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Let us for a moment imagine a specific future. Let us also imagine that future is upon us now.

In this future, pedagogy and technology have advanced so much that students are being taught by intelligent virtual learning environments. Students learn is small cohorts entirely through these machine authored and directed experiences.

This future has been long accepted by all, even the greatest cynics of the system and the greatest proponents of the personal touch.

The dwindling supplies of funding and qualified teachers among other factors such as technological advances and exploding young populations has also played its role in this transformation. What was routine for humans in the teaching learning process is now a monolith buried in time.

How do teachers or schools as we know them face this future where their tradition is expunged from practice, when the routine becomes an exception, when human touch is no longer needed, schools disappear and teaching is replaced by humane, intelligent systems and networks?

It helps to step outside the frame to consider such a possibility. It suddenly gives agency to each and every player to consider a future and determine their response.

The black swan flies, and brings great possibilities for change in its wake.

Are we, though, prepared for such a swan, knowing that this future is greatly possible, perhaps that we are inexorably moving towards it?

We are caught in other tensions.

Atleast in India I can see the tensions between public and private, entrepreneurs and incumbents, administrators and policy makers, teachers and technology. It seems everyone is trying to make impacts but, like a rubber band, each end is ending up pulling the other, keeping the constellation in place to perpetuate the system, to keep order.

When something like this slices through, the order will collapse, hurting everyone in the process. I believe it is incumbent upon us to see and seek such futures, if only to question how resilient or adaptive we are to a specific future.

The game is afoot. There seems to be some signs of a resurgence in xMOOCs in India.

The government, it seems, is asking folks at CDAC to put together an indigenous platform within 3 months and asking both school and higher education institutions to contribute by January 2016. This is SWAYAM 2.0 it seems, an aggressive roadmap to put MOOCs (alas, xMOOCs) in the hands of our children. Pity that we still do not know or appreciate the difference between a MOOC and an online course. Skill development folks also seem to be riding on this path.

Meanwhile Amity University has placed an actual undergraduate degree on its MOOC platform. The degree is being provided from Amity University and the website is silent on the exam fees it hopes to generate. Is the degree something that has the endorsement of the doyens in the government?

Incredibly the government has also created a veritable marketplace for digital content with ebasta.in. The ostensible aim being to do away with the heavy school bag. I don’t know if it will also shift the heavy load that we call our education from the students’ shoulders.

Somehow we are stuck in the ICT age and mould. Provisioning network, hardware and now Apps seems to be the secret sauce behind making learning and teaching better when what is needed are the skills to learn online, to teach online and to administer online.  That perhaps will see the light only organically, if at all.

What we need is to first understand the cultural gaps in online education and then devise our strategies for technology enabled learning. Unless this gap is addressed by making the academic workflow online seamless, there will be no significant progress made. Practice, not provision, will make us perfect.

Most of our education system is geared towards a particular conception of a student and her specific way of learning. Let’s face it. We give our children the same amount of time to learn every day. It is the same time in the day for learning. It is mostly the same cohort with which you learn. The same methods applied to each student. The same subjects to learn. The same textbooks to read. The same boundaries of what you can or cannot do. The same metrics to judge performance. The same number of years to study. The same choices each year until they leave, and then precious little choice of what to learn afterwards. Day after day. Year after year.

On the other hand, we struggle with this sameness. No two students are the same, we say. Learning should occur outside too, through real life applications and experience. It should probably also be flipped. We should use digital content and technology to give students more choice and exposure. We strive to be different each day, try to negotiate their individual complexity within these constraints.

It is almost as if these are two different things – schooling and learning. The end results are fairly predictable. Our children learn to cope with the system. Some manage to master it. And some give up.

Does each student take away enough to be all that we desire them to? Are they really equipped to be responsible citizens and family?

The sameness of our system is a dramatic simplification of teaching and learning. Our struggle against it, a Sisyphean challenge. Our success, partial at best. Thousands learn , but millions don’t quite get there. A scorecard we would not and should not find acceptable.

Do we know any better? Perhaps we do know a bit more than we did. We know it is far more important to push and extend the limits of what our childen can do, like athletes preparing for long hard days on tracks they aspire to reach. We know of more ways to reform or beat the system.

But the system stays, inertial and unyielding,  perhaps we collectively do not believe in our own hearts that the any struggle against it can possibly succeed. Perhaps we believe that it is our fault that the system does not work. Perhaps there is a hope that it can still overcome the contradiction between the simple and the complex, the sameness and the diversity.

We can change it if we really want to, if we really care. We can start by making a commitment to all our children that we will help them learn – that we will not have them bear what we had to.

How can we change?

IIT Roorkee, a premier engineering institute of India, recently expelled several first year students for not meeting the requisite grades. Predictably, there is a backlash both outside and from within the IIT communities themselves, although there are more examples in the past of such incidents in the IITs. There are also insinuations that the decision, by affecting mostly students from disadvantaged backgrounds, is discriminatory in nature.

Many important issues in our education system are laid bare by this unfortunate event. As the author of one of the articles asked, why is the teaching not being questioned? Or the academic practices? Or counseling and remediation? Where are the voices of students in decision making? What legal and educational recourse do students have in the face of such orders? Why is the evaluation and grading system designed in the way it is? Why expel at all, anyways?

It makes me question why we take our education system so seriously. It also proves a thesis I have evolved. For generations we have believed that the education system transforms students, with each class level and exam signifying one step in that direction. But if that were really true, in general, then we would be living in a far equitable, happier, sustainable and prosperous world.

Instead, I have come to believe that the student, far from being transformed, represents a form of organized labour, who along with the academic and administrative labour, and the capital inputs of buildings & infrastructure, actually manufactures certain outputs – the outputs being marks and degrees. These marks and degrees then become commodities used to transact production downstream – either more degrees or formal employment. All funding, policy, standards, school practices and the like are subservient to this production process.

This is not learning. This is production. And production by any means possible – even those that cannot ever pass for anything close to academic excellence, far less to the delight and joy of learning. So we see ministers with fake degrees, grace marks in standardized exams, teachers or school leaders with zero qualification, schools with no infrastructure and research that is non-existent – but still reports that our children have completed school levels or have got into the IITs in droves – as evidence that the system really, really works.

The system works, but it is not learning, it is production of a different kind altogether. And this system of production, at scale, can have no other ways to work – it knows nothing about people and learning, but a lot about numbers and certificates.

People, though, are another thing. People are resilient. They understand the value of the system in transacting the business of living, and accept it as yet another fact they have to deal with, and carry on. That single fact pushes the system through, from generation to generation, from shocking fact to abysmal deception. And people do succeed, some due to and some despite the system.

But it does not need to be this way. There is great joy and reward in learning and sharing. The potential benefits of a well thought out educational system can really result in social outcomes of equity with growth. Such a system would have none of the trappings of the production organization that education is today.

The countless folks who have been rejected or denied education, both outside and inside the current system – there is hope that things will change. Or else they shall have to be made to.

In solidarity, then!

A brief introduction

Rhizomatic Learning is an important way to think about learning and teaching. It describes a learning experience where learning itself is organic and emergent, deeply driven by personal context, flexible boundaries and multiple pathways. It describes a teaching experience that sets the context, facilitates the inter-connections of ideas through conversations, and empowers the community to engineer their own curriculum.

Rhizomatic Learning builds up the core capability to learn in a distributed learning environment. It leverages all the attendant benefits of network-led and community-based learning, but distinguishes itself by describing a personal “self-reproducing” capability to learn.

The agency to learn rests with the learner and the learning community she is part of. The agency to teach is distributed among all the learners, who really establish the curriculum. The resultant is messy and complex, with individual outcomes possibly far in deviation to any expected outcomes from the community.

In Rhizomatic Learning, the definition of a “course” veers away from the traditional. It is a sense of time-bound evented-ness, a shared context which aggregates a community. It’s curriculum is formed by the community, that evolves and extends it continuously through prior knowledge and emergent opinions. It may engender several artistic and creative forms of expression, not necessarily formal artifacts associated with traditional courses.

Rhizomatic Learning is characterized by learning freedom. It draws heavily upon open-ness, lack of centralized control, autonomy, diversity and interaction. Freedom in learning drives most of the interactions, liberating the learning experience.

In contrast, Connectivist models uphold “connection-making”  as the primary source of learning and knowledge. There is connection-making in Rhizomatic learning, but that is merely a medium. The focus is on free, unrestricted sharing and unpredictable pathways in learning. In that sense, the afterthought focus on Critical Literacies in the cMOOCs, becomes the starting point for Rhizomatic Learning. What is “tidy” in  the network model, becomes messy in the rhizomatic one. The replication of learning capability in distributed environments is key – “more of how you can learn, is learning” of rhizomatic learning overwhelms the “those that have, get” rules of networks. In  that sense, rhizomatic learning is deliberately empowering personalized learning.

The Practical Guide

So what would a practical guide to Rhizomatic Learning contain for the learner? Having gone through so many years of learning in all modes – traditional, online, MOOC, rhizomatic – here is a summary of how I learn best. Perhaps there are learners like me who will resonate with my approach.

Liberate yourself

The first important thing to realize is that you are in control. You control what you write, how you perform, who you choose to interact with, the level of effort you put in, how you handle critique – in short, your behavior, goals, motivations, discipline and ethics play an important role in Rhizomatic Learning.

Express yourself regularly

If the community is the curriculum, each one has the capability to contribute, in whatever form of expression. In fact, try out new forms of expression, artistic or otherwise, to experiment with ways to put your point forward. You don’t know which part or form of your expression may inspire several others or motivate them to contribute. The point is to verbalize or demonstrate your participation in some way or the other. It is really important to be regular. Make it a point to express yourself at least once a topic or theme.

Keep Track

We will continuously get better at handling conversation technologies, but it is important to keep up with what others are expressing. Understand that other people will also use a variety of channels and techniques to communicate, and that conversation will sometimes get too unwieldy to keep track of. Navigating and coalescing your spaces into some form of organization convenient for you is important.

Small is better

Pick out threads that pique your interest, focus on a small idea at a time and track its development. These small ideas will eventually bubble up into larger perspectives. Interact in smaller groups, one idea at a time. Don’t “spray and pray” and always watch your stats (such as how many views, likes), because the act of expressing an opinion is itself a work of art – your art – which contributes to your own rhizomic development immeasurably. It helps to get and give concise feedback on small focused ideas. It also helps to give some time for the idea to develop, in your mind and through the interactions. So perhaps it is better to culminate a theme/week with your informed perspective.

Be responsive

It is incredibly important to be responsive to people and events, both in instances where you are explicitly part of the conversation and where you are not. Being responsive helps other people with feedback and a motivation to continue their rhizomatic learning. Respond to comments, like posts and comments where you agree, drop a line or two in response to a new contribution – there are many ways to be a proactive part of the community learning experience. I would include empathy and humor as two very important tools in rhizomatic learning.

Be rhizomatic

Above all, reflect on how you are learning. Use each interaction as an opportunity to build your capability to learn. Find what helped, explore a new direction of thought, make a friend, challenge an argument.

Dave Cormier asks many interesting questions in his challenge for Week 5 of Rhizomatic Learning. He asks:

This week take a critical look at the rhizomatic approach. Are we just replacing one authority structure with another? Trading tradition for community? What does this mean in our classroom? How can this get us into trouble? What are the ethical implications of creating a ‘community’ for learning? Community as conformity?

In general, communities tend to homogenize around shared beliefs and practice, agenda/goals, structure and authority. Communities may be open & tolerant by choice, and forever expansive by design.

Within communities, there are similar patterns as groups of people start self-organizing and gaining power. It is to be expected that (as the SNA by Aras shows) as we evolve, we start self-organizing in sub-community clusters or groups. Each cluster (centered around a hub) will feature its own level of density of connectedness and its own sub-community rules of engagement within and with the outside world. If the charter of the community includes outreach, the community will keep on expanding and so will the clusters as new people make themselves felt. Some communities will become extinct for lack of strong leadership or sharing, and some may flourish. That is just how it is with communities, I think.

Communities are very useful entities in many ways – they indoctrinate, foster and grow in specific ways and directions, and come to represent social, political and economic forces. Over time, they may become increasingly cohesive, sometimes acquiring cult status of their own. In  that sense, communities feed on and edify more and more of their own shared beliefs and practices (“more of the same”). To the extent that they believe their beliefs and practices are universal, they also acquire invasive and exclusive dimensions, particularly as their elite start focusing on goals of mutual benefit.

Communities are also able to then interact with other communities in ways dictated by power relationships and mutual value. Their interactions with each other may not be very open because they represent differing shared beliefs and other characteristics. That is just the way they behave, I think.

I believe it is not possible to pose community as an alternative to traditional structures.

I do not mean this in an operational sense (learning is different in a community as compared to learning in a formal educational equivalent), but in a structural way. Of course, it is very reasonable to talk of it as an alternative in the operational sense – at least so long as we are unable to do the “counting” in pure, un-blended community environments. But structurally, the evidence is that it is “more of the same” and will promote “those who have, get” types of structures.

So Dave asks:

How do we make sure there is always room for new and contrarian voices? Do we need to create a them to have a we? How do we cultivate a community learning ecosystem so that it continues to grow outward rather than inward? What does that mean for learning?

There is a natural asymmetry in the terms “ensure”, “make room for”, new and contrarian”, “them and we”, and “outward and inward” symptomatic of the community itself. Knowingly or unknowingly, we have let that homogenizing force compel us to differentiate between these. In that sense, communities are invasive. Not a bad thing at all in a lot of cases, but just how a community structures and evolves over time, I think.

But communities aren’t the only form that needs to become operational. Nor are “courses” the only evented-ness in learning. My own sense is that networks will be far more important in supporting and driving learning processes of the future than communities (or “courses”).

Not just being sympathetic to Dave who must have spent many a sleepless night pondering over the questions for each week, but I thought we would have a bit of fun and try to predict the challenge he will pose in Week 4.

How do we really learn online? How much of control and direction do we need? How much of control do we want when we teach? How do we expect others to learn in such environments? What do we expect of them as co-learners?

In CCK08, we had some occasions when George, Stephen and Dave cleared the way for us to take the lead for a session. Throughout the cMOOCs (and in the course Alec Courous ran), and especially in Change 11, guest speakers posed the questions, made a presentation and presented their unique perspectives. This shifted the locus of control around to everyone’s great benefit.

So the unofficial rhizo-challenge for this week: should we, can we or how do we replace the idea of “Dave”?

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