Thursday, February 26, 2015


'Submission' was the word which came to my mind on reading Frances Bell's and Jenny Mackness's article on Rhizo 14 entitled "Rhizo14: A Rhizomatic Learning cMOOC in Sunlight and Shade."

It is not as if I am unfamiliar with academic writing, I have myself been known to dabble in it. It is just when talking about "Rhizo 14" it seemed to me a strangely incongruous lense.  I can not speak for anybody else.

Even before reading the article, I was mesmerised by the format of the artefact: the tidy text, the journal referencing, the journal logo, the scientific enrobing of the reflection, the distancing language used, the authors' names at the top of the page with their titles in italics, the lack of animations, movement, sound...

Objective reached: objectivity it conjured.

It reminded me of seeing fellow scruffy students trussed up in academic robes for graduation day holding a scroll for the photos.

All those mis-spent hours swigging bottled German lager in a Manchester pub and scoffing pork-scratching. Such life was with one fell click wiped from the record.

No, there is no doubt about it, this was an 'official face' of Rhizo 14.

The semiotics shrieked authority.

We can be serious now.

Submission, I thought, bondage, I imagined, an expression of power, I noted.

I thought of my own feelings concerning academic writing.

I remembered the time spent attempting to fit my reflection to a journal's requirements.

I thought of ticking boxes:

Times Roman ? done
Number of words? counted
References? checked.
Deadline? noted

I paused for a moment.

I went off to New York, I came back.

I definitely want to write about this.

I think back to Rhizo 14, to what extent could such an object illustrate my personal experience, I wondered?

[Of course, I know, I am being silly, that is not its point. I am subsumed in the data.]

I have decided that the answer to this question, as far as I am concerned,  is that it can not.

I look back at blog posts that I have written over the past year, many have been concerned with the question of framing life.

I have struggled with kaleidoscopic complexity, chaos, fragmentation of identity, the limits of language.

How might we fairly represent the messiness of learning?

In whose interests do we reduce such mess into order?

I remember looking up at distant galaxies in a planetarium in New York.

There are words of the commentary which struck a chord for me.

"Wherever you may be in the universe, you will have the impression that you are at the centre of it."

I think of the process of research of dealing with qualitative data.

I think of our determination to seek for legible patterns, to find our bearings in this mess.

I think of our imagined communities, our imagined membership to social groups.

We call out in the wilderness:

"Please give me a sign." "Please give me a form, a place, in a scheme of things."

I return to reading the article.

"We compare the surface view of the MOOC that has been presented in a range of open blog posts and articles with the view from beneath the surface that we have found in data we have collected (some anonymously)"

I wonder what might be my 'surface view' and my 'beneath the surface view' of Rhizo 14.

Of course, being me, I have the impression that I am at the centre of my universe.

I wonder how useful an outside view of my behaviour in and around Rhizo 14 would be to me and my learning?

I hesitate a moment.

In whose interests do we reduce this mess to order?

I return to reading the article.

"Our analysis reveals a positive, even transformative, experience for many participants on the one hand, but some more negative experiences and outcomes for other participants."

I would suspect  that a mixture of positive and negative experiences is par for the course of life.

I return to reading the article.

We are presented with two sides of participant experiences, we have conveniently, 'a dark' and 'a light side' of Rhizo 14:

"There were plenty of learning moments and evidence of joy and creativity, but we also experienced and observed some tensions, clashes and painful interactions, where participants seemed to expect different things from the course and were sometimes disappointed by the actions and behaviours of other participants."

On reading this, it appears that the positive and negative our equally weighted, until we look at the space given to the negative experiences in the quote:

"There were plenty of learning moments and evidence of joy and creativity, but we also experienced and observed some tensions, clashes and painful interactions, where participants seemed to expect different things from the course and were sometimes disappointed by the actions and behaviours of other participants."

Does the above text represent the time spent by participants in joyful creation and the time spent in painful interaction?

Does the text represent the level of pain and tension which resulted from joyful creation?

Pff, whatever, this is being 'objective'. I am being subjective.

I have no answers.

I return to reading the article.

"We therefore initiated a carefully thought through but emergent research process and collected data that, though limited to participants we could find and engage, shows a more complex picture of Rhizo14 than the view presented publicly to date." 

I am not at all sure that 'scientific article' format illustrates the nature of complexity adequately, certainly not mine.

I have presented my view publicly over a series of blog posts of which this is one.

A phrase from the article containing the terms: "dominant and alternative views" stops me in my tracks, my curiosity is aroused.

What views are labelled 'dominant' and what views are labelled 'alternative'?

I bate my breath.

I return to reading the article.

I learn that Dave Cormier in setting up 'pedagogical experimentation' is experimenting on me.

This idea sends shivers down my spine...

"begin to consider the ethical implications of experimenting on MOOC learners"

OMG! Dave Cormier 'experimenting' on me? I find this mildly hilarious.

I return to reading the article.

 "We acknowledge the danger of reduced objectivity and have taken measures to counteract it." 

Hmm, I am suddenly overrun by images of dangerous temptation and painful flagellation, 'Get thee back Satan.'

Maybe we should be looking to 'enhance subjectivity' I write, not really knowing what that might mean.

I shall look at it later.

I return to reading the article.

I am struck by colour.

I am struck by the use of the word 'organic'.

I suddenly have images of a corpse on an African savannah. There is a whole series of creatures involved in this ecosystem moment: hunters, carrion birds, hyenas, bacteria, BBC wildlife cameramen, David Attenborough.

I suppose this is how I feel about Rhizo 14, there is a swirling, mutating complexity of interaction, of creatures operating at different levels, looking for different things in their ecological niche.

I suddenly feel like I am looking at myself, my action here through the eyes of another species.

“It seems to me that the natural world is the greatest source of excitement; the greatest source of visual beauty; the greatest source of intellectual interest. It is the greatest source of so much in life that makes life worth living.” 

― David Attenborough

Suddenly, I find myself quoting a BBC naturalist.  

I think of dominant species, big cats ripping the flesh off antelopes. 

Are they aware of their savagery?

I return to reading the article.

"Given that many MOOCs, particularly cMOOCs, could be regarded as pedagogical experiments, i.e. trying out new approaches on participants, then ethical behaviours in relation to teaching and learning within MOOCs and consideration of ethics in MOOC related research must be part of a rigorous methodological and theoretical approach. With academic freedom comes responsibility (Marshall, 2014). This responsibility relates to both the collection of data from learners (Prinsloo & Slade, 2014) and the tension between innovation/ experimentation and a basic teaching and research principle of “do no harm.” The vulnerability of learners must be recognized by both teachers and researchers (Markham & Buchanan, 2012; Barnett, 2007)." 

Hmm, does nature require a 'rigorous methodological and theoretical approach'?

Do lions bother themselves with ethics?

In whose interests do we reduce this mess to order?

I am intrigued at my vulnerability as a learner.

Who are learners? Who are teachers? Who are researchers? Who are writers? Who am I?

Do lions bother themselves with ethics?

I return to reading the article.

"With respect to learner experiences, Gašević et al. (2014) have highlighted the importance of socialisation in MOOCs."

I am reassured. Maybe we can admit to the pork-scratchings with 'academic freedom'.

"course facilitators should design courses that support a diversity of learners"

Well, you never know who may turn up on the savannah.

A diversity of learners may well lead to tensions and antelope ripping.

I am beginning to think that 'The community as curriculum' is a hopeless simplification of rhizomatic learning.

It is a mess with lions, hyenas, bacteria, and all  and sundry running around in an open ecosystem.

I exaggerate here to make a point.

I return to reading the article.

"Downes (2007) was clear about the difference between groups and networks and why the principles of connectivism were the principles of learning in networks. More recently, in a comment on Tony Bates’ blog, Stephen Downes has written: “the two play different roles: the communities embed knowledge and standardize practice, while the MOOCs disrupt existing patterns of thinking and introduce people to new connections and new ideas” 

I have the impression here that we are at the nub of the tension found in Rhizo 14, emerging communities, confronting pre-existing communities, with open networked disruption to existing patterns of thinking.

I shall think more about that. Whose community do I belong in?

Don't answer that.

Differing species look for different attractors and group in different ways at different times.

I suspect that the fixed format of graphic representation of 'community' grouping does not illustrate the complex dynamic movement of individuals within a ever moving social universe.

I make a note here of the importance to find a dynamic way to illustrate this.

I have the impression that it is rather like looking at stuffed animals or standing on the savannah with David Attenborough.

"If MOOCs are thought of as communities, how do educators position themselves in these learning environments?"

No, I react against this.

MOOCs may but most probably should not be thought of as 'communities' and certainly not as a single 'community.'

"But Ross et al. (2014) point out that what it means to teach and learn is as much a mystery as it ever was, never mind in a MOOC and measuring success in a MOOC remains an elusive endeavour. “There is more complexity and variation in the notion of the teacher than MOOC debates and literature have yet engaged with” 

This is interesting. Isn't this just the problem of dominant views of conducting research into 'learning'?  Can the 'literature' hope to reflect the complexity? Is that its role? Or is the literature there to stuff the learning?

In whose interests do we reduce this mess to order?

I reflect on Rhizo 14.

I consider myself fortunate to have accepted an invitation to converse about the nature of learning and knowledge.

I fail to see how much soul searching anyone should do when they set out to:

 “invite a bunch of people to a conversation about my work to see if they could help me make it better” 

I have been to many parties which turned out to be pretty boring but I wouldn't suggest that the party-convenor was responsible.

I am absolutely convinced that Dave Cormier's invitation was only seen by and very small number of people who chose to turn up.

Some stayed around, some danced, some had deep meaningful conversations into the early hours, some were interested in doing studies on the party, others buzzed off to other priorities after a quick drink.

Some got into arguments about dress-code...

I shall remember to think of writing about some Manchester student parties.

It will be entitled 'Student parties: In Sunlight and Shade."  (sorry this is in jest, please forgive me)

I return to the article.

"The Rhizo14 MOOC was an experiment, an experiment which for some participants was very successful."

No it wasn't.

It was a bunch of people who were invited to a party to converse about Rhizomatic Learning.

"It was innovative and challenged hierarchical and traditional ways of teaching and learning."

No it wasn't.

It was a bunch of interesting people who got together, enriched my life and my conversation and enabled me to learn absolutely naturally, like how I do all the time...even at parties.

"There is a pedagogy of risk associated with treating teaching as an experiment."


Having a conversation with a bunch of people is hardly a 'pedagogy of risk' or 'teaching as an experiment."

It's a.... conversation.

I am reassured that researchers, on my behalf, will be investigating further this 'pedagogy of risk'.


I am only too aware of the peril that I have run over the past year in accepting an invitation to a... conversation.

"At this stage in our research, we can identify that adult learners, already immersed in formal education systems, can benefit from “doing” Rhizomatic Learning, forming community, and creating curriculum in a community setting."

At this stage in my reflection, I can identify that people are interested in different stuff, those immersed in formal education systems may well benefit from learning freely in the company of others that they may identify with, those feeling themselves labby-rats can benefit from doing research for themselves and sharing evidence of the complexity of their learning with others different from them in the form and format that seems appropriate to them.

Their voices, however will probably sadly not be heard by those who concentrate exclusively on   submissions to  academic journals.

I shall defend my singularity.

Read a year's production of blogs here should you dare.

I can speak for noone else.

I am not sure if I be man or beast.

I am surely not an antelope.

Thank you Dave Cormier.

Thank you Frances Bell.

Thank you Jenny Mackness.

I enjoy your company.

Thank you all.

You make for a great party.

A pork-scratching anyone?

Sorry for being a bit scruffy, I hate formal wear.


  1. By damn, Simon, this is the best thing written yet about #rhizo14. I think our Untext comes in second. I really like this and will read it several more times, with more comments. Well done, my friend.

    1. I must have found a niche. Some people love pork-scratchings. Funny old world.

      Thanks for your comment Keith. I just play it as it comes, as I feel it, as I see it, as I smell it.

  2. It might possibly be one of the best things I have read EVER, and will cite for years to come. Genius critique

  3. I love pork scratchings, "kaantjes" in Dutch. Tasty, salty, little bite to it. Great with cabbage and potatoes ! :-)

    I compare Rhizo14 to a "potluck".
    We all bring something of our own made food, and we all share our food and recipes, we all taste from food brought by others if we want to.

    If some researcher wants to research that, that's Okay with me.
    It has nothing to do with being experimented upon IMHO though.