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off of someone else’s efforts is part of an avant-garde, a leftfield creative advance that acts to safeguard against outdated dogmas and rules and one that is successfully checking and challenging the status quo.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?

Re-purposing, poetry and plagiarism

Since 2008 I have been aware that re-purposing is a key activity of connectivist MOOCs (cMOOCs).  George Siemens, Stephen Downes and Dave Cormier explained what they meant by this in their introduction to Change 11 MOOC,  where they wrote:

We don’t want you simply to repeat what other people have said. We want you to create something of your own.

Remember that you are not starting from scratch. Nobody ever creates something from nothing. That’s why we call this section ‘repurpose’ instead of ‘create’.

In a paper that my colleagues Marion Waite, George Roberts, Elizabeth Lovegrove and I have had published this week, we have pointed out, as others have before us, the tensions between repurposing and plagiarism. It seems to be an intractable problem for Higher Education institutions wanting to go down the ‘MOOC with accreditation’ route.

A discussion in ModPo  this week about Dadaist poetry and with reference to Tristan Tzara’s instructions on how to make a Dadaist poem, is closely related to ideas around open educational resources, repurposing, creativity and plagiarism.

Tzara’s instructions

Take a newspaper. Take some scissors. Choose from this paper an article the length you want to make your poem. Cut out the article. Next carefully cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them all in a bag. Shake gently. Next take out each cutting one after the other. Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag. The poem will resemble you. And there you are–an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.

Source: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5774

This video illustrates the idea for those who relate better to video than text.

Is a poem written in this way an example of repurposing, or plagiarism, or both?

As chance would have it, just in the past week there has been a ‘storm’ about plagiarism by two Australian poets.

Toby Fitch of the Guardian writes:

But in all the outrage, and the quibbling over how poets should footnote their poems, the very legitimate poetic practice called “collage” is being dragged through the proverbial mud. Other experimental practices have been implicated, too – homage, misquotation, mistranslation, and more.


…..  it would be a great shame if, in our rush to lynch a couple of plagiarists and their misguided ideas of “patchwork”, “sampling” and “remixing”, we forget to remember why poetry needs experimentation.

Looking around it seems that plagiarism has been a concern in poetry for a while. See this excellent article by Kenneth Goldsmith in The Chronicle Review back in 2011 –

It’s Not Plagiarism. In the Digital Age, It’s ‘Repurposing’.

It seems that the boundaries between plagiarism and repurposing, what is creativity and what is not, remain very blurred and a bit of a minefield. Did Tzara plagiarise the newspaper article he cut up? At what point does repurposing end and plagiarism begin?

Interestingly, plagiarism has been made much of in ModPo, although, if I remember correctly, the word was not used in discussion of Tristan Tzara’s instructions on how to make a Dadaist poem.

I wonder  – how many poets license their poetry under Creative Commons?  Of course for this to work, poets would need to publish in the open. Perhaps its ‘openness’ and all that entails that is the problem, rather than plagiarism.

Update 28-01-14

See also this video – Embrace the Remix

Power and control in ModPo

I am now, 3 weeks into ModPo, very aware of the differences between the original cMOOCs (e.g. CCK08 – the very first MOOC run by Stephen Downes and George Siemens) and xMOOCs – and I think it relates to this slide that Stephen Downes recently talked us through at the ALT-C Conference

SD ALT-C slideshareWhat are cultures of Learning – http://www.slideshare.net/Downes/2013-09-12-altc

xMOOCs might be either A) Centralised or B) Decentralised but they are not C) Distributed, i.e. not in the same sense that CCK08 and subsequent MOOCs such as Change 11, run by Downes and Siemens, were.  Although xMOOCs such as ModPo do have a Twitter stream and a Facebook group, they do not encourage people to find and create their own discussion groups in locations of their choice, as the original cMOOCs did.

ModPo for me is very centralized – with the centre being Al Filreis and to a certain extent his TAs. No Al Filreis – no ModPo. He is the ‘sage on the stage’. And it seems to be working well for most people. Al is charismatic. There are hundreds of discussion threads and Al Filreis and his team of TAs are very visible in there. They must be exhausted.

I am loving the poetry in ModPo – all new to me – and the video discussions which model and demonstrate how to close read these poems are very engaging. Even within one week I felt I had learned a lot, not least that some poets resonate and others do not.

But, despite this, there are elements of ModPo that I find disturbing and they are mostly to do with the assessment process, which on a professional level (as an educator) have concerned me.

I have already mentioned in a previous post  that I can’t see any value in having to post to discussion forums as an assessment requirement. Now there are three other points related to assessment that I find troubling.

1. The assessment criteria (peer review instructions) were not posted before people submitted their assignments and this does make a difference – because, for example, the reviewers were asked to judge whether assignment writers had understood Emily Dickinson’s use of dashes in her poetry. Whilst dashes were discussed at length in the videos, they were not mentioned in the assignment writing guidance. Participants/students should always know the criteria they are being assessed against.

2. The fact that all the assignments, once they have received one peer review, are automatically posted to one of the Coursera forums, i.e. all the 30 000 participants can see the submitted assignment if they have the time and energy to wade through the 75 (at the last count) that have automatically been posted.

Assignment writers were not asked whether they would be willing for this to happen.  In an Announcement to the class they were told that “This enables everyone to participate, at least a little bit, in the reading and reviewing of essays” – but frankly all it does it load even more discussion threads to the forums, which are already overloaded and – more significantly – takes the control and ownership of the assignment and learning process out of the hands of the learner more than is necessary.

For me a successful adult learning process relies on learners having as much autonomy as possible (another principle from the early cMOOCs, but also one backed up by research into adult learning). All it needed was consent from the assignment writer.

3. The third point is the worst. A participant has been publicly named and shamed for plagiarism in the assignment submission forum mentioned above. Her assignment was automatically posted as explained – so she had no choice over the matter. The reviewer had not noticed the plagiarism (a section copied from Wikipedia) – but to the title of her post has been added (Note from Al: this essay has been plagiarized).  At the beginning of the course there was a stern warning in the initial announcement about plagiarism – although I can’t find it now – and participants submitting assignments are asked to tick a box saying that the work is their own.

It could be argued that public naming and shaming of a participant serves as a warning to all other participants – but I think it is cruel and ultimately destructive. I know from experience that foreign students often have difficulty understanding what plagiarism means and as far as I can see there is no advice on the site about citing sources. However you look at it, I don’t believe a student should ever be publicly named and shamed. She should have been contacted privately by email. That would have been enough – especially since she may not get the certificate anyhow, since she hasn’t made any discussion forum posts. Did anyone bother to check?

These exhibitions of power, control and centralization are a long way off the original conception of MOOCs.