Category Archives: Rhizo 15

#Rhizo15: balancing cohesion and openness in communities

So Dave Cormier is now getting us to think about “the dark side of the rhizome”, and whether it is invasive and smothers other possibilities. To add further provocation, he notes that the volumes of tweets relating to #rhizo15 is rising, but the number of participants is falling. A closer knit group of people are communicating more intensively with each other. To paraphrase, if I may, he is wondering whether a community based on the principles of openness and discovery is actually becoming something of a closed group, and whether this matters.

For me, the obvious point of comparison relates to my original university studies in theology. Religious groups are fascinating case studies in developing and maintaining communities. They are frequently committed to principles of outreach and welcoming people in, but on the other hand they define themselves quite clearly in ways that of necessity exclude people. Put another way, in order for some to “belong” it is necessary to be clear about who does not belong. This may be related to obvious factors (e.g. who has been baptised or confirmed), or more subtle signals (e.g. what vocabulary you use). My personal experience, from the days when I was a practising Christian, showed me that church groups, despite their ideals, are often very closed and difficult to break into without huge effort.

There is a paradox here for all communities. In order to thrive, they need some element of cohesion – shared understanding, vocabulary or, as Etienne Wenger (1998) has taught us to think of it, shared practices. But the stronger that cohesion becomes, the more this group will turn inward, rejecting outside influences and challenges, with consequences that can be severe. The American psychologist Irving Janis (1972) developed the concept of “groupthink” to describe irrational and even dangerous decision-making that can take place within closed groups. Active measures are needed to prevent this. A few days ago, the General Election in the UK resulted in over 180 new MPs taking up seats in Parliament – we can perhaps see the wisdom of a system that builds in systematic and significant institutional renewal every few years.

So how does this relate to the rhizo15 group? The fact is that, over the few weeks it has been running, those with the inclination to get deeply involved with it have coalesced into a group with distinctive interests and vocabulary, which undoubtedly makes it harder for others to “break in”. This is probably an inevitable aspect of community formation (certainly not unique to rhizomes) and is something that established participants should try to be aware of. However, the community will shift over time and next year (hopefully) offers a brand new chance for anyone who wants to to get involved. The balance here between cohesion and openness seems reasonable to me.

Reference:

Janis, I. (1972). Victims of Groupthink: a Psychological Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascoes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press .

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Community as curriculum in accounting – #rhizo15 week 3

In week 3 of #rhizo15, Dave Cormier challenges us to think about the idea that “content” in educational settings is really just another word for people and the communities they operate in (at least that’s my attempt to sum up his argument in a sentence). He links this to the idea that humans are particularly good at creating abstractions, which we then all believe in so as to make sense of the world we live in. These abstractions include money, government, law, marriage and lots of others. This approach, I discovered a couple of years ago, is sometimes referred to as social constructionism – a colleague who is very familiar with this field recommended John Searle’s Making the Social World as a good overview, and I found the book interesting, if slightly heavy going. But in reading it, I realised that I could pinpoint my first realisation of this idea shortly after I started teaching.

At this point I should explain that I am a Chartered Accountant by profession, and proud of it, although people often seem to think I don’t fit their stereotype of an accountant. Accounting is a very fruitful area to explore these ideas as it deals almost entirely in “socially constructed” realities. Money, companies, financial statements, management accounting techniques, shareholders, investments – all of these are things which we have created as a set of communities. They have no objective existence, are only sustained by the fact that people believe in them, and would all vanish if the human race went extinct. When we teach someone how to do management accounting or the rules for financial reporting, for example, all we are doing is sharing the consensus that has built up over the decades and centuries about how these things should be done. That consensus changes over time and will continue to change.

The book that helped me understand all this, that I read in my early teaching days, is called Relevance Lost: Rise and Fall of Management Accounting by Johnson and Kaplan and was published in 1991. I found it riveting and still feel it should be required reading for all accountants. It traces the history of management accounting techniques in American businesses, showing that they arose in a specific set of historical circumstances which in many cases have changed drastically. The authors believed that management accounting was no longer fit for purpose and later went on to develop the two most important ideas that management accounting has seen in recent decades – the balanced scorecard and activity-based costing (both of which, incidentally, remain far too under-used).

So the concept of “community as curriculum”, or that content means people, doesn’t feel odd or uncomfortable to me – in fact in accounting it is more or less stating the obvious. The accounting curriculum represents the current consensus of the community of accountants, expressed through the syllabi which the accounting bodies determine. But it does raise two quite important questions for me, which continue to nag away:

  1. It is easy to see that accounting knowledge is based entirely on social constructions, but surely some knowledge is not. Two chemicals, for example, will react together a certain way regardless of what the community thinks. Don’t the physical sciences have certain objective knowledge, a curriculum if you like, that exists independently of the community? So does this require a different teaching approach to the social sciences?
  2. The issue of community membership cannot be ignored. In most (if not all) fields of knowledge, we will not allow anyone who feels like it to define the curriculum. A certain level of competence must be required first. Someone who qualifies as a Chartered Accountant has demonstrated sufficient expertise to be accepted into that particular professional community and will play their part in the ongoing development of accounting. At present, this entry is quite formal, controlled by professional bodies and largely dependent on passing written exams. I suppose in a sense this entry represents the community accepting the person. But this all feels quite archaic and restrictive. Are there better ways of deciding who is fit to join the community and who is not? I would love to tap into some creative ideas about how else this could be done.

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#rhizo15 and learning from your children in the post-digital age

Strange how blog posts can happen. Start #rhizo15, go to a conference and be a Kahlil Gibran obsessive. This is what resulted.

In his sublime poem The Prophet, Khalil Gibran had this to say about your children:

“You may strive to be like them, but do seek not to make them like you.

For life neither goes backward nor tarries with yesterday.”

I love this phrase, and try to take it seriously, both as a general philosophy and parenting advice. One of the reasons I got so interested in the online world was to try to understand what my kids were up to and now that I work in this field, they are my invaluable sources of intelligence. They came to mind when I attended a conference last week and heard a fascinating talk from David White, Head of Technology-Enhanced Learning at the University of the Arts London. A key aspect of his argument was that we are now living in a “post-digital” age. This does not mean that technology has finished advancing, but that digital technologies have “dissolved into use” and become more or less invisible. Our focus now should not be the technology itself but rather dealing with its implications – this is not just a matter of teaching children to code but how we respond in culture and the arts. White also made the point that we in the education system have a tendency to see the Web as an “inconveniently chaotic library” of information. It is that, but much more importantly it is also place where anyone can publish, project their persona and to some extent live out their life. Our task is no longer to convey information (if it ever was), but to help our students “find their voice” online, for example by developing their ability to question, think critically and have the confidence to contribute to debates.

This rings true to me because it fits so well with what I see my young teenage children do. They take it for granted that they can find out anything they want online – that is no longer remarkable or interesting. More importantly, they participate in communities. My son likes to build games on the platforms where you can do these things, often in collaboration with his friends (thankfully Skype is free and can simply be left open all day), and will tell me proudly how many hundreds of plays or likes his games have received. As far as I can see, he is busy experimenting within a community, collaborating in real time and learning as he goes along.

Doesn’t this description sound a lot like rhizomatic learning? As a parent who happens to be a professional educator, I want to help my son get the best out of this learning experience so how can I do this? The answer is certainly not to set any form of learning objectives. For one thing, I couldn’t, because he understands gaming much better than I do, and in addition neither of us really have any idea where this will lead.  Setting objectives would be pointless at best and at worst would shut off potentially interesting avenues. All I can do, at least while he will still listen to me, is help him understand the “ground rules” of e-safety (there are risks in any sort of exploration, which need to be managed) and do my best to help him be a curious, questioning, critical learner. And then I need to take Gibran’s advice and learn all I can from him. It’s exciting to see what I hope will be a future approach to education unfold so close to home.

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Uncertainty in management and embarking on #rhizo15

So, fresh from completing my first MOOC, I am going to follow it up with what may just be the grandaddy of connectivist MOOCS – #rhizo15 starts this week. The course leader, Dave Cormier, needs no introduction to the more idealistic edtech types. It was Cormier and his colleagues who coined the term “MOOC” and developed the original concept (NOT Sebastian Thrun, who has been given the credit in several presentations I have seen). I am particularly impressed by this video on embracing uncertainty, which I have viewed several times and also used in my teaching:

Cormier’s idea is based on the Cynefin framework, which was developed for business, and the need for education to take account of uncertainty is extremely relevant to my own field of management education. Managers, I suspect,  have always acted under conditions of uncertainty, but the uncertainty levels are now increasingly exponentially due to technology, social change, political shifts and so on. And yet we still often teach frameworks, concepts and tools with an air of “this is the truth about management”. As most thoughtful managers eventually realise, the frameworks, concepts and tools may be useful to you in a given situation, or they may not. What works in one context may or may not work in another. Good management, more often than not, is about having the judgement and intuition to decide which tools to use and whether they are working or not.

This is not always a popular message, however. Many students are looking for “answers”, and it is very attractive to us as educators to be the experts who can provide those answers. How do we show that truth is really more complex than that, and that our job as educators is to help them develop into people who can manage their own learning in a way that works for them? More challenging still, how to we do this in an educational system which tends to focus on knowledge content and somewhat blunt assessment tools? I do not expect answers, of course, but I am hoping for some ideas, stimulation and discoveries that will help. Then again, maybe I will learn something completely unexpected….

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