Rhizo14 Weeks 5 and 6 : Community as Curriculum and Where We Go from Here

I’m a bit behind schedule in #rhizo14, so I’ll tackle a couple of topics at once.

When I saw Dave’s Week 5 video, I was immediately reminded of George Siemens and the 2008 version of Connectivism and Connected Knowledge. George, in 2008, wrote about how it was the connections to other people that were truly important to learning. Later it was even suggested that content was a McGuffin, there to bring people together more than as something inherently important.

This brings me back to something I may well have discussed before. The massive courses I’ve participated in that have worked well share an important characteristic. Most of the people in them are already somewhat versed in the topic. In that respect, they are more like upper-level seminars than introductory survey courses. Learners know enough to , at least to some extent, design their own learning path, and their peers know enough to be helpful when questions are asked. There are probably some examples of rhizomatic “seeding” in introductory courses, but they seem to be rare.

As to where to go from here. I think you may well end up with something that looks like one of the many special interest Internet forums, where a community coalesces around a subject and learns from each other.

Rhizo14 week 4 – Questioning Books and Stupidity

My first thought when I heard Dave’s question, “Is books making us stupid?”, was that that construction (‘singular’ verb with non-pronoun plural subject) is used in Celtic languages like Welsh and Cornish.  In labeling things right or wrong, perspective matters.

Many years ago, when I took Intro to Broadcasting, I remember the professor, whose given names were Herbert Hoover , to give you a sense of his perspective, telling us that broadcast journalists were the beneficiaries of “status conferral function”, the belief among the masses that anyone who managed to get on TV in those days of three networks and PBS, knew what they were talking about.  Dave suggests that books have some of the same presumption of authority as broadcasters did,  Perhaps this is related to the fact that for the first several decades of western printing, the only printed book most people saw was a Bible.  If you wanted to make a conscious/subconscious link between print and authority in the early modern era, you could hardly pick a better title.

Before we’re too harsh on books, we should consider the alternative, oral transmission.  Technological optimists are quick to point out that there is now digitization, but as this graph from Yale’s Paul Conway points out, density of data storage and media lifespan don’t necessarily go together,

Media Density and Lifespan from Conway, Paul “Preservation in the Digital World”

Oral transmission has some notable successes, Beowulf, the Iliad and many other epics, along with huge folk song repertoires, were transmitted orally for centuries before being put into writing.  There are also some notable failures.  Languages like Cornish and Wampanoag are now being reconstructed from text sources because at some point oral transmission failed. We have the Epic of Gilgamesh, not because of thousands of years of oral transmission, but because it was preserved on clay tablets.

Even books that were once authoritative and are no longer so are useful.  My Bib and Methods professor in graduate school pointed out that old books like “out of date” encyclopedias can show us what was considered conventional wisdom in the past, and help us understand how knowledge and beliefs have changed.

Although many have predicted that the Internet will bring the end of the printed book, I wonder if it might help us gain a more balanced view of text.  The Internet age, when anyone can publish anything, is forcing us to be more skeptical of text in general. To the extent that that skepticism and need to verify things ourselves extends to texts printed on paper, we may start to escape the real problem with books, which is that they tend to make us unquestioning. Thus, whether the answer to Dave’s question is yes or no depends on whether you take being unquestioning as prima facie evidence of stupidity, although I imagine that wouldn’t have been nearly as catchy a title.


Rhizo14 Week 3: Uncertainty and Goals

This week, Dave asks “How do we keep people encouraged about learning if there is no finite, achievable goal?”  This is a fascinating question, which Dave has already answered. 🙂  The last step of Dave’s plan for success in a MOOC is “focus”, the point at which you decide what your goal is for the course.  There’s always a goal, it’s just a matter of where that goal comes from.

This doesn’t just happen in formal learning environments.  When most people learn to drive they have the goal of being able to get a driving license.  A smaller group have the more ambitious goal of getting a CDL so they can be a chauffeur or a trucker.  Very few have the goal to make it to NASCAR or Formula 1.  The learner always decides what their goal is.  They may or may not make that learning goal explicit.  Only when  an external credential is sought does the adult learner cede some of that control. In order to earn a driving licence, one must learn the traffic laws/highway code/etc. well enough to pass the written test.

This brings me back to a point I made in week 1.  Learning is very open, free, and flexible.  Most of the issues of power, dependence, and the like arise when learning is joined at the hip to credential seeking.  Ergo most of these issues are less about learning per se and more about learning’s role in the credential seeking process. Alas this is probably inevitable.  I imagine the number of people willing to pay to learn would be much smaller if there were not a promise of economic benefit.

What Education Should Be

Among the questions of the week in “The History and Future of Higher Education”  (Cathy Davidson’s MOOC at Coursera) is “What kind of education do you believe in?”  There are so many ways to answer that question that it quickly becomes daunting.  Nevertheless, I’ll start with the most controversial thought first and go from there, but before I get started, let me explain why this post isn’t in the Coursera forums.  One of the items in A Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in the Digital Age is “The right to own one’s personal data and intellectual property.” I’m asserting that right by not putting my discussion posts in the forum at Coursera.  Instead they will be here on my blog that I administer.  If Dr.  Davidson and her colleagues were more serious about this right, they’d consider setting up an RSS aggregator as DS106 has done.

1.  Education should care less about sorting.  The process of dividing the A’s from the B’s from the C’s, while it may be nice for HR departments sorting through candidates, doesn’t seem to me to help people learn.  I believe in education that puts learning first, assessment second (has the learner met the objectives) and sorting last.  If I could snap my fingers and change one thing, all education would be pass/fail.I think this would also help build community, because you’d never be trying to get a higher grade than the person next to you.

2. Education should value process over content (most of the time) .You can’t hold a conversation in a language if you have to look up every word, and I don’t want the paramedic taking several minutes to look up things while I’m in a medical emergency, but in many other cases, we don’t need as much instant recall as we once did.  Unfortunately, far too many educational experiences are still designed as if we do.Oddly enough, this is something the oft-criticized “menu” of general education curricula understands.  One can learn a scientific way of thinking from studying biology or chemistry or physics, for example.  Keith Devlin from Stanford recently wrote this about MOOCs

What MOOCs and other forms of online education have already been shown to be capable of – and it is huge – is provide lifelong educational upgrades at very low cost.


But based on what I and many of my fellow MOOC pioneers have so far discovered – or at least have started to strongly suspect – the initial “firmware” required to facilitate those continual “software” upgrades is not going to get any cheaper. Because the firmware installation is labor intensive and hence not scalable – indeed, for continuously-learning-intensive Twenty-First Century life, not effectively scalable beyond 25-student class-size limits.

I like his notion that one of the primary purposes of traditional higher education is to engender the habits that allow a person to learn from a MOOC environment.

3.  Education should be learner-directed.  Ideally, learners should be  able to pick projects from within broad areas that match their interests and passions.  They’ll stick with them not because of grit but because they care about what they are doing. Some of my thinking on this issue is informed by my parallel participation in Dave Cormier’s Rhizomatic Learning Course hubbed at P2PU.  It’s probably because of spending a couple of weeks in the #rhizo14 cohort that My first impression of #FutureEd was how restrictive it felt by comparison.  One could argue that #rhizo14 is more of a curated discussion than a course, to be fair.

I wrestle with the suggestions I’ve just made because I recognize the value of some things I’ve learned that I didn’t want to learn at the time.  For example, an “Intro to Literary Theory” graduate seminar, by making me read Freud and Derrida, helped me realize how much the reader matters to the experience of reading and understanding a text.  I’m not sure how to balance the benefits of exposing learners to ideas they didn’t know about and the benefits of learner agency.

Rhizo14 Week 2: Independence and Learner Motivation

This week, Dave has challenged us to create a model of enforced independence. Isn’t this at least a bit oxymoronic.  If you have to enforce independence , is the learner truly independent, or is she dependent on you for her (forced) independence?

My other thought stems from a comment Dave made in the week 2 video in which he presented learning to drive or cook as models of the kind of learner independence we are seeking.  Another thing that sets these apart is motivation. If one is not wealthy enough to eat out all the time, cooking is a necessary skill if one wishes to eat.  In many (but not all) places driving is a necessary skill for those wishing to participate in modern society by holding down a job or having a social life.  Necessity does a wonderful job of enforcing learner independence.  Learners are also quite good in many cases at being independent when they are learning what they want to learn.

What if neither of those is the case?  Can you effectively enforce learner independence absent strong internal motivation on the learner’s part?  These questions present themselves in more formal contexts.  For too many students, courses outside their major are hoops to be jumped through.  When the learner goal is to survive/pass with minimal effort, the sorts of behaviors characteristic of independent learning (iteration, seeking out sources)  are perceived as a waste of time.  If you then expect them to be independent and enforce consequences on those who aren’t, you get called in to explain why your students aren’t succeeding.

I suppose the broader question is, “Can a rhizomatic model work with students for whom the learning experience is just a requirement?”

Cheating vs. Cheating

As I was making my way through the #rhizo14 stream on Twitter today, I came across a post from Apostolos Koutropoulos. In it he compares learning to gaming, particularly addressing walkthroughs and cheats.

I mentioned in my last post that I think “cheating” is a very loaded word in education, normally associated with breaches of academic integrity, and I found Dave’s instructions to “use cheating as a weapon” a bit alarming.  Today’s mini-epiphany (good thing Epiphany season is extra long this year)  was that Dave, I think, means cheating in the sense of video game cheating/walkthroughs, where the cheating is how you learn to play the game, as opposed to relying on minimally guided trial and error.

If your formal education were a video game, final exams are boss battles.  The point of the “game” is to beat the bosses, and you cheapen the experience if you hand the controller to your more accomplished roommate when the boss battle happens.The other parts of the game/course are the learning parts, where you acquire the knowledge you need to beat the bosses.  Going through the game as designed, and figuring out the puzzles, is a bit like taking a very tightly designed course where you are instructed as to what to do and when to do it, although one hopes the instructor is more helpful than many video games.

The more open approach to learning is akin to using cheats and walkthroughs.  You as the seek out the artefacts and experiences that best prepare you for the big challenges (boss battle/research paper/final exam/ etc.)

Conflict occurs when a learner who wishes to find her own way through the material ends up in a course where the path is carefully laid out and the instructor has made following that particular path essential to the final grade, probably as a way to compel students to follow the designed learning path.  A learning experience that is designed to allow and encourage learner autonomy can end up not providing enough support and prodding for those used to being told what to do. Since the autonomous learner can usually follow precise directions when necessary, even if they don’t like it, we err on the side of explicit design.

Is there a way to design a learning experience so that it can tell students who need lots of direction what to do and when while allowing those who seek their own path to do that if that learning experience must simultaneously assess what knowledge and skills the learners have acquired?

Rhizomatic Learning Week 1 – First Thoughts on Cheating as Learning

Although I shouldn’t, I’ve gotten sucked into Dave Cormier’s MOOC on Rhizomatic Learning.  . As i watched the intro video , two statements jumped out:

1. “A story about something that’s not true is just as valuable as one that is.”

I cringed at first, then I thought for a moment about the difference between truth (in a more philosophical sense) and accuracy (in a more journalistic sense).  I suppose this is what myth is about.  Myth is full of stories that may not be accurate (x happened), but are true (in the way that fables are true).

Perhaps that’s a way in which the sciences are different from other endeavors (says the music and language major).  In science, truths must be grounded in observable fact.  In art and literature…..not so much.

2.  “Use cheating as a weapon.”

Here we have a semantic landmine.  Many educators I know would agree that cheating is a weapon, one used by lazy students who care more about the grade they get than what they learn.  This points me to the idea that cheating isn’t really about learning, it’s about assessment. Is getting from the answer from reading the assigned text cheating?

Cheating has  meaning in education because traditional educational models combine the facilitation of learning with the assessment of something (in deference to Dave I won’t say the assessment of learning) and the reporting to external stakeholders that learners have acquired certain competencies.  Toe be able to make that declaration in good faith (via the awarding of a badge, certification or degree), we must assert that Student A has demonstrated competency B.  Very often when we ask students to find answers, we are actually hoping that they document competence in the research process, particularly things such as synthesis and analysis.

So, the key to using “cheating” as a weapon is clarifying the difference between learning and assessment and that they perhaps operate with different rule sets.