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 🙂

Rhizomatic Learning and Ethics

Dave Cormier in his open course on rhizomatic learning, which started on Tuesday of this week – has asked us in his video to think about/discuss ‘cheating as learning’.

For him it is important to think about cheating in relation to his teaching because this brings into focus power structures in an educational setting. He says that cheating is only a possibility if there are rules to break and rules control what we do giving power to the traditions of our culture. Without rules then there is no need for cheating. He doesn’t go as far as to say that we don’t need any rules – but maybe he is saying that we need to think about changing some of the rules.

There is an interesting discussion on the P2PU site,  which throws a lot of ideas into the melting pot – such as hacking – and the use of cheat codes in gaming – which seem to be regarded as legitimate ways of working. Dogtrax writes ‘Cheating is a natural and guilt free part of gaming’ and Khomotso writes ‘Cheating can allow you to get something out of a flawed experience, rather than just avoid that experience altogether’. Both these comments suggest that cheating is simply a lack of deference to the rules.

There is also an interesting post by Technological about ‘predatory thinking’. He writes:

I”m being flippant, but in closing – I feel that “cheating as learning” is Dave Trotts “predatory thinking”,  – good old fashioned competitive thinking strategies utilised in order to gain advantage in a competitive environment. Dave Trott put it well and I think it fits well with “cheating as learning” – he says “creativity is the last, legal unfair advantage we have.” I think that “cheating as learning” as long as it is not particularly egregious and not wholesale ripping off of someone else’s efforts is part of an avant-garde, a leftfield creative advance that acts to safeguard against outdated dogmas and rules and one that is successfully checking and challenging the status quo. It is thoroughly entrepreneurial at heart, and long may it continue.

Now – defining where it becomes less healthy or problematic – that is a whole other story…

The Oxford English dictionary defines cheating as ‘acting dishonestly or unfairly in order to gain an advantage’.  All the definitions of cheating that I have looked up suggest that cheating is problematic because it contravenes commonly understood ethical codes – the moral principles which govern our behaviour  – so whilst I can see what Dave is getting at, and recognise that it is a good teaching strategy to throw in a controversial statement to get discussion going, for me associating ‘cheating’ with rhizomatic learning doesn’t do it any favours.

I don’t think rhizomatic learning has anything to do with cheating.  I don’t think that predatory thinking is cheating unless it is associated with the dishonesty of ‘wholesale ripping off of someone else’s efforts’.

For me it is more helpful to think in terms of not having to ‘reinvent the wheel’. With advances in technology this is much more possible now than ever before. We are, as Dave has told us, living in an age of information abundance. Using this information is not cheating unless our use infringes the copyright restrictions, which usually require full attribution (see creative commons licenses). Remixing and repurposing, within  copyright restrictions is not cheating. (For more thoughts about this see – It’s not Plagiarism. In the Digital Age, It’s Repurposing).  Collaboration and sharing of ideas within a climate of mutual respect, faith, humility, trust , agreed permissions and requirements for attribution is not cheating.  All these activities speed up the flow of information and save us unnecessary work. They also require openness of mind and spirit and it is this ‘openness’ that will influence power structures within our learning environments. Openness is a great leveller.

For me, learning isn’t so much about what we do – cheating or otherwise – but more about who we are and who we become – and as such is associated with ethical and moral dimensions. Does living in a digitally networked world, a world of rhizomatic learners change what we commonly understand to be the basic moral principles that govern behaviour between learners?