Making Sense of the Rhizome Metaphor for Teaching and Learning

This is the second post in a series of four about a presentation Frances Bell and Jenny Mackness will make at the ALTMOOCSIG  on Friday 29th June this week.  One of the reasons for these posts is that it is going to be impossible to cover all this in the time we have available at the conference.

For the first post see – The Rhizome as a Metaphor for Learning

In this post we outline how we will continue our presentation, by sharing what we understand by the rhizome metaphor, a description of the #Rhizo14 course, and an explanation of how we are conducting our research.

1. Making sense of the metaphor 

Slide 2Source of image: Mark Ingham. Boy Pool Rhizome: (More can be seen at Mark’s website

 – Definition of a rhizome in botanical terms

The rhizome in botanical terms is an underground stem, which grows horizontally along or more commonly under the ground and sends out roots and shoots. Examples of rhizomes that Jenny has in her garden are mint and ground elder – so good and bad! If you have ever tried to dig up a rhizome, you will know that it is virtually impossible to know where it started from and that if you break a root in the process, the plant is likely to spring up again somewhere else.

– The rhizome as a metaphor

Many Rhizo14 participants valued the metaphor of the rhizome for teaching and learning. Quoting from survey responses, participants of the Rhizo14 course thought that teaching and learning based on this metaphor is ‘subconscious’, ‘subterranean’, ‘subversive’, ‘a non-linear, multi-directional underground web of connections’. Learning is ‘haphazard’, ‘messy’, ‘serendipitous’, ‘esoteric’, ‘dynamic’, ‘unbounded’, ‘unpredictable’, ‘adaptive’, ‘self-organising’ and ‘non-hierarchical’. This is what these survey respondents valued about it.

But there were also some participants who recognised potential negative aspects of the metaphor and described the rhizome as:

‘A pernicious, pervasive weed, rooted in a lot of dirt and ‘SH***”’; ‘….a ‘thug’ and can be very badly behaved’; ‘Part of one big family/plant – joined at the hip’. ‘Clones of the ‘same damn plant’. 

These quotes illustrate the most common interpretations of the metaphor in response to the survey questions. Only 4 (out of 47) respondents referred to Deleuze and Guattari’s work when explaining their understanding of the rhizome as a metaphor for teaching and learning.

2. #Rhizo 14 – A MOOC with a difference 

Slide 3 Source of image: Jenny Mackness:

– Rhizo 14 was a cMOOC

It was possible to recognise the principles of the original cMOOCs (e.g. CCK08) in the design of #Rhizo14  – principles of working across distributed platforms (e.g. P2PU, Facebook, Twitter, Google +), learner autonomy, diversity, openness and interaction. There was also the understanding that the activities would be those of a CCK08 type of cMOOC – aggregation, remixing, repurposing and feeding forward, and these activities were in abundance. The other key similarity was that it was an open and free course.

– How was #Rhizo 14 different to other cMOOCs?

This has been a recent topic of lengthy discussion in the Rhizo14 Facebook group, which is still active four months after the end of the course. One of the differences was in the mix of people that Rhizo14 attracted. Right from the start there was a mix of ‘old guard’ MOOCers and ‘new kids on the block’.  This was noted by a survey respondent:

The gap between novices and experts seemed very vast, and scaffolding seemed difficult with these extremes. At the same time, the approach to topics seemed to be a bit unworthy of the in-depth knowledge of “veteran” cMOOCers, and an increasing frustration with this seemed to creep into the blogs.

For Dave Cormier, the key difference was that he was attempting to run a course with no content.  Each week there was a very short introductory video  (av. 3 mins in length) which introduced an opening provocative question, e.g. Cheating as Learning (Week 1), Is Books Making us Stupid? (Week 4)  – and that was it. Unlike CCK08 there were no recommended readings.  Rhizo14 was also different in that it was literally ‘home-grown’, with Dave Cormier running the MOOC in his own time, often from his own home and convening weekly Hangouts in the evening, sometimes whilst trying to get his children to bed. Despite this, his intention was that there would be no centre to the course – the course convener would be one of the participants.

Another clear difference in this MOOC is the very active Facebook group which continues to discuss rhizomatic learning and related topics after the course has ended. This group thinks of itself as a community and believes that the community is the curriculum.

– Arising question (this is a big one, too big to discuss in any detail here)

The majority of respondents were positive and excited by the course. For example, one survey respondent wrote:

The significant aspect for me was finding others that were willing and able to play freely, have fun and then be reflective and metacognitive of the activities. I enjoyed the banter, tease, create, steal, mix, mash, present, prod, challenge, rework, share, admire, learn, dive deep, surface often, spiral-on action of our poetry building, reflecting and sharing.

However, this was not the experience of all respondents and some were not so positive and questioned whether there was or was not a centre to the course, and whether the course should or should not have had more ‘content’. For example one respondent thought of the course in terms of concentric circles with Dave Cormier at the centre and a core group around him. There has also been a recent discussion in Facebook about whether Rhizo14 resulted in a clique gathered around Dave Cormier.

But another respondent had a different view:

I’m quite pleased that Cormier was able to step back, for the most part, and allow the rhizome to work.

With respect to content, or the lack of it, a survey respondent commented…

 At best it [rhizomatic learning] might let academia realise that learning isnt about content, but reflection, discussion and creativity.

Whereas another respondent seemed to suggest that more content and leadership might have been helpful.

The point has been the connections formed, the conversations generated. The problem perhaps would be for those not already confident in their own academic capital. Who may not feel they have much to offer – or who may feel that they need more guidance through content – or who may feel that they are continually missing that important blog post… who may want to have some sort of over view from which to diverge or to which they can add the contingent. It could also be difficult for those who do not feel central to the conversational groups that sprout(ed). If connectivity and conversation becomes the point – who are you if you do not feel that you have not connected in that way?

There are many more comments like these in our data which exemplify the diversity of opinion on all aspects of the course – and indeed whether this was a course at all.

In MOOC research, given the number of people who either drop out or are ‘silent’ participants, it is difficult to judge the accuracy of the balance between positive and negative responses to survey questions, but for this research survey responses were both positive and negative in respect of most of the emerging themes, with there being more positive than negative responses.

3. Our Research 

Slide 4Source of image: Paul Rodecker:


 – How have we carried out the research to date?

We participated in the MOOC as fully engaged participants and have collated resources from the MOOC on a private wiki. These resources include Facebook threads, Twitter streams, annotated readings, discussion, survey results, links to videos and our own participant observation/reflection.

Following the MOOC we created a Survey Monkey survey related to a botanical drawing of a rhizome in which we wanted to elicit qualitative rather than quantitative data. The survey included 4 questions:

  • How does the image of a rhizome relate to your prior experience of teaching, learning?
  • How does the image of a rhizome relate to your experience of learning during Rhizo14?
  • How might the image of a rhizome represent your future practice?
  • If the above questions did not allow you to fully explain your learning experience in Rhizo14, then please comment in the box below on those aspects of the course which were significant for you, and what kept you in the course or caused you to leave early.

We posted the link to the survey on Facebook, in the Google + group, on our blogs and on Twitter. The link was also sent to all P2PU participants by Dave Cormier.

In an attempt to ensure that we reached as many participants as possible, not only those who were still active at the end of the course, we identified non-registered participants and bloggers and sent them individual invitations to respond to the survey. Most importantly, the survey allowed for anonymous responses.

It is difficult to know exactly how many people the survey reached, but we received 47 responses and more than 30,000 words of data. Within the last month we have sent out further questions by email to 35 survey respondents who agreed to receive these follow up questions.


– Difficulties we are wrestling with

As fully engaged participants in the MOOC, the potential for bias and subjectivity in the way in which we interpret and report our findings is an ever-present concern and one which we fully acknowledge. An additional concern has been to work ethically, given that there is little guidance on how to conduct research into MOOCs ethically. As such we considered and openly shared the way in which we would use the data we gather, created a document and sent this out attached to the first survey. The details of this are posted on our blogs. See:

This blog – Jenny Connected and Frances’ blog – Francesbell’s blog

Finally there has been the issue of what is an appropriate method and methodology for this type of research and this subject. Will it be impossible to get at what we mean by rhizomatic thinking and learning by using traditional research methods? Some respondents have already raised this issue in response to the email interview questions.

Academic research functions mostly as a territorializing process, crystalizing an identity for the assemblage

I don’t want to further “territorialize” the experience [by engaging in research], preferring instead to keep it open, unformalized, and unanalyzed to some extent.

Hopefully this post provides a taste of where we are up to with our research and what our presentation for the ALTMOOCSIG will try to cover, albeit very briefly, but we are not done yet. There will be two more blog posts.


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.

18 thoughts on “Making Sense of the Rhizome Metaphor for Teaching and Learning

  1. keith.hamon June 24, 2014 / 3:00 am

    Jenny, thanks so much for publishing this discussion about how you are researching cMOOCs such as Rhizo14. I think you are onto some new ideas here. I especially like how you position yourselves as researchers in the very system that you are researching—an absolutely critical decision, I think, for rhizomatic research. Rhizomatic research is always conducted from the middle, defining inside-out, not outside-in.

    As it happens, I have just started a series of posts about how to conduct rhizomatic research which you may find useful. I know that I am likely to use some of the ideas I have gleaned here in my own thinking.

    Thanks, again, and I’m eager to learn more, as I always do when I read you and Frances.

  2. jennymackness June 24, 2014 / 7:47 am

    Mark – thank you so much for your comment and for providing more details about your wonderful drawing. I would be really interested to know what the original size of this drawing is. I have corrected the credit under the image in this post and will ensure that it is always credited correctly.

    I looked all through your website when looking for images for our presentation. You have many works which fit with the idea of rhizomatic teaching and learning. If we hadn’t decided on sticking to black and white, ‘England’s Dirty Rotten Gardens’ – – would also have been a very good fit.

    Thanks so much for sharing your work online and for commenting here.


    PS – that is a fascinating connection between Alan Turing and your grandfather. Is it your grandfather’s work online anywhere?

  3. jennymackness June 24, 2014 / 7:50 am

    Hi Keith – thanks for your comment. Yes – I noticed you too are posting about rhizomatic research. I haven’t commented yet, because I wanted to read Dillenbourg’s chapter first – which I haven’t yet got round to 🙂 But I will be following your posts with interest.


  4. dave cormier (@davecormier) June 24, 2014 / 1:20 pm

    Loving chapter two.

    I’ve been reflecting since yesterday about how much ‘secret Deleuze & Guattari’ actually made it into the course. I meant too… I’m now going to go back and see how much I really did.

    It was not left out on purpose, but the week two debates on theory i think had a negative impact on their inclusion. I’ll be very interested to see if it makes it in next time.

    I agree with Keith, I’m learning lots from the way your folks are balancing your inclusion as participants and your perspective as researchers.


  5. jennymackness June 24, 2014 / 7:13 pm

    Dave – thanks. More Deleuze and Guattari coming in the next two posts 🙂

  6. francesbell June 24, 2014 / 7:56 pm

    @Keith The involved, reflexive researcher is a feature of many forms of qualitative research. I am very curious to see how that will work in your auto-ethnography work – hoping to learn from it.
    @Dave funnily enough, the more I engage with the data we have collected the less satisfactory the label ‘theorists/pragmatists divide’ seems as an explanation for the Week 2/3 rupture in #Rhizo14

  7. Simon Ensor (@sensor63) June 25, 2014 / 12:49 pm

    ‘The group thinks of itself as a community’ Who is this group and why are they calling me a member? I would suggest there is a contradiction in terms between ‘rhizomatic learning’ and ‘the community is the curriculum’. ‘A community’ could be ‘curriculum’ and could talk about ‘rhizomatic learning’ but a community or a curriculum is NOT rhizomatic learning. I have the impression that there is a confusion at the start of this – the rhizome as a network is NOT ‘a community’.

    ‘New kids on the block’ – is an ‘old MOOC lurker around the ‘blocks’ a new kid?
    Whose is the ‘block’? Who decides on who is a ‘new kid’?

    ‘No centre for the course’ – clearly people are ‘looking for a centre’ even if they themselves and the activities across ‘the course’ or the ‘convenor/instigator’ are only APPARENTLY at the centre. One example of this is the network visualisations of Twitter from Hawskey – I can find myself ‘at the centre’ of a network image but this in itself is only an image created via a particular criteria and is relative to a particular illusory view of ‘centre’. As you Jenny yourself pointed out – in a rhizome there is no centre – which is the source of our confusion.

    An experience doesn’t have to be positive or negative to appear at a moment or other (when the environment changes) to be influential. Surely this is a key aspect of rhizomatic learning – concentrating on shoots during a six week period in one place in one garden is absurd.

    I agree that there is a problem with ‘traditional research’.

  8. Simon Ensor (@sensor63) June 25, 2014 / 12:55 pm

    Ah yes coming back to the rhizome metaphor for teaching and learning (or research) for me the most important contribution of it is to concentrate on complexity, mulitplicity and uncontrollable upshoots.

    When we are looking for short-term ‘manageable’ research projects and ‘manageable data sets’ and ‘manageable outcomes’ we are going to look to artificially control ‘education’.

    Here is a rhizomatic shoot from a ‘controlled outcome’ – a traditional exam:

  9. Simon Ensor (@sensor63) June 25, 2014 / 12:56 pm

    Ah yes. Is a link to a blog post in a FB group and to a #rhizo14 considered as a FB post, a tweet or a blog post??

  10. Simon Ensor (@sensor63) June 25, 2014 / 2:06 pm

    Actually to correct myself or should I say to give another vision on what came out of my typing- concentrating on shoots in one space in a short period is not absurd as long as one sees them as only one whole of the part of the whole which in iself is artificially separated from the whole by our own incapacity to look beyond seeing as believing. In other words the only thing which counts is to evidence multiplicity in nothing and everything.

    Absence in CONNECTION is presence.

    See an example of rhizomatic learning:

    The only thing worth concerning ourselves with is the essence of our connections.

    This work coming from Terry Elliot says pretty much all there is:

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