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Archive for the ‘Rhizomatic Learning’ Category

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.

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Not without books. Books are great. I mean textbooks as they are academi-factured (if that can be a word to denote academic manufacturing) and used now. The written word that becomes the gospel truth for 250 million students and millions of teachers in school today in India.

Seriously, the textbooks we produce are perhaps the greatest barrier in the system to fostering capable and autonomous learners. The fact that something is written in the textbook becomes the gospel truth that children cannot but recite.

There is the fact that most teachers cannot deviate from the text, cannot award imaginative, researched answers to questions given in assignments and tests. Many teachers would neither have the motivation, nor the passion, to understand these deviations.

Then there is the length of the written text, often verbose, and sometimes too simplistic or inadequate on even slightly deeper inquisitions. The sheer length of the discourse simply limits the extent of engagement that a student can have with the topic.

Compounding this litany of problems is the obsession with facts, so microscopic and so many, that you would even wonder later in life, why you were even expected to remember them, particularly as you could get to the net and answer them in a jiffy.

Ironically, TV shows that demonstrate the greatest failures, like the one that asks adults questions to check if they have actually passed the 5th grade, become the subject of great popular mirth and unconscious intellectual debauchery.

Then, as a result of the enlightenment that our students are not learning, they introduce new ways of assessments that actually end up spawning (to the publishers’ delight) new textbooks. And the whole cycle starts again.

There are umpteen examples from our system of textbooks that demonstrate these problems. CCE (Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation) is a mechanism that was supposed to induce children and teachers to think more, memorize less. But like the USA with the 21st Century skills curriculum, this got reduced to textbooks and project guides. The travails of the CCE, in the end resulted in diagnostic tests to check the problem solving skills of students with the PSA (problem solving assessment), which again has become the subject of many textbooks (almost like a separate subject).

Again, the system of gradually exposing students to a topic, in a step by step manner in each successive grade, leans exactly in the opposite direction of the non-linearity of learning through discovery, problem solving and peer-negotiation, because it limits the precise extent to which one can explore any topic and restricts, in effect, students to the contours of the author’s creative and intellectual boundaries.

My sincere apologies to the experts, but remember you were children once. In fact, it is a cruel testament to time, that you follow the same general methods that you were steeped in, perhaps with a liberal dose of buzzwords that you choose to believe make crucial differences to the way children learn now.

Perhaps it is time to stop treating children as dumb witted morons who will be developed into fine holistic individuals by using textbooks and allied means, however utopian and unrealistic the alternative may seem at present.

So, let us imagine a school without textbooks.

It will be a load off the shoulders, literally. Everyone will breathe a sigh of relief. And then will come the true revolution.

Perhaps then the students will be introduced to a world of themes, which they desire to investigate, alone or in groups. The themes that they choose will be their personal journey into the world, trying to decipher its working to the extent they can, facilitated by not just the teacher, but every adult or peer who can contribute.

Along the way, they will leave a trail of learning and sharing. Themes may span across multiple years, result in multiple explorations and projects, depending upon interest and guidance. In short, the curriculum will be a co-creation, the syllabus a much wider canvas to draw on, and the assessments driven by the capability to learn and master different dimensions and levels of technical complexity.

At all times, the focus will be in fostering skills that promote autonomy, open-ness, collaboration, scientific temper, values and logic and seeing their application to the theme. It will celebrate curiosity and wonder, aesthetics, sensibilities, discovery, inferencing, deduction and a host of skills that will define the individual.

The spaces of learning will become a celebration of coming alive.

And we will have done what is expected of us – we will have given our children not the right to education, but the right to learn. Amen.

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First published by EDU Tech on 24th July, 2014

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are an exciting new development in online education. In this article, Viplav Baxi explores the origins of MOOCs, their two main (‘c’ and ‘x’) variants and why it is critical to appreciate the distinction.

October 2008. Three Canadians, George Siemens, Stephen Downes and Dave Cormier started the first Massive Open Online Course called Connectivism and Connective Knowledge (CCK08) based on a new theory of learning called Connectivism proposed by George Siemens in 2005.

Positing Connectivism as a learning theory for the digital age, Siemens asserted that learning is the process of making connections. These connections could take different forms such as those found in physical, social, cultural, conceptual or biological networks. These connections shape our learning because they help us navigate the increasing over-abundance of information and knowledge, leverage diversity of opinions and build the capacity to know, learn and adapt.

Stephen Downes proposed a new definition of knowledge which he called Connective Knowledge. Downes asserts that knowledge is the network. As Downes states: “at its heart, connectivism is the thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks”.

Dave Cormier is credited with coining the term ‘MOOC’ itself! He is also well-known for the theory of Rhizomatic Learning.

CCK08 transformed the way many people, including me, thought of education. The 12-week course was open and free. Over 2,200 people registered from over the world.

Even before CCK08 started, participants shaped the curriculum by suggesting areas of personal interest. Each week of the course, facilitators would briefly introduce the topic and suggest relevant open resources. Experts were invited to engage with course participants on each topic followed by an unstructured online conversation. Learning was distributed – participants interacted through tools they were comfortable with (like Twitter, Facebook, WordPress and SecondLife). The facilitators made their network connections and activity public, so participants could follow the leaders in the field and keep abreast of the latest developments.

Each day, using Stephen’s gRSSHopper technology, participant contributions would be harvested from all over the web, important contributions identified and a newsletter sent on to all participants enabling them to keep up with the activity in the course.

A few students (including me) signed up to become the first paid students in this the first ever MOOC. We submitted 3 essays that were evaluated directly by the instructors. The final certificate was awarded by the University of Manitoba (the course hosts) at the end of the course. Like many others, I started a CCK08 Blog that has a collection posts from each week of the course.

Participants self–organized to form many virtual and face-to-face open learning networks (that outlasted CCK08). They adapted material into their own language and context. The facilitators were always available as expert co-learners rather than as instructors. The sheer diversity in the community created tremendously exciting opportunities for learning.

CCK08 also illustrated four key principles of MOOCs – diversity, autonomy, open-ness and interactivity. Learning “emerged” rather than being pre-designed. Participants learnt to be practitioners rather than just “learning to know” or even “learning to do”. CCK08 also redefined the roles of teachers and students. The role of the teacher as an expert learner was to model and demonstrate while the learner had to practice and reflect.

Such a learning ecosystem reflects the reality of learning in a digital age, where information is over abundant, knowledge is increasingly specialized, change is extremely rapid, networks & social media have revolutionized communication and learning has become largely informal.

Such systems of learning can potentially solve the burning problem of employability of our students. It can help them gain the capability to become lifelong learners, negotiating external changes. It can raise the quality of teaching and learning significantly, in an equitable and affordable manner.

Since 2008, there have been a large number of MOOCs on the lines of CCK08. These MOOCs such as the Future of Education, Critical Literacies, Rhizomatic Learning and other versions of CCK itself, have seen rich interaction globally. A lot of published research and a strong community of educators, theorists, developers and thought-leaders have emerged. The new field of Learning Analytics has also emerged as a corollary of this approach.

Later, in 2011, two Stanford professors created an online course in Artificial Intelligence. They took the decision to make this course open and free for anyone who wanted to enrol. To their delight, almost 170,000 students registered for this course!

They discovered that people did in fact like the idea of coming online to learn in large numbers if the course was taught by reputed professors from top universities, was accompanied by a certificate from the university and was free.

Interestingly, they also started calling their online courses, MOOCs. The name stuck and MOOCs, so defined, soon caught popular imagination when more top universities got involved, technology to effectively manage large sets of learners matured and venture capital (& institutional) funds started backing the concept. Soon, we heard of massive investments in MOOCs and some of the top university brands like Stanford, MIT, Harvard and others backing them.

To distinguish between the two, Stephen Downes termed the original MOOCs ‘cMOOCs’ (for Connectivist MOOCs) and the newer ones as ‘xMOOCs’, the “x” standing for being an extension of something else.

That something else was really the type of eLearning that had grown very rapidly since the late 1990s. Corporations and even online learning providers found it expedient to digitize expensive face to face training and create standardized, mass learning experiences for their employees, in order to cut costs and save lost working time.

For the most part, this type of eLearning tried to simply replicate the traditional classroom and curricular practices online. In traditional online learning, all learning is centrally directed, restricted to the closed boundaries of the course, performed generally alone (collaboration features see very low usage patterns), mass personalized with rigid pre-determined learning paths and assessed largely through objective type assessments.

This type of eLearning had already failed to scale for many reasons. It was designed for stereotypes of industrial age learners. It ignored the diversity and overabundance of information that is present in real life. It ignored the autonomy of learners to personalize the learning experience. It ignored the richness of interaction on the World Wide Web. It ignored the “conversation” and “connections” in learning. xMOOCs are extensions of this type of eLearning.

By only incrementally extending this type of online learning, xMOOCs have massively magnified challenges such as low retention, rote learning, low employability and lack of student ownership, motivation, interactivity and engagement. It is as if they have ignored more than two decades of insights from online, open and distance education.

Backed by venture funding, top universities and media hype, xMOOCs have captured popular imagination. India has not remained immune to this hype. Addressing the need for personalized interaction and for integrating LABs, high quality online self-paced content is to be blended with face to face local faculty interactions and LABs. This addresses some shortcomings of the xMOOCs, but in essence remains their extension.

What we should be doing instead, is to build massively open connective learning ecologies that can help our students and teachers to become capable, connected and responsible digital learners – the promise of the cMOOCs (and of an ideal educational system).

These ecologies will both need and encourage experimentation and innovation. And they will yield better results because learners will be better connected and more in control of their learning.

The important question is: do we really care enough?

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Before I begin (and I am going to miss the hangout again as it will be at 3 AM India time), I think Dave rocked again in #rhizo14. Way to go Dave!

Dave is our Elvis

Dave is our Elvis

I am conflicted when I think about curriculum. I have experienced it prescriptively in the formal education system and I realize that it is bounded by its philosophical basis as well as the competence of stakeholders to transact it (the two sometimes straining in opposite directions).

In the rhizomatic sense, I am guessing curriculum is evidenced by the community members through their open reflection and practice.There is no core.

In the Community of Practice sense, the community itself evolves through various stages –  Potential, Coalescing, Active, Dispersed and Memorable as in the chart below.

In another take on this, George Siemens in Connectives and Collectives: Learning Alone, together suggests that as ties become stronger and individuals aggregate into groups and collectives, the discourse becomes normed (in fact there is a veritable coercion to the norm) that leads to a drying up of new ideas that are novel and diverse.

In the diagram above, he also ties it up with autonomy to the learner, which he believes to decrease as these ties increase in strength and degree.

I think the strength of Rhizomatic and Connective Learning is the “personal formation” of curriculum and the heutagogical “capability” to contextually adapt the curriculum evidenced by the community to transcend personal learning plateaus.

In that sense learning becomes a process of, among other things, shared discovery of curriculum itself, a way-finding and sense-making exercise.

It also makes sense to think of curricula instead of curriculum – different ways to transcend the same plateau. The community then evidences things such as values, beliefs, patterns of use and engagement that equally constitute any curriculum (one must consider failure in a Rhizomatic community as well. What mechanisms exist when a curriculum itself fails to empower.)

Like a Rhizome, Rhizo14 is an event in my meanderings. The event may end, but the rhizome continues to flourish and grow.

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Bernard Fryshman wrote a post titled  MOOCs are Books, too. I responded saying it depends on whether it is an xMOOC you are talking about or a cMOOC, amongst other humble assertions that “MOOCs are not books”. Then I found Dave talking about MOOCs to create/update open textbooks. In Are MOOCs the Next Textbooks, Gregor Kiczales makes the point that in “author” or “expert” videos, the persona of the author is really important. Others comments that free MOOCs could potentially replace textbooks, while others feel that MOOCs (when standardized like JusticeX) may become textbooks themselves, especially when created by A-grade professors and experts.

Dave, in his video challenge for this week of #Rhizo14, asks the question – are books making us stupid. He identifies a few negative connotations and one positive connotation for books in his mind. The negatives are:

  • have a finite end to the journey of learning at the end of which judgment awaits us
  • deny the orality of the conversation
  • bring in objectivity
  • amply distance
  • are definitive, not relational
  • bring in impartiality
  • are less participatory
  • have a long history of “making us stupid” and are not trustworthy

The positive connotation is that there is value in books as historical records (and emotional pleasures of the medium that we are used, but others ahead may not even desire or be able to experience).

Several things confuse and distort responses to this challenge immediately. Are we talking about book “technology”? Are we concerned with book “processes” of creating, use in curriculum and uses by learners? Are we concerned with the formats, or the design? Are we talking of all types of books or just a specific type of books? Are we talking of making value judgments – “stupid” in the sense of “closed”, or following something “prescriptive”, or “cognitive” instead of “connective” or “rhizomatic”? Is it about how they impact reading or writing literacies and skills, or it about books as standalone artifacts? Is it about their accessibility or cost that makes their unavailability result in a certain stupidity?

Which is also why people have responded variously to this week’s challenge. Shaw contests the negative connotations and believe it is not an either-or. In Print, Stupidity and #rhizo14, Keith showcases Don Tapscott’s talk, and tries to view printed text rhizomatically. Apostolos refutes some of the negative connotations by looking at books as a vehicle to transfer information and knowledge through the ages, and not limiting conversation/participation just because the author isn’t there to discuss the ideas. Jenny Mackness talks about how “Books are not the problem – it is us and the way we think – our lack of ability to critically engage with learning”.

I think what we are really talking about here is the tyranny of the written word insofar as it leads to our pedagogical oppression (Friere). There is intentionality here in the minds of the oppressors (pretty much most of those traditional educational systems that depend upon rote learning, including some of our xMOOCs) and there is mute acquiescence from  the oppressed (those who unquestioningly accept the written word or “common framework” as someone else put it).

I think, we should have so much democratic and accessible written word, that it becomes impossible for us to be stupid. It should become impossible for any one system to authorize or prescribe the tyranny of the word.

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Dave Cormier’s MOOC on P2PU, Rhizomatic Learning, in week 3 is focusing on the topic Embracing Uncertainty. He says:

At the heart of the rhizome is a very messy network, one where not all the dots connect to all the lines. No centre. Multiple paths. Where we have beliefs and facts that contradict each other. Where our decisions are founded on an ever shifting knowledge base. Our challenge this week… how do we make our learning experience reflect (and celebrate) this uncertainty?

Uncertainty exists in all forms of education and learning. It is not mostly celebrated. In fact, it is suppressed. Or attempted to be. In traditional education, it is systematically constrained by the dimensions of time, network boundaries (class/batch), regulatory requirements and pedagogical biases. It is even systematically constrained in other (non-traditional) environments, even informal ones at most times.

However, it underpins these environments in dramatic ways, so much so that it is a wonder that any intended outcomes are even met. As an example, even the understanding of what a degree program in any subject should contain (content, pedagogy, assessments) is not shared or common across the world. It is therefore uncertain, at least to me, what an MBA degree really means!

Let us talk instead of democratizing uncertainty. That implies thinking of uncertainty as by, for and of learning (and its stakeholders).

Uncertainty by learning is the adoption of certain uncertainties  by learners, teachers and administrators. It is their ability to practice those uncertainties.

Uncertainty for learning is the “framework” or the ecology for uncertainty to flourish and where the participants of the educational system are encouraged to embrace certain uncertainties.

Uncertainty of learning is the uncertainty that society owns and celebrates, and that is what change is all about anyways. This is the most important change that can happen to learning – when there is purpose to driving certain uncertainties through the system.

Not all certainties may be “good” or “appropriate”. What is good or appropriate may differ widely, but no uncertainty can be good if it does not result in the “overall” good (atleast directionally and democratically speaking). There could be more consensus on bad and undesired uncertainties – those that result in (directionally) negative consequences such as high unemployment or obstacles to (say) scientific development.

Some people would then argue that uncertainty should be harnessed in certain ways, and this could progressively lead us to the same traditional paradigm that exists today. We shall also need to “prove” in many ways, that more “good” uncertainty in the system will impact social outcomes positively. We may even need to “prove” that either this is an articulate and cogent alternative to the existing system or stands as an important option in a pluralized education system.

What may happen as well (as with the xMOOCs) that these positive uncertainties may be usurped, distorted and made to work within traditional environments in a manner that is ineffective and diluted (e.g. you want 21st century skills to be “built”, so why don’t you create a new subject called “collaboration” and assign it graded assessments and specialized new content & teaching). In fact, I think we need to see uncertainty as culture, as a way of being rather than a specialized skill or value.

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