The Rhizome as a Metaphor for Learning in a MOOC

This is the first in a series of 4 blog posts which Frances Bell and Jenny Mackness have written in preparation for a presentation that we will give at the ALTMOOCSIG conference – MOOCs – Which Way Now? on Friday June 27th  

Slide 1.1

Source of image: Sylvano Bussoti. Five Pieces for Piano for David Tudor:

The title of the presentation is The Rhizome as a Metaphor for Learning in a MOOC.

We decided to submit a proposal for presenting at the conference as a result of participating in Dave Cormier’s 6 week MOOC – Rhizomatic Learning: The Community is the Curriculum (known now as #Rhizo14), which started on January 14th this year.

During the course, our interest was piqued by comparison of our experience on #Rhizo14 with that on other MOOCs.  We decided, together with Mariana Funes, to conduct independent research on the #Rhizo14 experience. The aim of our presentation for the ALTMOOCSIG – is to share our experience of the MOOC, where we are up to with our research and our initial findings.

It has been difficult to plan both the research and this presentation. Basically we are ‘wallowing in data’, we have too much to say for a short presentation, and what we have to say now will not be the same as when we have engaged further with the data. In addition, as some survey participants have pointed out, there are contradictions, not only in running a MOOC on rhizomatic learning (the rhizome as a metaphor isn’t easily ‘pinned down’ in this way), but also, for similar reasons, in conducting research into rhizomatic learning.

So we have given some thought as to how to do a presentation which reflects these difficulties. After some mutual discussion and discussion with a survey respondent, we decided on using Prezi. A power point seemed too linear and structured for reasons which hopefully will become clear in our presentation. A Prezi seemed to reflect, at least in part, the chaotic environment and ‘falling down a rabbit hole’ aspect of rhizomatic learning that was discussed in the course. However the linear path that we will take through the Prezi is not the only possibility – theoretically there are many possible (but not all likely) paths through the Prezi.

We also want, in our presentation, to reflect some of the principles of a rhizome. This is virtually impossible to do in a structured conference programme within a time limit – but we have given a nod to this by selecting images for the presentation which depict the ‘tangled mess’ that was the #Rhizo14 experience and the fact that the intention was to create a course with no content. More of this later, but our Prezi has virtually no content. That doesn’t mean to say that the presentation has no content – and therein lies the conundrum – more of this later too!

We only have 25 minutes, so hopefully these posts will help to ‘fill out’ the presentation.  We intend to talk for about 12 minutes to allow time for comments, questions and discussion, but this will only allow for a brief introduction to our research.

The first image on our Prezi is the one which starts Deleuze and Guattari’s seminal text ‘A Thousand Plateaus’ from which all the ideas about rhizomatic thinking have emanated.

Gilles Deleuze was a French philosopher and Felix Guattari a French psychiatrist and political activist. The concept of the rhizome as a metaphor for thinking (note ‘thinking’ – not ‘learning or teaching’) was developed in their book ‘A Thousand Plateaus’, which they published in 1980. This book was intended as an experiment in schizophrenic and nomadic thought,  but has captured the attention of some educators, who see the rhizome as a useful metaphor for understanding learning in open environments such as MOOCs.

The image is of a musical score created by Sylvano Bussoti for a composition entitled Five Pieces for Piano for David Tudor. Bussoti was not only a composer but also an artist – his scores are more like works of art – and he was deeply opposed to all rigid systems of composition.  Deleuze and Guattari in the same way were opposed to an arborescent conception of knowledge. They suggest the rhizome, which resists organisational structure, as a metaphor for thinking.

A rhizome ceaselessly establishes connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles. (Deleuze, G. & Guaattari, F. (1987). A Thousand Plateaus, p.7. University of Minnesota Press.)

We then move on, in our presentation to discussing what we are trying to find out.

Slide 3.1

Some questions that have emerged are:

  • Is this metaphor useful for learning and teaching?
  • If this metaphor is used for designing a MOOC (rhizo14), can people learn and what do they learn?
  • To what extent is the rhizome a persistent metaphor for what #rhizo14 becomes?

Traditional scientific research (hypothetico-deductive) would have expected us to start our research with these questions – but since the rhizome doesn’t work like that, neither has our research. These questions emerged as a result of our experience in #Rhizo14 and our ongoing research. Although they bear a relation to questions we asked the participants, they are also influenced by the survey results we have received. These are neither the first questions we have raised nor will they be the last, and our answers may also be provisional. At the point at which we are giving the presentation – these are the questions – but we fully expect that they might change.

So this is how we will start our presentation. This is the content that is absent from the Prezi, that we have deliberately chosen not to reify within the Prezi – and which even publishing here succumbs to a structure and territorialisation that Deleuze and Guattari say should only be temporary. We should always be ready for ‘lines of flight’.

So here’s a health warning with this presentation. This is how we are thinking this week/today. There is no guarantee that is what we will be thinking next week/tomorrow.

In our next blog post we will explain the next few slides/Prezi screens of our presentation.



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

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

12 thoughts on “The Rhizome as a Metaphor for Learning in a MOOC

  1. Ron Leunissen June 23, 2014 / 2:37 pm

    Consider to make your presentation interactive, rhizomatic.
    Consider using a voting system (though that’s technically often quite a challenge to get it working on the moment supreme).

    Consider making your presentation available online in a rhizomatic, fully flexible way. I don’t know whether that’s possible in Prezi. Maybe that will suffice.

    Good luck with your presentation.

  2. jennymackness June 24, 2014 / 8:01 pm

    Ron – thanks – that’s good advice. I think we will be constrained by time – 25 minutes does not seem a lot for such a big and interesting topic. We intend to talk for 12 minutes and then hopefully have the rest of the time for Q and A. I hope everyone else finds this as interesting as we do 🙂

    We will embed the Prezi in our blogs, but given there’s no content in the Prezi, these blogs are the best we can do with sharing the content.

    Our presentation might also be recorded, in which case we will post the link.

    Thanks for your good wishes. Much appreciated.

    Jenny 🙂

  3. Simon Ensor (@sensor63) June 25, 2014 / 12:31 pm

    Hi! I am enjoying this Jenny!!

    Is an image of snow falling big or small? Can we be a lonely snow-flake?

    Was Dave’s ‘rhizomatic learning course’ big or small?

    Was it full of stuff? Does stuff matter?

    As a hippotamus, I love to wallow down in the hollow as mud cools the blood. Is mud data? Wallowing can be fun, drowning is sad.

    I agree with Ron. It’s not the stuff. It’s the connections and those are not fixed, are not reified, deified or prezzified.

    Go out wallow in hollows and enjoy the connections 🙂

    Absence is presence

    Less is more.

    SNOW business like snow business?

  4. Maha Bali June 27, 2014 / 11:04 pm

    How did it go?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s