Rhizo14 – The MOOC that community built

This discussion paper was originally posted in the “International Journal for Innovation and Quality in Learning” which is now not on the internet. With the “learning resilience” Open course starting up in a few weeks (you can sign up at that link if you like), I thought it might be interesting to repost this and see how it sounds 2 years later.

Key message
By creating an event like a MOOC we are potentially radically redefining what it means to be an educator. We are very much at the beginning stages of our learning how to create the space required for community to develop and grow in an open course. These field notes speak to the my own journey in the design of ‘Rhizomatic Learning – the community is the curriculum’. They are, in effect, a journey towards planned obsolescence.

KEYWORDS: rhizo14, rhizomatic learning, MOOC,

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.

From Clarissa Bezerra https://clarissabezerra.com/rhizo14-3/

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?

If I am ‘in charge’ what does that mean in terms of my responsibility towards the quality of the experience people have as part of rhizo14?

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 good quality 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. I think of this as one of the true measurements of quality in any learning experience – does it continue.

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. If you have content to present, you can ensure a certain minimum quality experience. 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 and didn’t complain publicly. Here I was trying to ensure quality from a process perspective.

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. Here the quality of the experience is left up to the participant to control.

■ 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. There was a varying degree of depth in these discussions, and, frankly, a certain amount of debate on what qualified as valid discussion.

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. The community has become its own rhizome, in the sense that it had created space for multiple viewpoints to coexist at varying levels of discussion.
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. When I consider my responsibility as a ‘leader’ in this sort of community, it makes me wonder whether ‘educator’ is even the right word for it.

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. And it can’t be up to me to decide what good means for any of them.
My son, by this point of the conversation, would doubtlessly already be asleep.

In search of a new resilience for learning

Sometimes ideas come from unexpected places.

A recent paper entitled “The rhizome: A problematic metaphor for teaching and learning in a MOOC” caught my attention. It critiques Rhizomatic learning and the rhizo MOOC #rhizo14 in particular. It wasn’t easy to read, but one point about vulnerability stuck out for me, and resonated as something that needs thinking through in all learning contexts.

“I think we do need to notice that a new sort of resilience needs to be nurtured.”

It stuck with me. I’ve kind of taken it as an injunction. I wish I knew who had said it, because I have a pile of thanks to offer that person. We DO need to notice it. I’ve written two posts earlier this year dealing with the idea of resilience as it relates to two different educational contexts – students moving from one educational context to another and my own attempts to learn new things. I will sidestep (for now) the question of whether the resilience required is ‘new’ or not, but I’ve been playing with a model of what that internal narrative of resilience could look like for someone learning on the web. I was going to say ‘open web’ but the near ubiquity of spaces like Facebook, which are distinctly not open, require their inclusion as the vast majority of people who will be learning online will at some point end up in one of these corporate learning spaces.

What I’ve been working with so far
In 2010 George Siemens, Bonnie Stewart, Sandy MacAuley and I did a SSHRC funded research grant on the (at that time) new concepts emerging around MOOCs. One of the central questions we had asked ourselves was about the patterns that we could find that lead to success in a MOOC.

Six years later I’m still broadly comfortable with this as the external process by which someone starts to learn and succeed online. Whether someone goes ahead and makes it all the way to focus/outcomes part of this process is up to them and the process need not really be this linear. Overall, though, I’m still happy with it. We need to Orient ourselves, get a sense of what is going on, what the general rules of engagement are. We need to Declare who we are, need to have a place for our identity to stand. We need to Network with others. We need to find people who we can work with and Cluster with them. Then we can, if we wish, Focus on some sort of outcome, though i feel less strongly about this as a necessity.

What this doesn’t account for
But that’s all external. That’s what it looks like while/after it’s being done. How do we, as Kate so elegantly puts it – “support students to propose their own narrative of purpose”?


As our injunction dictates, we need to account for the resilience required to confront the learning process without the safe structures and comforting space of a ‘learning objective’ or a teacher telling you you’ve done it right. We need to acknowledge that learning in a network/community/wild space means that sometimes there will be uncontrollable interactions. You will be confronted by what a colleague today referred to as ‘aggressive academic hectoring’. There is privilege always. How do we maintain the advantages of rhizomatic space and still give people the tools to be resilient?

A new model
In my last post, I presented a model for how we can talk about resilience for a student in terms of how they might fit in a university. The model is meant to be both an emotional guidepost for students new and old and a reminder to those of us supporting them of what our goals are.

It’s occurred to me that the same thinking process might be useful here. If we translate some of the language closer to what we’ve been exploring with regards to learning in a world of abundance, we might get something like this. The idea of ‘purpose’ matches up for me with ‘learning subjectives‘ which we were exploring last year – Designing for when you don’t know where you’re going. The sense of place feels very comfortable as community. The third one is interesting… every student examplar we’ve found for resilience and much of the research suggests that ‘a person of somekind’ (as opposed to lots of people) is super-important.

I’m still just mulling this over, so I’m not going to go to far with this. The learning subjective is the thought, idea, need… the thing that got you started into this and your constantly reassessed perspective on it. It’s different from an outcome/objective in that you don’t know where it’s going. More importantly, no hierarchically approved agent has decided that it is the the ‘thing you need to know’. The community is the place where thinking resides. There are healthy communities and unhealthy communities. It’s not a perfect situation… it’s the discourse on the thing that you are interested in. The big difference now is that this discourse can be had with living people instead of the thoughts of living/dead people printed on dead paper. The narrowed perspective and finalized thoughts of the text are replaced with the uncertainty of the community space. The key nodes are thoughts/people/things that you start to see as guideposts along the road. They are ideas/people that you can turn to for direction, for help, to find out where help is.

Process of resilience
In accord with the Viv Rolfe quote in the last post, we want to think of resilience as a process rather than some innate quality that people have. This model then, is a suggested process that might help folks who are trying to engage in learning when there are an indefinite number of options/connections/approaches/solutions to the things they are interested in. When that thing they are involved in is simple (like a location on a map) or complicated (like a recipe) this is not such a big issue. If they are engaged in learning something complex this sense of resilience becomes more important.

Moving forward with a model
Is it useful to have a model like this? What questions should be in the circles? How can we introduce people to the process of re-examining their own subjectives, the community of learning (the curriculum) they are approaching and the key people and concepts in it? Resilience in the sense of enduring adversity successfully only works when we know what ‘success’ looks like. In a world of abundance, the learner needs to constantly evaluate what they want, what knowing looks like (the community) and reassess their touch points.