Dear Rhizo15

I’m sitting on the front porch of my house, the kids just put to sleep, and wondering at the strangeness of it all. Two years ago I had this idea that I wanted to try and run a course on empty. I wanted to take the work I’d been doing on rhizomatic learning and the MOOC stuff I’d done and take it to its logical extreme. What if there really is no content? Can there be a meaningful experience if there’s nothing more than a title to a course and a few questions? Two years later I’m wondering what to say to an unknown number of people now part of a community (set of communities) on the last day of the second of those courses.

Some of you are people who’s names are regularly used in conversation in my house. You’ve become part of the family in some cases, archetypes in others. There are some whose names, when i see them attached to work, immediately bring that feeling of excitement, that frisson of ‘what have they come up with today’ that makes the internet in general and our community in particular such a compelling place to let your brain run through. There are other names that are attached to parts of the work we are all doing that isn’t mine, who’s work i respect, but don’t quite understand. There are some, and it happened today on the very last day of the course, who’ve clearly been here all along and I haven’t seen. How crazy is that?

I guess what i wanted to say, above all, is that you all mean something to me. You are directly, individually and collectively proof that we can come together, from all over, and make meaning together without making a big deal about it. That people can care about each other and the work we are doing in a way that is sometimes partial, but usually meaningful. That people can be supportive of strangers and their work. That they can be generous and forgiving of flaws and cheerleaders on some very, very silly ideas. You all mean something to me. You make me hopeful.

I also wanted to talk about the quality of the work that’s been done this year. Lenandlar has done a great job of collecting blog posts, and I encourage everyone to drop over there and see some of the work that’s been done. Profound, courageous and intelligent work. Some of it devastatingly funny. Some of it a little odd :). None of it dismissive, or condescending. But that’s only part of the story. Just wandering through the image section of the twitter hashtag is a rampage of jokes, research and reflection that make me feel like this work is worthwhile. So thanks for being smart. And for being willing to bring your smart into my world.

I started the journey into the rhizome because there was something about it that rang ‘true’ for me. Or, maybe more to the point, something that seemed familiar. I had been doing a certain amount of work in internet communities, and that connection was certainly part of it – but there was something deeper for me. I’ve always been suspicious of easy answers, of pat responses, of formulas that fit screwdriver into screw. I see answers making sense in some parts of our world, but I think that we examine the human on too profound a level for that to work. As I’ve grown through thinking about it, but mostly through working with your folks this year, and those of you from last year, I’m starting to see what some of it might mean to me.

For education, it means that learning being difficult doesn’t mean that it’s bad. It means that we can trust people to confront complexity and come out better on the other side. Mostly… because they do that everyday anyway. We are immersed in complexity… we can’t escape it. Learning that allows people to confront uncertainty, make responsible decisions and still be good citizens is exactly the kind of learning I want to support. Learning that sees the ‘content’ of what is learned as simply ‘understand each other’… that’s maybe the core message. The journey of the rhizomatic learner, that nomadic journey, is through the earth of humanity. We move passed the ideas of others, expressed the best way they knew how. We feed on them. The process is always broken, filled with miscommunications and bits and pieces…

For me it means that the last ten years of work still make sense. I’m not sure what the next project is… God knows I’m tangled in enough student projects at my university to last the summer at least. But I do know that there are enough people out there that I respect, that I care about, that I like to think with that I could reach out and find a few of you to play with, or that you might reach out to want to try something out with me. It gives the odd little kid that I was, and the not-quite-conformist adult he became the feeling that he is part of a fellowship. A tribe.

You guys are all right.

Thanks.

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

Content is people – exploring the myth of content

I tend to read (that is, listen to audiobooks) fairly indiscriminately in my spare time. I’m currently caught between reading fantasy novels with my son, re-reading the Iliad, two Sarah Vowell books and a pop-anthropology book called Sapiens. I know i’m not going to remember most of what i read in 12 minutes drives to and from the grocery store so i mostly like books that i can drop in and out of. I also like to be entertained by people’s ideas… regardless of whether they are ‘accurate’. Threaded through the wild and rollicking ride of conjecture, research and really snappy one liners that is Harari’s book Sapiens, are some very entertaining ideas. One of them is a particular view of how we are knitted together by our myths.

He sees myths as shared stories that we use to allow us to communicate and relate to large numbers of other humans. His argument, in part, is that the success of homo sapiens as a species is in our ability to create large scale fabrications that we can all believe in – money is a good example. Money doesn’t really ‘exist’ as a thing, it only works because we all believe it works. He makes the same argument for things like gods and corporations. They aren’t things in the world like you and I and my cat Clementine. They are shared delusions that we make real in order to cope with the complexity of our culture. All myth is, in a sense, a reification – treating an abstraction as if it were a real thing.

The thing in the container
The word ‘content’ is exactly this kind of abstraction. It’s a word that is used by almost every english speaking educator, but in many different ways.

  1. The ‘content’ of a course may be topic of the course – introductory chemistry.
  2. It may be the ‘materials’ (speaking of abstractions) like a laundry list of published articles
  3. It could be a textbook (grrr…)
  4. It may be the whole curriculum of a course – everything that happens
  5. … lots and lots of other things

And yet with all these varied ways of looking at the word, we use it to generally refer to ‘the things that are studied in that class’. They are ‘the things in the container’ of the course. But what does it mean for a course to have content? What does it mean for there to be things that are/should be in a container of first-year chemistry, or medical ethics or educational theory? These things change all the time. If you looked at the ‘content’ of courses from 50 years ago, or from another country, or even from one course to another we see a totally different things in the container.

So what dave? People teach different things. (i totally just said that in my head)

The so what here comes from our ability to choose between one ‘piece of content’ and another to include in our course. The ways in which those particular pieces of content become more popular is a weird social process. Einstein’s theories of special relavity made it to general acceptance because Max Planck supported them. They could be called ‘Universy roundy bouncy’ and be totally differently conceived if Max had found someone else first. But lets leave deep, i really don’t understand it, science aside for a moment. The laundry list of content that we read in any field is as much a matter of who popularized and named what concept at one time. It is the story that someone (or more likely, lots of someones), somewhere told. Whether it was then written down, and we forgot who wrote it, the fact remains…

We are actually just choosing the different stories that actual people have told to tell to someone else. We are choosing between people. Which is fine… it just means that the ‘content’ is actually people.

Content is people
I seem to think that this is profoundly important for learning. If we are journeying through the ideas that are made by different people, it doesn’t really matter where we start that journey. We start from the people we know, from the people we are familiar with… from a touchstone that grounds us in who we are. From there we grow out to the next piece we find and the next. The job of a teacher/instructor/guide/mentor is to continue that process of introduction as best we can manage. We may not know all the people that you might want to know, there may be two different people with the same story to share, but that’s not hugely important. We introduce you to a group of people who believe a certain way, who have a particular story to tell…

What is important is that you come to know enough of the stories of a particular field in order to be able to function in that field. As you continue to learn, you’ll acquire more stories, more ways of looking at things, more people to grow your own story with. This could the story of how you see the points of tension in your medical profession (things like prevention vs. medication), how you look at management, how you apply your own ethics to the way you vote or how you parent. As we become part of a community of knowing, our stories continue to grow. The community is always the curriculum.