Rhizomatic learning, definitions and cheating

This is a follow on from my last post where I raised my concerns around the ethics of promoting cheating as learning – as Dave Cormier has done in this first week of his open course – Rhizomatic Learning – the Community is the Curriculum.

In the Google ‘unhangout’ live session, which I didn’t attend (like Cinderella I leave the ball at midnight!, but I did watch the video recording)  – Dave responded to these concerns. Thank you – much appreciated.

Here is the recording of the session, although given that this was a live ‘workshop’ rather than a presentation – I wouldn’t recommend watching it all unless you are interested in how the ‘unhangout’ session worked.

Instead watch the beginning and the end (I’ll suggest some times in what follows), and for what happened in the breakout groups see these slides. Thanks to people who posted these – which was great for those of us who couldn’t attend.

At about 17 minutes into the session (17.45) Dave responds to my concern that cheating is inherently unethical. He says that he is not suggesting that theft is a good thing. He is not talking about cheating as theft. Instead he is suggesting that the assumptions that we have about learning are the problem. He believes that now, through the internet, we have made the transition from a scarcity of information and content knowledge to an abundance of information and cheating is a legacy of a bygone era (i.e. an era of scarcity of information). He believes that cheating is a structure in which the teacher has decided what is true or not true and that this disempowers learners. It is not about stealing people’s stuff – but is about finding your own path – creating your own map. For him this is rhizomatic learning.

I don’t argue with the principles here. I also believe that abundance of information has necessitated a change in the way we work, that assumptions should be challenged (see Stephen Brookfield’s work on Assumption Hunting), that learners should be empowered to find their own path.  But the word ‘cheating’ is still problematic for me and in at least one respect it is problematic for Dave since he says he is not talking about cheating as theft.  And interestingly, Dave doesn’t like the word ‘hack’ – so it’s not that ‘anything goes’ in relation to cheating for him – in fact it is becoming clear that he has, dare I say, ‘defined’ cheating in a specific way to suit his rhizomatic purposes.

But Dave has more to say about definitions. For this you need to go to the end of the video at round about 1.05.55.

Here he says that definitions make him ‘cookie’ (not sure about the spelling here as I haven’t come across this expression before :-)). He says that for rhizomatic learning definition is a killer because defining means locking meaning up into a little box, which doesn’t recognize the complexity of cheating as rhizomatic learning. Cheating is a complex concept embedded in our culture. It means different things in different contexts, cultures and locations and doesn’t easily translate from one culture to another. There is no common definition. Dave believes that making cheating an effective weapon to do the things we want to do doesn’t mean being dishonest. He says ‘I’m not actually talking about cheating in the dishonest sense as a way of learning. What I’m suggesting is that if we think about what cheating means we may find out that it is not in fact cheating – you may say that it all comes back to intent’.

Again – I don’t argue with the principles here. I completely agree that learning is complex. And I believe that definitions can be problematic and remember now that I wrote a blog post about this during the Change11 MOOC –  – and it’s a relief to know that Dave is not promoting cheating in relation to rhizomatic learning in the dishonest sense – but for me, this simply serves to highlight that there is a problem with the word cheating.

As the ‘fictional character’ Arca pointed out in a blog post ‘Cheating and Logical Types’ -– once we say cheating is OK, then it is no longer cheating.

So my conclusions at the end of this first week of the rhizomatic learning course are:

  • Dave is playing with words and using a very effective teaching strategy to provoke discussion – which has been very successful.
  • Cheating is commonly associated with ‘dishonesty’ – redefining it, or leaving the question of ethics out of the discussion doesn’t change that.
  • Whilst definitions can be problematic and we have to accept that there are always alternative perspectives, definitions are also necessary to help us in at least recognizing that we are talking about the same thing.  Ultimately Dave has redefined, for the purposes of this course, the word ‘cheating’, so that we can all discuss it in relation to rhizomatic learning from a similar perspective.
  • The irony of all this is that Dave has used the ‘power’ of his considerable reputation to redefine the word ‘cheating’.
  • I am in complete agreement with Dave that we should not make assumptions about the way in which people learn, that learning is complex and messy and that as educators we should try to empower learners to take control of their learning.
  • I am in complete agreement with Dave that we should try to avoid abusing the power we have as educators – but I don’t think this is simple, even in rhizomatic learning.
  • I don’t think we can just cut ‘ethics’ out of our thinking about rhizomatic learning, by saying – Yes OK, there is this thing about ethics and dishonesty associated with cheating, but we are not going to consider it in relation to our discussions about rhizomatic learning.
  • And to reiterate what I have written before, I think learning is about learning to ‘be’ and to become a certain type of person – much more than it is learning ‘about’ something – rhizomatic learning or anything else – and for this reason it is important to consider the ethics of what we are promoting.

This has been a very thought-provoking week. The discussion has been intense and very stimulating. From my perspective as an educator and researcher in course design and learner experiences in open online course, this week has been fascinating.  And if the above comments come across that I have decided that everything is ‘done, dusted, sorted, cut and dried’, then I have to say that they are not. I am still thinking about all this and wondering whether I have understood it. This post only reflects where I am in my thinking at this moment in time – but I’m open to changing my mind 🙂

21 thoughts on “Rhizomatic learning, definitions and cheating

  1. Nomad War Machine January 17, 2014 / 8:30 pm

    I think it’s “kooky”, as per the Bowie song. Love the observation about Dave using his power to redefine “cheating” and I agree that we can’t ignore the ethical concerns that some of us are feeling. I hadn’t thought about your final bullet point explicitly, but I’d had Aristotle nagging in my head all week and you explained why. Cheers, Sarah

  2. VanessaVaile January 18, 2014 / 1:47 am

    Before David Bowie, there was 77 Sunset Strip…in the 50s, when “kooky” and “kook” were already/still familiar terms

  3. jennymackness January 18, 2014 / 8:32 am

    Thanks Sarah and Vanessa 🙂

  4. Brenda Kaulback January 18, 2014 / 3:57 pm

    I am still thinking about this, Jenny, and your post offers good grist for the thinking mill. I agree that we all redefine words as we use them, and that if we don’t have some agreement about their meaning, then communication becomes rather tricky. And it is important to remember the ethical impact of how we learn – and, in this case, how we teach. In other words, in the way we learn and the way we teach, we are creating both ourselves and the society we live in.

    I found the part of the synchronous session where Dave discounted definitions and said they make him “kooky” a little disturbing. I am in that stage of my doctoral research when everything reminds me of my dissertation, so forgive the example, but, as I wrote my dissertation proposal, I was encouraged to define words and use them in my own particular way if that furthered my thinking. In doing so, however, I couldn’t just make up a definition willy-nilly, out of nothing. I had to responsibly consider definitions others have used and explain why they didn’t quite fit the concept that I wanted to describe. I had to specifically state my own created definition and its relation to how others had used the term. Doing so was a way of being more precise about my thinking. Dave describes this in the introductory video as a good thing to do, to: “take the things we understand and find a new way to talk about them.” Engaging with others in sorting out what they mean and what I mean and redefining what we each mean is an important part of my learning. The small groups and distributed learning posts encouraged us to do that. Disparaging the process of defining kind of works against that.

    About the teaching part. While arguable perhaps, I cast Dave in the role of instructor here. He is at the very least designing the way we learn together and designing the learning is, according to the definition of teaching presence in Garrison, Anderson, and Archer’s Community of Inquiry model (defined here) included in the teaching role. In terms of teaching strategy, I think the question posed, “How can you use the idea of cheating as a tool to take apart the structures that you work in?” is a reasonable one and has certainly engendered a great deal of thinking and deliberation. As you point out, Jenny, it is an effective teaching strategy. The responses opened up many different aspects of what cheating is, whether it is different from collaboration, and what rules it is OK to break.

    The part that I am concerned about, however, is in listening to the descriptions of cheating and rhizomatic learning, I felt that Dave had already settled on the “correct” answer to the question – something like how cheating is OK because it challenges a way of learning and power that is inadequate to the world today. Whether I agree or not depends on his definition of cheating. But he doesn’t want to talk about definitions. I think I would have felt the learning was more open if he had approached it more as his own inquiry. Not doing so got him into a defensive stance. This is exactly what he says he is working against. I wonder too whether this whole discussion, about what Dave means by cheating and how it applies to rhizomatic learning is in tension with the idea that the curriculum is in the community.

    This model – which I assume is an example of rhizomatic learning – seems to hold possibilities. Aside from the above point, I liked that it had a little structure without constraining the discussion. The conversations around the various places were interesting and challenging. The small group didn’t totally work for me, but I think it has possibilities. I applaud Dave for being a pioneer and putting it forward – for testing the waters. I look forward to seeing what evolves.

  5. Michelle Cannon January 18, 2014 / 4:10 pm

    Hi Jenny, I’m halfway through a PhD on the process of making / practical media work in the late primary/early secondary years of schooling. I’m based in London but my PhD is funded out of CEMP at Bournemouth Univ. I came across the rhizome metaphor about a year ago and figured it’d be useful. I really appreciate the critical eye you maintain on this ref. potential for ‘root run’ at #rhizo14 … (see my very short latest blog post on makingislearning.com).

    I was wondering if your conference paper: Williams, R., Gumtau, S. & Mackness, J. (2012) Synaesthesia and Embodied Learning is available online anywhere? My email: shelleuk@gmail.com Twitter: @shelleuk


  6. tanyalau January 19, 2014 / 1:36 pm

    Hi Jenny, just discovered your post while exploring the rhizo FB page. I’m only just getting a feel for what this is all about and exploring the various spaces that conversations are happening. But really appreciate your post (and your previous one) which does a great job of teasing out Dave’s position on rhizomatic learning and in particular the debate on ‘cheating’ in learning. Really love your seemingly clear headed arguments and critique – but also love how you state at the end you’re still unsure of whether you’ve read things right. This just reflects the level of complexity of the concepts being discussed. And the mindset of remaining open minded and willingness to continue exploring alternative viewpoints and change your view on things is critical to learning in this type of environment.
    Examining this experience from a learning design perspective also fascinates me and I’m looking forward to seeing how it pans out.

    Also appreciate Brenda Kaulback’s comments on definitions and Dave’s teaching strategy / course design. Lots to think about…

    thanks again.

  7. Christina Hendricks January 19, 2014 / 5:41 pm

    I love this post, and your last one, which I also wanted to comment on but just ran out of time (my mantra right now…I want to participate in this course more but have no time!). Here I wanted to say that I appreciate your insights in pointing out that: (1) one thing that’s going on here is using “power,” whether real or perceived, to get us to think differently about the power involved in teaching and learning; (2) that one way this is happening is to use a provocative word to get us all thinking and discussing, which is very effective; (3) when one deals with a word that has a commonly-recognized meaning, it’s hard to just use that word differently and get away from that meaning.

    I, too, find the idea of “cheating” difficult to square with the idea of questioning the power involved in teaching and learning, in setting out what counts as “right” answers and requiring that others give those back to us. In a recent audio log (because I didn’t have time to write out a blog post, but did have time to record one!) I noted that in philosophy, I do enforce the rules of what counts as the right thing to do when I require that students learn the conventions of writing a philosophy paper, and that I’m also this term giving them the option of doing something completely different to fulfill part of their course requirements (doing a podcast, video, fiction, or something else). I think that is a form of questioning the rules, but I don’t count it as cheating.

    Perhaps it’s just because I teach philosophy, but I find the point about giving up on definitions problematic. As Brenda notes above, one has to work within certain constraints of language in order to be understood. If people are using the same word to mean different things, how can we really be communicating about the same issue? Won’t we get confused and talk past each other? I am a believer in setting out provisional definitions, things that we are not holding as certain or final, but things we agree upon for the moment, in order to be able to communicate and discuss. Later those things may change. Kind of like your conclusion to your blog post!

  8. jennymackness January 19, 2014 / 7:03 pm

    Hi Brenda – thanks so much for your comment and for sharing your PhD experience which is very helpful. For me this has raised the question of where accepted academic practices and scholarship fit into notions of rhizomatic learning. Hopefully we will address this as we go through the course.

    I am also interested in your observation that Dave is the instructor here. I wonder whether he views himself as such. If my understanding of rhizomatic learning is correct (and I don’t claim to know much about it at all), then an ‘instructor’ or ‘central node in the network’ doesn’t fit. So I think you have raised a notable tension here in running a course about rhizomatic learning – which Fred Garnett somewhere (I think it might have been on Facebook or Twitter before the course even began) questioned – as he felt that the two were contradictory, i.e. course and rhizomatic learning. As you rightly observed it is Dave who has designed and set up the course – so he is in a position of power – although he has done a lot to try and play this down, e.g. by asking for comment on the course structure, asking for moderators in each of the course platforms, in fact asking for help and comment at all points. I see this as an attempt to be a rhizome rather than a node – but I’m not sure how succcessful it will be. (Hope this makes sense).

    I also think that this is a very astute observation Brenda – thank you.

    >>I think I would have felt the learning was more open if he had approached it more as his own inquiry. Not doing so got him into a defensive stance. This is exactly what he says he is working against. I wonder too whether this whole discussion, about what Dave means by cheating and how it applies to rhizomatic learning is in tension with the idea that the curriculum is in the community.<<

    And like you Brenda I applaud Dave for bringing us this open course. I think it is very brave to take on an initiative like this by yourself, however much help you ask for. I don't think I could have attempted something like this on my own. I would have needed to work in a team and distribute the responsibility! I also like the way he tries things out (e.g. Google unhangout) in front of us – so that we can see the learning process in action. This is very valuable modelling.

    So the course is certainly giving me lots to think about.

    Thanks Brenda,


  9. jennymackness January 19, 2014 / 7:06 pm

    Hi Michelle – great to make your acquaintance. Thanks for visiting my blog. The synaesthesia paper will not be published until June of this year – but I will send it to you by email, but it can’t be distributed just yet. This is one of the problems of journals that are not open, although the Leonardo journal is prestigious and this paper fits very well there, hence the choice! Hopefully one day, all journals will be open!

  10. jennymackness January 19, 2014 / 7:10 pm

    Tanya – thank you for taking the time to leave a comment here – good to meet you 🙂 I think there is still lots to think about and tease out in relation to this week’s discussion and I see that Dave has challenged people to summarise the week. I am not a fast enough thinker/worker to do this immediately – but I think I would like to try and pull the discussion together in some way in the weeks to come.

    I’m also looking forward to seeing how everything pans out 🙂

  11. jennymackness January 19, 2014 / 7:27 pm

    Hi Christina – great to be in contact again – and thanks for your comments. I like your idea of ‘provisional definitions’. That allows for definitions to be discussed and recognises that definitions have a role to play in communication, without ‘boxing them in’.

    I am also hoping that there will be more discussion about how ‘power’ plays out in rhizomatic learning. If anything is complex then this is! Wouldn’t it be interesting to talk to every ‘teacher/educator’ in the course about how they define ‘cheating’ in relation to their work and what actions they take in relation to that definition. I have found myself during this first week often thinking about how I would want young children to understand cheating and although I would be able to say ‘let’s discuss what we understand by this’, I wouldn’t be able to say ‘yes, you can have an individual meaning for it’ and as such ‘anything goes’.

    And although this sounds very pedantic, I don’t think I am missing the point about challenging assumptions, having alternative perspectives, looking for new ways to approach and interpret learning. Rather I think that as educators and learners we need to be able to clearly articulate our ethical and moral responsibilities whatever we think those might be.

  12. jupidu January 19, 2014 / 7:42 pm

    Hi Jenny!

    Thank you for your interesting post. I was not entirely happy with the word cheating as well and so it was good to read that “He is not talking about cheating as theft.”. I have a bad feeling with cheating and never liked to cheat. I didn’t find an example for “creative cheating” to fulfill task 2 of Dave.

    I observe my approach as “old fashioned”, nevertheless I will not cheat, Jutta

  13. jennymackness January 19, 2014 / 7:50 pm

    Hi Jutta – Lovely to ‘see you’ here 🙂

    I like the notion of thinking further about ‘creative cheating’ – but I’m wondering whether that would simply be being more creatively dishonest!

    I have also thought hard this week about whether I am an ‘old-fashioned’ ‘narrow-minded’ ‘fuddy-duddy’. I am still not sure. All I know is that I think ethics and moral principles are essential to education.

    Looking forward to sharing more thoughts with you as the course goes on.


  14. andreoides January 21, 2014 / 1:13 am

    Hi Jenny,

    this comment is first to say that I liked very much the discussion you raised in your posts and also the comments by the other girls…

    I want to dig deeper into this and try to unpack the issues as the rhizom process goes on. Let’s see what happens…

    For now, I think one important thing to note is that the judgement of what is “cheating” always has to be made by someone. When we are dealing with power struggles and oppressive situations – as happens a lot in formal learning environments (i. e. the school as factory / prison / madhouse, as indicated by e. g. Foucault) – we have to keep this in mind.

    This is also the case in situations of social injustice. In these situations, the oppressed and the oppressor may have different opinions about what constitutes cheating.

    Take the case of knowledge-piracy raised by Arca (http://arca.noblogs.org/archives/63). Suppose Arca can’t pay the price for all the books she downloads “illegally” through the internet. The knowledge-pirate Arca thinks she is acting ethically, while the oppressor thinks she is stealing.

    For Arca, culture-piracy is not cheating, but for the cultural industry it is.

    Going back to formal learning situations, what emerges is something similar. The oppressed are educated in the oppresser’s schools. This is obviously not about cheating in multiple-choice tests or whatever, but about dismantling the whole power structure: teacher-student relationships, time and space organization, content / curriculum, “evaluation”, purpose of education, and so on. (A good example of this kind of dismantling is the work of Paulo Freire alphabetizing illiterates in Brazil or in Africa. I’ll come back to this below.)

    In a rather simplistic, yet evocative formulation, the school as factory / prison / madhouse ( / zoo / meat-farm? ) aims to produce consumer-drones to be cogs in the machine. (“The Matrix has you Neo…”)

    In this case, some behaviours that the machine may consider “cheating” may be considered in fact a form of hacking or “rule-bending” by those struggling to be free.

    The problem is that students / learners rarely engage in this type of hacking intentionally or consciously. What they mostly do (unfortunately) is that kind of foolish cheating which does not really liberate them from the system which oppresses them.

    This seems to require a distinction between (1) conscious rule-bending, aiming at self-realization / liberation / enlightenment (I’m not going into these terms for now). And (2) foolish / non-conscious cheating which may (but in some cases may not) lead to the fulfillment of the same goals of the oppressed.

    The latter is generally the case of students who cheat in tests just to get a diploma and end up not learning anything useful, except how to be good liars and smart cheaters (which maybe could still be useful in an oppressive context – have to examine this with more care).

    What is of interest for educators is the first kind of “cheating” – let’s call it conscious rule-bending for now. The rules that are bended (in the case of very oppressive systems that are resistant to actual dismantling) or transformed (which is one of the goals of popular education as exemplified by Freire) are those of the oppressor system.

    As Arca pointed out in her other post (on “Cheating and Logical Types”), this is not really cheating. It is the formulation of a meta-rule – an ethical norm, we may say – that tells you to not follow the rules of the oppressor.

    We could say this is actually taking valuation / value-making to a higher “logical level” (although Russell and Whitehead would maybe turn in their graves if they knew someone is using their theory in such a loose way. And Bateson would be smiling.).

    This is what critical education in the line of Freire seeks to do, while increasing the learner’s awareness of his situation in the process. Maybe think is also how learning-rhizomes do (or should?) act.

  15. jennymackness January 22, 2014 / 3:42 pm

    Hi andreoides – many thanks for this very thoughtful comment. I don’t think I disagree with anything you have said. In fact I think we have come to pretty much the same conclusions, with slight differences in emphases and obviously different expression. So for example”

    > For now, I think one important thing to note is that the judgement of what is “cheating” always has to be made by someone

    Yes I agree and for me, last week, Dave was the one calling the tune, exerting the power and defining cheating – which as I mentioned I found rather ironic!

    And as I mentioned somewhere before I don’t necessarily equate rule-breaking with cheating. Rule-breaking is not necessarily associated with dishonesty. But of course, as you point out it is also difficult to determine what we mean by dishonesty in different contexts. I can think of cases where conscious rule-bending is necessary 🙂

    So no easy answers, although I have found Keith Hamon’s post very helpful – http://idst-2215.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/a-more-practical-view-of-rhizome-for.html

  16. danceswithcloud January 24, 2014 / 11:55 am

    Fantastic discussion and chain of thoughts, thinking and ideas. They also challenge this nomad – I love seeing this marking of the space – but I don’t want the sand to cover it over – I want to fix it and keep it! Tsssskkkkk

  17. jennymackness January 24, 2014 / 3:37 pm

    Hi danceswithcloud (what a great name!) – thanks for your comment. There certainly is a lot of very interesting discussion in this #rhizo14 course – both on people’s blogs and in the Facebook group. It’s difficult to keep up 🙂

  18. danceswithcloud January 24, 2014 / 5:35 pm

    Thanks jennymackness! I started playing with Twitter in response to being ‘deleted’ at work. I wanted Dances with Frogs as my name – but that had already gone! Dances with cloud then seemed so right – especially now as we all seem to dance with the perpetual threat of being down-sized, outsourced or just plain old deleted! 😀

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