Beyond Assessment slideshare


This was the third in a series of 3 talks that Stephen Downes gave in London this week.

Jul 11, 2014
Keynote presentation delivered to 12th ePortfolio, Open Badges and Identity Conference , University of Greenwich, Greenwich, UK.

ePortfolios and Open Badges are only the first wave in what will emerge as a wider network-based form of assessment that makes tests and reviews unnecessary. In this talk I discuss work being done in network-based automated competency development and recognition, the challenges it presents to traditional institutions, and the opportunities created for genuinely autonomous open learning.

For recordings of all three talks see OLDaily

Beyond Assessment – Recognizing Achievement in a Networked World
Jul 11, 2014. 12th ePortfolio, Open Badges and Identity Conference , University of Greenwich, Greenwich, UK (Keynote).

Beyond Institutions – Personal Learning in a Networked World
Jul 09, 2014. Network EDFE Seminar Series, London School of Economics (Keynote).

Beyond Free – Open Learning in a Networked World
Jul 08, 2014. 12th Annual Academic Practise & Technology Conference, University of Greenwich, Greenwich, UK (Keynote).

This was perhaps the most forward thinking and challenging of the three talks. I wasn’t at the talk, but listened to the recording. What follows is my interpretation of what Stephen had to say, but it was a long talk and I would expect others to take different things from it and interpret the ideas presented differently.

Educators have been wrestling with the issue of assessment, how to do it well, how to make it authentic, fair and meaningful, how to engage learners in the process and so on for many, many years.

Assessment has become even more of a concern since the advent of MOOCs and MOOC are symptomatic of the changes that are happening in learning. How do you assess thousands of learners in a MOOC?  The answer is that you don’t – or not in the way that we are all accustomed to – which is testing and measurement to award credentials such as degrees and other qualifications. This has resulted in many institutions experimenting with offering a host of alternative credentials in the form of open badges and certificates.

Stephen’s vision is that in the future assessment will be based not on what you ‘know’ but on what you ‘do’ – what you do on the public internet. The technology now exists to map a more precise assessment of people through their online interactions. Whilst this raises concerns around issues of privacy and ethical use of data, it also means that people will be more in control of their own assessment. In the future we will have our own personal servers and will personally manage our multiple identities through public and private social networks. Prospective employers seeking a match for the jobs they want filled can then view the details of these identities. There is some evidence that learners are already managing their own online spaces. See for example Jim Groom’s work on A Domain of One’s Own.

Why might new approaches to assessment such as this be necessary? Here are some of the thoughts that Stephen shared with us.

It is harder and harder these days to get a job, despite the fact that employers have job vacancies.  There is a skills gap.  The unemployed don’t have the skills that employers need. We might think that the solution would be to educate people in the needed skills and then employers could hire them, but employers don’t seem to know what skills are needed and although learning skills inventories help people to recognise what they don’t know, these inventories don’t help them to get to what they do know.

Education is crucial for personal and skills development and more education leads to happier people and a more developed society. The problem is that we confuse the outcomes of education with the process of education. We think that we can determine/control learning outcomes and what people learn. See Slide 14

instructional design

But useful outcomes are undefinable (e.g. understand that …..) and we need an understanding of understanding. Definable outcomes such as ‘recite’ and ‘display’ are simpler but behaviourist (Slide 18).   There is more to knowing than a set of facts that you need to pass the test.  Knowing something is to recognise it, in the sense that you can’t unknow it.  Stephen used ‘Where’s Wally’ as an example of this:

Wallywhere's wally

Knowing, according to Stephen, is a physical state – it is the organisation of connections in our brain. Our brain is a pattern recogniser. Knowing is about ‘doing’ rather that some mental state.

My understanding of what Stephen is saying is that if we believe that knowing is about pattern recognition, then achievement will be recognized in how good learners are at pattern recognition as evidenced by what they ‘do’ in their online interactions. ‘Assessors’ will also need to be good at pattern recognition.

Learners are increasingly more sensitive to the patterns they see in the huge amount of data that they interact with on the internet, and machines are getting closer to being able to grade assignments through pattern recognition.  As they interact online learners leave digital traces. Big data is being used to analyse these internet interactions.  This can be used for assessment purposes. But this has, of course, raised concerns about the ethics of big data analysis and the concern for privacy is spreading – as we have recently seen with respect to Facebook’s use of our data. (Slide 55)

Facebook research

A move to personally managed social networks rather than centrally managed social networks will enable learners to control what they want prospective employers to know about them and human networks will act as quality filters.

Stephen’s final word was that assessment of the future will redefine ‘body of work’.

assessment of the future

All these are very interesting ideas. I do wonder though whether it’s a massive assumption that all learners will be able to manage their own online identities such that they become employable. What are the skills needed for this? How will people get these skills? Will this be a more equitable process than currently exists, or will it lead to another set of hierarchies and marginalisation of a different group.

Lots to think about – but I really like the move to putting assessment more in the control of learners.

This was Stephen Downes’ second talk in a series of 3, which he is giving in London this week. This is how he introduced it on his blog Stephen’s Web 

In this presentation I look at the needs and demands of people seeking learning with the models and designs offered by traditional institutions, and in the spirit of reclaiming learning describe a new network-based system of education with the learner managing his or her education.

Although I have only listened to the recording of this talk, I found it more interesting than the first talk, which I listened to live, having been a delegate at the conference, although there was plenty of interest in that one too. What I like about Stephen’s talks is that he doesn’t pull any punches. He always challenges my thinking.

The thrust of this talk, from my perception, is, as the title suggests, that learning is no longer in the control of institutions, but increasingly personal and in the control of learners as they occupy a networked world. There is a distinction between personal learning and personalized learning. Institutions don’t understand personal learning because personal learning has to be in the control of the learner. It is made to order. Learning is built not from a kit but from scratch. Institutions think they are catering for personal learning, but in fact are offering personalized learning – which is ‘off the shelf’ learning; one package with a bunch of options.

There is evidence that today’s students are demanding change and want more control. Learning is no longer about remembering. The content, nature and means of learning are changing on a daily basis. Learning today is more about play and socializing. Lecturing is also changing. Lecturing today is not so much about content as creating the potential for dialogue.

A particularly challenging point that Stephen made was ‘Do away with models’ – learning models and design models.  The right model is no model. New versions of old models don’t produce results. It is obvious that people learn differently, have different objectives, priorities, goals and times when they want to learn, but if you use a learning model you are attempting to predefine the outcome, whereas learning should be about discovery and exploration. I would also say from the work I have done with Roy Williams, that we need to recognize that  learning will often be unpredictable and emergent. (See Emergent learning and learning ecologies in Web 2.0)

Autonomy rather than control is the essential in education. Autonomy does not mean no structure, it means choice of structure. Personal learning is based on self-organization and self-organizing networks. Learners need to reclaim management and organization of learning. The way forward will be for students/learners to have their own personal web server and run their own web services from their own home networks.  The University will be a box in your living room. Learning should be cooperative and networked. It is not content that is important, but the making of connections. Learners need networking skills.

What do we need from institutions?

We do not need

  • more models, more designs
  • more learning theories
  • more standards, measurement and centralization
  • more control
  • more of making the same mistakes

We do need mechanisms to support people in learning and bettering their lives. Institutions need to think in terms of serving many different people in many different ways and supporting personal learning, rather than attempting to control and personalize learning.


And here is an interesting blog post about this talk by Sonja Grussendorf – Beyond institutions: Stephen Downes at NetworkEDGE

See also Arun Karnad’s post:

The Royal Observatory

At the beginning of this week I was in Greenwich, London for the first time in my life. On Monday I travelled up the Thames from Embankment to Greenwich Pier by Clipper (another first) and stood on the decks of the Cutty Sark.The Cutty Sark

On Tuesday I spent the day at the University of Greenwich’s APT2014 Conference, the reason for the trip.

University of Greenwich Queen Anne Court (1)

On Wednesday I stood on the Meridian Line at the Royal Observatory.

The Meridian Line

A key question asked in the main exhibition room of Flamsteed House  at the Observatory is ‘Where am I? This related to how you can work out your exact location on the open seas, by knowing how to fix your latitude and longitude positions. But ‘Where am I?’ seems such an important and relevant question for an educator and although I didn’t visit Flamsteed House until the day after the Greenwich conference, I found myself constantly wondering where I am in relation to the discussions that were held during the conference.

One of the main reasons for attending the conference was to hear Stephen Downes speak. Where am I in my understanding of what he had to say and the implications of what he had to say? Here is the link to a recording of his full talk, Beyond Free – Open Learning in a Networked World  and this is the Abstract for the presentation:

Screen Shot 2014-07-11 at 10.00.41

This was the first in a series of 3 talks that Stephen is giving in London this week. He started his second talk, Beyond Institutions: Personal Learning in a Networked World – given to the NetworkEDGE conference at the London School of Economics on Wed 10th July – with the words: If you feel unfulfilled at the end of this talk, it’s because it doesn’t really have a beginning and doesn’t really have an end, i.e. it’s the middle talk in a series of three. I have only listened to the recording of this second talk.

I did feel somewhat unfulfilled after the first talk. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the conference – I thoroughly enjoyed it, attended some interesting sessions and talked to some great people, but at the end of the day I felt that a lot of questions had been raised but not many answers had been found. These questions were around what we mean by ‘open’, what we mean by ‘connected learning’ and what do universities understand about open, connected learning – not only what do they understand, but what are they doing about it, what are they becoming as a result of open learning in a networked world – and are they becoming what we would hope they become? As Stephen said, ‘Institutions are what we make them’.

This thinking about unanswered questions made me wonder whether the idea of flipped classrooms, which was mentioned in the opening talk by the Vice Chancellor, should be applied to conferences. Should we engage with the ideas to be presented by the keynote speaker before the conference, and present a discussion paper/workshop as a result of that – so that the key questions can be discussed.

The points I took from Stephen’s talk were that

‘Open’ means open in all senses, particularly in the sense of open sharing of thought processes, and should be the default position in Universities. Free and open access is not enough.

But Universities are resistant to openness in the sense of open sharing, and content providers do not want people to have free and open access. The promise of open resources has not materialized.

Open access makes a massive economic difference to users, but cost IS the problem for universities because universities see online learning in terms of money making.

The issue is not finding innovative ways of teaching, but innovative ways of learning.

The bulk of MOOCs are created in the image of traditional courses, but this was never the intention of the original cMOOCs.

Change in Universities is slow – too slow.

None of these points came as a surprise. None of them is unfamiliar, but challenging Universities to become more ‘open’ can be a risky business for employees and those that do can land themselves in trouble, as Stephen pointed out in his presentation. (See slide 29 for an example).

In general people seem to be more aware of the risks than the benefits. A new lecturer at the conference said that ‘openness’ is a risk for someone like her who is new in the job and trying to establish a reputation. Sheila McNeill, who was a panel member at the end of the day, urged this lecturer to be brave and just go for it. I wonder whether being strategic about openness is more important than being brave. Sharing openly doesn’t mean that you have to ‘bare your soul’ – there are other ways of sharing. A more impersonal and less risky approach is reporting. If open sharing doesn’t come easily then share what you have discovered to be useful, rather than your own work or personal thoughts. As Stephen said in his second talk to the London School of Economics, every learner is different and reacts to each learning scenario differently.

The Deputy Pro-Vice Chancellor, also on the panel, seemed to recognize the difficulties when she said that open sharing in the form of lecturers recording their lectures and openly sharing them, is a risk to the University’s reputation – but she also acknowledged that a major issue for an institution is the need for cultural change. As she put it – universities will have to wait for some staff to shift or die before this culture change can be achieved.

Stephen asked for a show of hands for who was tweeting the conference proceedings and a show of hands for who had recorded their conference presentation.  Some were tweeting, but only one person had recorded their presentation. The person sitting next to me during the final panel session was inspired and enthusiastic about what she had heard during the day, but said that she had never taught online and had never taken an online course. It was all new for her.

For me, the concerns raised about openness should not be brushed aside. Questions of whether an academic’s or an institution’s reputation can be damaged by openness need to be discussed. The benefits or otherwise of openness need to be articulated. For me, it is not about whether you tweet at a conference or record your presentation and upload your Slideshare; all these can help to model a spirit of openness, but it’s more about trying to understand why openness is necessary and how we can all be supported in understanding and doing this. Ultimately, isn’t it about personal values and educational philosophies?

So I came away from Greenwich feeling that many questions had been raised, but that they were left hanging. I would have been interested in more discussion about whether there is agreement about the changes that Stephen suggested Universities need to make and if so how they will make these changes. But I have now listened to Stephen’s second talk to the London School of Economics, which helped me to understand the context of the first talk. Inge de Waard has blogged about it here: Fabulous ideas: economics, innovation, #education  and I hope to return with another blog post.

A big thank you to Simon Walker, Gillian Keyms and colleagues for organizing a thought-provoking event, and to all at Greenwich, particularly the students, who were so helpful, friendly and welcoming.

Yesterday Frances Bell and I gave a presentation at the ALTMOOCSIG – The Rhizome as Metaphor for Learning.

A Rhizo14 participant, Maha Bali, has asked: How did it go?

I haven’t really had a chance to discuss this with Frances yet (we had to rush off at the end of the day to catch our respective trains), but I have mixed feelings. I will start with the positives and then discuss the not so positives.

I thoroughly enjoyed the day. More importantly it was very useful for our research. Although we haven’t finished collecting data yet, preparing for a presentation gave us a push to really think through where we are up to. Our decision to write four blog posts about our research before we gave the presentation was, on reflection, both a good and a not so good idea – but more good, than bad. For me the blogging really helped to articulate our current research questions and clarify what we could and could not cover in the presentation. The negative side of this was, for me, that I then had so much in my head that it was difficult to present the ideas associated about rhizomatic learning concisely and with meaning. I think we ‘waffled’ a bit!

My long time research collaborator, Roy Williams, was also at the conference. This was great, because having worked together for so long now, I knew he would tell us straight up how he found our presentation – and he did!  He said that although he found our presentation thought-provoking and interesting (perhaps he was being kind and that was the sweetener before the pill :-)), he said it wasn’t sharp enough – and he was right. I sensed this even as we were speaking. But interestingly I think Roy and I also have this problem when presenting our work on emergent learning. We just have too much that we want to say and ideas around rhizomatic and emergent learning are not easy to communicate in a traditional form or to an audience who we cannot assume has ever thought of them before. Making a short concise presentation can end up short-changing the ideas being presented, but if it is not concise then people are either not going to listen, or get confused. This is one of the dilemmas. Frances and I hoped that by blogging about our planning for the presentation, we would overcome both these difficulties, but of course we cannot assume that anyone has read the blog posts.

Another dilemma is that rhizomatic learning by its very association with rhizomatic thinking and the work of Deleuze and Guattari as expounded in their book A Thousand Plateaus (1980) – resists approaches to hierarchical and arborescent ways of thinking and writing. This was very challenging and despite our best efforts I don’t think we succeeded in communicating what this might mean for education.

However, we did think carefully about this and designed our Prezi accordingly but in the presentation itself, I think we failed to communicate the difficulties that we think we are up against. But see the Prezi for the presentation and for an explanation see our four blog posts – Rhizo14: Emerging Ambiguities and Issues.

It is interesting that I don’t think we are alone in feeling that the research process is messy and perhaps needs a rethink to enable us to consider new ways of thinking about teaching and learning. In her keynote for the conference, Diana Laurillard said of her own MOOC – ICT in Primary Education

‘If you have to take a critical stance you have to be on the inside’.

Stephen Downes has also raised the problems of thinking about research in new ways in his recent presentation  -  Digital Research Methodologies Redux 

And George Roberts has made an interesting post today reporting on a keynote by Marlene Morrison (Oxford Brookes) at a conference he attended today, which focused on countering methodological stagnation.

…..Prof Emeritus Marlene Morrison (Oxford Brookes), … gives a radical barnstorming keynote challenge: “Educational administration, ethnography and education research: countering methodological stagnation. Provocative tales from an ethnographer.

George’s post maybe of interest to the Rhizo14 group that are engaged in auto ethnography research.

It would be easy at this point to say, as a few of our survey respondents have said, that rhizomatic learning and thinking, by it’s very nature is something that cannot be researched. But then how will we ever know that it is worthwhile to think of the rhizome as a metaphor for teaching and learning? It could be, as some of my most valued connections have said, that there is nothing in the idea of rhizomatic learning that makes any sense or is worth spending time on; or it could be that the metaphor has some uses, but is incomplete, as some of our survey repsonses have said; or it could be that Deleuze and Guattari’s ideas about rhizomatic thinking really will help us to make a paradigm shift in teaching and learning. Frances, Mariana and I haven’t got far enough in our data analysis to make any comments about this as yet.

Finally thank you to those who showed an interest in the work we are doing and raised questions or commented on our work during the ALTMOOCSIG conference day. For me these were – my trusted collaborator Roy Williams, my online friend Fred Garnett who I have met a few times face-to-face – who thinks that the metaphor is not helpful because it is about plants rather than humans, my colleague Marion Waite from Oxford Brookes University -  who raised the all important question of ethics in this type of research, and a new connection I made – Dr Helga Hlaðgerður Lúthersdóttir – who was the only person who came to talk to me about Deleuze and Guattari and I am convinced knew more about their work than I did :-)

BUT, my collaborator Roy Williams, said of our presentation – ‘There was at least one elephant in the room’.  I would say there were three – community, curriculum and convener – but although all these three seem to be significant for us in our research, we haven’t yet finished our data collection and we haven’t yet completed our data analysis. So they will have to remain as elephants in the room, until we have something sensible to say that can be backed up by evidence.

So Rhizo14 – which way now? For me we need to decide whether this is worth pursuing or not, and if so why?

MOOCs – Which way now? This was the question for the ALTMOOCSIG day conference (Friday June 27th) which was hosted at UCL.

As an independent consultant and researcher, I have to think carefully about where to invest my time and resources. This was a free conference (thank you ALT, Mira Vogel and Fiona Harvey), but of course there were expenses involved with travelling from Cumbria to London – but it was well worth it.

All the sessions I attended were interesting and thought provoking and there was a very good atmosphere – relaxed and friendly, but intent on discussing the issues. For an excellent post about some of the sessions see George Robert’s blog – Open online courses: ALT MOOC SIG.

Two sessions that I attended that George did not, were Ronald MacIntyre’s Workshop – ‘Open Education and the Promises we make’– and Matt Jenner’s session ‘MOOCs: it’s not about the money’.

In Ron’s workshop, our group had a lot of fun drawing what we thought about the promises we make in open education – or rather the wonderful Fiona Harvey did the drawing.


Overall, I think we decided that promises are being made in the name of MOOCs but many are not being fulfilled.  Not really a surprise. The divide between learners and their teachers is getting wider, as teachers and institutions focus on their ‘star’ status, marketing, brand and coffers. There was  quite a bit of cynicism around about the value of MOOCs, not just in this workshop but throughout the day generally, despite there being examples of excellent practice. Some that stand out for me from the presentations I attended were:

  • Patrick (Paddy) Haughian’s presentation – ‘Beyond the selfie – social learning in a connectivist environment’. Comments that Paddy made which interested me were:

‘Contribute content and allow the content to drive it’

‘Assessment is the problem’

‘It’s all about making – be creative – create artefacts’

These comments although reported out of context here, seemed to resonate with some of the thinking Frances Bell and I have been doing for our own presentation on rhizomatic learning (see Rhizo14: Emerging Ambiguities and Issues for further information).

  • Aidan Johnston’s presentation – Storytelling through MOOCs. The story in question was told in the context of the University of Strathclyde’s Introduction to Forensic Science MOOC, which attracted thousands of participants, who attempted to solve a murder case.

These presentations showed very good use of technology for creating and running a successful MOOC, but it must have been at some cost, particularly if, for whatever reason, the MOOC cannot be run again, e.g. presumably Strathclyde’s MOOC built around the story of a murder can’t be used again if the object was to solve the murder.

The other session I attended that George has not reported on, was at the end of the day when Matt Jenner got us to think about the benefits of MOOCs and asked us to use voting response systems to share our opinions, which was a very good way of covering a lot of ground quickly and having a lot of fun at the same time. See Matt’s blog for details – What’s the benefit of MOOCs?

As well as the (out of context) comments that I noted from Paddy Haughian’s presentation, there were a few other comments that I similarly made a note of during the day (also reported here out of context):

Diana Laurillard. ‘If you have to take a critical stance, you have to be on the inside.’  – an interesting perspective for researchers.

Fred Garnett.  ‘We need new metaphors for learning.’  ‘If you try and bring a community together, you create a hierarchy’.

Alexander Griffin.  ‘A good building is one that relates to its context. We have to understand our own context’. ‘Learning [is good] when you don’t know it. Teaching when you don’t know it is even better.’ i.e. don’t know that it is happening.

Shirley Williams. ‘It’s dangerous not to steward courses’  (with reference to Wenger et al.’s book Digital Habitats – stewarding technology for communities)

Ronald MacIntyre. ‘Widening access does not equal widening participation.’

How much further forward were we at the end of the day in answering the question – MOOCs – which way now?

Its no longer a question of whether it can be done;  institutions with the resources can design and run MOOCs which will be enjoyed by participants. MOOC conveners can learn from each other and the technology is available.

Cost clearly continues to be an issue – in terms of time and money, even though Matt Jenner tried to focus on the benefits of MOOCs, saying it’s not about the money.  Shirley Williams from Reading University talked about paying undergraduate and postgraduate students to support MOOCs, others talked about the cost of producing videos etc. and then there is the cost of the tutor’s time, especially if running a MOOC is additional to a tutor’s normal workload. Is this sustainable?

It seemed to me that people are beginning to wonder what it is all for – not what are the benefits, but who benefits.  I am always struck by how rarely the early MOOCs, such as CCK08 are referenced in this respect or at these events. What came through very clearly for me in CCK08 was an intention to think differently about pedagogy, and the necessity to think about how teaching and learning can be aligned with the needs of living in a digital age. Focussing on this still might help to answer the question – MOOCs – which way now?

This is the fourth and final post in a series which outlines the thinking and planning Frances Bell and Jenny Mackness have been doing in preparation for our presentation – The Rhizome as a Metaphor for Teaching and Learning in a MOOC – for the ALTMOOCSIG conference on Friday 27th June.

The first post was – The Rhizome as a Metaphor for Teaching and Learning in a MOOC 

The second post was – Making Sense of the Rhizome Metaphor for Teaching and Learning

The third post was – Principles of Rhizomatic Thinking

This final post will cover some of the issues that are emerging from our research data.


Rhizo 14: Emerging ambiguities and issues

 Slide 6 (Source of image: Tom Friedman. Open Black Box : http://eyelevel.si.edu/2007/06/sculpture-as-an.html )

We are still in the process of analysing our data, but on the basis the work we have done so far we were able to send these statements out to survey respondents who agreed to an email interview:

  • The rhizome is a useful metaphor for learning but it does not add anything significantly new to our current understanding of teaching and learning.
  • The use of the rhizome as a metaphor for designing teaching and learning has a positive impact on the role of the teacher.
  • The rhizome metaphor is sufficient to describe networked learning, but insufficient to describe learning in a community.
  • The rhizome is an adequate but incomplete metaphor for explaining how we learn.
  • The metaphor of the rhizome works well for social learning, but less well for knowledge creation.
  • Deleuze and Guattari’s ideas were not relevant to learning in Rhizo14

The statements exemplify some of the emerging alternative perspectives on the learner experience of the Rhizo14 MOOC.

We haven’t done enough analysis of our data yet to come to any conclusions, but here are some tentative initial questions, findings and discussion. We do not have any answers to these questions. We simply raise them and open them for discussion.

  1. The role of the convenor. What is the role of the convener in a course which tries to apply D &G’s rhizomatic principles? Is it possible to have no centre?

Here are the alternative perspectives of two survey respondents.

Our words, our images, our diagrams were what drove the learning for ourselves and for others in the course. Where the conversations went did not start from a single centre and move in an ordered fashion from there; they started wherever we started, and moved wherever those involved wanted them to move. As a result, there were numerous conversations happening at the same time, going in different directions, linking up to others if we made the links happen. 

I could see many people getting enthusiastic and falling in love with the community like “we are something, we are the best in world. Others are stupid and not creative but we are great. Dave is the King and it is fine to get attention from him.” I define this groupthink and emotional drifting. Someone called it a congregation around dc

Is a course, which necessarily means there is a course convener, the right environment for exploring and modelling rhizomatic learning?

  1. The operation of power in Rhizo14 and its relation to striated and smooth spaces for state and nomadic thought

“Only thought is capable of inventing the fiction of a State that is universal by right”, they insist, “[only thought is] capable of elevating the State to the level of de jure universality” (Holland, 2013, p.45)

D & G talk about smooth and striated space. Striated space is structured and organised and can be the home of ‘state thought’, whereas in smooth space there are no fixed points or boundaries. Many of Rhizo14’s provocative prompts seemed to be designed to help participants challenge state thought/ arborescence in education. We are curious to explore how nomadic thought was enabled and constrained by the few structuring devices (activities and technologies) present in Rhizo14.

Although rhizomatic nomadic thought may seem more at home in smooth space, it may not have that luxury. There may have been more striated space in Rhizo14 than you would expect in a course about rhizomatic learning. This also relates to thinking about the rhizome as achieving ‘felt-like’ status, which Holland (2013) equates to ‘smooth space’.

Holland writes (p.38) that ‘any rhizomatic element has the potential to connect with any other element’ . He compares felt to the warp and woof (weft) of fabric. Early analysis suggests that Rhizo14 didn’t achieve felt-like status (i.e. a smooth space). There was not enough ‘omni-directionality’.

‘Rhizomatic elements co-exist with one another, but without structure (e.g. felt). Any structure or unity is imposed as an extra dimension  .… and as an effect of power on the dimensions of co-existence of the rhizome itself, whose self-organization requires no added dimensions: structuration or unification, by contrast, occurs as the result of “over-coding” by a signifier…..’ (Holland, p.39)

The potential ambiguity between Dave Cormier’s role as convenor (with his expressed desire to moderate communication) and his wish to be de-centred within Rhizo14 may have been realised in confusion and challenge by some participants, and defence of him by others. There is some evidence of this in the data we collected. A possible explanation could be that Rhizo14 ended up being ‘over-coded’ with Dave Cormier as the signifier and members of the dominant Facebook Group as signifiers, thus working against decentring. This is the one of the issues we hope to explore with Dave Cormier himself to enrich our understanding.

  1. The Community: Is the idea of community compatible with D & G’s principles of rhizomatic thinking? In Rhizo14 is the community an example of territorialisation? D & G write about the necessity of territorialisation, but say it should only be relatively temporary.

Community is not a word that features strongly in D & G’s A Thousand Plateaus, but they do write:

There is no ideal speaker-listener, any more than there is a homogeneous linguistic community. ( D&G, A Thousand Plateaus, p.7)

On the same page, they also write:

There is no mother tongue, only a power takeover by a dominant language within a political multiplicity.

And Holland explains this with:

‘Even on its own plane, discourse as rhizome is “an essentially heterogeneous reality” [p.7 in D&G's book] – a “throng of dialects, patois, slangs, and specialized languages,” Deleuze and Guattari assert, with “no mother tongue” [7]. The appearance of a standard language is instead the result of a power-takeover by one language among many, necessarily in connection with yet other factors, most notably political and demographic ones.’ ( Holland, E.W., 2013, Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, Bloomsbury, p.39)

The question we, as researchers, are considering is whether the notion of community works against rhizomatic thinking principles, but we haven’t got any further than this at the moment. Does a community lead to a standard language and a power take-over? One interesting aspect of community within Rhizo14 is that although Dave Cormier drew on his existing network to attract participants to the MOOC, there was no pre-existing Rhizo14 community, and so part of the early ‘work’ of Rhizo14 was community formation.

As Dave Cormier said:

In discussions with the excellent Vanessa Gennarelli from P2PU she suggested that I focus the course around challenging questions. It occurred to me that if i took my content and my finely crafted ‘unravelling’ out of the way I might just get the kind of engagement that could encourage the formation of community. http://davecormier.com/edblog/2014/04/01/explaining-rhizo14-to-oscar/

This is an interesting issue that we hope to explore further.

  1. The community is the curriculum

This begs the question - what was the curriculum? As is evident from the first quote from a survey respondent under point 1 above, there were some participants who believed that the curriculum was created by the community. We have evidence that participants learned ‘how to MOOC’, ‘how to make connections with like-minded people’, and ‘how to think differently about their existing educational philosophy’, but as mentioned in a previous blog post, only a handful survey respondents referred to D&G’s work in their understanding of the rhizome as a metaphor for learning and teaching.

As well as minimising the content he provided, Dave had already affirmed the need for learners to create content. Participants from DS106, EDCMOOC, and CLMOOC 2013 would already have experienced a MOOC where ‘making’ was a key focus for community/ course participation. The ‘Arts and Crafts tent’ was popular, a participant-driven approach, and can be seen in the many multimedia artefacts tagged #rhizo14, but not everyone wanted to do this. One of the ways in which curriculum could be perceived is by the content generated by learners, and the diversity of content from poems to wordy blog posts and a lot of remixes in multimedia in Rhizo14.

As one email interview respondent has written:

I do not quite understand how the community designs and negotiates its own curriculum community. We need more studies and references to describe the processes of negotiation that go on within a community that enable it to design their own curriculum.

And finally, the same respondent wrote:

I have a feeling that this metaphor needs to be connected more to pedagogical issues arising from educational research. 

Which neatly brings us to the end of our presentation and emphasises that we still have more questions than answers and, as we have mentioned before, far more thoughts and discussion topics than we have room for here, or time for in our presentation.

Slide 7

(Source of image: Tobias Øhrstrøm Learning from a potato: http://www.iaacblog.com/maa2013-2014-advanced-architecture-concepts/2013/11/learning-from-a-potato/ )

If you have any thoughts/questions about this series of posts, we would welcome your comments on our blogs, or by email:

  • jenny.mackness@btopenworld.com
  • frabell@gmail.com



Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1987). A Thousand Plateaus, University of Minnesota Press.

Holland, E.W. (2013). Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. Bloomsbury



This Creative Commons License applies to this blog post and supercedes the one that normally applies to this blog, which can be found in the sidebar.In publishing interim findings to our blogs, we are cautious about how we publish what could ultimately be part of a journal article. For this reason, the license under which we publish these posts relating to our presentation is different from the one normally applied to our blogs.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

This is the third in a series of posts which outline the thinking and planning Frances Bell and Jenny Mackness have been doing in preparation for their presentation – The Rhizome as a Metaphor for Teaching and Learning in a MOOC – for the ALTMOOCSIG conference on Friday 27th June.

The first post was – The Rhizome as a Metaphor for Teaching and Leaning in a MOOC

The second post was – Making Sense of the Rhizome Metaphor for Teaching and Learning


Principles for Rhizomatic Thinking 

Slide 5

(Source of image: Deconstructive Rhizome by Pongtidasantayanon:  http://www.iaacblog.com/maa2013-2014-advanced-architecture-concepts/2013/11/rhizome-2/)

Deleuze and Guattari  (D & G) enumerate 6 approximate characteristics of the rhizome. There are others that are also relevant to rhizomatic learning and teaching and may even be more relevant, such as ‘nomadic thought’; ‘wolves, tribes and packs’; ‘smooth and striated space’;  ‘assemblages’; ‘territorialisation’; and ‘lines of flight’ – which we are still unpicking in relation to our data, but don’t have time to discuss here.

So for now we’ll stick with the six principle characteristics, which are on the image above and listed below.

In Week 2 of Rhizo14 a discussion arose in the Facebook Group around some participants’ perception that they were expected to study theory, and that some other participants’ posts were condescending. This has subsequently been labelled within #Rhizo14 as a theorists versus pragmatists divide. There was an attempt at self-healing by Rhizo14 participants but apparently the outcome was not satisfactory to those most affected and some people left the course as a result.  Leaving a MOOC need not be seen as some sort of failure if you have drunk enough from the well, but leaving from a sense of alienation would be more troubling.  Subsequently, ‘pragmatism’ achieved a kind of ascendance in #Rhizo14 and Deleuze and Guattari’s ideas about rhizomatic thinking were discussed less and less during Rhizo14. Recently in the Facebook group there has been a discussion about whether or not the group should now discuss Deleuze and Guattari’s ideas – but the discussion was fairly quickly passed over. A key contributor to Rhizo14, Keith Hamon, had already published a treasure trove of posts on D & G’s rhizomatic thinking and continued to apply their theory and that of others during the MOOC.

There are D & G principles that can be considered in relation to learning in open learning environments and were in evidence in Rhizo14. We do not claim to be philosophers. Neither can we claim to have read or understood all of D & G’s work, but we are finding evidence of some tentative links between D & G’s ‘approximate characteristics of the rhizome’ and learning in Rhizo14.

Big health warning here – these findings/thoughts are tentative

1. Connections – a rhizome ceaselessly establishes connections.

There is evidence of this in Rhizo14 – plenty of connections were made and are still being made, but some survey responses have revealed that this was not the case for everyone. Some people felt excluded or peripheral to what was going on in the course. A feature of Rhizo14 was the core group that gathered in Facebook (originally set up by Dave Cormier) and though a wider range of participants contributed less frequently, the core group persisted and now refer to themselves as ‘die-hard rhizo14ers’. As the contributions to P2PU, the G+ group and blog posts began to tail off in Weeks 4-6, the Facebook group became the main focus of activity on Rhizo14. When the course ended this is largely where discussion continues, although the core group posted topics on P2PU for Weeks 7-12, after the ‘official’ end of the course.

A rhizome has multiple points of entry. One of the most active participants didn’t join until Week 4, and new people still appear in the Facebook group and post to Twitter with the #rhizo14 hashtag. A rhizome also has no beginning and no end and we have evidence that the Rhizo14 course is an example of this.

Alternative perspectives on making connections in Rhizo14 are exemplified by these quotes from two respondents:

I’m also disappointed that it seemed so hard to connect in Rhizome 14

I stayed because of the community - it was great fun. It gave me space to reflect on D&G, collaborative learning, and learning communities and to talk to other like-minded people.

2. Heterogeneity -  any point of a rhizome can be connected to any other and must be.

In relation to Rhizo14 was this characteristic of a rhizome in evidence? – yes and no.  Ultimately there has been a discussion about whether Rhizo14 ended up being a clique and how heterogeneous is the Rhizo14 rhizome; there seems to be a tension between ‘community’ and the principles of a rhizome in D & G terms. This is something we need to explore further.

3. Multiplicity  – A multiplicity is, in the most basic sense, a complex structure that does not reference a prior unity.

There was diversity in Rhizo14 – but was there multiplicity – which requires no central pivot point – being a-centred and de-subjectified?

Holland, p.39 writes: 

There are no pre-determined positions or points within a rhizomatic multiplicity, only lines along with random nodes arising at the haphazard intersections of them (felt).  

This principle seems difficult to achieve in a course. As discussed in the previous blog post Dave Cormier was perceived by some in Rhizo14 as being at the centre. As one respondent wrote:

A big part of being a good facilitator is the weaving and prompting, asking good questions, etc. What I noticed in rhizo14 was a facilitator who appeared to be very much at the centre of the course, and who, while very present and active, stated his own views and conclusions quite (too?) often

But another wrote:

Now, clearly, Dave Cormier was at the centre in the sense of organizing the course and providing intro videos, but the vast majority of the actual course content and activities was made up of what we, the participants did. 

From a technological perspective one could perceive the variety of platforms as ‘multiple’: participants could engage at P2PU, G+, in the Facebook group, posting on their blogs, commenting on others’ blog posts, conversing via the Twitter hashtag, expressing ideas through Zeega. Where the interlinking between these spaces was simple and bi-directional, such as posting a link to an open blog, youtube video or another open web resource this seemed to be like multiplicity in the rhizomatic sense.  Where the interlinking was more inward looking, such as commenting on a Facebook post about a blog post or a link that was not truly open, like a link to a Facebook or G+ group/ community thread, then some of the ‘felt-like’ qualities of the rhizome were lost, and the multiplicity seemed more apparent than real.

(For further discussion of  the ‘felt-like’ qualities of a rhizome and smooth and striated space in a rhizome, see Frances’ blog post – Wandering across smooth and jagged spaces – bring a blanket and beware the Chief ants )

  1. Asignifying rupture. If you break a rhizome it can start growing again on its old line or on a new line. Connections are constantly breaking (deterritorialisation) and reforming (reterritorialisation).

It’s difficult to get evidence for this because once people have taken a line of flight it’s hard to find them or find their new rhizomatic connections. This is an issue in our research – despite our best efforts to reach early leavers, we know that some important voices are missing from our research. However territorialisation in the form of the Facebook group was dominant in the course – but those who took a line of flight will have taken something with them, although as D & G point out a line of flight can become ineffectual and lead to regressive transformations and rigid segments.

Holland, p.39, writes

‘…. rhizomes are philosophically defined at the limit by their outside, by the “lines of flight” that connect them outside of themselves and transform them.’

Lines of flight were evident in Rhizo14 in the sense that some participants went off on their own paths, but in D&G’s terms these are supposed to remain connected to the rhizome – some did, some didn’t. As one respondent wrote:

There was a point at which engagement in rhizo14 was over for me and I left the facebook group, which had been my main point of contact (I still enjoy following people on Twitter). There was no reason other than it had served its time for me (for now) and this has helped me be less controlling [in my own community]

There were also lines of flight within the Rhizo14 course. Participants were looking for lines of flight from traditional ways of thinking and working – taking their classes out onto the Internet, away from canonical texts, valorising cheating, etc.

One can also identify people whose lines of flight brought them into Rhizo14, for example Dave Cormier and a few participants who had already applied rhizomatic thinking to teaching and learning contexts.

5 & 6. Cartography and decalcomania – the rhizome is like a map and not a tracing.

You can enter a rhizome at any point. Maps are always unfinished and subject to revision – so in this sense Rhizo14 was a map rather than a tracing.  The discussion around Rhizo14 continues – albeit in one space – and new members are joining.


These are our first tentative thoughts about how the Rhizo14 course and our investigation of learner experience within it might or might not be informed by Deleuze and Guattari’s six approximate characteristics of the rhizome. There is still a lot more to explore and understand in relation to this and we are a long way off coming to any conclusions, if indeed that is possible or there are any.


Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1987). A Thousand Plateaus, University of Minnesota Press.

Holland, E.W. (2013). Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. Bloomsbury


This Creative Commons License applies to this blog post and supercedes the one that normally applies to this blog, which can be found in the sidebar. In publishing interim findings to our blogs, we are cautious about how we publish what could ultimately be part of a journal article. For this reason, the license under which we publish these posts relating to our presentation is different from the one normally applied to our blogs.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


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