Trying to write Rhizomatic Learning in 300 words

I got a very simple request from someone a few weeks ago to give a 300 word description of rhizomatic learning for an upcoming book. I thought “hey, 300 words, that’s not a big deal”. Moron. It’s been a bit of a challenge, and I’m mostly only sending it off because I”m a couple of days passed the deadline, not because i think it pulls together all my feelings about the last 6 or 7 years I’ve been grappling with the idea.

The rhizome is stem of plant, like hops, ginger or japanese bamboo, that helps the plant spread and reproduce. It responds and grows according to its environment, not straight upwards like a tree, but in a haphazard networked fashion. As a story for learning, it is messy, unstable and uncertain. It is also, as anyone who has ever had one in the garden will tell you, extremely resilient. As with the rhizome the rhizomatic learning experience is multiple, has no set beginning or end, – “a rhizome creates through the act of experimentation.” ?

The web is an ideal place for this kind of learning. By exploring a community or a context, you can get to know how language is used, what the customs are and how decisions are made. You can get a feel for knowing in that field. The idea is to think of a classroom/community/network as an ecosystem in which each person is spreading their own understanding with the pieces the available in that ecosystem. The public negotiation of that ‘acquisition’ (through content creation, sharing) provides a contextual curriculum to remix back into the existing research/thoughts/ideas in a given field. Their own rhizomatic learning experience becomes more curriculum for others.

Rhizomatic Learning developed as an approach for me as a response to my experiences working with online communities. Along with some colleagues we started meeting regularly online for live interactive webcasts starting in 2005 at Edtechtalk. We learned by working together, sharing our experiences and understanding. The outcomes of those discussions were more about participating and belonging than about specific items of content – the content was already everywhere around us on the web. Our challenge was in learning how to choose, how to deal with the uncertainty of abundance and choice presented by the Internet. In translating this experience to the classroom, I try to see the open web and the connections we create between people and ideas as the curriculum for learning. In a sense, participating in the community is the curriculum.

Feel free to chime in.

Why I think (OPEN) courses should be about content creation

I’ve been tangled in a number of projects and have left my blog sadly neglected. I have mentioned a few times on the blog that ‘content creation’ or ‘knowledge negotiation’ are integral to the rhizomatic learning process but have not addressed the issue of content creation directly. I have been having such a difficult time writing lately that I don’t expect this to come out very smoothly… i just need to get it written 🙂

I made a hastily written comment on the OERU googlegroup newsletter around the first of november.

“Does any of us, in this day and age, want to be part of an educational experience like a MOOC where content creation by students is left out?”

What I meant by that, and didn’t really explain very well, was that given the connective technologies we have and given the possibilities for learning, why would we go through the effort of pulling a course together if only to transmit content. More on this later…

Here’s the response I received from Rory Rory McGreal UNESCO/COL Chair in OER at Athabasca

Sure, I would. I would love to learn more Irish history without writing about it. I would also like to learn fly fishing without creating content. How about a MOOC on learning the regulations pertaining to hazardous materials where you just want to know what they are. How about language learning where you want to learn how to understand signs or menus?
There are many contexts for MOOCs that do not require content creation. I would think that most courses should contain a mixture of both. Is it even a course if all it is is people making their own content? link to thread

This was a reply from Rory in a broader discussion on a topic I didn’t explain very well so it’s probably safe to say I’m taking him out of context. Sorry Rory! It’s been stuck in my month for a month, however, so I might as well get it out. I want to talk a little bit about how these learning topics that Rory is interested in might help tease out some ideas around

1. what it means to remember/repeat and how that applies to convention,
2. what it might meant to come to know and
3. how ‘creating content’ is about learning in a connected world

What it means to remember/repeat and how that applies to convention
Many of my courses over the years have started with students asking me ‘what they were supposed to do to succeed’. We all do this to some degree, our goals and objectives being at a variety of different levels from “learn to speak english comfortably” to “Have the ability to respond to questions of the future tense of the verb ‘to be’ in informal conversation.” I am comfortable with some forms of the former and not comfortable with most forms of the latter. A good chunk of pedagogical literature will tell you that if you make it clear what success looks like, students are happier, more successful and probably thinner. For a variety of reasons, that do go beyond my natural inclination to be a contrarian, I have never found this to be a good way to help students learn.

My problem with specific objectives in a course is that it means that, sometimes before a course has started, I have decided exactly what it is that people ‘need to know’. I have looked across a field and chosen the conventions (of truths if you believe in such things) that are critical for someone to be able to remember/repeat to give them the proper grounding for me to be able to say that they have learned. While there is great value to understanding language and how it is used in a given context, I’m not convinced that this is a great path to getting to nuance. It seems like we want to think of ideas and concepts as fixed at the beginning, as being definable, and then slowly learn that they aren’t. I have had friends in fields as diverse as medicine, chemistry and education say that the more they learn, the less they are sure we understand. They have to unlearn their certainty. They begin to see passed the conventions as they learn. I would like to suggest that we skip the certainty part.

what it might meant to come to know
I think of the process of coming to know, then, as the process of being comfortable inside the uncertainty of a given idea. To be able to repeat a given item of dogma or formula is not knowing, it is remembering a convention. As we dig into those formulas, inside the math or the medicine or the literature, multiple interpretations, multiple factions – sometimes completely contradictory – begin to emerge. We can, certainly, ‘choose’ a faction like we choose a sports team and pull for it… and inevitably we do this in different parts of our lives. But the process of coming to know is about understanding the places where difference exists. About being able to speak about the uncertainty and still be able to act.

If anyone has ever been to a doctor to get diagnosed and treated for something, you know what I mean. Sometimes many things are tried in an attempt to find problems. There are exceptions, things are tried, sometimes they work. Some prescriptions almost always work. Sometimes a common antibiotic can send someone into two days of hallucinations (ask @bonstewart 🙂 ) It’s uncertain.

how ‘creating content’ is about learning in a connected world
There are many good reasons for creating content when we are learning. It provides an excellent method of personal curation of ideas, of being able to keep track of your work. It allows for others (beyond an educator) to be able to see and respond to your work. For some it provides encouragement to work a little harder, to polish a little more. It could also provide an excellent opportunity to explore other skills around publishing in numerous formats. These are all quite nice… but not what I’m on about at all.

When all participants create content, you have the potential for multiplicity. You can have a discussion from multiple viewpoints, from different contexts, from different life experiences. When different contextual beliefs are combined with difference in ability, race, gender, culture, race etc… a myriad of possibilities and viewpoints can come to the fore. When the course is opened up to the world, your chance for this increases manyfold.

How is learning different from this video?
I have been learning from Leigh Blackall for many years. He pointed to a very cool video today.

It’s a video automatically created from the wikipedia article on Networked Learning. If you can do this sort of thing from a wikipedia article, it’s a trivial process to have it produced from any other medium. I think it’s awesome. I think books are also awesome. But to go back to my original comment “Does any of us, in this day and age, want to be part of an educational experience like a MOOC where content creation by students is left out?” There are lots of educational experiences… like that video, like reading a book about Caesar’s Gallic Campaigns – but i don’t see them as an experience ‘like a MOOC’. Why have a giant networked learning process an OPEN process, if we’re just going to treat it like a bounded paper book.

  • I would love to learn more Irish history without writing about it.
  • I would also like to learn fly fishing without creating content.
  • How about a MOOC on learning the regulations pertaining to hazardous materials where you just want to know what they are.
  • How about language learning where you want to learn how to understand signs or menus?

There are conventions and subtleties to each of these examples. How would a MOOC about Irish history where you didn’t create (and see others creations) be different than reading a book about it? How can you learn to fly fish without a river, a flyrod and stabbing your hands a hundred times trying to get the fly on. (not to mention fish). What would the regulations MOOC be that would be different than reading the manual? All I can say is that a stop sign means something very different driving in South Korea than it does here in PEI… and in both drivers test they said it meant “a full stop”.

When we are silent, and our fellow learners are silent, we can acquire a great many things (other than naps). We can certainly get one person’s sense of what the conventions are. A great lecturer is a beautiful thing, and can bring many people to new layers of understanding. Having someone organize content for you, so that you can get first understandings in a new field or context is very, very handy… but I think that, for me at least, the affordances of the new connective technologies force a fundamental rethinking of ways of learning.

In this day and age
We have the capacity to connect with each other, to share experience and perspectives and to learn both from and in spite of each other. I’m certainly not suggesting that we should live in some fantastical utopia where everyone’s opinions should be shared and equally valued. Quite the contrary. One of the most difficult thing about learning with shared content is the vast amount of crap you need to sift through. Just like life.

The power relationship between a content giver and a content receiver is such that the legitimation of knowledge is controlled by the giver. I think we had to do things that way for a very long time because ‘memory’ and ‘paper’ forced us to move perspectives around in locked boxes. In this day and age we no longer need to shove subtlety into neat little truth boxes. We can learn things as they are, rather than as other people would try and force us to remember them. Learning to choose amidst uncertainty.

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