Thoughts about community as curriculum in #rhizo14

richard-giblett-mycelium2Source of image- (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 


#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

19 thoughts on “Thoughts about community as curriculum in #rhizo14

  1. Frances Bell February 12, 2014 / 9:20 pm

    If this MOOC were focused on an existing community, say as a community development activity. then the community would have some shared history and customs, even if the course triggered new people to join in, by virtue of its openness. The curriculum would be ready and waiting to emerge and be adapted. However, like other courses, it is time-limited and I don’t think it is based on an existing community. It’s a tall order to build community and for curriculum to emerge, and we are already thinking about the end of the course. Subsets of rhizo14 already had associations and will be forming new associations. These subsets (bad word but trying to avoid other problematic terms) brought their individual and shared norms and expectations with them. Accommodating the different norms and expectations consumes energy,as does navigating the various platforms where rhizo14 is happening. The combination of challenging community-building and shortage of time can get in the way of learning in a community setting. Personally, I am enjoying my tie here, making connections some of which will persist. Buying into community feels like a hurdle.

  2. dave cormier (@davecormier) February 13, 2014 / 12:59 am

    Thanks for pulling together week’s 2, 3 & 5 for us here. I think the tension between Barnett calls ‘singularity and universality’ is a key factor in our understanding learning. There is and should be a liminal space of uncertainty between participant/guide/mentor/facilitator and learner/participant/student where negotiation of power is in constant flux. If we are to mess with this community business at all, we should have these ideas in the forefront of our minds at all time.

  3. sensor63 February 13, 2014 / 1:53 am

    IMHO (newly learnt #rhizo14 acronym) Jenny you have ‘nailed it’ (borrowed from Mr Dave Cormier, convenor). Good Job!

  4. Barry Dyck February 13, 2014 / 3:14 am

    As I work in a high school and most others here seem to be working in higher education, I certainly feel at the edge of the community or at least in an open space that Keith Hamon wrote about. The issues I am dealing with are the same.

    When it comes to the notion of “community,” I’ve certainly struggled a bit, due to these discussions occurring during the end of one semester and the beginning of another–not to mention basketball tournaments for 5/6 weekends for this “course.”

    So James Paul Gee’s use of “affinity spaces” rather than the connotated notion of “community” works better for me. Gee says that people come together not around the people in the space, but rather for “the endeavor or interest that around which the space is organized.”

    The common endeavour that I am enjoying here is the discussions around notions of learning and how to (un)structure learning spaces to create multiplicities and becomings. Roy Williams “creative tension” is a necessary disequilibrium required for learning. Dave Cormier has done a good job of creating tensions to get us thinking.

    Thanks, Jenny. I’ve enjoyed your thoughtful posts.

  5. fred6368 February 13, 2014 / 10:26 am

    Lovely post Jenny and very thoughtful as usual. We did a lot of work in the Learner-Generated Contexts group on learning spaces, even running one of our events on it in 2008, making a film about that and then incorporating it into our Policy 2.0 tool the Policy Forest. That work fed into our Emergent Learning Model from which we designed Ambient Learning City and WikiQuals. As I mentioned to Frances, and seems pertinent here, by designing for Emergence, we then had to capture, or create, new processes that emerged from those learning projects to sustain the new learning emerging from these open projects. So from my experience I would add that new learning projects need to generate new learning processes if they are to be transformative and not just e-enable old ways of doing things. What Giles Lane calls “moving criteria across contexts” but in the playful artistic sense that we sometimes see with Heutagogy.

  6. helinur February 13, 2014 / 11:48 am

    Excellent Jenny, I loved to read this.

  7. ailsahaxell February 13, 2014 / 7:02 pm

    a thoughtful post Jenny, i hadnt followed #rhizo14 but am interested in the positions raised here.

  8. jennymackness February 14, 2014 / 6:33 pm

    Thank you to all who have posted comments here. My thoughts have been mostly affected by the storms we have had in the UK which had the effect of completely disconnecting me for nearly 48 hours – reminding me what disconnected really means and causing me to reflect on the role of the internet in my life! I am still without a phone and my home-hub and will be until Wednesday – but an expensive 4G dongle has come to the rescue!

    Thank you Frances for your comments:
    >Buying into community feels like a hurdle.

    I think you raise an interesting point about the tension between a time-limited course and the possibility of building a community within this course. I have often heard Etienne Wenger talk about the life-cycle of a community of practice – see I think CoPs can be very short-lived – as in a time-limited learning community/course. Membership of some CoPs starts as a course. I became a member of CPsquare, having first been a learner on the Foundations of Communities of Practice course. But I agree that building/cultivating a community, particularly over a short-period of time, can be hard work. What can we learn from courses/MOOCs such as ModPo where there is a strong on-going community?

    Simon, Heli and Ailsa – thanks for taking the time to come and comment here.

    Fred – I am still thinking a lot about learning spaces and what I understand by them. I agree that we need new processes for new learning in new spaces. I am thinking about ‘moving criteria across contexts’ and what that might mean in practice. Thanks.

    Barry – you have given me a lot to think about and follow up on – affinity spaces, creative tension and multiplicities of becoming. Wow! Thanks so much.

    And likewise Dave. I am very interested in ‘the liminal space of uncertainty’. Liminal space is something we have considered in our Footprints of Emergence – and in trying to think this through after hearing Glynis Cousin speak about it, I wrote this post – – but your comment, relating this to uncertainty, has made me wonder where ‘risk’ fits into this. I feel another blog post coming on 😉

  9. Roy Williams February 14, 2014 / 6:35 pm

    Practice, reification, critique, history, curriculum …

    Very interesting discussion. Thanks to all. I will respond to only one or two issues here – there is lots more to discuss – but this is already a very long post – my apologies, its too long to post here (computer says “no”), so you will have to follow the link below to read it …

    Etienne Wenger’s scenario is of a community including a body of reificative material and its associated practices, into which people become apprenticed, and then members – of the community that organizes that material. They become fellow custodians of the material, of the practice and the community, and identify with it – their subjectivity, their agency, becomes – to some extent – a part of it – they become party to it, and have a responsibility towards it.

    This is a very useful place to start, and … (read more here: )

  10. Roy Williams February 15, 2014 / 2:57 pm

    And …

    Courses and Communities

    Stephen Downes’ distinction between cooperation and collaboration is pertinent here. Pertinent to the question of whether a course (such as Rh#14) is a community and even more pertinent to how we describe social media, and learning in social media.

    It might be useful to first distinguish three kinds of practice: strongly reificatory, strongly community, and strongly cooperative practice. The first two have been outlined in the wiki-post here ( ), and they all do overlap.

    The third is the product of the affordances of networking, connectivism, bulletin boards, the early ‘informatics’ generation of computer programmers, and David White’s virtual residents/visitors in social media. I’ll provisionally call them the ‘lite’ practices (as in Karin Knorr-Cetina’s ‘light’ micro-global structures – see the second half of this chapter: ).

    ‘Lite’ practices are neither strongly reificatory nor strongly community, they are, at most, co-operative, and only require minimal protocols of behavior; they certainly do not require the collaboration of strongly community practices, nor do they require the rigour of peer review, or of tests of falsifiability of the natural sciences. They include what I have called knowledge ‘ante-formal’ knowledge ( )– knowledge which has not yet been formalized – some if it never will be, but it is tentative knowledge, knowledge that might be the basis for formalized knowledge once it has been knocked around, re-versioned, etc.

    My (outside) view of RH#14 is that there is plenty of reification present, perhaps a little room for new reification to be contested or created; lots of ‘community’ practices happening, but very few of them explicitly, i.e without much common understanding of what this requires – and consequently little evidence of a CoP; all of which is embedded in loads of ‘lite’ practices, which serendipitously cut across all the other practices. Interesting …

  11. balimaha February 22, 2014 / 12:22 am

    I don’t know how i missed this post earlier but i am glad i caught it now (my response is slightly tangential but wanted to share those thoughts). I love Barnett’s writing (he was also a great external examiner for me – had to squeeze that) both on curriculum/higher ed and on uncertainty, and i like how you have picked the parts about the tensions between universality and singularity. That tension is more obvious in formal contexts of edu, and i am wondering now if maybe rhizo14 was a course that was loosely structured in order to create a community that would be its own curriculum long after the six weeks? Our planned autoethnography will capture, hopefully, how people feel about that… For me, i felt a sense of community very strongly starting week 2 but am sure diff ppl have diff views/experiences – singular, not universal 🙂 i think maybe without a time-limited course to begin, the community would have been slower to form?the intensiy was helpful, i thought. Anyway I will post a separate comment with the link to our collaborative autoethnography, in case you prefer not to approve the link (don’t wish to impose)

  12. VanessaVaile March 17, 2014 / 7:56 am

    Reblogged this on MOOC Madness and commented:
    good post from many good ones emerging from an imminently satisfying connectivist MOOC — reflections on community as curriculum week, weaving community threads into a curriculum catching net

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