Frances Bell

home at last – for all the mes


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:

Jenny Mackness @jennymackness

Frances Bell @francesbell

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francesbell • February 16, 2015

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  1. Gordon Lockhart February 17, 2015 - 12:27 pm Reply

    Greatly enjoyed the research paper – first research paper I’ve managed not to ‘skim’ for some time!. IMHO, a significant contribution in a complex area and reads very well too.

    I wonder to what extent cMOOC successes are coloured by having very specific sets of highly-educated participants? Most of what passes as education involves widely disparate sets of participants and for various reasons cMOOC practices are unlikely to be applied in their entirety. Perhaps cMOOC principles are universal but cMOOCs may adapt more easily and effectively in some educational contexts than others. It may be a long time before the dust settles!

  2. francesbell February 17, 2015 - 12:47 pm Reply

    @Gordon That is an excellent point that we will explore in a paper currently in progress. It’s particularly relevant when we use the approach of modelling behaviour that we may wish learners to emulate. It will be a long time before the dust settles – I agree! My own interest lies in the (dis)connection between formal and informal learning and whilst I think we can learn from what happens in cMOOCs, they are only part of the picture. If we want people with most need of learning to benefit from the opportunities for open resources and open learning, then as you say the experiences of cMOOC participants are of limited relevance. That was why we wanted to reveal the less positive experiences.

  3. Clarissa Bezerra February 18, 2015 - 1:21 pm Reply

    Hi Frances! I’ve just finished my first read of your paper. I think it’s brilliant. And you know what? I kept getting the feeling that this whole rhizomatic learning thing, be it in MOOCs or wherever, it’s a thing for “grown-ups” in the sense that one needs to have a pretty solid sense of self worth, that you can add to the conversation. Being vulnerable and self-confident to the extent of engaging.
    Rhizo14 was a time of psychological and emotional vulnerability for me, in my f2f life. I was already at that place when I found rhizo14.
    I’ll certainly be mulling over your paper for a while. Will give it more reads and will happily engage in further reflection and conversation.

    • francesbell February 18, 2015 - 5:46 pm Reply

      Thanks Clarissa. That’s a very valuable response. Often educators/ learning developers/technologists are trying out digital spaces and experiences with a view to applying the ideas in their blended/online courses. You are right that what works for adults does not necessarily work for other age groups. Teacher education might be a subject area where the experiences are most easily translated. But we think that what the ethical issues have uncovered and are still working to understand properly is a partially hidden experience that may also apply to any learning situation with an online component.

  4. francesbell February 18, 2015 - 8:22 pm Reply

    Today Jenny and I were honoured to participate in a live tweet of Laura Goglia reading and critiquing our paper – enjoy!

  5. jennymackness February 18, 2015 - 8:42 pm Reply

    Frances – thanks for making this post and articulating so clearly our collaborative process which has been such a joy for me.

    Gordon and Clarissa – many thanks for your comments on our paper. We are very keen to engage in discussion about it, as we have spent more than a year thinking and writing about it.

    Frances and I have a great collaborative working relationship, but we are not joined at the hip and feel that in our differences we complement each other. I’m just mentioning this so that you know that any comments I make here are not necessarily Frances’ 🙂

    Gordon, I don’t think that cMOOC principles are universal, but I don’t see why they couldn’t be and that is what the concept of the rhizome suggests for me – an alternative way of thinking about how teaching and learning might happen. It’s not that these ideas haven’t been around for a long time; others have had very similar anti-hierarchy ideas – but the rhizome as an idea seems to be something that people can latch onto – quite accessible in many ways – but with some limitations which we have explored briefly in this first paper and further in our second paper which we have submitted and hopefully will be accepted.

    Clarissa – my feeling is that the principles of the rhizome could probably be applied to any age group – but the concept/metaphor for teaching and learning is not complete in the sense that it does not say enough about ethics or teacher responsibility – so anyone who used this concept with children, would need to recognise and take account of their vulnerability and make provision for this. Hope that makes sense.


    • Gordon Lockhart February 19, 2015 - 10:35 am Reply

      Jenny – I was very puzzled by what was meant by rhizomatic learning until someone pointed out it was a metaphor. That’s OK and I can see its usefulness and my need to quantify, or somehow nail it down, diminishes. All the same my thinking remains very wooly on anti-hierarchy in circumstances where there is a specific need to Learn Something for a specific purpose. I found your paper anything but wooly and I look forward to the next one.

      • jennymackness February 19, 2015 - 12:16 pm Reply

        Gordon – our next paper is about the usefulness of the metaphor – a very interesting paper to write, which we hope has moved our thinking on and will interest others. In working on the second paper it was interesting to explore what anarchistic free schools are doing – schools like Summerhill in the UK. What was interesting was that even in these ‘anti-hierarchy’ schools, this doesn’t equate to ‘no rules’. Summerhill was founded in 1921, so these ideas have been around a long time.

        This also relates to the work that I have done with Roy Williams on emergent learning, where we discussed the need for constraints if emergent learning is to be a possibility.

        For me this is all fascinating 🙂 Thanks for your comment and interest.


      • keith.hamon February 19, 2015 - 4:22 pm Reply

        Gordon, to my mind, you hit precisely on the distinction that needs to be made about rhizomatic learning: it is not necessarily the best approach to education in the simple domain. I use simple here as a contrast to the complex domain as in the Cynefin Framework, not to denigrate an approach to certain content. Education in the simple domain implies a limited set of well defined educational objectives with relatively fewer pathways to mastery of those objectives. Much education, often quite challenging and difficult, falls in this domain, and rhizomatic education has a more limited role to play. As an extreme example, think of teaching students to use the APA style in their academic papers, as I do. The APA rules are quite explicit and well defined, and implementation of those rules is very narrow, with few choices. This is education in the simple domain—there’s one right answer and one way to do it—and rhizomatic education is not as useful as a teaching strategy (though it can complement).

        Rhizomatic education shines in the complex domain, I think, which has vague or unknown educational objectives with many more pathways to mastery of those objectives, if mastery can even be defined. For instance, when I teach students how to craft an engaging introductory paragraph, there is no one right answer, no one method for doing it. Unfortunately, many writing teachers try to reduce the complexity of this part of writing by providing students with formula, but the writing that results is usually not worth reading.

        Consequently, even in the same class, which overall may following a rhizomatic path, I find it useful to use more traditional techniques to teach certain specific content such as APA formatting (which is simple but difficult for most students to master).


        • Gordon Lockhart February 19, 2015 - 8:27 pm Reply

          Thanks for that Keith – and your excellent earlier contributions on rhizomatic learning.

          For better or worse ‘simple’ in the sense you describe applies to vast amounts of formal education, particularly in Higher Education STEM courses where best practices MUST be inculcated lest future bridges fall down, electrical supplies fail or patients die needlessly because imaginative professionals want to do their own thing. On the other hand imaginative professionals do need to enter the ‘complex’ domain to formulate best practices per se. For example, designs for machines, bridges etc based on probability of failure involve a raft of financial, social and moral issues as well as the technical. These aspects may not be served well by a few liberal arts lecture given by different departments. (I confess I never went to any as an engineering student because they seemed irrelevant and were not examinable!)

  6. Maha Bali February 18, 2015 - 9:49 pm Reply

    Hi Frances- congrats on publishing this paper.
    i want to commend you on the way you sought participants who would not normally have responded to such a survey in order to include their voices.

    I was curious how many people who had been disturbed by rhizo14 were ppl who continued on for 6 weeks or beyond, or left earlier? I also assume you do not share details of what they were upset about for ethical reasons?

    • francesbell February 19, 2015 - 12:16 pm Reply

      Thanks for commending us on seeking out people who had left. As independents neither of us needed ethical clearance from an institution to conduct the research we did. We were driven by our own ethics. In publishing our ethical protocols in advance at Rhizo14 and subsequently in the paper, we invited scrutiny from our peers, respecting their wish to remain private or be acknowledged. We stated in the article that we do not know how many people were on the course or how many left or how many continued. It’s not possible to count silent people. This is an issue for every open course/MOOC. The article is based only on the evidence that we got from our data, which was all qualitative. The survey questions were all posted openly online on our blogs – apart from the individual interview questions. Numbers aren’t really the point here but there were minority but rich reports, not so much of upset (that smacks of victims), but rather of experienced participants who expressed concerns about some of what they observed and experienced, and what is more made some insightful comments and observations. As we have said we will explore more fully in subsequent papers. The point of having a declared ethical research protocol, following it and being as transparent as possible about the process is that the reader has to make a judgment about the ethicality and plausibility of what they read in the paper. If the reader doesn’t trust that then they won’t be convinced. We have done our best to conduct high quality insider research as we detail in the first para of the methodology section on p 27.

  7. keith.hamon February 19, 2015 - 12:34 am Reply

    Thanks, Frances and Jenny, for the article. You do a genuine service bringing some of the shadows into the light, for MOOCs of any stripe are not panaceas. We’ve known from early days that MOOCs have a staggering drop-out rate, though I suspect that most participants, such as myself, leave because of lack of interest or lack of time rather than because of something disturbing. I’ve been quite fortunate not to experience any disturbances in the many MOOCs I’ve taken, and while disturbing things happen on the Net all too frequently, I’ve been more impressed at how civil most MOOCs actually are. The more interesting question, then, is how MOOCs—these massive collections of people who basically don’t know each other—manage to create and maintain such a civil space. I’m really surprised that more trolls haven’t wandered onto the playground.

    I like some of the suggestions for ethical behavior mentioned in your article, but some make no sense to me, especially the ones from Marshall. Your article says that he raises “a number of further concerns about … the ethics of [1] convening a MOOC according to personal interest and thereby introducing personal bias; [2] the responsibility for being alert to the potential for some group cultures to become disempowering for other participants; [3] the obligation to provide a learning experience which is likely to be successful for all, and [4] the duty of care that educators have for their learners.”

    [1] Perhaps Marshall is talking about xMOOCs that pay facilitators, but cMOOCs are usually facilitated for free, precisely because the facilitator has “personal interest” in the topic. I can’t imagine anyone freely convening a MOOC that they are not interested in. I’ve never taken a class with any teacher devoid of any interest or bias in the topic, and it’s the traditional class with its assessment regime that is most likely to squelch opinions that dissent from the teacher’s. I always feel free to challenge MOOC facilitators and do so regularly, as do others.

    [2] No one can be alert to all the conversations within a MOOC. I’ve tried, and I can read much, but I can’t track all of any MOOC, so how can the facilitator? As was the case in Rhizo14, the facilitator usually hears of contention after it happens. Moreover, no conversation is right for everyone. In Rhizo14, many did not want to discuss Deleuze and Guattari, though I did. And I did anyway. Enough listened to me and engaged somewhat, but most didn’t. A MOOC has very low entry and exit barriers. If a conversation is not working for me, I leave. And I’ve left many more MOOCs than I’ve finished. They were just the wrong conversation for me, and that makes no judgement about those conversations.

    [3] I really disagree with the teacher’s “obligation to provide a learning experience … successful for all.” This is wrong for so many reasons. First, I am responsible for my learning, and the community is second in responsibility—this was the whole point of Rhizo14. Second, no experience is suitable for all. Third, if a given MOOC is not a rich, engaging environment, I leave it, and I’m not likely to engage that MOOC again. I’d be silly to stay.

    [4] The “duty of care that educators have for their learners” strikes me as too paternalistic. This entire set of guidelines from Marshall seems to focus too much on the traditional paternalistic relationship between teacher and student, a relationship that cMOOCs intentionally disrupt. And anyway, I have never been in a MOOC in which the facilitator did not show real care for the participants.

    Okay, this is going on too long, and I should probably move this to my blog and off yours. Sorry, mostly because it may sound now as if I didn’t like your article, but I did. I just started the Marshall thing and couldn’t quit typing. But here’s my point, and I’ll stop: ethics are critical, but new structures demand new ethics. cMOOCs are new structures, and the old paternalistic demands do not hold. Help me figure out what does.

    Finally, I agree with Jenny that rhizomatic education is not just for experienced adult learners. Nothing is more rhizomatic than a sandbox with six children learning to play together and inventing new, old games and stories. That’s actually the best model of rhizomatic learning that I know. Most any kid can get in the sandbox, and they can stay if they play nice.

    As always, I’m enriched when I read you and Jenny, and I thank you for giving me the chance to learn more.

    • jennymackness February 20, 2015 - 1:27 pm Reply

      Hi Keith – many thanks for taking the time to read our paper and respond. It’s interesting that you’ve selected the reference to Marshall’s paper to respond to. For me this paper was interesting because it was really trying to unpick what ethics means in a MOOC (my search through the literature suggests that little has been written about this yet) and I suspect encourage some debate around the possible issues; given your comments, this seems to have worked ☺. I hope Marshall gets to see your comments at some stage, so that you can continue this debate with him.

      I am thinking, and need more time to respond, about two other comments you have made.

      >cMOOCs are new structures, and the old paternalistic demands do not hold

      I have probably missed the point here, but I don’t equate ethics with paternalism, although I agree that cMOOCs are new structures.

      > new structures demand new ethics

      I’m thinking about this. I suspect it might be more complex, but I am not a philosopher and couldn’t claim to be an expert about ethics. I feel a possible blog post coming on.

      Thanks for your comments Keith.


      • keith.hamon February 20, 2015 - 5:23 pm Reply

        I’m with you, Jenny. I feel lots of blog posts coming on. This is a rich line of thought, and I’m excited.

        I responded mostly to Marshall in my first comment because I had the most immediate reaction to his 4 rules, and comments tend to be immediate reactions. Keep in mind that I have not read his work, only the summary of him in your paper, so I trust he doesn’t read my comments until I’ve had the chance to be more thoughtful.

        You are right that ethics in cMOOCs has received little attention. Of course, it’s a contentious issue, and maybe that’s partly why people have avoided it. Still, we shouldn’t avoid the issue, so:

        My own perspective is framed by the shift from the simple domain to the complex domain as I hinted in my response above to Gordon. I think that most of our current thought about ethics is framed for, and suitable for, the simple domain. I have a very fundamentalist, religious background that still preaches a simple ethics: do this, don’t do that, and go to Heaven, otherwise go to Hell. The rules and the goals are explicit and apply to all people at all times for all situations. This is an extreme view of ethics, mind you, but it actually exists and in many parts of the world, including the good old USA, seems to be growing. The paternalistic approach I mentioned in my comment seems to belong in the simple domain, though I’m sure there are more nuanced positions. I really do not like ethics in the simple domain as I think it leads ultimately to the most awful behavior.

        By the way, I’m not attacking religion here—just ethics in the simple domain. Social, economic, ecological, and political fundamentalists are just as rigid in their ethical prescriptions as are religious fundamentalists.

        Complexity is opening wonderful new ways of thinking—certainly in the sciences but also in many other fields—and I want to apply complexity to ethical thought, or said another way, move ethics into the complex domain. This is why I want new ethics for new structures, new spaces—though calling complexity new is misleading. The world has always been complex, but our reductionist modes of thought over the past couple of centuries have blinded most of us to that complexity. Some thinkers have seen the postmodern (for me, complexity) before the modern, as Cary Wolfe writes in his introduction to Michel Serres’ book Parasite: “Jean-François Lyotard’s famous assertion that the postmodern paradoxically comes before the modern, for Serres, the posthuman precedes and subtends the human” (Serres, Michel (2013-11-30). The Parasite (Posthumanities) (Kindle Locations 121-122). University of Minnesota Press. Kindle Edition).

        Writing about complexity is not an easy task. Thought in the complex domain is never as clear and precise as many people want (just read Deleuze and Guattari), and too many get their hackles up against relativistic ethics or simply give up and fall back on simple guidelines. I don’t want to do either. I think there is much to learn about ethics and complexity, and I hope to learn some of it. Thanks for starting that inquiry.

    • francesbell February 20, 2015 - 4:56 pm Reply

      Thanks for your feedback Keith. I think you gave Marshall more words than we did. Just like ‘an RT does not indicate agreement’ neither does a cite:) The question of what ethics might look like in any given learning situation is not yet clear to me, at any rate. What has come across to me from engaging with the data (and I hope you got a sense of that in the paper) is that when participant negative responses are hidden or silenced the apparent harmony seems less authentic somehow. It was very interesting to read some of the responses to our paper on the Rhizo14 Facebook group. I suspected that there might be a bit of cognitive dissonance for people with a strong attachment to Rhizo14. And somehow that fits with the fact that anonymous respondents were able to respond with ideas that they hadn’t felt able to share publicly on Rhizo14.
      I was interested in your reference to paternalism. I understand that you could see authoritarian relations in education as paternalistic, and something not to be transferred to more open learning situations. But the paradox is that paternalism is alive and strong out on the wilds of the Internet. Think of all that mansplaining, the horrors of gamergate and women and others hounded off the Internet. Think of the experiences of the #ferguson activists.
      So new ethics for new spaces are not simply removing structure to remove paternalism because I don’t think that is going to work if our data and experiences on the wider web are anything to go by. We will try to extract the maximum learning and knowledge from our participant data and our engagement with it but we can’t hope to ‘solve’ that in one go. Baby steps, baby steps.

  8. keith.hamon February 20, 2015 - 5:44 pm Reply

    Thanks, Frances. I posted a reply to Jenny before I saw your comment and addressed there why I spoke about Marshall.

    Like you, I have not yet figured out how to think about ethics in the open, complex spaces of the Internet, but I think I’ll make a stronger effort now that you and Jenny have opened the conversation. And it is a timely conversation. Bad things do happen on the Internet, and if they didn’t, we wouldn’t need to discuss ethics, I suppose. Paternalism is alive and thriving, and I want to find a way beyond it. We’ll see.

    As for hidden voices, transparency is one of the first issues that I want to address, but that will be a long post for later that will involve me in all the privacy issues that people can be quite passionate about. I’m certain to say plenty to challenge and maybe even offend all, but if we don’t venture into spaces that people aren’t talking about, then we haven’t written much, have we? It should be quite a ride. 🙂

    Anyway, thanks again to you and Jenny for playing the ball into one of those open spaces on the pitch where all the exciting things happen.

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  10. catherinecronin February 22, 2015 - 4:48 pm Reply

    Frances and Jenny, thanks so much for your thought-provoking paper and for modelling the ethical practices you describe by engaging widely in discussion about the paper — here, as well as on Facebook and Twitter. Your commitment to ethical, open and public scholarship, shines brightly through all of your work — it is a model for me.
    Back to your paper 🙂 I’ve enjoyed reading it very much. Your focus on ethics re: teaching & learning in open networks, and researching networked pedagogies, is so welcome. I had been following your discussion of this over the past year (albeit peripherally) as you tweeted links to your blog posts about your emerging methodology. And what unique positions you write from — doing insider research (as Rhizo14 participants) as self-described ‘Independent’ and ‘Itinerant’ researcher/scholars 🙂 As you say, you are not answerable to institutional ethics boards, but such requirements are necessary (within HEIs) but not sufficient anyway.
    The ethics of teaching in MOOCs, or any form of open education, are of keen interest to me — as both an educator and a researcher of open educational practices in HE. As you’ve highlighted, Noddings is a touchstone here: “the ethical ideal is the ethic of caring”. Much is possible when we dismantle the traditional structures of teaching & learning (e.g. didactic teaching, curriculum as product), but along with that freedom come new responsibilities. It’s easy to focus mostly on the former — especially in the initial flush of excitement about new forms of learning & teaching. I’ve learned this from personal experience; paying more attention and learning from experience and from my students as I’ve adopted more open practices.
    I was particularly interested in the feedback from those participants who felt disempowered. I’d love to know more about this — what particular practices or experiences led them to feeling isolated or excluded? A particular strand of my work is the interplay between ‘community’ and ‘network’ and the tensions between these (in participants’ assumptions and well as in practice). I’m delighted to see that you will write about this in your third paper.
    A long comment here, but I know our conversations will continue! Thank you both.

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  12. jennymackness February 23, 2015 - 10:16 am Reply

    Catherine – many thanks for taking the time to comment here.

    We have had/are having so many interesting discussions around this paper, which is a real bonus. But the issues do feel difficult to wrestle with.

    Pat Thomson has just written a great blog post today about ethics in research – – aimed at thesis writing, but relevant to us as well I think.

    I agree with your comment about freedom and responsibilities and I need to think more about this. What is the relationship between the two? Whose freedom? Whose responsibilities? And so on. Frances and I continue to discuss and try and unpick all these issues. Isn’t it great when the publication of a paper isn’t an end point, but a starting point to new lines of inquiry 🙂

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