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Networks and higher ed… so many questions

If you poke around long enough in large change projects in higher education right now, you’ll find a technology that someone is trying to deal with. Whether it’s the needs of a CRM (customer relations management) system, the feedback from a learning analytics project, a social media mental health campaign… whatever. While technology is often complicated to develop/configure and it often does not solve the problem it was acquired for, that’s only the start of it. These technologies are really proxies for human activity, wether they are connective tech or simply a way of story things people said or did, they are still ‘activities’ that we are doing with our students. They are ethical situations, they need to impact policy etc…

In the last few years, as I’ve started to work in student preparation, recruitment, engagement and retention, I’ve been seeing new challenges. How do we incorporate health and wellness into an online program? What are the ethical implications of opening up student’s work to the world? How much learning analytics is too much analytics? How do we encourage systemic change? How much change can we even encourage inside higher ed and still call it higher ed? How does it relate to the way that people work?

And so I got a call from George Siemens talking about the DLRN conference. And it seems that I’m not alone in wanting to ask and talk about these questions. I’m currently on a planning committee with some very interesting folks

Kate Bowles, University of Wollongong
Dave Cormier, University of Prince Edward Island
Matt Crosslin, University of Texas at Arlington
Justin T. Dellinger, University of Texas at Arlington
Kristen Eshleman, Davidson College
George Siemens, University of Texas at Arlington
Bonnie Stewart, University of Prince Edward Island
Candace Thille, Stanford University

Our conference is hoping to explore the most pressing uncertainties and most promising applications of digital networks for learning and the academy through five lenses for submissions: The Ethics of collaboration, Individualized learning, Systemic impacts, Innovation and work and Sociocultural Implications.

If you’re wondering about these things too… here’s the call for proposals

A practical guide to Rhizo15

Welcome Aboard
Rhizomatic learning is one story for how we can think about learning and teaching in a complex world.

Think of this course as a camp you can visit for six weeks. The camp has a theme ‘a practical view’ of rhizomatic learning. That means that this year we’re hoping to talk about how Rhizomatic Learning can and does happen in a classroom, in a knitting circle or on the front stoop.

This is the second year of camp. We have some returnees from last year. Some of them have #rhizo14 Tshirts on (actually, that’s not a metaphor, some of them really do have #rhizo14 tshirts). They are not the boss of you. What we talk about at camp is really up to you. You get to choose what you think and work about. The community (you guys, hopefully) is the curriculum. This is a new year.

Why am I doing this?
I’ve been working with the idea of rhizomatic learning for close to 10 years. I get the feeling that learning is a very messy place, and the story of the rhizome is one that i have found super useful in explaining things i’ve seen happen in learning spaces. This is my research lab, in a sense, and ya’ll are researching along with me.

What will happen in this course?
Great question. I’m not sure yet. I know that I will post the first challenge on April 15th. I’ll post it in the newsletter, I’ll tweet it to #rhizo15, I’ll post it in the facebook group and I’ll post it on the course blog.

I should take this course if…?
You’re interested in participating in a discussion about learning. I can’t really say much more than that. We’re going to take a look at some of the practical implications of saying that learning is messy and uncertain. It can be confusing. It can, sometimes, be upsetting. It’s super fun though, and it’s a great way to push your thinking with the ideas of folks from around the world.

Tweet #rhizo15 right now. Say hi. See what happens.

Course blog
http://rhizomatic.net is the closest thing we’ll have to a home base. You can go there and see what’s going on a given week, ask questions, or make comments on those posts. Frankly, you never need to actually go there, if you don’t like, but if you want an overview, that’s the closest you’re going to get. I’ll also post links to projects accompanying #rhizo15 that people have asked me to put up there.

Tracking Rhizo15 should be a good page too…

Twitter
Twitter is my chat platform of preference. Put your stuff up there, put the #rhizo15 hashtag on it, and there’s a fair chance that someone else will get back to you. Be persistent, if you don’t hear the first time, post again. Try posting at a different time of day. Don’t give up. Respond to others. Make connections. This course is, maybe fundamentally, about making connections.

Facebook
I have so many mixed feelings about Facebook… but i do know that it totally works for some people. The course group for #rhizo15 is at https://www.facebook.com/groups/1516869091918393/

A LAST NOTE
One of the central narratives of rhizomatic learning is the idea that learning is at once a deeply personal, individual process and something that only happens in collaboration with others. We are all different, but we need each other.

By all means, push people’s ideas… please do not push people.

Connect with everyone. Try and understand what they are saying and why they are saying it. And, on the other side, understand that when people push your ideas, they aren’t pushing you. We do not need to agree with each other, to learn from each other.

NOTE: @sensor63 did a great job of challenging this post http://tachesdesens.blogspot.fr/2015/04/no-pushing-please.html

Join the rhizo15 mailing list

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“Uncertainty, in the presence of vivid hopes and fears, is painful, but must be endured if we wish to live without the support of comforting fairy tales. It is not good either to forget the questions that philosophy asks, or to persuade ourselves that we have found indubitable answers to them. To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it.” Bertrand Russell – History of Western Philosophy. retrieved from http://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/1167354-history-of-western-philosophy-and-its-connection-with-political-and-so

Looking back at ‘postdigital’ 6 years later

In June 2009 the ‘52group’ gathered from across the Higher Education sector to consider the confluence of education and the digital. The result was a position paper entitled ‘Preparing for the postdigital era’. At the time the paper was largely met with a mixture of scepticism and confusion, a common response being “The digital hasn’t been superseded?”. Despite this, over the intervening years the term has slowly gained traction in educational contexts.

To what extent our original paper influenced the recent proliferation of the term is of course not clear but we see the concept being employed in various locations including last year’s SEDA conference: “Opportunities and challenges for academic development in a post-digital age” and a forthcoming conference hosted by Greenwich university: “Flipping the Institution: Higher Education in the Post Digital Age”. There are also numerous examples of the term casually making its way into strategic rhetoric in and around our institutions.

To mark the shift from Digital to Post-digital thinking members of the original ‘52group’ have each revisited the term to consider its definition and relevance five years on. This is my perspective:

Two weeks ago I tried to convince Oscar (my eight year old son) that he wanted to learn to code. I explained to him that it would allow him to do really cool things, like design his own stuff on a website, or create a database for his coin collection. I didn’t get a ton of feedback from that discussion, I think the floor immediately TURNED TO LAVA. I’m not sure why that happens in my house on a pretty much daily basis. Anyway… a week or so later, in the midst of me trying to get some shovelling done, Oscar looks at me and says “I’m really looking forward to learning to code with you”. Cool right? I thought it was at first…

What I thought i was selling to my son was the ability to be able to do crazy things on the internet. Of course… he’s had a blog since he was four. We’ve done vines, instructional videos, and, a while ago, podcasts. He’s a performer my son… and he not only wants to post things, he wants to know that people have seen them. He wants to say “cool huh?” to everyone who’s seen what he’s posted. Coding was a con job to try and get me to stop shovelling snow out of the driveway and come play with him. This the brother of Posey (six) who has only just come to terms with the fact that the LED screen on the telephone does not contain a moving picture of her GrandMaman.

14 years ago, Prensky suggested that we may have a generation of digital natives. That these kids had a relationship to technology, a facility for it, that we digital immigrants couldn’t understand. He may have been right, i think, in a particular way. (EDIT for @donnalanclos: not the ‘facility’ part) When i look at my children and i see them look at what i think of as a ‘digital technology’ they don’t make a distinction. They don’t care if they are talking to GrandPapa on Skype or on the phone… they are talking to GrandPapa. My kids don’t care if they are performing on the stage or on video, they are performing. Sure… they are different, but they aren’t different for ‘digital’ reasons, they are different for human reasons. They can type to Grandpapa over Skype (actually, mostly by sending inappropriate emoticons) which they can’t do on the phone so the phone isn’t as funny. They feel the audience more directly when they are acting on the Confederation Centre stage, but not for as long as they do when they post a video.

Postdigital. That’s what my kids are. It’s a funny expression borrowed from the art world that six of us tried to use to describe how we saw the need to say ‘digital’ disappearing. It mirrors its philosophical mentor ‘postmodern’ in the sense that to be ‘post’ digital is also to deny that the digital should have ever been a foundation that we built on. The digital technologies that were once so complicated to use on the internet have become mostly transparent (though not, importantly, socio-economically transparent). There was an interim space where saying digital might have been necessary… as the weight of effort to do the simplest connecting online was huge. The computer, for better and for worse, if fading into invisibility next to the board marker and the tv screen.

The ability to connect to more people faster certainly changes things, but the change has already happened.

Further reflections on the Post-digital from members of the 52group:

Mark Childs: http://markchilds.org/2015/02/04/post-digitalism-an-evolutionary-perspective/
Richard Hall: http://www.richard-hall.org/2015/02/06/reflections-on-the-post-digital
Lawrie Phipps: http://lawrie.jiscinvolve.org/wp/2015/02/04/pd_review/
David White: http://daveowhite.com/post-digital-revisited/

Trying to solve for the problem of education in 2015

In the last two blog posts i’ve been talking about something I’ve alternately called ‘caring about learning’ and ‘student engagement’. I have said a variety of irritating things about the education system over the years – “i don’t believe in content” – being my favourite, but those conversations only progress when people already agree with me, or if i’m in a class where students believe they have to at least hear me out. I’m looking to take the next step in that process. I want to convince people that engagement is more important than content. Along the way you might say i’m trying to answer the question “what problem does Rhizomatic learning solve?”

a note: Education vs. Learning
For the purposes of reading this blog, the word ‘education’ should be seen in the sense of a set of social systems developed to encouraged learning at scale. ‘Learning’ is that mysterious thing that all living things seem to do in adapting to their environment.

The problem of education in 1798
In the late 18th century Johann Pestalozzi had one of the boldest ideas an educator ever had… he decided he wanted to teach an entire country to read. He was already a well known educator who, with various levels of success, had run some very compelling schools in Switzerland. What he noticed, however, was that his schools weren’t having much of an influence on the poor – his real concern. He started thinking about how one might go about creating an approach to education that would allow him to teach all of Switzerland at the same time. Given the limited number of trained teachers, he decided we needed a book that could do the teaching. Here’s what he had to say about it…

I believe it is not possible for common popular instruction to advance a step, so long as formulas of instruction are not found which make the teacher… merely the mechanical tool of a method
Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi – “How Gertrude Teaches Her Children”, p. 41, 1801.

and further

I assert definitely, that a school-book is only good when an uninstructed schoolmaster can use it at need, [almost as well as an instructed and talented one] ibid

So. In order to turn his really great learning experiences into ‘common popular instruction’ we need to make teachers ‘the mechanical tool of the method’.

The problem of education in 1870
As I’ve discussed in my previous post, the 1870 elementary education act in the UK is a great historical lens through which we can look at the foundations of ‘modern’ schooling. They had a different kind of problem than our friend Johann, they were hoping to better prepare the poor, yes, but specifically to help power the economy. They wanted more people to have the basic literacies necessary to work in the factories. With education reform we see the establishment of 1000s of schools all over England and, eventually, mandatory attendance.

In the system we have standards levels that are used to judge the level of ability of a given pupil – can they read? – can they write? – can they do math? Note that none of these require the student to ‘understand’ anything. That’s not really needed. There are basic literacies that are required and, once achieved, they needn’t learn anything further. The same learning situation, i might add, that they’ll find in the factory.

I should add, that only through achieving a certain standard could student be allowed to leave school (early) and enter the workforce. They were assessed according to a government mandated standard of ‘what they would need to function in the workforce.’ That’s a pretty strong incentive for getting the grade.

And so…
In our first two examples, we have first a standardized method, then standardized content as solutions to specific problems. The method allowed us to account for a shortage of trained teachers, the second allowed us to scale the specific abilities that government required students to have so they could work in a very specific environment. In both cases ‘the common people’ needed a basic set of literacies their parents did not have. They changed how a society looked at learning knowing why they needed to make this change. They wanted or needed large portions of the population to be able to perform basic tasks.

We simply cannot ignore the (social) class implications of these two steps. There were grave concerns in 1870 that the ‘lower classes’ would become too educated and expect to be treated better. There was a specific intent in Pestalozzi case to better the plight of the poorer people. The implications of the public school system being designed as a control mechanism for the ‘lower classes’ is important to remember when we think about how they are built and are run.

The problem of education in 2015
It is generally accepted that we need to be raising a generation of life-long learners who are able to adapt to change as it comes to them. The world is complex. I’ve been in dozens of different kinds of conversation where people will say things like “we are preparing students for jobs that don’t exist yet”. I don’t entirely believe this, but things do seem to have a habit of changing alot lately. This is not a problem solved by the system we inherited. The system we inherited is designed to teach a finite number of skills to people who can prove they have learned those skills. One set of skills. The end. How, then, do we have to change our conception of ‘education’ in order to account for this?

Truth is we have any number of ‘learning theories’ that account for this. Constructivism (which i tend to think of as the umbrella term for ‘student first over teacher first’) has been preaching a variety of solutions to this for a 100 years. Heutagogy (one of the most recent), for instance, speaks to an approach “in which knowing how to learn will be a fundamental skill“. We need a new narrative for public education that we can talk about across the social spectrum… that makes sense to folks, and that addresses our actual purpose for education. A way to talk about constructivism is all it’s forms that speaks to what we are trying to do as a society, leaving room for everyone to play.

I”ve been testing out the first principle of ‘caring about learning’ being more important to ‘content’ and it seems to resonate. The idea that it’s more important that a student is ‘engaged’ in the learning process than if they can ‘recall’ the learning outcomes. But what are the objectives that attach to that goal? How do we make a minister of education happy about that idea? How do we convince parents that the way a kid feels about learning is more important than what they learned? How would we teach learning? Oh my gosh… how would we assess it? How, inevitably, do we bureaucratize it?

The story of the rhizome
The rhizome has been the story i have used, frankly without thinking about it, to address this issue. There are lots of other ways to talk about it – a complex problem does not get solved by one solution. In a rhizomatic approach (super short version) each participant is responsible for creating their own map within a particular learning context. The journey never ‘starts’ and hopefully never ends. There is no beginning, no first step. Who you are will prescribe where you start and then you grow and reach out given your needs, happenstance, and the people in your context. That context, in my view, is a collection of people. Those people may be paying participants in a course, they may be people who wrote things, it could be people known to the facilitator. The curriculum of the course is the community of people pulled together by the facilitator and all those others that join, are contacted or interacted with. The interwebs… you know.

I have gotten as far as writing a syllabus for a face 2 face, institutional course that I think of as rhizomatic. I’ve designed a first version of an open online course that i think of as rhizomatic. We generally start out very confused, I ask questions like “well… how am i supposed to know what you want to learn, i don’t even know you yet” a lot. The ‘contract’ for learning is very different for some, particularly when i teach teachers, who like for me to have clear objectives for them to achieve. I don’t have them. I do have broad goals… that sets the context. Success, however, is individual.

The point here is that i attempt to replace the ‘certainty of the prepared classroom’ with the ‘uncertainty of knowing’. In doing so I’m hoping to encourage students to engage in the learning process in their own right. I want them to make connections that make sense to them, so that when the course is over, they will simply keep making connections with the communities of knowing they have met during the class. The community is both the place where they learn from other people, but, more importantly, learning how to be in the community is a big part of the curriculum. Customs, mores, common perspectives, taboos… that sort of thing.

The teacher, in the approach, is part jester, part resource, part cheerleader and part community organizer. You know… a teacher :). Neither a mechanical tool of a method nor an enforcer of content. More importantly, the teacher IS the rigour. It’s not some arbitrary memory check.

How does this help address the problem?

That’s really what i’m wondering about. I have had a not insignificant number of people I’ve talked to in the last 6 or 7 years say things like “this is exactly the way i think about education…” and they do it this way or can’t or are afraid to or are doing it better. I want to be able to do a better job of explaining how rhizomatic education is possible. How would it roll out to a university? A school district? Does it need to be wholesale? Can it work in pieces? Are models like Genius Hour examples of this…? I have alot of questions.

My other questions for this year

  1. Does a rhizomatic approach encourage engagement?
  2. Can it do so without a focus on content?
  3. Does it encourage lifelong learning?
  4. More other things i will think about, this blog post is already too long

AND

If “school is the advertising agency which makes you believe that you need the society as it is” (Illich) what society are we selling?

Two example of ways we need to change the discussion if we’re going to change education along with learning
Example 1 – Wellbeing
One move would be to ask if we want education to lead to wellbeing.
The excellent response to this discussion from Michael Feldstein. Some fun data from a Gallop Poll ” asks the question, “What kind of education is more likely to promote wellbeing?”

What factors did matter? What moved the needle? Odds of thriving in all five areas of Gallup’s wellbeing index were

1.7 times higher if “I had a mentor who encouraged me to pursue my goals and dreams”
1.5 times higher if “I had at least one professor at [College] who made me excited about learning”
1.7 times higher if “My professors at [College] cared about me as a person”
1.5 times higher if “I had an internship or job that allowed me to apply what I was learning in the classroom”
1.1 times higher if “I worked on a project that took a semester or more to complete”
1.4 times higher if “I was extremely active in extracurricular activities and organizations while attending [College]”

Example 2 – What did you learn at school today?
TV has taught me that good parents ask this question to their kids everyday when they come home. It’s an interesting one to think about it. It’s possible, i suppose, that my child could look at me and say

“i learned that when i imagine there’s only one answer to a question, i tend to get trapped into seeing solutions as simple rather than complex and start fitting evidence into my conclusion without challenging it”.

And that’d be great. But it’s not the first sense in which I, at least, have have generally used that question. I’m expecting a piece of content, a historical fact or something else easily traded as an answer to the question. For this to work we’d need to be asking our kids new questions…

There’s something wrong in education – a response to Stephen Downes

Last week I wrote a post called “learning’s first principle“. In it I tried to explain a thread that I’ve been seeing as the fundamental issue facing my colleagues and I (and by extension, probably some other people) in education. If you are like me and too lazy to click links to read context pieces :) the excellent David Wiley posted a comment in the comments summing up one of the main issues

“Why bother learning how to use all these ‘effective instructional strategies’ when people aren’t even going to engage with them?” – David Wiley from 1998

.

Or, put another way, if students don’t care about learning… nothing else matters. Stephen Downes responded on OLDAILY

My take is different. I see education less as an enterprise in making people do what they don’t want to do, and more as one of helping people do what they want to do. And there’s something wrong with the selection mechanism when a student can pay and spend four years at a university and still not be engaged in learning.

It sort of sets things up nicely to be between Wiley the ‘Iterating towards openness’ guy (read: pragmatic approach to reform) and Mr. burn the schools down himself, Stephen Downes. I vacillate between these two positions… i find myself choosing many pragmatic options in my efforts to understand the administration of education at the same time that i work on what is seen by many as a fairly radical approach to learning. This time, I’m on Wiley’s side – Let’s breakdown Stephen’s comment.

note: Stephen has written 5-6 of these responses about education on the internet each day for the past 137 years, it’s a tad unfair for me to pick apart his sentences like this… but i’m going to do it anyway.

Education vs. learning
Stephen is referring to ‘education’ and not to ‘learning’. That word usually indicates that we are talking about the institutions that support learning inside of our culture rather than the broader ‘learning’ that happens as part of being alive. Our education system is always a victim of the need for bureaucratization. It’s terrible… but it’s a necessary evil. Getting everyone on board, getting something funded, getting training rolled out and getting a program started inevitably falls pray to ‘standardization’. Education is much harder than learning. Learning reform is something you can do in your basement… it’s something I explore with my colleagues in projects like #rhizo15. Education reform involves getting governments, teachers and parents to change what they all think learning is for. Oof.

There’s something wrong
I totally agree with Stephen here. There’s definitely something wrong if people are leaving their first degree and are not engaged in learning. We certainly need to address it. We totally want to be in the business of helping people do what they want to do. Try it. No really. Just try it. Sit down with a child and help them do what they want to do. And i don’t mean “hey this child has shown up with a random project they are totally passionate about and are asking me a question” I mean “stop them at a random time, say 8:25am, and just start helping them.” You will get blank stares. You’ll get resistance. You’ll get students who will say anything you want if it means you will go away/give them a grade. You will not enjoy this process. They will also not enjoy it.

There is something wrong. The problem is that we have built an education system with checks and balances, trying to make it accountable and progressive (in some cases), but we are building it without knowing why. We have not built an education system that encourages people to be engaged. The system is not designed to do it. It’s designed to get people to a ‘standard of knowing.’ Knowing a thing, in the sense of being able to repeat it back or demonstrate it, has no direct relationship to ‘engagement’. There are certainly some teachers that create spaces where engagement occurs, but they are swimming upstream, constantly battling the dreaded assessment and the need to cover the curriculum. The need to guarantee knowing.

Selection mechanism
It’s not clear from Stephen’s response whether he’s talking about the selection mechanism in the sense of ‘picking people to teach’ or ‘students picking things to study’ but both are minefields of complexity. I’m going to assume he’s talking about the students picking… because the other has not been my day job for the last little while. I spent the last 18 months working on our recruitment/transitions/orientation/first year with colleagues at UPEI, and, by extension, looking at approaches from around the world. The vast majority of students coming to most universities are not prepared to be engaged in learning. It’s that simple. It crosses socio-economic barriers. It crosses cultural differences. We are not bringing up a generation of children who are ENGAGED in learning by default. That engagement is an exception. I must admit… i don’t think we ever have… but then, i don’t think we’ve ever tried.

The ‘purpose’ of education
The Elementary Education Act (1870 UK) is a fascinating window on what our education system is for. With it’s standards system gripped in our hand we can look right into the jaws of the lion and say the purpose of education is “to make sure these kids can work in factories”. Here is Standard IV swiped from wikipedia and, apparently, enough to qualify as educated in Birmingham in the late 19th century:

STANDARD IV
Reading – A few lines of poetry or prose, at the choice of the inspector.
Writing – A sentence slowly dictated once, by a few words at a time, from a reading book, such as is used in the first class of the school.
Arithmetic – Compound rules (common weights and measures).

This, my friends, is our polluted inheritance. The schools were built so that we could give people the precise skills they needed in order to be able to be effective engines in our economies. You might go a little further and suggest that the ‘at the whim of the inspector’ business suggested a more subtle ‘brainwash the citizens into believing that random inspectors know what’s good for them’ but i refuse to give anyone that much credit.

You’ll note the lack of a line in there that speaks to ‘student engagement’ in anything. Measurement of the type the inspector wants, where someone can show up on a specific day and judge someone, cannot be used to measure engagement.

A new purpose for education – keep caring/start caring
What I was looking for in that post was a shared premise that i could use in any education reform (or entrenchment… not all current ideas are bad ones) conversation. I’m suggesting that we need to replace the measurable ‘content’ for the non-counting noun ‘caring’. Give me a kid who’s forgotten 95% of the content they were measured in during K-12 and I will match that with almost every adult i know. Give me a kid who cares about learning… well… then i can help them do just about anything. We simply don’t need all that content, and even if we do need it, we don’t have it anyway. I’m suggesting that we need to replace that awful STANDARD IV, quite consciously, with a first principal that asks ‘will this help people care or keep them caring’. These don’t need to be easy tasks… sometimes very hard, annoying work is the best way to support caring, it just has to connect to a meaningful goal.

We currently have ‘this student has once proved they knew tons of stuff’ as our baseline for ‘having an education’. That’s dumb.

My response to Stephen
Sorry for putting so much meaning into something you wrote in 30 seconds while providing the best educational service on the internet. What I’m trying to do is address the serious problem of people not being engaged in the education system. I, like you, think that radical reform is necessary. The vast majority of people in our culture have been trained to be passive learners. (in over 10000 hours of class time, they are ‘expert’ passive learners) In order to support an engaged student we need to change our core assumptions about what education is for. I agree with you when you said in yesterdays newsletter that “the contents are not intended to be memorized by students, they are intended to be used by students as ‘words’ in a ‘conversation'” The ‘content’ is just other people talking, it just expands the conversation. The community is the curriculum.

I’m not sure your take is different. We’re working on the same thing. The ‘first principle’ is a conversation opener that has been successful, for me, at creating a starting point, of establishing common ground, to help foster change from that passive system that measures content in people’s heads (and not terribly effectively) to one that takes a fundamental interest in engagement. People are going to need to care about learning if any of the cool stuff is going to happen.

Learning’s first principle – the most important thing i learned this year

I have spent most of my year straddled between different ideas of what it means to learn. I’ve worked with k-12 educators, with the province here in PEI, with science educators and crazy postmodern theorists. I want to talk about a thread that I’m seeing through all of my work at the moment. I see it in the (M)OOC work I’ve done for years, I’ve seen it in the ‘transition to university’ stuff I’ve been doing since 2007, and I hear it from educators chatting in bars, over christmas cakes, and at conferences. I’ve come to think of it as the ‘first principle’.

First inkling of the first principle
Credit where it’s due. As with every idea I ever write about here (and i think we’re like 200 blog posts in) it started with a conversation with smart people. In this case it was Anne Bartlett, someone who’s depth of understanding of the student experience I have learned from many times over the years. We were looking over a model of student engagement, and just kind of looked at each other and said “well… none of this matters if they don’t give a shit”.

and that’s my first principle, that i keep seeing all the time… “do they care?”.

Boring… we all know that dave
Sure. We all know that student engagement is important. It’s the connection to the framework that made all the difference for me. When you ask the ‘care->don’t care’ question first all the time, it seems to have some interesting impacts on a discussion. I was talking to a passionate educator over cake last night and she asked me how i felt about students being automatically promoted regardless of their academic success (sometimes known as social promotion). Her concern was that the students were starting to realize that grades didn’t matter anymore… that they were going to pass regardless. She cares about student success, and was concerned that without grades that had meaning, it would be difficult to get students to do their work. Then she made the mistake of asking me my opinion :). I applied my new first principle for learning

Student separate into two categories… those that care and those that don’t care.

Our job, as educators, is to convince students who don’t care to start caring, and to encourage those who currently care, to continue caring.

All kinds of pedagogy happens after this… but it doesn’t happen until this happens.

So. In this case, we’re trying to make students move from the ‘not care’ category to the ‘care’ category by threatening to not allow them to stay with their friends. Grades serve a number of ‘not care to care’ purposes in our system. Your parents may get mad, so you should care. You’ll be embarrassed in front of your friends so you should care. In none of these cases are you caring about ‘learning’ but rather caring about things you, apparently, already care about. We take the ‘caring about learning’ part as a lost cause.

The problem with threatening people is that in order for it to continue to work, you have to continue to threaten them (well… there are other problems, but this is the relevant one for this discussion). And, as has happened, students no longer care about grades, or their parents believe their low grades are the fault of the teacher, then the whole system falls apart. You can only threaten people with things they care about.

I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t hold kids accountable, but if we’re trying to encourage people to care about their work, about their world, is it practical to have it only work when someone is threatening them? Even if you are the most cynical personal imaginable, wouldn’t you like people to be able to do things when you aren’t actually threatening them? Are we promoting a ‘creative/knowledge economy’ by doing this? Are we building democracy? Unless you are a fascist (and i really mean that, unless you want a world where a couple of people tell everyone exactly what to do) you can’t really want the world to be this way.

Why this matters to me
The first principle matters most to me because it speaks across different disciplines. I have yet to talk to anyone, instructivist or constructivist, parent, student or teacher who doesn’t prefer learners who care over those that don’t. It directly addresses the various threats, physical or otherwise, that we have built into the education system. It allows us a place to start to engage in a conversation about why we care about education. Why we educate. Once we jointly answer questions like “why would people care about this” and “how does this support people starting to care about this for the first time” and “will this stop people who care now from caring”, we have a place to work from.

I’m in this business because i think i might be able to help, here and there, with trying to build a culture of thinkers. If our education system is designed to have people take on ideas because they are forced to, this only further supports those people who want to force people to believe things that serve their own particular agenda. It builds a culture of power accepters. It supports passivity.

I don’t believe it’s possible to design an educational experience that works for both those that care and those that don’t. Do we want to cast aside those that refuse to care? Do we only work with those that want to learn? How do we encourage people to care? If our learning experiences aren’t about making people care… what is it about?

Rhizomatic Learning – A Big Forking Course

The notion of rhizomatic learning has been good to me. As Ryan Tracy has recently mentioned, my thoughts about it have moved over the last eight years, but i still find that the story isn’t finished for me… and it is this sense of not being finished, of never being whole, of the learning process being forever uncertain that i find fascinating. The notion of the rhizome is gathering interest, just today i saw links to medical education people interested in knowledge and a classroom teacher talking about freeing their work.

Rhizomatic Learning
A cross section of posts on the internet will do better work than i can in a few words to give you a sense of what I mean by this expression. It is, in a sense, about celebrating uncertainty in learning. It’s about making content people. it’s about seeing curriculum look more like membership. Here’s a short description for folks who haven’t seen it before. (subject to change)

Rhizo14
Earlier this year I scheduled a 6 week course that turned into a community. It was a course scheduled around 6 questions, four of which were changed during the course itself. It found its strife and its curriculum from the community of folks who took time to make those questions and the people who moved around it. Those six challenges will still circulate in the background of this year’s course.

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-?)

But I, at least, am moving to the next conversation.

One of the challenges of rhizo14 was that with me being the originator of the course, people still needed permission from me to go ahead and control some of the spaces of discussion. It also means that in describing how rhizomatic learning can be cultivated, we’ve only got my model to work with. I don’t suggest that everyone does stuff my way. We need more and more interesting models.

Enter P2PU
I love those guys. Last year’s course was hosted on P2PU. This year when i went back to see what the course could look like, I found a new project being launched – course in a box. It’s a course replication engine. Follow the steps… and you’ve got your own copy of the course… like really got it. It’s yours. It’s automagically hosted with a company called github. No cost. Good licensing. And a few pretty funky technologies to do interactive stuff online. (i’ll leave tech stuff to a further post). You are now responsible for deciding who can do what in the course you have.

Fork the course
So, in extended discussion with the excellent Vanessa Gennarelli (who had serious influence on the design of rhizo14) it occurred that this year’s course could use some of this technology to give people responsibility for their own work. Don’t like how the course is being fun FORK THE COURSE. Want to try a different way of talking about week three FORK THE COURSE. We could have any number of people who are running separate installations of the course. Everyone could move to a new one. I have this crazy dream that we could end the course with 5, 20 100 courses all running with different people, with different ideas of how to talk about rhizomatic learning.

What could be better?

So rhizo15
So rhizo14 already exists. The community that developed out of that course still works together and is one that I feel very privileged to be part of. We are starting over again. In late February/March of 2015 we’ll be starting a new discussion. I can’t say for sure how that will go, but i can say that the burning question that’s in my mind right now is ‘how can we talk about successes in rhizomatic learning?’ What happens when everyone else starts to play along? Who knows… Let the games begin.

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You know what you need… you need a learning contract.

I’ve been away from my dearly beloved blog for the past few months working on twinning recruitment and transitions at my university… more on this another day. Suffice it to say that I opened my big mouth and someone said “oh yeah, that’s a good idea, why don’t you do that” and now i’m trying to do it.

In the midst of a discussion with a colleague here at the university about preparing first-year students for success the topic turned to teaching. She was describing her business class. She teaches a scenario based class where students are expected to learn from each other… both in the way they represent content but, more importantly, in the way that they react and interact. Her story epitomizes the challenges and opportunities of teaching openly – of embracing the uncertainty of learning.

The emptiness of content
– We talked about how it didn’t make sense to have a textbook for this course and how she couldn’t simply ‘tell them what to do’ because what she was teaching them was complex.

In an excellent conversation with Frances Bell a few weeks ago she reminded me that reifications are very useful. Our use of language is at least partially a process of taking things that are complex “a feeling of love for someone” and finding a single word that represents it ‘love’. What I might mean by that word in the context of a hammock that I want to nap in or related to my 5 year old daughter is entirely hidden in the context. This is true of most things. When we teach we are often tempted to reach a little further and ‘define’ those words as if they mean ‘one thing’. Think of the evil ‘blended learning’ as a useful example, and imagine how many separate and often contradictory definitions of it you’ve heard. Think of how we use the word ‘open’ or, worse, read my 3000 word blog post on the subject.

Sometimes it’s very, very useful to think of content in its reified sense. Imagine you are learning introductory anatomy… you simply need to know what some things are called in order to be able to participate in the broader discussion. The same is true for philosophy, if you can’t wrap your mind around ‘a posteriori’ or ‘epistemology’ you aren’t going to understand much of what’s going on. But that’s the tables and chairs of learning… the place settings. There’s no real food there. This is not, in any way i would support, knowing.

It’s a useful shorthand to get you started.

Cognitive dissonance
– We talked about how her course reflected her own experience as a professional

But this shorthand is often what faculty understand as learning. They want to introduce students to concepts from a given field and then have those students prove that they have acquired them. Knowing, then, is the ability to exhibit content the same way for each student.

And this approach is antithetical to what they have learned from their life experience. Any good manager knows that, outside of an assembly line, you want people working to their strengths. Coaches know this. Parents know this. Friends know this. If we’re going on a road trip together, I am not the person that you give the to do list to. No amount of teaching is going to make me the to do list guy.

We all come from different contexts, with different strengths and aspirations, and too often the sameness of the content we are expected to ‘exhibit’ in the classroom tries to turn learning into an assembly line. It’s possible that this was a necessary evil when we were tied to paper books, but that time (given digital access) has simply passed.

Myth of Assessment
– We talked about how assessment tends to control parts of the course, even where she tries to resist it.

A big chunk of the reason we are tied to this empty content is the need for formalized summative assessment. At its best, summative assessment represents desire to be fair to the students, to deal with them all equally, to make the system measurable. At its worst, it’s a cowardly system of control and coercion that stands instead of experience and a willingness to engage.

There are a ton of ways that assessment impedes an open approach to learning, but lets just consider it here in terms of content. In order to be able to fairly assess between two people, you would need to measure them on the same rubric. The more the content is similar, the more equitable the measurement, and the less representative of the learner.

And so we play. I’ll leave a little more room for judgement there and take on the extra 10 minutes a paper that it will cost me in the grading process. I’ll standardize that thing over there, or this will take too long… etc… etc…

By the time its all done, how much are we measuring the students willingness to comply with our demands and how much are we contributing to learning?

Need for a social contract
– We talked about how some hard working students were always confused by the lack of clear objectives… they felt the course was ‘disorganized’.

The most interesting part of open learning, for me, is the need for the establishment of a new social contract. In our traditional learning environment, students are in the business of divining the desires of the teacher. The teacher, in most traditions, is responsible for making those desires as explicit and as clear as possible. I teach. You learn. Learning is defined by what i wish to teach.

In many open learning environments, and certainly in what I like to call ‘rhizomatic learning’, that model goes out the window. We have a planned topic of conversation, and the goal is still learning, but learning is something that happens as an act of participation. I am, an your instructor, willing to take on the responsibility of judging whether you are ‘getting enough’ of something or not, but not necessarily what that something might be, nor by measuring it against a perfect something.

She wants her students to become professionals… but not necessarily the same kind of professional, and not necessarily like her. That requires a re-negotiation of the ground rules.

The Learning Contract
– So i said “what you need is a learning contract.”

The concept of a learning contract was presented to me by one of my students at the end of a course i was teaching. He said “you know, I really like the way you teach, but you need a learning contract to make this make sense. I had one in a class I took a few years ago… you should look into it”. And I did.

The upshot of it is… that you can create a ‘contract’ between you and each student that serves the place of a syllabus, a textbook, an assessment model and a social contract. This is the contract i taught from this year…

I’m fascinated by how so many folks seem to have the same response to it that I did the first time I started reading about it – “this is exactly what i need.” It’s a simple concept – come to an agreement with people about what they want to work on, how much they want to work, who’s responsible for what and what everyone expects from the time you’re going to spend together.

I’d love to see some more models from others… and hear how people arrived at them.

I think of them as a particularly human way of thinking about learning.

Community learning – the zombie resurrection

On January 14th of this year i started a 6 week course to help me explore something I’ve been working on for most of my professional career. The term ‘rhizomatic learning’ is an approach to teaching and learning that is based in the works of Deleuze and Guattari, and presents learning as uncertain, destabilized and both very individual (in the sense that everyone’s experience is different) and communal (in the sense that making sense is a collaborative journey). I’ve been trying to teach this way for many years and have been trying to find a place to talk to others about it so that I too can have that communal experience while I’m working on telling stories about the rhizome.

Well… the course started and about 500 people signed up in way way or another. Some registered to the P2PU site, others only to a facebook group or played around with the #rhizo14 hashtag on twitter. The course was designed around challenging questions (eg. how do we enforce independence?) that are meant to elicit conversations that focus on the messiness of learning… a messiness that is very much at the heart of why i think Rhizomatic Learning is useful to talk about.

The conversation started, and started to pick up steam. Lots of interesting discussions, often taking off in directions that I hadn’t anticipated, or, frankly, that weren’t about what I thought the question ‘should’ be about. In week 2 i realized that this ‘should’ was inappropriate and I just allowed myself to have more fun with the conversations and enjoy the communal atmosphere. The course was to ‘end’ in the middle of February… and then it didn’t.

Zombie MOOC
Always with the zombie trope you say? The zombie is mindless and reanimated (though recently this definition has expanded :) ) and this course came back to life without a ‘head’ as it were. After my last goodbye was sent out to the participants, a week 7 popped up on the website. The participants continued the course, but without any ‘teacher’ filling the role as guide or decision maker. They continued on like this for another 6 weeks, and while activity is now only active in the facebook/twitter/gplus realm (that i know of), the communal learning process continues. The course (now called #rhizo14 by all involved) has refused to die.

It has become that individual/community space that i was hoping for when the course started. People post ideas, challenges and thoughts and others bring their perspective to it… we learn, often in vastly different ways, from each interaction. And then this post shows up on the original P2PU course today –

Very cool/weird, don’t know if I’ve joined the course or not. Lots to learn as the whole rhizmatic learning thing is a new concept/term to me, but very interested none the less.

Invitation to a Zombie dinner party?
Zombie’s aren’t always the best hosts. Well… if you’re not a zombie already. I’m sure they’re fine for other zombies. But this person who has signed up is new to the idea (of RL), open to engaging, and willing to put themselves out there. I love to see a new person admitting their uncertainty from the outset, it often opens the door for lots of good things later on. But do we just invite them to join in the conversation with the zombies created by the #rhizo14 experience?

We decided during the course (before the zombies existed) to go ahead and run the course again next year. I had, at the time, considered it a way of onboarding folks to the rhizomatic learning experience and then leaning on the people from this year to form a layer of community organizers that could enrich the experience for those who were coming in for the first time. And while we do get new registrants to the old course… this is the first person that has actually commented in a month or so. It’s time to decide, how do we get to the next step of this course (if we even should)? More specifically

If we care about community learning, how do we integrate new people into an existing community learning ecosystem? How do we keep the zombies from eating them? :)

Resurrection
So we focus on a new course that will allow the wonderfulness to happen, or, to put it more succinctly from our facebook rhizo14 chat… “dave, what do u want”. And my answer, as it often is with regards to learning, is that it depends.

Researcher Dave is fascinated by the problem of integrating people into learning communities. Anything that tests out the possibilities of or develops new practices for this tricky little problem is something that is pretty much at the top of my interest list. The challenge of seeing community as a learning approach is that communities tend to harden a little bit, with shared language and practices, and slowly become more difficult (but by no means impossible) to join. As everyone’s content is mostly their own, i should be able to burn last year’s course and simply start again… from scratch. Researcher dave is not invested in the success of the course, necessarily, but in learning from the process. Bye bye rhizo14 hello rhizo15!

Teacher Dave has slightly different feelings about things. I want the 2015 version of the course to go as well or better than 2014. This includes being fair to both the returning participants and the new participants. How do we integrate the two groups in the most seamless manner possible? How do we ask challenging questions that respect the community knowledge carried over and still allows for there to be new material for people to negotiate knowledge with? Maybe keep the old one on P2PU and then create a second, connect the two…? Simply reopen the P2PU site and keep going? #rhizoforever?

Community Dave thinks that we need to open that question much more broadly and see what the disparate but still engaged #rhizoers think about the subject. The crowd, in this case, could have a fair amount of wisdom to share, and the experience of going through that question could be very valuable in and of itself. I’m not sure what they’d say… but that the whole reason for asking them :) #rhizo?

Leadership in community
So, I guess, this is my attempt at number 3 on that list. I’d be interested to hear what people think about continuing with an existing community and integrating new people. Send along some links to other people chatting about it if you can find it…

One way or the other I will ‘decide’ whether it be by weight of a community opinion, or a last minute shot in the dark. In the end balancing community opinions and the need to actually make yes/no decisions might be one of the critical literacies in a rhizomatic learning approach. Many things can live in complexity and should stay there… but… well, we’ll see how the buts work out. I care about keeping the #rhizo14 community, I like those people, i enjoy the way they interact. How to keep it going…?

Explaining Rhizo14 to Oscar

(this is a draft for a narrative submission, I’m still not a hundred percent happy with the tone, but bear with me – feedback might help :) )

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.

Rhizo14

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?

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 positive 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.

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. 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.

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.

  • 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.

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.

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.

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.

My son, by this point of the conversation, would doubtlessly already be asleep :)