In an era of knowledge abundance – Part 1

2061381703_a57d8d4cb4_qWe live in an era of knowledge abundance – but what does that mean and what are the impli-cations for learning and education? In his article “A pedagogy of abundance”, Martin Weller stresses that “We are witnessing a fundamental change in the production of knowledge and our relationship to content. This is producing an abundance of content which is unprecedented.” (Weller 2011:232). Weller strives for mapping and conceptualizing the effect the abundance of lear-ning content and resources has on how we approach learning and education, while he presents the assumptions that any pedagogy of abundance must take into account. This perspective of abundance extends the presen-tation of the Visitors and Residents framework and  the discussions about credibility and what counts for valid knowledge in an age of digital abundance, I wrote about in my most recent blogposts.

As a background for his examinations of how education may shift as a result of abundance, Martin Weller anticipates and describes a shift in education from ‘a pedagogy of scarcity’ to ‘a pedagogy of abundance’.

A traditional model of education is based on that:

  • Expertise is scarce.
  • Learners come to the place where the experts are located.
  • The lecture is the place for students’ physical interaction with the expert.
  • Content – books and journals – are manufactured according to demand.
  • Access to content is scarce and only accessible through libraries. (Weller 2011:226)

and hence a pedagogy of scarcity has developed promoting:

  • A one to many model to make the best use of the scarce resource – that is the expert.
  • The lecture.
  • An instructivist pedagogy as a direct consequence of the demands for scarcity. (Weller 2011:226)

Now facing a necessity for education to be relevant to the digital society, another model of education emerges  where:

  • Expertise is still rare, but access to content associated with it is now much easier – e.g. resources, critical analysis, dialogue, discussion and reflection are abundant.
  • The traditional model of supply-push needs to be replaced with one of demand-pull due to the growing demand for education and lifelong learning.
  • A shift to active participation will characterize students’ interaction with content and expertise.
  • A change to a more participatory, socially constructed view of knowledge is needed to suit a demand-pull model of education.
  • New technologies are the basis in realizing this new conception of knowledge as networked and socially constructed. (Weller 2011:226-228)

This view on new technologies as the cause of a shift from an era of knowledge scarcity to an era of knowledge abundance is elaborated on by Bonnie Stewart:

“Prior to the digital era, scholarly knowledge was traditionally organized around the premise that knowledge is scarce and its artifacts materially vulnerable. Eye’s (1974) seminal article on knowledge abundance asserts, “[M]aterial can be transformed from one state to another but the original state is diminished…materials are exhaustible “ (p. 445). Manuscripts and books as knowledge artifacts are exhaustible, and costly to produce and distribute. Digital content, however, is persistent, replicable, scalable and searchable (boyd, 2011, p. 46); digital knowledge artifacts can be distributed with negligible cost to the originator or user, and without being consumed or diminished in the process. Thus widespread and increasingly mobile access to digital knowledge artifacts in “an abundant and continually changing world of information” (Jenkins, 2006, Netwotking section para. 1)) marks a shift from an era of knowledge scarcity to an era of knowledge abundance, even though access remains inequitably distributed.“ (Stewart 2015)

The shift to an era of knowledge abundance leaves Weller with one key question:

This scale and range of learning related content at least raises the question of whether we have developed the appropriate teaching and learning approaches to make best use of it. In short, what would a pedagogy of abundance look like? (Weller 2011:227).

Assumptions for a pedagogy of abundance

In order to pin down the assumptions for any pedagogy of abundance, Martin Weller provides a list to reflect on when looking for a pedagogy of abundance:

  • Content is free – not all content is free and not yet.
  • Content is abundant.
  • Content is varied – content is no longer predominantly text based.
  • Sharing is easy – through the use of tools like social bookmarking, tagging and linking the ‘cost’ of sharing has largely disappeared.
  • Social based.
  • Connections are ‘light’ – as with sharing, it is easy to make and preserve connections within a network since they do not necessitate one to one maintenance.
  • Organisation is cheap – Clay Shirky (2008, 31) argues that the ‘cost’ of organising people has collapsed, which makes informal groupings more likely to occur and often more successful.
  • Based on a generative system – Zittrain (2008) argues that unpredictability and freedom are essential characteristics of the internet and the reasons why it has generated so many innovative developments.
  • User generated content – related to the above, the ease of content generation will see not only a greater variety of formats for content, but courses being updated and constructed from learner’s own content. (Weller 2011:228-229).

This list might seem obvious to many, but I think it is important to keep it in mind to be able to figure out what abundance in all its complexity means to teaching and learning. Weller points to that we may not be needing new pedagogies to meet the assumptions on his list, although we can’t just continue designing and practicing teaching and learning the traditional scarcity way in an era of knowledge abundance, and to stress this apparent contradiction he quotes  Grainné Conole (2008):

Arguably, then there has never been a better alignment of current thinking in terms of good pedagogy – i.e. emphasizing the social and situated nature of learning, rather than a focus on knowledge recall with current practices in the use of technologies – i.e. user-generated content, user-added value and aggregated network effects. Despite this, the impact of Web 2.0 on education has been less dramatic than its impact on other spheres of society – use for social purposes, supporting niche communities, collective political action, amateur journalism and social commentary. (Weller 2011:227-228)

Weller concludes while pursuing this line of thinking:

Many of our approaches to teaching and learning were developed in a different age, and this basic shift from moderate scarcity to excessive abundance constitutes a challenge to higher education, and to individual information processing abilities. It may well be that our existing theories are sufficient, they just need recasting and reimagining for a world of abundance. (Weller 2011:232)

iIn his article Martin Weller examines some of the pedagogies that emphasize the benefit of social and situated learning and also meet at least some of the assumptions on his list. Problem based learning, Constructivism, Communities of practice and Connectivism end up being the ones that are positively evaluated as pedagogies suited for recasting and reimagining for a world of knowledge abundance. All  of these pedagogies and learning theories are convertible into supporting participatory culture as well as collaborative and situative learning as key ingredients in any pedagogy of abundance, although connectivism has been criticized for not being a theory of learning but rather a theory about education. These theories can be recasted and reimagined towards building learning on connections, on networks, in communities and in communities of practice in order to align with a more participatory and socially constructed view of knowledge. Anyhow, the quest for a pedagogy of abundance resembles the move from Learning 2.0 to Learning 3.0 as Steve Wheeler has described it:

Learning Modes Grid

Steve Wheeler: Next generation learning

And indeed, the shift from moderate scarcity to excessive abundance is a challenge, not only to Higher Education but to the educational system altogether. Martin Weller comments the challenge this way:

The issue for educators is twofold I would suggest: firstly how can they best take advantage of abundance in their own teaching practice, and secondly how do they best equip learners to make use of it? It is the second challenge that is perhaps the most significant. Exploring pedagogies of abundance will be essential for educators to meet the challenge and equip their learners with the skills they need in an age of digital abundance. (Weller 2011:232-233)

This final challenge leaves all the hard work to the educators, so I think it is only fair to give further attention to the double question put to educators by Weller and recast the two questions within the mode of Learning 3.0 dominated by learner-centered learning, networks and communities, and rhizomatic structures.

Rhizomatic learning

Rhizomatic learning is Dave Cormier’s metaphor for ‘chaotic learning’ (Wheeler 2015:42-43), that is learning that takes you across borders when hyperlinks take you to places, content and things you didn’t expect to learn, or connect you with people you have never heard of before:

Rhizomatic learning invokes the biological metaphor of a rhizome where the stem of a plant sends out roots and shoots, each of which can grow into a new plant. Rhizomes resist organizational structure and have no distinct beginning or end; they grow and propagate in a ‘nomadic’ fashion, the only restrictions to growth being those that exist in the surrounding habitat. Seen as a model for the construction of knowledge, rhizomatic processes hint at the interconnectedness of ideas as well as boundless exploration across many fronts from many different starting points. (Innovative Pedagogy 2012:33)

Cormier describes these rhizomatic processes as a way of going beyond the canon of what has traditionally been considered knowledge and the way knowledge traditionally has been validated and verified in an era of scarcity:

“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.” (Cormier 2008)

And so, rhizomatic learning is Cormier’s theory of learning in a time of abundance. In the video “Rhizomes and Open Learning”, Dave Cormier introduces rhizomatic learning and how he sees it in relation to education:

With the rhizome as his metaphor for learning in an era of abundance, inspired by Deleuze and Guattari, Dave Cormier draws on pedagogies and approaches to learning like connectivism,  paragogy based on peer-to-peer learning and knowledge exchange, and distributed cognition including communities.

Self-directed learning is a keyword in this landscape of pedagogies meant to accommodate and deal with knowledge abundance. How to find, handle, interpret, validate, negotiate, create, improve, apply and share information and knowledge through connecting, communicating  and collaborating with online resources, experts, peers, networks, communities and communities of practice is essential in the processes of knowledge creation. They are also an inherent part of current practices in the use of technologies and emphasize the social and situated nature of learning in a culture of knowledge abundance.

In connectivism learning is a process of connecting specialized nodes or information sources (Weller 2011:231), and Dave Cormier takes the idea of connectivism a step further when he introduces rhizomatic learning as a learning theory underlining a non-linear, experimenting, multiperspectivist and participatory approach to learning. In rhizomatic learning serendipity, that is accidental discovery, is an important dimension of networking, and bricolage becomes an aspect of knowledge creation within the context of a community that helps finding, interpreting, validating, negotiating and sharing informations and knowledge while co-creating new, accurate and up-to-date knowledge. As Dave Cormier says it in the video:  “to know what it is to know inside this space” is what you need  to learn, whether it is a subject matter, a problem based task, a case or a theme that is your common purpose and the reason why you got together in the community. This way ‘the community becomes the curriculum’:

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 n subject of its learning in the same way that the rhizome responds to changing environmental conditions… (Cormier 2008)

And so, rhizomatic learning is a variation of open networked learning and a model for the construction of knowledge suited for an era of ever changing knowledge.

I think rhizomatic learning is one way to go, when it comes to finding a pedagogy of abundance that corresponds with the affordances of Web 2.0 and Web 3.0 while predicting and shaping Learning 3.0. But I don’t think rhizomatic learning is an as seamless process to engage in for many people as it might seem. In Bonnie Stewart’s opinion it requires networked or digital literacies to navigate in an open networked  learning environment, and she has nicely put this into words in “Learning in the Open: Networked Student Identities”, a blogpost written some years ago:

“But I believe learning – whether in online social networks or straight from the canon, bound in leather – involves being able to read and make sense of the codes and signals being given off by those you interact with, particularly those you expect to learn from. These are what I refer to when I talk about “legitimacy structures” within academia and networks…” (Stewart 2013a)


Bonnie Stewart: Learning in the Open: Networked Student Identities

These two sets of legitimacy structures and practices are reflected in Cormier’s traditional and rhizomatic models for knowledge validation – and they are both essential to understanding the pedagogies and the two models of education, the traditional scarcity model and the model of abundance and open practices, that are up for discussion in this blogpost.

As Bonnie Stewart says, her legitimacy structures and practices are in a sense literacies, and to me the challenging part for education is to make students  and learners embrace these digital and networked literacies that belong to networked learning while learning how to engage online in a Residents mode as mapped by Alison Le Cornu and David White and presented in my most recent blogposts . Bonnie Stewart talks about these digital and networked literacies as new literacies of participation in relation to learning in MOOCs in her article “Massiveness + Openness = New Literacies of Participation?”. As I see it, this also applies to rhizomatic learning:

“The studies in new literacies (Barton, 1994) established the use of the plural “literacies” rather than the singular “literacy” in order to push beyond the binary of “literate” and “illiterate” that still shapes our cultural threshold-based conceptions surrounding literacy (Belshaw, 2012). Lankshear and Knobel (2007) frame new literacies as follows:

The more a literacy practice privileges participation over publishing, distributed expertise over centralized expertise, collective intelligence over individual possessive intelligence, collaboration over individuated authorship, dispersion over scarcity, sharing over ownership, experimentation over “normalization,” innovation and evolution over stability and fixity, creative-innovative rule breaking over generic purity and policing, relationship over information broadcast, and so on, the more we should regard it as a “new” literacy. (p. 21)

… Belshaw (2012) notes that skills are subject to objective thresholds, whereas “literacy is a condition, not a threshold … you cannot become literate merely through skill acquisition – there are meta-level processes also required”…

To be digitally literate is to be able to engage the connections and communications possibilities of digital technologies, in their capacity to generate, remix, repurpose, and share new knowledge as well as simply deliver existing information. Many people have no experience or conception of these types of possibilities: simply being online does not necessarily build social and communicative familiarity with what Lankshear and Knobel (2007) refer to as the “distinctive ethos” of participatory culture (Jenkins, 2006). But interacting within an environment that exposes and encourages meta-level processing as well as knowledge generation, remixing, repurposing, and sharing can help create that condition of literacy.” (Stewart 2013b)

These digital and networked literacies correspond with Le Cornu and Whites definition of the Resident mode and with my own views on digital and learning literacies, and they can be results of rhizomatic learning as a pedagogy of abundance, too, but they are also learning literacies and dimensions of social and situated learning that needs to be deliberately and consciously developed to keep rhizomatic learning a relevant  pedagogy of abundance. I think this focus on digital and networked literacies could be an answer to Martin Wellers second question to educators: how do you best equip learners to make use of abundance?

Rhizomatic learning is a suggestion for a pedagogy of abundance that has been born of open networked learning and Higher Education, but this leaves an extra question for educators, as I see it: Is it possible to introduce rhizomatic learning and the principles behind it as a pedagogical perspective on knowledge abundance across the entire educational system from primary school to Higher Education?

This blogpost has been edited on 5. June 2016 in order to make the distinction between ‘community’ and ‘community of practice’ clearer in three passages.

Further reading:

Conole, Grainné (2008): New Schemas for Mapping Pedagogies and Technologies, Ariadne, 56

Cormier, Dave (2008): Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum

Sharples, M., McAndrew, P., Weller, M., Ferguson, R., FitzGerald, E., Hirst, T., Mor, Y., Gaved, M. and Whitelock, D. (2012): Innovating Pedagogy 2012: Open University Innovation Report 1, The Open University

Stewart, Bonnie E (2015): In Abundance: Networked Participatory Practices as Scholarship, The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, Vol 16, No 3

Stewart, Bonnie (2013a): Learning in the Open: Networked Student Identities

Stewart, Bonnie (2013b): Massiveness + Openness = New Literacies of Participation?, MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, Vol. 9, No.2

Weller, Martin (2011): A pedagogy of abundance, revista española de pedagogia año LXIX, no 249, mayo-agosto, 223-236

Wheeler, Steve (2015): Learning with ‘e’s. Educational theory and practice in the digital age, Carmarthen

Photo:  AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by . .Jef Safi.  on Flickr

Elna Mortensen

In an era of knowledge abundance – Part 1

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