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 🙂