New metaphors for learning

Once you start thinking in terms of metaphors for learning, you find them everywhere.

At the beginning of this year Mariana Funes, Frances Bell and I had a paper published about the use of the rhizome as a metaphor for learning. Our research findings were that this can be a problematic metaphor for learning, depending on how it is understood and interpreted.

Mackness, J., Bell, F. & Funes, M. (2016). The Rhizome: a problematic metaphor for teaching and learning in a MOOC. 32(1), p.78-91 Australasian Journal of Educational Technology.

Then at the Networked Learning Conference in Lancaster last month, Caroline Haythornthwaite suggested that we need new metaphors for networked learning. She went through the many metaphors that are already used. I blogged about this at the time, but here is her presentation again from which these two images/slides below are taken.

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This week, or maybe it was last week, I noted on Twitter that Thomas Ryberg, one of the organisers of the Networked Learning Conference, used patchworking as a metaphor for learning in his PhD dissertation and Frances Bell has often written of knitting as a metaphor for learning and tweeted a link to her blog post. Donna Lanclos added to this discussion by tweeting a link to an article by Katie Collins who writes about needlecraft metaphors for academic writing. The Materiality of Research: Woven into the Fabric of the Text: Subversive material metaphors in academic writing.

Also at the Networked Learning Conference, Sian Bayne asked us to think about learning in terms of space. Although she didn’t use the word metaphor, there were plenty of them in her keynote, smooth and striated space, fluid and fire space, code/space. I blogged about this at the time too. 

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I have recognised space as a metaphor for learning before, when I visited the Sensing Spaces exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2014. At the time I felt we could learn a lot from how architects think about space.

This week Stephen Downes has used the metaphors of time and space to talk about how we might perceive changes in learning brought about by the internet, digital and connected learning.

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This was an interesting talk. Stephen pointed out that our education system is geared to linear, time-oriented, objectives and outcomes driven ways of thinking and learning. He suggested that space metaphors might be more appropriate for learning in a digital age, referring us to Carrie Paechter’s metaphors of space in educational theory and practice.

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The space metaphor aligns well with my own interest in emergent learning and viewing learning environments as being on a spectrum between prescribed and emergent learning.

I can also see connections to Nick Sousanis’ and Ian McGilchrist’s work.

In his book Unflattening Nick Sousanis warns against becoming stuck in the ‘flatlands’ and not being able to see the whole picture. In a recent post about this book I wrote:

The book is about the narrowness and flatness of our vision and thereby of our understanding of the world around us. It is a plea for seeing beyond the boundaries of our current frames of reference, beyond the limitations of text, beyond the borders of the ‘flatlands’. It is a plea to imagine otherwise, to find different perspectives and new ways of seeing.

Ironically this week Nick Sousanis reported that a library in France couldn’t categorise his book.

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This is another example of the dominance of linear thinking which want to fix ideas into ordered categories. Matthias Melcher has developed a think tool for overcoming this categorisation problem where an idea/object must be allocated to just one category. In his tool it is possible to assign an idea to multiple categories. He explains how it works in this video and I have described how I have used it in another blog post.

Ian McGilchrist is also concerned with the narrowness or in Sousanis’ terms ‘flatness’ of our thinking. He puts this down to attentional asymmetry of the hemispheres of the brain and the dominance of the left hemisphere, which focuses attention, unlike the right hemisphere which sees the whole picture.

McGilchrist has also highlighted the importance of metaphor. In this article he is reported as arguing that

“…. metaphor is a primal facet of human thought, that it “is the only way of understanding anything.”

In August I will be attending a 4-day course  in which I am hoping to learn more about Ian McGilchrist’s views about the relationship between these different ways of thinking and the future of education. I know his next book will be about education and will have the Title – The Porcupine is a Monkey.  Like Stephen Downes, Caroline Haythornthwaite, Sian Bayne and Nick Sousanis, Ian McGilchrist writes about the need for new ways of thinking.

“My suggestion is that we need a whole new way of thinking about the nature of reality, one that understanding the way our brain works can help us achieve.” (McGilchrist, 2014, The Porcupine is a Monkey)

Thinking in terms of metaphors seems an interesting way forward.

If space is a becoming what kind of spaces do we need for learning?

The second keynote at the Networked Learning Conference 2016 was presented by Sian Bayne. The title of her keynote was Campus Codespaces for Networked Learning, which she framed around the question ‘Do we need other ways to think about networked learning space?’

So like Caroline Haythornthwaite, (see post about her keynote), Sian was pushing us to think about networked learning in a different way, with a specific focus on ‘space’. Of course Caroline has also published about learning spaces:

Haythornthwaite, C. (2015). Rethinking learning spaces: networks, structures, and possibilities for learning in the twenty-first century. Communication Research and Practice, 1(4). doi:10.1080/22041451.2015.1105773

Did they talk to each other before the conference, I wonder, or was it pure serendipity that their concerns for the future of networked learning seem to be similar?

Sian’s argument is that we need to get away from the idea that the architecture of a university is the authentic space making distance education a less authentic space. She said that sedentarism is still driving universities.

Sian talked in turn about

  • smooth and striated space,
  • networked, fluid and fire space
  • code/space

She first wrote about smooth and striated space way back in 2004, basing that paper on the ideas of Deleuze and Guattari (1988) about the limiting effects of hierarchical, striated spaces (see list of references).

Screen Shot 2016-05-13 at 14.51.52 Slide 10

However smooth spaces are not necessarily utopias, as Frances Bell, Mariana Funes and I found in some recent research.

Mackness, J., Bell, F. & Funes, M. (2016). The Rhizome: a problematic metaphor for teaching and learning in a MOOC. 32(1), p.78-91 Australasian Journal of Educational Technology.

But notions of smooth and striated space are useful for thinking about how we might need to reconsider learning spaces. Is a MOOC a smooth or a striated space? Is a conference a smooth or a striated space?

Sian then went on to talk about bounded, networked and fluid space and the permeability of boundaries. All these spaces are important. She told us that distance students can have ‘campus envy’, i.e. they believe that the on campus students get a better deal, that the face-to-face bounded experience is somehow more authentic, which is not necessarily the case. The grass is not necessarily greener on the other side and absence can make the heart grow fonder, but her students think of the campus as ‘home’. My experience is that meeting face-to-face in a physical space adds value to connection, so I think I understand where Sian’s students are coming from.

Bounded space, networked space and fluid space are all defined by the relative stability of their boundaries and the relationship between elements. Unlike Etienne Wenger’s work on landscapes of practice and the importance of boundary crossing , Sian asked us to consider space in Mol and Law’s terms (1994) – as being fluid, that is, the boundaries are not permanent.

Mol and Law

Slide 20

I particularly liked the notion of ‘fire space’ – here but not here, presence and absence. I am now thinking about this in terms of Absent Presence, which I have blogged about before.  Absent presence in online interaction.

Sian’s argument is that we should offer students topological multiplicity. All these spaces are important. This resonates with my own research using the footprints of emergence, where we argue that prescribed learning spaces are no less important than emergent learning spaces. The need for each and the balance between the two will be determined by the context.

Finally Sian talked about code/space. I suspect that this is where her current research interests lie, whereas mine remain in the effects on identity and becoming of the multiplicity of spaces available to learners. But I was intrigued by the idea of code/space.

Kitchin and Dodge

Slide 33

Code/space is not coded space. Coded space is space which is not dependent on code, but code space depends on code. For distance students if the code fails, then they are disconnected and no longer at University. Disconnection was a topic discussed by Frances Bell, Catherine Cronin and Laura Gogia in their interesting and enjoyable symposium – Synergies, differences, and bridges between Networked Learning, Connected Learning, and Open Education

Ideas of space, becoming, disconnection, connection, metaphor, code, algorithms, collective well-being and different ways of knowing were threads running throughout the conference. It will be interesting to see if they are followed through in the next conference in Zagreb, Croatia, 2018, and how much our thinking and ideas will have moved on.

I will be following Sian and her team’s research to see how these ideas about space for becoming develop.

NLC2016: Sian Bayne keynote references (posted by Sian on Twitter)

Bayne, S., Gallagher, M.S. & Lamb, J. (2013). Being ‘at’ university: the social topologies of distance students. Higher Education 67(5): 569-583.

Bayne S. (2004) Smoothness and Striation in Digital Learning Spaces. E-Learning. 1(2): 302-316.

Carvalho, L., Goodyear, P. and de Laat, M. (eds) (2017) Place-based Spaces for Networked Learning. Abingdon: Routledge.

Cormier, D. (2015) Rhizo15

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1988) A Thousand Plateaus: capitalism and schizophrenia. London: Continuum.

Dodge, M. and Kitchin, R. (2005) Code and the transduction of space. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 95(1), 2005, pp. 162–180.

Hannam, K., Sheller, M. & Urry, J. (2006). Editorial: mobilities, immobilities and moorings. Mobilities, 1(1), 1-22.

Kitchin, R. and Dodge, M. (2011) Code/Space: Software and Everyday Life. Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press.

Knox, J. (2016) Posthumanism and the MOOC: Contaminating the Subject of Global Education. Abingdon: Routledge.

Lamb, J. (2016) ‘Away from the university’.

Law, J. & Mol, A. (2001). Situating technoscience: an inquiry into spatialities. Environment and Planning D. (19), 609-621.

Mackness, J. & Bell, F. (2015) Rhizo14: A Rhizomatic Learning cMOOC in Sunlight and in Shade. Open Praxis, 7(1): pp. 25–38

Mackenzie, A. (2002) Transductions: Bodies and machines at speed. London: Continuum Press.

Matthews P. (2015) ‘YikYak’.

Mol, A. & Law, J. (1994). Regions, networks and fluids: anaemia and social topology. Social Studies of Science, 24(4), 641-671.

Pearce, N. (2015) ‘The YikYak lecturer’.

Reticulatrix (2013) ‘#EDCMOOC: School’s out’

Ross, J. & Sheail, P. (2015) Campus imaginaries and dissertations at a distance. Society for Research into Higher Education Conference, 9-11 December 2015.

Sheller, M. & Urry, J. (2006). The new mobilities paradigm. Environment and Planning A, 38, 207-226.

Thatcher, J., O’Sullivan, D. & Mahmoudi, D. (2016) Data colonialism through accumulation by dispossession: New metaphors for daily data. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. DOI: 10.1177/0263775816633195

Networked Learning 2016: Do we need new metaphors?

The question in the title of this post was raised by Caroline Haythornthwaite in her keynote presentation for the Networked Learning Conference 2016. Metaphor became a theme which ran through the conference, following this opening keynote.

Caroline Haythornthwaite

I found this a difficult presentation to follow at the time. It was very densely packed with information, delivered fast and the slides contain a lot of text, so I am grateful to Caroline for immediately posting the link to her presentation, giving us an opportunity to go through it all again.

Caroline discussed many metaphors for networked learning including new ones that might help us reconsider where we are and where we are going next in terms of networked learning. By the end of her presentation after she had taken us through a whirlwind of many possibilities, she asked the question (Slide 52), ‘What are the implications for networked learning if we use metaphors that relate to new working conditions?’ e.g. Gig learning and Uber learning.

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A quick search on Google suggests that the implications might be that we see more posts like this ‘5 skills of the Gig Economy’ by Joseph Aoun.

Metaphors are powerful, even essential to our understanding. Iain McGilchrist in his book on how the left and right hemispheres of the brain influence how we perceive the world around us, has written:

Metaphoric thinking is fundamental to our understanding of the world, because it is the only way in which understanding can reach outside the system of signs to life itself. It is what links language to life. (McGilchrist, 2009, p.115)

Metaphors help us to think differently, see alternative perspectives and ‘unflatten’ our thinking (Sousanis, 2015). An example of a metaphor used by both Caroline (Slide 4) and Nick Sousanis (p.18 in his book) and taken from Lakoff and Johnson is reframing ‘argument as a dance rather than war’.

Caroline H 3

In my own recent work, with Frances Bell and Mariana Funes (2016, p.80) we have written that metaphors need to be treated with caution.

Lakoff (1992) points out that metaphors are asymmetric and partial and Morgan (1997) writes of metaphors, “in creating ways of seeing they tend to create ways of not seeing” (p. 348). Metaphors shape the way we see and the way we act, they enact a particular view and can be “self-fulfilling prophecies” (Lakoff & Johnson, 2008, p. 132).

By using the Gig metaphor to create a list of skills, what skills do we exclude? What do we fail to see?

These questions about the pros and cons of metaphor relates to another theme that ran through the conference; the meaning of ‘open’. I hope to think about this in more depth in a further post, but Richard Edward’s work (referenced in Sian Bayne’s keynote and her presentation with Jen Ross) discusses the relationship between openness and closedness (Edwards, 2015). He writes:

….all forms of openness entail forms of closed-ness and that it is only through certain closings that certain openings become possible and vice versa (p.3)

So in any form of discussion about new metaphors it will be necessary to consider the limitations of the metaphor. These are complex issues. Roy Williams (@dustcube on Twitter), who was not at the conference but who has seen Caroline’s presentation, wonders if we avoid engaging sufficiently with complexity because it is too much for us; we are like people who are hungry for ideas, but keep walking quickly past the chocolate-ideas shop, because we think they might be ‘too rich’ for us.

Roy metaphor

I would have liked to have spent a bit more time in the chocolate shop, maybe with a workshop (or similar) after Caroline’s keynote to play and experiment ‘with possible metaphors to guide us on the way forward’ in these changing times (Haythornthwaite, 2016).


Bayne, S. (2016). Campus Codespaces for Networked Learning. (Keynote May 10, 2016, 10th Networked Learning Conference)

Edwards, R. (2015). Knowledge infrastructures and the inscrutability of openness in education. Learning, Media and Technology, (June), 1–14. doi:10.1080/17439884.2015.1006131

Haythornthwaite, C. (2016). New Metaphors for Networked Learning. (Keynote May 10, 2016, 10th Networked Learning Conference)

Mackness, J., Bell, F., & Funes, M. (2016). The Rhizome: a problematic metaphor for teaching and learning in a MOOC. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 32(1), 78–91. doi:10.14742/ajet.v0i0.2486

McGilchrist, I. (2009). The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. New Haven, London: Yale University Press

Sousanis, N. (2015). Unflattening. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press