the rhizomatic learning lens & what rhizomes are good for

Confession: I’m not entirely sure what week it is in #change11.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are tricky creatures, their possibilities and to-do lists inclined to slip away from you and multiply like rabbits the minute you look in another direction. Especially this “mother of all MOOCs,” with its 36 consecutive facilitators and topics.

For a lot of us in education, staying afloat in such a sea of participatory learning opportunities is difficult, overwhelming, contrary to a life’s practice of taking what Liz Renshaw so aptly called “the helicopter view” of any learning experience and trying to overview it. MOOCs are big and distributed and decentralized: conversations are happening all over, there are ostensibly over 2000 participants (even if a lot mostly lurk), and basically, there’s almost no way to keep a finger on the pulse of it all.

It’s rhizomatic, meaning that just like weeding your damn garden, what you see and pull up is only a fraction of what’s there.

This is apt, since while I may not know whether it’s week 7 or 8 of 36 in #change11, I do know it’s Dave’s week, and that the theme is rhizomatic learning.

I may as well dive in.

(Caveat here: I am Dave’s partner and while I have thoughts and opinions on rhizomatic learning I do not actually pay nearly such close attention to his work as I, uh, could? Ought to? So this post does not reflect a particularly privileged or informed perspective on Dave’s ideas, but more where they – and the conversation taking place this week in #Change11 – send me.)

As Dave frames it in his introductory post to the week’s course, rhizomatic learning is:

 “…a way of thinking about learning based on ideas described by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus. A rhizome, sometimes called a creeping rootstalk, is a stem of a plant that sends out roots and shoots as it spreads. It is an image used by D&G to describe the way that ideas are multiple, interconnected and self-replicating. A rhizome has no beginning or end… like the learning process.”

Sometimes Dave’s work gets taken up either as educational theory or as educational technique. For my part, I don’t think it’s either.

I see rhizomatics as a potent metaphor for conceptualizing the process of learning, and for approaching how we go about learning and working with learning. The value in the idea of the rhizome, for me, is the way in which it foregrounds the unpredictability, the messiness, the connectedness, and the multi-directionality of learning, knowledge, and educational research. I see rhizomatic learning almost as a lens, a pair of glasses one learns to put on in order to view the educational landscape.

These rhizomatic learning lenses are not intended to make you see more clearly, per se, though you may or may not come to that conclusion about their effects. Rather they are intended to make you see differently.

We live in a culture and time where our minds are colonized by education. Most particularly, by education as a system. We go to school, almost all of us, and are taught from an extraordinarily young age that school equates with learning. Our cultural concepts of education and learning are intrinsically interwoven with notions of schooling.

And when we try to grapple with the ways in which the discourses of learning and schooling have changed – drastically – in the past generation or so, as we are trying to do with the #change11 MOOC, that colonization often takes over.

Colonization is a harsh word. Education, after all, is a good. Most of us who tend to succeed in it have been taught that from our mothers’ knees. Even those of us who haven’t succeeded – or had the opportunity to succeed – within systematized education have traditionally been made acutely aware of our lack.

I do genuinely believe there can be great value in an education. To paraphrase Churchill on democracy, I see education as the worst system…except for all the other ones that have been tried. I place particular import on systems of public education, to the extent to which they help mitigate inequities and create opportunities. Alas, that extent is often profoundly underwhelming.

It is also where technologies and networks and the possibilities of open education really begin to excite me. Because we get the opportunity to rethink or think outside the systemic constraints of traditional education and learning, and to consider what learning and “an education” could mean.

Except then we don’t, all too often. Because we’re colonized.

We conflate learning and schooling. We are subjects of the idea of education as a system, an institution, and so we rely on and replicate this idea in our conceptions of learning: we assume factors like goals and grading and – increasingly – market viability as real parts of what learning involves. They can be, of course. But they do not need to be unless that learning is taking place within the contingencies of mass-delivery and crowd control and normativizing of classed behaviours and literacies that we absorbed with our school milk programs. These practical components of systemic schooling processes are the base map or lens on learning which we, culturally, have inherited.

This idea of systemic education as we in the West know it is not a particularly ancient one. As Dave pointed out in the first post of the week, one of the purposes of mass public education was to train workers. It was also to inculcate what were deemed to be productive civic values in citizens, including a healthy respect for institutional, hierarchical power.

For the last fifty years or so, the idea of that institutional, hierarchical power as natural and good has been broadly challenged- see 1968, deconstruction, Free to Be You & Me, constructivism, and, uh, MOOCs, among other things – but also buoyed up by the rise of neoliberalism and the increasing public acceptance of discourses of corporatism and managerialism in public enterprises such as government and education. It’s a site of fascinating societal struggle. It’s also profoundly self-replicating: we become subjects of the system in school, and then subject others to the operations of the system we’ve come to see as natural and right.

So long as our lenses on learning are actually focused on schooling, we replicate the same colonizing systems. Even where we try not to. Even online, where we don’t have to.

Which is where rhizomatic learning and the new pair of glasses come in.

The rhizome is non-binary, non-hierarchical, and non-linear: it’s also aggressive and chaotic and resists the tree-like arboreal model of knowledge. For Deleuze & Guattari, it is a cultural process that emphasizes “ceaselessly established connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles.” Yeh. That.

I don’t think rhizomatic learning can be used particularly effectively to address grading, or curriculum, or most of the structures of systemic education. The rhizome is not a way of tweaking the systems we have.

The idea of rhizomatic learning emphasizes how ideas spread, popping out roots and shoots. Some of these take on whole lives of their own. Others abort at the bud stage. As a visual image for how learning operates, it enables us to – maybe – break down or see beyond some of the colonized perceptions we’ve been trained to, like the one that makes me feel slightly anxious when I realize I’ve missed an entire week of what’s gone on in the MOOC, say. That’s a perspective trained to assume that a) what’s on offer is what I should learn, b) that a view of the “whole” is possible and desirable and that partiality is less, and c) that missing things in a learning experience is abnormal.

Yet when I think back to my high school or undergraduate “learning experiences,” I begin to wonder if the process of popping out little roots and shoots in relatively unpredictable response to whatever I happened to tune into isn’t what I’ve been doing all along, however much the curriculum and my nice, tidy grades from those days might like to tell another story.

I try to wear my rhizomatic learning glasses when I think about this MOOC. I focus on the connections that occur, the relations between ideas and people and platforms, and the ones that seem to abort. I always think of whatever I might happen to think about the MOOC as if it were a picture of a tiny part of our very-rhizome-infested garden, partial and limited and chaotic and heading off in a tangle of directions.

Slowly, very slowly, this perspective on my own learning and participation and subject position begins to help me alter the way I conceive of education.

And that, my friends, is what rhizomes are good for.

the death of purity

This is not a post about Steve Jobs. At least not mostly.

When I started writing yesterday, I’d considered calling it “Jobs Are Dead.” Small “j” jobs, that is, not Jobs himself. But in the spate of elegies and eulogies spinning round the web today, the title just looks like a misuse of the plural verb.

Yet the two are, perhaps, related. Jobs, Apple CEO and innovator and cultural poster boy for outside-the-box-thinking, was a pretty singular dude. He deserved a lot of the reverence he inspired.

I also suspect that the claims that we will not see his like again are actually accurate.

But that is not entirely due to his own personal singularity.

Rather, I think of it as a marker that the age of singularity is over. While Jobs himself was certainly brilliant, a man with a lifelong and apparently self-sustained vocation, that very figure of manhood – the iconic hero, the exceptional genius – has actually been dying for years.

Our old model of the discrete and stable Enlightenment human, imbued with utter individuality and backed by institutions, is crumbling.

And Jobs’ work – his continual pushing of the envelope, his delivery of connectivity to non-programmers, his pretty white gadgets that revolutionized social media – arguably did as much as anyone to kick while it was down.

We are, for better or worse, connected and collective and fractured, now, all at once.

You wouldn’t know it today. Today, we are inundated not just with the identity cult of Steve Jobs himself, but with an apologia for identity cults in general, with adulation of singularity and exceptionality. Jobs was given up for adoption at birth, read one heavily retweeted gem, quit school, and STILL changed the world. What’s your excuse?


Now, I want people to want to change the world. And I thought it was nice to have at least one CEO in the world who claimed the creative, wired outsiders of the world as his own, and vice versa. We all need role models.

But I think Jobs the icon and Jobs the inventor and world-changer were actually at odds, antithetical in their message and their potential impact. Mac and the iPhone have made the world of connectivity accessible and personal and mobile. They’ve made possible the breakdown of institutions and institutional thinking. They’ve also broken down the structures that support that notion of individual exceptionality: there is no room for Great Men in the cloud. Greatness of scale, perhaps. But all are nodes in the network, all connected.

The institutional breakdown frees a lot of us who owe a debt to Jobs.

But it also opens whole other, very real cans of worms. Worms of debt, and the decay of small “j” jobs, and the kind of society we believe we live in.

Because just as Jobs is gone, so are the jobs. Particularly for the types of people his brand spoke to the most.

I see the stories everyday. Richard Florida’s creative class – those of us reputedly liberated by Steve Jobs – is being hollowed out. Our most educated specialists, after years and years of study, face the reality that the academic job market they’ve trained for is, essentially, gone. Universities are caught between their old institutional structure and newly institutionalized corporate realities which make tenure look untenable.

Besides, we have new ways of gathering to share and build and learn together, like the #change11 MOOC I’m involved in, or the Stanford version with its 130,000 enrollees.

The NYT article on the Stanford Open Online Course talks about its potential to disrupt education. I’m all for disrupting education.

But. If the model succeeds – perhaps not this round but over years – what happens to Stanford in the long run?  And to universities in general? And beyond the idea of the university as a bricks-and-mortar institution, to the concept of public education and the jobs affiliated? Sure, many will find creative ways to innovate and monetize and perhaps even deliver and share free knowledge and content. I celebrate that. I’m hoping for that.

But they won’t do it by being isolated specialists in particular canons, unable to speak or understand the discourse of others. They won’t do it by having clear, pure vocations in which the lines are all tidy and what they do and don’t do remains delineated over time.

Yet we still raise and educate kids to think of success on those terms, and to have expectations that their lives can or should work that way. We lionize singular figures from our cultural mythology as purists, nobly certain of their vocation or their goal or their results-driven management style. We praise Steve Jobs for being the model of the very kind of self-made genius that his own inventions worked to undermine.

Fierce independence and inspiration – the capacity to see things differently – are the answer to change only so long as the centre holds.

Similarly, Jobs’ outsider identity and his advice to “stay hungry, stay foolish” only makes sense if you assume a stable, institutional PC or IBM-style culture; a machine against which to rage.

If everybody is actually hungry and there is no stable centre, you don’t get innovation when everybody scrambles to be extraordinary. You get collapse. Or bloodshed. Suggesting we all be exceptional all by ourselves just like Steve Jobs?  Ignores the fact that even creative rogue CEOs are backed by the ultimate contemporary institution: corporate power.

I fully agree that Steve Jobs left us a legacy. But it is not to BE him.

Those of us who identify with the Jobs/Apple perspective on the world need to accept, to paraphrase Bruce Springsteen, that “the jobs are going, boys, and they ain’t coming back.” We need to stop calling it a “job market,” especially for creatives and academics. It’s a dead model. Our industries do not work that way anymore.

This leaves us with two problems.

The first is this: culture change and social media alter our systems of money, status, and knowledge, wide open. But most of us are still in need of some means of garnering money, status & knowledge, even when there is no institutional centre to define those things or the paths to them.

The second problem is tough for Jobs’ tribe: as the institutional centre’s Swiss cheese holes threaten the entire structure, how do we stand outside?

The notion of purity – always messier than it sounded in the mythologies – is dead. The lines between inside and outside collapse along with the edifice. To make money as an artist, one must become a designer. To make a living writing, one must write to a market, or blog product reviews. Student science conferences on polar climate change are sponsored by BP. The breakdown of boundaries and purity makes it hard not to be complicit in the very things that outsiders have tended to critique about the centre.

Even Apple – yes, beloved Apple – has led the Internet away from the open sharing of the web and towards semi-closed, more profit-modelled apps. Like so many social media shifts, the effects of this have a lot to do with tying capitalism closer and closer to average people’s daily practices. Jobs didn’t talk about that overtly: it didn’t fit the anti-corporate-corporation stance Apple managed so successfully as a brand. If there were ever true purists, they were gone long before he came on the scene.

So if we want to honour Jobs, we do so not by buying the myth of the pure, individualist outsider genius. We do it by using the connectivity Apple was part of enabling.

We are in it together, in this changing economic and environmental and educational climate. Social media enables the possibility of collective knowledge, of distributed action, of working together on a scale never before possible. Maybe we can figure out how to innovate together, and create functional systems that allow for money and meaningful work and some kind of liveable, post-institutional world. Who knows? Maybe.

But we won’t do it by standing alone, trying to be geniuses.

Triumph of the Nerds, he called Apple’s success, once. It’s been clear to the industrial sector for years that the old era’s gone. We nerds have been slower to notice, busy thinking we were on the outside and waiting for our ascendancy in the Brave New World where the creative classes would shine, and our ships would all come in.

I think the ships have sailed, but here we are. The centre does not hold. Yet in this mass of connected people is more knowledge and talent and drive – all mixed in, impure-like, with ambition and complicity and mutual reliance – than even Steve Jobs could have wrapped his visionary head around. If we can only give up on the idea that we need singular geniuses to figure out how to use it.

Now THAT would be a real Triumph of the Nerds.


education, learning, and technology – #change11

One of the most interesting things I’m doing this year – learning-wise, research-wise, and community-wise – is the Change MOOC.

(For those of you not already signed on for this adventure, dimestore recap: a MOOC is a Massive Open Online Course. It’s free. Anyone can register and participate. There are set topics, assignments, and timelines, but you do what you want, via blog or FB or the central discussion threads: in terms of both your contributions and the platforms you use to share them, its entirely your choice. There are no gold stars – as yet – or credentials for completion, and no invalid forms of participation so long as you’re respectful of others. It’s a chance, basically, to be part of some coordinated conversations about learning, or whatever the topic, and to make some connections amidst the morass of people IN that conversation. A MOOC usually has participants from around the globe, at least within the English-speaking world. There are close to 2000 people registered for this one, I think.)

MOOCs are catching on these days: Stanford is even offering one. What makes the Change MOOC particularly intriguing is that while Stephen Downes, George Siemens, & Dave Cormier (yep, that Dave) – the godfathers of MOOC – will manage this course, they’re not doing the lion’s share of the facilitation this time.

The course is 36 weeks long. Each week has its own focus, under the overarching umbrella theme of “Change: Education, Learning, and Technology,” or how being connected changes learning. Which, as I see it, is a key site of contemporary cultural shift whether you come at it from the perspective of an educator, a geek, or simply a connected person interested in understanding social media practices more explicitly. Each week is facilitated – readings suggested, an online discussion session hosted – by a researcher or innovator or leader in the particular area being explored: this week, it so happens, is the theme of Digital Scholarship, led by Open University academic and author Martin Weller. Participants are encouraged to “write themselves into the course” by responding to topics, themes and assignments in whatever way they wish. In MOOCs, participants’ input often drives as much or more of the trajectory of discussion and interaction than does the facilitator. It’s networked, distributed learning.

I’ll be facilitating a week on social media identity come spring. I get to take my fledgling research into a classroom-ish setting and explore it with and through the participation of others, many of whom likely will have social media identities to bring to the table. (I’m the second-last week, mind you, so the 2000+ may either have dwindled to 12 by then or blown up to even more gargantuan proportions. We’ll see.)

But even better than getting to teach, I get to participate in the whole shebang. Student, faculty, and researcher all in one. Most of the 36 facilitators are also participants and researchers. Identity-wise, this levelling of hierarchical role separations obviously interests me. But so does the rest of the content.

This week’s Digital Scholarship discussion is particularly interesting. What does the capacity to share ideas outside traditional academic channels mean for scholarship in the 21st century? What will the impact of it be? It’s the impact piece – and the implications for traditional practices – that intrigues me. How do connectivity and the capacity for digital sociality suggest transformations in academia?

One of the readings Martin suggested for the week was the JISC (UK) report (2009) on the Lives and Technologies of Early Career Researchers: as an early career researcher, just starting on my second year of Ph.D studies, I’ve been conducting my own informal experiment over the past year into the subject.

Am I getting more input and feedback into my research and learning via traditional academic channels, or online?

It’s an unfair question, in a sense, because of scale. I’m in a tiny program, the first Ph.D in Education in this province. We are a cohort of three, with three additional students starting up this month. While there are a few broad overlaps in subject area, my peers and I share very little in the way of common focus, experience, practice, or expectation. So the level of face-to-face peer input into my research thus far – lovely and supportive though my colleagues are – has been seriously minimal. Tiny. Whereas from the time I started this blog back in January, the combination of my large-ish online community and my research interest in online identities and practices has made a wealth of sharing and input and feedback available to me, in spite of the fact that the majority of that online community are not in any way academics. They are, however, engaged in the culture of blogging and social media, which encourages reciprocality. Academia is generally still disposed and structured to be wary of reciprocality: it comes too close to plagiarism and treads on cherished Enlightenment notions of individual intellectual enterprise.

However, if I only had an online community of three, I might not have had the same experience. But it is very very hard to have an online community of three. The scale of connectivity in digital spaces and the potential for productive sharing, collaboration, and congruence therein is one of the biggest arguments, in my mind, for digital scholarship. Or at least, the digital engagement of scholars. Which usually ends up being digital scholarship, because people engage on topics that interest them.

As Martin Weller points out, though, there’s a conflict here. Research, in most traditional academic conceptions, relies on concepts of control, even where replicability is not required. New technologies are, from an institutional practice point of view, about letting go of control: giving it up to the crowd. And if academia lets go of its controls, of course, how does it validate knowledge? How does it verify and justify its own structures and practices? Yes, connectivity distributes research ideas far more quickly and broadly than traditional journals. At the same time, yes, crowdsourcing is (perhaps) a more vulnerable system of verification than peer review, Nature magazine’s 2006 experiment notwithstanding.

(Sidenote: have been reading Deleuze on Foucault lately. Foucault spoke about the institutional structures of the 19th century as the structures of a disciplinary society, juxtaposed against what he, Burroughs, & Deleuze called societies of control, in which continuous modulation of behaviours shaped by business principles along digital (or spectrum-based, non-analogical) models occurs. Control devolves from confinement by institution to a self-colonizing practice taken up by the crowd, by the individuals within. I think this has – ahem – some resonance for those of us interested in higher education and MOOCs, I’ll explore it soon, in another post).

The biggest best thing about the MOOC is that it’s a semi-structured opportunity to teach yourself to BE a digital scholar, whether in or out of the academy. To select what’s relevant from the stream. To curate. To share. To work iteratively, publishing ideas that – like this post – aren’t all you could say on the subject, but are at least a start. And letting some stuff go so as not to be entirely colonized, perhaps.

All are welcome, and there are still 34 mind-boggling-packed weeks ahead. Not too late. Think on it. Change MOOC.

I’ll let Dave explain how simple it is, courtesy of our SSHRC research project last year.