Community learning – every ‘we’ makes a ‘them’

I have too many draft blog posts accumulating in this space so I’m committed to publishing whatever drivel comes out of my fingers tonight. I was seconded to lead Academic Planning and Retention/student engagement at UPEI, and with the plan finally out to campus, New Student Orientation ready to go and our analytics project coming together, I can turn my mind to other ideas.

After the open course I ran earlier this year (Rhizo15) we found ourselves tangled in a number of publication and presentation projects. We’ve setup a Slack instance to try and deal with the todos on the different projects. It’s been an interesting process trying to bring enough structure to a ridiculously unstructured concept (rhizomatic learning) to be able to talk to other people about it. We’ve been having a conversation over the last week or so about the viability of running a new rhizo (#rhizo16) next year. The focus of that conversation is about how we can include people in the community so that they feel real membership. The very fact that there’s a ‘we’ talking about this in the first place suggests that we might have a problem on our hands.

WEs creating THEMs
I tend to think that membership and belonging are things that humans seek in most things they do. You may be member of a very small, very pigheaded group, but you still have a place to belong… even if that belonging is only in opposition to the dominant group. In the learning stuff that I play with, I always try to be very sensitive to the idea that it can be difficult for new people to play. By this i don’t mean “do people know enough to join”, but rather “do people feel like they are members of the community”. Rhizo14 (the first Rhizomatic learning open course) spawned a set of tightly knit communities that, in some cases, continued working together after the course was over. In some of those cases I think the community may have formed in opposition to the course… but it still formed. We had created some very strong WE during the course of our work during and after the course. We had created a language. We had reifications that were part of shared experience.

At that point of WE the THEMs are created. Lots of us are interested in making these great communities of knowing, but in doing so we are, defacto, excluding all the folks who didn’t make it in, for whatever reason. Some people expect to be part of the WE – just because they showed up. Some people take great offence to starting out as a THEM. Some are very sensitive to these kinds of belonging and others, of course, could care less. As facilitators we have a double responsibility to both the WEs and the THEMs.

In planning for #rhizo15 my main concern was to create a space where new people could join and participate on a level playing field with folks from #rhizo14. Not possible, I know, I guess maybe it was a direction I was heading in. I took a number of approaches:

  1. I committed to running the course by myself, thereby not overtly creating an ‘in crowd’ (though, to be fair, lots of #rhizo14ers helped lots and lots in the background
  2. I changed the name (to 15), the focus and the location of the course… killing off a very successful facebook group in the process
  3. I attempted (and failed) to create a forkable course
  4. I vowed to do way more social intervention work to include people equally
  5. I equally attempted to avoided ‘right answers’ as these favour the initiated
  6. I was terribly mysterious about the content (and, frankly, the goal) of each week… putting everyone in the same position

For all the efforts I made, it was breathtaking how quickly the WE groups formed themselves. We’re still looking at the data from twitter, suffice it to say that people form up pretty quickly. That shared experience starts to create new language, it melds with the old language, and new WEs are created. And that’s good. People start to trust and like each other, and they start to learn together. They care about each other. Community forms. New thinking emerges. WEs happen. But anyone who did not participate in that experience, who did not, for whatever reason, feel included if they did participate… they are now a them. It’s not something I saw people do overtly… it just seems to happen. I’ve been working in online communities (mostly for learning) for a dozen years or so, as a community emerges, it tends to get more and more difficult to join fully. I’ve come to see this as normal, and to see my job as trying to create ways to allow people to belong over time.

Opening the door
This blog post is here because my excellent colleague asked the question “wonder why we speak of opening the door at all, instead of an open hallway?”. I think we create those doors by liking each other. There are certainly people who are more than willing to just ignore the doors and jump in anyway, but I think that the longer a group of people are together, the fewer people there are who are willing to do that. Unless, of course, people make an overt effort to create strategies that allow people to become members of a community, and, in our case, a community of knowing.

And we all know this really – from the rest of our lives. It takes effort to belong to any tight knit group of people, and I’m certainly not suggesting that all the effort should be on the part of the WE to allow for the THEM. Becoming part of the WE is an overt act of becoming on the part of the THEM. They have to want it. They have to be willing to try and understand the WE even as they come to belong and start to shape what the WE means. But the WE has to continually find new ways to open the door, to allow people to join on equal footing (whatever that means).

What this means for learning – Making people WEs
I’ve always seen Instructivism as a process by which you explain to people that there are things they are supposed to know, and they should just go on about believing those things. There are instances in which i agree with this. Road rules. The names of things (though this is tricky). The fire exits. Timestables. I think its very dangerous, however, when we start applying it to everything. While its probably a more effective way to get someone to pass a test, it’s not as effective a mechanism at encouraging creativity, independence and people’s ability to confront adversity/uncertainty.

That’s where, I believe, Constructivism comes in. From those terms, you are building your own understanding of the world around you. Not a great way to learn to use a stop sign, but a more effective mechanism for emancipation. My particular feelings about learning are, I think, a form of constructivism, where we remove the ‘right answer’ entirely, and try to move people from the THEM category of learning to the WE category. Where we are trying to bring them into the community of knowing rather than enforcing a belief upon them. Teaching is, i think, a constant effort of shoving that damn door open to try and let people in. Making WEs of the THEMs.