The rhizomatic learning course #rhizo14 is the first open course I’ve ever taught without affiliation. (though certainly being employed by my university and having an invested and interested partner allows me to have the ‘free time’ to pursue it) I have no partner that I’m working with or no school supporting it. This is the educational exploration I’ve been doing for the last 8-9 years, and I invited whoever may want to join to come along with me for the ride. It is, in many ways, the vision of MOOCs that I have had since we first starting talking about them in 2008. The course participation has been fascinating… and enlightening. Don’t take my word for it, check out some of the highlights for yourself on Cathleen Nardi’s curation page. The course is being ‘designed’, if you can call it that, to expose the concepts of rhizomatic learning through a succession of challenges. The challenges have been developed on the fly based on my sense of what might help push the conversation to a new and interesting place. They are structured to challenge the cultural assumptions that are prevalent around learning and to have people share their responses to it.
Challenge 1 – Cheating as learning
This was a blind opener. I had to have a topic to get conversation started in the first week and this is the place i usually start in my first week of my face2face classes. I started out purposefully vague with this topic with the hope that it would allow for a greater number of perspectives around the power structures that support cheating. That seemed to work. We got power and ethics and lots of fun stuff. More than anything, I was hoping to break down the teacher/student divide and trouble who was responsible for deciding who was learning and how they should be doing that. It might, also, start conversations around collaboration.
Here’s the intro video.
Challenge 2 – Enforcing Independence
This was intended as a counterpoint to week 1. Yes, the student is responsible for learning. Yes, our traditional system is a command and control structure better built for enforcement of norms than for the nurturing of creativity. Sure. We need independent learners. But how do we get there. We’re not starting from a blank slate. We can’t just reset the last 150 years of schooling and start over. We need to create classroom and non-classroom learning structures that slowly move people towards independence. We need to live inside the paradox of telling people to do what they need to do and to judge themselves by their own goals and objectives.
Here’s the intro video
Challenge 3 – Embracing Uncertainty
Encouraging people towards independence is one thing, creating an ecosystem where multiple answers are possible is something else entirely. Uncertainty is a part of most of our real lives, it is very much part of the learning process that we live outside of ‘schooling’. It takes a long time for my students to get over the sense that there is a hidden series of things i want them to believe, and that my attempts to have them create their own objectives is just reflective of sadistic tendencies. I have to embrace my own uncertainty around things, and the uncertainty around the things that I know about, in order to demonstrate that as a goal for learning. Those goals aren’t about knowing right/wrong but rather being able to make reasonable decisions when confronted by uncertainty. If this is the new goal of learning, it fundamentally changes the way you go about it.
Challenge 4 – Is books making us stupid?
I got really strong support for independence and for uncertainty… to strong I thought. I expected a little more pushback. I decided to ask the question in a different way, one that maybe went more to the core of our beliefs about knowledge. Many of us (me included) have been brought up to adore the idea of the book, to revere the smell of one. We have found solace in books, escape, the voices of the past… all kinds of things. But the book is a technology and it has it’s own logic to it. It’s own set of affordances. It is very easy, for instance, to see a book linearly. It starts at the beginning and moves on to the end. Sure… you can jump into the middle and read it backwards if you want, but that is you disrupting the technology.
My hope for this week was to trouble the relationship between printed, unmodifiable text and learning. The responses have been pretty divergent… I’m in no way suggesting that books haven’t had a very valuable historical place. I’m not suggesting that I don’t want to read them. I do, however, think that we have lost a fair amount of value in our cultural move towards the book-type text. Are books ‘more right’? Do they encourage the tendency to look for a ‘correct’ answer? Was socrates right when he suggested that writing would mean people wouldn’t think for themselves that they’d just ‘read it’?
I also think, and I get into this more in the ramble below about Nicholas Carr, that the book heavily privileges people of a certain ‘tradition’.
The question of the book and of its primacy is fundamental to community curriculum… hence it’s placement here in the course.
Note on the title and darker critique and rambling
Nicholas Carr wrote an article called “Is google making us stupid”, in which he critiques our ‘get answers at your fingertips’ google fuelled world. In response to Socrates’ warnings about writing, he suggests “Socrates wasn’t wrong—the new technology did often have the effects he feared—but he was shortsighted. He couldn’t foresee the many ways that writing and reading would serve to spread information, spur fresh ideas, and expand human knowledge (if not wisdom).” And I agree with him, those things did happen. But at what cost? We moved from ideas moving towards fluidity to them becoming more truth based. And now I’m suggesting that we can have both worlds, if we leave behind the trapping of the technology of paper. A return to orality need neither be us turning over our culture to mindless interaction nor a complete divestiture of books… just of a primacy of complexity over simplicity. Of conversation over printed-text.
“The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas. Deep reading, as Maryanne Wolf argues, is indistinguishable from deep thinking.”
And herein lies the rub. The book promotes independence of thought, our ‘own’ ideas and our ‘own’ inferences. It promotes possession. It reifies the things we are reading and makes them a thing that can belong to a person. There is value in this. But there is also a fundamental difference between an idea that I HAVE that I DEFEND against someone else and an ongoing conversation that develops BETWEEN people.
He quotes Richard Foreman saying the following –
“I come from a tradition of Western culture, in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and “cathedral-like” structure of the highly educated and articulate personality—a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West. [But now] I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self—evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the “instantly available.””
If we look to the life lived by Foreman and Carr’s Dartmouth/Harvard education, it doesn’t take a huge stretch for us to see that the ‘tradition’ that they are talking about doesn’t necessarily include all of us. Much like similar critiques from Sherry Turkle, the ‘we’ might not extend to the rest of ‘us’.
Who does the ‘tradition’ of the book serve?
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.” For you… I quote a book that tells of a conversation where meaning is up for negotiation.