Saturday, February 16, 2013

Why Rhizomatic Learning? Pt. 4 #etmooc

I've already made the connection between rhizomatic thinking and the general shift in science and culture from mechanistic, reductionist thinking to organic, wholistic thinking. It encourages me, then, when I find evidence that people with other interests than my educational concerns are thinking rhizomatically, even if they don't use the term. This past week, I came across a wonderful article called Embracing Emergence: How Collective Impact Addresses Complexity (2013) by John Kania and Mark Kramer, both of whom are consultants to private, public, and charitable organizations. Kania and Kramer use the terms emergence and complexity, but their discussion resonates with rhizomatic thinking for me, and I think what they have to say about the way organizations are beginning to address complex issues is relevant to rhizomatic learning as it addresses complex issues within an educational context.

Their article talks about how to enhance the collective impact of organizations. Collective impact contrasts to individual impact, "the isolated impact of working for change through a single organization versus a highly structured cross-sector coalition." In education, this is called collaboration and cooperation. The collective is a core concept of MOOCs and rhizomatic learning, which see the community as the curriculum. Kania and Kramer recognize up front that collective action among independent actors is problematic:
Collective impact poses many challenges, of course: the difficulty of bringing together people who have never collaborated before, the competition and mistrust among funders and grantees, the struggle of agreeing on shared metrics, the risk of multiple self-anointed backbone organizations, and the perennial obstacles of local politics. We believe, however, that the greatest obstacle to success is that practitioners embark on the collective impact process expecting the wrong kind of solutions. The solutions we have come to expect in the social sector often involve discrete programs that address a social problem through a carefully worked out theory of change, relying on incremental resources from funders, and ideally supported by an evaluation that attributes to the program the impact achieved.
They could, of course, be writing about MOOCs, which often confuse participants who expect "the wrong kind of solutions" and the wrong kind of organization and who can't even find the metrics for learning, much less agree on them or apply them. The solutions expected in the social sector sound a lot like the solutions we expect in education: discrete classes that address a specific subject through a carefully worked out theory of education, relying on incremental resources from the school, and supported and validated by an assessment regime that attributes to the student the learning achieved. In other words, just like the educational sector, the social sector wants to force complex problems into the simple domain with discrete, well-defined problems that can be addressed in well-defined spaces through well-defined heuristics within a well-defined funding cycle by a well-defined entity who will be held totally accountable for the well-defined, predetermined results. As Kania and Kramer say it, "The problem is that such predetermined solutions rarely work under conditions of complexity—conditions that apply to most major social problems—when the unpredictable interactions of multiple players determine the outcomes." That sounds like most of my classes in writing and literature, which are addressing complex issues rather than the merely complicated or simple.

So do Kania and Kramer have any recommendations for a gathering of entities that want to adress an issue, such as a MOOC? They do, and I think these might be helpful for MOOCs. The first major shift in thinking from individual to collective impact, to use their terms, is to let go of the predetermined outcome. As Kania and Kramer say so well:
The process and results of collective impact are emergent rather than predetermined, the necessary resources and innovations often already exist but have not yet been recognized, learning is continuous, and adoption happens simultaneously among many different organizations. In other words, collective impact is not merely a new process that supports the same social sector solutions but an entirely different model of social progress. The power of collective impact lies in the heightened vigilance that comes from multiple organizations looking for resources and innovations through the same lens, the rapid learning that comes from continuous feedback loops, and the immediacy of action that comes from a unified and simultaneous response among all participants.
I think they are describing MOOCs that are working well and that do not tell participants up front what they are supposed to get from the MOOC. Kania and Kramer provide five conditions for a successful collective impact:
  1. Common agenda: all participants have a shared vision for change including a common understanding of the problem and a joint approach to solving it through agreed upon actions.
  2. Shared measurement: Collecting data and measuring results consistently across all participants ensures efforts remain aligned and participants hold each other accountable.
  3. Mutually reinforcing activities: Participant activities must be differentiated while still being coordinated through a mutually reinforcing plan of action.
  4. Continuous communication: Consistent and open communication is needed across the many players to build trust, assure mutual objectives, and create common motivation.
  5. Backbone support: Creating and managing collective impact requires a separate organization(s) with staff and a specific set of skills to serve as the backbone for the entire initiative and coordinate participating organizations and agencies.
All of the successful MOOCs that I have taken, including ETMOOC, meet most of these conditions: a common agenda, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication, and backbone support. The weakest aspect of MOOCs appear to be in shared measurements, but I think the term itself suggests a way forward. Assessment should be a shared activity in which all participants collect relevant data and measure results consistently, or at least transparently. Assessment should not be left to a single, over-arching authority who is independent of, and thus superior to, the learning community. Rather, assessment should be part of a continuous feedback loop that informs the activities of the learning community from which the learning emerges.

I confess up front that I am not an expert on assessment. Moreover, I am locked into passing judgement on my students by a school that demands a grade before it will issue a paycheck. Still, I have found some ways to change grading in my writing classes. For instance, I blog along with my students, and they comment on my blog as I comment on theirs. I do not grade their blogs, only their formal papers. I converse with them in their blogs. If they write something interesting, I comment. If they don't, then I'm silent, or I push them—just like a real person and not their teacher. I let them see that I am still learning, still trying to figure things out, still saying dumb things that later I'm embarrassed about. Just like a real person and not their teacher.


  1. Just a quick quibble: I don't quite agree that etmooc fulfills many of the criteria for collective impact that Kania and Kramer list.

    For instance, I don't think we have a common agenda in the following sense: "all participants have a shared vision for change including a common understanding of the problem and a joint approach to solving it through agreed upon actions." I think we may very well have different visions for change and different understandings of problems. We may not even be talking about the same problem.

    I also don't think we have mutually reinforcing activities: "Participant activities must be differentiated while still being coordinated through a mutually reinforcing plan of action." We certainly have different activities, but they aren't really that coordinated around a plan of action.

    This isn't a criticism of etmooc, it's just an observation. I think etmooc is more an open community where people can learn a few ideas and tools and then find others with whom they want to further explore some of these things. This can be done even if we aren't all coordinated around a particular problem or solution or plan of action. Indeed, etmooc is powerful in a different way than the model for collective action discussed in your post. It's a way for us to organically connect with each other into smaller groups that might, later, end up engaging in collective action along this sort of model. Or maybe we just connect to further our own and each others' learning. Which is a good thing too!

  2. Christina, both you and Sui Fai John Mak took issue with my application of some of the collective impact characteristics to MOOCs, and I think you both make fair criticisms. You'll find Smak's comments on his blog post.

    Gathering people for collective social action is somewhat different from gathering people for collective learning. Still, I think Kania and Kramer's approach is more rhizomatic than the traditional agency approach, and I also think that rhizomatic social action as they describe it may vary from rhizomatic education more in terms of degree than kind.

    For instance, most of the MOOCs that I've participated in do have a common agenda which provides coherence for the MOOC. A rhizomatic shared agenda differs from a traditional shared agenda in that in rhizomatic thinking a shared agenda is a starting point, but not necessarily a shared ending point. Rhizomatic education or social action can share a common starting point (DNA) without sharing a common ending point, which conforms to Edgar Morin's suggestion that complex thinking learns to define from the inside out (self organization) rather than from the outside in (authoritative branding). I think traditional education, and apparently traditional social action, begins with an end point and then uses some outside authority to measure prescribed progress toward that end point. Rhizomatic education begins with a beginning point and the participants themselves map where they go from there. Thus, traditional education is all about authority, competence, and tracing a prescribed route to a fixed destination; while rhizomatic education is all about self organization, performance, and mapping to reality. Very different approaches, I think, and I sense that Kania and Kramer's projects allow for this more rhizomatic approach while still sharing an agenda.

    Then, I think that the MOOCs I've joined, including ETMOOC, have mutually reinforcing activities—differentiated though coordinated. The recent story activity in ETMOOC is a fine example. All the participants in that activity created and shared stories, though many in radically different ways. Lots of participants are blogging, and those blogs, though different in content and format, reinforce the general exploration of the MOOC.

  3. Thanks for your thoughtful reply...I do see that we could think of the difference between my experience in ETMOOC and the Kania and Kramer approach as a kind of difference in degree more than kind. I was focusing on the idea that we had to have a common understanding of problems, agreed-upon actions, and seeing that we don't necessarily have those. Or at least, not across the whole group. There may be smaller groups that have formed organically within ETMOOC that agree on problems and common approaches to solving them through agreed-upon actions, but not when one looks at the group as a whole. I also couldn't see any common "plan of action" coordinating our activities.

    But I like your point about having shared starting points (or at least, broad topics we are all centred around in the course) rather than ending points. We don't have the exact same starting points, because we all have different experience, expertise, beliefs about the problems/issues/ways to approach the topics we're discussing, etc. But we do have some shared aspects, centred around the topics and presentations. Those are quite broad, I was interpreting Kania and Kramer's framework to be speaking about more specific things like shared understanding of problems and agreed upon actions.

    And, if we take this broader view, then yes, ETMOOC activities are coordinated to some degree. I was thinking about having a "mutually reinforcing plan of action," which sounded much more specific and detailed to me.

    Nevertheless, overall, I completely agree with the point that often collective action and education start with the end points, whereas rhizomatic experiences like ETMOOC allow for various paths and various endpoints. Which is what makes them so invigorating!