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.

LJMU FabLab: A place to play, to create, to learn

Another highlight of the Liverpool John Moores’ Teaching and Learning Conference 2015  was a session in the FabLab (right opposite the Catholic Cathedral). I have already written about the highlight of Professor Ronald Barnett’s keynote (see Student learning in a turbulent age).

Liverpool Catholic CathedralLiverpool Catholic Cathedral

 Accredited by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, FabLab Liverpool  is a physical space located in the School of Art and Design which provides access to the tools and knowledge to educate, innovate and invent using technology and digital fabrication to allow anyone to make almost anything. (Source of text – conference Abstract booklet)

The FabLab

In the session we were introduced to 3D printers, laser cutters and 3D scanners, all of which were new to me. We saw a key chain made in a laser cutter for Frances Bell and demonstrations of 3D scanning and 3D printingKey fob

3D scanning 3D printing

The FabLab session was billed as ‘A place to play, to create, to learn’ and there was certainly a buzz in the room. The aim was ‘to demonstrate how a creative environment and access to innovative technologies can assist pedagogic development with transferable, creative skills’. It was a fun session.

Right at the end of the session, I had a brief discussion with one of the presenters about the applications of these technologies. We already know that 3D printing has been used successfully for facial reconstruction after severe injury such as in the case of a motor-bike accident. And there are clear applications of laser printing, 3D scanning and printing for many design projects. I did wonder though what the implications might be for the fine artist.

An article by Randy Rieland on the Smithsonian website reminds us that ‘technology has been providing artists with new ways to express themselves for a very long time’.

In contrast Iain McGilchrist warns us against art that is too abstract, cerebral and generalized. In his book The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, he writes (p.96)

‘… works of art – music, poems, paintings, great buildings – can be understood only if we appreciate that they are more like people than texts, concepts or things’.

For McGilchrist, art is more than the creation of ‘something’. He writes p.308 …

‘Art …in its nature constantly impels us to reach out and onward to something beyond itself and beyond ourselves.’

… which echoes Ron Barnett’s words when he suggested that we see learning as ‘becoming more than you are, becoming other than you were’.

I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to see Liverpool John Moores’ FabLab in action, but on reflection I have wondered what the implications of these advancing technologies will be for art and artists. What will we lose and what will we gain in terms of the art that will be created in the future, our understanding and appreciation of it, and its place in our world?

Student learning in a turbulent age

View towards the Mersey

View towards the Royal Liver Building and the Mersey from the 5th floor of the Redmonds Building, Liverpool John Moores University.

This week I have been privileged to hear Professor Ronald Barnett speak at Liverpool John Moores University, where he was the keynote speaker on the second day of their teaching and learning conference. The title of his talk was:

A University for Learning: considering the present and glimpsing the future.

The theme for the conference as a whole was ‘Locations for learning: where does the learning take place?’ so Ron Barnett started his keynote with the question ’What kind of spaces are we trying to open up for students – how much space?’ He told us that the university has been with us for 900 years or longer and will be with us for a very long time. Many of today’s students will be alive in the 22nd century. At the very least we should try to answer questions such as: What is student learning the 21st century? What is it to be a graduate in the 21st century? What might we hope for from our students? What might they want of themselves?

He pointed out that we live in a turbulent environment and that our students are learning in a turbulent age where the higher education mantras of knowledge, skills and employability are no longer adequate. Neither knowledge nor skills may be adequate for tomorrow and we know that there is no guarantee of employability. The world is changing and there is a world beyond work.

He told us that the only thing that is certain is uncertainty and that we don’t only have to think in terms of complexity, but of supercomplexity. In the Abstract for his book ‘Realizing the University in an Age of Supercomplexity’, this is discussed as follows:

The university is faced with supercomplexity, in which our very frames of understanding, action and self-identity are all continually challenged. In such a world, the university has explicitly to take on a dual role: firstly, of compounding supercomplexity, so making the world ever more challenging; and secondly, of enabling us to live effectively in this chaotic world. Internally, too, the university has to become a new kind of organization, adept at fulfilling this dual role. The university has to live by the uncertainty principle: it has to generate uncertainty, to help us live with uncertainty, and even to revel in our uncertainty.

It is interesting to note that this was written 15 years ago!

So in this world of ever increasing diversity, differentiation and complexity, is there anything that should bind us together? What aspects of Higher Education are universal across the globe? To answer this question he said we need to ‘reclaim’ the student as persons who can develop the capacity to benefit the world in wise ways. Higher Education should therefore be more than satisfying students as consumers or viewing them in terms of pound notes.

In this world of uncertainty and supercomplexity, Barnett suggested that learning is often ‘scary’, involving becoming more than you are, becoming other than you were. Knowledge and skills are not enough; they require engagement to become a human being of a certain kind. Individuals must continually give of themselves, must continually remake themselves. The curriculum is not as important as pedagogy, i.e. the student/teacher relationship. We need to open up pedagogical space for our students and search for spaces of possibility. We should support our students in developing the dispositions needed for a world of challenge. Dispositions of

  • A will to learn
  • A will to engage
  • A preparedness to listen
  • A preparedness to explore
  • A willingness to hold oneself open to experience
  • A determination to keep going forward

Barnett then suggested that these dispositions should bind us across institutions. These are the dispositions that would help students to develop the qualities required for a world of challenge, qualities that will enable them to become global citizens who will help to bring about a better world.

He also suggested that to do this we have to understand ourselves as human beings in relation to the world and for this we need an ‘ecological curriculum’ which promotes being in the world, sensitivity to its global/local, personal/professional, systems/persons interconnectedness, engagement in its sustainability and improvement, active empathy and caring for the world.

Ron Barnett spoke with a passion that it is not possible to convey in a blog post and it was this passion that made the keynote so effective and, judging by the tweets and the comments I overheard in the following coffee break, inspired so many in the audience.

At the end of the keynote a question raised was whether these ideas were ‘pie in the sky’. These were not the words of the questioner, but the words that Ron Barnett used in responding to the question. On reflection about the keynote, despite finding it the highlight of the conference and well worth travelling to Liverpool for, I am left with a sense that we were treated to a passionate exploration of a glimpse into the future of the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of Higher Education, but it’s the ‘how’ that remains open.

We were left with the question of how an ecological curriculum which contains spaces for critical self-reflection, spaces for engagement with self, society and the world, spaces for multidisciplinary demanding experiences, can be introduced into a 21st century Higher Education institution. How will these ideas impact on Higher Education? How will they be realised in practice?