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

Dimensions of power, knowledge and rhizomatic thinking

CCl by Erwin from

My first thought when I hear the word power is of an individual exerting power over another – getting them to do something or stop doing something (possibly by raising a physical or verbal fist). But I am guessing that’s not going to be enough in rhizomatic thinking where we are thinking about the connections and the rhizome.  My reading of De Leuze and Guattari has not so far rendered me able to use only their ideas so I have turned to some other ideas of power that I found useful in the past.  Masters students who were studying the implementation of information systems would get stuck in solely technological explanations of why an information system was deemed to have succeeded. Looking at Lukes’ different dimensions of power helped them and me explore the politics and human relations in ‘success’ and ‘failure’. I have linked to Lukes writing at the end if you are interested to read it and correct my interpretation.  There are four but I am too tired to look at Foucault.

A one-dimensional view of power is when one agent (an individual or an institution) prevails over another.  This may be through the rules of the game, for example where a teacher sets rules for a piece of assessed work. Alternatively the agent may prevail through threats or rewards, for example the disciplining of students who plagiarise, or the award of a prize.  This view of power shows us teachers and students potentially in conflict with each other but it can be a good starting point to challenge that view, as Dave encouraged us in Week 1. As Jollyroger says “playing with subversion in this manner seems a very interesting way of dismantling limiting structures of power that condition learning”.

A two-dimensional view of power sees power as exercised not through observable conflict but rather through control of the agenda.  Teachers can do this by being prescriptive about what is or is not to be discussed within the course. I have a memory from primary school (K-12) of the teacher saying to a very bright student – “Not another red herring”. So in the rhizomatic learning that is the subject of our MOOC, we could be influenced by what Dave puts in the P2PU space or by agents who promote or suppress topics. This has significant implications for the ‘community is the curriculum’ – the curriculum can become a site of struggle within the community.  I would find it too clumsy to draw on specific examples here from #rhizo14 but would be interested if you could recognise this in your own practice here. In my case, I have been bleating all over the place about not restricting our considerations to formal educational settings but to also think about informal learning.

A three-dimensional view of power demonstrates that the conflict may remain covert or as a potential.  An agent may prevail over another because the second agent (possibly unconsciously) is influenced by the will of the first.  My understanding of this view of power expanded rapidly during #rhizo14 in Week 2.  I had shared my wish to use the experience of this MOOC to enhance my understanding of De Leuze and Guattari’s theory, and Cath Ellis had posted an excellent post with a plea to engage with rhizomatic theory and some eminently practical advice on how to do that. And then… in the Facebook group Maddie posted a heartfelt message about how all this stuff about theory felt to her, and she describes it here. This was quite a turning point on #rhizo14 for me.  I responded in an attempt (that probably failed) to be more inclusive and thought very carefully about my contributions, previously and subsequently. Once I resisted the idea “well she can’t mean me – I don’t want to tell anyone they have to study theory” I began to move forward and realise that, regardless of my intention, I might have influenced others about what this MOOC was about by what I had said.  Of course it’s not as simple as that and agency works both ways in a three-dimensional view of power.  I have found Emily Purser’s posts on FB and her blog to be very revealing in helping me understand a bit more about the messy rhizome that is #rhizo14.  She said on FB ” I just keep telling myself that meaning is never in the text, it’s in the reading – and that’s something we actually do have enormous power over, if we see it that way.. that seems to be what I’ve got from a couple of decades reading ‘theory’ in conversation with good people, and I find that perspective a real gift in those frequent times of uncomfortable confrontation with power that I feel on the underside of”. So the reader and the writer have power and responsibility, and I think they are being exercised with good will and humanity on #rhizo14 but we have no room for complacency – it’s hard work.

It’s not pragmatists 1 – theorists 0 – it’s game on.  As Jenny Mackness said today,


Lastly, what I am dimly grasping about rhizomatic thinking is that it encourages connections between people with different ‘knowledge’.  This paper includes an explanation of a project in post-apartheid South Africa that tries to effect learning in people with different ‘knowledges’ “. Service-learning in South Africa can crucially contribute to the deconstruction of Western thought and the transformation of both indigenous knowledge and western knowledge.”

Can we accommodate different ‘knowledges’ on #rhizo14?


If you want read the original writing about dimesnions of power is a good place to start and especially

The Perils of Rhizomatic Learning

In this post I am trying to make sense of what (little) I think I know about rhizomatic thinking and fitting it in some sort of context with other post-structuralist thinking in my journey to rhizomatic learning whilst engaged in the #rhizo14 MOOC. Comments and corrections would be most welcome.


Post-structuralist Thinking

Post-structuralism can be seen as a response to structuralism (a means of understanding human culture by its structures). Rhizomatic thinking is seen as post-structuralist as is the work of Derrida, Baudrillard, Butler, Latour and Foucault. In rhizomatic thinking the rhizome is posed as an alternative to arboresent (hierarchical) thinking.

DeLeuze and Guattari shared their thinking within an academic community that was steeped in 19th and 20th century social and political theories.  Many theorists questioned structural and hierarchical explanation of social and societal relations.  Rhizomatic thinking has been applied to many aspects of political and social life since the latter part of the 20th Century.

As digital and networked technologies proliferated and presented challenges for people trying to use and make sense of them, post-structuralist theories were used widely in scholarly work and empirical research.  Abandoning  hierarchical structures fitted well with the network and connectivity exhibited by the Internet.

More formality was shed when the digital reached into our daily lives with the uniquity of networked computing and the rise of the ‘social’: media, learning, commerce, culture, politics.

For example an incomplete snapshot of the theories used in learning technology can be found in this Special Issue

They include Actor-Network Theory, Social Construction of Technology and  Critical Social Theory.

I have not read enough to speak about any commonality in political leanings among the major writers in rhizomatic thinking but I would assume that all post-structuralists have been influenced by Marx even as they turn away from his structural concepts.

“post-structuralism was constituted by an engagement with Marx; a critical engagement, but an engagement nonetheless ”

Rhizomatic  thinking in this MOOC

Where does all that leave us in this MOOC?

Speaking for myself, I am trying to find out about rhizomatic learning whilst I am still learning about the basics of rhizomatic thinking.

One concept that I think of as ‘short-cutting’ and relates to the multiple entry points and the connection of any point on the rhizome to any other.  From what I can grasp the lack of need to go up and down a hierarchy enables short-cutting but there is still a lot more for me to work on as this seems potentially problematic to me, suggesting I need a better context.

Two examples that I have thought of are:

  1. Cheating as short-cutting.  Short-cutting (not bound by a hierarchy or rules) that leads to more valuable or significant learning (obviously that’s open to interpretation) is rhizomatic whereas shortcutting that is getting someone else to write a piece of assessment for you is only rhizomatic from the point of view of paper qualifications.
  2. Scholarly reading – today I have sent to Amazon for 2 books, And the reader to accompany it    If I only read the reader (that might be a useful ploy for someone with limited time before an exam on Rhizomatic Thinking) rather than use it to get more from my reading of a Thousand Plateaus, then that shortcut will not improve the sense I make of Rhizomatic Thinking.

I include the following principles (text cut and paste from Wikipedia) that I am told that DeLeuze and Guattari used to outline the concept of the rhizome

1 and 2: Principles of connection and heterogeneity: any point of a rhizome can be connected to any other, and must be

3. Principle of multiplicity: only when the multiple is effectively treated as a substantive, “multiplicity” that it ceases to have any relation to the One

4. Principle of asignifying rupture: a rhizome may be broken, but it will start up again on one of its old lines, or on new lines

5 and 6: Principle of cartography and decalcomania: a rhizome is not amenable to any structural or generative model; it is a “map and not a tracing”

My gift offering of a shortcut is that I have annotated this with relevant links to Keith Hamon’s blog , an excellent source.


I leave you with twin perils that might obscure rhizomatic thinking on this MOOC:

  • Trying to learn about rhizomatic learning via a MOOC supported by semi-discrete services and technologies (P2PU, Facebook group, Twitter hashtag, Google+, etc.) all of which have elements of structure and barriers to  as well as enablers of connection
  • Falling into the tendency to think about rhizomatic learning ONLY within formal educational contexts

My fallback position is always to think about the impact of the Internet on learning to knit – but you will have to find your own cherished example to help you.

edited to add word only in second ‘peril’