the first five minutes of class time. The hellos to students. Noticing that one kid looks a little sad today. Another one is distracted. All these little pieces that make our classrooms work. How do we accomplish it online? Are there methods we can use to make our online place feel like home? What else do we need to tell students that we would normally just handle in the classroom?

Collaborating online – working together… differently
It is a rare classroom these days that has students sitting silently listening to teachers and then silently doing assignments. It happens. And can sometimes be appropriate, but with collaboration being an increasingly important part of the world we all live in, those collaboration skills are more important than ever. And it’s better learning. And more fun. The web can be an exciting place for collaborative learning. There’s more space for people to talk. People who find it difficult to think deeply and talk at the same time have more time to consider their responses. More voices can talk to one issue.

But how do we control dominant voices? How do we adapt our activities so that students can do their work? Are we going to work in the open or in a walled garden (or both)?

Motivation and pacing
Assuming that there is going to be some collaboration in the course, students are going to need to be paced through the learning together. We have to assume that every student taking an online course is taking one for the first time. Working online requires that students are more responsible for their timelines. We need to consider how much responsibility we are going to take for their motivation and how we are going to structure the course accordingly.

Will they check their emails? Will we do live sessions to provide those critical check-in moments? Will we use available analytics to track students and help catch students at the moment they are falling behind instead of after? Lots of check-in moments on long assignments to make sure they’re on track?

Differentiation and UDL
Teaching online offers an interesting opportunity to address issues of differentiation in the classroom. Adding additional resources for students with different challenges could be a great way to help them learn. It could also lead to ghettoization in the course. These issues are easy to address in a classroom, as you see cliques develop, but you have to watch a little more closely online. We need to think deeply about all of our students and how they are going to respond to working in an online space.

We need to do UDL. ’nuff said.

And… some tool stuff
Inevitably we’re going to talk tools. I keep trying to hold this conversation off so we can focus on the pedagogy… but its hard. People need to see what something looks like in order to understand fundamental concepts. I’ve been trying to pull together some exemplars of good online teaching… I can show them mine, of course, but as I generally start with an empty shell and have the students build it, it’s difficult to show them if they haven’t experienced it.

We talked about live sessions and if we need them. About the value of pictures of people for context. We talked about screencasting. And Moodle. And google classrooms. And analytics. Lots of fun discussion.

I’m super excited to see how this whole thing develops. Keep sending me whatever you’ve got. The more context we have the better 🙂

A Change Sprint – workshopping new ideas in a hurry

During a conversation in my back yard this summer with the excellent Robin DeRosa, she and I decided, once again, that most of us trying to do things differently in education all face the same kinds of issues.

We also noted that as our roles become more embedded and visible in our respective institutions, it is more difficult to do the deep speculative work necessary to come up with plans for change in education. Or at least, it’s more difficult to do it in the open.

I need to think out loud. But out loud isn’t so easy when my work is institutional and not just a MOOC run out of my basement. Being public before you’re ready means the work you’re trying to do can go in a negative or damaging direction.

And yet. The complexity at the core of the educational system requires a particular kind of multiplicity that can only be achieved with many perspectives. I realized, talking to Robin, that not having access to multiplicity was keeping me stuck in my own head.

The genesis of ChangeEd
We all have some core people in our network that we turn to for practical advice and who, when they are stumped, sometimes turn to us. I’ve spent much of the past dozen or so years working out loud with an excellent group of thinkers and practitioners. Two of my favourite people to work with on nasty problems are Rebecca Petersen and Lawrie Phipps. One day in September of last year, a few months after the conversation with Robin, I was talking to Rebecca and Lawrie separately about some work that we were poking away at. In each conversation, we talked about our desire for the intensity that can come from MOOC like experiences, or conferences (eventedness you might call it). We noticed that the calls to Twitter for participation weren’t quite doing the same thing they used to.

And then the three of us, in separate conversations, started talking about what a model for participation could look like. It turned out that they had both had conversations similar to the one I’d had with Robin in the summer. We decided to develop a model for how we could pull together the expertise we needed in a semi-protected way, and still participate in a broader open dialogue that is such a part of our practice.

The goal: make a call out to a group, think really fast, make something, call it quits.

There are any number of sprint models out there to choose from, agile development methodologies etc…but this one has been working well so far, emergently, the three times we’ve tried it.

Change Sprint
I love to work with people f2f, but the challenges of pulling together a conference/project to trying to fit everyone’s schedule is impractical. The problems we were looking to solve were mostly time dependent, and we all have other things to do. There have been a couple of synchronous discussions via Google hangouts over the course of our Change Sprints so far, but we are mostly using Slack. Not perfect, but it allows people to drop in for five minutes when they can, and participate as they can.

A Change Sprint is focused on a central question posed by the member who calls or convenes the Spring to action. Each question, so far, has changed at least slightly in the course of each of the Sprints – the question can be iterative but it guides the discussion. A participant will convene a Sprint because they want help with an idea, a problem, a challenge…and are looking for a particular kind of outcome. They might want a model. They could need something said in a particular way, or need an idea workshopped before it goes out into the wild.

Before beginning, each convenor has to create a simple project charter that explains the necessary background in a simple, organized way. The charter allows people to get up to speed in a hurry, and provides a location for discussion around broader contextual issues.
We have a google template that has been working well for us.

It’s been really important to us that the sprints are as efficient as possible. We put the time limit on a sprint at 5 days, but any can end if the initial target is met and the convenor’s challenge addressed.

Success Measures
Ultimately these will be judged by the success measures that are part of each charter. They could include…better questions. A model. A rationale. A paper. A sketch of a plan. A series of guidelines. Constant movement towards an outcome is a good way to keep the discussion moving forward. That outcome also creates the potential of participating in a broader open conversation after the Sprint is complete.

Criteria for participants
We picked the first 10 people we could remember having this conversation with. We weren’t interested in people who would ‘take over’ a conversation, but rather, busy, practical people who love an opportunity to take a run at a thorny problem. We really wanted to keep the number small, and have tried not to think of all the terribly smart people we didn’t invite.

The Change Sprints have been hard on the logically minded among us. If you wish to understand each item that whizzes by in the chat or if you want to read each entry this may not work for you. If you miss the first 25 minutes of the starting hour, you could be 300 messages behind. We had a couple of people who have withdrawn themselves because they aren’t able to ‘just’ donate an hour or so of their week to a conversation… they need to be all-in or all-out. That’s cool. That’s part of what makes them great professionals.

You also can’t guarantee that you are going to get to any kind of resolution. Sometimes the conversation rolls in the right direction and sometimes it doesn’t. Our first Sprint went so well (with the Learning Participant Ecosystem Model) that it’s easy to get disappointed when you don’t finish with a nice drawing :).

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Learning Ecosystem Participant Model CC by Non Commercial

You really can’t do them very often. I wouldn’t think that more than 3 or 4 a year for any group would be possible and still maintain the enthusiasm. I might be wrong about that… Dunno.

Why you might want to do this
The Change Sprints we’ve done have replicated some of the power of the connected conversations I used to have on the open web, while cutting out much of the institutional risk. The focus on an specific outcome keeps people on task (mostly) and gives people something to rally around. You could setup a Slack channel (or a private Facebook group or whatever) fill out a charter, setup a start time and say go. You just need ten smart people to work with and a reasonable vision of where you want to get.

The thing I like about how this model works out is that it provides a clear structure for participation.

Participate as much as you can over the next five days. Then its done. If you can’t participate this time, or something comes up, that’s not a problem. If you can participate, be constructive, and keep nudging the problem around. Focused effort can do amazing things

Stealing project management language for change in education

I’m starting out a new role here in Prince Edward Island. I’ve always been interested in the way that educational systems work, they way they were formed, how their systems match their goals. It seems that I’m now going to get the opportunity to work inside another system and see if I can be of any help with the aligning of goals and strategies, and the refinement of objectives and tasks. I find this change process endlessly fascinating, but, as with anyone who spends too much time with a given topic, my language gets lazy and I tend to not explain ourselves very well. I thought it might be useful to take some time at the start of this work to redefine my own framework for turning the input that people give me into reality.

For many of you this is just your day to day. It took me several years to come to terms with how I felt about this language and to believe it was important. I have now come to believe that great ideas only become reality if you can turn them into a plan. Hard to believe I ever had to ‘come to believe’ that in the first place…

I should also say that I am sensitive to how this can be see to support the corporatization of education. This is certainly not my intent. I believe that learning is a complex system that needs to be dealt with outside of a structure that counts ‘winning and losing’ in the same way it counts money. That being said… we need a way to organize our work so that we can get it done. I like to think of myself as having stolen something useful from the other team rather than having gone over and joined them 🙂

Establishing a common language
Half of the misunderstandings (yes, exactly half :P) that people have are because they don’t mean the same things by the words they are using. In the first two days that I’ve been working here I’ve asked questions like “what do you mean by curriculum?” or “when you say learning what do you mean in this context?” a bunch of times. I think it’s necessary to make this negotiation a constant presence in any change discussion.

For today I want to go through how I feel about four different words: Goal, Objective, Strategy and tasks. I’m in no way claiming that these are the ‘true’ definitions of these words but, rather, this is the story that I attach to them.

Why do we need to categorize these things anyway?
I’m going to be working with people from across the sector on projects. Today I’ve spoken to two teachers (one in an administrative role, one not) one person from the strategy end of the department and one curriculum consultant. Each of them is critical to an effective education system, but they all work in very different environments. As I (as one teacher said) get a sense of their ‘day in the life’ I’ll be listening to their stories and seeing where they might fit with the stories being told by others. Some of those stories might be around goals for the system “we need students to be more independent” or objectives “we need more students to be doing unsupervised work”. One of those things is a measurement of the other… maybe. But we don’t want our goals to be restricted by a single measurement – “hey, we have 10% more students doing unsupervised work” does not mean that we suddenly have independent students.

Goals (IMO and you can insert that IMO in the rest of what I’m going to say here) are the vision that we have for ourselves. It is the conceptual change we are looking to make. They are hard to create, and are better if everyone involved in the process contributed to their creation and is on board. People need to ‘believe’ in goals. They aren’t things that are true, necessarily, but rather something that we all think represents a valuable direction. They are by their nature nebulous, and, because of this, they need help.

Objectives are the change that happens that contributes to a goal. As illustrated above, an objective may or may not ACTUALLY contribute to a goal, and alignment and realignment is critical in any change process. It’s usually good to have several objectives (whether simultaneous or sequential) in order to cross reference success. Objectives are often (though not always) things that can be observed in the world. Countable objectives are nice “10% more students are submitting independent projects” but sometimes we are interested in non-counting nouns – “students are happier in class”. In the latter case, some kind of qualitative collection mechanism is required, but I’m as likely to trust a collection of teacher stories as I am a number like 9.7%.

This is the plan part of project plan. What are we going to go about doing to try and make that change. This involves a heavy bit of historical research – the change you’re trying to make has probably been tried before. Find out what happened, what the successes were, what pieces of it are left over? From there you need to include all the players in the conversation. What kinds of things have you been trying, do you have pilots that have worked, what kinds of obstacles are in your way?

Strategies are the heavy lifting of any project, but they are worse than useless if they don’t map up to objectives and goals. Every strategy you propose is going to have an ‘opportunity cost’. If you try this opportunity, you aren’t going to be able to do something else. You are going to be taking valuable people not only away from what they do everyday, but you are crowding out other ideas that could better serve your goals. Also, even if your strategy is perfectly executed, if you don’t have a mechanism for showing people how this change is actually happening (achieved objectives) your project will. not. last.

I hate a project that doesn’t last. Unless it’s not supposed to.

Tasks have people and they have due dates. If you have a strategy that doesn’t have people attached to it, with time allotted in their schedule to finish the work by a given date – it is destined to live on a shelf. It might be beautiful. It might align perfectly. And there certainly is a place in the world for pieces of art like this… but they will not make change happen. I lied earlier, this is the actual heavy lifting on a project. This is where the project manager comes in. Someone has to wake up in the morning wondering if the tasks that were assigned to everyone have been completed.

Tasks should not be complex… they require more resilience and time allocation than deep thinking. Without them, though, you will be destined to be in meetings where people say things like “yeah, we should really get around to doing that”. I do not like those meetings.

How does all this help?
I’m going to use this simple PM framework throughout the first steps on my new role to keep track of the ideas and challenges that I’m hearing from people. People always believe that some change needs to happen to any education system – and that’s great. I’m very happy that people are passionate about education. The challenges identified by some people require task level solutions, some are entire goals all by themselves. As I bring them all together, I’m going to try and see where they fit with each other, where overlaps and possibilities exist. This kind of framework helps keep me honest. And, more importantly, it allows me to take what I’ve been collecting and show it to the next person. To keep the conversation growing.

A final word on 1% (marginal) change
I like to keep a separate list while I’m doing this kind of work of “things we could just fix”. Every system contains pieces that are important to the members at a local level, but don’t really have a mechanism for improvement. It might not be a big enough problem by itself to make it to a senior table so the problem persists. What I have found is that if you can collect several of these problems together, you can bring those to a senior table and have them looked at. If you bring ten and get approval to fix six of them, you’ve made important change at a local level in six places.

These things add up. A little fix here, another fix there, and soon the whole system is getting better. It’s the change version of take care of your pennies because the dollars take care of themselves.

Looking ahead
I’m not committed to ‘change’ as a ‘good in the world’. I just happen to like helping to fix the things we’ve agreed can get better. I’m more than happy to look at something and say “that’s awesome just the way it is”. As often as not when you categorize stuff in this way, that just what you find… things are actually ok. And, if they aren’t ok, you are halfway to solving the problem already 🙂

Learning Ecosystem Participant Model

A group of us had a conversation a couple of weeks ago about creating a learning community(ies) for an existing nonprofit open online learning site. How do you go about it? How do you translate what we believe about open learning to language that will respond to a project plan? Who are the multiple audiences? What do they want? It was a very interesting five or so days of chatting. We had some very smart, very experienced people chime in and while we certainly didn’t all come down to one final conclusion, there was a fair amount of overlap in our thinking.

Near the end of our sprint discussion, I proposed a model that could potentially serve as a starting point for discussions around the planning table. You might use it to talk to people about how someone can come into your ecosystem from any of these points, how people can move from being one kind of participant to another, and how those participants might interact with each other.

The model got bounced around between us with people adding to it and debating one part or another. This is my version. I’d love to hear what you think about it, whether it resonates with you or what you might hate about it.

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Learning Ecosystem Participant Model CC by Non Commercial

When we teach in a classroom, we get to define the start and end times, we decide how much time investment is appropriate, the workload, the content choices etc… basically the syllabus of a course. Students have already committed to learning in a structured way. They have, in many cases, self-selected or at least they know they are going to have to take your course. The reason they are learning is generally clear to anyone.

When we work in an online space, we get all kinds of learners. As a learner, I’m not always going to be invested in a deep learning experience. Sometimes i just need to find out how to cook a turkey – i don’t need to push turkey theory to new levels. Maybe, after cooking some turkeys… i might change my mind, but i’m not going to be able to do ‘turkey theory’ cold.

Four kinds of participants in a learning ecosystem

  • Consumer (What temperature do i take the turkey out?)
  • Student (How do I prepare a turkey from purchase to eating)
  • Rhizomatic learner (How can I come to my own approach to turkeys?)
  • Mentor (How can i help others with their turkeys?)

Moving from one group to another
This model is, in some ways, a directional development model that says that if you want people to learn the thing that you want them to learn… whether mental health, non-profit or whatever… that you generally want (a certain percentage of ) people moving from

  • Consumer to student
  • Consumer to rhizomatic learner
  • Student to rhizomatic learner
  • Rhizomatic learner to Mentor
  • Student to Mentor
  • Mentor to Rhizomatic learner

Spaces needed to support the model
Not all platforms are ready for this kind of interaction, some are focused on delivering content (to consumers) some are lock-step course platforms and others are designed for communities. I think all three of these can be (and probably should be) used together. My feeling is that there is a mix here, a combination of these spaces that can be achieved to reach that ecosystem. I should add… it need not all be on the same website.

  • Information space
  • Course spaces
  • A place for people to gather

Mentors aren’t really a space, which is why this isn’t a space chart. It’s a membership chart. Mentors are going to live across all three spaces. They will, potentially, answer questions in the information space. They will, potentially, be part of the audience, or be the teachers in the course space. They will, potentially, be participants in the community space.

What problem does this solve?
What it does for me is it gives me a framework that allows me to talk about how to create an online learning experience. In a course like #rhizo14/15 (a course on rhizomatic learning) I’m focusing almost entirely on the community. Should I make more of an effort to leave people with answers to their questions? Should I have an onboarding process that people could use that would give them a structured introduction to the idea? Should I make an effort to organize mentors who can help direct traffic for new people?

Community can do a great deal to support an organization in the work it wants to do… but it’s mostly hard work. I’ve spoken to many groups over the years who are willing to do that work, but didn’t have the language they needed internally to plan for what need to be done. In looking long term for any organization that wants to achieve its goals through open learning, these could help with planning by providing some language for a conversation. It could also allow you to keep track of the community over time. Are we seeing fewer mentors over time? Is our student community growing? A different balance is going to be struck depending on your goals…

If you’re looking to enact a change, say, to a more open environment or a more collaborative environment, hopefully this gives you a place to start. Take, modify, share.


  • This model certainly owes some of its inspiration to Dave Snowden’s Cynefin model.
  • There are potential similarities here to the Visitors and Residents model.
  • This chart was built through a sprint process, from October 19th to 24th. Original draft by Dave Cormier. Draft 2 Tayte Willows. Draft 3 Rebecca Petersen & Dave Cormier. Sprint members – John Schinker, Maha Bali, Michael Rutter, Jennifer Maddrell, Rebecca Petersen, Lawrie Phipps, Robin DeRosa, Tayte Willows, Bonnie Stewart, Erin DeSilva and Dave Cormier

Planning for educational change : what is education for?

In the past few years I’ve had the opportunity to work on a number of projects that impact both education as a system and challenge some people’s conceptions of what learning is and might be for. The latter is compelling, and projects like #rhizo14 and #rhizo15 have led to some amazing conversations, some interesting papers, and, more importantly for me, have broadened my network of good educators to work with. While I am interested in this work, and plan to potentially host another one this fall, I think of these projects as an exploration space to think about what learning is for. They are not ‘the change’ they are more the ways in which we consider what might be possible… what learning could be for.

Education vs. learning
I’ve been making this distinction for years, but I’m not really sure if I made it up or if I stole it from someone. For me ‘education’ is the system that we have in place as a society to allow us to ‘educate’ most people in our society. Education is by its nature normative, meaning that it has a particular perspective on what a society is and enforces that perspective in curriculum, in classroom structure, in assessment as well as across the social contract among teachers, students and administrators.

Learning is something that can happen in an education system. Frankly, it pretty much necessarily happens in an education system, but more because humans are learning machines and will learn from any situation. What they might learn… now that’s a bit more individual. I, for instance, believe that high stakes testing leads people to believe that there are ‘answers’ to important questions and makes it more difficult for them to deal with complex situations later in their lives. Learning is a constant. It is what humans do. They don’t, ever, learn exactly what you want them to learn in your education system. They may learn to remember that 7+5=12 as my children are currently being taught to do by rote, but they also ‘learn’ that math is really boring. We drive them to memorise so their tests will be higher, but is it worth the tradeoff? Is a high score on addition worth “math is boring?”

What learning can be for?
Learning can be for a tonne of different things. Sometimes we want to learn something to accomplish a specific task. I, for instance, am a proponent of spatchcocking turkeys. This article from the excellent, does a good job explaining the technical skills required for the process. What I like about the article, is that it also provides the rationale for doing it that way. That may or may not be something you want to learn. I learn a bunch of other things from serious eats. I learn about taking my cooking seriously. About the value of questioning established orthodoxy. Just in time learning. Clear end goal. Clear pathways to getting there. I have a pile of literacies I’ve acquired over the years that allow me to get there. I can read. My parents taught me to question the status quo. I’ve been cooking since I was ten. Now I cut the backbone out of my turkey and cook it flat. And, maybe most importantly, i can afford a turkey.

Learning is also something we want each of our kids to do. We want them to learn how to keep themselves safe. We want them to learn to be creative. We want them to learn how to be happy. Maybe their Timestables. Maybe some chemistry. Maybe writing. The pathway for each of these kids, though, is not as clear. I figure that I’ve got decent odds of teaching any individual person something at any individual time. Most teachers, i think, probably feel the same way. How does it scale? How do we contribute to a system that chooses good things for them to learn. Or, maybe more importantly, a system that embodies things that we want them to learn. What should that education system be for? Can we have an education system that embodies happiness or wellbeing? Should math be the hidden curriculum and self-respect what is actually studied?

What is education for?
Education is a totally different beast than learning. Learning is a thing a person does. Education is something a society does to its citizens. When we think about what we want to do with ‘education’ suddenly we need to start thinking about what we as a society think is important for our citizens to know. There was a time, in an previous democracy, where learning how to interact in your democracy was the most important part of an education system. When i look through my twitter account now I start to think that learning to live and thrive with difference without hate and fear might be a nice thing for an education system to be for.

That’s not to say that we don’t teach ethics, or that most of us haven’t combed through our history books to try and find ways to address issues of race and gender… we have. But for every attempt to address complex societal issue there has been another (another 10) addressing basic skills. Cross reference that with provincial, national and international standards testing and you’ve got yourself a nice complex problem. Bring it to, say, the university level, or lifelong learning or pre-k and with all the added power structures… you’ve got yourself a really interesting ecosystem to think about.

What’s it for? What does success look like? Who does that success serve?

Thinking about change in Education
I was fortunate enough to be invited to the Leadership Roundtable on Academic Transformation, Digital Learning, and Design at Georgetown University earlier this year (excellently hosted by Eddie Maloney, Josh Kim and Peter Stokes). It was a gathering of folks interested in change (mostly related to edtech). Lots of excellent debate. While this was mostly a conversation amongst people in Higher Education (who’s voices are not likely to be marginalised given their place of employment, race etc…), the themes I saw emerge there are similar to those I have seen before and since in these discussions around the world. The discordance (to my ears) between the words change and innovation. A challenge to differentiate between change from (this terrible thing is happening and it needs to stop) and change to (there’s this thing we’d really like to have happen, lets figure out how to do it). The multiple perspectives on the value proposition of higher education. Are we doing basic skills? Are we preparing students for jobs? Are we the last bastion of the mid-nineteenth century vision of a better society?

All of these things could be true. Most of them could be true at the same time. This is what, i think, makes the field of education so compelling right now. What I’ve become most interested in is how we can make change stick, at least partially. Part of that I think, like any other complex project, is to keep a constant conversation going around what the goals ACTUALLY are. I think goals on complex problems need to be expressed, yes, but they are a journey of becoming. You can say you want an education system that emancipates a society, but what is that going to mean when you’re choosing curriculum? When you’re doing teacher training? When you’re talking to parents about the possibility of changing what it means to succeed? How many times are you going to come to understand what emancipation REALLY means and develop a shared language with everyone in the system.

Are we ready to commit to change that could take a generation… with constantly renegotiated change? Can we even do that?

I’m interested.

A last thought about learning
Learning is going to happen. I might learn to write a good sentence. I might learn I’m too dumb to write a good sentence. I might learn that writing a grammatically correct sentence is more important than writing an interesting one. I will learn.

Learning will happen. The question is… what learning do we want our education system to be for?

New Student Orientation – Orienting, Not Informing

* This is a crosspost of Orienting, Not Informing, posted on Michael Rutter’s Higher Ed Gamma on Inside Higher Education. *

For the past few years, I’ve been working on making changes within our institution’s New Student Orientation (NSO) process. For some institutions orientation is about level setting, about placement inside a program. For the elite, where students have been heavily filtered, it can be purely about creating a sense of belonging to a brand. For most of us in Higher Ed, it’s a time of great temptation. Do we academically remediate? Do we explain what university is? Do we tell them how to find their classes? Is it the final step in the recruitment process?

While the current obsession is to focus on how well institutions prepare their students for the job market and other ROIs, we do have to ensure that students get to the finish line (graduation), learn soft skills (employers like those too), and, one hopes, have a good experience in the process.

The problem is our ideas tend to drift off in the direction of broadcasting important information you need to know once we try to scale passed about 100 people or so. Lets put that online! And – while I may be to blame for introducing the words “Massive Open Online Course” into the current higher ed lexicon (sorry) – I don’t believe institutions ought to be trying to MOOC our way out of orientation with mass online orientation experiences. Or rather, I don’t think online orientation can be the sole approach we take, if our goals include retention and – at the core of retention – belonging.

When what you do is promote change in education, via communities and digital platforms, it surprises people when you start talking about orientation and the first week of school.
But what makes the process of change interesting to me is that it forces you to examine first principles: what is this thing that you are trying to do? Why would someone do it? Who are the people you are trying to do this with? If you can envision yourself jumping for joy six months from now, what just happened to make you jump?

The transition from high school to university is just that kind of compelling challenge. At an institution like ours, close to a fifth of our student body can turn over every year… more than 800 new undergraduate students will join us this week. Whether they stay – whether our institution becomes a part of how they see themselves – is partly on us and how we respond to those first principle questions.

Each one of our students arrives with some cultural understanding of what a university is. Some may be gleaned from movies or TV, some from guidance counsellors, teachers, parents, siblings, literature. There is no one ‘university’ that corresponds to these disparate visions. The contemporary university (for most of us) has to be a whole lot of things to a whole lot of people.

The temptation in addressing this challenge is to try and make your university ‘A Thing’ and then tell people about it.

When looked at from this perspective, it sounds like an awesome idea for an online course. A big one. A course you might even call ‘massive’.

At first glance this could seem (and seemed to me the three times we tried it) to be the easiest way to address challenges that students were having when they came to university. Online, we could give them an introduction to their science courses. We could give them information about parking, about student life, about the way that our Registrar’s Office works. We built our first MOOC-style orientation course in 2009, well before the word was in common usage outside of Canadian connectivist circles.

The problem with taking a MOOC-like approach to orientation, however, is that it ignores the complexity of the change you are trying to make in orienting learners to higher ed. The students coming to our universities are coming from a variety of backgrounds and for a variety of reasons. They need a variety of information. Many, in fact, are coming to the university to gain the very literacies that are REQUIRED in order to be able to learn online. If the very cadre of students you are trying reach are the ones most likely to populate MOOC attrition rates, then orienting them online as part of a huge group is not likely to leave you jumping for joy six months from now. If the intricacies of Student Support or higher education administrivia are beyond many new students’ zone of proximal development, offering them optional videos is not going to scaffold the critical learning experience required.

I am not suggesting that online learning is the problem either. Students are not necessarily more prepared to internalize this information face-to-face. My view of NSO was changed forever in the midst of a discussion with a focus group of student leaders, wherein one of them looked at me and said, “look Dave, you’re not going to teach anyone anything new in four days. If I don’t have a place to put this information going in…I’m not going to know it all coming out… you’re wasting your time with these training sessions.”
Point. While information can be handy, information doesn’t create change by itself.
What I was hoping for in designing this year’s process of orientation is an experience that starts students on the journey to believing that they can. That they can learn. That they can find help/information when they need it. That they can confront the challenges that emerge at university. That they can use their networks to offer the support they need to do whatever it is they want to do.

In our local context, that approach has been framed under the label “resilience,” though not in the simplistic, neoliberal “grit” sense that the word’s taken on in US education of late.

Rather, we developed a resiliency model that spoke to us, and committed ourselves to the idea of ‘healthy connections’ as our objective for orientation. We’re trying to create experiences that enable students to make healthy connections to each other, to their student mentors, to faculty and staff, and to our local community, all in their first few days on campus.

Each day of NSO this week is led off by a mentor-led dialogue (in small groups: 2 mentors for every 15 first-years) that addresses the issues that are going to be taken up that day. We’re looking at issues like “choosing to build community: how,” “adulting,” and “getting through your first two weeks of classes.” These mostly involve fishbowl-style discussions and other activities aimed at helping students develop language with each other, make connections with other, and understand a few of the options they have, rather than at getting them ‘the’ answer to any of these issues.

You can’t tell people to believe they can do things any more than you can sit people in a classroom and tell them to make healthy connections with each other. It’s an experiential process. Deep down, I think we’ve known this for years. If you look at the hazing rituals that are so a big part of what many of us may remember orientation or frosh week being years ago, it was about providing a shared experience that sometimes allowed people to find people they could rely on. Unfortunately for many, those shared experiences often happened at the bottom of a bottle, or in any number of dangerous and damaging circumstances. Change – a huge culture change – was needed.

So if we’re jumping for joy six months from now it will be because we’re seeing our student mentors having difficult discussions with the first year students they mentored this week. It’ll be because those mentors built trust enough to become the conduits through which first year (and other!) students connect to the supports they need when they need them.
We hope, like anyone else does, that this leads to higher retention rates, but by far my bigger hope is that it leads to more students feeling they belong here, and that they can make university work for them, in their own ways. No amount of information is ever going to make that happen.

Content is a print concept

I’ve been saying annoying things like “I don’t believe in content” and “what do you mean course ‘content?’ I don’t even know who’s going to be there” for a number of years now. There’s a part of me, as George Station will attest, that just likes the sound of certain words put together.

The bigger part of me has always struggled with the word.

There are fundamental claims made, I think, when we use the word content. We have decided what someone ‘needs to know.’ I always think back to the forklift driver’s course that I took when I worked at the lead/silver refinery. They taught us the ‘correct’ way to drive a forklift – a driving method I’d never seen anyone use before…nor have I seen it since. While there are good legal reasons for teaching us the government approved approach… I’d probably be fired if I tried to ‘thoroughly look over my forklift’ every single time I was about to use it. Those lessons were the content that needed to be covered, though. To what end, I wonder… and when exactly did we start thinking of courses as having ‘content?’

I have this idea (totally unverifiable) that our current educational use of ‘content’ came to us from print – that it is a concept that only makes sense when arguments are, as Socrates would say, ‘no longer able to defend themselves.’ When they are written down. I might use the word ‘content’ when talking about a conversation I had with someone, but I, at least, would never use it to describe what was going to happen BEFORE the conversation had happened. A conversation, ideally, is the coming together of two or more people’s ideas. What comes out of that conversation is to some degree always going to be a surprise.

Why don’t I say writing, you might ask, instead of print? I think of writing as being partially to blame, but not the real culprit.

When Europe starting peeking its way through the veil of the dark ages, one of the first things we hear about learning comes from the court of Charlemagne. Turns out the large majority of priests in his day couldn’t really speak Latin. This did not stop them from ‘saying’ Latin phrases. Those phrases did things like make marriages official and make sure babies didn’t go to hell… so they were important phrases… but the priests were speaking them from memory. Turns out Charlemagne thought God could only speak Latin, and figured that if they said the phrases wrong the wouldn’t work. So… he figured he would take a shot at fixing that.

You can totally see why he wanted to make sure people did EXACTLY as they were supposed to. I mean, if you believed as he believed, there were people GOING TO HELL because they were mis-speaking Latin phrases. So he released the ‘Charter of Modern Thought’ that led to all kinds of things, including better education for bishops, enforced education for priests and, eventually, schools to be opened at monasteries for kids. We don’t know exactly what happened at those schools…but there is one slightly terrifying story of one pupil who burned down the monastery to avoid being disciplined for a now forgotten crime. In almost every case, however, they’re all still learning about things God said and things other people (Boethius, Plato, Augustine) said.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, we see the vague beginnings of the modern university. We see, at almost the same time, the birth of thought control at universities. There is one school of historical thought that sees the birth of universities as directly tied to the desire for thought control. In their version, the church/local rulers encouraged their formation to avoid the tedious problem of local smart people educating people at random and causing trouble (see Peter Abelard). Aristotle’s Physics were banned at Paris, for instance, because they taught an origin story that conflicted with church teachings.

The desire to repeat things exactly and the desire to control what people learned met their perfect weapon in the printing press. Not only did it mean we were now not going to get those irritating errors that keep cropping up when one (sometimes illiterate) person tries to copy someone else’s copy of a copy of 20 or 50 thousand words, it also meant you could create bunches and bunches of them. It also meant that things less important than Augustine and less important than the Bible could get turned into a book.

We take up our incredibly brief history of content in 1798 with my favourite educator, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi. He had a dream… and what a dream. He wanted to teach the entirety of Switzerland to read (and rite and do rithmatic). Tricky problem… he didn’t have any teachers to work with. In his book “How Gertrude teaches her children” he talks about his crazy solution. Imagine, he says, if we took all the things that people needed to know and broke them into small pieces. Pieces so simply defined that ANYONE, whether they understood what they were doing or not, could teach someone else how to do something. Lets just go ahead and call it a ‘textbook’.

We’ve gone from
‘oh my god they better just memorize it so no one goes to hell’


‘lets make sure we figure out what they’re teaching so people don’t get funny ideas’


‘lets dumb this down to the point that anyone can understand it’

From there we have the splintering of learning into different disciplines, and an ever increasing % of the population learning. We move from people talking about things as learning – a discourse (our boy Socrates) to learning being an accomplishment of specific predefined tasks. Tasks that could only be defined in this way because they could be written down. Tasks that form the ‘content’ of learning designed in a schoolbook that as Pestalozzi would say “is only good when an uninstructed schoolmaster can use it at need, [almost as well as an instructed and talented one].”

So… here’s the think piece.

Content is a print concept. It requires replication in the form of the printing press. It requires authority/power in the form of a government/agency/publisher deciding what is ‘required’ to learn. It is a standardization engine for learning, both to allow for spreading of authorized messaging and to allow for ‘uninstructed teachers to teach almost as well as an experienced one.’

I can certainly see where it’s useful. Particularly when you are only invested in surface level understanding of something. I’m starting to believe, more and more, that given THE INTERNETS, content should be something that gets created BY a course not BEFORE it. Our current connectivity allows us to actually engage in discussions at scale… can that replace content?

Rhizo14 – The MOOC that community built

This discussion paper was originally posted in the “International Journal for Innovation and Quality in Learning” which is now not on the internet. With the “learning resilience” Open course starting up in a few weeks (you can sign up at that link if you like), I thought it might be interesting to repost this and see how it sounds 2 years later.

Key message
By creating an event like a MOOC we are potentially radically redefining what it means to be an educator. We are very much at the beginning stages of our learning how to create the space required for community to develop and grow in an open course. These field notes speak to the my own journey in the design of ‘Rhizomatic Learning – the community is the curriculum’. They are, in effect, a journey towards planned obsolescence.

KEYWORDS: rhizo14, rhizomatic learning, MOOC,

Oscar is my almost-eight year old son. He’s been blogging since he was four, has played around a little on twitter and has generally grown up in a house where his parents have made a fair chunk of their career out of blogging and working online. It is with this as a backdrop that he walks into the room yesterday and asks

Are you in charge of ALL of rhizo14, i mean, all around the world?

You see I received a box in the mail yesterday that had a card, 4 t-shirts and a magnet that said #rhizo14 on it. The artwork, the hashtag and the tagline “A communal network of knowmads” come from a Open Course that I started in January of 2014 now called #rhizo14. The package Oscar was looking over had a stamp from Brazil on it which I explained came from Clarissa, an educator who participated in Rhizo14. She sent everyone in the family a t-shirt with the rhizo14 logo on it.

From Clarissa Bezerra

So… are you in charge of it? My son not being accustomed to me being lost for words, was confused by my lack of response. In that simple question lies much of what I have struggled to explain about the event that is/was #rhizo14. What does it mean to be ‘in charge’ of a MOOC? What was my role in something that was very much a participant driven process?

If I am ‘in charge’ what does that mean in terms of my responsibility towards the quality of the experience people have as part of rhizo14?

What was the course now called Rhizo14
I say “now called” because the original title of the course was “Rhizomatic Learning – The community is the curriculum” but the people who are still participating refer to it by the hashtag. It was a six week open course hosted on the P2PU platform from January 14 to February 25th. The topic of the course was to be about my years long blabbing about rhizomatic learning. I wanted to invite a bunch of people to a conversation about my work to see if they could help me make it better. Somewhere in the vicinity of 500 people either signed up or joined one of the community groups.

What I was hoping for
Fundamentally i was hoping that 40 or 50 people would show up to the course and that by the end there would still be a handful of people interested in the discussion. I thought it would be a good opportunity for me to gather the work that I had done and make it better than it was before. I find the pressure of having an audience is very helpful in convincing me to get things together. I was not precisely hoping that we would get enough people for the course to have MOOC like characteristics, and I certainly didn’t put the time into advertising it in a way that was likely to lead to that. I was hoping that after 6 weeks I would have a better grasp on my own work, and that a few participants would have had a good quality experience.

In the more macro sense, I’m always hoping that a course that I’m working on leads to some sort of community. My work since 2005 has focused on ways to encourage people to see ‘the community as the curriculum’. I’m always hoping to organize an ecosystem where people form affinity connections in such a way that when the course ends, and I walk away, the conversations and the learning continues. I think of this as one of the true measurements of quality in any learning experience – does it continue.

How the course was designed
I made three different attempts at designing rhizo14.

The first was around my own collection of blog posts about rhizomatic learning. This was, essentially, the content of 7 years of thinking about the rhizome in education, broken into six week. In retrospect, it seems difficult to believe that I was considering so instructivist an approach, but it is very much following previous models of open courses I have been involved with. I think that this course design was prompted by my concern that people would be unfamiliar with the use of the rhizome in education and would need structure to support their journey with the idea. If you have content to present, you can ensure a certain minimum quality experience. It was also easy to just use the stuff I already had :).

Two days later, I had almost completely discarded this model for a new one that was more focused on the process of learning and connecting in an open course. The idea in model two was to ‘unravel’ the course from a fairly structured beginning to a more open and project based conclusion. This design was meant address my concerns about new participants to open/online courses. Over the years we’ve seen many complaints about the shock of a distributed course and, I’ve always thought, we didn’t see the vast majority of the complaints of participants who just couldn’t get their feet under them and didn’t complain publicly. Here I was trying to ensure quality from a process perspective.

Two days before the course started, I threw that out the window as well. In discussions with the excellent Vanessa Gennarelli from P2PU she suggested that I focus the course around challenging questions. It occurred to me that if i took my content and my finely crafted ‘unravelling’ out of the way I might just get the kind of engagement that could encourage the formation of community. The topic I chose for week 1 mirrored the opening content i was going to suggest but with no readings offered. I gave the participants “Cheating as Learning” as a topic, a challenge to see the concept of cheating as a way of deconstructing learning, and a five minute introductory video. This is the format that I kept for the rest of the course, choosing the weekly topics based on what I thought would forward the conversation. Here the quality of the experience is left up to the participant to control.

■ Week 1 – Cheating as Learning (Jan 14-21)
■ Week 2 – Enforcing Independence (Jan 21-28)
■ Week 3 – Embracing Uncertainty (Jan 28-Feb 4)
■ Week 4 – Is Books Making Us Stupid? (Feb 4-Feb 11)
■ Week 5 – Community As Curriculum (Feb 11-Feb 18)
■ Week 6 – Planned Obsolescence (Feb 18-?)

What happened during the course
Saying that I lost control of the discussion creates the false premise that I ever had control of it. From the get go, participants took my vague ‘cheating’ prompt and interpreted it in a dozen different ways. There were several strands of ethical debates regarding cheating. There were folks who decided to discuss testing. Others focused on how learning could be defined in a world of abundance. Still more took issue with the design of the question and focused on this. There was a varying degree of depth in these discussions, and, frankly, a certain amount of debate on what qualified as valid discussion.

My response was to (as i had promised) write a blog post explaining my intention with the question and surveying what people had written. This was the only week that I did this. As the course developed, and new challenges emerged, it became clear that these review posts were being created without my help. They were, in essence, me trying to hold on to my position as the instructor of the course. A position I had not really had from day 1. By the end, I only formally participated as instructor in posting the weekly challenges with a short video and by hosting a weekly live discussion on unhangout. The community has become its own rhizome, in the sense that it had created space for multiple viewpoints to coexist at varying levels of discussion.
What happened after the course

My ‘planned’ course finished on the 25th of February. On the 26th of February, week 7 of the course showed up on the Facebook group and the P2PU course page. This week entitled “The lunatics are taking over the asylum” was the first of many weeks created by the former ‘participants’ in the course. This new thing, which it is now safe to call #rhizo14, is currently in week 11 of its existence. In week eight, the community chose a blog post that I wrote several years ago as a topic of discussion. Week 11 is addressing the concern of allowing all voices to be acknowledge (a discussion that was very much present during the first six weeks) in an open environment.

As they began so they continued. The vast majority of the people who participated are now only distantly connected to the course if at all. A core of 50 or so people remain in the discussions, however, and are now identify themselves as ‘part of rhizo14′. For now, at least, there is a community of people who I am happy to number myself a member of. When I consider my responsibility as a ‘leader’ in this sort of community, it makes me wonder whether ‘educator’ is even the right word for it.

So Oscar… am I in charge of Rhizo14
Uh… no. I don’t think I ever was. An amazing group of people from around the world decided to spend some of their time learning with me for six weeks. A fair number of those seem to be forming into a community of learners that are planning new work and sharing important parts of their lives with each other. We are creating together. And it can’t be up to me to decide what good means for any of them.
My son, by this point of the conversation, would doubtlessly already be asleep.

In search of a new resilience for learning

Sometimes ideas come from unexpected places.

A recent paper entitled “The rhizome: A problematic metaphor for teaching and learning in a MOOC” caught my attention. It critiques Rhizomatic learning and the rhizo MOOC #rhizo14 in particular. It wasn’t easy to read, but one point about vulnerability stuck out for me, and resonated as something that needs thinking through in all learning contexts.

“I think we do need to notice that a new sort of resilience needs to be nurtured.”

It stuck with me. I’ve kind of taken it as an injunction. I wish I knew who had said it, because I have a pile of thanks to offer that person. We DO need to notice it. I’ve written two posts earlier this year dealing with the idea of resilience as it relates to two different educational contexts – students moving from one educational context to another and my own attempts to learn new things. I will sidestep (for now) the question of whether the resilience required is ‘new’ or not, but I’ve been playing with a model of what that internal narrative of resilience could look like for someone learning on the web. I was going to say ‘open web’ but the near ubiquity of spaces like Facebook, which are distinctly not open, require their inclusion as the vast majority of people who will be learning online will at some point end up in one of these corporate learning spaces.

What I’ve been working with so far
In 2010 George Siemens, Bonnie Stewart, Sandy MacAuley and I did a SSHRC funded research grant on the (at that time) new concepts emerging around MOOCs. One of the central questions we had asked ourselves was about the patterns that we could find that lead to success in a MOOC.

Six years later I’m still broadly comfortable with this as the external process by which someone starts to learn and succeed online. Whether someone goes ahead and makes it all the way to focus/outcomes part of this process is up to them and the process need not really be this linear. Overall, though, I’m still happy with it. We need to Orient ourselves, get a sense of what is going on, what the general rules of engagement are. We need to Declare who we are, need to have a place for our identity to stand. We need to Network with others. We need to find people who we can work with and Cluster with them. Then we can, if we wish, Focus on some sort of outcome, though i feel less strongly about this as a necessity.

What this doesn’t account for
But that’s all external. That’s what it looks like while/after it’s being done. How do we, as Kate so elegantly puts it – “support students to propose their own narrative of purpose”?

As our injunction dictates, we need to account for the resilience required to confront the learning process without the safe structures and comforting space of a ‘learning objective’ or a teacher telling you you’ve done it right. We need to acknowledge that learning in a network/community/wild space means that sometimes there will be uncontrollable interactions. You will be confronted by what a colleague today referred to as ‘aggressive academic hectoring’. There is privilege always. How do we maintain the advantages of rhizomatic space and still give people the tools to be resilient?

A new model
In my last post, I presented a model for how we can talk about resilience for a student in terms of how they might fit in a university. The model is meant to be both an emotional guidepost for students new and old and a reminder to those of us supporting them of what our goals are.

It’s occurred to me that the same thinking process might be useful here. If we translate some of the language closer to what we’ve been exploring with regards to learning in a world of abundance, we might get something like this. The idea of ‘purpose’ matches up for me with ‘learning subjectives‘ which we were exploring last year – Designing for when you don’t know where you’re going. The sense of place feels very comfortable as community. The third one is interesting… every student examplar we’ve found for resilience and much of the research suggests that ‘a person of somekind’ (as opposed to lots of people) is super-important.

I’m still just mulling this over, so I’m not going to go to far with this. The learning subjective is the thought, idea, need… the thing that got you started into this and your constantly reassessed perspective on it. It’s different from an outcome/objective in that you don’t know where it’s going. More importantly, no hierarchically approved agent has decided that it is the the ‘thing you need to know’. The community is the place where thinking resides. There are healthy communities and unhealthy communities. It’s not a perfect situation… it’s the discourse on the thing that you are interested in. The big difference now is that this discourse can be had with living people instead of the thoughts of living/dead people printed on dead paper. The narrowed perspective and finalized thoughts of the text are replaced with the uncertainty of the community space. The key nodes are thoughts/people/things that you start to see as guideposts along the road. They are ideas/people that you can turn to for direction, for help, to find out where help is.

Process of resilience
In accord with the Viv Rolfe quote in the last post, we want to think of resilience as a process rather than some innate quality that people have. This model then, is a suggested process that might help folks who are trying to engage in learning when there are an indefinite number of options/connections/approaches/solutions to the things they are interested in. When that thing they are involved in is simple (like a location on a map) or complicated (like a recipe) this is not such a big issue. If they are engaged in learning something complex this sense of resilience becomes more important.

Moving forward with a model
Is it useful to have a model like this? What questions should be in the circles? How can we introduce people to the process of re-examining their own subjectives, the community of learning (the curriculum) they are approaching and the key people and concepts in it? Resilience in the sense of enduring adversity successfully only works when we know what ‘success’ looks like. In a world of abundance, the learner needs to constantly evaluate what they want, what knowing looks like (the community) and reassess their touch points.