I read through Dave Cormier’s paper on Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum. As I read through it I found I had too many questions and arguments. Enough to make me doubt whether I understood at all what the paper attempts to explain or if I had the slightest sense of adequacy about the strength of my own research, beliefs and knowledge. Atleast it shows I really read it J. Apologies if some comments are slightly provocative or completely wrong. As always, I would love to hear from all your honest comments and criticism.

(Paper text in paragraph red italics, my comments in normal case)

The increasingly transitory nature of what is lauded as current or accurate in new and developing fields, as well as the pace of change in Western culture more broadly, has made it difficult for society in general and education in particular to define what counts as knowledge.

This is a really sweeping statement to make. What evidence do we have of this? Every period has new and developing fields with plenty of churn in thought and ideas, often at a very fast pace, often inaccurate and often a remix of old concepts. Ideas flow and ebb rapidly because people are perhaps seriously thinking and debating concepts and theories. And how can we generalize that it is the pace of the change in Western culture that is a defining factor in anything that is implied for society in general? How is rapid development of thought or it’s transitory nature related to definition of what counts as knowledge? Is all that is current accurate, or the other way around? How is this only relevant for new and developing fields?

The existing educational model with its expert-centered pedagogical planning and publishing cycle is too static and prescribed to accommodate the kind of fluid, transitory conception of knowledge that is necessary to understand the simplest of Web-based concepts.

Is our conception of knowledge terribly fluid and transitory? It may have interpretations and those interpretations may change over time. But is our conception of knowledge fluid and transitory or is it the form that knowledge takes and the quantization of what constitutes this knowledge that is fluid and transitory? What is an example of the simplest of web based concepts that the existing education model cannot comprehend? Is it the skill of writing a blog? Or is it that knowledge exists in everyone and can be leveraged? What message does this give to the thousands of educators who are using collaborative learning techniques (with or without the use of technology) in an effort to improve the system? Again, try putting a formal process for peer review in to a blogosphere conversation – may be it will seem to be longer, more arduous, much more complex and more static than any publishing cycle!

The ephemeral nature of the Web and the rate at which cutting-edge knowledge about it and on it becomes obsolete disrupts the painstaking process by which knowledge has traditionally been codified.

Is the web really ephemeral? I thought it was the painstaking effort of so many people to devise frameworks and theories around object oriented development (for example) or SOA. Hewlett Packard or Amazon would be left wondering if they are in the right business if virtualization was ephemeral. Cisco would ask if routing theories are ephemeral? Are Google’s search algorithms ephemeral? Is the start of a new “different” service on the web a function of evolving technology and customer/user approaches or the disappearance of other ways of thinking? What is cutting edge knowledge about the web that has so disrupted that painstaking process and what makes us feel that doing a new tool is an easy process now? How can the rate of change of anything disrupt the process of codifying it’s knowledge? May be we get new tools to make us more efficient in managing that process? And again, what is meant by codifying knowledge? If it is newer forms of media or tools such as CMAP that allow us to digitally represent an existing or new representational form? Is it storage and classification systems?

Traditional curricular domains are based on long-accepted knowledge, and the “experts” in those domains are easily identified by comparing their assertions with the canon of accepted thought (Banks 1993); newer concepts, whether in technology, physics, or modern culture, are not easily compared against any canon.

OK. I am not an expert in physics or modern culture. Most things are based on long accepted knowledge. They form a starting point. If I did not take the trouble to study object orientation, there is no way I would understand the web (or actually a lot of things in my life). But there are probably 30 or more object orientation methods or theories (canons). What is meant by an expert – isn’t she a person that really understands the domain – a domain like object orientation – and where would she get this expertise from? Again, can the “newer concept” of the semantic web be easily compared with relational database management systems? Can connectivism be compared and contrasted with existing learning theories? Can the new epistemology that is being proposed not be compared to anything else in some way? Newer concepts would create, perhaps, more and more new canons, as more people start believing in their validity. But then, how would you codify a new canon?

This lack of a center of measurement for what is “true” or “right” makes the identification of key pieces of knowledge in any of these fields a precarious task.

To propose that to identify whether something is “true” or “right”, you need an existing canon to compare against (as a center of measurement) is probably very wrong. In a lighter vein, G.H hardy wrote about the theorems of Ramanujan, an Indian mathematician. “He figured that Ramanujan’s theorems “must be true, because, if they were not true, no one would have the imagination to invent them.” (source: Wikipedia). Again, how many canons do we really know about to really be able to identify the truth? The world is a vast place and there are many thought leaders, not all have published research in scientific journals or that any of us have real access to. Is what is true only what is published and available on the web?

In less-traditional curricular domains then, knowledge creators are not accurately epitomized as traditional, formal, verified experts; rather, knowledge in these areas is created by a broad collection of knowers sharing in the construction and ongoing evolution of a given field. Knowledge becomes a negotiation (Farrell 2001).

Can knowledge only be created by traditional, formal, verified experts in any curricular domain? I think not. Even the guy who manages your technical infrastructure has long since discovered or coded a hack to get around niggling network or PC problems. And yes, everyone can share if they want to. And cannot a knower in that broad collection be an expert too going through a formal process for publishing a journal article. The argument seems to be more political that technical, but I could be very wrong.

Knowledge as negotiation is not an entirely new concept in educational circles; social contructivist and connectivist pedagogies, for instance, are centered on the process of negotiation as a learning process. Neither of these theories, however, is sufficient to represent the nature of learning in the online world. There is an assumption in both theories that the learning process should happen organically but that knowledge, or what is to be learned, is still something independently verifiable with a definitive beginning and end goal determined by curriculum.

I am not sure that we have negotiated connectivist theory enough to start talking about connectivist pedagogy. And I assume you mean the process of negotiation of knowledge as a learning process. Theses theories do not claim, at least the social constructivists do not as far as I know, to represent the nature of learning for a specific technology, context or group of learners. These theories provide generalizable principles of learning. And I don’t think, from whatever I have read so far, that proponents of connectivist epistemology would agree with knowledge being  independently verifiable with goals determined by curriculum or that learning should happen organically (if I understand that correctly).

A botanical metaphor, first posited by Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus (1987), may offer a more flexible conception of knowledge for the information age: the rhizome. A rhizomatic plant has no center and no defined boundary; rather, it is made up of a number of semi-independent nodes, each of which is capable of growing and spreading on its own, bounded only by the limits of its habitat (Cormier 2008). In the rhizomatic view, knowledge can only be negotiated, and the contextual, collaborative learning experience shared by constructivist and connectivist pedagogies is a social as well as a personal knowledge-creation process with mutable goals and constantly negotiated premises. The rhizome metaphor, which represents a critical leap in coping with the loss of a canon against which to compare, judge, and value knowledge, may be particularly apt as a model for disciplines on the bleeding edge where the canon is fluid and knowledge is a moving target.

If my comments above are valid, then this conclusion does not really hold. Again, the rhizomatic plant is also seen as growing organically. If I understand correctly, the web is inherently rhizomic (rather than arborescent but you can find plenty of examples of such use on the web or off it if you want to) because it allows you to connect different resources. But so perhaps is a startup. Or a family. And everything in a startup (or a family) is fluid too. But isn’t it obvious that whatever way we learn, or the extent to which we learn, critically depends upon many other enabling factors such as availability of resources, motivation, our own capabilities to unearth meaning, the ecology in which we search for meaning etc. It is important to mention that the start and end points when you are climbing a veritable plateau still exist, because you could pinpoint where you started and where you finally reached, only that you may not follow what is laid down in a traditional curriculum with traditional “1.0” ways of thinking of goals and outcomes. For all you know, the “expert” may follow a pedagogy that may allow you to do just that.

On Knowledge

A clear definition of the word “knowledge” is difficult yet key to any search for shared understanding. Indeed, as Hinchley (1998) notes, “Like other cultural assumptions, the definition of ‘knowledge’ is rarely explicitly discussed because it has been so long a part of the culture that it seems a self-evident truth to many, simply another part of the way things are” (36). However, the concept of knowledge is fluid and subject to cultural and historical forces (Exhibit 1); as Horton and Freire (1990) argue, “If the act of knowing has historicity, then today’s knowledge about something is not necessarily the same tomorrow. Knowledge is changed to the extent that reality also moves and changes. . . . It’s not something stabilized, immobilized” (101). The word itself is thought to have multiple origins, drawing from forms of “to know,” “to recognize,” and the Old Icelandic knà, meaning “I can.” The combination of these origins suggests a relationship of knowledge, power, and agency that is grounded in both the social and the political spheres. Knowledge represents “positions from which people make sense of their worlds and their place in them, and from which they construct their concepts of agency, the possible, and their own capacities to do” (Stewart 2002, 20).

What constitutes knowledge is definitely fluid. It is evidenced by the huge quantitative and qualitative growth of interactions and media on the web as in the offline world. How transitory or ephemeral is our conception or definition of knowledge? Our knowledge is part of what defines what we are and how we act. But we do not revise our conception of knowledge (say “justified, true belief”, “reliable knowledge”, “intuition”) so frequently (it may mean different things to different people).

Information is the foundation of knowledge. The information in any given field consists of facts and figures, such as may be found in the technical reference manuals of learning; in a nonrhizomatic model, individual experts translate information into knowledge through the application of checks and balances involving peer review and rigorous assessment against a preexisting body of knowledge. The peers and experts are themselves vetted through a similar sanctioning process that is the purview, largely, of degree-granting institutions. This process carries the prestige of a thousand-year history, and the canon of what has traditionally been considered knowledge is grounded in this historicity as a self-referential set of comparative valuations that ensure the growth of knowledge by incremental, verified, and institutionally authorized steps. In this model, the experts are the arbiters of the canon. The expert translation of data into verified knowledge is the central process guiding traditional curriculum development.

When the definition of knowledge is so problematic, how can we posit that experts translate (not transform?) information (foundation of knowledge?, should that instead read “intelligence is the foundation of knowledge” or “collaboration is…”?) in to knowledge? Again, the review or sanctioning process – is knowledge only generated through the purview, largely, of degree granting institutions? Whatever happened to informal sources of knowledge such as indigenous knowhow?

And is knowledge sufficient to engender learning (what is the difference?)? What, further, is the role of instructional design or pedagogy? Does knowledge need to be transformed/translated into instructionally myriad forms and propagated through specific processes of learning to result in learning? Is learning organic too? How does organic self organization affect how we achieve our goals of learning in a world dominated by pressures of time, distracting cultural & personal influences of and self motivation?

One could argue that it is in the implementation of the curriculum or because of the non-curriculum constraints (the binding academic semester/year, the assessment system, accepted definitions of good performance) that actually constrains educators to rigidly follow a beaten path with little room for encouragement of diverse opinions or perspectives. Could be a case for “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”!

Changing Knowledge

New communication technologies and the speeds at which they allow the dissemination of information and the conversion of information to knowledge have forced us to reexamine what constitutes knowledge; moreover, it has encouraged us to take a critical look at where it can be found and how it can be validated.

How do new communication technologies and their speeds allow the conversion of information to knowledge? If web based communication allows validation processes to be put in place, what are those validation processes that we can use to canonize knowledge? Are we saying the web will allow us to speed up the validation process ever enough to allow for the super-exponentially (if there is such a word) increasing amount of information? Or are we saying that only some types of knowledge will need to be canonized? Then who makes that decision – an expert? The web only provides us with crowd-sense and majorities do not create theory.

Where can information be found? I don’t think it would be surprising to anybody that although the web page (this article on Rhizomatic education, when saved as an .mht file from Internet Explorer) was a 136KB web archive file, but when saved as just text (content and menu text) it was 22 KB in size which is about 16% of the web archive size. At the great risk of oversimplification, even if we thought of the web as just text, you can see that illusion about how large it really is. And how much of it is real canonizable (if there is such a word) information-knowledge is for just us to speculate (can’t be much). So perhaps talk about all this knowledge being created out of the overabundance of the web is fanciful and sometimes extreme. If you even look at the unrecorded real conversations we have between ourselves, the conversation on the web would look insignificant. I would hazard that the amount of information created off the web would be daunting to even think of sizing or locating. That’s what large or overabundant would be, I guess, and that is where information can really be found.

The explosion of freely available sources of information has helped drive rapid expansion in the accessibility of the canon and in the range of knowledge available to learners. Online access to thousands of primary documents may be provided via the Internet for less than it costs to provide far fewer examples in a traditional textbook package (Rosenzweig 2003).

Let us define free, available, costs. I will reproduce an excerpt from a Position Paper by the National Focus Group on Teaching of Science that was published by NCERT (National Council of Educational Research and Training), India in 2006.

First, we must use science curriculum as an instrument of social change to reduce the divide related to economic class, gender, caste, religion and region. We must use the textbook as one of the primary instruments for equity, since for a great majority of school going children, as also for their teachers, it is the only accessible and affordable resource for education. We must encourage alternative textbook writing in the country within the broad guidelines of the national curriculum framework. Information and Communication Technology (ICT) is also an important tool for bridging the social divides. ICT should be used in such a way that it becomes an opportunity equalizer, by providing information, communication and computing resources in remote areas. (emphasis added)

The problems of a developed world and it’s affordances are very different from those parts of the world where basic access to education is an issue. Creating a billion printed books and distributing them may entail a lower cost than putting up the technology infrastructure for even a thousandth of that number of learners!

This is a rash, extremist and reactionary example though. Most probably untrue as well operationally or from a longer term connected vision. I believe in the value of technology to learning, just want to make sure that the opposite stance is also not as rigid or without caveat.

In addition to this increased accessibility of primary documents, a new breed of user-generated content has emerged on collaborative Web sites and in other online venues. Web sites such as EdTechTalk, The Webcast Academy, and the Open Habitat Project collate the work of a variety of professionals to create snapshots of the knowledge of a particular field as it is seen at a given time (Cormier 2008).

What are these primary documents? Are canons constituted by “primary documents” that represent knowledge? What kind of knowledge do these primary documents contain – arborescent or rhizomic? Again, I thought content was created by users of the internet before blogs came in. In fact, I even helped a few people (as did countless others) to translate information (products, services, technologies, theories, scientific knowledge) into knowledge enshrined in websites. And there have been millions of them as we all know. The thing that has happened is perhaps the natural evolution of web technology to make it more participative and accessible in a variety of ways, not just to express thoughts. Perhaps the faster we move farther afield from this UGC phenomenon, will we really actualize the benefits of this new technology for learning.

Thus the foundations upon which we are working are changing as well as the speed at which new information must be integrated into those foundations. The traditional method of expert translation of information to knowledge requires time: time for expertise to be brought to bear on new information, time for peer review and validation. In the current climate, however, that delay could make the knowledge itself outdated by the time it is verified (Evans and Hayes 2005; Meile 2005). In a field like educational technology, traditional research methods combined with a standard funding and publication cycle might cause a knowledge delay of several years. In the meantime, learners are left without a canonical source of accepted knowledge, forcing a reliance on new avenues for knowledge creation. For instance, a researcher exploring social software use must rely at least in part on online knowledge repositories because current information on the terminology used in these areas is simply not available in any exhaustive or definitive form in books or peer-reviewed articles (Nichol 2007). Information is coming too fast for our traditional methods of expert verification to adapt.

So just because we all found a way to make things accessible quickly and conveniently, the basic premise of how knowledge needs to be referenced, created and represented needs to change? I would think that the currency or accuracy of this knowledge is equally suspect and canonizing it would take probably longer than traditional cycles given the sheer diversity and numbers. And what is the final output? – these sources of ideas and concepts will get canonized at some point and form the “current or accurate” knowledge base for a future new area. Do we think and believe that every technology revolution in communication or knowledge management would necessitate re-questioning our beliefs and definitions of knowledge and theories of learning?

In fields frequently affected by the gatekeeping practices of the traditional publishing industry, professionals in fields such as the science of spectroscopy are turning to online community learning spaces or collaborative document holders such as wikis. The wiki, or any collaboratively constructed document for that matter, solves a number of issues inherent to the expert-driven model as it has the capacity to be more current than any expert-assessed content package or traditional publication can usually be. Wikis and similar tools offer a participatory medium that can allow for communal negotiation of knowledge.

But who can or does write about a particular field? And who can negotiate knowledge with some knowledgeable person who wrote a wiki page? Aren’t these experts to a degree themselves? Or do experts need to be degreed individuals with established paper trails? And just because the system demands that the cycles be long for review and critical assessment (is there anything called instant gratification?), does it mean that the expert centered paradigm is wrong and needs to be thrown away?

Collaborative knowledge construction is also being taken up in fields that are more traditionally coded as learning environments. In particular, social learning practices are allowing for a more discursive rhizomatic approach to knowledge discovery. Social learning is the practice of working in groups, not only to explore an established canon but also to negotiate what qualifies as knowledge. According to Brown and Adler (2008), “The most profound impact of the Internet, an impact that has yet to be fully realized, is its ability to support and expand the various aspects of social learning” (18). Several communities on the Internet offer some idea of what can be accomplished in a participatory social learning environment where knowledge is being negotiated (Exhibit 2). Social learning is particularly valuable in fields where the parameters of knowledge are constantly shifting and a canon has not yet been solidified.

Social learning should be particularly valuable in all contexts. I have not heard or read about any dependence or special considerations on initial conditions such as shifting parameters of knowledge as yet.  But I would love to know more.

Educational technology is one such field. Alec Couros’s graduate-level course in educational technology offered at the University of Regina provides an ideal example of the role social learning and negotiation can play in learning (Exhibit 3). Students in Couros’s class worked from a curriculum created through their own negotiations of knowledge and formed their own personally mapped networks, thereby contributing to the rhizomatic structure in their field of study. This kind of collaborative, rhizomatic learning experience clearly represents an ideal that is difficult to replicate in all environments, but it does highlight the productive possibilities of the rhizome model (Exhibit 4).

Couldn’t they be also contributing though with their personal mapped networks to future non-rhizomatic hierarchical bases and canons of knowledge? Where will the new knowledge go or meld unto, if found useful in a future context? I guess I am trying to build parallels with how the expert driven system system works and trying to trace an evolutionary process, if there exists one.

These changes have sparked two primary responses among purveyors of traditional educational knowledge. One has been to attack these new sources as flawed as has been the case in the history department at Middlebury College (Jaschik 2007). These critiques of collaborative knowledge verification, premised on assumptions of validity rooted in the traditional strictures of academic publishing, reveal an essential misunderstanding of the place of socially constructed models in the new knowledge landscape that challenges traditional notions of canon just as the influx of content about women and ethnic minorities challenged certain canons of traditional knowledge in the 1990s (Banks 1993). An alternative response to changing knowledge foundations has been to engage in a flurry of discussion about intellectual property rights, debating the merits of various Creative Commons licenses and trying to determine the means by which content creators’ intellectual property rights can be protected even as content is distributed freely (Wiley 2007; Downes 2007; Bornfreund 2007).

Both of these responses are inadequate: the first, obviously, because it denies the legitimacy of a rhizomatic knowledge-creation process that is already overtaking traditional models and the second because it relies on the old notion of knowledge as resident in a particular individual and frozen in time, reified by publication. However, if knowledge is to be negotiated socially, then the idea of individual intellectual property must be renegotiated to reflect the process of acquisition and the output constructed by that process. What is needed is a model of knowledge acquisition that accounts for socially constructed, negotiated knowledge. In such a model, the community is not the path to understanding or accessing the curriculum; rather, the community is the curriculum.

I would agree to these inadequacies though may be not to the contention that one form of knowledge creation is overtaking another. Change is always tough, but that does not mean it is not coming. The socialization of knowledge and learning, I believe, is inexorable and our structures need to negotiate that change not by repudiation but by negotiation, perhaps rhizomatically, of the knowledge of the change.

The Rhizomatic Model of Education

In the rhizomatic model of learning, curriculum is not driven by predefined inputs from experts; it is constructed and negotiated in real time by the contributions of those engaged in the learning process. This community acts as the curriculum, spontaneously shaping, constructing, and reconstructing itself and the subject of its learning in the same way that the rhizome responds to changing environmental conditions:

The rhizome is an antigenealogy. It is a short-term memory, or antimemory. The rhizome operates by variation, expansion, conquest, capture, offshoots. Unlike the graphic arts, drawing or photography, unlike tracings, the rhizome pertains to a map that must be produced, constructed, a map that is always detachable, connectible, reversible, modifiable, and has multiple entryways and exits and its own lines of flight. (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 21)

With this model, a community can construct a model of education flexible enough for the way knowledge develops and changes today by producing a map of contextual knowledge. The living curriculum of an active community is a map that is always “detachable, connectible, reversible, modifiable, and has multiple entryways and exits”:

If the world of media education is thought of as a rhizome, as a library à la Eco [in The Name of the Rose], then we need to construct our own connections through this space in order to appropriate it. However, instead of that solitary groping made by Brother William, we see as our goal the co-construction of those secret connections as a collaborative effort. (Tella 2000, 41)

Whenever I read this kind of a description, perhaps because of my abbreviated experience as a student of economics, I am reminded of the notion of the “invisible hand”. Free market entities do their own thing, but the invisible hand provides serendipitous benefits to society. In trying to maximize my own knowledge in a rhizomatic way, am I contributing serendipitously to a living curriculum that will have great benefits to negotiate new and developing areas where there is considerable fluidity?

But most of all perhaps, I am concerned, not with the freedom and agency of the learner or intellectual propert and peer review, but with the implications of a pure ecology of social learning with a curriculum that is always “detachable, connectible, reversible, modifiable, and (with) multiple entryways and exits” without at the same time having one or more strategies for ensuring that the learner’s own performance / action-oriented goals are met. It would be great to climb a thousand plateaus, just the intellectual thrill of it, but it must result in learning that adds value to what I do and to my community. There is a definite need for formal methodologies that incorporate this aspect before, at least, I would embrace social learning.

In the practical example of Couros’s class, students created their own rhizomatically mapped curriculum by combining their blogs with information to which Couros pointed them and linking the combination to the particular knowledge that they discovered through discussions with key people in Couros’s professional community. In accessing Couros’s professional network, students had the opportunity to enter the community themselves and impact the shape of its curriculum as well as their own learning. The role of the instructor in all of this is to provide an introduction to an existing professional community in which students may participate—to offer not just a window, but an entry point into an existing learning community.

What would happen if we took Alec, as an expert (because that is what he is) out of the picture altogether? Or a Michael Wesch? Would students be able to come into a social learning space, debate what is important for them to learn, decide their own start and end points and the plateaus they want to climb to, encourage others with similar preferences to come in or help everyone to come to a common understanding of basics, invite experts to come and clarify a point of view, build their own knowledge artefacts through negotiation – wouldn’t that be just great?

That’s what I do everyday at work.

Conclusion

In a sense, the rhizomatic viewpoint returns the concept of knowledge to its earliest roots. Suggesting that a distributed negotiation of knowledge can allow a community of people to legitimize the work they are doing among themselves and for each member of the group, the rhizomatic model dispenses with the need for external validation of knowledge, either by an expert or by a constructed curriculum. Knowledge can again be judged by the old standards of “I can” and “I recognize.” If a given bit of information is recognized as useful to the community or proves itself able to do something, it can be counted as knowledge. The community, then, has the power to create knowledge within a given context and leave that knowledge as a new node connected to the rest of the network.

Indeed, the members themselves will connect the node to the larger network. Most people are members of several communities—acting as core members in some, carrying more weight and engaging more extensively in the discussion, while offering more casual contributions in others, reaping knowledge from more involved members (Cormier 2007). This is the new reality. Knowledge seekers in cutting-edge fields are increasingly finding that ongoing appraisal of new developments is most effectively achieved through the participatory and negotiated experience of rhizomatic community engagement. Through involvement in multiple communities where new information is being assimilated and tested, educators can begin to apprehend the moving target that is knowledge in the modern learning environment.

I guess I will need to revisit this paper to understand the conclusions more clearly. Indeed, I sense a sudden generalization here from applicability to “less-traditional curricular”, “where canon is fluid” and “knowledge is a moving target” to a definitive unconstrained statement that there is no need for external (?) validation of knowledge (how can a curriculum validate knowledge?). That knowledge gets a new definition as information that is recognized as being useful to the community or proof that it is able to do something. Then there is the emphasis on nodes and networks (the words perhaps themselves occur only two or three times in the entire article) and the roles of learners in communities, as well as the notion of a large networks and knowledge as a new node connected to the rest of the network. New and developing fields become cutting-edge and the moving target of knowledge is conquered effectively by rhizomatic communities.

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