Digital learning for everyone – project management + socio-emotional support

I’m into Year Two (of two) leading digital strategy for the K-12 system here in PEI. I landed in a wonderful situation where almost all the hardware (computers and wires) system-wide had just been replaced when I arrived, and where the educators and curriculum/governance people involved are interested in having conversations about a way forward. But we want a way forward for everyone. How do we make a plan that is inclusive, that develops web literacy and helps support our learners becoming good digital citizens? I’ve become really interested in trying to build some key strategies into the process to help everyone succeed. This is where that thinking is at now.

Where we are in the digital strategy
Year One was mostly about setting the stage for change.

  1. We’ve built a system wide committee with decision making responsibilities (more on this in another post)
  2. We’ve built a platform to house curriculum and resources for each course
  3. We’ve developed a two course approach to building literacy (my own digital practices course and Google Certified Educator)
  4. We’ve identified and started working on a massive list of things that need attention
  5. We’re working on grants and partnerships to bring cool stuff (and training) to the system

The targets we’re looking to address
Digital citizenship
This one is first because it’s the most important. We need to understand what literacies we need to be good members of our society in a world that has the internet in it. The internet can give us access to wonderful things, and it also contains piles of people who are purposely trying to mislead us so they can make money off of ads. The internet has entertainment for us and also has terrifying Peppa Pig videos. I would love to be part of a society where each individual is trying to make good choices based on their values and not on fears stoked by some kid in Veles.

For so many reasons. Once we start talking about technology, the idea of gender equality inevitably comes up. And it should. Our numbers around tech and girls are still not great and there is still way more work to be done. But there are lots of other issues in here as well. Technology (as its often taught) favours the autodidact. It also favours people who have certain kinds of support at home, whether it be access to tech or the habits that are privileged by our education system. I have seen countless folks over the years, big and small, who come to this work with a great deal of fear. I like to think that I have helped some of them succeed through that, but how do you plan that for a system?

Silicon Valley Narrative
I could call this a lot of different things, but lets just say that it’s the ‘we all need to be coders because coding is the future’ argument. The idea that the purpose of this technology is somehow that we are all going to make millions or have nice cushy jobs pushing the world through its fourth revolution. Go and read Hack Education. It’s amazing and will cover these issues way better than I can. Suffice it to say there are more reasons to work on internet things than coding. Coding isn’t bad… it’s just not some panacea that will save the children.

Technology is hard
Well… it is. I have no interest in taking something like an Arduino, or blogging or web literacy and breaking it into tiny bits that will slowly combine over 13 years in our education system. I want each interaction with this stuff to be meaningful, so that means it’s going to be hard to do. I’m not terribly worried about that. Kids are actually quite smart if you let them be. But it’s important always to remember that this stuff can be difficult technically, socially and emotionally.

Project management and socio-emotional support – a partnership
My solution to address this has developed over 15 years. Much of it comes from my experience working with the concepts around rhizomatic learning and watching people struggle to come-to-know using the rhizomatic approach. My approach is based in hundreds of conversations with educators, research I did for Academic Planning at UPEI two years ago, researchy stuff and lots of time spent staring out the window.

Project Management
Nothing has had a bigger impact of my professional career than learning how manage a project properly. I certainly wouldn’t claim that I have fully reached that goal, but it’s something I’m working on constantly. I’ve learned to ask questions like: What is the real goal we’re working on? What change are we trying to make in the world? What objectives will tell me that I’m getting there? What strategies will I use? Who will do the actions? When?

I’d like to see these concepts applied constantly to our work around tech. We do…kinda. What I’m hoping to encourage (I don’t write the curriculum, I’m working with the people who do) is that we standardize the language around project management and the literacies required. We can use it with 7 year old and with 17 year olds. Imagine a school system graduating people that could directly go into the workforce with strong project management skills. Forget about the workforce. Just imagine how much easier it would be for them to plan a weekend party.

Some people seem to come out of the womb with these skills. I am one of the legion that did not.

Socio-emotional support
I’ve waffled on what to call this. I started out by calling it resilience… but I’m finding that I don’t like the connotations sometimes attached to this. Resilience also, to me, suggests that growth as a human is somehow just about sucking it up and trying harder. That’s not what I mean here. I’m talking more about that reflection that allows you to process your feelings when you’re working. The pressure of idea generation. The frustration when something doesn’t work. That feeling you’re falling behind. What do we do about those things? Is it really about just trying harder?

I’ve been walking around with an Arduino kit in my backpack and doing a little test with it. I’ve been putting it in front of people, opening it up and asking them how it makes them feel. Some people say they are really excited by it. Most are not. The majority of the response I get sits somewhere between revulsion and fear. That kind of response doesn’t encourage learning.

How do we build supports to work and talk our way through those feelings, as learners of whatever age? How do we encourage the kind of reflection that allows people to ‘succeed’ AND feel supported and good about themselves in the process?

Putting them together
I think both approaches get stronger when you think of them as a team. Some learners will certainly favour one approach over the other – but I’m fine with that. Structured conversations about what your goal looks like and how to create a timeline are going to keep people on task and give them success milestones. Reflecting on your feelings in that process – “What did you do when you felt like you were lost in the process?” “How did you deal with having too many ideas (or none)?” and, eventually, “How did your idea generation impact your project charter? Did you have to change your timelines?” is important too.

I would love to see us focus our assessment on these two things. I don’t particularly care if your tech project is perfect, or all the lights blink or whatever… what I care about is how much you’ve grown through that process. Did you develop your search literacies when you got stuck? Did you hit your timelines? Did your goal change as you learned more about the process?

I’m not 100% convinced that this needs to stop at digital. I can totally see it applied in the exact same way to a science project or an essay. Imagine if we focused all the project work we work around those two pieces? If we all used the same language, and pulled together towards preparing our kids to have healthy approaches to running projects?

Wish me luck 🙂

Learning Ecosystem Participant Model

A group of us had a conversation a couple of weeks ago about creating a learning community(ies) for an existing nonprofit open online learning site. How do you go about it? How do you translate what we believe about open learning to language that will respond to a project plan? Who are the multiple audiences? What do they want? It was a very interesting five or so days of chatting. We had some very smart, very experienced people chime in and while we certainly didn’t all come down to one final conclusion, there was a fair amount of overlap in our thinking.

Near the end of our sprint discussion, I proposed a model that could potentially serve as a starting point for discussions around the planning table. You might use it to talk to people about how someone can come into your ecosystem from any of these points, how people can move from being one kind of participant to another, and how those participants might interact with each other.

The model got bounced around between us with people adding to it and debating one part or another. This is my version. I’d love to hear what you think about it, whether it resonates with you or what you might hate about it.

CC by Non Commercial
Learning Ecosystem Participant Model CC by Non Commercial

When we teach in a classroom, we get to define the start and end times, we decide how much time investment is appropriate, the workload, the content choices etc… basically the syllabus of a course. Students have already committed to learning in a structured way. They have, in many cases, self-selected or at least they know they are going to have to take your course. The reason they are learning is generally clear to anyone.

When we work in an online space, we get all kinds of learners. As a learner, I’m not always going to be invested in a deep learning experience. Sometimes i just need to find out how to cook a turkey – i don’t need to push turkey theory to new levels. Maybe, after cooking some turkeys… i might change my mind, but i’m not going to be able to do ‘turkey theory’ cold.

Four kinds of participants in a learning ecosystem

  • Consumer (What temperature do i take the turkey out?)
  • Student (How do I prepare a turkey from purchase to eating)
  • Rhizomatic learner (How can I come to my own approach to turkeys?)
  • Mentor (How can i help others with their turkeys?)

Moving from one group to another
This model is, in some ways, a directional development model that says that if you want people to learn the thing that you want them to learn… whether mental health, non-profit or whatever… that you generally want (a certain percentage of ) people moving from

  • Consumer to student
  • Consumer to rhizomatic learner
  • Student to rhizomatic learner
  • Rhizomatic learner to Mentor
  • Student to Mentor
  • Mentor to Rhizomatic learner

Spaces needed to support the model
Not all platforms are ready for this kind of interaction, some are focused on delivering content (to consumers) some are lock-step course platforms and others are designed for communities. I think all three of these can be (and probably should be) used together. My feeling is that there is a mix here, a combination of these spaces that can be achieved to reach that ecosystem. I should add… it need not all be on the same website.

  • Information space
  • Course spaces
  • A place for people to gather

Mentors aren’t really a space, which is why this isn’t a space chart. It’s a membership chart. Mentors are going to live across all three spaces. They will, potentially, answer questions in the information space. They will, potentially, be part of the audience, or be the teachers in the course space. They will, potentially, be participants in the community space.

What problem does this solve?
What it does for me is it gives me a framework that allows me to talk about how to create an online learning experience. In a course like #rhizo14/15 (a course on rhizomatic learning) I’m focusing almost entirely on the community. Should I make more of an effort to leave people with answers to their questions? Should I have an onboarding process that people could use that would give them a structured introduction to the idea? Should I make an effort to organize mentors who can help direct traffic for new people?

Community can do a great deal to support an organization in the work it wants to do… but it’s mostly hard work. I’ve spoken to many groups over the years who are willing to do that work, but didn’t have the language they needed internally to plan for what need to be done. In looking long term for any organization that wants to achieve its goals through open learning, these could help with planning by providing some language for a conversation. It could also allow you to keep track of the community over time. Are we seeing fewer mentors over time? Is our student community growing? A different balance is going to be struck depending on your goals…

If you’re looking to enact a change, say, to a more open environment or a more collaborative environment, hopefully this gives you a place to start. Take, modify, share.


  • This model certainly owes some of its inspiration to Dave Snowden’s Cynefin model.
  • There are potential similarities here to the Visitors and Residents model.
  • This chart was built through a sprint process, from October 19th to 24th. Original draft by Dave Cormier. Draft 2 Tayte Willows. Draft 3 Rebecca Petersen & Dave Cormier. Sprint members – John Schinker, Maha Bali, Michael Rutter, Jennifer Maddrell, Rebecca Petersen, Lawrie Phipps, Robin DeRosa, Tayte Willows, Bonnie Stewart, Erin DeSilva and Dave Cormier

What problem does rhizomatic learning solve for me?

Had a wonderful conversation with Mozzadrella from P2PU today about #rhizo14

I’m running an open course on rhizomatic learning, you can sign up here. Apparently i wasn’t clear about this in my last two posts 🙂

In trying to understand what I was trying to do with the 6 weeks she asked me a variety of questions, some pedagogical questions, some philosophical, some technical and some administrative. I’ll get to each of these questions as time passes but I’d really like to address her question about why I think rhizomatic learning is important or, more specifically, what problem does it solve?


Rhizomatic learning is a story of how we can learn in a world of abundance – abundance of perspective, of information and of connection. A paper/location based learning model forces us to make decisions, in advance, about what it is important for students to learn. This was a practical reality – if we were going to have content available for a course, it needed to be prepared in advance. In order to prepare the content in advance, we needed to prepare the objectives in advance. And, given that we know what everyone is supposed to learn, we might as well check and see if they all did and compare them against each other.

What happens if we let that go? What happens when we approach a learning experience and we don’t know what we are going to learn? Where each student can learn something a little bit different – together? If we decide that important learning is more like being a parent, or being a cook, and less like knowing all the counties in England in 1450? What if we decided to trust the idea that people can come together to learn given the availability of an abundance of perspective, of information and of connection?


I wonder what I’ll say after #rhizo14 🙂

P.S. Yes. That was a test I once took.

Learning in a time of abundance – historical background

People used to make records
As in a record of an event
The event of people playing music in a room

– Ani Difranco

I had a awesome conversation last week with a colleague at UPEI. We talked a bit about a new course she’s putting together, a bit about the course that I teach in the same program and, more broadly, about education. She’d been kind enough to come and watch a presentation I’d given on campus and had mentioned that the ‘history of knowledge’ piece that I did at the start of my presentation was the missing piece that gave her better insight into what I’ve been talking about with rhizomatic learning. I realized that I have never actually blogged the piece: it’s something that has developed over the last year, entirely in my presentations.

Note: This is a snapshot of the change of knowing in the Greco-Roman tradition. Were we talking about the Egyptians, the Chinese, India or meso-America the snapshot would, of course, be different.

What it Means to be Recognized as a ‘Knower’
For those of you that haven’t read it (shame on you), Bonnie Stewart’s Techknowledge: Literate Practice and Digital Worlds (2000) is pretty fantastic. It started my long journey from thinking of words like ‘knower’ and ‘learning’ as things that were static and obvious to understanding them as flexible and subject to the influence of context. It emphasizes how everything is negotiated; how things change with time. (As with Ani’s lament above for the loss of purity in the recording.) The focus of the thesis is how there is an intersection of technology and knowledge where the nature of ‘what it means to know’ changes along with the technology. Being a ‘knower’ in 1000BC would not necessarily include being a reader whereas after the printing press it necessarily would. The value of memory hasn’t gone away with the near ubiquity of the internet, but it’s tough to say it’s important in the same way.

A lot of so-called ’21st century literacies’ aren’t actually new, in the sense that we’ve never seen them before: some of them just got forgotten or re-framed in the long history of knowledge and education. I think we’ve been connecting, for instance, for a long time. But as technologies and needs have changed, different priorities and practices have moved to the forefront as important, and others have taken more of a backseat. Take this post as sort of a journey, then, through the last 3000 years or so: I want to look at how the technologies that underpin our ideas intersect with the ways we teach those ideas to each other.

In the Beginning Was The Odyssey
When I think about knowing and how it’s changed, I like to think about The Odyssey. It’s my favourite of the Greek relics (I love this version read by Ian McKellen) Take a minute and think about what the question “Do you know the Odyssey?” would have meant to different people at different times. Take it a little further: think about what the answer “I know it very well” would mean in the bardic era, as compared to now. Then, it meant you could recite the whole poem from memory. Now, it generally means you know what the title refers to, and may know the gist of the story. The the act of knowing (and by extension, the act of learning) is impacted by the technology available at a given time. How would The Odyssey have been taught 2500 years ago or a 1000? A hundred? How can we teach it now?

Going to see Molon of Rhodes – Delivery, Delivery and Delivery
Cicero and Caesar were two of the real luminaries of the time of the fall of the Roman Republic. They were mostly on opposite sides of the fight for control of Rome on account of them being members of opposite political parties. Still, they shared a reputation as two of the best orators in the city. While Caesar had made his career through a combination of political connections (his family was ancient, and his uncle Marius the most famous man in Rome) and his astonishing military career, Cicero made his entire career on the power of his voice alone. In that particular time and place, the power to speak, to convince, to cajole, to do battle with your voice was critical.

In their quest to become better orators, they both sought out the same man – Appolonius Molon of Rhodes. Cicero met him in the 80’s BCE in Rome and then sought him out on the island of Rhodes a decade later. Caesar took the dangerous journey to Rhodes himself and was captured by pirates. Here’s what that trip would look like according to the excellent ORBIS project

From Rome to Rhodes

Caesar was willing to take a trip of 2000KM through pirate-infested waters in order to learn from one man. From one perspective, the things that he was interested in learning were performative… something perhaps better done face to face. At this time, however, most things were performative. Plays were performed. Speeches might be written down but as a record of a performance. Caesar believed he needed to go and find the one person who could help him perform better.

What it meant to know, in this case, was TO DO. To learn was to do better.

The Death of the Argument
Socrates famously lamented that once written, an argument can no longer defend itself. That writing can let someone appear smart, because they can simply read something without actually understanding it. It makes interesting reading if you’re into such things. The point here is that the switch to things being written down, as a matter of course, is a critical turning point in the history of knowing and learning. While memory certainly had an important role to play in the pre-writing period, it changed significantly. Learning became what is called a catechetical act. Read and repeat. Memorize as written.

This is a shift from the discursive model described above. In the catechetical case there is a RIGHT answer. There is a specific given thing that you are supposed to commit to memory, and the most effective means to learn it is to have someone say it out loud and someone else repeat it. There are certainly stories of people who did not learn like this (Peter Abelard for instance) but he is more the exception that proves the rule.

The technology of writing allows for words to be hardened, or recalled. We have an established canon to be learned.

Gertrude’s textbook
Before the coming of the printing press, the vast majority of learners, whether in churches or in schools, would not have had access to the original text of anything. The crafting of a book (scroll, whatever) was a laborious, specialist process and they weren’t just handing them out to let everyone touch them with their grimy fingers. If a text was handled at all (and not just recalled from memory) it would have been read from the lectern.

This whole process of copy stuff down, commit it to memory and get other people to do that stuff is not a terribly efficient way to teach lots of people. It required someone with a fair amount of knowledge to do the calling out for the call and repeat stuff… and even with the printing of books, you still needed to be able to READ them. Teachers were in short supply. Bring on Swiss educational mastermind Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi

Pestalozzi was an educational experimenter in Switzerland. From one venture to another, win or lose, he kept exploring new ways to teach. At a high point of success around 1800 he approached the Swiss government with the idea of trying to teach all the poor people of the country. He wrote a book called “How Gertrude Teaches her Children” in which he described how one might break down the different details of something that someone needed to learn (math, reading whatever) into basic parts so that anyone – whether trained as a teacher or not – could teach someone else.

Within the same broad time frame, the same idea emerged from the mind of one of the more interesting businessmen to ever grace the field of education; one Mr. Noah Webster of dictionary fame. His textbooks, first simple text versions and soon textbooks with PICTURES, were designed to be used by anyone, regardless of their ability or knowledge level (within reason) to teach the material. Raise your hand if you’ve never been or had a substitute teacher who read from the textbook, assigned the questions from the back of the chapter, and never yet understood what they were talking about. Yeah. I didn’t think so.

The textbook has a huge democratizing power in that it can allow many, many more people to learn the same thing. If we are trying to give people a set list of skills that they can reproduce at will, it can be very effective. Think of how efficient a technology the textbook is… it contains the content, the assessment and the pedagogy. All in one pile. Thank you 19th century!

It further emphasizes knowledge as set. As right or wrong. As established.

Bring on the internets
As with the oral traditions, the handwritten period, the period of print so now we have a new technology underwriting the way we communicate ideas to each other. We need not make the 2000km journey braving pirates to get together and talk about our practice. This need not be a one way conversation where I’m reciting the ideas of our forebears to you for you to repeat. Neither was I forced to take a position about open online learning a year ago to allow time for the printing process. I doesn’t actually need to be me vs. you. We can talk to each other, almost directly. Influence each other’s work in the way, I like to think, Socrates would approve of.

What does it mean to be open and online?

What does this mean for words like quality? How much of our desire for perfection in things like spelling and argument are directly related to the finality of print? Are they a ‘good’ in and of themselves or are they a result of the requirements of the technologies involved with print? Should we leave our arguments half finished and release them early and often as some have suggested?

Openness also brings is diversity. When you teach a course in any given city, there are implicit norms that apply to the learning process. It might be in a country where debate is common, or frowned upon. A place where one is expected to be silent, or where people are very physical. A local course, paid for in advance, also serves as a filtering process that can serve to make a more uniform group of learners.

We have none of these barriers here(there are still some of course, but far, far fewer). In an open environment I might have people from all over. I might have people coming from vastly diverse backgrounds and influences. I could have an open syllabus where everyone contributed to the curriculum…

Abundance. Of content. Of perspectives. Of backgrounds. Of potential connections. This is the fundamental change the technology brings to us.

My response to abundance is to try and structure my class rhizomatically. What is yours?

Using Moodle with a student centred curriculum

Earlier this month I was invited to do a presentation for the Moodle MOOC. The presentation included the use of the live slides approach where the audience of the presentation is responsible for creating slides from which I as the ‘presenter’ can try and draw a narrative. It’s an approach I’ve used many times with many different audiences, but in this case things took an unexpected detour. As the participants were given access to the white board, they simply would not focus on working together. Now… this was particularly impacted by the fact that the software we were using had ‘moveable slides’ which allowed them more freedom than i’ve seen before, but it ended up taking about 25 minutes to get things started. You can watch it here.


Why moodle?
I got an email today from the excellent Paul Allison asking about the moodle assignment I was actually going to talk about during that presentation and never got around to. Paul shares my concern about Moodle being a platform that can easily lead to a very hierarchical teacher centric approach to online learning. It doesn’t have to be that way, of course, but it’s default separation of roles, separation by topic or week, and linear structure can easily guide you to a checkbox, step by step approach to online learning.

I want students to be responsible for much of the curriculum that is covered in the course. I particularly don’t want to create a scenario where the students believe that learning happens when the instructor lays out clear objectives that they are to conquer. I understand that many people think of this as contravening best practice, but i tend to think that it creates a power relationship around learning that can lead to students ‘not’ learning when someone isn’t around to sanction it for them. I think of life long learning as a much messier, disjointed struggle than that. I think that if you are trying to prepare students for confronting decision making about a particular topic, then you need to, in some degree, mirror the uncertainty to daily life so that they can practice that decision making with a guide or mentor close to hand. The course is at if you are interested. The ‘textbook’ for the course is at

So i wanted to use moodle, show my students how a discussion forum worked, but i didn’t want to be controlling it.

The assignment
So, the goal then was to create a moodle activity that would force my students to find an interesting way to use a discussion forum to address an issue that they were thinking about as part of the course. In order to facilitate this I created a Moodle course and invited all my students into it as teachers. We broke them into groups of from 2-4 and each group was responsible for creating a ‘homepage’ as a topic within the course. That homepage (topic) would be theirs to design, develop and host a discussion on their chosen question.

We did the registration live during the class. There were a few hiccups due to some irregularities with people’s accounts… but no real big deal here. As I am wont to do, i didn’t assign individual groups to numbered topics, I let it be a free for all. Groups had to grab their topic by editing it and putting their subject description in the title. This created a bit of a flurry of excitement and a couple of ‘HEY, we were going to do that one’. I wandered around the class to ensure that each group had eventually got a topic section and then proceeded to explain what a discussion forum was and had them do some basic interactions in an example topic area that I started building in the classroom. I am resistant to the idea of creating a proper exemplar as I’m trying to get students to think their way through what should be there rather than try and copy what is there. I always struggle with whether this is a good position to hold or not.

Here is one sample of an entry from one group. I picked it because it’s the right size to fit in the blog post :). It’s also a good example of the kind of thing i was looking for. Others offered much more or less copy on the page… there was alot of variation. But the space became theirs (as apposed to mine) very quickly.

Screen Shot 2013-06-23 at 1.46.46 PM

Outcomes (so called)
The way things turned out in this class, i was going to miss one of our three hour f2f sessions for a conference. This assignment was intended as a replacement for a three hour class, and the students were therefore requested to show up online from 6pm-9pm local time and participate in as many substantive discussions as they could during that time. They were also responsible for monitoring and facilitating discussions in their own section. A few students setup a google hangout to help in their coordination but most simply did their best to participate.

I was pretty happy with the outcome. We got a fair amount of substantive discussion, and some interesting ideas that hadn’t come up in the course so far. We had a feedback session in the next face 2 face class and students spoke with confidence about the possibilities of discussion forums. Many students suggested that they occasionally became over focused on other topics or their own topic and found it difficult to switch back and forth. I was online in Spain during the first half hour or so and did some trouble shooting over twitter with four or five students.

It’s the first time i’ve had this kind of freeforall in a Moodle. I kinda like it. I particularly like the idea of students building their own home and would like to do something where students had to keep going back to improve and refine their own space. Maybe a whole course for each group. Meh. Maybe next time.

Below is the group feedback that i sent to my students regarding the assignment.

Moodle discussions
Cell phones in the classroom
“Several times last year, when I noticed a student texting while I was giving a lecture, I would stop, stare and wait for them to finish texting, then continue with the lecture, as if nothing ever happened. It didn’t take too long for all to realize that they were being stared at by all. The students themselves then became the “Text Police” My enforcement wasn’t needed.” Daryl
The technology requires an establishment of new society norms. It is, as Sherri suggests, a question of professionalism. That’s going to be different for different classes. But the key is to make overtly clear (as Daryl does very nicely here) about what is expected and what the new normal is.

Twitter and brevity
Do you feel as though 140 characters is enought to say something substancial? Can you pack in lots to communitucate thoroughly? Shannon
It certainly keeps the clutter down! Well, I would say that it can do a lot but, yes, I wouldn’t want to do my dissertation over Twitter ; 0 Mark

A couple of things here. First, I note that Shannon critiqued Twitter’s substantialness in 128 characters… excellent work Shannon. Mark makes one of the two points i would make here a. Twitter is not for everything. The second point is addressed by Andrea when she says that twitter is a place for connections. The corrollary to this is that twitter is NOT, generally, a place for content. If i have something substantial to say i might link to it on twitter… but i wouldn’t try to write it there. It’s just not designed for that.

Finding the need before the tool
I could see us posting a students code and then have students provide feedback on it. One thing that some of this technology provides is a way to do things that some students may be able to get in to using. BJ

I could totally see this as a twitter/pastebin combination. Get students to post the code on pastebin, and tweet it out to everyone else. For that matter… coders have been using IRC for collaboration for a generation. Might be good to get them in the habit of doing that. If you wanted to get real creative, you could setup an IRC channel for students to exchange code with people doing the same type course at another institution.

Kids these days
Spoiled by their parents, which leads to the sense of entitlement and not having to or willing to work for what they want, showing no respect for their parent’s hard earned dollar. Don

I can’t seem to put my hands on it, but i found a quote from about 60BC in the Roman Republic a few months ago that said the same thing as this almost to the letter. This is the complaint of every generation about the one following it. This also doesn’t mean that it isn’t true, but we need to remember not to associate all things into the same problem. Daryl says “he was lucky to have a working wristwatch” a statement that would have been ‘spoiled’ a generation before. We need to remember that it is the adults in society who are responsible for setting norms for the use of technologies, these norms don’t just make themselves. We are entering into a strange period where we have things in our culture that have confused norms associated with them (eg. texting). That’s not the kids fault.

The great higher education money debate
Very cool discussion (and a great way of seeing what a discussion forum can do). I would like to add that when comparing College to University you’ll find different results in terms of ‘lifetime earning’ than you will in ‘immediate employment’. The main theme of the discussion seemed to be ‘it depends on what you want’ which i totally agree with. I eventually ended up with an undergraduate degree in philosophy (after starting in computer programming, which, frankly, i hated). University worked for me – eventually. Anyway, i don’t want to go down the rabbitt hole here, the point is, the discussion forum allows for multiple points of view and it allows for people who don’t necessarily like to break into arguments in class to do so with time to consider what they are going to say.

Online learning
One of the themes of discussion is related to the comparison of online learning with face to face discussion. One of the reasons i love teaching ed366 is that it gives me the chance to be in a classroom, which I love. I also love getting input from people from different perspectives, cultures and experiences, which is often more difficult in a place like Charlottetown. Our class is not particularly culturally diverse. There are affordances to both modalities… some suit some of us better than others. I agree with BJ that my favourite is a blended model where we can steal some of the advantages from both approaches. It need not be either or though, in most cases.

Interesting to see everyone on the same side of a discussion for once :). It speaks well of our government and our culture, i suppose, that privacy isn’t a concern to its citizens. Don says “if you do the crime, you do the time” – and that works fine as long as you and the people with the power to harm/incarcerate you agree on what is a crime. The catch comes when those things don’t line up. Lets imagine that, like in many, many countries, it becomes a crime to criticize a political party or a religion or some other organization. An interesting discussion. In this case our discussion forum, different from the discussion above on university/college, shows our agreement.

Rhizomatic Learning and MOOCs – Assessment

I received a question on twitter today about one of my favourite fist slamming on the table topics, assessment, and figured i would use the opportunity to put down a few thoughts about rhizomatic learning and how it impacts the way I see MOOCs.

(post/pre-script) This post has taken on a rather anthemic tone… i just thought you might want to be warned 😛

What’s a MOOC?
A Massive Open Online Course, in my mind, is a way of trying to use the internet to get lots of people talking about a specific thing. As has been mentioned by others lots of great learning happens on the internet already. There are discussion forums, and websites and communities everywhere that people go to and learn things with. Those things are often massive, mostly open and obviously online. The massiveness and the openness are critical. They provide enough weight of opinion that things generally agreed upon as reasonable are seen as reasonable – “One should not use power tools drunk” – but things that are the subject of differing opinions – “you should use renewable forest trees” – are represented in this way as well. These same advantages apply to the MOOC, but it’s the ‘course’ bit that makes it different. The word course implies lots of institutional things, potentially, but what is at the core of its meaning is a time based, sequenced series of topics that reflect a certain context. We will cover these topics, over this time, with the intent of achieving that goal over there. It’s an invitation to a conversation. It’s not, in my opinion, as cool as a community, but it offers the potential for community to form because it allows for a rallying point for discussion.

Rhizomatic Learning – What are we teaching?
This means different things to different people. I like to think of it as the practical results of some very particular philosophical views on knowing. The philosophy that informs it (see A Thousand Plateaus) posits, among other things, a world that is uncertain. This has great potential, in that it means knowing can be shaped, it is flexible, responsive, resilient – like the rhizome itself. It is also a world where looking for what is ‘true’ is mostly a question of looking for who has the power to define it as true. Where things are not tidy, where the complex web of ideas is less like a perfect spider’s web and more like water dripping through broken glass. It’s not a mystery novel with a person who-dunnit who you just don’t know about yet, but more like everyday life, full of decisions that have no right answer.

How the MOOC serves this
One of the great affordances of a MOOC is that it has the potential to bring together so many divergent opinions. There are certainly power structures, places where the people who are ‘running’ the course of things have the chance to set a tone or a context for a given discussion. There is also room for dissent… room for multiplicity. We can, as we did in the first MOOC (so called) have people who think that connectivism is and isn’t a pedagogy having a discussion about how it might be applied. These two need not actually agree with each other (or the facilitators, Stephen Downes and George Siemens, who to my knowledge don’t even agree on connectivism) in order to learn from each other.

That’s the beauty of the process, and the power implicit in the potential of the internet. The Personal Learning Environment (PLE) is not ‘a place i have created that holds all my learning’ but rather ‘the traces of my journey, implicit and explicit, where i have carved out my own personal understanding’. We can learn together, differently.

What this means for assessment

What we are learning is contextualized by each individual differently, according to their experiences, their understanding and purposes,


The things that are learned are not definite, but flexible and complex


Assessing what someone ‘knows’ is an act of enforcement of a given point of view, not a(n apolotical) helpful guideline to learning

Why do we teach?
This is the question that I am continually asking myself, and asking others. Why do we engage in the process of teaching? Is it simply the enforcement of norms of a society that we wish to live in? I hope that it is not.

I teach in an attempt to lure more people into the context that I’m familiar with. I want people to have some understanding for how words are used in the contexts that I’m familiar with, how the discussion is shaped, what things some people consider important. I teach to learn from their reactions to those ideas, to further push my ideas forwards.

I teach (as much as one can) in a MOOC because i like having the opportunity to start a conversation about the things that I care about.

So how do we assess in a MOOC?
‘We’ do not assess in a MOOC. I might develop a method by which I assess what I’m doing. I might pay someone (a prof, tutor, consultant) to help push me in a given direction. The MOOC, however, can only have a single model for assessment insofar as it is enforcing a particular point of view. We may create communities of practice, or networks or groups or mentorships that allow us to track our learning in myriad ways, but there is no sense, I think, in which it makes sense to assess, in the centralized – this is what to know – sense, a MOOC.

Why would we bother?

A dead-head sticker on a cadillac – the new open learning

I just came back from the #cali2012 conference in sunny San Diego where i gave an admittedly rambling talk about the future of education as seen through the lens of open learning. I rerecorded the talk when i got home, and will post the video of the talk from San Diego when i comes available. It was an attempt at pulling together all the things i’ve been talking about for the last two years into one talk… I’ll let you judge whether it was too much 🙂

The argument goes pretty much like this.

1. Our historical ideas of education were formed when the ‘goal’ of education was more clearly understood.
2. The new tools are challenging our conceptions of education further
3. Two trends – analytics and MOOCs present an interesting landscape on which to have that discussion
4. The combination of the two presents an innovative new business model, not a new learning model
5. We need to decide why we are teaching before we can decide how to adapt the technologies
6. Simple learning is foundational, complex learning allows for decision making
7. Rhizomatic learning is a good way to prepare people for the uncertainty of decision making

[youtube_sc url=ifNs-KF47ig width=550]

note: The dead-head sticker reference is to the Udacity/Pearson connection not only changes the business model of ALL of education, it makes false claims to ‘educational’ innovation. While i certainly am impressed with the business innovation involved in this (truth be told, in a weird coming together of the planets, i predicted it at the end of last year) it is not innovative education. It is premised in the idea of taking content and shoving it into someone else’s brain.

post-script: I think i’ve pushed these ideas out as far as I can… and am feeling a bit unsure about some of what’s in here. Time to stop pushing the limits and focus on clearing up individual points of the argument i think.

A review of rhizomatic learning in Mendeley

I’ve committed to taking the work i’ve been doing around rhizomatic learning to the next level this year. I don’t necessarily know what that’s going to look like, but hopefully it will at least mean a few more papers and some better thinking. One of the steps that I’ve taken in the last few days is to setup a mendeley group dedicated to rhizomatic learning and seeing what we can do about gathering the scant existing publications together into one place. So far the response has been very good, and a considerable about of stuff has been gathered.

But what to do with it all?

A lit review
If you go over to the group page on Mendeley you’ll see a number of papers, a bunch of people, a brief description of the group and a link. That link goes to a googledoc. It’s occurred to me that the only way i’m going to be able to organize my own thoughts about the papers that are being put into group is to have some contextual piece that will walk people through it. I may, over time, become familiar enough with all the papers to not need this crutch. But i will certainly need it over the short term, and it would seem that it could be useful for others.

There is something terribly ironic about applying this much structure to a concept that in some ways IS structural resistance itself. But, much like D&G suggest in their own introduction to A Thousand Plateaus, we have to do something. If i’m going to further my own work, share work with others, then we need some kind of context within which we can work some kind of exchange.

My own goal is to see if it is possible to create a practical teaching/learning approach grounded in the philosophy represented in those articles. Something that starts way over in the netherworld of french post 1960 philosophy, and finishes in someone’s classroom. I’m starting to get asked the question… “how would i do this in my school/classroom”. I don’t know if there are answers to this question, but i’m going to try and find out 🙂

The language challenge
Rhizomatic learning is based, however enigmatically, in the work of Deleuze and Guattari. They are French and, to put it broadly, difficult to define. Some would call them postmodern or post-structuralist philosophers, but they did not particularly seem to like those terms. I will not delve into that debate here, suffice it to say that they have a particular way of looking at the world, and an entire language built up around how to talk about that. Some of that language they inherited from philosophers and psychoanalysts before the, some, frankly, they simply made up or so profoundly changed from their usual meaning that they might as well have made them up.

This special language makes any work on rhizomes (and associated concepts) a very difficult one. I feel very passionately about the narrative that emerges from D&G’s work and believe that it has a very important story to tell about education, learning, complexity and uncertainty. I always tend to get caught, however, between speaking in technical terms about the philosophy behind it, and speaking in terms that people unfamiliar with the French Philosophical context will accept at face value.

Lets try… decalcomania – one of the characteristics of the rhizome

according to wikipedia it

“is a decorative technique by which engravings and prints may be transferred to pottery or other materials.”

It evolved to a surealist practice of

tracing without an original

which seems more appropriate to the usage that D&G mean for it. Awesomely, the same wikipedia entry claims that decalcomania is the root work of Cockamamy, which was a deliberate mispronunciation. It was also shortened to ‘decal’. This, then, is the accepted usage of the word.

According to a quote stolen from a colleague (Keith Hamon) for Deleuze and Guattari decalcomania is

“forming through continuous negotiation with its context, constantly adapting by experimentation, thus performing a non-symmetrical active resistance against rigid organization and restriction.”

I recently described it as

“They grow and spread via experimentation within a context”

Without using the term decalcomania at all.

They are similar, certainly, but its not an easy voyage from one to the other. Plus, the word shape itself (with ‘mania’ at the end) suggests that its meaning may be more esoteric and psychobabbely. This without even opening up the discussion about the actual biological nature of the rhizome.

And i’ve lost some of the deeper political meaning with my translation. I had a similar conversation a few weeks ago with my concerns over the translation of ‘war machine’ from ‘machine de guerre’.

Working through the language in a group is going to be a struggle. Those of us crossing disciplines always get into trouble over this i suppose, but I’m not sure what to do about it.

A way forward
So i’m going to go ahead and keep adding to my lit review document. And whether it’s a document that i finish three years from now, by myself, or something where a bunch of others join in and we publish it somewhere with 20 authors is of no great concern to me. I’ll poke away at it, feel free to do the same yourself.

Seeing rhizomatic learning and MOOCs through the lens of the Cynefin framework

The Change11 course has brought me many realizations, but none so useful as the Cynefin framework. As i suggested in my last post, i’ve been working on bringing it into my decision making at my day job. In the last four weeks it’s occurred to me that it is also an excellent way to help clarify some of my thinking around learning as well. In trying to describe rhizomatic learning, there are two critical challenges that I’ve not been able to voice properly.

1. How is this not simply anarchy?
2. How are people supposed to understand the basics?

I certainly don’t see my classrooms as anarchic, though they sometimes slide off in that direction. In a very real sense, my job is to keep the classroom from descending into random patters of behaviour, and keep it to the topic that we are supposed to be covering. That’s the difference between having a class and simply hosting a party.

I also am not particularly interested in ‘teaching’ the basics. It’s a troubling word that… basics. I often find myself thinking that things like ‘definitions’ are basic concepts, whereas experience tells me that knowing enough about a concept to describe it is actually a pretty profound statement of understanding. By basic here i mean ‘turn on the computer’ rather than define a computer.

Still, the energy and creativity that can come from the unexpected and the toolkit that can come from having ‘acquired the basics’ are very handy to have when we are trying to grapple with a complex world. Therein lies the problem…

MOOCs as a structure – and rhizomatic learning as an approach – privilege a certain kind of learning and learner. The MOOC offers an ecosystem in which a person can become familiar with a particular domain. Rhizomatic learning is a way of navigating that ecosystem that empowers the student to make their own maps of knowledge, to be ‘cartographers’ inside that domain. It suggests that the interacting with a community in a given domain is learning. The community is the curriculum.

MOOCs offer a complex ecosystem in which you ‘can’ learn, not one where you ‘will learn.’ It doesn’t come with many guarantees. Rhizomatic learning is a complex way of learning, not the easiest way to learn to tie your shoes.

This is the germ of an idea that i’m getting out of the Cynefin Framework. Lets see if i can convince you… first, the framework.

Enter the Cynefin framework

This is the core of the Cynefin framework as developed by Dave Snowden. Five domains of decision making. Broadly speaking the framework offers a categorization for separating the different kinds of decisions that can be made, and the differing approaches required for each. The following is gleaned through pouring over the cognitive-edge website, reading through articles like this one, and watching the excellent videos Dave has online.

Simple issues: A relationship between cause and effect is observable. A thing can be easily categorized, and established best practice applied. See what’s coming in. Make it fit a category. Make a decision. This is ‘best practice’.

Complicated issues: There is a right answer, but it isn’t obvious. There is need to analyze. Several different ways of doing things, all of which are legitimate if you have the right expertise. This is ‘good practice’. See what’s coming. Analyze towards a solution (perhaps by contacting an expert). Make a decision.

Complex Issues: No connection between cause and effect. Safe fail experiments. If an experiment succeeds, it gets amplified. If it fails it gets dampened. Amplification and Dampening should be predetermined. Try something. See what happens. Amplify or dampen.

Chaotic Issues: Move very quickly to stabilize the situation. Any practice will be novel.

Disorder: Is the space of not knowing which of the domains we’re in. In this space people tend to fall back on their preferences for action. For the bureaucrat (simple domain) all failures are a failure of process. For the Deep expert (complicated domain), all failures are a failure of time and resources for research. For complexity workers (complex domain) all things require a large amount of resources/opinions/concepts to be brought to bear to search for a solution. For totalitarians (chaotic domain), everything is chaotic, and all decisions should be made directly by them, and immediately acted upon.

How the Cynefin framework can help people with MOOCs
If you are looking for ‘best practices’ in a given domain, the MOOC is a fantastically inefficient way of acquiring them. The simple domain described in the framework is no doubt a useful end of the educational realm… its the domain that allowed me to remember my timetables, and where to attach the wires on a light switch. ‘Best Practices’. You might find them in a MOOC, but who would know where to look.

If you are looking for ‘good practices’ a MOOC is probably a better option than for simple practices, but it’s still not exactly designed for that. Good practice decisions involved deep content experts using years of experience to offer guidance. Mentorship works like this. Working with an expert guide can be a wonderful way to learn… but it’s not how a MOOC is built. A MOOCer kinda needs to find their own way, and outside of paying for someone’s time to help guide you, it’s not built on the mentorship model.

If you are looking for a ‘chaotic experience’ MOOCs are probably a little tied tight for you. We tend to pull together materials, and have expert centred discussions that are fairly restrictive. If you’re looking for chaotic experiences where you need to put your foot in the ground and ‘do anything’ you already have the internet. You don’t need a MOOC.

The complex domain is where the MOOC really shines. If you want to try things, see how it goes, and build from that response, a MOOC is just the ecosystem you need. In it you can find people to try ideas out on, to work out the knowledge in the content domain that you’re interested in. Probe, sense, respond sounds just about right for a MOOC.

Rhizomatic Learning
And that description of how to act in a MOOC sounds just about right as a description of rhizomatic learning. The knowledge lives in the community, you engage with it by probing into the community, sensing the response and then adjust. Just like the rhizome. It is a learning approach that is full of uncertainty… not least for the educator. But its one that allows for the development of the literacies that will allow us to sharpen our ability to participate in complex decision making. Dealing with the uncertainty is what the learning is all about.

Here is an excerpt from the cognitive-edge website from a blog post written by Gary Wong

Fuzzy is better than Sharp when setting vision
Question: Which bird is a better predator? A sharp-eyed hunter that could pinpoint a specific animal 3 miles above ground or a half-blind bird that would pick up anything that moved, including rolling tumbleweed?
Answer: In a stable environment, pick the sharp-eyed bird. Hunting is easy and pickings are tasty. Ah, life is wonderful.
In a changing environment where windstorms, drought, or human intervention can drastically alter the food supply, go with the half-blind bird.

and so…
It’s that complex domain that interests me in learning. I think most of what i criticize or, at least, what concerns me about education is the movement between the complicated and simple domains. Our bureaucracies encourage simple domain learning, things that can be tracked and analyzed. Research goals seem to attempt to take things from complicated domains and shove them down into the simple one. Our world is increasingly one where complex decisions need to be made… and thats the kind of education i’m interested in being involved in.

Looking back at the worker, soldier and nomad, it seems to apply very well here. The nomad learns in the complex domain.

Embracing Uncertainty and the strange problem of habituation

For five years now i’m been trying to come up with a way of summarizing what Rhizomatic learning means to me. It is one thing to have a number of students trapped in a room, or tied to me by a grade, who are forced to listen to me for hours on end until they come to some shared understanding… it is quite another to explain it to someone in the street. “Hey Dave, what’s your presentation about” “well… it’s kinda hard to explain, you see, there are these plants that live undergound… ” and then i go off and start to talk about how i want students to be nomads and ask semi-rhetorical questions like ‘why do we teach‘.

If you have been following along on my five year odyssey, you’ll have been through all these chats and will know that I haven’t always been clear about it. If this is your first time here, and by some strange happenstance you just read those three links, you might still be wondering what exactly i’m on about. The challenge is that the rhizome, and rhizomatic learning is not exactly something i WANT to define. Defining it restricts it, and stops it from being a story that is useful to others – a story they can make their own. At the same time, i’m sure there are things that rhizomatic learning ‘isn’t’. So, given that, I’ve been looking for a way of talking about it that furthers the discussion, but doesn’t go about simply retorting to George’s serious criticisms as expressed last year during my presentation for the change mooc.

Rhizomes then, are effective for describing the structure and form of knowledge and learning – bumpy, lumpy, organic, and adaptive. But they fail to describe how learning occurs, how novelty happens, and how a rhizome becomes more than a replication of itself. Rhizomes can be a helpful way to think about curriculum, to think about how we develop educational content when we are connected (dang networks again) to one another and to information sources. However, beyond the value of describing the form of curriculum as decentralized, adaptive, and organic, I’m unsure what rhizomes contribute to knowledge and learning.

Embracing uncertainty
Rhizomatic learning is about embracing uncertainty. That’s the goal. Getting to the point in oneself, or helping someone else to get to the point where they are able to confront a particular system, challenge, situation whatever not knowing the answer and feeling like they can decide about it. I try to thinking of teaching, then, as mimicking the process of being confronted with uncertain situations, that develop the literacies required to deal with uncertainty. There are alot of good words that go along with this… responsibility, self-reliance, creativity… but I’m starting to think that it all comes down to uncertainty. My students want ‘the right answer’ and i want to to be comfortable with an answer. Not because they shouldn’t work their tails off to come up with a good answer… just that it won’t be ‘the right answer.’

I think lots of things about curriculum construction (or lack thereof), of how we should keep curriculum as the communities that we have, but those are really what I’ve been talking about in other places. If someone were to gather up the excellent work of folks like Tobey Steeves, Mary ann Reilly, the ‘sweedish rhizomatic folks‘, I have no doubt that you could pull together something that someone might call ‘a learning theory’ for rhizomatic learning. Others would disagree. I am not concerned.

[note: ‘the sweedish rhizomatic folks include @BPJoh @tusenpekpinnar @widaeus @DanSvanbom and @perfal]

Uncertainty in our cultures has been covered by convention for many years. The veneer is peeling. To teach someone ‘the way things are’ is only to play power. Uncertainty is something that needs to be in our teaching, in our curriculum and set as a goal for our students.

The strange case of habituation
Now, saying that… there are tons of conventions that we need to have our thoughts so that we can talk about anything. I am currently learning how to make furniture. I have some sense of what people mean by a through mortise and quarter sawn oak. It took me about ten times reading through the same material before i came to understand what those words might refer to… at least enough to understand, for instance, how hard a particular chair might be to make.

I’m starting to think of this as ‘habituation’. Of getting to the point where i have become so worn down on trying to visualize what a thing might mean, that it starts to come without me thinking about it. I have a pavlovian response to that word (sign). I found myself using the word ‘mortise’ in conversation with someone today before I remembered that it was a special word that they might not know. I no longer ‘think about it’. These are the kinds of habituations that are required before and during any learning venture. They are the stuff that discussions of uncertainty is made out of… but they often need to be approached very differently.

I have to say… i’m not a hundred percent convinced on this usage of the word. I mentioned it in our Change11 conversation with Dave Snowden and got quite abruptly brought up short. He responded by talking about how cab drivers in London, after several years of remembering the streets, actually have their brains ‘changed’. I’m not talking about this level of expertise at all… the VAST majority of the things we learn never become something that we do 8 hours a day. In the case of the cab driver… the fact that streets have names, the words used for directions and the idea that times and fares are important are a more apt comparison. That is a more usual level at which we take people into new domains of thinking.

I tend to think of the habituation as best done as ‘cold water immersion’. Dive in… the conventions will become second nature as your body adjusts. You will start to become inured to the shock of the new context. Once that happens, you can bring your literacies to the point where you can prepare yourself for uncertainty.

A note on replication and rhizomes and networks as metaphor (from George’s post)
(this is really a note for myself so that when i look back at this, I’ll remember my response)

I am not troubled by the idea that we ‘replicate ourselves’ through rhizomes. Replicating ourselves is what being alive is all about. The rhizome talks to a ‘way’ of thought not to the content of it. George believes that networks are ‘real things’ in the world. I think they are conventions that we build up that allow us to talk about things. This is an epistemic difference in our views of the world. I think we wander through a sea of conventions, trying to share our experiences with each other. That we find new and more interesting metaphors that better approximate the world around us. That is, for instance, how I see science. Get a theory, keep trying to disprove it. There’s no ‘true’ in that… only current convention. George thinks things exist. For me it’s all metaphor.

The rhizome is uncertainty. That doesn’t mean it ‘isn’t’. It has no start and no ending. It is complex… and as such, it resists definition. As a model for learning, it resists ‘core principles’ or ‘final outcomes’. It is an ongoing process of growing, of surprise and of change.

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