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.

Arguing the case for qualitative research on learner experiences


Exploring at the beach
Exploring at the beach   by julochka CC BY-NC 2.0

Reading Simon Ensor’s article in Hybrid Pedagogy about the paper Jenny Mackness and I wrote about Rhizo14 reminds me that I made a promise to Simon and others, a promise that I haven’t kept. I said back in March that I would respond to some of the criticisms that Simon and others made of our paper. I put that on hold because of personal issues but it’s time to put that right.

Simon expresses powerfully his personal reaction to reading our paper and I respect that. I can benefit from reading his article, even though, unsurprisingly, I take a very different view from him in many respects. One aspect that Simon and I share as an interest is ‘community is the curriculum’ and Jenny and I are currently working on more research on how that seemed to play out in Rhizo14.

Simon and anyone else has a perfect right to tell their story but I do wonder if in telling his story, he also tells stories about others. That seems inevitable. Several times over the last year, Simon has told me previously that our research is scientific, and implied that we crave objectivity, presumably at the expense of subjectivity. We explained it differently in our paper. Shortly after our paper was published, someone who left Rhizo14 after a disagreement in the first few weeks contacted me to thank us for publishing the paper, as they put it, “for saying what needed to be said”. I don’t know if this person completed our survey, I suspect not, but I was fascinated by their perspective, and it was different from Dave’s take in this video conversation.

Simon and some of the other commenters on our paper from Rhizo14 have criticised the paper for a lack of balance. I think our paper does acknowledge that for many Rhizo14 was a wholly positive experience and we indicate that the negative experiences were in a minority.  My view is that minority experiences can be important and revealing – offering us an opportunity to learn more about something. If more learning is taking place online away from traditional class rooms, then finding out more about how to maximise inclusion, minimise problems/misunderstandings and recover from the ones that occur seems like a worthwhile endeavour to me.  The number of participants and nature of participation is impossible to tie down and we haven’t claimed to do that. We know that we had 47 respondents and that more than 500 people participated in some way in Rhizo14. We couldn’t and wouldn’t claim to say there was an x% satisfaction rate in Rhizo14 – that would be fairly meaningless. What I don’t understand is why we are expected to achieve balance by word count within our article. I am looking forward to reading the auto-ethnography publications when they come out  and I don’t expect them to achieve some sort of arithmetic balance.

We had to develop our research approach on the hoof and we worked hard to consult Rhizo14 participants as we went along. Speaking personally, I am proud of what we achieved and pleased that it has since been reused by others on Connected Courses.  Since some of our respondents elected to be anonymous, I think we can say that they were, in some cases, saying things they wouldn’t have said in public or in Dave Cormier’s published survey. I have been extremely puzzled by some reactions from Rhizo14 participants that seem to suggest that it’s somehow unfair for people to share bad/mixed experiences anonymously – wasn’t confidential sharing the foundation of a long history of qualitative research? Why not wonder about why they didn’t feel able to raise their concerns at the time? or be interested to find that others’ experiences differed from your own?

Simon alluded to what community might or might not mean in Rhizo14
I am beginning to think that ‘The community as curriculum’ is a hopeless simplification of rhizomatic learning.

It is a mess with lions, hyenas, bacteria, and all and sundry running around in an open ecosystem.

and Keith Hamon used the analogy of a rule-based game played on a geographically located pitch.

If a group of people wants to play futbol except for one who wants to play baseball, then that one should disengage or decide to embrace the futbol game, and the group should not feel compelled to quit playing futbol to accommodate the one. Fortunately, MOOCs can be large enough to accommodate both futbol and baseball games, if the players will organize themselves that way. What isn’t acceptable is for the one baseball player to stay and poison the futbol game. It would have been wrong of me, for instance, to insist that Rhizo14 focus its discussion on Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome metaphor just because that was the game I wanted to play.

Leaving aside the question of who might be the baseball player who stayed to poison the futbol game (answers on a postcard please), I was left wondering where was the pitch at Rhizo14?  Was the pitch the Facebook group, the G+ group, the Twitter hashtag, the baseball player’s blog, a futbol player’s blog comment stream?

Or do all of these form an open eco-system as Simon suggests and how will the question of which game (or games) will be played be decided? These seem to be important issues for a community (possibly of sub-communities) that is getting together and forming curriculum.

The possibility of new games in learning online excites me – and I want to play those games and sometimes engage in research in them.

Veletsianos(2013) has identified that emerging technologies may not be new, are always becoming, and may be hyped even though they haven’t achieved their potential. His final point that they are neither fully understood nor fully researched has been taken up by Jen Ross and Amy Collier  as ‘notyetness’ and they have identified Rhizo14 as an example of the ‘’notyetness of practice’ .
I would agree with Veletsianos in seeing research as a potential antidote to hype and would argue that our research is complementary to the notyetness of Rhizo14, uncovering hidden and different perspectives that can contribute to the becoming of courses like Rhizo14 and to the becoming practice of participants.

What does surprise me in some of what Simon says and what I read elsewhere is an attitude that seems to reject (rather than critique) research based on qualitative data. I am beginning to think I am missing something – why would research not be needed?

Veletsianos, G. (2013). Open practices and identity: Evidence from researchers and educators’ social media participation. British Journal of Educational Technology, 44(4), 639–651. doi:10.1111/bjet.12052

Netlytic and Rhizo14 Twitter hash tag visualisation

Disclaimer: This is very hacky and proper techy people could probably do it better so their constructive comments would be most welcome but I am a bricoleur and persistent so make of what follows as you will:)

During Rhizo14 someone (Martin Hawksey? Dave Cormier?) created an archive of tweets from the rhizo14 Twitter hashtag. You can see the full glory of the visualisations at rhizo14 Tags Explorer (warning takes a while to load). You can make your own archive (prospectively rather than retrospectively) and visualisations of any hash tag using the magic of Martin Hawksey’s TAGS Explorer. This is a truly wonderful use of Google apps and it produces data that can also be reused.

In October 2014, I found Netlytic, ” a cloud-based text and social networks analyzer that can automatically summarize large volumes of text and discover social networks from online conversations on social media sites such as Twitter, Youtube, blogs, online forums and chats”. When I investigated, it had some really interesting interactive tools that can help you explore (some of) what’s happening in networks. It has taken me a long time to feel confident to present some of the netyltics visualisations.

If your hash tag is just starting, I think it would be a good idea to archive it in TAGs Explorer AND netlytic (and anything else you find). The message is – archive in flexible spaces – not just one!

OK – I was starting from the position of having access to a historic TAGs Explorer archive and wanting to use netlytics functionality. If you want to do a similar conversion, you might find this template useful.

Health warning: I noticed that there were gaps in the data but these were few and should not affect the broad brush analysis. The archive runs from 10 Jan – Sept 22 2014

Here are some examples of the visualisations that netlytics offered.

Tweets over time
Tweets over time

This is interactive on the web site.

Top Ten Tweeters
Top Ten Tweeters


Top 10 Mentions
Top 10 Mentions


If anyone has concerns about their names appearing here, please contact me at frabell AT gmail DOT com.

Are we there yet? the notyetness of emerging technologies practice and research in online learning

Looking rear view mirror
Looking backwards and forwards CC-BY-NC

Any parent will recognise the plaintive question “Are we there yet?” asked by children impatient for the journey to be over, the holiday to start. In using technology in learning and education, hopefully we will never really get there but experience fun in our experiments and learn from our experiences. We may find that there are better and worse journeys, decisions that opened up opportunities and others that closed them down.

Amy Collier and Jen Ross have come up with the intriguing concept of notyetness, based on George Veletsianos’ assertion that emerging technologies are ‘not yet fully researched” and “not yet fully understood” in online learning. Amy flags up the enabling characteristics of emergence that can flow from notyetness

creating space for emergence to take us to new and unpredictable places, to help us better understand the problems we are trying to solve.

She gives three examples of projects with notyetness that have touched me personally in the last year: Domain of One’s Own , Fedwiki Happening, and Rhizo14.  I am currently reinventing my web site with the wonderful help of Tim Owens at Reclaim Hosting, I have two fedwiki happenings under my belt and I was a participant and researched (with Jenny Mackness) Rhizo14. This morning, I watched the livestream of Sheila MacNeill’s keynote to #OER15, where one of the themes was the different shades of open that might be tried in the drive to mainstream Open Educational Practice. Sheila seemed to be recommending a pragmatic approach to mainstreaming of OEP, and this chimed with Lisa Chamberlain’s identification of Facebook Groups as a kind of not-yetness

The ideas of not-yetness at an MIT or Stanford are so far beyond the realm of my little community college that they would intimidate or even shut down emerging technology discussion for all but a few of the most technologically-edgy of faculty at my school.

But Facebook, good ol’ Facebook, almost the grandpa of social media now, is a kind of “not-yetness” on my campus. (Not to mention it has a nearly flat-line learning curve which is important for a 10 week quarter). The idea of opening a class to social media of any kind is not-yetness here. The use of Facebook groups is not-yetness here. The connectedness of letting outsiders participate with students in a class via Facebook is very not-yetness here.

I should declare that I have a love-hate relationship with Facebook: it’s great to keep in touch with my far-flung family but I have concerns about Facebook privacy aspects and its use of data. I taught a first year undergraduate module 2009-2013 where most of the students were Facebook users, making it possible for them to conduct small group investigations into privacy and data use (meaning Facebook membership was not compulsory and there was no Facebook interaction with tutors). So I feel sympathy with Lisa’s pragmatic approach but also a little uneasy.  There are quite a few reasons not to use Facebook in formal education: the creepy treehouse effect, Selwyn(2009)’s recommendation to leave Facebook as a backstage space for students, and the implications of mandating students of a space that is managed externally to the college or university. 

In thinking further, I also recognised an interesting link between the notyetness of both emerging technologies online learning practice and research into that practice. Ferguson(2012) identifies three different interest groups for learning analytics – governments, educational institutions and teachers/learners. When learners interact via Facebook, the major interest groups for the data are Facebook and the customers to whom they sell advertising.  Although, Facebook makes some anonymised interaction data available through apps like Netvizz, their track record for research is questionable. Selwyn’s 2009 study found that only 4% of student interactions related to their studies and so students who elected not to participate in an optional Facebook social space were not too disadvantaged but moving significant  elements of learner interaction to Facebook seems different somehow.

There is already a trend of outsourcing some educational services to private companies, and it’s easy to see that ‘free’ services can be attractive but Facebook isn’t Reclaim Hosting whose strapline is “Take Control of your Digital Identity”.  What will we see in the rearview mirror if there is a substantial move of study-related interaction to Facebook groups?

Ferguson, R. (2012). Learning analytics: drivers, developments and challenges. International Journal of Technology Enhanced Learning, 4(5/6), 304–317. Retrieved from http://oro.open.ac.uk/36374/1/IJTEL40501_Ferguson Jan 2013.pdf

Selwyn, N. (2009). Faceworking: exploring students’ education-related use of Facebook, 34(2), 157–174. doi:10.1080/17439880902923622 also currently available at http://blogs.ubc.ca/hoglund/files/2011/05/facebook.pdf

Cycling between private and public in researching Rhizo14

Howling at the moon
Howling at the moon, Sculpture Park, Aalborg

Our first paper Rhizo14: A Rhizomatic Learning cMOOC in Sunlight and in Shade from the research we conducted at Rhizo14 was published last week at Open Praxis.  We would love you to read it and respond.

One of the themes that has engaged us in the research process is the delicate dance between the private and the public.  Public and private can relate to strategies for engagement behaviours rather than being properties of spaces (Lievrouw 1998). We found that offering privacy in data collection was a good strategy in that we are able to reveal some things that were not apparent on the surface of Rhizo14, adding to our partial, provisional understanding.

On the other hand, we are pledged to publish only in open access journals, and shared our data collection approach with Rhizo14 participants who helped us to shape it. Dave Cormier, the convener of the MOOC kindly agreed to a private conversation reflecting on Rhizo14.  We have spent a long time (a year) reading and analysing the data, reading other writers, and writing, alone or together.

We have also presented interim findings at a conference at University College London, blogged over several posts and we have blogged our ideas before, during and after Rhizo14.  It was great to get feedback at the conference and on our blogs.

And now we have published an article that was private while it was being written, reviewed and edited, and we look forward to getting your feedback on what we have said. Of course this apparently fixed article is only a snapshot of ideas. Our ideas have moved on even in the relatively short period since we completed this article (November 2014), and it would be different if we wrote it today.  We have, this month, submitted a second article on the rhizome as metaphor and concept, and we are currently working on an article about community formation.  But the cycling between private and public – reflecting, reading, thinking, writing – that’s so important. If our paper motivates you to respond, we would be thrilled to hear your ideas.  We don’t want to howl at the moon.

Lievrouw, L.A., 1998. Our Own Devices: Heterotopic Communication, Discourse and Culture in the Information Society. The Information Society, 14, pp.83–96. Available at: http://classes.design.ucla.edu/Spring06/259M/readings/OwnDevices.pdf

Jenny Mackness @jennymackness jennymackness.wordpress.com/

Frances Bell @francesbell http://francesbell.wordpress.com

Bobbing along – water as a medium of participation in learning

I spent yesterday finding and reading papers about community learning and MOOCs, and working on our lovely data from #rhizo14.  Eventually, I felt that I was going around in circles and decided to search for images to help me make some sense of what I was reading and thinking. I found lots of great ‘water’ images ( my Twitter network helped me to track down the wonderful resources and remind me that I had some images of my own that I could use).

I thought – what about thinking of water as a metaphor for participation in an online learning experience/ MOOC?  I didn’t come to any ground-breaking conclusions but it did open up my thinking.

People can have a lot of fun in water. They can splash around with friends, make a lot of noise, letting off steam.  Some people might sit at the side, or dip their toes in the water.  Someone might have a pool party and invite people along to their pool.

Pool party
by Max Mayorov https://www.flickr.com/photos/mcsdwarken/5909993191 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Sometimes if everyone was splashing around and disturbing the water we could see the big and bright things but be unable to see much detail of what is going on under the surface.

Reflection on rippled water
by Richard Hurd https://www.flickr.com/photos/rahimageworks/8684779886/ CC BY 2.0

Or the sun may be shining so brightly that we see the reflected sky rather than the water itself.

Bobbing image 3
by Mark Power used with permission

If the sun was shining very brightly there might be a glare or dazzle that stopped us from seeing below the surface so we mainly see the sun’s glare.

by David Clow CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
by David Clow CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Why might people not get in the water?

It might be beautiful but too cold

by Frances Bell
Jokulsarlon by Frances Bell CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Or too hot

bobbing image 6
by Frances Bell CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Or too toxic

by Frances Bell
by Frances Bell CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

And how would it be if this image captured your learning experience?

bobbing image 8
by Mark Power used with permission

But the weird thing is that different people could simultaneously be experiencing ‘water’ as all of those images at the same time.  A ‘penguin’ learner could happily dive into Jokulsarlon, if only he were in the right hemisphere, whilst other warm-blooded learners shivered at the edge.

So can these images help us understand our experience and that of others as learners?

We are the Jacques Cousteau researchers who need to don their diving and breathing gear to explore under the surface

bobbing image 9
by ToM https://www.flickr.com/photos/thaqela/6774245208/ CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

or have magic powers like this family in Bedknobs and Broomsticks

Anyway just a bit of fun – I realise that there are gaping holes in the metaphor;)

Getting another perspective

This post is a progress report on the research that we (Frances Bell and Jenny Mackness) have been conducting following our participation in the open course Rhizomatic Learning: The community is the curriculum in January 2014.  This research to date has included an online survey, email interviews and a conversation with the convenor of the course Dave Cormier. It has also resulted in a conference presentation (see http://altmoocsig.learningtechnologist.co.uk/category/altmoocsig/

Research approach

If your interest lies solely in the brief report of our conversation with Dave Cormier, go straight to the summary report below.

Jenny and Frances met through the first Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) CCK08, run by George Siemens and Stephen Downes in 2008. In contrast with the huge MOOCs that followed it, CCK08 has been characterised as a connectivist MOOC or cMOOC.  Separately, we undertook research from that MOOC , and though we have come across each other from time to time, we did not work together until January 2014 when we met on a MOOC convened by Dave Cormier, Rhizomatic Learning – The community is the curriculum, now commonly called #rhizo14.

Rhizo14 was a diverse and busy MOOC: light on readings and loosely structured around weekly ‘provocative’ questions posed by Dave.  Interaction between participants was lively, spread across a variety of platforms and spaces: the P2PU space, Dave’s and participants’ blogs, #rhizo14 Twitter hashtag, a G+ community, a very active Facebook group and of course the less visible but equally valuable backchannels.  There was evidence of joy, creativity and a few clashes of expectations where participants seemed to expect different things from #rhizo14 and were sometimes disappointed by the actions and behaviours of other participants. That is a scant description of what happened.

We were struck by the contrasts between #rhizo14 and other cMOOCS: there were plenty of learning moments but we also experienced and observed some rather painful interactions. Our curiosity was piqued: we wanted to know what was going on beneath the surface and how a range of participants were experiencing #rhizo14.  This seemed significant, given that MOOCs are an opportunity for learning for people who may not otherwise have access to formal education. This inspired us to undertake some research, starting by recording our participant observations, saving links to significant interactions, and then planning how to get participant views first hand.

Given that our research was, to some extent, precipitated by concerns, we were both conscious of the dangers of finding what we were looking for in our research, as outlined by Stephen Downes in his presentation on MOOC Research.  It seems to be a good thing to strive for objectivity, whilst acknowledging that it is an unachievable goal. In outsider research where the researchers see themselves as outside the researched situation, objectivity is a key element of the traditional science-based approach normally adopted.  However, the emphasis on the rigour of the research method can compromise the relevance of the research.  We were engaged in insider research, we became participant observers in #rhizo14.  We could acknowledge the danger of reduced objectivity (whilst taking measures to counteract it) but we could also benefit from the subjectivity of researchers and other participants who shared their views with us. Subjectivity can bring a significant contribution to research in complex situations involving people and their relations with material things and each other.

Our first steps were to declare that we were conducting research, and to engage with other participants (via a Google doc) on what would be ethical ways of using data in our research.  Having consulted and planned our data collection, we shared this as widely as possible in all the spaces in which rhizo14 was evident http://francesbell.wordpress.com/research/rhizo14-research/

Our research process developed organically – the current (but probably not final) representation of this is shown in the following diagram.

Research processv2
Organic Research Process


As well as being mindful of and explicit about our roles as researchers, we are very conscious of the partial nature of the data we have collected and are trying to analyse.  The distributed nature of the spaces, the mix of public / private, and the number of survey respondents (47) combine to remind us that we must be missing some important perspectives. What does encourage us is that despite this partial view, our decision to allow for confidential and electively anonymous responses to our surveys, has enabled a light to be cast on what people are thnking, and not saying in public and semi-public forums.. We will make a contribution to the hidden MOOC experience.

Having conducted our survey and email interviews,and recorded our observations, we were conscious that we were missing another important perspective, that of Dave Cormier the course convenor. We approached him to engage in a conversation, rather than an interview, loosely based on the issues  and ambiguities that had emerged to date in our research.  Whilst Dave’s natural inclination was towards openness, he graciously conceded the benefits of having a private conversation where we could discuss issues freely.  The outcome was that although we recorded the Skype conversation between Dave and Frances, we agreed that the recording would be shared between Dave, Frances and Jenny, to be used confidentially for research purposes.  Although this blog post is written by Frances and Jenny, it has been agreed by Dave prior to publication.

Summary of conversation

We started by establishing the privacy/ confidentiality arrangements for our conversation and how we would publish it on blogs. We explored the actual ethics of research as compared with formal ethical approval. It is interesting that some of the most interesting parts of the conversation don’t make their way into the following summary. In a way, this vindicates its private nature. The following summary is not in strict chronological order as the conversation took itsown course, returning to topics at different times.

Community – concepts and issues

Dave explained that his conceptions of community owed more to Nancy White than to Etienne Wenger’s Community of Practice. He feels that being able to participate in a community of knowing is the goal of the learning process, and for him community is people caring about each other.

Dave discussed his experiences in EdTechTalk community , that he started in 2005 with Jeff Lebow and the benefits of being part of EdTechTalk. Dave highlighted the impact involvement in EdTechTalk had made on his work at UPEI.

We discussed that while both teachers and learners may form community, teachers may particularly value parallel community experiences to those they are facilitating with their students.


Sustainability of communities and MOOCS proved to be an interesting topic. We discussed examples of more or less sustainable examples of each.

Compatibility of community with rhizomatic thinking

This was an interesting topic.  There seems to be inevitable tension between the two concepts, and we discussed the advantages and disadvantages that can emerge from this tension. Community is the curriculum is a concept that Dave explored in the lead up to his 2008 article. Dave has found the rhizome useful in the cause of getting rid of the ‘content’ in education as he sees that as in opposition to how people, doctors for example, really learn their practice.

De-centring the Leader

Several times we returned to the issue of the centring or otherwise of Dave’s role in the course. We explored the benefits that his leadership brought and also some of the problems in which it played a part. Is it possible to achieve benefits such as seen in EdTechTalks without a leader? We also discussed the effectiveness of some of the tactics that communities employ to take the focus away from a leader’s decisions and actions, including community guidelines, FAQs, distributed moderation.  This was a rich discussion drawing on real incidents from rhizo14, and made more possible in the context of a private conversation.

Inevitably, we ran out of time to discuss everything on our agenda.  It was a challenging, rich and warm discussion that will inform Jenny and Frances’ research and Dave’s planning for rhizo15.

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).

Ethics and soft boundaries between Facebook groups  and other web services

doorway used as metaphor for boundary
Is this a space I can enter?

As part of a MOOC on rhizomatic learning that performs itself in many different spaces (Facebook, P2PU, G+, Twitter and others), I am a member of an ‘open’ Facebook group.  It is endlessly fascinating, and has given me a lot of scope for reflection about back channels and the exchange of information between open and closed spaces. Of course, I say that as if a space could be categorised as open or closed:  it’s often a lot more complicated than that, acted out by technical aspects of the space and by the agency of the people who interact there. Facebook groups can be open, closed or secret, the meanings of these being laid out in the Facebook help.

See what I did there, I linked to the ‘closed’ space of Facebook, only visible to one of the 1.3 billion members of Facebook.  Now of course, we don’t know if there are that exactly many Facebook members, but let’s settle for there being a very large number of them. Facebook is not completely open from the outside but doesn’t seem very closed. For example, if I log out of Facebook and Google for “Facebook pictures dog”, I will see lots of peeks into Facebook groups that might entice me to sign up or log in.

Now I am neglecting those of you who aren’t Facebook members, and can’t see the Facebook help page .  Facebook describe the visibility of posts as:

Open Closed Secret
Who can see what members post in the group? Anyone Only members Only members


Yes that means that anyone who has the link to an open Facebook group post or comment, can share it inside or outside Facebook, and it can be opened by any Facebook (not just group) member.  In the case of the rhizo14 MOOC, participants who are not Facebook members are excluded from sight of posts in the Facebook group, whilst a very large number of Facebook members who have never heard of rhizo14 could check it out if you sent them the link.

Ethical dilemmas

I will sketch out a few of the ethical dilemmas I have observed in the rhizo14 Facebook group.  These are early reflections, and I would welcome your comments on this post.

  1. How do we behave around here?

The rhizo14 MOOC offers no explicit written norms, behavioural or otherwise, and the strapline for the FB group is “An attempt to create a feed for Rhizomatic Learning posts from around the web.” The Facebook group has become not only a site for sharing blog posts, other rhizo14 creations and links to interesting and relevant stuff, it has also become a place for demonstrations of friendship and affection by some members.  It’s clear that a number of people (significantly less than the full 240 ish membership) regard the group as a semi-private backchannel where they can expect support and sympathy for their encounters elsewhere.  What the remainder of the membership think about this is less clear.  They may be just letting it all flow past or ‘lurking’ – a behaviour that has attracted discussion in the FB group.  The implicit norms on lurking in the FB group are to some extent discernible, but the norms on other behaviours sometimes seem to be taken as read by some active members of the group.  I posited a relational approach to power early on in the rhizo14 MOOC but that is not a common view in the Facebook group where a one-dimensional view of power is more common.  We can discern a flexible approach to ‘rule-breaking’ in rhizomatic learning in the discussion around rhizomatic learning and ethics in the comments on this post so it’s unlikely that a set of ‘rules’ to govern behaviour would work on rhizo14. Teachers and moderators can model ethical behaviour, and communities usually engage with norm-building online where misunderstanding is not uncommon. Overt moderation and norm-building activities have been generally absent from rhizo14 in general and the FB group in particular.


  1. What does sharing mean within and beyond the rhizo14 community?

A lot of sharing goes on at rhizo14, and there is a sense that openness is a value of rhizo14. The remix culture has been very evident in rhizo14, and creativity and remix have brought a lot of pleasure.  Communities of Practice literature and others have identified the importance of the boundary in the propagation of knowledge.  The facility for stuff and people to cross boundaries presents great opportunities, but with these come tricky questions of how we share and what we do with what is shared.  A great set of ‘rules’ that has helped sharing is Creative Commons Licenses, not always enforceable but signifying intent in a sharing and use context.
opendiscusspt1 opendiscusspt2opendiscusspt3














A dilemma presented by research data sharing is current at rhizo14 FB group, and raises, for me at any rate, some very interesting issues about how we do Open Research.  The twitter stream fragment gives an indication of the controversy, and the discussion of what is appropriate uses of open research data by ‘others’ (those ‘outside’ the community) is playing out on the rhizo14 Facebook group.  I raised the issue of ethics of use of open/closed data for research purposes in rhizo14 at the time it became clear that a group doing auto-ethnography, and a group of which I am a part were both doing research around rhizo14.

The data arrangements for the second group are at http://francesbell.wordpress.com/research/rhizo14-research/ whilst those for the first group are the subject of discussion at the FB group and publicly here and here.*

I became involved in this discussion because I had contributed to the auto-ethnography open Google document but had deferred on authorship of any subsequent outputs (as was possible within the invitation).  The complication that I presented was that I had asked not to be quoted (on reflection this created problems for the auto-ethnographers).
I resolved my personal dilemma by deleting my contribution, in consultation with members of the auto-ethnography group. However, the issue of who can use the information in the auto-ethnography is still the subject of discussion – on the FB group and publicly on Twitter.


Discussion of Agency

As humans we can have moral agency – this may be the different thoughts and feelings that guide the way we act.  I suggest that sharing our ethical stance with others can help our moral agency within a network of human and technical agents.  I am not thinking of a set of rules but rather our expectations and ethical stance that we could share with other moral agents.  What I have observed in the discussion on the ethics of use of information from the auto-ethnography document is that some participants seem to assume there is a ‘common decency’ approach to the use of ‘open’ information. This is a little dangerous I think and may be explained by an unwarranted assumption of community.

We can also think of technology as ‘moral agent’ where permissions and constraints on agency can be coded into a system, as I described in who can access a FB group.  This can be useful, especially if helps clarify expectations-  hard rules, hard boundaries can be explained in help pages and observed in action when we fail to access the FB group link because we are not logged into Facebook.   Even these hard rules can be overcome by human agency.  I cut and paste one part of FB help page – this was within my personal ethics where doing the same with a rhizo14 FB group post would not be. When I did accidentally violate that in a blog post, I tried to resolve the situation, by consulting the person affected.

Some Tentative Conclusions

An important element of the digital moral agent’s backpack to complement their ethical literacy is the digital literacy of having an active understanding of the ethical and other implications of using a digital space/service for communication.  This is especially important when one’s practice in spaces is research.

As well as the overhead of ‘cluttering ‘ the communication, there are benefits in clarifying use of information, utterances, multimedia in practice.  This may be done informally within a close group of friends, rarely discussed, but the more open the use and sharing of information, the more important it is to clarify how we expect that information to be used, if we wish to minimise problems.  This applies just as much to Facebook (with their unclear use in the above extract from Help of the words member – Facebook or group?- and anyone – anyone on the Internet or anyone on Facebook) as to those of us participating and researching in rhizo14.  I hope that rhizo14 research subjects benefit from our statement of how we use the research data.  I know I would have benefited from a clearer statement of expectations and behaviours in rhizo14.  I am not suggesting a set of hard and fast rules but rather a starting point for discussion on how we behave around rhizo14.


Because digital literacies are a moving target (digital literacy is ongoing) and communication in open spaces is tricky, we need flexible repair strategies for when things go wrong.  If we state our expectations and promote discussion of expectations within a group  as starting point, then we may be able to minimise but not eliminate problems.  That’s when it’s useful to promote friendly interpretation of the words and actions of others, and to have some strategies for conflict resolution.


Who said it was easy to practice learning and research in online spaces?

* edited because links to Maha’s blog had mysteriously repositioned themselves