Thursday, May 14, 2015

Ethics for MOOCs: Power in Rhizo-MOOCs

Maha Bali just published a post Power that Remains When We Leave the Classroom that talks about the results of pulling the teacher and, thus, the teacher's power from the classroom. She notes that this does not leave an absence of power and a group of equals. To my mind, this still leaves power that is now up for grabs whether or not the students have a "sense of community and trust". The group has power, even if it doesn't know what to do with it.

I have written about power in this blog before, but not within the context of ethics. So I want to do that today. I also want to provide a more nuanced response to Dave Cormier's #rhizo15 challenge question: is rhizomatic learning an invasive species? Dave characterizes community learning in terms of aggressive power:
Rhizomatic plants are chaotic, aggressive and resilient. It models some of the qualities that can make a good learner. The rhizome, however, can also be an invasive species. It can choke other plants out of your garden such that only the rhizomatic plant remains.
He is suggesting, of course, that rhizomatic learning is an aggressive process that drowns out other processes, crowding them out of open learning spaces with their incessant posting and tweeting. Sounds like an unwelcome exercise of power to me. Is this so? I don't think so (hence, my short response in my previous post), but now I want to explore why.

Several years ago I read John Henry Clippinger's book A Crowd of One: The Future of Individual Identity (2007), and I recall an argument he makes that freedom is best understood as freedom to rather than freedom from. These prepositions and the directions they take are important.

For me, the argument goes something like this: We humans exist always within social and natural networks, these networks create power, and thus, we are always within networks of power. Freedom from power, then, is not possible. Freedom from a given power may not even be possible, though we can insulate ourselves somewhat. For example, I can insulate myself from this year's flu, but even if I don't catch the disease, I am still affected by the power of this disease by forced changes in habits and associations and the illness of friends and family. During the Cold War, I was insulated somewhat from the power of communist dictatorships, but I was still not totally immune—I can recall even now the suffocating fear of imminent nuclear holocaust. That is power.

Of course, the flu and nation states are very large power regimes, much bigger than MOOCs, and I use them to highlight my point. However, all actors at all scales are entangled in power, and I define power as the struggle of a system to develop and maintain its own identity and to exchange matter, energy, information, and organization within the context of other systems trying to do the same. I imagine the difference between the power effects of a nation state and those of my own immune system as the difference between dropping a huge boulder in the water and dropping a pebble. The boulder causes bigger ripples that extend further, but the pebble causes ripples as well. Power ripples through all our different ponds, lakes, and oceans. We emerge physically and socially through rippling power. We swim in it. (I do not know if the ripples cause power or power causes ripples. Perhaps ripples are only the obvious manifestations of power, but that's another post.)

Freedom from power, then, is not an option, and disengagement from a system and its power offers at best some insulation, some distance, perhaps to the degree that you can ignore the power. I insist, however, that you are never really free from any source of power given the entanglement of all within all. Ripples run all the way across the lake, but eventually, they don't rock our boats.

The only real option then is freedom to power, especially in social networks. In other words, we exercise our freedom when we engage the power of the group. We are free when we both can and do engage the power of the group. Freedom is not a negative—an absence of power—it is a positive—an exercise of power.

We can exercise our power, our freedom, in two ways: by engaging and by disengaging. We can stay and play or we can walk away. But keep in mind that walking away is not negative as we are always walking into some other power system. As Timothy Morton has explained quite nicely in his book HyperObjects (2014), there is no away, no space outside of a system and its systemic power. Moreover, we always walk away carrying the stain of whatever we are leaving. There is no away, only a fading influence that we eventually come to ignore if we work at it hard enough (though that very working can sometimes only remind us of what we are working to forget. Damn!).

RhizoMoocs are systems, and like all systems, a given rhizoMOOC generates power, or rather, power emerges as the system tries to form itself and as it exchanges matter, energy, information, and organization with its ecosystem. I have participated in few events that are more open, with more evenly distributed power than rhizoMOOCs. (In 1970, I did attend the Second Atlanta Pop Festival for 3 days of "peace, love, and music", and it may have been a bit more open, but not much.)

In open, self organizing systems with freedom to move—to engage or disengage—knots form. In our bodies, we call these knots organs: stomach, heart, lungs and so on. Such knots form in social systems as well, almost inevitably. We call them cliques, companies, and countries. We preserve freedom in social systems by allowing movement from system to system, knot to knot. RhizoMOOCs preserve this freedom.

For instance, in all the RhizoMOOCs I've participated in a knot has formed around Twitter, as participants congregate there and engage one another. Inevitably, a few people tweet more and more engagingly than do others, and as these prolific tweeters gain more connections, they gain more power. Actually, they don't gain power like a possession. A better way to say this is that because of the number of connections to the prolific tweeters, their words and actions are amplified (power) and perturb the system more than the words and actions of other, less well connected actors. In our current #rhizo15, for instance, both Maha Bali and I use Twitter, but Maha tweets far more than I do with far more connections. Thus, she manifests in #rhizo15 more Twitter power than I do. Maha starts movements along Twitter and perturbs the #rhizo15 system. The following short video shows how such knots can form in open spaces such as a rhizoMOOC or an outdoor music festival. Give a look:

Is this sort of self-organizing knot a problem? Does it threaten the music festival?

It can be a problem if, for instance, the concert organizers try to limit dancing or to limit the number of people who can dance, forcing everyone to sit still and listen to the music. This might seem far-fetched, but we do this in traditional classrooms all the time: limiting conversation to one channel and one content, both belonging to the teacher. Self-organizing knots can also be a problem if the dancing becomes so dominant that no one else can hear the concert. Such things have happened on the Net. DOS attacks are common examples.

But this kind of knot is not a problem first if its boundaries are open, if you are free to engage or not engage. Lots of people freely join the dancing guys, but more do not. This is freedom. You can join, but you don't have to. Note that, even though the dancing guy and his second and third mates attract lots of followers, most people in the crowd do not join. They lurk instead, watching from the sidelines, or they remain focused on the stage act. It is possible that some in the crowd were annoyed at the dancing mob and would have supported the police moving in and breaking up the mayhem, but they show a profound misunderstanding of open spaces, and they are too easily annoyed.

Then, self-organizing knots are not a problem if you can form your own knot. The best response if you don't like the Twitter dance is to join another dance or start your own dance. In #rhizo15, you can write a song with Kevin Hodgson, a story with Terry Elliot, a play with Tania Shelko, a poem sequence with Simon Ensor, maps and graphs with Daniel Lynds, or blog posts with Autumm Caines. Nothing in an open space precludes you changing the topic. You are free to engage the power. You are not free to expect an absence of power. It takes power to do all those things, and I am pleased that so many want to do so much. God bless the rhizome.

If Maha is brave enough to start dancing in Twitter, and if one or two others join her, then a knot can form in #rhizo15. As it grows and exerts power, this knot of activity can annoy and intimidate others, especially those who brought their lawn chairs and picnic baskets and have rather strict ideas about decorum at a rock concert, as is beginning to happen in the grey zones at Rolling Stones' concerts (it's a main reason for the very expensive seats: to separate those who no longer dance and drink only wine from those who dance too freely under the influence of other spirits). But Maha is not the problem here. She is behaving ethically and correctly in a rhizomatic learning space.

So what are the ethics? What is appropriate behavior in an open, rhizomatic learning space?
  • Expect power to emerge and cluster just as it did in galaxies.
  • Exercise your right to engage in that power and to emerge with it.
  • Shape the power, and be shaped by it.
  • If it isn't working for you, shift to some other galaxy.
  • Don't expect to ever leave the power totally behind. You've been stained.

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