Rhizomatic Learning and Ethics

Dave Cormier in his open course on rhizomatic learning, which started on Tuesday of this week – has asked us in his video to think about/discuss ‘cheating as learning’.

For him it is important to think about cheating in relation to his teaching because this brings into focus power structures in an educational setting. He says that cheating is only a possibility if there are rules to break and rules control what we do giving power to the traditions of our culture. Without rules then there is no need for cheating. He doesn’t go as far as to say that we don’t need any rules – but maybe he is saying that we need to think about changing some of the rules.

There is an interesting discussion on the P2PU site,  which throws a lot of ideas into the melting pot – such as hacking – and the use of cheat codes in gaming – which seem to be regarded as legitimate ways of working. Dogtrax writes ‘Cheating is a natural and guilt free part of gaming’ and Khomotso writes ‘Cheating can allow you to get something out of a flawed experience, rather than just avoid that experience altogether’. Both these comments suggest that cheating is simply a lack of deference to the rules.

There is also an interesting post by Technological about ‘predatory thinking’. He writes:

I”m being flippant, but in closing – I feel that “cheating as learning” is Dave Trotts “predatory thinking”,  – good old fashioned competitive thinking strategies utilised in order to gain advantage in a competitive environment. Dave Trott put it well and I think it fits well with “cheating as learning” – he says “creativity is the last, legal unfair advantage we have.” I think that “cheating as learning” as long as it is not particularly egregious and not wholesale ripping off of someone else’s efforts is part of an avant-garde, a leftfield creative advance that acts to safeguard against outdated dogmas and rules and one that is successfully checking and challenging the status quo. It is thoroughly entrepreneurial at heart, and long may it continue.

Now – defining where it becomes less healthy or problematic – that is a whole other story…

The Oxford English dictionary defines cheating as ‘acting dishonestly or unfairly in order to gain an advantage’.  All the definitions of cheating that I have looked up suggest that cheating is problematic because it contravenes commonly understood ethical codes – the moral principles which govern our behaviour  – so whilst I can see what Dave is getting at, and recognise that it is a good teaching strategy to throw in a controversial statement to get discussion going, for me associating ‘cheating’ with rhizomatic learning doesn’t do it any favours.

I don’t think rhizomatic learning has anything to do with cheating.  I don’t think that predatory thinking is cheating unless it is associated with the dishonesty of ‘wholesale ripping off of someone else’s efforts’.

For me it is more helpful to think in terms of not having to ‘reinvent the wheel’. With advances in technology this is much more possible now than ever before. We are, as Dave has told us, living in an age of information abundance. Using this information is not cheating unless our use infringes the copyright restrictions, which usually require full attribution (see creative commons licenses). Remixing and repurposing, within  copyright restrictions is not cheating. (For more thoughts about this see – It’s not Plagiarism. In the Digital Age, It’s Repurposing).  Collaboration and sharing of ideas within a climate of mutual respect, faith, humility, trust , agreed permissions and requirements for attribution is not cheating.  All these activities speed up the flow of information and save us unnecessary work. They also require openness of mind and spirit and it is this ‘openness’ that will influence power structures within our learning environments. Openness is a great leveller.

For me, learning isn’t so much about what we do – cheating or otherwise – but more about who we are and who we become – and as such is associated with ethical and moral dimensions. Does living in a digitally networked world, a world of rhizomatic learners change what we commonly understand to be the basic moral principles that govern behaviour between learners?

28 thoughts on “Rhizomatic Learning and Ethics

  1. balimaha January 15, 2014 / 12:50 pm

    Thanks for this post, Jenny. I like how you’ve brought together comments of other folks from different platforms into this post so that others who are not following everywhere get a “feel” of it. I also like that you’re challenging the use of the term “cheating” and its use with “rhizomatic learning”…
    So now I’m wondering, when Dave spoke of “cheating” (and when all of us followed that lead to talk positively about cheating), was he merely focused on rule-breaking & destroying structures – or did he also take account of the aspects of dishonesty and using unfair advantage? It can be dangerous to take one aspect of a term/action (such as the rule-breaking aspect of cheating) and glorify it while ignoring the more sinister implications (unfair advantage) that often come hand-in-hand with it. Thanks for pointing that out

  2. Dave Cormier January 15, 2014 / 1:48 pm

    Hey Jenny!

    I’m not surprised that all the definitions of the word ‘cheating’ specifically point to dishonesty. Definitions are a representation of power – at least according to Humpty.

    “I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ ” Alice said.
    Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ ”
    “But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.
    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
    “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.” (lifted from wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humpty_Dumpty)

    The definitions of ‘cheating’ doesn’t account for subcultural use of terms like ‘cheat codes’ in gaming because they are subcultures, living outside the dominant power structure. And I’m specifically talking about the way that cheating is structured in learning. The social contract for cheating in a game, like soccer (football) is simple, ‘here is a list of things we say we aren’t going to do, we all promise we won’t, so lets not do it’. To ‘cheat’ is to directly break the social contract that you yourself entered into by entering into the game scenario. You could, for instance, agree to change a rule for a game locally that would be called cheating by someone else who wasn’t party to the rule agreement. Cheating, in this case, is about people entering into a (mostly) equal social contract.

    If we explore the sense of cheating in a learning context, the power structure is markedly different. In a k-12 environment, there are very few moments where the ‘cheater’ has ever actually participated in the creation of a social contract. To cheat on a multiple choice test, for instance, is to find an unapproved way to get the correct answer. The goal of the rules in the football game is to create an equivalent measurement by which two people can be seen as competing and one or the other winning or losing. My questions, putting aside provocation, are:

    do you see cheating in an educational context as equivalent to the football example above?
    What is the goal of the ‘cheating rule’ in the learning example?

    If it is simply an effort to instil some sense of ethics in the learner then it is a strange, alienated and disconnected way of doing so. If it is more than instilling ethics, then it seems to be that it is a command and control structure that enforces a particular way of both approaching knowing and knowing. This would be, in my view, arboreal (not rhizomatic). And, if its about creating a learning environment where we can judge the winning and losing of learning, then it is unethical.

    I think that ethics are critical to a just society… but ethics built on something that isn’t ethical is damaging to people’s belief in the value of ethics.

    What say you? 🙂

  3. Pelle January 15, 2014 / 2:55 pm

    Reblogged this on Pelle Pedagog and commented:
    Att fuska som en form av lärande

  4. Terry Elliott (@telliowkuwp) January 15, 2014 / 4:46 pm

    Thanks for the post, Jenny. I think you capture and reconnect the wide range of discussion in Week One of #rhizo14. Not a small task.

    I had a discussion with Scott Johnson and dograx (aka, Kevin Hodgson) about James Carse’s idea of the ‘infinite’ game that led to this from me.

    “So the question is this: are there alternate rules that we can choose to follow that only appear to be cheating? In law this leads to some damned sticky problems that run under the idea that there are ‘natural laws’ that supersede the finite rules of the game. Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Thoreau, and Mandela thought so. Sociopaths think so, too. Of course, the aforementioned aren’t sociopaths. I am just saying we also know the path that taking the role of judge and jury along with lawmaker has some pretty serious downsides.”

    I think that cheating is about personal integrity and identity. Our personal integrity quite often dovetails with the power relations that society has already established, but sometimes…not. Or we stretch the already established rules to the breaking point, for example, in areas like what constitutes ‘fair use’. Sometimes, as you suggest, we just can’t keep faith with bad/stupid rules.

    Campbell’s Law enters in somewhere here. Once the rules are set then people begin to do everything they can to take advantage of them regardless of personal integrity. That is the problem of rigorous rules.

    We want to appear to be doing good, rigorous policing then we adopt a stop and frisk posture. We want to appear to be helping our students learn rigorously, so we push our teaching as much as possible to improving scores without regard to the efficacy of the numbers. When we enter into these kinds of contracts we become cogs in the machine not moral agents. Is it cheating to disrupt and destroy these systems. If you look from within the game, yes it is cheating, breaking the rules. If you stand on some other ground, a different set of rules, then perhaps not.

    Then you get into the problem I mention in the quote above. Messy? Yes. Rhizomatic? Mais oui.

  5. jennymackness January 16, 2014 / 2:54 pm

    Thanks to all for your helpful comments.

    Maha – for me ‘rule breaking ‘ is not necessarily synonymous with ‘cheating’ and therefore we need to be careful about how we use the terms.

    Terry – thanks for the reference to James Carse and the infinite game. I am not into gaming, so didn’t know about this, but as I have said to Maha above, I don’t see that rule breaking is necessarily the same thing as cheating. I have always been fond of the expression that ‘rules are made to be broken’ – sometimes quoted as ‘rules are meant to be broken’. I haven’t been able to find out where this expression comes from but instead found this quote:

    “I am free, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious, I break them. I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do.”
    ― Robert A. Heinlein

    In this quote it is the reference to being morally responsible for everything I do that I like. Cheating is not usually thought of as being morally responsible because it is commonly understood to be dishonest. Challenging rules is something different. Even breaking rules, if done, as you say, with personal integrity and I would add openness, will sometimes be OK depending on the circumstances. And I like your reference to Campbell’s Law, which suggests that the fewer rules we have the better and the more decision making about rules is distributed amongst learners the better – which reminds me of Elinor Ostrom’s work in relation to The Tragedy of the Commons – https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2013/02/17/tragedy-of-the-commons/

    So Jaap (thanks too for your comment) – for me – none of this condones ‘cheating’.

  6. jennymackness January 16, 2014 / 3:00 pm

    Dave – thanks so much for your lengthy response. Having had some time to think here are some more thoughts.

    >Definitions are a representation of power

    My thinking is that we need definitions as a base for knowing that we are talking about the same thing, otherwise we would all constantly be talking past each other or at cross purposes. ‘Cheating’ as commonly defined implies an association with dishonesty. This is how cheating is ‘commonly’ understood. The fact that there is a subculture that uses terms like ‘cheat codes’ to mean something different doesn’t change the fact that that is a subculture.

    As I have mentioned in my responses to Maha, Terry and Jaap – I don’t think cheating and rule breaking can necessarily be equated. Cheating is an act of dishonesty and therefore unethical – rule-breaking is not necessarily so.

    >What is the goal of the ‘cheating rule’ in the learning example? If it is simply an effort to instil some sense of ethics in the learner then it is a strange, alienated and disconnected way of doing so.

    I don’t think you can ‘instil’ ethics into a learner. As learners, we can discuss ethics and moral principles, we can discuss the rules that we think will support these ethics and moral principles, we can each of us in our own ways model and demonstrate the ethics and moral principles to which we adhere – but ultimately we are each responsible for our own ethical behaviours.

    For me ‘cheating’ is not a useful word in this context. It carries too much baggage and I can’t see the purpose of trying to change the meaning of the word after it has been commonly understood in a particular way (i.e. an association with dishonesty) for eons.

    But I can see the purpose of discussing and questioning rules, which rules we would like to follow, which rules will support the ethical code which we value and the behaviours we would like to observe and develop. I also strongly support the notion that learners are empowered to take control of their own learning and as educators we have to be constantly vigilant that we are enabling this and not abusing our power.

    So, unless you really believe that ‘cheating’ in it’s commonly understood form is OK, then I don’t think we are at odds with each other. But as I have said I can’t see the purpose in trying to redefine it when there are other words such as ‘challenge’ or ‘question’ which would be less controversial, easier to accept and wouldn’t distract from the meaning of rhizomatic learning. You are not saying that rhizomatic learning is cheating, are you?

  7. francesbell January 16, 2014 / 11:50 pm

    @Jenny I loved this post and it’s sucked me into #rhizo14 – so thanks.
    I read it yesterday and it’s got me thinking not just about ethics but wider praxis. I think this perspective that you have identified is going to tie into community and curriculum.

    @Dave When I read your comments on Humpty Dumpty, I felt a real pang of loss for the blog posts that I lost from 2006- early 2011 from my failure to back up and my ISP’s dishonesty. I had written a blog post using these ideas from Humpty Dumpty in response to Stephen Downes’ Groups and Networks stuff.

    I found some of these posts in the Wayback Machine – here is the one in question (you need to scroll down) http://web.archive.org/web/20100106123303/http://francesbell.com/2006/11/14/69/

  8. balimaha January 17, 2014 / 4:05 am

    Hey Frances, i really enjoyed your archivedost from way back! (Happy for u that u found it).
    I agree, i have no separation between emotion and reason, nor so i think this is veey natural nor possible. I like a notion callled “intellectual love” that sort pf makes it soind more looe how it feels… But it is a bit more. I wrote a poat earliee that mentioned my todler and several folks showed a peesonal interest.

    I also thought of something. The word “community” as you say has connotations of warmth, etc. Can we assume “community” between ppl who have just met? I guess npt, unlessss some a
    Ready know each other. So if community os the curriculum, we can’t just put folks in one place and expect community to grow, but rather do ice breaking activity and other deeper opportunities for relationships tp grow, trusting ones that embrace diversity, that will not reault in a tyranny of the majoproty, etc. Can’t guarantee it, nit nwed to keep it in mind.
    Laighed about thehimpty dumptyy dy thing – soooo intelligent and sp nicely uses by u

    Sprry for typpos – ad wpn’t let me see!

  9. jennymackness January 17, 2014 / 8:21 pm

    Hi Frances – Thanks so much for your comment. It’s great that you have joined the course. Really looking forward to hearing/reading your perspectives.

  10. Carmen Tschofen January 21, 2014 / 3:28 pm

    Hi Jenny,
    From the far and quiet periphery and another field… thought there were an lot of interesting relationships between your conversations here and this article: http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/the-thief/

    The piece does rehash the whole “appropriation/re-mix/mashup” conversation a bit, but I continue to find that conversations about process in artistic endeavor have a lot to say about the messiness and ambiguity of learning. (One could go so far as to say the process of learning IS an artistic process, but that’s another conversation:-))

    In this case, the “appropriation” of the article refers to taking existing physical things things and building them out in new ways for new insights. Seems like that would relate to rhizomatic or connectivist learning/knowledge/ideas/thought as well. A few key quotes:

    “’Appropriation is the art world’s answer to investigative journalism,’ he says….There’s an awful lot of trial and error involved — there’s no right or wrong solution but a series of endless experiments that sometimes result in a work that I’m willing to share…..I think appropriation art is inherently critical, like writing an analytical essay; whereas I see most other art behaving like literary fiction. I’m offering up visual information taken from culture in an effort to evoke new discussion around various subjects that I think deserve critical examination, like art history or mass (re)production. I have no substantive expectations regarding the viewer of my work, so I can’t speak to any specific questions I hope my audience asks themselves. I simply hope they see the found objects in a different light.”

    Happy 2014:-)

  11. jennymackness January 22, 2014 / 4:23 pm

    Hi Carmen – Happy 2014 to you too – and it’s great to hear from you. Thanks so much for sharing the link – http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/the-thief/

    >> The piece does rehash the whole “appropriation/re-mix/mashup” conversation a bit, but I continue to find that conversations about process in artistic endeavor have a lot to say about the messiness and ambiguity of learning. (One could go so far as to say the process of learning IS an artistic process, but that’s another conversation:-)) <<

    I love this paragraph and the idea that the process of learning IS artistic. I completely agree – and I certainly think that learning can be a very 'creative' process, without necessarily being 'arty'.

    A lot of similar ideas were discussed during the ModPo MOOC which I completed last year, in discussions around where poets get their ideas from and what sparks off the writing process. I found it all fascinating.

    It's so good to hear from you. Thanks for your comment. Hope all is well with you.


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