Frances Bell

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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


francesbell • May 30, 2015

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  1. jennymackness May 30, 2015 - 11:46 am Reply

    Thank you Frances for making this post on your blog. As I have mentioned before, elsewhere, although we work together very closely, we are not joined at the hip and do not always agree on everything. I do, however, agree with the thoughts you have expressed here, although I wouldn’t have been able to express them so well, myself.

    I have thoroughly enjoyed and am enjoying the work we have been doing together over so many months now – the many hours of coding data and the wider reading, but most of all the long discussions. And our research has not ended. We have a second paper in submission and are writing a third – and have plenty of ideas for further work. That is an achievement for me, due in no small part to our continued friendship and collaboration.

    So its definitely onwards and hopefully upwards 🙂

  2. sensor63 May 30, 2015 - 7:00 pm Reply

    Hi Frances, hope u are OK.

    I wanted to thank you for commenting on the article: Insoumis.

    I value your company.

    I have learnt a lot thanks to you.

    I find it difficult to know what to say to here.

    Explaining, discussing, debating seem to me to be absurd at times.

    I went to Auschwitz on Thursday.

    I was undermined by determined scientific data.

    I noted the train lines, the numbers, the photos, the buildings, the processes, the surface area of enclosure, the points on the maps.

    I could not begin to grasp the scale of the horror without concentrating all my attention on one anonymous object which grabbed and wouldn’t let go of my attention.

    There was a broken doll in a display cabinet.

    On seeing it. I tried not to think of my children.

    I tried and failed not to imagine a (my) child with a name, in the arms of a loving mother overcome with fear.

    In whose interests do we reduce this mess by order?

    I wanted to share Being Here with you…

    I saw the sun rising through the gloom
    behind the fences.

    I turned away.

  3. francesbell May 30, 2015 - 7:54 pm Reply

    @Jenny thanks for acknowledging our difference and friendship – it means a lot. I have been reflecting recently on the diverse nature of the 3 articles we have worked on from Rhizo14, on how they take complementary perspectives and how our ideas shift slightly as we explore further – that is the path of qualitative research I think. Knowledge is partial, provisional and context-bound. But it doesn’t make it any easier to be lumped with ‘legibility’, as if legibility was one end of a binary.

    @Simon I am OK – thanks for asking. I empathise with your feelings about Auschwitz, and the experience of visiting. The Holocaust was a horrific example of a scientific/ engineered response to a malignly perceived ‘problem’ where ordinary people both resisted and complied with a horror. It is so complex and I connected your idea of the compelling power of the doll. It made me think of the little girl in the red coat in the film of Schindler’s list – such a compelling image! and then I found this article So it’s all complicated, and I think that both artistic representations and more ‘legible’ (a Rhizo14 trigger word) accounts can all play their part in our understandings. Feel free to keep telling me our approach is scientific – just don’t expect me to be convinced. I am grappling with how (or not) Social Network Analysis of Rhizo14 advances my understanding – it’s complicated as they say on Facebook.

    • sensor63 May 30, 2015 - 8:07 pm Reply

      I am happy Frances to continue the grappling ‘with’ you 🙂 Happy to read you. I won’t continue to tell u your approach is scientific. It is a story told differently. Good luck with social network analysis – I look forward to reading your stuff on that. Have been thinking myself on that.

      • francesbell May 30, 2015 - 8:15 pm Reply

        Thanks Simon – grapple away!

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