Saturday, February 9, 2013

Why Rhizomatic Learning? #etmooc

Okay, so I enjoyed the conversation about rhizomatic education over at Christina Hendricks' blog, You're the Teacher. In the conversation, I'm definitely championing rhizomatic, connectivist education, but why? I've been writing about this for a couple of years now, but can I state my point of view succinctly and reasonably clearly? Well, I can try.

Learning is a network phenomenon.

That's rather succinct, and owes deep apologies to neuroscientist Olaf Sporns, but I can say it with a bit more texture: learning is a function of our complex interactions across multi-scale physical, cognitive, technological, and social networks. For me, this is the DNA of a connectivist and rhizomatic view of learning, and everything else I say about learning will follow from this core idea. At least, I hope so.

But can I defend my claim that learning is a network phenomenon? I think so, but in some ways, starting points always carry with them assumptions that one either accepts or doesn't, and they carry assumptions that the believer is quite often unaware of. I think my use of networks falls into this category. However, I can point to some reasons why I use the concept.

Networks provide me a most useful model of how the Universe/Reality/Everything works, including learning. Of course, as soon as I say that, I am reminded of George E. P. Box's famous dictum that "essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful" (Empirical Model-Building and Response Surfaces, 1987). I am convinced that, despite how right network thinking feels to me, eventually people will come to see the faults with the network metaphor just as we are coming to see the faults with the mechanistic clockwork metaphor that we inherited from Galileo, Newton, and Descartes. As Edgar Morin has pointed out in his book On Complexity (2008), the mechanistic, clockwork model of reality and the science and technology built upon it has been spectacularly successful, but over the past century, cracks have begun to appear as we have come to see more of Reality, especially at the macro and micro levels. As we peer into our scopes, bits of reality emerge that no longer fit the clockwork model. Reality is stubborn, so we change our model. But slowly, sometimes too slowly.

The model that appears to be replacing the mechanistic clockwork model is networking. Of course, not everyone uses that term. Edgar Morin speaks of systems, especially complex systems. In his book Interaction Ritual Chains (2005), Randall Collins defines the core sociological unit not an individual but the situation, a dynamic nexus of intersecting vectors which to my mind requires a network structure. James Lovelock calls it Gaia, the movies call it The Matrix. All of these sources have valid reasons for using the term that they do, but to my mind, networking (and here I'm using the verbal form intentionally to capture the complex dynamics in my concept) is the most convenient and natural-feeling term. I spent many years of my professional life building campus networks and connecting students, faculty, and staff to the Internet, so it just works for me; however, I also frequently use the term rhizomatics or rhizomics to play off Deleuze and Guattari's concept of the rhizome (A Thousand Plateaus, 1988), a more free-form, complex, dynamic, and inclusive form of networking that reveals some properties that I find particularly useful and fun.

So the networking model in all its various iterations and apellations appears to be the emerging model of how things work. I like Olaf Sporns' comments about this in his book Networks of the Brain (2011), so I'll end this post with a long quote that has a decidedly scientific bias that I think will inform our thinking in the humanities:
Over the last decade, the study of complex networks has dramatically expanded across diverse scientific fields, ranging from the social sciences to physics and biology. This expansion reflects modern trends and currents that have changed the way scientific questions are formulated and research is carried out. Increasingly, science is concerned with the structure, behavior, and evolution of complex systems such as cells, brains, ecosystems, societies, or the global economy. To understand these systems, we require not only knowledge of elementary system components but also knowledge of the ways in which these components interact and the emergent properties of their interactions. (1)


  1. I agree that learning works through connections--I have read and watched (videos) a bit about the connectivism idea, and am convinced that even reading texts and listening to lectures is a way of learning from connections. The learning we do throughout our lives depends on the connections we have to other people.

    I wonder, though, (and sorry if you've addressed this elsewhere--I haven't yet explored much of your blog!) if there is a difference between networks and rhizomes. I don't know all that much about rhizomes yet, but one thing that strikes me is that there isn't any sort of centre or hierarchy. That may or may not be the case in a network, I think. There could still be a centre with connections going outwards from it.

    So, just curious if you've written about differences between networks and rhizomes?

  2. For me, the rhizome of Deleuze and Guattari is a grand frame or conceptual metaphor (see Lakoff) for how Reality works. I also think that Reality actualizes itself through network structures. Thus, the Deleuzional rhizome and networks resonate with each other, and I first encountered the rhizome four years ago in articles about networks and the Internet, especially about how the Internet is rhizomatic.

    At first, I pretty much thought of rhizomes as sort of a less regular, less regulated network structure, but I think my views are shifting. As I read more into complexity theory and Nicolescu's concept of the included middle, then I see that the rhizome includes both the potential of Reality as well as the actualized. I'm coming to use the term network to mean the actualized, expressed aspects of Reality, while reserving the rhizome to mean both the actualized and the potential.

    I'm not really ready to write about this yet, but the image in my head has something to do with the quantum physics notion of dark matter (potentially something) and matter (actually something). I'm seeing the smooth, undifferentiated spaces of the rhizomes (you'll have to read Deleuze and Guattari for this) as something like dark matter and the territorializations of the rhizomes as expressed matter.

    The point I want to make, then, is that I'm coming to see the rhizome as inclusive of networks and more. Or to say it another way, rhizomes are the field within which networks express themselves, much as dark matter is the field within which matter—galaxies, stars, planets, and people—express themselves.

    This is not much of an answer, but in part Deleuze and Guattari are to blame. They presented us with a concept and then apologized for even trying to define it. Lots of people would say that they didn't define it, even then.

  3. Really helpful, in-depth comment! Since I know next to nothing about dark matter, though, I'll have to take your word for it that it is something like a potentiality of matter.

    I think I understand your overall point, though. Still, why do we need an idea such as rhizomes for potential "reality"? What does that help us do?

    I do need to read Deleuze and Guattari on this. It's just so darn slow and sluggish reading, even for a philosopher like me.

    Even if Deleuze & Guattari didn't define it, that still leaves the rest of us open to do so. Still, we need to come to some general understanding to make sure we're talking about the same thing when we talk about rhizomes. I suppose that's what the web discussions on blogs & elsewhere are doing.

    The little I know of Dave Cormier's idea of rhizomes suggests they are more "actualized" than potential, but that they are constantly changing nevertheless.

    Love the "Deleuzional" wording, by the way!

  4. Ahh, please don't take my word for the dark matter comment. I'm way over my head, and I still have much reading to do in fields that I avoided as a college student (I'm an English major). I was trying to get at D&G's characterization of some aspects of the rhizome as smooth and undifferentiated (a body without organs), which I take to mean potential for expression and differentiation. I may be abusing both their idea of smoothness and the idea of dark matter.

    That said, I am coming to see the rhizome as inclusive of networks; however, I think most people approach the rhizome through its expression as a network—in large part because the Internet looms so large in our consciousness.

  5. Also, read Dave Cormier's blog and work, as he is doing much to actualize rhizomatic thinking. His latest post tries to define rhizomatic learning in 300 words. You might also consider joining his Mendeley group to collect information about rhizomatic learning.