Category Archives: EdTech

etmooc: Rhizomatic learning in philosophy courses

I recently watched Dave CormiersIntro to rhizomatic learning” presentation as part of my participation in etmooc. Here, I’ll explain what rhizomatic learning is as briefly as I can, discuss what it might look like in a university level philosophy course, and ask a few questions.

In the next post I explore a possible critique that I’ve been mulling over. I’m not just assuming here that rhizomatic learning is a good thing (though obviously I find it interesting enough to write about), but rather just at this point examining the idea to help me better work to evaluate it.

What is “rhizomatic learning”? (according to Cormier)

I expect there are numerous views on what rhizomatic learning (or rhizomatic education) are, so I’ll just stick to Cormier’s view here for the sake of clarity. The following is just a brief summary of some parts of his view. If you would like more details, you can watch Cormier’s presentation for etmooc on YouTube, or read his paper on the topic, published in 2008 and posted on his blog, called “Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum.”

In his etmooc presentation, Cormier started off by suggesting that the “best learning” has to do with helping people deal with uncertainty, to figure out how to make decisions and choose the paths they should take when faced with situations in which the outcomes are uncertain. Education is tricky because we don’t know exactly what sorts of knowledge will be needed in the future, the changes different fields will undergo, the changes new technologies will bring, etc. So encouraging good decision-making and creative problem-solving skills, as well as the ability to continually guide one’s own learning to gain new knowledge as needed, are critical.

Cormier then introduced the idea of the rhizome, and rhizomatic learning, as “a model for learning for uncertainty.” I didn’t remember what “rhizomes” were, as it’s been quite some time since I took a botany course, and I’m not much of a gardener. Here’s what I found: some plants (such as ginger, hops, asparagus, and bamboo) have rhizomes, which are stems that are usually underground, and that have nodes from which the plant can move upwards to create above-ground stems, leaves, etc. So, if you have some asparagus in your garden, for example, you won’t just get one clump of it; the rhizomes underground will move horizontally and you will get above-ground asparagus stems popping up in numerous places.

by Rhian vK

“Iris Rhizomes,” by Rhian vK, from Flickr (links below)


A rhizomatic plant has no center and no defined boundary; rather, it is made up of a number of semi-independent nodes, each of which is capable of growing and spreading on its own, bounded only by the limits of its habitat. (Cormier (2008), “Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum”)

Rhizomes are very resilient as well; such plants are very difficult to get rid of, in part because new shoots can arise even if you break up the rhizome. As Cormier put it in his etmooc presentation: you can take any part of a rhizome and drop it somewhere else, and the plant will start to grow again. This idea of propagating laterally, rather than horizontally, is important in Cormier’s view of rhizomatic learning–this sort of learning takes place through connections made amongst groups of people, forming a network, rather than through knowledge or information-transmittal through experts (top-down) such as instructors or researchers publishing in peer-reviewed journals. Since in many fields “[i]nformation is coming too fast for our traditional methods of expert verification to adapt,” it makes sense to develop environments where “collaborative learning construction” can take place (Cormier (2008), “Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum”). Such environments include wikis, collaborative documents, as well as environments such as the “personal learning networks” made possible by sharing tools such as Twitter, blogs, social bookmarking and social curation sites, and more. In these collaborative spaces individuals come together in various groups to learn and to create knowledge. Each individual may be a member of multiple groups, and these groups form, change, disband, reform continually.

Cormier also gets some of his ideas for rhizomatic learning from Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. I haven’t read the book, but found these brief notes on Deleuze & Guattari’s notion of rhizomes useful (I got think link from a google doc linked to a post on Dave Cormier’s blog).

My sense of rhizomatic learning at this point, then, is that it is the sort of thing that is happening in etmooc, as well as informally by many, many people around the globe working with the kinds of social tools noted above, but also working in face to face situations with others. It’s probably the kind of learning most of us do in lives outside of educational institutions.

But Cormier seems to be arguing for it also to be part of more “formal” education. Instead of instructors creating a curriculum in advance that is the same for every student in the course, the community of learners constructs the curriculum.

In the rhizomatic model of learning, curriculum is not driven by predefined inputs from experts; it is constructed and negotiated in real time by the contributions of those engaged in the learning process. This community acts as the curriculum, spontaneously shaping, constructing, and reconstructing itself and the subject of its learning in the same way that the rhizome responds to changing environmental conditions. (Cormier (2008), “Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum”)

Note that in this quote Cormier says the community not only creates the curriculum, it is the curriculum, an idea he reiterated in his etmooc presentation. I am not entirely sure what he means by this, but perhaps the thought here is that as the community changes (and it is always changing–if not in terms of people coming and going, then in terms of what people say and do in it, what they share and discuss, never remaining static), so does the curriculum. “A curriculum for a course is something that can be created in time, while a course is happening,” Cormier says in a blog post called Rhizomatic Learning: Why we Teach”.

What is the role of the instructor in rhizomatic learning environments? Here’s what Cormier says:

The role of the instructor in all of this is to provide an introduction to an existing professional community in which students may participate—to offer not just a window, but an entry point into an existing learning community. (Cormier (2008), “Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum”)

In rhizomatic learning environments, then, what is learned and how is shaped by a community of learners, and this changes constantly. I imagine that for a formal educational environment, one could have students set out what they’d like to investigate, help them with the tools they can use to investigate it and to form a community of people to help (a “personal learning network,” e.g.). I also imagine using a grading contract; that’s exactly what Cormier did with one of his courses last year.

When is rhizomatic learning appropriate?

Is Cormier suggesting that all learning should take place through the rhizomatic model? Definitely not. He said in his etmooc presentation that for learning situations in which specific kinds of knowledge must be gained, rhizomatic learning is the wrong way to go. In addition, if a body of knowledge that needs to be learned is stable, then rhizomatic learning may not be appropriate and information transfer more so. Also, as Phil Macoun noted in a blog post, if there are certain basic principles and foundational information needed in a field before learners can really benefit from discussions within a wider network of other learners, researchers and practitioners, then more “traditional” learning approaches would seem to be best for those earlier steps.


 Cormier explained this point in his etmooc presentation by using the Cynefin decision-making framework from Dave Snowden. Explaining this framework would take an entire blog post in itself, but thankfully Cormier has a post that does so. Rhizomatic learning is appropriate for situations that fall into the “complex” part of the framework, where, as Cormier puts it, there are no clear “right answers.” There is no obvious “best practice,” and we can’t just turn to experts to find out what to think, what is right to do, or what counts as true knowledge. Snowden says in the video linked above that in the complex domain, outcomes are uncertain and unpredictable; cause and effect relationships can’t be known in advance, only in hindsight. One can only engage in experiments and see what happens to determine the best course. This is the domain where novel practices and knowledges are tested and may be adopted, instead of seeking to find already-established solutions from experts. The Cynefin framework is much more complicated than this, but I won’t go into its other parts here.

This is enough to suggest that rhizomatic learning is not so great, perhaps, for basic mathematical skills or some aspects of science education, but it might, on the other hand, be useful for philosophy. We deal in questions that are still open in many ways (though there are some recognized procedures and accepted truths, there is much that is still negotiated and a good deal of room for novel approaches and arguments).

Rhizomatic learning in philosophy

What would rhizomatic learning look like in a postsecondary philosophy course?

For an introduction to philosophy course, e.g., one might allow students to identify what philosophical questions they are interested in, and then provide them with the tools to find out what others have said about those questions and to formulate their own response. The common instruction in the class could be on things like: what common philosophical questions are and a chance to develop your own if you don’t want to pursue one of those; what arguments are, how to evaluate them, and how to construct your own; how to write philosophy essays, etc. Then students could spend part of the class time and part of their own time doing research to work on their questions.

I can imagine this happening in groups within the class, so students interested in the same areas could work together, and thereby build a small network. Then the groups could create wikis, videos, slideshows, or use other means to share what they have found with the rest of the class; individuals could share what they have developed as their own views on the questions separately, perhaps.

The professor could also suggest web resources for certain kinds of questions, and any social networks related to people interested in philosophical issues, as well as social bookmarking sites that might have good links.

This could work for an intro to philosophy course in which the students involved don’t need to gain knowledge of the history of philosophy so much as get a taste of what philosophers do. For courses that are required for majors, and in order for students to take more upper-level courses that rely in part on knowledge of certain aspects of the history of philosophy, then a more focused approach is required to ensure that students are exposed to the necessary authors and texts.

Questions and concerns:

— I can think of a few websites with philosophy information that would be good for introductory-level students, but not many. Of course, they could work to find others that I don’t know about. It would help if there were more open educational resources available in philosophy.

— I’m not sure how I would introduce students into a wider social network of people that could help them with their questions. I guess I could try to include more philosophy teachers in my own PLN (so far it’s mostly people talking about education generally), and connect students that way. Ideally, I would help them connect with other students investigating similar issues (outside the course), so they could learn and generate knowledge together…but I honestly don’t have a clue how I might go about doing that.

— Why only point them to other websites and other people to connect with? Am I not a good connection to have, and shouldn’t I share my own knowledge as part of this community creation of knowledge? Perhaps the idea is to work more one-on-one with individuals or groups on their own projects, and be part of their network that way? That would be fantastic, if only it were possible in intro-level philosophy courses in a large university (ours are about 150 students or so). They can work together as teams on specific questions, but I don’t have time to offer directed help to each team.

— How is this different from students getting together in groups to do research projects and then presenting them to the rest of the class? Is it that one should be helping them develop a larger network to discuss their projects in, rather than just doing research and discussing within the small group?

— If the previous point is the case, then I see this being difficult to do in a short (13-15 week) course. Building that kind of network takes a long time, and then discussing things within it takes awhile too…I doubt there would be time to do it in a single semester/term.

Your comments

 I’m wondering if I’ve misconstrued anything about rhizomatic learning here, or if there are other ways it might be used in a course like philosophy. Or any thoughts about my questions, above?


“Iris Rhizomes,” by Rhian vK, CC-BY 2.0, via Flickr

Cynefin Framework, CC-BY-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

etmooc: Are moocs learner centred?

There have been too many great #etmooc tweets to mention, and I’m trying to keep track of my favourite tweets and posts in a growing Storify board. But this particular post is focused on a conversation begun by the following tweet from Christoph Hewett:

Keith Brennan wrote a nice post on this issue, replying to Christoph’s tweet, called The sense of self, how a MOOC can make or undermine you. Christoph’s tweet, and Keith’s reply, have got me thinking. Here are some results of that thinking.


Keith gives a nice definition of learner-centred learning:

Learner centred learning takes account of, and speaks to the differeing [sic] needs, requirements, and contexts of the students we engage with.

He then focuses on how taking into account students’ prior knowledge (and variations therein) must be a major part of making courses student-centred. In addition, he explains the idea of self-efficacy, from psychologist Albert Bandura, and how factoring in prior learning can enhance learner’s sense of self-efficacy. As Keith puts it,

Self efficacy is, simply put, your confidence in your own ability, and capacity to succeed at a task, as well as belief that the task is achieveable due to the contexts, tools, constraints and the overall situation.

[As an aside, I am thankful to Keith for pointing me to this idea, as I hadn’t heard it before and it’s very useful for thinking about why some students seem to lose faith and heart and just drop out of courses, whether officially or unofficially. I need to look into the self-efficacy notion further to see if there is something about the way my courses are structured, or about how I’m teaching them, that could lower some students’ self-efficacy.]

Keith then went into some suggestions for how to make etmooc more responsive to prior learning and thus more supportive to self-efficacy, such as: setting up a series of clear paths for learning and tasks to measure one’s progress, being sure to have resources ready for common problems faced by novices to the technology being introduced, structuring the teaching into clear chunks (since novices often prefer specificity to freedom), and more.

These are all useful ideas for helping some people feel that the course is more learner-centric, and that they can succeed. And, as Keith notes, those of us who want less specificity or don’t want to follow directed paths to learning can just ignore those things and learn what and how we wish.

Further thoughts

I want to think a little differently about Christoph’s original tweet, the idea that cMOOCs are crowd-centric rather than learner-centric. When Christoph said that, I thought immediately of a MOOC I sat in on a little while ago, which was more the “traditional” type of MOOC, with very structured learning paths, videos to watch, quizzes to take, etc. It was most definitely a content-delivery course.Crowd Photo by James Cridland, from

I can see that that sort of MOOC could be said to be more crowd-centric in the sense that the learning is the same for the crowd–the content is provided centrally, and it’s the same for everyone. There is no individuation for specific learners, nor changing of the content according to how the class is going (though that is at least possible–one could monitor the questions and comments fora and decide to add new videos or tasks to the course as it goes along, so at least some of that is possible).

However, it really got me thinking because my experience so far in etmooc has been very, very different from the other MOOC I took, and I actually think of it as more learner-centred. This is because there is much less in the way of centralized guiding of learning in this MOC than in the other one. There are only a couple of presentations per week, and even in those (from what I’ve seen so far), the point is less to provide content than to provide tools for connecting with each other, our students, and with more people around the world through global and social media.

This seems to reflect the difference between an “xMOOC” (content-focused) and a “cMOOC” (connection-focused)as explained by Martin Lugton in a blog post. I like his description of a cMOOC, as it fits well my experience with etmooc so far:

It’s a chaotic experience (as @RosemarySewart put it) and is inherently personal and subjective, as participants create their meaning and build and navigate their own web of connections. cMOOCs are not proscriptive, and participants set their own learning goals and type of engagement.

This is why I think of etmooc as actually learner-centred in its own way: learners focus on what is most meaningful to them, and they build their own connections through following the advice provided by the facilitators to blog, comment on blogs, read the discussions on Google+ sometimes, and read some of the Twitter feed. You can’t do it all, all of the time, but doing just some begins, even if slowly, to help you build connections and start contributing to conversations.

But that’s not what Christoph said

He said “cMOOCs” are crowd-centric, rather than learner-centric. I can see it for xMOOCs, but it didn’t seem to be so for cMOOCs, to me, until I started thinking about it more for this blog post. How can cMOOCs be said to be crowd-centric?

Perhaps insofar as they offer many, many resources and tools for people to choose from, and can’t possibly tailor those to each person’s needs so individuals themselves have to find what they need out of the wealth of information. I don’t know if that’s what Christoph meant, but it’s one way to think about it.

Still, of course, there is individual tailoring: partly by individuals themselves, but also from the community–others read one’s questions and prompts for advice on Twitter, Google+, blogs, or elsewhere, and (hopefully) comment and provide help with one’s specific issues. The individual has to centre the course for him/herself, with the help of others in the course. The course itself is, and must be if it’s a MOOC at all, crowd-centric in the sense of offering information that could apply to the crowd, to anyone in the audience equally. No facilitator can hope to tailor it to each person in such a large course, so we all have to help each other do so.

Keith still has a point

But this means there’s going to be much more information, tools, resources than is going to be digestible or really serve the needs of any individual participant. As many of us have noticed in blog posts, tweets, and more, numerous participants are feeling a bit at sea, overwhelmed, wondering how they can possibly do everything in etmooc, how they can keep up with all the conversations, etc. That theme has stood out to me over the past week or so, and it’s something I’ve felt too. I’ve had to repeat to myself a line that I learned from a post by Gayle in her blog, Learning by Doing:

Don’t feel guilty if you don’t do everything — only feel guilty if you don’t do anything.

I’ve tried to pass that sort of idea on to anyone I hear expressing a sense of drowning.


Providing a set of tools and lots of information, and allowing people to pick and choose what interests them most, may not work for all learners. Those with little prior knowledge, or who feel they don’t have the same tech skills as many others in the course may get too lost in the swarm of new things they could be learning about, and, realizing they don’t have time to do it all, could drown and drop out.

Also relevant is this post by Nick DiNardo at his blog, Live Curious. Nick notes that the style of learning in etmooc is such that, “What you put into it, you get out of it.” This can be one way of thinking of etmooc as learner-centred, because learners can pick and choose what to do amongst the many things on offer. As Nick puts it, “Learners can come and go as they please throughout the course, participating socially as they see fit.”

However, Nick also notes a downside to such a structure: it may be best for autodidacts, “learners who take an entrepreneurial approach to learning what they are curious about.” What of those who do not learn this way?


Could Keith’s suggestions above for etmooc or other cMOOCs work to help those types of learners? Or would they turn cMOOCs more towards xMOOCs in a problematic way? Is there a way to keep the focus on connection and the ability to leave people free to choose what to focus on, while structuring a cMOOC a bit more?

My fear is that if etmooc were more structured I personally would feel like I should follow the learning paths specifically, and then it would feel more crowd-centric, designed for a crowd, and less open for my own tailoring. Yet there are problems with the latter as well, as noted above.

I must admit I’m kind of stuck here. Maybe one should offer more structured learning in cMOOCs like etmooc and yet emphasize that that is not the only way to do the courses, that people can come in and out as they please, but those who wish it can do the more structured paths? Would those who choose not to feel like they are missing something important, and so ultimately the cMOOC experience turns into more like an xMOOC one?

Ideas? I am new to the whole xMOOC vs. cMOOC distinction, so perhaps there’s something important I’m missing here!


Photo Credit: James Cridland via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: dameetch via Compfight cc

etmooc: Social bookmarking of sites behind a paywall

"Colourful Journals," by Selena N.B.H.

“Colourful Journals,” by Selena N.B.H.



Note: In this and future posts having specifically to do with my participation in etmooc (a massively open online course in educational technology), I will preface the posts with “etmooc,” so those readers not interested in educational technology stuff can ignore if they want!

I recently watched the archived presentation for etmooc by Jeffrey Heil and Michelle Franz on Introduction to Social Curation. One of the things that really stuck with me from that presentation was the idea that we should share our research, not simply be “re-tweeters.” I have feared being little more than a re-tweeter on Twitter, as much of my access to information comes from Twitter itself, so I just re-tweet interesting things out. That’s important, of course, but not all that one should do.

I really appreciated that we should be engaging in and following people on social bookmarking and social curation sites, for numerous reasons, including connecting with others and finding new sources of information. This could be a way to find things beyond what I locate on my own, and tweet out to others in my network.

Obviously, though, one needs to be a contributor as well to social bookmarking and curation sites, to add to one’s PLN (personal learning network) rather than just being a “lurker.” But my problem is that a good deal of my time is spent on sites that are behind a paywall–specifically, journal articles. My research is focused on journal articles and books, largely in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. It’s not that I never visit more “open” sites for other things; I do, it’s just that most of my own time and research are about things that one has to pay for to receive access (unless one’s school or university subscribes). So if I were to share my own research, then I’d be sharing things that many people in the world can’t access. As a result, so far I haven’t done much in the way of sharing my own research.

But I got to thinking about this and wondered: well, there are people out there who can access these sites…many other scholars at colleges and universities and other schools who have similar interests to me. Why not at least share these articles, collating them into lists according to topic, for those who can access them and are interested? It would be a much smaller audience, of course, but personally, I’d love it if others were doing this for my field of interest!

To add to the articles behind a paywall, I’d also link to my blog where relevant, because one of the things I’ve been doing while on sabbatical this year is to take notes on articles and comment on them in my blog. Partly that’s for my own research, but also partly for people who are interested in the same topics. And I do a pretty thorough job of summarizing, so those w/o access to the articles could at least get the main arguments, if they’re interested. So in the comments to the links to paid articles on Diigo, for example, I could post a link to my blog summary of those articles. (Diigo is a social bookmarking site that is really great for highlighting and taking notes on webpages.)

Of course, I’d keep my other Diigo lists for free and open sites, and make sure much of any other content curation sites I have (such as my Learnist boards) is open to anyone.

Does this seem like a good idea? Let me know in the comments!

(I’m also unhappy with the way I did the attribution for the photo–Flickr doesn’t have that cool attribution HTML text that Compfight does, and I can’t do links in the caption for the photo on WordPress, I think! Ideas?)

Learnist boards on SoTL and Open Access

During the past week or so I’ve been working on finishing a couple of things before their deadlines, and during breaks in working on those I’ve been having fun with Learnist: Learnist is sort of like Pinterest but focused more on learning about new things. The idea is that someone who has some knowledge about something designs a “learnboard” about it, and collects things from the web (including PDFs, Google docs and books, Prezi presentations, Kickstarter campaigns, and more), plus their own materials if they like, and puts them together in an order that helps others learn the topic. That person also adds commentary to help explain the artifact posted. There are places to comment on each artifact or on the whole board, and others can suggest new things to be put on the board.

Right now Learnist is in beta, and I am a bit frustrated by the fact that there is nothing on the front page to explain it (though there are learnboards on Learnist itself that give you an overview–you just have to type in “learnist” on the search bar at the top to find them).

You have to send a request to them if you want an account to create your own boards or make comments, but you don’t have to have an account to see all the existing boards. You can see mine by following the links below. They are still in progress, so more will likely be added later (esp. to the first and third ones).


1. What is the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning and How Can I Get Involved?

2. Open Access Journals in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning

3. Open Access Scholarly Publishing (and Why It’s Important)


And you could also check out my personal page on Learnist, which lists any new learnboards I may have added since writing this post, as well as the boards I myself “like” and “follow.”

Update Dec. 6, 2012

I received an email from someone over at Grockit, the company that runs Learnist, asking for some suggestions to try to address the problems I noted above with being confused about how it all works when you arrive at the page for the first time. Nice to hear they are concerned and open to suggestions!

They also let me know I could invite others to use Learnist and they could bypass the usual waiting period through that means. So if you want an invite, send me an email (I may have to ask you a couple of questions to make sure you’re a real person and really interested in Learnist, since I’ll personally be inviting you!). Find my email address on my personal website at:


My summer of e-learning

I seem to have become obsessed with learning new technologies for teaching and learning in the past few months. Primarily through attendance at the 2006 UBC Learning Conference”, and through attending several seminars at the TAG Institute (TAG=The Centre for Teaching and Academic Growth at UBC, which conducts workshops and collects resources for the teaching staff at UBC), I have begun to learn about the following things…

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