Collective Autoethnography

I should have mentioned that the previous post, A few reflections on rhizo14 is a contribution to the Collective Autoethnography on rhizo14, which you can find at It is also posted there.


A few reflections on rhizo14

Late on, I realized most were construing rhizo14 as a MOOC. I hadn’t characterised it that way, and I am still not sure how useful it is to think of this as a MOOC, as it drives the conversation in directions that smell of rust and must. Of course it ostensibly complies with the definition…whole bunch of people (probably more than the Dunbar limit, so subjectively massive), online, sort of “coursey”… and there was the usual wilful dispersion of the conversation that cMOOCs seem to espouse, to which I contributed enthusiastically by focusing on Twitter and the occasional blog, and staying away from Facebook as I would Mordor… but all that mattered was that it was open, in all the ways it needed to be. Thus far the MOOC distraction.

I joined out of curiosity, aware as usual that, due to other commitments, I would miss some chats, come in late to others, and fail to respond to anything on time. I was interested in the notion of the rhizome, as a metaphor worth exploring. I got to explore it. I had the sense that despite the common thread of Dave Cormier’s questions, which were stimulating catalysts, most participants were fairly focused on their own rabbit holes, and we congregated in fairly close groups of common interest. This was my case, and while I found old and new online friends in the process, with whom we are slowly chasing new and old rabbits, what I found most interesting is that many of the conversations I participated in a as a result of rhizo14 were not online, and not with participants. I took issues that arose and discussed them elsewhere. The online storm of tweets turned into soft, solid conversations in RT. This gave rise to a lot of fruitful reflection about the nature of online interaction and what it really affords. Interestingly the most exciting avenue of collaboration that arises out of this involves someone I have not met in RT, yet, but the nature of our exploration has to do with the limits of the possibilities of online discourse, contrasted with the potentials of dialogue in RT contexts. This is not a simple online/ offline dichotomy, more an exploration of what is feasible in each and/or both contexts. We would never have met offline, but the online conversation, at least on social networking platforms, appears to reach a limit.

I have spent some time working around informal and self-directed learning, and the notion of the rhizome metaphor has always seemed to me as an interesting “via negativa”, in the sense that, though it does not on close examination quite hold together, it does help us get closer to what learning may be. I found the conversations in this process, on Twitter and on blogs in my case, to be useful in exploring its nature and potentials.

The idea of inclusion or exclusion in a community seems to me to be irrelevant. Community is a construct we use to frame our conversations, and comprehend them. In this sense it is useful, but when we start to label that, and create our cosy echo chambers, we start to lose the potential, the only really rich potential of these experiences, which is the value of cross-fertilization. The rhizome metaphor focuses on continuous exploration, though particular patches of nutrients may help the organism to send up temporary flowers. And we may wish to cultivate these. In rhizo14 we were free to do so. The rhizome may in fact be a “legitimate peripheral participant”J

The notion of success, against this background, falls away, except in the sense that the experience furthers the journey. Yes, I learned new things, I met new people, I found new rabbits to chase. But the idea of success implies a stop, to reify the process. If I need to reify the experience, or get it certified, I can do so, and the generation of this text is a case in point, but for me rhizo14 was a participatory journey. Not a place but a movement. And the criterion for success may be only that this movement continues.

Dave Cormier described the course at one point as a beacon, an attractor. I think he got that right, and many, many thanks to him for creating that. We came together, or crossed paths, each in our trajectory, and new fires developed, and around them conversations. Now we move on…

Marram grass

The elusiveness of the term community, or perhaps the jaded quality of the word raises the challenge of mapping “community” in any useful sense. The idea of community as curriculum could be understood as essentially getting rid of the concept of curriculum and working with the “community” at hand. This is a useful approach that I have found works well with demotivated learners, and though I have not participated UMW’s ds106 course seems to work in a similar direction very successfully.

If however curriculum is still a useful notion, and we wish to frame community as curriculum, then we need to further discuss what community involves. In a previous post I mentioned some of the elements that may form part of it, but left out perhaps the most important one, perhaps because it is so obvious, interaction. Communities involve interactions between individuals and groups of individuals and indeed with other communities through networks. When these interactions are rich, conversations emerge, and when these conversations are rich, when they go beyond serial monologue, dialogue can be developed (in the sense used for example by Freire, Böhm or Buber). This kind of interaction, though hard to achieve, could perhaps go some way toward revealing and contesting the power relations that Mariana Funes refers to. It is also perhaps what we should be looking for, at that campfire in the dunes, as a way of focusing and mapping our learning. I believe marram grass is a rhizome J

In this sense, it may be that instead of community as curriculum, we might explore the notion of the conversation as curriculum.

Community as curriculum

Like so many terms around online learning, the word “community” has become slippery with overuse. It has been sequestered, reinterpreted, mixed, matched etc. until it is hard to know what is understood when the word is used. It is probably something to do with groups of people in a shared space, or domain, maybe with shared interests, maybe a shared history, maybe even a shared discourse, but tying it down is harder. The edges seem to be loose, and it might be ok to be on the edges. Mostly though it’s just warm fuzz, a kind of happy “social” word, and statistically the use of the word probably has more to do these days with your purchasing habits than any of these other factors. Certainly some way from the literature on communities from the 90’s (Wenger etc). This preamble just to clarify the lack of clarity.

So, when we say the community is the curriculum, what might we be getting at. There are two kinds of communities that might be referred to here. One could be a cousin of the “community of practice”, the people who are active in a specific domain, who walk its walk and talk its talk, they might be described as the experts in the domain. In some senses the “prescribed” or official curriculum has always tended to be presented as based on what is seen as relevant in the domain it purports to refer to. The number of layers in that sentence may make it clear that there are many ways in which curricula fail to actually match the realities they are supposed to relate to, but I will leave that for a possible later post

The other community we might speak of is the “learning community” or perhaps more accurately the “community of learners”. In any given domain this relates to the correspondent community of practice insofar as the objective for a good part of the learners is to become in some way participants in that community of practice. They want be able to “walk the walk and talk the talk”. It can be argued that by virtue of their interest, they are already legitimate peripheral participants in the community, and that the progress of their learning can be viewed as progress into the community.

The problem is that the learner community and the community of practice are very different in terms of what they know, what they know how to do, and how they talk about it, – if these can be separated. They also tend to be active in very different contexts, the locus of learning is often far removed from the locus of practice. In defining curriculum, which of the two notions of community should be given greater emphasis? This leads right back to what appears to be a recurring theme in #rhizo14; the way power relations play out in learning.

A further issue around curriculum is the issue of which curriculum we are focussing on. Is it the official curriculum as handed down from the “powers that be”, ministries agencies etc.? Is it the institutional curriculum, the interpretation by educational institutions of official curricula through their scheduling, staffing, resourcing, assessment and other decisions? Or the enacted curriculum, what actually goes on in the learning “space”? There are other curricula, such as hidden curricula, and learner curricula.

I get the sense, from the tenor of the issues raised so far in #rhizo14, that the statement is perhaps intended to mean that there should be no curriculum that is separate from the needs, interests, and focus of the community. The community (once we have decided what it is) should set the agenda. This is helpful if we are aiming to question the need for a received curriculum devised without reference to the community, or perhaps especially the learner community. However, beyond that it seems to me that the notion of community as curriculum becomes less useful. Any curriculum is in a sense a kind of map. It may be more or less effective as a map, but maps are necessary for orientation. We need to pay attention to who creates the map and how it is understood – power again – but the map cannot be the territory or it becomes redundant. If the aim of learning is to be able to participate actively in a community, then the community itself cannot be the curriculum.