#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.


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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Cognitive presence and open learning: coming full circle again with #HumanMOOC

So here I am more or less completing #HumanMOOC – although readers will be very aware that completion can be a complex idea when it comes to MOOCs. I have not earned any badges (apologies to the organisers here as I said I would), and have not been particularly active on the discussion boards. I have, however, learned a lot from the course and that is of course the critical thing. So firstly many thanks to the team involved in putting it together – Whitney Kilgore, Robin Bartoletti, Dave Hallmon, and Maha Al-Freih. They have done a superb job.

The final week was devoted to the third “leg” of the Community of Inquiry model – cognitive presence. This is the process by which students (i.e. all of us) are helped to grapple with theories, ideas and problems. One approach (Garrison &Anderson, 2003), helpfully thinks about this in four stages:

1) Triggering event/recognising problem – this could be anything from an assignment question to a video, to a news item;

2) Exploration of possible solutions, doing research etc.;

3) Integration of findings – synthesis, exploration, bringing everything together;

4) Resolution of the problem – applying ideas and considering their relevance.

Of course, no one would say these need to be sequential, or that this process is always followed, but it seems to me a useful design tool. Much of the discussion in the week focused on the first of these – “triggering events”, and how to bring them into teaching with imagination and impact. The week kicked off with the academic and self-proclaimed “edupunk” Jim Groom describing a very unorthodox triggering event which he used. He delivered a class as a fictional character, who then disappeared. It’s well worth viewing the video for the full story, which is as weird and provocative as it sounds:

Maybe these tactics are not ones we could all use, but the part of this I found most fascinating was the way Groom’s approach pushed his students to consider the issue of identity on the Web, which in turn is a topic you can only really explore using the tools of the web. His argument, which I tend to agree with, is that educators so often see their role as engineering ways to hide from the Web. The Web is here, whether we like it or not, so our duty as educators is surely to help our students use it effectively and safely. And they can surely only learn about the Web, its capabilities and pitfalls by using it. Interestingly, a similar point was made in another (much shorter) video which was referenced in the course. Here, educator and blogger Will Richardson is discussing the concept of the Personal Learning Network:

Richardson’s point is that so much formal education pretends that children, or even older students, are not already part of personal learning networks. The fact is that they usually are, but we are not helping them develop the literacy to use them effectively. The video was made in 2007 but, in my experience as a parent, not much has changed since. My children get lots of talks on e-safety at their school and of course we have reinforced key messages about being careful how you share information, how to respond to cyber-bullying and so forth. But it gets pretty repetitive and the overall impression conveyed can be that the Web is a very dangerous place and the school would mostly rather you didn’t go there. Of course, most of the kids are there anyway, and we should encourage them to use the web creatively, and through their practice, develop the awareness they need to stay safe (or at least as safe as they reasonably can).

And I do wonder if we, as parents and educators, have room to set a better example in our own practice. Anyone following me on social media knows that Twitter and WordPress are indispensable tools of my practice – I struggle to imagine operating without them. By navigating and using the Web in this way, I like to think that I can serve as a role model for my students and my children. I certainly talk to my children about what I do and why, so hopefully they can learn from this, including from mistakes I have made. And there are countless other educators all over the world who blog, tweet, and use many other forms of media to share and discuss ideas.

And yet my experience is that we are still quite a small minority – a large majority of educators do not use these tools as part of their practice. Of course, they use the Web as a resource, but do not participate much in the professional community there. There are lots of reasons why they might not (including lack of support and training from their institutions), and of course I would not want to push someone into doing something they are uncomfortable with, even if I could. But I would, in all humility, like to pose a question to all educators: your students’ practice will most likely include professional engagement with the Web and learning to do this well may be one of the most important skills they need to learn. Are you in any position to teach and role model this if you yourself do not engage professionally with the Web in some form or other?

All of which brings me back to a topic I have blogged about before – being an open, networked teacher and learner. I am now more convinced of its importance than ever.


Garrison, D. R. & Anderson, T. (2003). E-Learning in the 21st century: a framework for research and practice. London, Routledge/Falmer.

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The challenges of social presence and fast food

So I am nearly there – one week to go and I am still engaged with HumanMOOC. I don’t know if that is the same as “completing” the course to date – there are activities that can be completed to earn badges each week but I have not done them. This does make me feel a little guilty since I said in the survey at the start of the course that my goal was to earn the badges. At that time, I felt the badges were a proxy for getting through the whole of the course, but now I am in the course I don’t find them very important. I console myself with the thought that the whole point of MOOCs is that your goals should be very personal and it is up to you what constitutes “completion”. MOOCs, at least the good ones, blur the lines between formal courses and the various self-directed learning activities we do (such as reading, using Twitter, attending conferences). At least, that’s how I perceive them.

This week, we have been looking at the concept of “social presence” in online courses, which is  the ability for students and instructors to project themselves and perceive each other as real people, rather than lines of text or pixels on a screen. Contributors to the week have talked about fostering such presence using a whole range of tactics, including having their pets on camera, running discussion forums on personal interests such as sport and encouraging and supporting group work. Some of this may sound “fluffy”, but there is good evidence that it makes a real difference to outcomes. One study (Boston et al, 2009) analysed over 28,000 student records and survey results, finding a very clear link between strong social presence and retention. Online courses of all types have notoriously high drop-out rates, and this is clearly one of the keys to addressing it.

This is valuable stuff, but I see such a gap between studies and anecdotes like this and the reality “on the ground”. I have studied a Master’s degree online, taught several online courses, and know many others who have done so too. My experience, and that of those I know, is that only a minority of students engage socially, and many don’t engage directly with the tutor at all, despite all our best efforts. Group work is, in my experience, usually problematic in universities and even more so online. The “free rider” problem is endemic and huge resentment is caused when someone does not pull their weight. Of course, group work can be good preparation for the workplace, where most jobs involve working in teams, and “free rider” problems happen in the workplace too. But in the workplace there is a whole system of authority, rewards and progression, and someone who does not contribute to teams will usually get found out. In student groups, it is much harder to address the issue. Of course, one way of forcing group work is to make it part of a summative assessment, but that will hugely magnify any problems of resentment.

The fact is that a lot of students I observe don’t seem to want much of a social dimension to their educational experience. I have worked extensively in professional education, and still teach a bit in this area, preparing trainee accountants for professional exams. The focus here is very much on “instructor presence” as students interact with the teacher and the material but not much else. Sometimes I get classes to work in pairs or small groups, but with mixed success as students do not tend to be enthusiastic about it.

One of the introductory videos to our course featured an analogy that I think is very helpful here. Pacansky-Brock (2013) paralleled food and different types of educational experience. Some education is like a fast food restaurant – you go in and get what you want from a predefined menu, eat it and go, and that way you have fulfilled your objectives. Other education is more like a home-cooked meal with family or friends – much less predictable and you may find that the conversation over the meal takes unexpected turns. You may even be expected to help with the cooking or washing up. Let’s face it, though, going to (say) McDonald’s is a lot less trouble and effort than cooking and serving a meal.

McDonald’s is, of course, wildly popular all over the world, and I suppose it has its place. There are times when you need to learn something quickly and efficiently. However, it is much less nutritious than the average home-cooked meal and it will damage your health if you eat there too much. If I’m not straining the analogy too much, perhaps the challenge for educators is to convince our students to take the time and trouble to “eat more healthily” and put some work into those social connections.


Boston, W., Diaz, S., Gibson, A., Ice, P. Richardson, J. and Swan, K. (2009) “An Exploration of the Relationship between Indicators of the Community of Inquiry Framework and Retention in Online Programs”, Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 13 (3) 67-83.

Pancasky-Brock, M. (2013). Humanizing Your Online Class [online]. Available at: https://www.insidehighered.com/audio/2013/10/09/humanizing-your-online-class.

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MOOCs revisited and the Community of Inquiry – #HumanMOOC

For the last couple of weeks, I have been participating in a MOOC – Humanizing Online Instruction, know as “HumanMOOC”. This is in itself a remarkable statement by my standards. I have tried several MOOCs in the past and never before made it past week one. They seemed to consist mostly of “talking heads” and, unless someone is a truly gifted presenter, this is quite dull. If I just want to find out what someone has to say on a topic, I find it easier and more convenient to read their books and articles.

But HumanMOOC is different – much more cMOOC in spirit (if you aren’t familiar with the critical distinction between cMOOCs and xMOOCs, Tony Bates has recently published an excellent blog post on the topic). The spirit behind it is one of building community and exploration, not learning and repeating. There is also some interesting research being done around it – but that is probably a topic for another post. One other point I will note is that it is being run by a US team and I think I may be the only participant in the UK. This in itself is interesting – it offers exposure to a different pedagogical culture and way of thinking.

The most interesting discovery I have made so far has been the framework that is used to structure the course itself, which is the community of inquiry framework. This framework is not at all exclusive to online learning, but is often helpfully applied in that context. It is probably to my discredit that, despite working in the field of online education for about six years, and holding a Masters degree in the subject, I have never come across it before. It does seem to be largely used in North America so maybe that is the explanation – in the UK I sometimes think we rarely get past Gilly Salmon’s five stages, if we even get that far.

This, I think, is a shame. Online education seems to me a field that is in need of frameworks like this, which can give structure to how we approach designing and teaching our courses. Too much online education is designed according to someone’s hunch about what works, or just trying to replicate the face-to-face environment as far as we can. This framework gives us something more interesting and practical to work with.

For those not familiar with the framework, it can be summed up with the diagram below:

Screenshot 2015-03-23 at 20.45.49

From: https://coi.athabascau.ca/coi-model/an-interactive-coi-model/

In other words, there are three aspects to consider when designing and delivering online education. Further research (Akyol & Garrison, 2008), admittedly with a small sample, seems to confirm the validity of the framework in action, and that the three aspects reinforce each other, and that each aspect is linked with increased levels of student satisfaction. Teaching and cognitive presence are also linked with higher perceived learning although not social presence.

Over the course of the MOOC, we will examine these three aspects, so I will probably have more to say about them later on, but my initial reaction is that the way we tend to think about online education focuses excessively on the teaching presence. We all put quite a bit of thought into how we design programmes, and a reasonable amount into tutor monitoring of forums and feedback. But there is generally much less emphasis on supporting the development of a community among the students, or helping them to develop meaning. Perhaps we have still not shaken off our belief that the instructor must be at the centre of everything. Some rebalancing is needed.

We started off the course focusing on teaching presence and, in various ways, we were encouraged to experiment with voice and video communication to establish this presence. Here, there is a very simple message: it is very helpful if instructors can communicate by video and audio as well as by text. This seems to be common practice in the US but the more reticent British have yet not embraced it. When I studied my Masters recently with the Open University, nearly all communication with my tutors was text-based and I never set eyes on any of them. I think it would have helped if I had. As I noted at the start of this post, video is not the answer to everything but it can be a useful supplement to other forms of communication. Maybe we British need to get better acquainted with our webcams.


Zehra, A. & Garrison, D. (2008) “The Development of a Community of Inquiry over Time in an Online Course: Understanding the Progression and Integration of Social, Cognitive and Teaching Presence”, Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, v12 n3-4 p3-22.

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