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A new MOOC – Competences for Global Collaboration – is due to start on April 22nd.  This has been designed by my colleagues from the University of Applied Sciences in Graz, Austria.

This is a 6 week MOOC – covering the following topics:

Week 1: Communication across borders: Introduction and warm-up (Facilitators: Rupert Beinhauer, Jutta Pauschenwein; Visiting Speaker: Heinz Wittenbrink,)

Week 2: Legal cultures (Facilitator: Doris Kiendl-Wendner)

Week 3: Doing Business in Emergent Markets (Facilitator: Thomas Schmalzer; Visiting Speaker: Vito Bobek)

Week 4: Relationships & Networks in Business to Business Marketing (Facilitator: Denny Seiger; Visiting Speaker: Rahul Singh)

Week 5: International communication and negotiation (Facilitator: Gudrun Reimerth; Visiting Speaker: Maryam Bigdeli)

Week 6: Transfer into individual contexts (Facilitators: Maja Pivec, Jutta Pauschenwein)

The pedagogy of this MOOC has been very carefully thought through and articulated on the MOOC website, where a series of blog posts have outlined the course team’s thinking since they started to build their website in February of this year.

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More than 300 people have already signed up for this MOOC.  The topic seems particularly important for learning in a digital age. As Charles Darwin is thought to have said:
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On Tuesday of this week (April 2nd) I went to see the Sensing Spaces Exhibition at the Royal Academy in London.

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On the next day (April 3rd 2014) I attended a one-day conference at UCL in London and ran a workshop with my colleague, Elpida Makriyannis, in the space that you can see in this photo below.

UCL  space for learning

The two spaces could not have been more different. In his introductory talk to the UCL audience, the Provost recognized that space is a problem at UCL. There is not enough and much of what there is needs refurbishment. If UCL has the necessary finances, what a wonderful opportunity to think about the influence of space on learning. As one of the Grafton Architects said on a video on the Sensing Spaces website:

If you put students into a certain kind of space they will expect to be fed. If you put them in another kind of space they will expect to be challenged. Space prepares you to receive or to respond.

The aim of the Royal Academy Sensing Space exhibition was that it would ‘radically transform the apparently dominant character of the classically planned and detailed interiors; transformation that will simultaneously amplify and diminish, mask and frame, illuminate and shade, and reinforce and unbalance the familiar gallery experience.’  The exhibition wanted to help visitors re-imagine architecture – just as when we design learning spaces we hope that they will encourage learners to re-imagine learning.

Bruno Zevi suggested in 1948 that we are ‘illiterate in our understanding of space’. (Zevi, B. 1948. Architecture as Space, Horizon Press). Is this still the case? It certainly isn’t the case in relation to the architects exhibiting in this exhibition. These architects could teach us a lot about how to design spaces for learning. That was not their explicit intention for the exhibition, but that is what I came away with. Through their installations it became clear that a carefully designed learning space will give the learner ‘a sense of being able to claim the territory.’

The exhibiting architects understand that the experience of space is a holistic and relational one. Light, temperature, smell, colour and texture all play their part. Learning should be a sensual and embodied experience. As learners we should be in control of our learning paths, following routes of personal and individual interest, moving from lows to highs, from vertical to horizontal, from light to dark, from quiet contemplative spaces to engaged interactive community spaces, through doorways that allow us to make connections between our past and present, between outside and inside and take us consciously or unconsciously over learning thresholds. The learning space should be adaptive and allow us glimpses of as yet unreached vistas that fire our imaginations. It should be experienced from within, not externally imposed.

In his keynote presentation to the UCL conference, Etienne Wenger said that learners in the 21st century need to be able to work in a landscape of practices, with engagement, alignment and imagination. The Sensing Spaces exhibition was for me an experience of a landscape of different spaces, where I could envisage different practices emerging through engagement, alignment and imagination.

The Royal Academy published a very helpful education guide for the exhibition (Sensing Spaces education guide). I have quoted liberally from this in what follows, to show how each of the architects ‘spoke’ to me, not only about space and architecture, but also about the kinds of learning spaces I would like for my own learning.

Álvaro Siza (Portugal)

Siza’s installation is the first you see when arriving at the Royal Academy. The installation is of three columns located outside the Gallery, which connect the outside with the inside. They reflect his interest in continuity, both the theoretical continuity of architectural history and the physical continuity of place. His work is based on a deep emotional response to the site.

Alvaro Siza

Alvaro Siza 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘…… we are always building in relation to something else. What we create is not an isolated object but transforms and is transformed by what exists’.

Entering the Exhibition

There is no set route for viewing the installations. You enter an octagonal room, which is a central pivotal space to which you can return as you create your own pathway through the galleries.

On the wall of the octagonal space is written: ‘Experiencing architecture involves moving within and around it, absorbing its qualities through our bodies and senses. We react consciously or not, to the characteristics of different materials, vistas, volumes, sounds, spatial relationships and proportions. As well as engaging physically with space, our experience of it is also informed by our memories and habits.’

The exhibition sets out to awaken and recalibrate our sensibilities to the spaces that surround us. As such, it is part demonstration and part experiment, which in the spirit of enquiry requires interaction and participation from its audience. Visitors are invited to observe, move through and around, touch, adapt and occupy a series of specially commissioned architectural installations. (Sensing Spaces education guide)

From the octagonal space the route I chose was to first go through Eduardo Souto de Moura’s door. De Moura created two replica door cases – precise facsimiles of those in the Royal Academy and placed the copies at 45-degree angles to the originals.

Eduardo Souto de Moura (Portugal)

De Moura’s installations make passing through an aperture a more present experience – an experience of movement and transition.

Eduardo Souto de Moura

Of his work he says:

‘Space for an architect does not exist, so we design the limits that give the impression of space.’

‘For me architecture requires continuity. We have to continue what others have done before us, but using different materials and methods of construction.’

‘It is not possible for an architect to design a space – such a concept does not exist. Instead, we design the thresholds and the limits: the walls, doors, and so on. I’m interested in designing the elements that give the impression of space’.

This aligns with Pezo von Ellrichshausen’s comment:

‘Good architecture is often invisible, but it allows whatever is happening in that space to be the best experience possible’.

I don’t only interpret this in terms of physical space, e.g. the rooms/spaces that UCL or any learning designer might design, but also the opportunities for ‘internal’ spaces that are personal and individual to each student.

Moving through de Moura’s doorway I came to an interactive community space.

Diébédo Francis Kéré (Africa)

This was a room within a room, made of honeycomb plastic panels, and designed as an interactive and adaptive space, which relied on the engagement and contribution of the gallery visitor.  Visitors were offered brightly coloured plastic straws to thread through the holes in the honeycomb structure.

Diebedo Francis Kere3

Kéré states that his main aim is ‘ to create comfortable spaces for informal gatherings, and to help communities build their own inspiration’.

‘I believe that it is important to engage people in the process of building so they have an investment in what is developed. Through thinking and working together the built object becomes part of a bonding process.’

‘For me, architecture is primarily about people, about asking questions such as: who is the user? What is going to happen here? How can I respond to the user’s needs?’

For Kéré space, and learning in that space, is social and collaborative.

In the next space the architects took us to places and spaces that we would not normally be able to visit or reach. They took us into the roof space of the immensely lofty rooms of the Royal Academy.

Pezo von Ellrichshausen (Chile)

Pezo von Ellrichshausen

Pezo von Ellrichshausen 6

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘We are not trying to express the structural properties of our buildings. The emphasis instead is on the proportions of the rooms, their sequence, the way they open – simple things, but which taken together suggest something more complex.’

Eduardo Souto de Moura3

 

Then across another threshold, through another of de Moura’s doors ……

 

 

 

 

 

…. I entered a contemplative space. Here the influence of space on the visitor/learner was so apparent. You could have heard a pin drop. If anyone talked at all, it was in whispers and hushed tones.

Kengo Kuma (Japan)

Kuma created two delicate installations made of lengths of bamboo whittled to a diameter of 4 mm, bound together to form a fragile structure, impregnated with liquid scent of Japanese Cyprus or Tatami and lit by LED light fittings in the floor.

Kengo Kuma 3

Kuma’s aim is to ‘achieve the maximum effect with the minimum use of resources’.

‘The more the volume of the material is reduced, the more the human body becomes sensitive and tries to concentrate on the limited, thin, small and slight material in order to smell out or catch ‘something’ from it.’

‘I always start with something small – breaking down materials into particles or fragments that can then be recombined into units of the right scale to provide comfort and intimacy.’

What I took away from Kengo Kuma is that ‘less is more’, which immediately I related to less curriculum could be more learning, less resources could be more inquiry, less teaching could be more discovery and so on.

Grafton Architects (Ireland)

The Grafton Architects also created a quiet space in their dark space. People also whispered in this space.

Grafton Architects

They made two dramatically different installations, both suspended from the roof lights. ‘Choosing only to work with the roof lights, both installations feature a series of suspended surfaces and forms that manipulate the light and reshape the space in two entirely different ways; one as an exploration of lightness, with what is referred to as a waterfall of light, and the other being the exact opposite, exploring weight, containment and the formation of carved-out space.’ (Sensing Spaces education guide)

Grafton Architects 3

The Grafton Architects seek to ‘make as much nothing as possible’, and to structure space through the careful orchestration of the passage of light and movement through the void’. They have said:

‘There is a sense of pleasure in moving from darkness to light or vice versa because as human beings we are cyclical. How light reflects and how light is contained is the stuff of architecture.’

‘Here we are describing spatial experience using not words but light.’

I can certainly recognize learning in terms of dark and light.

Finally I moved into Li Xiaodong’s maze, where I could create my own journey to the Zen Garden.

Li Xiaodong (China)

According to the ancient Chinese Philosopher Lao Zi, what is important is what is contained, not the container.

Li Xiaodong5Chinese architecture develops from the idea that the building is something to be experienced from within. Li Xiaodong’s installation ‘ adds a new maze of spaces to an otherwise familiar route’. The timber frame is infilled with small sections of coppiced timber and placed on an acrylic floor lit by LEDs. The route through the maze culminates in a Zen Garden.

 

Li Xiaodong states that there is a ‘fundamental difference between “being present” in a space, where you are absorbed within it, and looking at images of a space, where the mind is detached’. Li Xiaodong6

Xiaodong’s work seems to me to be all about identity, which comes full circle to Etienne Wenger’s keynote for the UCL conference in which he said that ‘The 21st century will be the century of identity’. It is interesting to think about the implications of the design of learning spaces for this.

For more photos of the exhibition see https://www.flickr.com/photos/jennymackness/sets/72157643464527454/show/

Research-based education was the focus of a one day conference at University College London  (UCL)-  this week (Thurs 3 April).

UCL ranks 4th in the world for research, but according to the Provost, in his introductory presentation, needs to do better in the National Student Survey, i.e. the student satisfaction ratings. The Provost’s strategy for bringing about this improvement is to make UCL a world leader in research-based learning.

The conference was principally for UCL staff, i.e. a teaching and learning conference, but there were also some ‘visitors’, attending from other institutions such as the Institute of Education and other Universities. I was attending to run a workshop with my colleague Elpida Makriyannis in which we wanted to promote discussion about readiness for research-based learning in participant specific contexts around such questions as What is research? What is teaching? What is a research community? What is research-based teaching? What is research-based learning?

UCL Presentation

At least one presentation during the day made reference to the Healey matrix (see image below and click on it to enlarge) and there were some excellent presentations, which demonstrated how different aspects of this model are being implemented within different disciplines and programmes across the University

Healey Matrix

Source of Figures: Healey, M. (2005). Linking research and teaching: exploring disciplinary spaces and the role of inquiry-based learning.

Despite the excellent practice demonstrated by many at UCL, from the workshop that we ran, it seems that a common understanding of research-based learning is difficult to achieve. Ideas such as negotiated outcomes, student autonomy, collaborative learning and student/staff integrated research communities all need much unpicking and discussion – to make meaning through dialogue and working across boundaries.

For an institution that is recognized for its excellence in research, it may be difficult for some to make the cultural shift to the student-centered approach that will be needed to become a global leader in research-based learning. Hasok Chang, who used to work at UCL, but now works at the University of Cambridge, has written that practices which promote the use of graduate slaves, graduate seminars and promoting the budding genius will not turn an undergraduate class into a professional research community. For him learning is not merely practice in preparation for something else that is ‘real’, but requires a community of students and experts in which the research needs to be authentic.

So Etienne Wenger was a good choice for the keynote.  He talked about research-based education from the perspective of social learning theory.  (See tweets here). Etienne explained that you cannot separate knowing from the social community in which competence is defined. Learning and meaning-making is part of the becoming of the person. Students need meaningful experiences of engagement with the world. Are our institutions helping students with meaning making, which is where the focus should be, or are they focused on curriculum? Access to information is unproblematic. Access to who you are in the world of a landscape of practices, is the problem.

So engaging students in research is a social practice. It needs to be social to demystify it, to locate it in a landscape of practice and to apply it to other aspects of life.

Etienne Knowledgeability

 Photo taken by Elpida Makriyannis

This has significant implications for the ways in which students and their tutors interact with each – teach each other and learn from each other. These ideas about community, identity, negotiating meaning, student autonomy and so on, are not covered by the Healey matrix. Whilst models such as the Healey matrix certainly clarify the different types of research processes that students can be engaged in, perhaps they are a second step. Perhaps the first step is to understand what we mean by student-centred learning, identity development in landscapes of practice and research communities of practice.

Etienne Research-based Educatiton

Photo taken by Elpida Makriyannis

References

Chang, H. (2005). Turning an undergraduate class into a professional research community. Teaching in Higher Education, 10(3), pp.387–394.

Healey, M., Jordan, F. & Short, C. (2002). The student experience of teaching, research and consultancy. Available at: http://trnexus.edu.au/uploads/downloads/TR Questionnaire.pdf

Healey, M. (2005). Linking research and teaching: exploring disciplinary spaces and the role of inquiry-based learning.  In Barnett, R (ed). Reshaping the University: New Relationships between Research, Scholarship and Teaching. McGraw Hill / Open University Press, pp.67-78. Available at:  http://www.delta.wisc.edu/Events/BBB Balance Healey.pdf 

Healey, M. & Jenkins, A. (2009) Developing undergraduate research and inquiry.  Summary by: Dr Laura Hodsdon (June 2009). Available at: http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/assets/documents/EvidenceNet/Summaries/healeym_jenkinsa_jun09_developing_ug_research_and_inquiry_summary.pdf

Professor Mick Healey website. Publications and Resources. Available at: http://www.mickhealey.co.uk/recent-publications

Reinmann, G. (2013).  Forschendes Lernen oder Bildung durch Wissenschaft. Available at: http://gabi-reinmann.de/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Vortrag_Okt13_ZU.pdf

UCL Teaching and Learning Portal.  Research-based learning case studies. Available at: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/teaching-learning/case-studies/research-based-learning

University of Leeds. Research-based Learning website. Available at: http://curriculum.leeds.ac.uk/rbl 

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

guerrilla-marketing-gorilla-in-disguise (Source of image: http://blog.punchthrough.com/post/11302346572/guerrilla-market-research-scraping-sparkfun)

Martin Weller’s recent post about The Art of Guerrilla Research – so completely describes my personal experience of research, i.e. research undertaken by small independent groups who are up against larger forces (up against those larger funded research groups, who are usually associated with an institution, and also up against the recent focus on ‘big data’). With one or two exceptions, the research I have been involved in has never been funded and has been qualitative or mixed methods research.

Martin is going to be talking about this in a Masterclass workshop that he will be running for the ELESIG community in 10 days time. Wish I could be there, but because I am not funded, I cannot justify travelling for more than 6 hours for a 3 hour workshop :-)  This is one of the hazards of Guerrilla Research. I hope the session will be recorded.

In a post by Russ Unger and Todd Zaki Warfel that Martin references, three characteristics of Guerilla Research are identified – rigor, time, and cost. Russ Unger and Todd Zaki Warfel suggest that Guerilla Research methods may involve less rigor and they take less time and cost less, but they still yield high-quality results. They say that there is probably just enough rigour. I think this is fair comment and in my own case, involved as I am in research into learner experience in open learning environments (principally MOOCs), unless I move fast, then my research is going to be out of date before I have even published it. So rigour has to be balanced with time. But I ‘own’ my time. I am an independent consultant who does research mostly for personal interest. So time for me means getting the research out there fast enough to still be of some consequence. Cost is usually not a factor for me, because I am not paid for it – unless I cost my time – which I don’t!

And this is the case in the Guerrilla Research that I am currently involved in – and that is research into the most recent open course that I have participated in – Dave Cormier’s Rhizomatic Learning – The Community is Curriculum  (Rhizo14) open course.

If you have been a participant in this course, however minimally, my colleagues Frances Bell, Mariana Funes and I would love to hear from you. Please have a look at the survey and have a go at responding. If you don’t like the first three questions, then I think Question 4 is accessible to everyone.

Here is the link to the survey - http://bit.ly/Rhizo14survey

And here is a link to my page about the research - http://jennymackness.wordpress.com/rhizo14-research/ 

And I would like to point you to another Guerrilla Research group which has sprung up out of the Rhizo14 course; the auto-ethnography group – who are collecting participants’ stories of their learning journeys in a Googledoc – see https://docs.google.com/document/d/1mSrZFBt1cYjDSAaFc6Et-BAZ95oEEBMi-AvAX8Fz8Qs/edit

Finally – looking up synonyms for Guerrilla, I find the following terms

  • freedom fighter,
  • underground fighter,
  • irregular soldier,
  • resistance fighter,
  • member of the resistance,
  • partisan

These resonate for me in relation to Rhizo14, but we’d love to hear about your experiences. Please let us know by completing both our survey and the survey of the auto-ethnography group.

And final thanks to Martin Weller for sparking off this post.

Leap-of-Faith
(Source of image: http://jobangel.blog.hu/2013/07/29/kinek_a_kockazata_a_jutalekos_munka)

On Twitter Nick Kearney asked “Are we reaching an understanding of what ‘rhizomatic’ praxis might involve?”

I’m not sure. I think we probably still need a clearer view of what happens or can happen, in terms of learning, in the open space for learning that will be created by taking a rhizomatic approach.

An open learning environment of the type we have experienced in #rhizo14 (Dave Cormier’s open online course on rhizomatic learning),  is associated with ambiguity and uncertainty and puts learners in a liminal space – an in-between-space – between mastery and troublesome knowledge. This is a space of potential risk.

In #rhizo14 the creation of open space has been an integral part of the course design. There has been space to engage and interact in locations of our own choice (Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Blogs, Diigo, Google Hangout), space to follow our own lines of enquiry and space to experience the ideas being tested, such as unpicking the meaning of open sharing, remixing and repurposing information, embracing uncertainty, questioning the authority of knowledge and books, learning in a community, and creating our own curriculum.

Some #rhizo14 participants have given a lot of thought to what it means to learn in open spaces. In the video she created for the Week 3 topic – Embracing Uncertainty, Helen Blunden showed us the physical spaces that she works in, more open than in the past, and shared with us what uncertainty means in her workspace. Keith Hamon has written two blog posts (here and here) about the relationship between structure and space in rhizomatic learning, suggesting that space does not mean lack of structure or boundaries, and that space offers possibilities and structure offers potential. On Matthias Melcher’s blog, Vanessa Vaile posted a link to an article which suggested to her that edges and visual complexity aid navigation in open spaces.  Matthias himself, whilst not writing specifically about space, has discussed rules and patterns in rhizomatic learning,  which seem to me to be related to space. And Mariana Funes in a long post that covers a lot of ground, has some interesting things to say about what ‘safe’ space might look like in an online environment.

Mention of safety in relation to online space raises for me the link between space and risk.  With space comes risk and with risk comes ethical responsibility. I would suggest that the more open the space, the greater the risk for both learner and ‘teacher’, and the greater the ethical responsibilities of all participants, but particularly the ‘teacher’.

Ronald Barnett in his book ‘A Will to Learn: Being a Student in an Age of Uncertainty’,  includes a chapter near the end of the book on ‘Space and Risk’.  He acknowledges the ‘virtue of space’ as being freedom, but with this freedom comes a number of risks. He recognises that a common response to these risks in an educational setting is to close down the space, rationalising this as being in the students’ best interests – but as he points out ‘No risk, no space’ – and space is needed if the students/learners are going to become ‘authentically themselves’.

So what are the risks? Barnett sees a number of them.

In relation to curriculum the spaces needed are ‘intellectual space’ and ‘practical space’. We have had both these in #rhizo14. They are associated, respectively, with

  • ‘epistemological risk’ – by following their own lines of enquiry, creating their own curriculum, students may end up with a ‘warped perspective’ or ‘skewed understanding’
  • and ‘practical risk’ – the students may not have the practical skills  to cope with the open curriculum environment – skills such as self-organisation – or the student might be over-dependent on the skills they have and not learn new skills

In relation to pedagogy, we need a ‘space-for-being’ and the risk here is ‘ontological’. A risk to the learner’s ‘being’, i.e. a risk to their identity. This risk is ever present. It is more than a practical consideration. As Barnett says (p.146):

… the tutor has all the time to make judgements about how and when to intervene, to bring individuals on, to divert them into new paths of becoming, to give yet other individuals a new sense of themselves and yet others an understanding that their use of their space is not taking them forward as it should. There is an ethics of educational space, which has surely not been excavated.

… No matter how careful a teacher is, a word, a gesture, may be injurious to a student’s being.

Ontological risk is the greatest risk when opening up learning spaces for both the teacher and the learner. As Barnett also says (p.150) – ‘Space is necessary, but it has to be a controlled space’.

But what do we mean by control and how much control is too much?  In CCK08 (Connectivism and Connective Knowledge MOOC) the space became, at times, very risky for some learners. Following the MOOC a number of us discussed this at length and some of us came to the conclusion that:

Most important of all, negative constraints must be put in place and communicated to the participants.  Secondly, the instructors or facilitators must dampen negative emergence and amplify positive emergence. (Source of quote: IRRODL)

The difficulty is that open spaces attract a diversity of learners. What is a negatively risky space to one will be a positively challenging space to another.  But whichever way you look at it, risk is a factor of open learning spaces.

So to return to Nick Kearney’s question: Are we reaching an understanding of what “rhizomatic’ praxis might involve?

Well, I think I have some understanding of the uncertainty of the learning process, the need to constantly question and challenge assumptions, and the need for space in which to do this. But I think much more understanding is needed of the complexity of the learning process and the risks that learners and ‘teachers’ are subject to when adopting a rhizomatic approach to learning and course/open space design.

 

richard-giblett-mycelium2Source of image- http://www.galeriedusseldorf.com.au/GDArtists/Giblett/RG2005/source/mycelium.html (Richard Giblett)

The idea of community as curriculum is not new. Etienne Wenger wrote about it in his 1998 book on communities of practice - and since no ideas are truly original, his thinking was probably influenced by prior writers -but nevertheless his book is the most thumbed on my bookshelf and in 1998 he wrote that education is:

‘… about balancing the production of reificative material with the design of forms of participation that provide entry into a practice and let the practice itself be its own curriculum… (p.265)

He has grounded the idea of ‘community as curriculum’ in the practice of the community, but he has also stated very clearly what he means by community and what he means by curriculum.

There is clear evidence from communities of practice that the practice itself is its own curriculum. The strongest community that I am a member of is CPsquare - the community of practice about communities of practice. This has been going for many years and has a strong group of core members who welcome peripheral participants and support them in their learning trajectory. It is a semi-open community – full access is through paid membership.

I am also a now peripheral, but originally a founding, member of the ELESIG community  – a community for people interested in researching learners’ experiences of e-learning. This also has a strong core group and is an open community. This community does not yet have the depth of shared history that CPsquare does, but time will tell and it is already developing a substantial shared repertoire.

So community as curriculum is not problematic for me. I have seen it in my communities and it is evident in #rhizo14.  I blogged about it early on in the course – The Community is the Curriculum in rhizo14 

BUT

#rhizo14 is a course  – a learning community rather than a community of practice? As Sylvia Currie (responsible for the SCoPE community  – another community I am connected to)  pointed out on my blog (in a comment), and I have also heard Etienne say, it doesn’t really matter what you call it, so long as the basic principles for a community and curriculum are in place.

I am, as yet, unconvinced that this can happen in ‘a course’.

What I am finding interesting to follow through in my mind, is whether it is possible to have a ‘course’ about something like rhizomatic learning/thinking without contradicting the very premise on which it stands. I have heard Stephen Downes also talk about problems with the word ‘course’ in relation to cMOOCs.

For me the most interesting curriculum topic that has arisen in the #rhizo14 ‘community’ (and I still question whether this ‘course’ qualifies as a community – but I think only time will tell) is the topography of the learning environment.

In particular I am interested in the notion of ‘ learning spaces’.  Keith Hamon wrote a wonderful post on this relating it to a soccer game and field, and it relates very closely to work I have been doing with my colleague Roy Williams about the effect of the relationship between structure and openness in learning environments.

So today, I have spent some time reading around this idea of what ‘space’ means to a learner and the constraint that the idea of ‘community’ and ‘course’, if they are not carefully cultivated, might put on a learner in relation to their space for learning.

I think Ron Barnett in his book ‘A Will to Learn: Being a Student in an Age of Uncertainty‘  has summed it up for me when he writes about the tension between singularity and universality. This tension is not, I think,  problematic in a network.  It might be a bit more problematic in a community, but I think it is very likely to be problematic in a course.

On p.148 Barnett writes:

‘There is here a key spatial tension: to let learn, to let go, implies singularity. By this I mean that the student is to be permitted to become what she wishes, to pursue her own intellectual inclinations, to identify sets of skills that she wishes to acquire to come into her own voice. However, the teacher in higher education has a kind of tacit ethical code of ensuring that that student comes to live in keeping with the standards of her intellectual and practical fields. The student is going to be judged by those standards, in any event, but standards of this kind imply universality.’

Whilst this quote obviously applies in a situation where a student is studying for credit or some sort of certificate, I think it also says a lot about the role and power of the ‘teacher’, ‘convener’ of any course – and how that power, knowingly or unknowingly, can constrain the learner’s space.

Barnett also writes on p.148 ‘The teacher’s presence may serve perniciously to reduce the students’ space’.

This for me explains why community, course and curriculum are an uneasy fit.

Further quotes from Barnett’s book that I think are relevant to #rhizo14 are:

p.148 ‘Given spaces in which to explore and to develop, students will become differentiated from each other’.

Singularity is a necessary outcome of space’.

This raises for me the tension between the pressure of community, course and curriculum and the learner’s desire/need to find their own space, their own voice in relation to their own learning.

And p.149 Barnett writes:

Giving space to students, therefore, brings into play ethical dilemmas, as the singularity-universal tension itself becomes necessarily apparent.’

And so I come full circle to the question of ethics in a course, curriculum and community, which I wrote about in the very first week of #rhizo14 – Rhizomatic Learning and Ethics

This is an open letter to Keith Hamon. Since it is open anyone is welcome to respond, but the thoughts here have been prompted by contact with Keith.

richard-giblett-mycelium-rhizome (For source of image – see References)

Hi Keith – I have been thinking about your invitation to discuss some of the ideas around rhizomatic learning with you further.

I am still finding it difficult to get my head round it – but maybe that’s because I haven’t read enough of ‘A Thousand Plateaus’. On one level it all seems so obvious

  • learners need to have autonomy to make their own choices about which paths to follow,
  • life is full of uncertainty and will be more so as the pace of change and information overload increases,
  • there is so much information out there at the moment that there is no point in re-inventing the wheel – we need to share, aggregate, remix, repurpose and share again
  • the shelf-life of knowledge is ever diminishing; there is an increased urgency to be ever critical and questioning of what we know.

These ideas have been around for a few years now.

I’m not even sure that the rhizome metaphor is that new. You yourself have been writing about it since 2009 or before (?) and then of course ‘A Thousand Plateaus’ has been around for much longer.

I have been enjoying your posts and those of Cath Ellis. Cath’s posts in which she is presenting models for rhizomatic learning make sense. She has presented two models.

  1. Learning environments which are designed to take a rhizomatic approach are multi-path – for me the tube map has its limitations, but does make me think of multi-path possibilities. In our work on emergent learning, we have identified multipath as one of the factors needed to promote emergence.
  2. Learners in these multipath environments are nomadic.

Tim Raynor writes in ‘Lines of Flight’:

‘Nomadism is a way of being. It involves refusing to be tied down by set categories and definitions. It is driven by a desire to experiment and explore, to learn, grow, and boldly venture forth on creative lines of flight’.

Not only does this relate to learner agency (one of the clusters of factors we have in our work on emergent learning) but also to learner identity. Learning, meaning, identity and community are ‘deeply interconnected and mutually defining’ (Wenger 1998, p.5).

In our work on emergent learning we have also discussed how ambiguity and liminality might affect possibilities for emergent learning. For us we have always considered that an ‘all or nothing’ approach is not the learner experience. As you have said certainty is important, just as important as uncertainty. In all the factors we have considered that might influence emergent learning, we think of them as being on a continuum between prescriptive and emergent learning, but it is – as you have described it – a complex dance. We have however, through the workshops we have run where we have asked people to draw their own footprints of emergence, realised that the scale is not from negative to positive. Both prescriptive and emergent learning can be positive, just as they can both be negative depending on the context.

I think this idea of ‘push and pull’ has come out in your writing. I particularly like what you have written about creating space. That really resonated with me. In our emergent learning work we have struggled with the notion of ‘open/structure’ – the idea that we need to consider both structure and the spaces between the structure. What are those spaces and how do we recognise them? Structure seems easier to recognise?

You have written:

‘Rhizomatic learners ‘enjoy’ the tensions between closed, defined spaces where the ball is currently (what we know) and the open-ended, undefined spaces where the ball can go (what we don’t know).’

I’m not sure that I would know how to distinguish a ‘rhizomatic learner’ from other learners. As you have suggested, we all ‘dance’ (love that!) between certainty/uncertainty, open/closed, and so on. You have written that ‘the space holds all the possibilities’, which has made me wonder what possibilities the structure holds. Just a thought – I’m in thinking aloud mode!

I think this also relates to the idea of striated and smooth space, of which Sian Bayne has said both are good. Deleuze and Guattari have written that:

‘State space is ‘striated’ or griddled. Movement in it is confined as by gravity to a horizontal plane, and limited by the order of that place to preset paths between fixed and identifiable points.’

I actually equate this to Cath Ellis’ tube map model, but I don’t think this is what she intended. D &G go on to say

‘Nomad space is ‘smooth’, or open-ended. One can rise up at any point and move to any other.’

I find it more difficult to visualise this. I’m not sure what they mean by rise up. And this brings us to the question of what ‘open-ended’ means. D & G have also written:

‘A rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo.’

I don’t know what to think of this. My past experience has suggested that there are always boundaries that we come up against. Etienne Wenger writes a lot about boundaries and that has influenced my thinking. His thinking is that boundaries are valuable – its where the best learning can take place (he often includes this when talking about ‘landscapes of practice’). In our emergent learning framework we have zones, rather than boundaries, but it is possible to fall off the edge of chaos in our framework. And in your wonderful blog post about spaces on a football field you point out that there is a boundary. Do we need boundaries for structure? Is that what we mean by structure? I think that up until now in our emergent learning research we have been thinking of structure in terms of scaffolding or support.

Final question: If a rhizome is ‘always in the middle’ – how does that equate to there being no centre?  I think this question relates to the important points that Frances Bell has been making about power. I haven’t yet read what D & G have to say about power in a rhizomatic learning environment. Where does it fit? How does it fit? Does it fit?

So, with respect to rhizomatic learning, I feel comfortable with the notion of nomadic learners in multi-path environments. I’m less clear about the topography of this environment and the relationship between the horizontal and vertical at various levels of understanding, such as the structure of the learning landscape and the power relations within it.

I would welcome your thoughts on some of these questions.

References 

Bell, F. (2013). Dimensions of power, knowledge and rhizomatic thinking.

Bayne, S. (2004). Smoothness and Striation in Digital Learning Spaces. E-Learning. Vol 1, No. 2.

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1987). A Thousand Plateaus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by Brian Massumi, University of Minnesota Press

Ellis, C. (2013). Model one: maps 

Ellis, C. (2013). Model two: nomads

Richard Giblett (2009). ‘Mycelium Rhizome’. Pencil on paper. 120 x 240 cm, $11,000 incl gst, unframed Retrieved from: http://aymed.wordpress.com/

Hamon, K. (2013). Encouraging Autonomy is #rhizo14

Hamon, K. (2013). Uncertainty in #rhizo14

Rayner, T. (2013). Lines of Flight. Deleuze and nomadic creativity.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Williams, R., Mackness, J., & Gumtau, S. (2012). Footprints of emergence. IRRODL.

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