Thursday, November 29, 2012

Thinking Like Grass

Like most everyone else for the past six months, I've been thinking about MOOCs (note that on Susan Bainbridge's current Connectivism Scoop page, easily half of the scooped articles are about MOOCs (2nd note: if you are at all interested in Connectivism and MOOCs, then you should follow Susan's Scoop. It's invaluable, and I deeply appreciate her work.)). I've introduced a good friend of mine to MOOCs and Connectivism, and he read the things I sent him. He was interested in the concept, but he had two immediate concerns about MOOCs:
  • Social sharing can legitimize any kind of knowledge, like racism, sexism, imperialism. Without an ethical standard, knowledge is free to kill as well as to cure. (Which is not to say that traditional education is ethical—I don’t think it is. But there are other options.)
  • And the second is the danger of elitism. I don’t see my students getting very far in their rhizomatic education. (Which is not to say that they will get very far in traditional education either.) I guess I would call this feature the “appearance of democratic education.”
He concluded by asking if I have read "Morris' News from Nowhere—a late 19th-century British utopian novel" in which the citizens "have no theory of education at all, and no specific practices either." I have not read the novel, but I will—after all, turnabout is fair play, but I want to respond to Dan's concerns.

First, I have not thought much about the ethical aspects of Connectivism and MOOCs, nor have I read much about ethics from anyone else in the connectivist discussion, but I think Connectivism and cMOOCs have an ethical perspective built into the first O in MOOC: Open. MOOCs are open in any number of ways, but especially in terms of network connectivity. Anyone is free to connect to and engage a MOOC, and they will do so IF they perceive value in the connection. No one has to connect, and in fact, most of the people who sign-up for a MOOC do not engage the MOOC in any degree that might be significant to an observer—say a college administrator looking for the ROI. This should not bee sting as a bad thing. Rather, it should be seen as bee efficiency. Apparently, when bees want to move their hive, the scout bees fan out in all directions. Most of them find nothing, but a few find something, and through their connections, they channel the other bees into these promising pathways until finally the way to a new hive emerges. What starts as chaos (MOOCers will be familiar with this sense of early chaos in a MOOC) turns out to be a highly efficient way to create new meaning for the hive. Still, it's highly wasteful, like most MOOCs. Fortunately, the cost of each connection to a MOOC is almost nil, so the waste is functionally irrelevant. But the waste identifies quite efficiently those students who are in some way ripe for learning whatever emerges from the MOOC. Those who are not ripe simply fade away with little to no damage to the MOOC. I like this bee efficiency.

This openness to connectivity is an aspect of network dynamics, I think, and it has to do with a shift in the way value is created in a network as opposed to a hierarchical structure. In a hierarchy, one's relative value is measured by the number of people under one and subject to one. In a network, one's relative value is measured by the number of people willing to connect to one. This is an obvious oversimplification, but it points to a seriously different dynamic in the relationships among people in a functional group. The relationships in hierarchical groups are based more on power, benevolent or otherwise, while the relationships in network groups are based more on mutual attraction. Engagement or not is up to the agent, and this is a powerful kind of agency.

This radical shift in agency demands an equally radical shift in ethics. It seems to me that ethics for the past few hundred years has been based on the need to manage exchanges across discrete boundaries. In other words, reductionist thought makes each of us a position within a hierarchy—a "cog in something turning" as Joni Mitchell put it—with quite distinct boundaries between positions, or agents, and agency has been defined in terms of who gets to tell whom what to do and how to think and how to reward and punish those exchanges. This kind of ethics, this Lockean social contract, does not work if, as a node in a network, you have no fixed position, if you are free to engage or disengage connections, and if the connections depend on mutual attraction, as they do in MOOCs. We need an ethics of complex, multi-scale networks, which is partly how I define a MOOC. Perhaps such an ethics exists, but I don't know about it (any philosopher out there willing to enlighten me. I'm a fairly quick read.)

So I revise what I said earlier about connectivism having a built-in ethics. It doesn't. Rather, it seems to me that the openness of connectivism and its MOOCs calls for a new ethics based on a rethinking of agents, their boundaries, and their exchange processes. The ethics that works for an agent occupying a position in a reductionist hierarchy will not work for an agent acting as a node in a dynamic, complex, multi-scale network. The networked, connectivist agent needs a new ethics that guides the dynamic choices that help identify useful connections and cultivate those connections and eventually close some of those connections. To put this in MOOC terms, MOOCers need a new ethics that guides their choices about which MOOCs to engage, which agents and content within the MOOC to engage, and how to engage: how to both give and take value within their networks. Actually, I think give and take are the wrong terms, too strongly tied to the reductionist, hierarchical ethics with its exchanges across discrete boundaries. We need an ethics that helps us become value within a network, increasing the value of the network to the benefit of the entire network. I suspect, then, that ecological movements may be working out the details of the kinds of ethics that I'm looking for. I'll have to check into that.

This leads me to Dan's comments about elitism and that he doesn't see his "students getting very far in their rhizomatic education." If he means that, unlike elite students, most college students lack the internal motivation and skills to engage an open network of inquiry and discussion, such as cMOOCs, then he's probably correct. Aside from the graduate courses at elite universities, too much of our education is an exercise in what Deleuze and Guattari (A Thousand Plateaus, 1987) call tracing, a careful, meticulous repetition of patterns and truths already laid out for us in a curriculum and watched over by proctors keen on sameness and competence. Open cMOOCs call for mapping, or a process of "active construction based on flexible and functional experimentation, requiring and capitalizing on feedback" (Cheun-Ferng Koh, 1997). Thus, our students have learned to trace well, but they see no advantage in going outside the line, in mapping new territory for themselves or others. The last thing a successful student wants to do on a test is to tell the teacher something that she doesn't already know. That is largely and by default defined as failure. Tracing well does not prepare one for success in a MOOC. Actually, that skill frustrates both the MOOC and the student.

If, on the other hand, Dan means that in the open network of a MOOC a few students will attain more status and value than most others, then he is also correct. The power laws of scale-free networks express the strong probability that some nodes will be more well connected than most other nodes. This happens in every MOOC that I have engaged. Often, the teacher or weekly leader in a MOOC is a highly connected node, but I suspect that this is in some part residue from traditional education, in which the teacher is the ONLY well-connected node in the hierarchy (too often connections among students—talking—are censured and censored). In the best MOOCs, sub-networks develop as students connect to each other in their engagement of a mutually interesting and enriching discussion. MOOCs encourage this kind of networking within the network, and often enough, one or two nodes of those sub-networks gain more status, become elite, through more connections from other nodes. I do not see a problem with this, but I do think it is distracting to those students who are looking for the correct content to trace competently rather than for the new content to map usefully.

Finally, like Dan, I wonder if education can do without theory and practice. I think it can, but only if we are thinking of theory and practice as mechanisms for promoting tracing rather than mapping. When many first-time MOOCers move from tracing in the traditional classroom to mapping in a MOOC, then they feel a loss of theory and practice. They are disoriented. The lines drop out from under their feet, and this causes real stress and grief for many, which those students have expressed in blog posts, tweets, and feedback in many of the MOOCs I've engaged. And these are elite students, by the way.

So as with the call for a new ethics, I think MOOCs call for a new theory and practice in education especially, and I'm fairly certain that this new theory and practice will strike many of us as NO theory and practice. I think Deleuze can offer some suggestion here. I read an article by Xiao-Jiu Ling called Thinking like Grass, with Deleuze in Education? (Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies, Vol 7, Num 2, 2009) in which Ling draws so tempting implications from Deleuzianal thought:
Then, what could Deleuze mean to the field of Education? My first temptation is to simply boldly borrow his phrase above and to propose thus: There is no need for education: it is necessarily produced where each activity gives rise to its line of deterritorialization. To get out of education, to do never mind what so as to be able to produce it from outside! [italics in the original] Perhaps, it is indeed a Deleuzian repetition that we can aim for in education, a kind of repetition that is a transgression, in which its possibility hinges on opposing as much to moral (nomos) law as to natural (physis) law (DR, p. 2-3). By working in opposition to the order of the always already-existing laws, in the spirit of parrhēsia prefigured by Diogenes the Cynic, Deleuze is proposing new possibilities of working in the direction of creating artistic realities; that is, to treat philosophy itself as an artistic endeavour in its essential nature. And if one is to realize the fundamental role that education plays in forming our frames of thinking, that is, providing existing and always the dominant images of thought of our society in general, the relevance of Deleuze’s analysis and his “anecdotes” of philosophizing is hard to deny. Or, at least we are tempted to make this parallel: that if philosophy can be made fecund with the open-mindedness of an artist, then the work of education can also be made fertile through the exigency of treating it as an artistic engagement, something that not only demands creativity but more importantly a critical consciousness of the ethical dimension that is inherent in education. (43,44)
Well, let's talk about this some more, later.


  1. Hi Keith,
    Your thoughts leave me with more questions than answers . . . which is the essence of a great post!
    Your analogy to bees reminds me of the work of Jon Dron (Dron, J. (2004) Termites in the schoolhouse: stigmergy and transactional distance in an e-learning environment, paper presented to Edmedia 2004 Lugano, Switzerland).
    I wonder if the solution for students who do not find success or pleasure in a cMOOC or Connectivist learning environment, is simply a matter of scaffolding. When I work with students in such learning environments, I find only a small group who are totally 'ready' for it. I show them the tools and off they go. But the vast majority of the group require far more assistance to understand 'who they are', 'where they can go', 'who they can connect with', and 'what questions they can ask'.
    Most of my students do not like 'messy' and chaos is messy. If we probe deeper into their dislike or fear of chaos, it comes straight back to assessment. Until we find a method of assessment for connectivist learning, that satisfies institutions and government boards and gives them answers, they in turn can give the taxpayers or backers, it cannot succeed.
    Wish I had the answers!

  2. Thanks, Susan. I've downloaded Dron's article, and I will read it soon.

    Scaffolding is difficult, esp. for the "A" students who have learned so well the scaffolding for traditional education. Often, these are the most diligent and hard-working of students, and they become very nervous when they don't see the familiar signposts to success. I have great sympathy for their horror at finding themselves lost in what they thought would be familiar territory. MOOCs might do a better job at carving out a space within itself for more traditional learning (a clean, well-lighted space), with guided tours outside into the wilds of the MOOC. But maybe the MOOC leader shouldn't do this—a volunteer, seasoned MOOCer would be better, a peer.

    Then assessment. It might help to think of assessment as part of the scaffolding problem, or vice versa. For me, the biggest issue with current assessment is that it is almost always for the benefit or uses of the assessor, not the assessee, and thus grading becomes an instrument of terror and power. Cheating in such a regime is not only understandable, but likely rational. Traditional assessment also has to do with tracing and competence, checking to see how well a student can follow the established line from point A to whatever point the curriculum specifies, but too often a point that has little connection or relevance to the student. Assessment then should be at least as useful to the student as to the assessor, and it should be able to assess both tracing and mapping, practice as well as performance. I wish I had the magic formula for that. If you find it, please let me know. :-)

    And again, thanks for your marvelous Scoop.