Tag Archives: #h817open

Introduction for #h817open

Even though ETMOOC still has another 1.5 weeks to go, and though I’m about to leave town for two weeks, I still decided to enrol in another open course: Open Education from the Open University. I will not be able to participate to the level I have in ETMOOC, given that I have so many things to do before my sabbatical ends and I leave Australia at the end of June. But I think it will be useful, given that it’s focused on various aspects of open education, including discussing just what “open” means, talking about OERs, MOOCs, and more. So some of my blog posts in the next seven weeks will be focused on activities related to that course, but I expect they’ll be of interest to at least some current readers as well.

For fellow participants in the open education course (h817open): my name is Christina Hendricks, and I’m a Sr. Instructor in Philosophy at the University of British Columbia, which is a tenured position focused on teaching (rather than research). My About.me page has a good deal of info, as does my Google+ profile. This is me on Twitter.

I’m currently on sabbatical in Melbourne, Australia, trying to jump start a new research focus in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL). I’ve done quite a bit of reading on learning communities (as I teach in one at UBC, and Chaired it for two years: Arts One) as well as peer assessment–if you’re interested, you could click on the “Scholarship of Teaching and Learning” category on the right, as I think I’ve put all (or at least most) of my posts related to these issues into that category. I’ve also got a set of posts called “Research Reviews,” in which I summarize the main points of some of the SoTL articles I’m reading and respond to them–those can be found at the menu on the top.

Even though I really don’t have time to participate in h817open as I’d like, I decided to enrol because through my experience in another MOOC I’m in the process of finishing, ETMOOC (Educational Technology and Media MOOC), I’ve become very interested in open education and really want to learn more. I had an idea for opening up my own courses in Philosophy or Arts One: see my earlier posts here and here for explanations.

I may not post every week, but I’ll try to do so at least every two weeks. And I’m an avid Twitter user, so I’ll definitely be following and contributing to the #h817open hashtag. I look forward to connecting!


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.

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