The Rhizome: a problematic metaphor for teaching and learning in a MOOC

boypoolrhizome

(Source of image: https://socialdigitalelective.wordpress.com/groups/rhizomes/)

Drawing ‘boypoolrhuzome’ by Dr Mark Ingham, Reader in Critical and Nomadic Pedagogies at the University of the Arts London LCC

Our second paper which explores how the rhizome metaphor was understood in the Rhizo14 MOOC (Rhizomatic Learning. The Community is the Curriculum) has finally been published by The Australasian Journal of Educational Technology.

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.

The paper was accepted following revision in response to reviewers’ comments last July, so it has felt like a long wait, but there have been some changes of the Journal’s staff and website so I think a bit of a backlog built up. The Editors were very patient with our ‘nagging’ 🙂

The body of work we have developed in relation to the Rhizo 14 MOOC is now growing. The first paper was published by Open Praxis.

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

We have also given a couple of presentations and written many blog posts

18-06-2015 Mackness, J. & Bell, F. Teaching and Learning in the Rhizome: challenges and possibilities. Mackness & Bell Conference Submission 2015 . Blog post about the presentation

27-6-2014 Mackness, J. & Bell, F. ALTMOOCSIG Conference The Rhizome as a Metaphor for Learning in a MOOC. See also Emerging ambiguities and concerns for blog posts about this presentation and the related Prezi.

A third paper has just today been returned by the reviewers and will hopefully be published within the next three months.

The second paper about the rhizome metaphor was really enjoyable to work on as it introduced us to new authors and presented us with many challenges. As always we worked on a private wiki to collect, share and discuss resources and our thoughts, as well as paper drafts.

At the beginning we were inspired by this website – Nomadology  – and wondered whether we could present our paper as an interactive document in this way (with no beginning and no end), but it was not to be. Even our attempt to present the paper as independent sections (mimicking Deleuze and Guattari’s plateaus) did not work. Ultimately, we shared the concerns expressed by Douglas-Jones and Sariola (2009):

– we are recognizing the academy’s need to communicate ideas in writing, in a linear format. Even if methodologically and theoretically we become more rhizomatic, the imparting of knowledge currently requires some arborescence. (p. 2) ( cited in Mackness, Bell and Funes, 2016, p.87)

For now, I’m OK with that, but it would be good to see the development of more creative, multi-media and interactive ways of presenting research and discussion papers. If nothing else, it could make the papers more fun to work on and multi-media might help to explain the work more effectively.

Teaching and Learning in the Rhizome: challenges and possibilities

On Thursday 18th June Frances Bell and I presented a session at Liverpool John Moores University’s Teaching and Learning Conference, which earlier in the year put out a call for papers which could address the theme: ‘Locations for learning: where does the learning take place?’

We immediately recognized that our research into rhizomatic learning would fit this theme. The rhizome has been used as a metaphor for teaching and learning by many educators who are interested in encouraging learners to explore new spaces for learning.

This is the Abstract we submitted.

We can no longer preserve the illusion that learning is bounded by the classroom or other formal educational structures. Learners routinely navigate complex uncertain environments offered by social media and the web. Beyond the boundaries of the classroom, on the social web, learners enter the rhizome.

Our research in a massive open online course, Rhizomatic Learning: The community is the curriculum (now known as Rhizo14) revealed mixed learner experiences. Rhizo14 was modelled on Deleuze and Guattari’s principles of the rhizome, outlined in their book ‘A Thousand Plateaus’, although ultimately it was an experiment about learning in an age of uncertainty and abundance, rather than a course about the rhizome. The experiment sought to learn about what happens when learners take control of their learning and through connection and interaction determine the curriculum.

As a location for learning, the rhizome challenges traditional views of education, allowing entry anywhere and knowing no boundaries. Within a rhizome, learners select and follow their own learning paths, taking many ‘lines of flight’ and travelling as nomads. Learning takes place through a multiplicity of connections, continually being formed, broken and reformed. Learners learn from each other and together create their own curricula; hierarchies and authority are eschewed.

Learning in the Rhizo14 rhizome had both light and dark sides. It was motivating and stimulating, leading to intense creativity, engagement and transformational learning, but the freedom to roam increased learner vulnerability. In the absence of an ethical framework, the burden of ‘teaching’ fell on to the most active with some unintended and invisible consequences.

We will discuss with the audience how learning ethically in the rhizome might take place and how freedom and responsibility might be balanced.

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

Over 400 delegates, mostly from the University but also including a few external presenters like ourselves, signed up for the conference and more than 80 sessions were presented over the two days. It was a lively conference and an enjoyable experience.

For our session we had 25 minutes in which we wanted to leave as much time for discussion as possible. As such we spoke for about 10 minutes, and then spent the remaining time discussing the challenges and possibilities of rhizomatic learning with our audience.

At the start we asked whether anyone was familiar with Deleuze and Guattari’s work on the principles of the rhizome. Two people were, but the concept was new to everyone else. In the time we had available to us we were only able to briefly outline what happened in Rhizo14 and the rhizomatic principles that inspired it. We then asked participants to divide into groups to discuss four statements that we hoped would stimulate thinking about the challenges and possibilities of using the rhizome as a concept for teaching and learning:

  • Learning requires boundaries
  • Learners cannot be trusted to select and follow their own learning paths
  • Learners can create their own curriculum through peer interaction
  • Learners and teachers know how to balance freedom and responsibility in social learning spaces

Ultimately only the first three statements were discussed but the feedback culminated in a response to the fourth statement.

Learning requires boundaries. The group discussing this statement felt that boundaries are helpful and that learners benefit from different types of boundaries at different times. Sometimes boundaries need to be rigid, which they represented by drawing a solid line, sometimes more flexible, which they represented with a dotted line. They acknowledged that looser institutional boundaries allow for more personal learning and that boundaries are always moving.

Learners cannot be trusted to select and follow their own learning paths. This group thought that selection is part and parcel of the learning process because learning goals change as the learning progresses. They made the interesting comment that the learning path is determined by a process of elimination.

Learners can create their own curriculum through peer interaction. This group wanted to change the word ‘create’ to ‘shape’. They thought that it is possible for learners to shape their own curriculum through peer interaction with facilitation and guidance, but they recognized that ultimately the curriculum would be determined by the majority and that there would be institutional constraints.

In listening to these responses we felt that all three statements had been discussed in the context of balancing structure and freedom, which relates to the fourth statement, and to ideas that we continue to explore in our ongoing research into rhizomatic learning.

We were very pleased with how this session went. Participants only had 15 minutes for discussion and feedback, but all engaged with the prompts and each group responded with thoughtful and insightful comments.

Many thanks to all those who attended our session and engaged so actively, and also to Elena Zaitseva, who chaired the session, fully engaged herself and kept us all to time so well.

May 2015 – metaphor, meaning and motion

I have committed to writing a monthly blog post this year, rather like those who commit to posting a photo a day. I have resisted the photo a day – I hate routine. Even making a monthly blog post feels too prescriptive, but given that I seem to be lacking any motivation to blog recently, this commitment to a monthly post will hopefully keep me going until my motivation comes back.

But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t been writing. I have been writing a lot – just not in public!

The end of this month has seen a focus for me on the meaning of ‘metaphor’, in particular in relation to the rhizome metaphor. Frances Bell, Mariana Funes and I have been finalizing a paper about the rhizome, how it is understood and how it applies to teaching and learning. This is a Wordle composed from the content of our submitted paper.

Screen Shot 2015-05-30 at 19.16.11

 

We have been working on this paper for more than a year. There was a lot to learn. What has been extremely enjoyable about this has been the number of authors I have become familiar with who write about the rhizome. I have so enjoyed the poetic imagery that some of their writing conjures up.

For those completely unfamiliar with the concept of the rhizome, then a good start is Chapter 1 of Deleuze and Guattari’s book. A Thousand Plateaus (1987, Bloombury) – and we have already published one paper about this. Our research is ongoing, but for our initial thoughts and findings see our paper in Open Praxis – Rhizo14 – A Rhizomatic Learning cMOOC in Sunlight and in Shade.

‘Meaning’ has also featured prominently in May for me, i.e. meaning in relation to what I have been doing and the meaning of my life as it relates to those around me. I think it’s something to do with age. My husband reached the age of 70 this month and for some reason that feels like a significant milestone and has brought with it lots of associated thoughts related to meaning. I bought him an Anthology of Emily Dickinson’s poems to mark this event (he is a fan!) and each day, he selects another poem to read, share and discuss. This week, this is the poem that has resonated most strongly with me:

 

A Thought went up my mind today –

That I have had before –

But did not finish – some way back –

I could not fix the Year –

 

Nor where it went – not why it came

The second time to me –

Nor definitely, what it was –

Have I to say –

 

But somewhere – in my Soul – I know –

I’ve met the Thing before –

It just reminded me – ‘twas all –

And came my way no more –

(Emily Dickinson, 701. Emily didn’t give her poems titles – she simply numbered them)

Finally, motion – what is that about? Well it’s about the motion of the wheels of my bike. At the start of the month we were cycling in Holland, through the tulip fields. This far exceeded my expectations of an enjoyable holiday. Of course I know we were so lucky – no rain, only one day of high winds, a fantastic hotel, amazingly safe cycle routes and lanes with good surfaces, and the stunning tulip fields.

Holland

Needless to say I took far too many photos of tulips which I have posted on my Flickr site.

Academic Writing as a ‘Desire to Relate’

A couple of days ago, Nancy White posted this video on Facebook (thank you for sharing it Nancy)

David Gregson : A Desire To Relate from Creative Matters on Vimeo.

The video, of the western Australian artist, David Gregson, tries to capture how he uses his art to communicate and his desire to relate. Quoting from the text under the video:

In the year 2000, the late Western Australian artist, David Gregson (1934 – 2002) allowed students from Curtin University of Technology (Perth, Australia) to access his Kellerberrin studio to film him as he worked. David, still recovering from recent surgery, completed the painting ‘Provence Window’ over a period of four days.

A highly prodigious visual artist, whose career spanned over 50 years, David Gregson is one of Western Australia’s most highly regarded figurative painters. His dedication to opening our eyes to the communicative power of art, and his virtuosic talent with a paintbrush, strongly informed his art and continues to influence many an aspiring and established artist.

At the same time as being introduced to this video and David Gregson’s work, I have been following Pat Thomson’s blog in which she is sharing how she is running her 8-day writing course in Iceland . Patter is a wonderful blog and I always look forward to Pat’s posts. I like the initial questions that Pat posed:

  • What is the contribution your paper will make?
  • Why is this important?
  • What will connect your readers with this topic?
  • How will you create the niche for your work?

These are questions that I have been asking myself in some recent writing I have been doing, although they have been implicit concerns rather than articulated. Pat’s next post was all about the writing the Introduction for a paper – and again, all very good advice. Since then she has written about the Literature  and Methods sections of a thesis or paper.

How does all this relate to the David Gregson video? Well, when I watched the David Gregson video I immediately recognised the way of working, whereas when reading Pat’s posts, I had to admit to myself that that is not the way I work. For example, in the most recent writing I have been doing, the introduction was the last section I wrote, I only had a very vague idea of where I was going at the start and I was waiting for ideas to emerge, for ‘Ah Ha’ moments.

On watching the video some of the things that David Gregson said resonated very strongly with me. On starting his painting he says:

‘You may think that I am dithering. I am not really. I am trying to get into character of what it is that I am going to paint’.

Gregson painted his picture ‘Provence Window’ over four days. The video doesn’t tell us how long he ‘dithered’ for, but in my most recent writing that I have been doing with Frances Bell about the rhizome as a metaphor for teaching and learning, I dithered for weeks and weeks. It has taken almost a year to get to the final draft.

Gregson says that in your work you are the performer, but you have to remember that standing behind you, looking over your shoulder, is the past, the present, the critic and the director. In other words, the act of painting, or in my case writing, is a multi-faceted conversation and you have to prepare yourself in your daily work by first calming down. He talks of becoming re-familiar with your materials each day in this calming preparation phase, saying ‘hello’ again, cruising around the painting surface, becoming as one with it – ‘there’s a little courtship about it’.

This is not dithering. This is becoming immersed in the process. It is not following a plan. It is allowing the process to ‘speak to you’. I find it comforting to think that what might be perceived as dithering is actually a necessary part of the process.

Gregson then talks of introducing the characters and says that it is worthwhile introducing some extremes initially so that you have an intuitive scale from which to work. ‘If you kick off on a high key it will keep you there’, but if you introduce a major dark area you get a tangible meaningful contrast to the light. That makes sense to me. As he says, you can always rub out ‘the bum notes’. If you are immersed in the process, sensitive to the areas which need attention and let the process (writing or painting) speak to you, you will know what you’ve got to get rid of, although in my own case, I have to say that this can take months rather than days.

I agree with Gregson when he says that we need to sustain a mood and be open to ‘happy accidents’. The beginning and the middle of the process can all be very suggestive and vague, but the sense, the meaning, slowly emerges. I can recognise this too. I have to consciously be ‘open’ and patient, because at times, it can all feel so extraordinarily messy.

Gregson’s commentary on his painting relates closely to my recent thinking and reading around Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the rhizome and the nomad. Nomadic thought encourages an avoidance of boundaries and free wandering. Rhizomatic thought encourages taking lines of flight and breaking free of traditional, hierarchical thinking – a deterritorialisation of thought. Ultimately though, there is reterritorialisation such that in the case of David Gregson he finally produced his painting ‘Provence Window’. That was a reified outcome, which satisfied the requirements of the art world. Similarly, academic writers ultimately reify their written communications in the format required to satisfy the requirements of the audience for which the writing is intended. Currently many journals, if not most, require authors to write in very traditional ways, almost to a template. This is difficult to escape, for academics who want to be published – but perhaps the process of writing, before the final drafts, can benefit from lines of flight and deterritorialisation – a bit of free wandering rather than following a plan. Does this lead to more creative, communicative academic writing that fulfils a desire to relate, or does it just lead to a messy incoherence?

Further thoughts and discussion about rhizomatic learning

The video/audio recording of the presentation that Frances Bell and I gave at the ALTMOOCSIG conference last month has now been posted. Many thanks to Mira Vogel  for organizing this event.

We were asked very early on (by a Rhizo14 participant) whether our presentation would be recorded – so here is the link. to all the presentations including ours.

https://lecturecast.ucl.ac.uk:8443/ess/portal/section/6f625859-7a2a-4100-a698-7fa18bdf7994

During the presentation we mention that we wrote about our research into rhizomatic learning to date, and preparation for the presentation, in a series of blog posts prior to the conference. Here is the post with information and links about this.  And here is a link to the complete Prezi that we prepared for the presentation.  The video/audio covers the most relevant slides, but we stopped short of showing them all. (I haven’t yet discovered how to embed a Prezi in WordPress!)

It has been interesting to listen to this recording. I opened it with some trepidation, as I wasn’t sure how well our presentation went, but on hearing the recording I was pleasantly surprised that it is more coherent than it felt to be at the time, and that in a very short session I think we managed to cover the main points we wanted to make and allow time for questions. We received four questions. All were interesting, but perhaps the one that was most relevant to research about MOOCs at the moment was raised by Marion Waite who asked whether our research was/is ethical. This is a question that we have been discussing with Mariana Funes and Viv Rolfe in relation to researching learning in MOOCs in general, not just the Rhizo14 MOOC.

For feedback on the day by various conference participants, see this blog post – responses to the moocs which way now conference . Many thanks again to Mira Vogel for pulling this together.

Fred Garnett has also spent some time putting together a Slideshare which summarises the presentations made during the day. Here it is.

British MOOCs; a Curated Conversation from London Knowledge Lab, University of London

Thanks to ALTMOOCSIG for a stimulating event which has given us plenty to think about.

Rhizo 14: Emerging Ambiguities and Issues

This is the fourth and final post in a series which outlines the thinking and planning Frances Bell and Jenny Mackness have been doing in preparation for our presentation – The Rhizome as a Metaphor for Teaching and Learning in a MOOC – for the ALTMOOCSIG conference on Friday 27th June.

The first post was – The Rhizome as a Metaphor for Teaching and Learning in a MOOC 

The second post was – Making Sense of the Rhizome Metaphor for Teaching and Learning

The third post was – Principles of Rhizomatic Thinking

This final post will cover some of the issues that are emerging from our research data.

 

Rhizo 14: Emerging ambiguities and issues

 Slide 6 (Source of image: Tom Friedman. Open Black Box : http://eyelevel.si.edu/2007/06/sculpture-as-an.html )

We are still in the process of analysing our data, but on the basis the work we have done so far we were able to send these statements out to survey respondents who agreed to an email interview:

  • The rhizome is a useful metaphor for learning but it does not add anything significantly new to our current understanding of teaching and learning.
  • The use of the rhizome as a metaphor for designing teaching and learning has a positive impact on the role of the teacher.
  • The rhizome metaphor is sufficient to describe networked learning, but insufficient to describe learning in a community.
  • The rhizome is an adequate but incomplete metaphor for explaining how we learn.
  • The metaphor of the rhizome works well for social learning, but less well for knowledge creation.
  • Deleuze and Guattari’s ideas were not relevant to learning in Rhizo14

The statements exemplify some of the emerging alternative perspectives on the learner experience of the Rhizo14 MOOC.

We haven’t done enough analysis of our data yet to come to any conclusions, but here are some tentative initial questions, findings and discussion. We do not have any answers to these questions. We simply raise them and open them for discussion.

  1. The role of the convenor. What is the role of the convener in a course which tries to apply D &G’s rhizomatic principles? Is it possible to have no centre?

Here are the alternative perspectives of two survey respondents.

Our words, our images, our diagrams were what drove the learning for ourselves and for others in the course. Where the conversations went did not start from a single centre and move in an ordered fashion from there; they started wherever we started, and moved wherever those involved wanted them to move. As a result, there were numerous conversations happening at the same time, going in different directions, linking up to others if we made the links happen. 

I could see many people getting enthusiastic and falling in love with the community like “we are something, we are the best in world. Others are stupid and not creative but we are great. Dave is the King and it is fine to get attention from him.” I define this groupthink and emotional drifting. Someone called it a congregation around dc

Is a course, which necessarily means there is a course convener, the right environment for exploring and modelling rhizomatic learning?

  1. The operation of power in Rhizo14 and its relation to striated and smooth spaces for state and nomadic thought

“Only thought is capable of inventing the fiction of a State that is universal by right”, they insist, “[only thought is] capable of elevating the State to the level of de jure universality” (Holland, 2013, p.45)

D & G talk about smooth and striated space. Striated space is structured and organised and can be the home of ‘state thought’, whereas in smooth space there are no fixed points or boundaries. Many of Rhizo14’s provocative prompts seemed to be designed to help participants challenge state thought/ arborescence in education. We are curious to explore how nomadic thought was enabled and constrained by the few structuring devices (activities and technologies) present in Rhizo14.

Although rhizomatic nomadic thought may seem more at home in smooth space, it may not have that luxury. There may have been more striated space in Rhizo14 than you would expect in a course about rhizomatic learning. This also relates to thinking about the rhizome as achieving ‘felt-like’ status, which Holland (2013) equates to ‘smooth space’.

Holland writes (p.38) that ‘any rhizomatic element has the potential to connect with any other element’ . He compares felt to the warp and woof (weft) of fabric. Early analysis suggests that Rhizo14 didn’t achieve felt-like status (i.e. a smooth space). There was not enough ‘omni-directionality’.

‘Rhizomatic elements co-exist with one another, but without structure (e.g. felt). Any structure or unity is imposed as an extra dimension  .… and as an effect of power on the dimensions of co-existence of the rhizome itself, whose self-organization requires no added dimensions: structuration or unification, by contrast, occurs as the result of “over-coding” by a signifier…..’ (Holland, p.39)

The potential ambiguity between Dave Cormier’s role as convenor (with his expressed desire to moderate communication) and his wish to be de-centred within Rhizo14 may have been realised in confusion and challenge by some participants, and defence of him by others. There is some evidence of this in the data we collected. A possible explanation could be that Rhizo14 ended up being ‘over-coded’ with Dave Cormier as the signifier and members of the dominant Facebook Group as signifiers, thus working against decentring. This is the one of the issues we hope to explore with Dave Cormier himself to enrich our understanding.

  1. The Community: Is the idea of community compatible with D & G’s principles of rhizomatic thinking? In Rhizo14 is the community an example of territorialisation? D & G write about the necessity of territorialisation, but say it should only be relatively temporary.

Community is not a word that features strongly in D & G’s A Thousand Plateaus, but they do write:

There is no ideal speaker-listener, any more than there is a homogeneous linguistic community. ( D&G, A Thousand Plateaus, p.7)

On the same page, they also write:

There is no mother tongue, only a power takeover by a dominant language within a political multiplicity.

And Holland explains this with:

‘Even on its own plane, discourse as rhizome is “an essentially heterogeneous reality” [p.7 in D&G’s book] – a “throng of dialects, patois, slangs, and specialized languages,” Deleuze and Guattari assert, with “no mother tongue” [7]. The appearance of a standard language is instead the result of a power-takeover by one language among many, necessarily in connection with yet other factors, most notably political and demographic ones.’ ( Holland, E.W., 2013, Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, Bloomsbury, p.39)

The question we, as researchers, are considering is whether the notion of community works against rhizomatic thinking principles, but we haven’t got any further than this at the moment. Does a community lead to a standard language and a power take-over? One interesting aspect of community within Rhizo14 is that although Dave Cormier drew on his existing network to attract participants to the MOOC, there was no pre-existing Rhizo14 community, and so part of the early ‘work’ of Rhizo14 was community formation.

As Dave Cormier said:

In discussions with the excellent Vanessa Gennarelli from P2PU she suggested that I focus the course around challenging questions. It occurred to me that if i took my content and my finely crafted ‘unravelling’ out of the way I might just get the kind of engagement that could encourage the formation of community. http://davecormier.com/edblog/2014/04/01/explaining-rhizo14-to-oscar/

This is an interesting issue that we hope to explore further.

  1. The community is the curriculum

This begs the question – what was the curriculum? As is evident from the first quote from a survey respondent under point 1 above, there were some participants who believed that the curriculum was created by the community. We have evidence that participants learned ‘how to MOOC’, ‘how to make connections with like-minded people’, and ‘how to think differently about their existing educational philosophy’, but as mentioned in a previous blog post, only a handful survey respondents referred to D&G’s work in their understanding of the rhizome as a metaphor for learning and teaching.

As well as minimising the content he provided, Dave had already affirmed the need for learners to create content. Participants from DS106, EDCMOOC, and CLMOOC 2013 would already have experienced a MOOC where ‘making’ was a key focus for community/ course participation. The ‘Arts and Crafts tent’ was popular, a participant-driven approach, and can be seen in the many multimedia artefacts tagged #rhizo14, but not everyone wanted to do this. One of the ways in which curriculum could be perceived is by the content generated by learners, and the diversity of content from poems to wordy blog posts and a lot of remixes in multimedia in Rhizo14.

As one email interview respondent has written:

I do not quite understand how the community designs and negotiates its own curriculum community. We need more studies and references to describe the processes of negotiation that go on within a community that enable it to design their own curriculum.

And finally, the same respondent wrote:

I have a feeling that this metaphor needs to be connected more to pedagogical issues arising from educational research. 

Which neatly brings us to the end of our presentation and emphasises that we still have more questions than answers and, as we have mentioned before, far more thoughts and discussion topics than we have room for here, or time for in our presentation.

Slide 7

(Source of image: Tobias Øhrstrøm Learning from a potato: http://www.iaacblog.com/maa2013-2014-advanced-architecture-concepts/2013/11/learning-from-a-potato/ )

If you have any thoughts/questions about this series of posts, we would welcome your comments on our blogs, or by email:

  • jenny.mackness@btopenworld.com
  • frabell@gmail.com

 

References

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1987). A Thousand Plateaus, University of Minnesota Press.

Holland, E.W. (2013). Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. Bloomsbury

 

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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.

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

Principles for Rhizomatic Thinking

This is the third in a series of posts which outline the thinking and planning Frances Bell and Jenny Mackness have been doing in preparation for their presentation – The Rhizome as a Metaphor for Teaching and Learning in a MOOC – for the ALTMOOCSIG conference on Friday 27th June.

The first post was – The Rhizome as a Metaphor for Teaching and Learning in a MOOC

The second post was – Making Sense of the Rhizome Metaphor for Teaching and Learning

Principles for Rhizomatic Thinking 

Slide 5

(Source of image: Deconstructive Rhizome by Pongtidasantayanon:  http://www.iaacblog.com/maa2013-2014-advanced-architecture-concepts/2013/11/rhizome-2/)

Deleuze and Guattari  (D & G) enumerate 6 approximate characteristics of the rhizome. There are others that are also relevant to rhizomatic learning and teaching and may even be more relevant, such as ‘nomadic thought’; ‘wolves, tribes and packs’; ‘smooth and striated space’;  ‘assemblages’; ‘territorialisation’; and ‘lines of flight’ – which we are still unpicking in relation to our data, but don’t have time to discuss here.

So for now we’ll stick with the six principle characteristics, which are on the image above and listed below.

In Week 2 of Rhizo14 a discussion arose in the Facebook Group around some participants’ perception that they were expected to study theory, and that some other participants’ posts were condescending. This has subsequently been labelled within #Rhizo14 as a theorists versus pragmatists divide. There was an attempt at self-healing by Rhizo14 participants but apparently the outcome was not satisfactory to those most affected and some people left the course as a result.  Leaving a MOOC need not be seen as some sort of failure if you have drunk enough from the well, but leaving from a sense of alienation would be more troubling.  Subsequently, ‘pragmatism’ achieved a kind of ascendance in #Rhizo14 and Deleuze and Guattari’s ideas about rhizomatic thinking were discussed less and less during Rhizo14. Recently in the Facebook group there has been a discussion about whether or not the group should now discuss Deleuze and Guattari’s ideas – but the discussion was fairly quickly passed over. A key contributor to Rhizo14, Keith Hamon, had already published a treasure trove of posts on D & G’s rhizomatic thinking and continued to apply their theory and that of others during the MOOC.

There are D & G principles that can be considered in relation to learning in open learning environments and were in evidence in Rhizo14. We do not claim to be philosophers. Neither can we claim to have read or understood all of D & G’s work, but we are finding evidence of some tentative links between D & G’s ‘approximate characteristics of the rhizome’ and learning in Rhizo14.

Big health warning here – these findings/thoughts are tentative

1. Connections – a rhizome ceaselessly establishes connections.

There is evidence of this in Rhizo14 – plenty of connections were made and are still being made, but some survey responses have revealed that this was not the case for everyone. Some people felt excluded or peripheral to what was going on in the course. A feature of Rhizo14 was the core group that gathered in Facebook (originally set up by Dave Cormier) and though a wider range of participants contributed less frequently, the core group persisted and now refer to themselves as ‘die-hard rhizo14ers’. As the contributions to P2PU, the G+ group and blog posts began to tail off in Weeks 4-6, the Facebook group became the main focus of activity on Rhizo14. When the course ended this is largely where discussion continues, although the core group posted topics on P2PU for Weeks 7-12, after the ‘official’ end of the course.

A rhizome has multiple points of entry. One of the most active participants didn’t join until Week 4, and new people still appear in the Facebook group and post to Twitter with the #rhizo14 hashtag. A rhizome also has no beginning and no end and we have evidence that the Rhizo14 course is an example of this.

Alternative perspectives on making connections in Rhizo14 are exemplified by these quotes from two respondents:

I’m also disappointed that it seemed so hard to connect in Rhizome 14

I stayed because of the community – it was great fun. It gave me space to reflect on D&G, collaborative learning, and learning communities and to talk to other like-minded people.

2. Heterogeneity –  any point of a rhizome can be connected to any other and must be.

In relation to Rhizo14 was this characteristic of a rhizome in evidence? – yes and no.  Ultimately there has been a discussion about whether Rhizo14 ended up being a clique and how heterogeneous is the Rhizo14 rhizome; there seems to be a tension between ‘community’ and the principles of a rhizome in D & G terms. This is something we need to explore further.

3. Multiplicity  – A multiplicity is, in the most basic sense, a complex structure that does not reference a prior unity.

There was diversity in Rhizo14 – but was there multiplicity – which requires no central pivot point – being a-centred and de-subjectified?

Holland, p.39 writes: 

There are no pre-determined positions or points within a rhizomatic multiplicity, only lines along with random nodes arising at the haphazard intersections of them (felt).  

This principle seems difficult to achieve in a course. As discussed in the previous blog post Dave Cormier was perceived by some in Rhizo14 as being at the centre. As one respondent wrote:

A big part of being a good facilitator is the weaving and prompting, asking good questions, etc. What I noticed in rhizo14 was a facilitator who appeared to be very much at the centre of the course, and who, while very present and active, stated his own views and conclusions quite (too?) often

But another wrote:

Now, clearly, Dave Cormier was at the centre in the sense of organizing the course and providing intro videos, but the vast majority of the actual course content and activities was made up of what we, the participants did. 

From a technological perspective one could perceive the variety of platforms as ‘multiple’: participants could engage at P2PU, G+, in the Facebook group, posting on their blogs, commenting on others’ blog posts, conversing via the Twitter hashtag, expressing ideas through Zeega. Where the interlinking between these spaces was simple and bi-directional, such as posting a link to an open blog, youtube video or another open web resource this seemed to be like multiplicity in the rhizomatic sense.  Where the interlinking was more inward looking, such as commenting on a Facebook post about a blog post or a link that was not truly open, like a link to a Facebook or G+ group/ community thread, then some of the ‘felt-like’ qualities of the rhizome were lost, and the multiplicity seemed more apparent than real.

(For further discussion of  the ‘felt-like’ qualities of a rhizome and smooth and striated space in a rhizome, see Frances’ blog post – Wandering across smooth and jagged spaces – bring a blanket and beware the Chief ants )

  1. Asignifying rupture. If you break a rhizome it can start growing again on its old line or on a new line. Connections are constantly breaking (deterritorialisation) and reforming (reterritorialisation).

It’s difficult to get evidence for this because once people have taken a line of flight it’s hard to find them or find their new rhizomatic connections. This is an issue in our research – despite our best efforts to reach early leavers, we know that some important voices are missing from our research. However territorialisation in the form of the Facebook group was dominant in the course – but those who took a line of flight will have taken something with them, although as D & G point out a line of flight can become ineffectual and lead to regressive transformations and rigid segments.

Holland, p.39, writes

‘…. rhizomes are philosophically defined at the limit by their outside, by the “lines of flight” that connect them outside of themselves and transform them.’

Lines of flight were evident in Rhizo14 in the sense that some participants went off on their own paths, but in D&G’s terms these are supposed to remain connected to the rhizome – some did, some didn’t. As one respondent wrote:

There was a point at which engagement in rhizo14 was over for me and I left the facebook group, which had been my main point of contact (I still enjoy following people on Twitter). There was no reason other than it had served its time for me (for now) and this has helped me be less controlling [in my own community]

There were also lines of flight within the Rhizo14 course. Participants were looking for lines of flight from traditional ways of thinking and working – taking their classes out onto the Internet, away from canonical texts, valorising cheating, etc.

One can also identify people whose lines of flight brought them into Rhizo14, for example Dave Cormier and a few participants who had already applied rhizomatic thinking to teaching and learning contexts.

5 & 6. Cartography and decalcomania – the rhizome is like a map and not a tracing.

You can enter a rhizome at any point. Maps are always unfinished and subject to revision – so in this sense Rhizo14 was a map rather than a tracing.  The discussion around Rhizo14 continues – albeit in one space – and new members are joining.

 

These are our first tentative thoughts about how the Rhizo14 course and our investigation of learner experience within it might or might not be informed by Deleuze and Guattari’s six approximate characteristics of the rhizome. There is still a lot more to explore and understand in relation to this and we are a long way off coming to any conclusions, if indeed that is possible or there are any.

References:

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1987). A Thousand Plateaus, University of Minnesota Press.

Holland, E.W. (2013). Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. Bloomsbury

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