Community as curriculum a syllabus (starts tomorrow)

Here’s the syllabus for the course i start tomorrow morning. It’s my first shot at what a community curriculum course might look like. It takes into account some of the realities (moodle and angel are the prevaling course management systems on the island) tries to bridge traditional learning and then hand the learning over to the student by the second week.

The syllabus is pretty much out of date as soon as I post it, as I’ll be tinkering with it, and adjusting it to the feedback of the students and my own experiences in the course. I would, therefore, LOVE some feedback from you folks to help refine where i can. 2 week course, 10 3 1/2 hour sessions, 27 students, educators (and, I guess, educators to be) across many different professions.

Welcome to Educational Technology and the Adult Learner.

This is a course comprised of adult learners looking to acquire and refine skills directed toward teaching future adult learners. Key to this course is the concept of networking, in the community sense rather than the technological. Each of you in this class will be a primary part of your classmates’ curriculum and learning experience. In a world where technologies change very quickly and what is new or current is always fluid, a focus on ideas about technologies and strategies for drawing on and collating resources is more sustainable than an emphasis on teaching mastery of any specific technologies.

Therefore, while a sufficient quantity of tools, training and tricks will be presented to satisfy the technophile, this course is an exploration of what the technology can facilitate, educationally and professionally. It is only through the use of new technologies that certain kinds of knowledge building and community-based learning can occur, and these are the specific literacies that are emphasized in this course. The goals of learning to approach and assess new technologies on the fly, and to utilize Web 2.0 skills to filter the mass of ‘newness’ and focus in on the applications that will most satisfy a learner/educator’s curricular goals will also be primary.

The course is broken down into two major sections; week 1 and week 2. The first week is focused on group work and research. Learners will be expected to explore three different learning platforms/environments and both evaluate the systems and produce learning materials that will work in each one. Week 2 will focus almost entirely on ‘community curriculum’, wherein learners will research and present one learning object that is relevant to their own environment, and classsmates will be required to respond and interact with those pieces.

Community Grading Rubric

Personal Learning Plan – Students must submit an eportfolio (My Work – top of website page) and will be assessed on their ability to complete a personal learning plan developed during the course. This portfolio will include reflective blog posts as well as upkeep of the (My Planning Page – top of website page) with relevant acquired literacies.

Course participation and Group Work – Students are responsible for responding to the work of other students (Reflections for review – top of website page), specifically commenting on reflective posts and commenting on their learning object plan. They are also responsible for the learning objects created by the group during the first week of the course.

Community as Curriculum project plan – Students are responsible for choosing one educational technology tool, technological method, or community plan and developing a project plan for including it in their own practice that includes a learning object as well as the reasoning for its inclusion in their own context. This will be then be presented in a ten minute presentation to the class. All materials will be released creative commons so that all students can use this material in their classes.

Community Curriculum

When dealing with a discipline where knowledge is a moving target, or where differing ideas of what is good or best practice can co-exist quite comfortably, it can be very helpful to use the community of learners itself as the curriculum.

This is especially true of the field of educational technology. What may be ‘true’ or ‘current’ in one year might be entirely outdated and left behind in the next. Every day new best practices are developed and new efforts are made to push the envelope a little further. The traditional reaction to this is to try and ‘keep current’ with all the work that is going on. This is, however, a mistake. They key is to find a community of trusted people from whom to learn, and to whom you can contribute.

This course is designed to simulate and, hopefully, emulate this form of curriculum building and model these life long learning skills. Each student will be responsible for contributing to the curriculum, and for participating in the development of other student’s work.

Day 1 – Self Assessment, goal setting and ‘helper tools’

The purpose of the first day of classes will be to take a good look at our existing practice. We need to identify ‘transparent technologies’ in the classroom and make a distinction between these and the helper technologies that we will be employing to keep track of information and work throughout our course. Goal is to get students to set objectives for themselves.


1. Introduction to the general concepts of ‘educational technology and the adult learner.’
2. Personal Learning Plan and the community rubric.
3. Personal reflective responses.

Activity – Tagging ourselves – paper edition

DIscussion – Groups – What literacies do we need?

Activity – Tagging ourselves – digital edition

Outputs – First draft of personal learning plan, groups selected, tagging explored, first reflection written.

Didactic pieces by dave. (time dependent)

tagging – connecting the pieces.

Structure – All collaborative work comes down to whether the ‘structure’ is working. Fantastic work by students and instructors can easily be lost by not taking 30 seconds to consider where your work fits into the whole.

Goal Setting

As this community of learners that makes up this course will necessarily be at different levels of experience in teaching generally and the facilitation and use of technologies in particular, it is necessary for each student to chart out their own learning path through the course. It is also the responsibility of their colleagues to help them with advice and to learn from different people’s goals.

We will each fill out a “Learning Plan” which will include a variety of goals that the individual student will be attempting to achieve during the course of this course, and, at the end, what goals they might set for themselves as they leave the course.
Helper Tools – This tool will allow us to share a variety of tools and websites while we are working our way through internet research. It will also keep a record for you of the websites that you visited during the course.

Skype – is an instant messaging and VOIP (voice over IP) tool that allows for a variety of community style interactions. It can be essential for getting information quickly.

Google – Seems silly maybe, but effective use of google can find the answer to most any question

Technorati – And when google doesn’t seem to get you the answer, try the blogs. There is a huge educational technology blogosphere… use them.

flickr – Photos are great, and a tool like flickr can bring alot to a classroom. Having students take digital snapshots of busted engines might seem strange, but its a great record keeping tool.

youtube etc… – video sites can be a great resource for training materials.

Screencasts – I think this might be the most useful teaching tool available to the educator when dealing with technology.

This Website – See some things missing, like blogging and wikis… they are included in the course website, I decided to go that way because I’m comfortable with this technology. Comfort is important.

pageflakes – Just to illustrate the possibilities outside this website, I’ve included a pageflakes page that will aggregate the course content as well.

Self Assessement

Self Assessment is a critical part of any fruitful learning experience. It is necessary to understand what tools we bring to the table before we take the time and effort necessary to develop a new set of literacies. It’s important to remember that this should not only include ‘technical literacies’ which, while important, are often not as critical as teaching skills, organizational skills, the ability to focus on a task or any other of the myriad of skills that professionals acquire and perfect over the course of their careers.

Day 2 – Community Learning

Learning to use educational technologies in a vacuum, that is, without the value of a filtering community is very difficult. What most successful educational technologists are doing is finding communities of educators with like interests, and learning from them. Choose groups for formal educational project.

Didactic pieces by dave.

Blogging – An introduction to blogging, both as a useful source of knowledge and as a way of creating effective community.

Rhizomatic Knowledge and Connectivism – How curriculum can be formed when things are changing quickly.

Day 3 – Moodle

Moodle is a content management system and more specifically a Virtual Learning Environment, a Learning Content Management System and a Course Management System. There are other names for it, but, suffice it to say, it stores your courses online. It is open source and free to download and install on any given server that you can find. Our moodle course Moodle planning.

Didactic pieces by dave.

Discussion Forums – Discussion forums (aka bulletin board system, threaded discussions) can be a very effective participation tool. Students can be given a variety of different power situations and it can be used for a variety of ‘process’ tasks.

Wikis – Wikis can be used for many different things, from schedule building to creating online resource repositories.

Setting of objectives.

1. Create an audience for the exercise

2. create exercise in moodle

Day 4 – Angel

Our Angel Sandbox

ANGEL’s web-based teaching and learning tools allow educators to Get Perspective on student performance, Take Action to interact and intervene, and See Results of student achievement.

We will be approaching Angel with much the same plan as the one we had for Moodle. The intent will be to assess the ways in which the learning management systems are similar and to discover ways in which general strategies can be applied to any learning scenario.

Didactic pieces by dave.

Reading the page – Learning to use software can often be as simple as reading the text that is on the page. Most professional software systems have that information present… too often left unread.

Doing it Live – There are a variety of reasons to have syncronous or asynchronous sections to a course. Live chat, streaming and twitter can be helpful, but sometimes giving people the time to think is essential.

Day 5 – Evaluating tools and projects (day 2 – day 4)

Throughout this week we will have evaluated and created learning resources using two content management systems as well as explored the idea of online community learning. The groups will spend this day creating learning reflections and solidifying the work that was done in the three platforms into a definitive format for the learning portfolios. 2 modules

Day 6 – Community learning and Community Curriculum 1

The first part of this day will be to reflect on the work from the week before. We will then spend considerable time preparing for incorporating the community curriculum project. The instructor will present his two last contextualized pieces, and the students will model and discuss various productive ways of engaging with the prsentation in preparation for the student presentations for the rest of the week. The first few students who are prepared to present this day should present in the second half of the class.

Day 7 Cool Tools and Community Curriculum 2

This day will start with a whirwind tour of some of the more cutting edge tools available for teaching. The Openhabitat project and the living archives project will be featured prominently as well as some potential use cases from a variety of educational contexts.

Day 8 Teacher Stories and Community Curriculum 3

Several educational professionals from different contexts will be invited to present (via skype) to the class. Jennifer Maddrell has just completed teaching a 24 hour course with transit tranining authorities for the State of New York. There are many literacies that can only be acquired through experience, the purpose of this class will be to explore and catalogue those experiences wherever possible.

Day 9 Special Issues and Community Curriculum 4

There are a variety of ‘special issues’ that will no doubt be referenced a various point throughout the course but will be covered in more detail during this class. They include internet security, creative commons licensing and adapating for learners with a disability.

Day 10 Bridging to the future and Community Curriculum 5

The first part of this class will be taken up by the remainder of the community curriculum presentation. The remainder will involve reflecting on the work that was done, a review of the planning page to examine what literacies were acquired and to develop strategies to maintain as many of those literacies as possible.

Be the Media – Being a critical friend and community participation

I sent a skype over to Beth Kanter after having read about the Be the Media project over at her blog.

The Be The Media Project is a community of people from nonprofits who are interested in learning and teaching about how social media strategies and tools can enable nonprofit organizations to create, compile, and distribute their stories and change the world.

It’s a very interesting network knowledge building project and I told her after half a heartbeat that I would love to be able to tag along for the ride in whatever way possible. She asked that I be a ‘critical friend’ for the project… see here, here and here for some ideas about what some people think this means.

I’ve managed the first part of the commitment to being a critical friend, I’ve reviewed the planning and worked my way through the ideas that are there… all the more convinced that this is a really cool project. We’ve tried this kind of thing at Edtechtalk before… i have very fond memories of the ‘live barnstorming’ session from a few years ago when we tried to create a new media curriculum, live, in a wiki. I’ve since been in any number of community builds. Some have worked very well… and others have been less successful.

Critical friend contribution – two questions.

How are you contributing to people’s feelings of ‘responsibility’ to the knowledge creation process?
The biggest thing that I work for in my social communities, and look for in community partners is their ability to invest their own sense of responsibility into the work that they are involved in. Much of our societies/y’s generally tends to sell their sense of responsibility for money or praise, or to a communal normality like common space or blood. There is a very strong sense of hierarchy in these kinds of community with parental kinship relationships, medieval manorial/manager interactions and expert/novice associations filling much of the interaction space.

A community based responsibility model can explode many of those power structures, and find people moving to take over the tasks that need to be done, and taking ownership to both change things they think need changing, log and tag those changes in case the majority thinks they need to be reversed or thrown into a parallel contruct, and make the necessary connections between one bit of knowledge/information and another to create that magic rhizome soup.

But this works best when people feel a clean responsibility to the work at hand. There is a good start there with the personal profile ‘what module would you most like to contribute to’ section. I think the transition between voluteerism there and action by the leadership team is crucial.

What are your thoughts about the lifespan of your knowledge creation?

One of the critical thoughts that went into the community as curriculum article that Beth mentioned in a blog post last week was that the when the community is the curriculum knowledge must always be emerging. It is constantly in flux and only by aggregating and assessing the community in real time, with constant new connections and renewed re-evaluation can the curriculum stay ‘current’. It is through an assessment of those ties, and those trust relationships, in addition to the ‘does it work for me now in this context’ practical evaluation that knowledge gets assessed.

For this project… how is the knowledge going to be nourished? Is there a sense in which you are thinking about some bits being ‘higher level’ maybe longer lasting bits and other bits being more transient bits. Some pieces being jumping off points and others being destinations.
In a sense I’m talking about curation… but not in the sense of antiquities… it’s an inverse curator… instead of one person with deep knowledge keeping old things old, it is many curators with wide knowledge keeping the new things juggled to the front. tags. tags. tags. tags. Man do i love tags in wikis. Particular community contributed tags. The more the community is involved in the tagging process… the more depth to the knowledge connections.

if that makes sense.

And, if you’ve made it down here… do check out the excellent wiki orientation.

Thanks very, very much for having me on this journey.

Rhizomatic Education : Community as Curriculum

Below is my paper as it appears in Innovate – Journal of Online Education. Many, many thanks to the fine folks there for all their help.

Note: this journal has since gone ‘out of print’. the originals are still available at but i have adjusted the links here so that they continue to work.

The truths of which the masses now approve are the very truths that the fighters at the outposts held to in the days of our grandfathers. We fighters at the outposts nowadays no longer approve of them; and I do not believe there is any other well-ascertained truth except this, that no community can live a healthy life if it is nourished only on such old marrowless truths.

—Henrik Ibsen, An Enemy of the People (1882/2000, IV.i)

The increasingly transitory nature of what is lauded as current or accurate in new and developing fields, as well as the pace of change in Western culture more broadly, has made it difficult for society in general and education in particular to define what counts as knowledge. The existing educational model with its expert-centered pedagogical planning and publishing cycle is too static and prescribed to accommodate the kind of fluid, transitory conception of knowledge that is necessary to understand the simplest of Web-based concepts. The ephemeral nature of the Web and the rate at which cutting-edge knowledge about it and on it becomes obsolete disrupts the painstaking process by which knowledge has traditionally been codified. Traditional curricular domains are based on long-accepted knowledge, and the "experts" in those domains are easily identified by comparing their assertions with the canon of accepted thought (Banks 1993); newer concepts, whether in technology, physics, or modern culture, are not easily compared against any canon. This lack of a center of measurement for what is "true" or "right" makes the identification of key pieces of knowledge in any of these fields a precarious task. In less-traditional curricular domains then, knowledge creators are not accurately epitomized as traditional, formal, verified experts; rather, knowledge in these areas is created by a broad collection of knowers sharing in the construction and ongoing evolution of a given field. Knowledge becomes a negotiation (Farrell 2001).

Knowledge as negotiation is not an entirely new concept in educational circles; social contructivist and connectivist pedagogies, for instance, are centered on the process of negotiation as a learning process. Neither of these theories, however, is sufficient to represent the nature of learning in the online world. There is an assumption in both theories that the learning process should happen organically but that knowledge, or what is to be learned, is still something independently verifiable with a definitive beginning and end goal determined by curriculum.

A botanical metaphor, first posited by Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus (1987), may offer a more flexible conception of knowledge for the information age: the rhizome. A rhizomatic plant has no center and no defined boundary; rather, it is made up of a number of semi-independent nodes, each of which is capable of growing and spreading on its own, bounded only by the limits of its habitat (Cormier 2008). In the rhizomatic view, knowledge can only be negotiated, and the contextual, collaborative learning experience shared by constructivist and connectivist pedagogies is a social as well as a personal knowledge-creation process with mutable goals and constantly negotiated premises. The rhizome metaphor, which represents a critical leap in coping with the loss of a canon against which to compare, judge, and value knowledge, may be particularly apt as a model for disciplines on the bleeding edge where the canon is fluid and knowledge is a moving target.

On Knowledge

A clear definition of the word "knowledge" is difficult yet key to any search for shared understanding. Indeed, as Hinchley (1998) notes, "Like other cultural assumptions, the definition of ‘knowledge’ is rarely explicitly discussed because it has been so long a part of the culture that it seems a self-evident truth to many, simply another part of the way things are" (36). However, the concept of knowledge is fluid and subject to cultural and historical forces (Exhibit 1); as Horton and Freire (1990) argue, "If the act of knowing has historicity, then today’s knowledge about something is not necessarily the same tomorrow. Knowledge is changed to the extent that reality also moves and changes. . . . It’s not something stabilized, immobilized" (101). The word itself is thought to have multiple origins, drawing from forms of "to know," "to recognize," and the Old Icelandic knà, meaning "I can." The combination of these origins suggests a relationship of knowledge, power, and agency that is grounded in both the social and the political spheres. Knowledge represents “positions from which people make sense of their worlds and their place in them, and from which they construct their concepts of agency, the possible, and their own capacities to do” (Stewart 2002, 20).

Information is the foundation of knowledge. The information in any given field consists of facts and figures, such as may be found in the technical reference manuals of learning; in a nonrhizomatic model, individual experts translate information into knowledge through the application of checks and balances involving peer review and rigorous assessment against a preexisting body of knowledge. The peers and experts are themselves vetted through a similar sanctioning process that is the purview, largely, of degree-granting institutions. This process carries the prestige of a thousand-year history, and the canon of what has traditionally been considered knowledge is grounded in this historicity as a self-referential set of comparative valuations that ensure the growth of knowledge by incremental, verified, and institutionally authorized steps. In this model, the experts are the arbiters of the canon. The expert translation of data into verified knowledge is the central process guiding traditional curriculum development.

Changing Knowledge

New communication technologies and the speeds at which they allow the dissemination of information and the conversion of information to knowledge have forced us to reexamine what constitutes knowledge; moreover, it has encouraged us to take a critical look at where it can be found and how it can be validated. The explosion of freely available sources of information has helped drive rapid expansion in the accessibility of the canon and in the range of knowledge available to learners. Online access to thousands of primary documents may be provided via the Internet for less than it costs to provide far fewer examples in a traditional textbook package (Rosenzweig 2003). In addition to this increased accessibility of primary documents, a new breed of user-generated content has emerged on collaborative Web sites and in other online venues. Web sites such as EdTechTalk, The Webcast Academy, and the Open Habitat Project collate the work of a variety of professionals to create snapshots of the knowledge of a particular field as it is seen at a given time (Cormier 2008).

Thus the foundations upon which we are working are changing as well as the speed at which new information must be integrated into those foundations. The traditional method of expert translation of information to knowledge requires time: time for expertise to be brought to bear on new information, time for peer review and validation. In the current climate, however, that delay could make the knowledge itself outdated by the time it is verified (Evans and Hayes 2005; Meile 2005). In a field like educational technology, traditional research methods combined with a standard funding and publication cycle might cause a knowledge delay of several years. In the meantime, learners are left without a canonical source of accepted knowledge, forcing a reliance on new avenues for knowledge creation. For instance, a researcher exploring social software use must rely at least in part on online knowledge repositories because current information on the terminology used in these areas is simply not available in any exhaustive or definitive form in books or peer-reviewed articles (Nichol 2007). Information is coming too fast for our traditional methods of expert verification to adapt.

In fields frequently affected by the gatekeeping practices of the traditional publishing industry, professionals in fields such as the science of spectroscopy are turning to online community learning spaces or collaborative document holders such as wikis. The wiki, or any collaboratively constructed document for that matter, solves a number of issues inherent to the expert-driven model as it has the capacity to be more current than any expert-assessed content package or traditional publication can usually be. Wikis and similar tools offer a participatory medium that can allow for communal negotiation of knowledge.

Collaborative knowledge construction is also being taken up in fields that are more traditionally coded as learning environments. In particular, social learning practices are allowing for a more discursive rhizomatic approach to knowledge discovery. Social learning is the practice of working in groups, not only to explore an established canon but also to negotiate what qualifies as knowledge. According to Brown and Adler (2008), "The most profound impact of the Internet, an impact that has yet to be fully realized, is its ability to support and expand the various aspects of social learning" (18). Several communities on the Internet offer some idea of what can be accomplished in a participatory social learning environment where knowledge is being negotiated (Exhibit 2). Social learning is particularly valuable in fields where the parameters of knowledge are constantly shifting and a canon has not yet been solidified. Educational technology is one such field. Alec Couros’s graduate-level course in educational technology offered at the University of Regina provides an ideal example of the role social learning and negotiation can play in learning (Exhibit 3). Students in Couros’s class worked from a curriculum created through their own negotiations of knowledge and formed their own personally mapped networks, thereby contributing to the rhizomatic structure in their field of study. This kind of collaborative, rhizomatic learning experience clearly represents an ideal that is difficult to replicate in all environments, but it does highlight the productive possibilities of the rhizome model (Exhibit 4).

These changes have sparked two primary responses among purveyors of traditional educational knowledge. One has been to attack these new sources as flawed as has been the case in the history department at Middlebury College (Jaschik 2007). These critiques of collaborative knowledge verification, premised on assumptions of validity rooted in the traditional strictures of academic publishing, reveal an essential misunderstanding of the place of socially constructed models in the new knowledge landscape that challenges traditional notions of canon just as the influx of content about women and ethnic minorities challenged certain canons of traditional knowledge in the 1990s (Banks 1993). An alternative response to changing knowledge foundations has been to engage in a flurry of discussion about intellectual property rights, debating the merits of various Creative Commons licenses and trying to determine the means by which content creators’ intellectual property rights can be protected even as content is distributed freely (Wiley 2007; Downes 2007; Bornfreund 2007).

Both of these responses are inadequate: the first, obviously, because it denies the legitimacy of a rhizomatic knowledge-creation process that is already overtaking traditional models and the second because it relies on the old notion of knowledge as resident in a particular individual and frozen in time, reified by publication. However, if knowledge is to be negotiated socially, then the idea of individual intellectual property must be renegotiated to reflect the process of acquisition and the output constructed by that process. What is needed is a model of knowledge acquisition that accounts for socially constructed, negotiated knowledge. In such a model, the community is not the path to understanding or accessing the curriculum; rather, the community is the curriculum.

The Rhizomatic Model of Education

In the rhizomatic model of learning, curriculum is not driven by predefined inputs from experts; it is constructed and negotiated in real time by the contributions of those engaged in the learning process. This community acts as the curriculum, spontaneously shaping, constructing, and reconstructing itself and the subject of its learning in the same way that the rhizome responds to changing environmental conditions:

The rhizome is an antigenealogy. It is a short-term memory, or antimemory. The rhizome operates by variation, expansion, conquest, capture, offshoots. Unlike the graphic arts, drawing or photography, unlike tracings, the rhizome pertains to a map that must be produced, constructed, a map that is always detachable, connectible, reversible, modifiable, and has multiple entryways and exits and its own lines of flight. (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 21)

With this model, a community can construct a model of education flexible enough for the way knowledge develops and changes today by producing a map of contextual knowledge. The living curriculum of an active community is a map that is always "detachable, connectible, reversible, modifiable, and has multiple entryways and exits":

If the world of media education is thought of as a rhizome, as a library à la Eco [in The Name of the Rose], then we need to construct our own connections through this space in order to appropriate it. However, instead of that solitary groping made by Brother William, we see as our goal the co-construction of those secret connections as a collaborative effort. (Tella 2000, 41)

In the practical example of Couros’s class, students created their own rhizomatically mapped curriculum by combining their blogs with information to which Couros pointed them and linking the combination to the particular knowledge that they discovered through discussions with key people in Couros’s professional community. In accessing Couros’s professional network, students had the opportunity to enter the community themselves and impact the shape of its curriculum as well as their own learning. The role of the instructor in all of this is to provide an introduction to an existing professional community in which students may participate—to offer not just a window, but an entry point into an existing learning community.


In a sense, the rhizomatic viewpoint returns the concept of knowledge to its earliest roots. Suggesting that a distributed negotiation of knowledge can allow a community of people to legitimize the work they are doing among themselves and for each member of the group, the rhizomatic model dispenses with the need for external validation of knowledge, either by an expert or by a constructed curriculum. Knowledge can again be judged by the old standards of "I can" and "I recognize." If a given bit of information is recognized as useful to the community or proves itself able to do something, it can be counted as knowledge. The community, then, has the power to create knowledge within a given context and leave that knowledge as a new node connected to the rest of the network.

Indeed, the members themselves will connect the node to the larger network. Most people are members of several communities—acting as core members in some, carrying more weight and engaging more extensively in the discussion, while offering more casual contributions in others, reaping knowledge from more involved members (Cormier 2007). This is the new reality. Knowledge seekers in cutting-edge fields are increasingly finding that ongoing appraisal of new developments is most effectively achieved through the participatory and negotiated experience of rhizomatic community engagement. Through involvement in multiple communities where new information is being assimilated and tested, educators can begin to apprehend the moving target that is knowledge in the modern learning environment.


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Copyright and Citation Information for this Article

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Note: This article was originally published in Innovate ( as: Cormier, D. 2008. Rhizomatic education : Community as curriculum. Innovate 4 (5). (accessed June 2, 2008). The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher, The Fischler School of Education and Human Services at Nova Southeastern University.

Rhizomatic Knowledge Communities –> Edtechtalk, Webcast Academy

bishop's weedThe idea of a rhizomatic knowledge community draws on a strong current tradition of random ideas and solid scholarship. There is a sense in which we all understand the way that these types of things come together… certainly every time i hear George Siemens talk about network theory and connectivism, I see people nodding their heads… “yes I’m a node in my community,” “yes I decide that things are good because other people that I trust say that they’re good”. These things are, in a sense, the common sense that I heard someone at my workplace today claim was not so common.

Part of my attraction to the concept of the rhizome has to do with the hours I’ve spent in the side garden fighting with Bishop’s weed(not my post… but my feelings exactly). It’s a nasty little garden weed that grows frighteningly fast wherever it’s dropped, it seems to grow and expand to fill whatever space is available, and is frighteningly difficult to control. It’s actually quite a cool ‘plant’ if it makes sense to talk about it in the singular… goutweed roots from BBCit’s a connection of intertwined roots underground, with big leafy stalks that pop up wherever it might be convenient to grab the sunlight. There’s no precise centre, no ‘central’ plant that you can kill to get rid of it all… just a network of leaves and roots that suck up nutrients where available and deliver them to the rest through whichever root/stalk is nearby. It’s an incredible survivor and very much has a mind of it’s own. Those weeds that you see there are what you’d pull out of about a cubic foot of soil… maybe less.

That, in my mind, is what were looking at with knowledge right now. We have this incredibly dense, complicated underlayer of connections too complicated to really sort out or root out. These communities are created by the introduction of the tiniest bit of root into the right kind of habitat and then are only bounded and understood by the limits of that habitat. They adapt and adjust to the habitat that they are in, popping up in the most convenient places and connecting wherever possible. Together, they make ‘a plant’ but no piece of them is essential or permanent. The loss of any given root, stalk, leaf or flower is not relevant to the whole. Love the rhizome. Lets look at a couple of examples.

Edtechtalk is alot of things… in a sense it is a website created by jeff lebow and I a little less than three years ago. It’s also a community of eleven interactive webcasts that run every week out in the ether of the internet. It’s also a running conversation in a community skype chat, it’s also a collection of over 500 podcasts on every subject related to educational technology I can imagine. Each of those shows has a slightly different take on the industry and yet everyone of those shows is bounded by a concept we call ‘worldbridgyness’… There is an openness a willingness to have everyone engaged in an open discussion on any given topic that infects each and everyone of those shows. There is a sense in which in working together and helping each other we make connections between each others ideas and the ideas on the site contain a certain similarity of flavour that would allow someone to recognize them as kin.

A person could, if they wished and were willing to follow through the various connections of tags and headlines, find out a great deal about what’s going on in educational technology. I feel pretty comfortable saying that a large part of what’s going on in the industry is available from at least one of those shows, and, in the majority of cases has been has been covered by a variety of shows. The trick is that what is considered cool or new or interesting might change by the week/month/year as people try it out, as new ideas come on board as new technologies are released out into the wild. At any given time, there is a sense that what the range of ‘should’ choices are are covered somewhere in that network of ideas that is edtechtalk… it’s amorphous and tangled and no one central idea is holding all the pieces together… but as a whole the rhizome does a pretty good job of offering me the knowledge that I need.

Webcast Academy
Webcasting, like Educational Technology, is another field that is changing at a wild pace. The truth is, the field is not a particular large one and before products like Ustream popped their head into our event horizon, we were one of the few pods of live internet streaming out there outside of the HUGE companies. The kind of webcasting that is ‘taught’ at the academy is a ‘homegrown’ webcasting. We are not so much interested in creating picture perfect NPR quality audio, but listenable interesting audio that is controlled by the people who put the show on.

The fun part about this community is that, different from edtechtalk, it was created to fit a particular purpose. Through the starting of EdTechTalk we realized that other people were going to want to webcast and we needed some place for them to go to learn. The academy is now on it’s ninth or tenth session, much of it currently guided by people who were taught in the earlier sessions. When we started, we were using some products that aren’t even on the market anymore… the best practices continue to evolve as the community expands and the ‘knowledge’ really does live in the communication between the membership on that site.

As opposed to what?

There is one critical difference now that makes this possible. The long tail. We can throw hundreds of fanatical people at any given topic given the access provided by the web. Hundreds of people from around the world can work on a given topic and, by force of work done, research combined, instincts matched and connections made, be equivalent or better than those who may have tried to acquire knowledge in a more traditional way… clearly some fields are better served by this… fields that are changing quickly, that depend on uptodate current information from which to draw the conclusions that morph into rhizomatic knowledge.

Rhizomes and Blogging – public/private groupwork and the establishment of trusted nodes.

This is some draft thinking that is behind the post from yesterday. I’ve tried to think of any number of ways to turn this into something… but, in the hopes of getting somewhere with it… i figured i would just post it for uz to look at.

Blogging, or the combination of a bit of regular content with some form of automated syndication, has become something of a common part of everyday conversation. Whether people dislike the idea, live in their blogs or have casual interactions with them, I now rarely run into people who’ve never actually heard of them. They have been, for many, the heart of their professional work, and the key repository for the work that they are doing in their given profession. We are, however, approaching a critical point (indeed if we haven’t reached it already) where the number of self-selected, personally empowered bloggers are going to start becoming overwhelmed by those who are being ‘told to blog’ for whatever reason. We are now seeing more and more blog posts that are full of members of the same class who’ve been instructed by their professor to ‘go and comment’ on a given post by a well known member of a field.

This transition from fringe community tool, to mainstream working/marketing apparatus is going to have a critical effect on the work that can and will be done with blogging. Already communities are being ‘formed’ out of whole cloth by people are trying to create a ‘community of practice’ through blogging. They are, in effect, trying to replicate the success of existing loosely tied communities in order to turn it’s power toward specific ends. There are several impediments along that road, including the unwillingness of many professionals to release their work online, the difficulties involved in scaling a tool beyond it’s original market and the nature of the tool itself. A new plan for integrating traditional blogs with walled gardens is needed, a plan that will allow a given community of practice to have a private and public face, and will, most importantly, allow a community to work towards a given goal with content that can be both rhizomatic and can last over time. There are a plethora of tools out there right now that are trying to do this… and some communities that are managing, but there are a couple of issues around it that I keep running into over and over again.

Placing myself in the discussion

I came late to blogging, admitedly, I tried a few times and have been blogging consistently from this spot (with one remarkable blip) since mid 2005. I started blogging because i had an idea (the feedbook) that I wanted to record. I had a great discussion with David White at the jiscemerge conference last week about what blogging has done for the both of us. I told a story about a colleague of mine who’d thanked me for the Feedbook post almost 2 1/2 years after it was written while i listened to others talk about how their work got crystalized inside of their blogs, how the professional things they cared about became part of the flow of their personal histories, untainted by the needs and necessities of traditional publishing.

There is something compelling about the idea of history and histories and it’s one of the things that can make blogging so interesting. There is also something compelling about the way that the information can travel. There is a kind of knowledge what’s been called ‘the wisdom of crowds’ that burgeons out of the morass of content that gets put up on the internet. The way that conversations can spread, by comments and by related blog posts from around the net creates what I’ve called elsewhere a rhizomatic web of knowledge… knowledge that can ebb, flow mutate and grow from a variety of nodes as they crop up and as the contents of those nodes grow.

What makes a blogger
There are, however, some implicit assumptions that are holding that system, or, some may argue ‘were’ holding that system together. There was a time when blogging was ‘pure’ self-selection. People began to blog because they had things to say, because they wanted other folks to hear what they had to say, because they wanted to be popular, or for any combination of a variety of reasons… but almost entirely because ‘they wanted to’. We had been told that blogging could jeopardize a career, early last year in a meeting I heard the bloggosphere described as ‘the lunatic fringe’. No longer. The blogging community, while it is still exclusive of those who don’t have the textual literacies, the computer literacies, the free time, is beginning to cross over a wider spectrum of the internet using public.

There is another critical component to the ‘democratization of blogging’ that is more difficult to speak about in North America, and that is about authoritative voice. There is a significant ‘class literacy’ involved in believing that other people are going to be willing or interested in listening to what you have to say. Class here, should be understood not as something related to ‘money’ but to an idea of the hierarchy of a culture. It is, for instance, considered part of the ‘american dream’ that any member of the united states could become the president. How many of us, in the realm of a lifetime could acquire the knowledge necessary to raise that kind of money? How does one act in public in order to have people vote for you year after year? If you disagree with this, by all means, look at the families of the 42 presidents and tell me how many came from a lower socio-economic class. Look to the Members of Parliament in Canada, to our Prime Ministers. It is no accident.

The thing that always worries me, however, is scaling. While blogging, then, has been fantastic for me, and has worked great for many of my peers, what happens when the people who are blogging are no longer self-selecting… where they feel that they ‘must’ in order to compete… when they are encouraged or forced by their bosses or their instructor to share their work/feelings online. This is happening everywhere. At that same meeting in York one of the first comments I heard was ‘we need a private place to do this work’. I don’t want my comments to be permanent, or be part of the larger flow of the internet.

These are not, I would argue, things we can or even should be teaching people. There is something painfully difficult about trying to move someone away from the way they wish to work. I would argue (without foundation at the moment) that this sense of being extroverted and wanting everyone to read your thoughts does not represent the majority of society. Nor do i think we should be trying to move them in that direction.

I do, however, really like the work that is done in a COP and would like to make the internet COPs more available to other people.

Thinking of the content as more ‘permanent’
The other issue I have is with the time dependence of a ‘blog’. I’ve read hundreds of posts over the last few years that have comments from people near the end who are apologizing for coming to the conversation ‘late’. While I do think that much of what we now call ‘knowledge’ is inherently time dependent, I’d like to think that we could make that dependence something that was decided upon by the author and by the author’s community and not by some arbitrary passage of time.

I’d like to see a ‘type’ of blogging that would wrap these ideas into a larger whole. That would allow for ‘posts’ to persist over time, that would allow for the extrovert and overt to interact freely with the private and more conservative. It is a community of practice, in effect, which both allows the bloggers to continue their work public and also allows non-bloggers to work with them.

There’s more… but it gets even more wandery from here…

Creating a Rhizomatic knowledge node on a website

This is another attempt at showing what a rhizomatic build would look like. It fits in with an article I’m currently writing and a discussion paper that is dying in the draft section of this blog. I’m looking for feedback on this, so I do hope some of you will take the five minutes to listen to it and then comment. If your comment is “I have no idea what you’re talking about” that’s fine too. I’m just trying to find a more dynamic way of talking about something that is always changing. This will also appear as a ‘resource’ on the article that should be published in June…

Link to the excellent folks at

One more thing… There are two websites I’m trying to do this on right now…

Emergent Training Communites – Slaying the Gatekeepers.

There have been some really solid objections coming around to my idea of emergent training communities (see attached paper from NMC poster session). Some people have asked me how communities can ever get started. Others have suggested that a deus ex machina is pretty much necessary in order to get any work done. The third objection, and the one that I’m going to treat with in this little blog post is “how do people get started?”

It’s all fine and dandy for people familiar with wandering around the internet as a digital nomad to slide into a virtual space, set up shop with a random group of folks, and become an emergent training community. Happens all the time. Someone sends in a comment to Edtechtalk, I meet someone at a conference or talk to someone at my university and go “right, i need to learn how to do that too, here’re my delicious links.” We work near each other, figure out what needs to be done and go our separate ways.

Imagine, if you will, overhearing a conversation in a bar in some far flung town. You respond to a question sent out to the room, sit down next to them, introduce yourself… The conversation moves on to other topics. You find that you have many things in common… beers are consumed, and by the end of the evening, you have a plan to work on world hunger. You run into people by accident, keep your options open, and then very cool things can happen. It happened to me yesterday on skype, I sent a letter to a person I know (very quickly becoming a friend of mine I believe) on a lark… kind of a ‘this is what I’m working on.’ The idea he came back with just plain blew my mind. More on this soon.

When we break down those and other social situations where everyone is contributing you find that there are a multitude of literacies at play. Some people are good coordinators,  organizers, real world experience… all these things are just as or more important than any facility with technology. What is, I ask, a vblog without the artistry to conceive of good framing? A blog without a sense of literary style? An e-learning course without a grasp of how to empower…?

Point being… most (if not all) people have something valuable to contribute to a community – emergent or otherwise. The problem is the gatekeepers. They’re sneaky little miscreants. In many cases the biggest problem is not even slaying the little buggers it’s correctly identifying them. The biggest one for me is patience. I have a VERY hard time reading through the directions before i try something. It’s the thing that keeps me from installing complicated software like Jabber. I just wanna go out there and do it.

Another problem here is that I’m an early adopter by nature and by breeding. My Father, a refinery worker and fisherman, bought a Vic20 when they first came out, he bought a Video camera (twice at the early phase) the second one was still attached to half the VHS-VCR which you had to carry around with you in a bag. My mother was my baseball and hockey coach long before word of women’s lib (for lack of a better expression) came anywhere near my small town.

Yes, an early adopter. And my goal is attract the ‘second wave’ of folks to the conversation online. To get them feeling empowered enough to contribute to these conversations without being ‘forced’ or ‘prompted’ but of their own volition. As an early adopter, i have no business deciding what the gatekeepers look like for those second wavers. Or, at least, limiting them to what they are for me. It does, according to all the things I keep babbling about, need to be decided by those folks who are actually dealing with it.

So. I’ve hatched a plan. A plan that I’m challenging other people to take a shot at. I’ve asked all the tech support people at my university to find me a group of course designers. They are going to design a gatekeeper slaying course that I want to put on our moodle at the university. (Those of you saying “hey… didn’t you just choose the model and the place for your course?” sit down and be quiet. I have enough of that voice in my own head. 🙂 ) These designers I’m looking for need to be the following:

  1. Extraordinarily competent at the work they do
  2. Have a vested interest, a need to become familiar with technology
  3. a luddite (opposed to technological progress)

My hope is to help them design a course for themselves, a course that we can then send out to the rest of my university that addresses the problems that they had learning to use Moodle, to be put into moodle. The course, as I see it (subject to change of course), would be a short, maybe 3-5 topic course that anyone could take. Simply being willing to register, sign in, and complete the material would be enough to certify your willingness to try. The key criteria is that everyone needs to take the first course by themselves. On their own time.

That’s my proposal, in short. My hope is, once they realize that they CAN go in and do it by themselves, then the rest of the community can benifit from the rest of the stuff that they know how to do. The digital can then feel the impact of the rest of their literacies.

And then, maybe, they’ll start being willing to be part of emergent training communities on their own.
Anyone up for the challenge?

Emergent Training Communities – rhizomes part deux.

One of the most interesting images you’ll see today is Josie Fraser’s Leiarth. It’s the art that tells the tale of personalization that i think of as one of the core value of what I’ve been calling ‘Emergent Training Communities’. Her separation of the different ‘kinds’ of personalization and focus on ‘dynamic personalization’ has given me the language that I needed to pound out one section of the philosophy behind the work that is being done at the webcast academy, and the work I’m doing with Virtual Research Environments.

Dynamic personalization differs from ‘adaptive personalization’ and ‘customization’ in that dynamic personalization includes “the ability to create orginal or derivative works, to collaborate, form networks and connections via the users choice of applications, locations and plaforms.” In Josie’s prefered model, the user is limited by their imagination, by their ability to netword and nodesearch. In the other two models, they are limited by the imagination of person who is designing the system, and the willingness of that person to give over power. This analogy works nicely alongside the model of education that I’m proposing for online training.

If a teacher/curriculum person/designer is responsible for the entire design of a course, and, more specfically, for setting the limits on the course, the many, the users, are going to be contained by the imagination, and limitations of that particular person. This model, which is one that has served us very well for thousands of years, depends on various truth values being in place.

  1. Relatively close connections in goals of the members of the training community
  2. Close linguistic and technological context connection trainer/trainee, trainee/trainee
  3. Clear realworld goal mechanism (degree, certification etc…)
  4. Consistent (over time) list of skill objectives generally agreed upon

The current market for online communities does correspond with these premises. If a group of people desire, as in the case of the webcastacademy, to learn the skills necessary for ‘webcasting’ it is almost impossible for us to define a single, all encompassing path for trainees to follow. To codify a single curriculum would be to take a snapshot in new, emerging discipline, and have the students settle for that picture, which, by the time they learn it, will likely be outdates. The solution traditionally taken on this issue is to slide to one of the two ends of the spectrum; to hyper-specialize, or to hyper-generalize. To create a course for grade 4 teachers in Wisconsin who want to webcast at 3 o’clock, or a single rigid step by step training program recorded in screencast for all to see and use.
Emergent Training Communities are a third option. In an ETC the trainees bring their own needs and contexts with them into the ‘design’ of the training community. By making choices, by looking for exactly what the trainee needs to accomplish their goals and posting it within the ETC, “the production, reception and relationships [of the community] are… determined by the user“. It does require a framework that allows for this degree of interactivity, but it means that we as the hosts of the website are able to work with a training community that is affecting what it means “to know how” in our field. During the course of the webcastacademy, we, who in another context would have been considered experts, have learned a great deal about this skill set, and do not (I hope) create boundaries with our own inadequacies.

Now, lets go back to the iniatial discussion on rhizomatic communities. The definition we pulled from wikipedia said rhizomes described “theory and research that allows for multiple, non-hierarchical entry and exit points in data representation and interpretation.” In a internet context, the varied directions, backgrounds and perspectives that people bring to a community require those non-hierarchical entry and exit points that can be decided upon and acted upon by the user at their own whim. There are people who have ‘taken the course’ on webcastacademy that we have never, and will never meet. There are others who’ve done it for baby shows, some for politics and many for education. They are all welcome and all can participate to the extent and in the way that they need to. The end result is, that there is a growing entity that adapts to the new technology without our control. It follows trends before they can be observed, codified and integrated in to a traditional educational model.

This natural, non-linear development of a curriculum is what an emergent training community is all about. It allows the digital nomads to wander in, set up tent for the time necessary, and move on, include or mashup as necessary.

There is a great deal more to be said about this, concerning how this is a threat to traditional business models, and how our solution of charging for ‘the personal touch’ or for the ‘community assessment’ is still in its development stages. But I do think there something here.

Rhizomes, Deleuze and collaborative models (and online ‘textbooks’) part 1.

I’ve been thinking about how to design online textbooks that are intrinsically collaborative, can be ‘authoratative’ where necessary and don’t revolve around a central, linear narrative. It’s a concept, this lack of linear narrative, that is coming up more and more. People are talking about having websites, groups, communities… all kinds of things that are not tied by spokes to a central core but can move around in relation to each other. I want to talk a bit about this, clear an idea out of my head and throw in out there for you folks to help me work on.

rhizomatic Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari used the term “rhizome” to describe theory and research that allows for multiple, non-hierarchical entry and exit points in data representation and interpretation.

I’ve spent much of my ‘free time’ lately looking at models of collaboration. Stephen put up a very cool set of distinctions between linear models of collaboration from a whiteboard he’s drawn on when he was in Australia/New Zealand. I was also looking at a new posting from Nancy White detailing the 8 competencies of online interaction (in conjunction with some fantastic photos… she has such a nice feeling for the transcendent image). The word that popped into my head was ‘rhizomatic’. That’s what’s been bugging me about the profusion of dots and lines connecting with each other to describe collaborative communities. They all look rhizomatic. First a bit of an introducation to rhizomatic structures and what both the metaphor/real have to tell us about how we all can/do communicate, and then back to texts. warning – i am not an expert at this… just a lowly philosopher wannabe.
I was looking for a nice webpage to give a clear defintion of rhizomes the other day and came across this little beauty. It was (i hope) written a while ago, but it does a nice job of detailing the distinction between arbolic and rhizomatic structures. Deleuze and Guitarri’s A Thousand Plateaus is not a book for… casual reading… but the ‘translation’ of it given here is sufficient to detail its connection to the way we talk about collaboration.

Table A.

Deleuze and Guattari’s Rhizomatic Versus Arbolic

Rhizomatic Arbolic
Non-linear Linear
Anarchic Hierarchic
Nomadic Sedentary
Smooth Striated
Deterritorialized Territorialized
Multiplicitous Unitary and binary
Minor science Major science
Heterogeneity Homogeneity

(copied from
A thousand plateaus is meant to be a rhizomatic book. This is part of the reason it is so difficult to read. Much like a first journey through the later Wittgenstein, the brain yearns for a clear description of what it is that the writer is trying to ‘prove’. What is the position being taken? How can I agree or disagree with what I being ‘told’? It is, indeed, the very thing that I teach my students is key to writing what is known as a ‘good academic paper.’ Tell ’em your gonna tell ’em, tell ’em, tell ’em you told ’em. The problem is, as wittgenstein implied through his later work, we can’t really talk about definitions ‘of the words we can’t talk about’ without pinning down things that can’t really have definitions. His classic example is meaning. Try, if you will, to give a philosophically sound definition of the word, and you will likely end up in a tautology. There is a common sense response? I agree. We do know what it means… oops. There it is again. 🙂
This is one of the ‘the polluted inheritances of the enlightenment.’ We are committed, partially due to the quest for Truth and partially because our technologies (sequential pages in books etc…), to thinking our way through building things in linear ways to answer specific problems. When things build up on their own however – see the way that a blogging community tends to do this (another fantastic set of slides from nancy) – we see a more rhizomatic structure poking through the rigid structures of linear, enlightenment style thought.So, now, how do we build a text this way. The term text, of course, is problematic. It too has a polluted inheritance that suggests something with a certain smell and structure (mmm… old book smell). This is, for those of you who don’t like neologisms, why it is so necessary to control and often change the language we use in order to get new ideas out of the garage. For the next few months I’m going to be experimenting with ways of building rhizomatic texts… I’m looking for folks to come on this journey with me, as its a little tough to create a rhizomatic community by myself. :)tech note: I had orginally hoped that wikis would be the answer to this, but am now not so sure. I’m very open to suggestion on the platform for this exploration. I’m currently leaning towards elggish drupalness… but am not permanently sold on that either.