When we can’t see the trees for the wood

Frances Bell CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
I can see trees – Frances Bell CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Martin Weller posted a post on the role of personality in education that has attracted many comments. I could have written about many of the thoughts that the post and comments have sparked for me but I thought I would concentrate on one perspective- how we can view an educational experience, as either generalised or particular rather than both.
Martin argued quite powerfully that the OU (and as commenters pointed out, quality systems) try to  eliminate the personal author voice from course materials, and that this might be a bad thing. This seemed to me about creating generalised course materials and whilst the elimination of an author voice from materials can be seen as detrimental in some ways, I would argue that it does not need to be an obstacle to the subjective appreciation of learners (and may even offer them some freedom) as they experience learning. When we hear about the OU ( a brilliant UK institution, complementary to not a replacement for other HE institutions) we can tend to think of the central, the course materials, online resources whereas I suspect that many OU scholars might think also about their more distributed experiences, attending local face to face  study groups, small group interactions, private study. Aren’t these opportunities for tutors, but more importantly learners, to inject their own subjectivities, as they interpret materials, argue, re-present ideas, and hear about the subjectivities of others on the same course? These learners are able to see each other’s trees.
For me, in overly identifying Jim Groom with DS106 and Dave Cormier with rhizo14 (I know little of rhizo15) he is playing into the myths of the lone creator and innovation, as if any of these phenomena sprung fully-formed from the loins of their ‘creators’.  As Kate Bowles pointed out, there is something gendered about this view of personality as cult. For me, this focus on the personality of the leader/ inventor figure can hamper inventiveness and experimentation by freezing agency in a single personality, downplaying what went before and what goes after. It generalises the phenomenon in a way that obscures very important particulars such as learners’ behaviours and contributions.
We become so stuck on the wood, the naming, the labelling, the individualisation of a complex phenomenon, that we can’t see the beautiful trees. We are standing outside the wood, unable to hear the tree that falls – it makes a sound but not for us.

Reflections on community in #rhizo14 – more questions than answers

These are some reflections on community in #rhizo14 inspired by the research that Jenny Mackness and I are doing, and my engagement with Maha Bali’s post and the rich comment stream that followed.  I just wanted to capture my thoughts as they are currently but would be really pleased to engage through comments.

One of the issues that Jenny and I are grappling with is the challenge of gaining multiple perspectives on the ‘experience’ that was/is #rhizo14. How can we know about all of the flowers that bloomed? And some of the ones that failed to thrive or died? Of course, the answer is we can’t but we can try to draw in as many flowers as possible: and acknowledge our partial view. We also have to beware over-interpreting the views of others and making assumptions about their thoughts and opinions.

many flowers

In rhizo14 we had to think about ‘community’ – it was in the title and it was where the curriculum was or should be. So it is not surprising that the topic should attract so much attention.  My own view is that the formation of community (or communities) in rhizo14 deserves close attention.  I am curious about how this links to ‘the community is the curriculum’, and I already identified  that the speed of emergence of community (and the context in which this happened) are particularly worthy of investigation.

Keith Hamon distinguished different experiences in #rhizo14 by proposing that some participants found community whilst others chose to find a social network. I was a bit puzzled by that as Keith suggested that the social network involved a social contract.  I didn’t see the rules that he refers to in #rhizo14 and would not really expect to see them.  As I said in the comments, network for me brings 2 things to mind – socio-technical platforms where we connect , and our own individual networks that map our connections – the ‘performed’ network.. If the people who ‘did’ rhizo14 could map their individual networks and they were overlapped , perhaps the dense areas might be community(ies) in rhizo14 (‘performed’ communities).

Keith went on to contrast his concept of social network with a covenant: a relationship that he characterises as meaning, “I will behave in good faith with you, regardless of what you do. I will not let you damage me, but neither will I abandon my commitment to you.”  He suggests that some in rhizo14 might have achieved community along  those lines. However Rebecca points out that a covenant is a solemn promise built within an intentional community, and although she thinks that Dave proposed activities that could be seen as  ‘intentional community building activities’, she sees thizo14 as more of an organic community.  This is very thought-provoking for me. I am looking at what was circulated prior to rhizo14, and the impact this may have had on people’s expectations.  I can be pretty sure that if a covenant had been part of this, I would have stayed away;)

Also I am thinking about the organic nature of rhizo14 community, and wondering again about the speed of formation. Alan talked about co-evolution of communities – this is an interesting concept and I wonder if it somehow suggests ‘slowness’.   If #rhizo14 was organic, is it now? And will it seem organic or more fixed to newcomers in#rhizo15?

‘Caring’ is identified as a distinguishing feature of community, and certainly in #rhizo14  the proclamation of community is often associated with friendship, even love.  Emotional connection is something I wish to explore in my research.  Like Alan, I have had the well-documented experience, of meeting people that I have hitherto know only online, and found that our friendship was as rich as I thought. I have also learned with and from people with whom I have no deep emotional connection.

A consistent theme in #rhizo14 has been dichotomies or dualisms – theorist/pragmatist ‘divide’, academics/ others (not sure who these others are since many seem to me to be academics).  It is not absent from this post and comment thread. Simon talks about ‘science-bound academics’ (I didn’t recognise them) where” representatives of this ‘dominant’ group were miffed that Dave didn’t reinforce their supremacy by being leader of the (their) pack. I find it interesting to question how people perceived a ‘majority’ in rhizo14. I get the impression it is linked to perceived sanctioning given first by Dave then by people recognised as ‘academic’” I found this to be an astonishing statement, and wonder how/if this has been validated.  One thing that I am wondering is whether the nature of the ‘provocative questions’ posed by Dave might have contributed to a tendency to see ideas/ people as either/or, and community as in/out.

As I say, these are some provisional observations but they have led me to think about a learner who might like to be ‘rhizomatic’ in her (his) learning.  I am thinking of someone who may be keen to learn outside formal educational institutions and processes. They stand tentatively on the brink of a community hoping it might be a place where they might learn with others. Possibly, they might relieved by the lack of structure and the presence of ‘nonsense’.  But what would they think of ideas of solemn promises, open expressions of emotion and love for other participants?  For some this might be attractive and draw them in. For others it could be off-putting and they might wonder why such high level of commitment and emotion are needed for a learning experience.  These could be some of the people who stand to gain most from social learning online. I am just wondering but thinking that such learners may not have received much attention in #rhizo14 (except perhaps by Barry Dyck and others who I may have missed).