etmooc: Rhizomatic learning–a worry and a question

Socrates Eyes, by pj_Vanf, Flickr (links below)

In my previous post I talked about the notion of “rhizomatic learning” and how it might be implemented in a philosophy course. Here I bring up a worry and a question, things that came up for me after I thought about this idea further.

A worry

I worry that rhizomatic learning, at least as I described it in the previous post, might promote learning within already-established interests, beliefs, values, etc. What I mean is, if one were to let students create their own PLN’s and focus only on things they are interested in, it may be less likely that they’ll stretch the boundaries of what they already believe and value, and the assumptions underlying their views will go unquestioned. One of the many roles that instructors can have is to goad students into investigating and questioning their own beliefs, values and assumptions–as we philosophers might put it, to act as Socratic gadflies.

In my own connected, networked learning experiences I have tended to focus on those people who agree with me, on sites that talk about things I’m already interested in, etc. If I am pursuing what is most meaningful to me in my current state of being, as rhizomatic learning suggests, then I am missing things that might be meaningful in the sense of jarring me, showing problems with my assumptions, and perhaps also pointing out that the way I am speaking and acting might be contributing to exclusion or oppression of others.

This kind of problem could occur with any practice that focuses wholly or mostly on getting students to pursue their own learning paths according to their own interests. If we only ask them to look into what seems most interesting, what they’re excited about, they might miss out on exposure to things that they aren’t interested in but that can really be valuable for them in terms of thinking critically about their own views.

Two things came to my attention this week that really brought this concern out for me.

First, I received this post from the Tomorrow’s Professor email list (the link to the post is to a blog that’s hard to read because there are no paragraph breaks; it’s easier to read once it’s at the Tomorrow’s Professor site, but it’s not there yet. Soon it should be: search for post 1225). It’s from a book by Mark Tennant called The Learning Self: Understanding the Potential for Transformation (Jossey-Bass, 2012). In this excerpt, Tennant talks about different ways of conceiving of autonomy and what it means to promote autonomy for students in teaching and learning. I won’t summarize the whole thing here, but just look at a couple of parts of it.

In the first part of the post, Tennant discusses the “humanistic” version of learner autonomy, which (he claims) underlies “learner-centred” educational practices inspired by Carl Rogers, among others. Tennant quotes Pratt and Nesbit (2000) on the topic of learner-centred education:

This was an important discursive shift….Now content, and the specification of what was to be learned, was subordinate to the learner’s experience and participation….Learners were to be involved in specifying what would be learned, how it would be learned, and what would be an appropriate indication of learning….The learner’s experience, as a form of foundational knowledge, replaced the teacher’s expertise as the primary compass that guided learning. As a consequence, the primary role of teacher shifted from teacher-as-authority to teacher-as-facilitator (p. 120).

In the learner-centred view, the instructor is a neutral, nonjudgmental facilitator.

 In the last part of the excerpt, on “critical” autonomy, Tennant notes that those who adhere to the “critical theory” view of teaching (e.g., Stephen Brookfield and Jack Mezirow),

… don’t accept at face value the beliefs and values of learners—quite the contrary, the whole point of education is, they believe, to challenge accepted beliefs and values. …. In the critical theory approach the teacher is anything but neutral, always challenging learners’ assumptions within a framework that recognizes the power of social forces to shape needs, wants, and desires.

Much of the point with critical theory is not just to question assumptions and how one has been socialized, but to do so in order to combat inequality and oppression–it can often be the case that the dominant discourses in which one is raised and feels comfortable, that shape one’s assumptions and beliefs, perpetuate oppression in subtle ways that are not obvious unless pointed out.

The second thing I came across this week was a blog post by @Edu_K, which raised the issue of rhizomes easily becoming “weeds” in the sense of taking over gardens:

Bamboo and other rhizomatic plants are great at spread, survival and colonisation of new territories. But as ecologists and gardeners know, if unchecked they become weeds and can dominate and suppress a plant community or a garden instead of enriching it. They are also clones – the rhizomes produce exact copies of the ‘mother’ plant.

So instead of free exploration and exchange of ideas leading to rich and unpredictable learning – the story of rhizomatic learning can equally be a story of domination and monoculture, with rarer and more delicate ‘flowers’ getting pushed out, suppressed – not able to grow.

To me, this sounded like what can happen in face-to-face courses, where ideas that are shared by many end up becoming dominant, either because those who disagree aren’t comfortable speaking up because they may feel they are alone, or because of the power of popular views to seem right and gain more and more adherents–creating clones. Similar things can, of course, happen in larger groups of connected persons.

I suppose this concern with rhizomatic learning could be mitigated through ensuring that one’s networks have people in them who act as gadflies, who make good arguments on the “other” sides of what one already thinks, who point one to new resources that make one reconsider one’s beliefs–even if only to decide one’s original beliefs are right and reaffirm them. And somehow encouraging ourselves and others to listen to those people, rather than rejecting them out of hand (as happened with many people in their encounters with Socrates, if Plato is to be believed). But if that is hard enough for us to do as instructors (at least it is for me), then it’s likely hard for our students to do as well. And we can’t do it for them.

A question

The more I think about it, it seems that rhizomatic learning is something many people do for much of their lives–at least insofar as we have connections with others, we are often continually learning from them, and forming new connections when we need to learn new things. The technologies of the 21st century have made our capacity for connections grow exponentially, so we are no longer able to connect only with those that we already know, or can be introduced to by those we do know. We can connect much more quickly and easily with potentially thousands of people around the world.

But if it’s the case that many people often learn through connections with others, whether within or outside of educational institutions, then why not think of the courses we teach as just part of the connections students are making in terms of their lives as a whole?  They have connections with their family, friends, people on social media, their fellow students, and also with us as professors. We, and our classes, are another connection in their lives.

Some of those connections, on blogs and Twitter and more, will speak as experts, as authorities, as providing top-down information transfer. Why can’t we do some of that in our courses too, since we do have useful information to share, and still think of their whole learning process as rhizomatic, even if in our particular course the learning is more top-down rather than lateral? This isn’t to say that there might still be areas in which the teaching and learning should, appropriately, be more rhizomatic (though the above concern still holds), but rather to say that maybe all learning is part of a bigger network each person experiences in their lives (or rather, one of a series of continually changing networks, to keep to the rhizome idea).

I don’t know if this is a criticism of rhizomatic learning or not, since Cormier specifically says it’s not appropriate for all teaching situations so information-transfer in courses sometimes is appropriate. But perhaps even that is part of a larger sense of rhizomatic learning?

 

I’d love to hear your thoughts on my concern and my question(s)! Are there dangers with learner-centred models such that they don’t emphasize enough the important role an instructor could play as gadfly, or the need to seek out gadflies? Is most or all learning already rhizomatic?

——– UPDATE ———-

In a Google+ conversation, Shuana Niessen said the following about this post: “This Ted talk (http://www.thefilterbubble.com/ted-talk) adds to the problem of learning that caters to our own interests and choices rather than challenging us to move beyond.”

This is a TED talk by Eli Pariser, talking about how search engines and other applications (like Facebook) filter internet content for each one of us differently, based on our activity within them. Obviously, this is for marketing purposes, but the result is that we may think we have access to all kinds of information, views on different sides of issues, etc., and we are finding a path of our own through that. But often our access is very small, actually, filtered already before we even get to it. Thus, it’s hard to do rhizomatic learning well in the current internet environment, because we may not even be able to make the connections or find the information that would help us think more critically.

The filter bubble website and blog has much more information on this. Thanks to Shuana for pointing all this out to me…I had heard of the issue, but didn’t know about Pariser and his work.

——————————

Image: Socrates Eyes, by pj_Vanf; CC-BY 2.0

 

Works cited

Pratt, D.D. & Nesbit, T. (2000). Discourses and Cultures of Teaching. In E. Hayes and A. Wilson (Eds), Handbook of Adult and Continuing Education, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

26 thoughts on “etmooc: Rhizomatic learning–a worry and a question

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  2. thanks for the critically reflective blog post.
    this is something i have been focused on over the last few weeks – the group (or at least those publicly participating) seem to take on the ideas (memes) of the course and they spread quickly and are repeated often. These views the are shared by the moderators and as such they themselves are drawn to re:sharing what seems to me to be mostly their original ideas. very few people are being critical and the moderators are definitely not using a critical theory approach in my view. I saw the same thing happen in an education grad certificate i took at the University of Sydney and i wonder if education as an area of study has a different approach to other humanities in this regard?

    • Hi Caleb: Great point. My sense is that the moderators of the course are acting as facilitators, trying to let people go where they choose and not stepping in to act as critical prodders. I think that’s part of the connected learning idea generally, though I’ll admit I haven’t read very much about connected learning or connectivism (see, e.g., Stephen Downes or George Siemens; here’s a theoretical article by Siemens)

      I think it’s hard to say if education as a discipline is less “critical” than humanities disciplines; after all, there are quite a few critical theorists in education too! It’s a blend, I expect, as is philosophy.

      So if the moderators aren’t jumping in to be gadflies, then others have to do it. I appreciate that you’re doing so with some of your blog posts. Not many are, including me most often. I think I lean more towards the connectivist end, and so rather enjoy much of what is talked about, and re-shared, in etmooc. But it IS a danger, that we all just become clones of one another, and those who disagree get drowned out in the chatter. I’ll have to think about how to contribute to avoiding this problem. So far I haven’t done much.

  3. Christina,
    You raise a good point about rhizomatic learning promoting learning within already established interests. I wonder if there can be a balance where you have a blend of rhizomatic and critical theory? Students plot their learning but the instructor pushing back and directing / exposing them to contrary view points. It also occurs to me that the typical undergraduate and graduate path starts with the learner experiencing a wide range of topics and gradually narrowing until they are taking courses targeted to their established interests.
    Thanks for stretching my thinking on this.
    Claire

    • Hi Claire: I like the idea of a balance, as you suggest (and Brendan suggested a different sort of balance, in his comment). Either the teacher could be the “gadfly” or somehow one could require students to include people in their PLN’s who act as such…but the latter is too difficult. The only problem with asking the instructor to be the gadfly for students in a learner-directed type of learning situation is that the instructor may not be aware enough of the contrary viewpoints to the various things that the students are researching, discussing with their PLN’s, etc. Students might be researching and talking about things I myself am not well versed in! Still, I suppose, the instructor could help them see the assumptions that are underlying their arguments, their beliefs, etc., and ask them to engage in some critical reflection on those.

      I do see your point that the typical undergrad path starts out much more broad and then narrows, though even with the broader courses (such as first- or second-year, survey-type courses), the learning is usually much more directed by the instructor than the rhizomatic learning model would seem to suggest. Still, out of the various topics they are exposed to, even in instructor-generated lists of topics through various courses, students do tend to move towards what interests them in upper-level courses, and especially in grad school. So there is some learner-centred education going on even where it might not look like it. I hadn’t thought about this–thanks for pointing it out.

      Those who want more student-directed or rhizomatic learning might argue that there should be even more, though, so that students don’t have to “settle” for what interests them most out of a smaller set of possibilities. I’m still undecided if I’m one of those people or not. I think so, but with the caveats noted in my post and the comments here so far. And probably more I have yet to articulate to myself.

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  8. Thanks for the wonderful post. You’ve tackled an issue dear to me, and I am sympathetic to your questions about rhizomatic education; however, does your view change slightly if you think of what is happening in this very blog post, especially if you think of this post as an example of rhizomatic learning? It does for me.

    This post is one of those rhizomatic off-shoots of the main bulb of the ETMOOC, to pursue the rhizome metaphor. As near as I can tell, the participants here in this little class you’ve convened are all here pursuing their own interests in the topic, undirected by the MOOC facilitators, working very hard to think through a tricky issue, and quite likely each of us will assess the value of the learning we gain herein. That’s about as rhizomatic as I can imagine education to be.

    If I think of what is happening here, then, I can counter some of the issues raised about rhizomatic learning. For instance, Brendan Murphy says above that he agrees “that Rhizomatic Learning is not appropriate and tends to lead to more of a weed like growth, shallow and undifferentiated.” Though I’m not sure whom he is agreeing with, as I don’t think you said this. Still, I don’t think the rhizomatic learning in this post to be either inappropriate or shallow and undifferentiated. Our learning here does lack a central authority telling us the correct answer (at worst) or goading us to different points of view (at best), but we don’t seem to be suffering too much or all falling into some kind of groupthink, which is always possible but hardly inevitable.

    Perhaps the issue is that we don’t truly believe our students are capable of this kind of self-directed, self-formed, self-assessed learning without us. Okay, perhaps—though I’m conceding this point only for the sake of argument—still, couldn’t we imagine a rhizomatic education which invites students to join us in our own explorations of knowledge? This way, we present ourselves as fellow knowmads, more experienced, but still exploring.

    • Hi Keith H: I’m so glad you posted a comment, because that led me to your blog! Will soon be reading through your posts on connectivism and rhizomatic learning.

      I certainly agree that etmooc involves its participants in rhizomatic learning, and this post and the comments are part of that. Etmooc is my first personal experience with rhizomatic learning, and I must say I em enjoying it very much. But it’s not for everyone…some people get lost in the noise of the various posts, tweets, etc., as well as in the learning curve required to be able to participate (i.e., tech tools). That’s related to comments on an earlier post, though!

      On to your specific point. I think Brendan was pointing to the blog post I mentioned above, that talked about rhizomes being weed-like at times, taking over gardens, not allowing other plants to thrive. I took that point to mean that sometimes learning situations that are driven by a community could end up, inadvertently, becoming uninviting spaces to those who think differently from most of the rest of the group. When hundreds or even thousands of people are having a conversation and someone who thinks differently doesn’t hear anyone they connect with, then that alternative voice may end up simply not being heard. I guess this kind of concern is referred to as discussion in an “echo chamber,” where self-directed learners get together and say similar things to each other and don’t end up expanding their views that much. Is this happening in etmooc? Possibly so…there is little in the way of critical voices in etmooc so far; most people are singing the praises of the various theories and tools and practices we discuss (not that there are NO critical voices, just not very many). But so far in some of the blog posts I’ve read, there *are* alternative views being expressed in comments occasionally. Just wish there were more. Probably has to do with people (like me!) being new to the whole commenting thing, and some new to blogging, and many of us wanting to be supportive and positive. But critical is necessary too.

      And this comment discussion is a great example of people sharing various ideas–people who think rhizomatic learning is a good thing, and those who don’t (more on that on the previous post to this one, also on rhizomatic learning).

      I think Brendan may have been getting to yet a different point by talking about rhizomatic learning being “shallow.” Here’s a blog and vlog post by him about that. In a learning situation made up of a vast network, it’s too easy to just skim the surface of things by going from post to post, tweet to tweet, webpage to webpage, etc., without really focusing in on anything. This, though, is the responsibility of the learners, as you note–we have to be self-directed, self-formed, self-assessing. And I do think that many students are capable of this, but for others (especially younger students…I teach higher ed so this would be first year students at college/university) they may need a little encouragement to become more self-directed while still managing to focus in on smaller parts of a huge, networked pie. That’s a hard skill that I’m not very good at yet. How to help others do that? Maybe practice with exposure to such large rhizomes, such large connections, and they will come to see that they *must* focus (as I have)?

      I do think it would be good to present ourselves as fellow nomads, parts of rhizomatic networks, continually learning. How, though, do you envision inviting students with us on such a journey? I just imagine modeling for them, and then letting them create their own networks–because mine isn’t going to be useful for them!

      • Christina, thanks for the lovely reply. You write so well.

        You make some wonderful comments about rhizomatic learning that I hope others will learn. I will certainly blog about them in my own space. First, I really like your idea that learning in its largest sense (life-long learning) is rhizomatic with pockets of more traditional learning to address given situations—if I’ve read you correctly. This is quite in keeping with Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the rhizome as including not only asignifying ruptures (fluid flights of deterritorializations and reterritorializations) but also concretized bulbs and knots of fascism, to mention two extremes, and all variations between. This fits nicely, I think, with Cormier’s use of the Cynefin framework with its different zones, a coarser, more approachable model than is the rhizome. Some aspects of life and knowledge can be safely relegated to the simple domain (the multiplication table or identifying the sonnet on a test), some to the complicated (scheduling 2000 courses for a college or writing a good sonnet), some to the complex (interactions in a social network or writing a great sonnet), and some are abandoned to the chaotic (black swans or writing gibber;o40ua0djf4@#$%). I think Cormier is choosing to work mostly in the complex zone, but he does not deny that we must also learn what has been made simple, and that can require very different educational methods.

        I also appreciate your worries about our students not being able to join us in a more rhizomatic learning adventure. I think you are correct to worry. I believe that most of our students have been educated in the simple domain where they were taught one method to one right answer, the one on the test. Unfortunately, it’s those students who make the best grades who are most often trapped by the simple domain. Because they are clever and quick, they’ve learned to game the system, and they complain most loudly in my classes when the objectives and routines are not explicit and simple. Self-organizing and self-assessing scares them. It isn’t how they have succeeded up to now, and they don’t like it.

        Because of the wonderful conversation in this space, I’ll write more in my own space, and thanks for reading.

        • Hi Keith H:

          Sorry your comment took awhile to appear here…it ended up in the spam box for some reason. I should be checking that every day! But at least I caught it.

          I certainly agree that there are a number of students who are caught in the simple, easy-answer domain of learning, and don’t want to move beyond it. But sometimes it’s necessary to do so. I get concerns in philosophy courses a lot that some students are uncomfortable because there isn’t always a single “right” answer. I find it a fun challenge, but others find it downright frightening. I guess our challenge as instructors is to find a way to make such processes a little less scary, when learning situations are more open or complex. How to do that, though, I’m still not sure.

          Thanks so much for commenting, and now I need to read more of your blog!

  9. Rhizomatic learning.

    As I think of it, there are advantages, and disadvantages.

    I’m guessing that the removal of the instructor as pedagogical locus does not necessitate the removal of the instructor, but does necessitate a change in role, moving from instructor to faciliitator, and challenge setter. A cMOOC is not entirely without structure or direction, but it’s focus lies outside of that structure, and structures are there to facilitate, necssitate or create opportunities for peer learning.

    An instructor can be a node, but as such cannot be explicitly dominant (though they may be creating some of the landscape, and an architect, they can’t become a privileged node).

    There may be top down information transfer, but I’m guessing it’s more likely resources williperate on a share and evaluate basis, rather than a transfer basis. The technologies being used, the structure being created (the collaborate seminars, course descriptors, rationale, the language, decentralisation of resources and authority) all tend to create a scenario where sharing, self direction, and resource exploitation by students rather than transefr is likely to be the norm (students are likely to encounter people who direct them to resources, or engage in dialogues rather than monologues, which will require critical and focused engagement).

    A funbdamental tenet would seem to be a form of democratisation, where expertise, as such, is something that has less value than engagement, and resource richness. The idea is not to learn from expertise, but to develop expertise through a process of resource gathering, thought, curation, processing, realisation in artefacts etc. Instructors would seem to act as repositories of take it or leave it resources, facilitators, and medium architects.

    An issue I have with this mirrors aspects of your concerns. Conventional university systems to a degree offer access to expertise as a shortcut. Communities of Interest may not exercise the level of critical engagemnet, evaluation, and materials and ideas sorting that n institution operating on a basis of peer review does. The methodologies that a community enforces on itself may not, in all likelihood, produce the type of rigor, good methodology, and high standars that a good review process helps ensure. Morale and cameraderie can come to replace careful method and detailed evaluation. And without rigor, attention to detail, and objectivity, nodes, in a democratised structure like rhizomatic learning, can attain a degree of knolwedge and theory equity which a more rigorous process would deny them.

    It reminds me of Feyerabend arguing for an anarchic scientific method, a method within which the peer process of testing a premise or conclusion to it’s destruction would be impossible. As in the scientific method, the function of expertise is to dethrone misconeptions, kill sacred cows, and create conditions wherein the authoring of truth and knowledge is subjected to a community of practice’s gathered and established expertise.

    Expertise, when deployed in learning, at it’s best, provides an efficient path to rigor, discrimination, and truth validating. At it’s worst it sucks the life from learning.

    Rhizomatic learning seems like a description of something we already do, in several arenas. It’s something apprenticeships do. It’s something enthusiasts clubs, societies, do. It seems to require nothing more than interest to legislate access as a node, and potentially nothing more than a willingness to connect as a means of legislating validity.

    I can see huge advantages as a structure. It’s potentially expense free, offers large amounts of resources, can be taken advantage of well and efficiently by expert learners with sufficient knowledge to be efficiently and knowledgeably critical, can generate large amounts of engagement, can foster short and long term connections and links, and can communicate diversity of opinion rapidly.

    I can see potential disadvantages too – problems for novices, an inability to determine and sort good from bad information, the replacement of depth of thought with breadth of content, communal groupthink, a democratisation of resources in terms of validity eqaulity that is undeserved, uneven or misleading feedback, difficulty in discerning and separating signal and noise.

    Lots more to think about really…

    • Hi Keith B:

      The first part of your comment made me think…yep, this is how etmooc itself works. I do think that rhizomatic learning can work in a kind of learning environment such as etmooc, where the primary goals involve participants making connections, sharing resources, and learning about new tech tools for sharing one’s works and those of one’s students with others (though it seems that making connections might be one of the primary goals). In the case of etmooc, the concerns about expertise are lessened, since many of us can be experts on different tools we’ve used, and even if we haven’t we still might have good ideas on how they *might* be used. There are also experts on those tools that are part of the network (e.g., Sue Waters on blogging). They give us presentations on those things and chime in on twitter and google+ sometimes. They’re there to help with questions we have about the tools if we post them on G+, too.

      I do see your point about knowledge and views gaining hold in a group that would not do so if there were a more rigorous process of expert review. And I share Caleb Kelly’s concern that there isn’t enough (or any) presentation of evidence, research to back some of the things we’re discussing (like the value of connected learning, rhizomatic learning, etc.). Still, we do have presentations on those things by experts in those areas (Alec Couros, David Cormier, e.g.), so the experts are there. What is missing, then, is the experts chiming in on conversations if and when misinterpretations are happening. Would that help? Of course, etmooc is too big for them to do that, so the alternative is for us to try to do it for each other. And not being experts, we are likely to miss things, misinterpret, etc.

      I agree that expertise in an area is a very helpful thing for many or most learning situations, but there are some learning situations where it’s okay to let the community discuss without the experts, or with the experts only a small part of the network. etmooc seems one of those situations, for the most part (with the exception of the theory stuff, which I think many of us might be getting wrong and we don’t have a good way to verify our interpretations). Do you agree?

      • I think it’s fine, vlauable, and hugely important for discussions to occur, but I do think, and this is highly variuable and conbtrextual, that the benefits and disadvantages of that will vary hugely.

        In areas where the focus is on exchanging tools and tool use tips, it’s very valuable. Working educators can offer something like a case studt approach to that, and that’s highly useful experience and expertise to pass on. I used this tool, foir this purpose, and I found these problems, these workarounds and these advantages.

        Where we run into problems is in assertions regarding the veracity or truthfulness of theory and it’s application. Rhizomatic learning is a good example. There’s no data or evidence presented, but, simultaneously, there’s a great deal of inter-personal cheerleading of the rhizomatic approach, and not very much critical dissection. The danger is a theory risks becoming accepted as fact at dface value, and, arguably, in a community where connection is valued in the way a cMOOC values it, acceptance becomes something of a badge of community.

        Ultimately, it looks like we have a change in pedagogy that’s not evidence or data driven ( which is a fundamental and problematic issue), which is receiving large and vocal support, amongst a community wherein expertise, and challenge are diffucult to come by.

        It reminbds me somewhat of the difference between anecdtal driven medical practice and data driven.

        A meaningful discussion of the utility and proper context for rhizomatic learning needs to be based in expertise, evidence, and data – something the rhizomatic process in this instance is not really supplying.

        I suspect it’s a very useful process for some things – resource and tool; sharing amongst communities of interest, critical thinking and imnvestigation amongst communities of experts, , and more, but the process we are engaged in, in terms of the structure created, and most of the interactions engaged in, doesn’t seem tyo be equipping us with the tools necessary to make the decisions about applicatability and utility.

        • I agree with you entirely, Keith, on the point about there needing to be, and not being, enough evidence and research presented on the rhizomatic learning theory (for example), through the rhizomatic process that is going on in etmooc. And I agree that generally, discussions of theory are probably best not left to a rhizomatic community; unless, that is, we are all well-versed in the theory and then are discussing arguments for and against it! In which case, one would have a rhizome of experts, which I assume is certainly possible in rhizomatic learning (and seems to be what you’re suggesting when you talk about critical thinking and investigation amongst communities of experts). One could choose one’s rhizomes to connect with based on different purposes.

          I also agree that there is a lot of cheerleading for things like rhizomatic learning (and now digital storytelling, perhaps?) without much or anything in the way of evidence being presented to support that these things are useful in the classroom. That’s a problem.

          So, once again, I think that we agree on more than we disagree on!

  10. This is such well crafted piece…So pardon my delay in responding, but I 1) needed time to noodle this over and 2) just needed time.

    What I am struck by is this: “if one were to let students create their own PLN’s and focus only on things they are interested in, it may be less likely that they’ll stretch the boundaries of what they already believe and value, and the assumptions underlying their views will go unquestioned.”

    The “stretch their boundaries” piece in particular. Your insight about thinking about our classes as another set of connections let me to wonder whether we, as educators, could facilitate connections with boundary-expanding networks for our students. I don’t mean that to sound tactical and manipulative, but do this in a fashion that is intentional. How do we expose students to ideas/networks that stretch the boundaries (as you suggest) in much the same way that perhaps a particular book does?

    Either way – I think you landed on a specific (potential) weakness in digital networked learning that is concerning. It does put some real value behind the role of teacher – boundary stretcher. Just wondering how it could be reframed.

    Thanks for getting me thinking (once again!).

    • Hi Jeff:

      I’m so glad you found the post useful and thought-provoking!

      Yes, using a book or a website or a video or what have you, assigning it as required in a course, can be a way to stretch the boundaries. But how do we do it when students are learning through the connections they make in their own PLN’s? Interesting suggestion to somehow include people or networks in their PLN’s that are boundary-stretching. I do wonder, though, if I’d even know what sorts of networks or people those would be, if students are self-directed-ly learning something that I don’t know much about myself! But I suppose finding such people or networks could be a required part of a course, and an instructor could help students if they are having trouble finding them. I’d have to be better at finding networks through things like twitter hashtags, keyword searches for blogs, etc. Intriguing idea!

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  13. There’s a piece I regularly go back to by Stephen Downes, “An Introduction to Connective Knowledge” – http://www.downes.ca/cgi-bin/page.cgi?post=33034, that was written very early on in the current iteration of the thinking behind MOOCs and network learning that I think is worth considering. In it he describes the “essential elements of reliable networks,” namely: openness, autonomy, diversity, interactivity. What’s important I think is that these aren’t presented as naturalistic qualities of *all* network, but instead essential elements which need to be cultivate for *reliable* (read “effective,” “helpful,” “learning,” etc, ones.) So that they need to be introduced seems less the question so much as who does the introduction/how it’s done. It doesn’t seem like an either/or; there is a role for anyone, be they instructor or peer, to push for any of these qualities and in so doing help others connected with them to expand their perspectives. But I’d argue that, rather than always promoting monoculture, a network approach which encourages any individual to engage these qualities from multiple sources has a much higher chance of these then becoming the learner’s OWN values instead of ones handed down from authority. In any case, nice post, sorry to come to it so late, followed it here from your recent post on #ds106 and xMOOCs. Keep up the great work, cheers, Scott

    • Thanks, Scott–I read Downes’ piece, but only after I wrote this post, and even then I didn’t connect his argument to what I say here in the way you did, so I appreciate that very much. It’s the “diversity” piece that may be most important in this sense (though ultimately they work together), and I can see that it’s not necessarily just the instructor’s place to introduce that diversity, to be something of a gadfly. S/he could fulfill that role, or others in a well-crafted network could.

      One thing I wondered then, and still wonder now, is how to help people build up networks in which such gadflies can be found, in which there is enough diversity of opinion so that a monoculture does not arise. I am guilty myself of mostly listening to the same sorts of people in my network, and have to think carefully about why I choose to follow or not follow someone on Twitter (e.g.) to try to remedy that. Then there’s the issue of actually listening to those people that annoy one. But you’re right; if these things can be done, then it makes sense to say that people’s views, afterwards, have a greater chance of being their own (at least to the degree that is possible).

      No problem coming late–glad you found it at all! We’re in the same geographical neighbourhood. May meet in person someday!

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