In an era of knowledge abundance – Part 3

5892092671_6b6be05e9a_m“What else could rhizomatic learning look like across the entire educational system from primary school to higher education?”, I wondered in my last blog post after having discussed a campus course by Dave Cormier founded on rhizomatic learning as a pedagogy of abundance.  Rhizomatic learning is one suggestion for a learning theory and a pedagogical approach that has been recasted and reimagined towards building learning on connections, on networks and on participation in communities of practice in order to match a more participatory and socially constructed view of know-ledge. To answer my own question I’ll introduce three examples of educational practices that to different degrees build on rhizomatic learning as a pedagogy of abundance or an approach to open pedagogy. The three examples are situated in educational institutions ranging from university to K-12 schools.

Relevant, rhizomatic and recursive learning in higher education

A few months ago Robin DeRosa and Scott Robison noticed and rejected the way educa-tion adopts new technology just because it is there in their article ”Pedagogy, Techno-logy, and The Example of Open Educational Resources” (2015). Instead they promote open educational resources (OERs) as an area to work in while discussing the motiva-tions behind adopting technology in education. They argue for pedagogies to go before tools and technology – that is, choosing a pedagogy to suit your goals and your context before choosing which tools, which media, and which digital spaces to integrate into your course – and they focus on OERs in higher education because the use of OERs makes the possibilities for pedagogical change explicit:

“New tricks and tools, shiny new apps and devices, should not motivate us to integrate technology into our courses. Instead, we should start with a vision for our courses and curricula, and then identify the technologies or strategies that can help us achieve or further develop that vision.” (DeRosa and Robison 2015)

Along with the vision of pedagogical change DeRosa and Robison advocate a view of open pedagogy that stresses learning as a learner-developed process which is relevant, rhizomatic, and recursive:

 

This view on rhizomatic learning, influenced by the definition of ‘critical digital pedagogy’ by the Freire-influenced Jesse Stommel, very much fits in with what has already been said about rhizomatic learning in the first two blog posts on an era of knowledge abundance, although Robin DeRosa doesn’t specify how she defines community when she emphasizes “community and collaboration” and “power of the community as a 21st century model” in the slide presentation above. Nevertheless, the example of working with OERs is to me a version of Dave Cormier’s motto: “Community is the curriculum”:

By replacing a static textbook — or other stable learning material — with one that is openly licensed, faculty have the opportunity to create a new relationship between learners and the information they access in the course. Instead of thinking of knowledge as something students need to download into their brains, we start thinking of knowledge as something continuously created and revised. Whether students participate in the development and revision of OER or not, this redefined relationship between students and their course “texts” is central to the philosophy of learning that the course espouses. If faculty involve their students in interacting with OER, this rela-tionship becomes even more explicit, as students are expected to critique and contribute to the body of know-ledge from which they are learning. In this sense, know-ledge is less a product that has distinct beginning and end points and is instead a process in which students can engage, ideally beyond the bounds of the course. (DeRosa and Robison 2015)

And they add while highlighting aspects of rhizomatic learning processes:

OER makes possible the shift from a primarily student-content interaction to an arrangement where the content is integral to the student-student and student-instructor interactions as well. What we once thought of as pedago-gical accompaniments to content (class discussion, stu-dents assignments, etc.) are now inextricable from the content itself, which has been set in motion as a process by the community that interacts with it. Moreover, stu-dents asked to interact with OER become part of a wider public of developers, much like an open-source commu-nity. We can capitalize on this relationship between enrolled students and a broader public by drawing in wider communities of learners and expertise to help our students find relevance in their work, situate their ideas into key contexts, and contribute to the public good. We can ask our students — and ourselves as faculty — not just to deliver excellence within a prescribed set of parameters, but to help develop those parameters by asking questions about what problems need to be solved, what ideas need to be explored, what new paths should be carved based on the diverse perspectives at the table. (DeRosa and Robison 2015)

With the gain of fostering empowerment in their students DeRosa and Robison see working with OERs as a way of evaluating the role of tools and technology in education, too:

“Essentially, this is a move from thinking about tech tools as finished products to thinking about them as dynamic components of our pedagogical processes. When we think about OER as something we do rather than something we find/adopt/acquire, we begin to tap its full potential for learning. The same lessons apply to any ed tech considered for adoption in the classroom. If we start with questions related to our vision, we can pull in the tools to help us realize it.” (DeRosa and Robison 2015)

Working with OERs this way moves students from consumers into producers and participants engaging with tools and technology in order to question, explore and create knowledge. And this is a non-linear, experimenting, multi-perspective and participatory approach to learning that is characteristic of rhizomatic learning.

But rhizomatic learning is a pedagogy that comes from higher education. If and when rhizomatic learning is a pedagogy of abundance, its role as an approach to teaching and learning in a digital society cannot just be limited to higher education where its values can be seen as well-known educational values such as independence, critical thinking, reflection, ethical awareness and coping with change. An important aspect, though, is that rhizomatic learning as a pedagogy of abundance in many ways turns the ‘end goals’ of a traditional learning process into its starting point: to know what you have come in to learn implies critical thinking, reflection, and independence, but that is paradoxically also what and why you have come in to learn. This way rhizomatic learning resembles the ideal of the Humboldtian model of higher education where students learn by being a part of the research processes integrated into the studies.  So in an educational context I think that educators will need to help providing content, resources, and experts at the beginning of the course in order to make rhizomatic learning be based on a subject matter, a theme, cases or questions of interest to investigate. After all there needs to be roots to grow from to make rhizomatic learning happen, and in his campus course Dave Cormier in fact lets his students evaluate a textbook for the course and have them connect and collaborate as a starting point for his course.

Educators will also need to learn students how to collaborate as many students are not very good at it, and collaborative competences are necessary for students to be able to move from legitimate peripheral participation to greater participation in their course as a community of practice and to get to know what it is to know inside this space, as Dave Cormier has put it. So in order to have students engaging in a rhizomatic learning process it requires that the teacher/educator turns into a facilitator who supports the students through scaffolding, modelling, facilitating, and providing feedback and feedforward as a way of getting the community of practice going while the students are broadening their understanding, are becoming learners in their domain through peer-to-peer feedback and peer-to-peer feedforward, are getting a voice and finding their way.

Although rhizomatic learning is about students taking control over their own learning process and about changing the relationship between educator and students into more of a partnership where educators and students are co-learners, the educator will still most often be the one setting up the framework for a course or a subject matter. And the educator will also still be the one that negotiates or decides aims for the course or the subject matter, negotiates or sets up the criteria for assessment, and the one who has the responsibility if there are national or institutional curriculums and learning goals to comply with. A lot can be initiated, discussed and negotiated with students and a lot will still be decided by the educator and institutional policies.

Both the demands for participation, knowledge generation and self-directed learning can cause frustration in students in higher education. So the question is now: how can rhizomatic learning as a pedagogical approach be filtered down to schools in primary and secondary education?

Reimagining school in K-12 schools

Some people don’t hesitate seeing rhizomatic learning as a possibility across the educational system.  Dave Cormier has himself mentioned Monika Hardy and her work with reimagining school as an example of rhizomatic learning in K-12 schools. In a series of blog posts Monika Hardy has presented and documented the project she was involved in, and in the blog post “Wanted (And Needed): ‘Radical’ Collaborations” (2011) she presents her vision of education:

To succeed in our fluid/agile world, we need to think less about defining/measuring a fixed content/curriculum, (less about worrying and playing defense), and more about creating some overarching patterns evidenced in the process of learning to learn. Not only does that make learning/life more fun, intellectual learning and affiliated capabilities are amped as the motivation is intrinsically driven by the pleasure of finding things out and by understanding wicked problems. (Hardy 2011)

One of the cornerstones in the project is “rhizomatic learning/thinking/doing”. As an entry into the rhizomatic learning process Hardy focuses – with inspiration from Dewey – on facilitating curiosities. And as far as I can see in the section “city as floorplan” in this slide presentation, the project has attached importance to games, logic and programming in pre-school–grade 5, while one of the projects in grade 6-8 has been “be you”, where students have been working on small personal networks, and “detox” has been an approach designed for grade 9-12.

Monika Hardy comments on the idea of detox this way:

Detox is a jump start of sorts to get back to our natural curiosities. It’s a means to focus/pause/reflect on things that matter, to be mindful, rather than following a well-trodden road map. It’s a means, in public education even, to facilitate the chaos of personalization, in order to awaken indispensable people. (Hardy 2011)

In the video below Monika Hardy explains the ideas and the thinking behind the project:

To me this is a catching example of future-faced education driven by a version of rhizomatic learning and with a vision of education as emancipation, another well-known educational value, not to forget.  But also a vison with a maybe different conception of community: “Community as one school”.  In many ways Mimi Ito captures the intentions of Monika Hardy’s work on reimagining school, when she talks about the quite similar perspective in her own work on connected learning in “Participatory Culture in a Networked Era” (2016):

“The core of connected learning is this understanding that it takes relationships to open up opportunity. That’s why the focus is on learning within the context of social engagement and shared purpose, where young people are learning to get things done with both peers and adults. It’s not enough to push content and skills at kids, or to say that there’s knowledge out there on the internet. If young people don’t have relationships with peers and caring adults with whom they identify, and who can build those paths to opportunity, then the content and skills don’t do anything for them.” (Jenkins, Ito, boyd 2016:86)

Social media use in K-12 schools

But what do you do, if you haven’t got the whole school district backing you up? As an example of ways of engaging with social media in a K-12 school that can be seen as a starting point for developing digital literacies and creating networking experiences relevant to rhizomatic learning, I will turn to a recent article by Michael Nantais: “Creating an empowering school environment” (2016). In the article Michael Nantais presents his research on the use of social media in a K-12 school, and the impact the use of social media has had on building a culture of trust and empowerment:

“This story is about technology and how its use can contribute to building a culture of trust and empowerment. It is a story about allowing students to embrace their hybridity, as described by Jesse Stommel. One starting point is to recognize that students are more than just students; their online lives are a part of who they are, and it cannot be ignored. They live a hybrid life; in school/out of school, online/offline. Can we honour this hybridity and give them the power to engage in all aspects of their world?” (Nantais 2016)

Nantais is interested in the “what” and “why” of social media pedagogy and in the effects the use of social media has on practice:

“The popular and academic literature is replete with both utopian and dystopian visions of using technology in schools. It seems that dichotomous views are plentiful. For some, technology will be a “disruptive” force that will transform education, and for others, it will have negative consequences. It seems rare that the shades of grey that surround technology use in education are explored. Much has been written about its “affordan-ces”, but what actually happens in the day-to-day reality of schools?” (Nantais 2016)

The teachers participating in the study perceived a positive change in the school culture after allowing an almost free use of social media:

Several media were being used by the teachers: some used Twitter, some blogging, others used Facebook. One preferred a more closed medium and used Edmodo. Regardless of the medium used, the most common response to the perceived effects on the school culture was centered on increased communication. In particular, the most interesting responses were about how social media use led to increased connections with students. These responses were contrary to much of the prevailing criticism of social media. This criticism often characte-rizes social media as isolating and that those indulging in its use often ignore those around them. When we as teachers actually stop and explore, rather than condemn, good things can happen. (Nantais 2016)

It seems that having the opportunity to use social media in school, to connect and communicate, and at the same time being given more responsibility for their own learning provides students with experiences and practices that are crucial as starting points in rhizomatic learning:

Interestingly, several of the teachers talked about “a sense of empowerment”, “more freedom”, autonomy, and “giving kids as much choice and control as you possibly can.” As a result of giving students more responsibility and more control, teachers helped them to be “more accountable” and responsible. In this way a more trusting and caring school environment seemed to grow and develop, engendered by new ways of connecting and communicating. (Nantais 2016)

With all of these ideas in mind as I reflected on this particular school’s experience, I concluded that it was not simply the act of allowing social media use, or personal devices, that led to this trusting school environment. It is more the act of changing “traditional classroom hierar-chies” by releasing some traditional authority and power, by trusting students, and enabling them to embrace their hybrid selves, that has led to increased connection, a sense of empowerment, and a positive school culture. (Nantais 2016)

Emphasizing the changing relations between teachers and students through allowing social media use as part of the learning processes, Michael Nantais’ research supports Dave Cormier’s idea of giving students control over their own learning process.  Nantais’ example might not be able to imitate in Europe due to the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation prohibiting youth under the age of 16 to have a profile on social media without their parent’s consent no matter what the age limits are on the social media sites. And although member countries can lower the age limit to 13, this effort of connecting and communicating to give students networking experiences might have to be practiced in closed spaces or class spaces until almost high school in many European countries.

The model of 21st century learning

I have introduced three examples of rhizomatic learning across the educational system in this blog post. Each example blends community, networks, collaboration, participation and knowledge creation to different degrees, and even though the pedagogical practices found in Michael Nantais’ research can’t really be regarded as rhizomatic learning, a changed school culture seems to nurture the kind of pedagogical mindset that is a precondition for rhizomatic learning, and it can be practiced from grade 1. So all of the examples can be seen as answers to Martin Weller’s double challenge to educators in his article “A pedagogy of abundance” (2011):

“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)

I have already stated in an earlier blog post in this series that digital literacies and networked literacies are answers to the second challenge – and they are more than just digital skills. But there is more to it, of course. Maybe a critical review of the literature on 21st century knowledge frameworks can help identifying the skills, the competences and the knowledge that are needed to learn, to know and to understand in an era of knowledge abundance. In their article “What Knowledge Is of Most Worth: Teacher Knowledge for 21st Century Learning” (2013) Kristen Kereluik, Punya Mishra, Chris Fahnoe and Laura Terry establish a framework of frameworks that defines what 21st century learning means, and their 21st century learning framework can be seen as a broader and more general answer to Martin Weller’s challenge about how we best equip learners to make use of knowledge abundance.

Kereluik, Mishra, Fahnoe and Terry have analysed 15 key documents presenting 21st century knowledge frameworks from education and economic organizations worldwide in order to understand what 21st century learning actually means:

…because it will aid in determining what and, just as important, how we teach our students…(Kereluik, Mishra, Fahnoe and Terry 2013:128)

Technological modernization and globalization are the two main reasons for the need to rethink the types of knowledge that are required for learning in the 21st century according to the 15 knowledge frameworks analysed. The analysis and the review of the frameworks resulted in a framework of frameworks consisting of three major categories with three subcategories in them:

 

21st Century Learning Framework

Adapted from Kereluik, Mishra, Fahnoe and Terry (2013) 

Each of these major categories can be seen as what we need to know, how we act on that knowledge, and the values we bring to our knowledge and action. (Kereluik, Mishra, Fahnoe and Terry 2013:131)

The categories in the model are overlapping and are to be seen as complementary categories that support and inform one another. And as a result of the review Kereluik, Mishra, Fahnoe and Terry call attention to two important findings:

Two key contributions emerged from this review. We argue that our analysis indicates a somewhat para-doxical state of affairs when we think about 21st century knowledge. First, we argue that our synthesis of these different frameworks suggests that nothing has changed, that this tripartite division between what we know, how we act on that knowledge, and what we value has always been important. That said, though these foundational ideas have always been key to learning, in some vital ways (particularly given advances in technology and globalization), everything has changed. (Kereluik, Mishra, Fahnoe and Terry 2013:131)

The changes to foundational knowledge that Kereluik, Mishra, Fahnoe and Terry point out are:

  • Technology in the foundational realm asserts itself as something to “know”. The internet and digital media represent a new realm of interaction where new skills and knowledge are necessary to collaborate digitally and contribute to the collective knowledge base.
  • Content has been altered with the rapid advancement of technology in terms of both access to information and how information is represented: the amount of information necessitates the ability to synthesize information and derive meaning.
  • The nature of disciplinary knowledge itself and the methods for requiring it have changed significantly due to the advent of digital technologies: the methods and techniques of acquiring, representing, and manipulating knowledge have changed in almost all disciplines.
  • Most of the progress in the recent past has been in areas that cut across traditional disciplinary boundaries: people need to have deep knowledge of more than one discipline and the ability to see connections between these disciplines. (Kereluik, Mishra, Fahnoe and Terry 2013:131-132)

As changes to meta knowledge they emphasize:

  • Technology in the meta realm asserts itself as knowledge “to act” with foundational knowledge and technology. This includes the ability not only to use technology in basic, predetermined (by the designer) ways, but to reuse and repurpose technology to meet specific educational needs and teaching/learning goals.
  • Problem solving and critical thinking are transformed by technology as the unprecedented access to vast amount of information on the internet place a greater burden on individuals accessing information: they must possess the ability to distinguish between high-quality information and information of questionable quality.
  • Technology changes communication and collaboration, because ease of access has made large-scale communication and collaboration across thousands of miles commonplace: with increased globalization and affordances of new technology, individuals from diverse cultures are exposed to one another on an unprecedented level. Successful collaboration – and consequently cultural competence – is essential.
  • Communication and collaboration serve as an effective bridge between meta knowledge and humanistic knowledge, as cultural competence is necessary for successful communication and collaboration. (Kereluik, Mishra, Fahnoe and Terry 2013:132)

And this leads to the changes they see for humanistic knowledge:

  • Technology in the humanistic realm asserts itself as something “to value” both in others and in the possibilities of technology.
  • The ability to regulate one’s effort has become a multifaceted effort that necessitates organization of one’s demands in personal and professional realms of life to successful ends.
  • Ethical and moral questions arise, also in areas that have not typically been areas of doubt or discussion: individuals have to develop fine-tuned ethical and moral modes of thought and action whether considering issues of privacy and intellectual property or bio-technology and stem-cell research.
  • Ethical and emotional awareness are uniquely important when working with diverse groups of individuals in an increasingly globalized and interconnected world: it is important to develop a value system that respects differences and at the same time maintains a core of empathy and understanding. (Kereluik, Mishra, Fahnoe and Terry 2013:132)

Kereluik, Mishra, Fahnoe and Terry conclude, that “Our analysis indicates that this seeming paradox of “nothing has changed” and “everything has changed” provides us a way forward. It suggests that, though the 21st century is different from previous times, it does not mean that our core roles (to know, to act, and to value) have changed. So, in that sense, there is no disjuncture between what we have been doing as educators in the past and what we do today (and in the future). That being said, it also indicates, even as we hold onto these core ideas, that we have to continually shift and come up with newer ways of instantiating them.” (Kereluik, Mishra, Fahnoe and Terry 2013:133)

And thus, they end up with three key suggestions for teachers and teacher educators that are based on the educational goals inherent in the model of 21st century learning. They build on the pedagogical possibilities that are provided by the shift from ‘a pedagogy of scarcity’ to ‘a pedagogy of abundance’ which Martin Weller anticipated in his article “A pedagogy of abundance” (2011):

1   The need for students to develop deep disciplinary knowledge has always been important; what has chan-ged is access to disciplinary knowledge and authentic disciplinary inquiry made available through technology and subsequently experts and resources…Students and teachers must work in purposeful learning communities, engage with questions that require reflection, defend conclusions, and problem-solve like detectives while responding like investigative reporters. Therefore, the current base of disciplinary knowledge that the Common Core expresses encompasses both traditional content knowledge and concepts forwarded in modern frame-works, such as students having strong communication skills integrated across content areas, being metacog-nitive in an iterative process, engaging with complex texts and complex problem solving and developing a world focus. (Kereluik, Mishra, Fahnoe and Terry 2013:133)

2   Second, knowing the technology is important, but knowing when and why to use it is more important…digital literacy skills are essential for both students and teachers. Knowing when to use a particular technology for activities such as collaboration, or why to use a certain technology for acquiring specific disciplinary knowledge, is a vastly more important, transferable, infinitely relevant type of knowledge, one that will not quickly become antiquated with ever-changing techno-logical trends. (Kereluik, Mishra, Fahnoe and Terry 2013:133)

3   As a result of the increased opportunity for interaction across countries and around the world, teachers need to know how to foster cultural competence, emotional awareness and leadership skills to facilitate not just interactions, but meaningful interactions and relation-ships. Interestingly this specific type of knowledge is largely absent from the “standards-based” movements in education and not always seen as worthy of prolonged instructional time and effort. (Kereluik, Mishra, Fahnoe and Terry 2013:133)

So there is correspondence between Martin Weller’s list of assumptions for any pedagogy of abundance presented in part one of this series on knowledge abundance, the model of 21st century learning just presented here, and the social, situated and open networked approach to learning in rhizomatic learning – with a lot of focus on meta knowledge – as it is conceived by Dave Cormier. They have all focus on the need to rethink, reimage and recast our existing learning theories and our approaches to teaching and learning for a world of abundance. And in combination they frame the educational values, the pedagogical possibilities, and the skills, the competences, the knowledge and the cultural understanding needed in an era of digital abundance. The educational practices documented by Robin DeRosa and Scott Robison, Monika Hardy and Michael Nantais are examples of this: these practices are a way to see the world and a way to see learning in a context starting with asking why, what, how, who and where.

And yet, there is still a question left: what do students actually need to know about networks to be able to participate in rhizomatic learning?

Further reading:

DeRosa, Robin and Scott Robison (2015): Pedagogy, Technology, and The Example of Open Educational Resources,   Monday, November 9, EDUCAUSEreview

Hardy, Monika (2011):  Wanted (And Needed): ‘Radical’ Collaborations, Monday, August 01, dmlcentral.net

Jenkins, Henry, Mizuko Ito, danah boyd (2016): Participatory Culture in a Networked Era, Polity Press

Kereluik, Kristen, Punya Mishra, Chris Fahnoe and Laura Terry (2013): What Knowledge Is of Most Worth: Teacher Knowledge for 21st Century Learning, Journal of Digital learning in Teacher Education Volume 29 Number 4  

Nantais, Michael (2016): Creating an empowering school environment , Hybrid Pedagogy 02 Feb

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

Photo by Alice Lim on Flickr – CC-BY  Some rights reserved

‘Open Pedagogy for eLearning Pioneers’ by Robin DeRosa CC-BY 

Elna Mortensen

 

In an era of knowledge abundance – Part 3

In an era of knowledge abundance – Part 2

6130319471_25e42ebc0a_q“What does a pedagogy of abundance look like?”, I asked in part one of this little series of blog posts following in the footsteps of Martin Weller’s article “A pedagogy of abundance” (2011). I suggested that rhizomatic learning might be such a pedagogy of abundance, a pedagogy based on a multiplicity of theories of learning: social constructivism, connectivism, and communities of practice that are combined into a situative and social learning approach.  ‘Community’ and ‘networks’ are equally important to Dave Cormier’s conception of rhizomatic learning, and this is my continuing investigation of how rhizomatic learning can be evaluated as a pedagogy of abundance. Rhizomatic learning fits into an era of knowledge abundance: a world of complexity where knowledge is emergent, contingent and contextual, and a world where a move from Web 2.0 to Web 3.0 has its focus on connecting knowledge.

As mentioned, the idea of a community of practice plays a central part in Dave Cormier’s understanding of rhizomatic learning, and he has stated the social aspect of rhizomatic learning this way:

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. (Cormier 2008)

Cormier has more recently collected a series of texts on rhizomatic learning in a work-in-progress, the e-book “Making the community the curriculum” (2016). In the introduction of his book, Cormier has embedded “A talk on Rhizomatic Learning for ETMOOC” (2013), a video where he points to the important place communities of practice has in his thinking.

While a rhizomatic environment could seem to be a totally wild, self-directed and experimenting network-thing going all in for chance, heterogeneous perspectives, evolving knowledge and cultivating multi-diversity, Cormier lays bare in the video, that in fact there is a ‘framework’ to engage within while connecting, communicating, collaborating, cooperating, sharing and reflecting throughout the whole learning process.  And that framework is a community of practice. So even if rhizomatic learning isn’t normative as a learning approach but is defined as non-linear and non-hierarchial with no exact starting point or end due to the rhizome as a metaphor for the learning process, the community of practice is a form and a framework to understand rhizomatic learning as social learning within. In the video Cormier says:

The hope with rhizomatic learning is to take some of the great creative output that comes from communities of practice and apply them to a structured classroom…How do I take these things and apply? First rule of community learning is to give up control… (Cormier 2013)

And although all my sympathy toward rhizomatic learning, this is where I can’t help asking: wouldn’t a community of practice need some kind of balance between structure and chaos? And my answer would be, that understanding what a community of practice is, could help explicating how and why a community of practice gives direction to the learning processes taking place while engaging in finding, investigating, contributing, negotiating, collaborating, reflecting and producing knowledge.

Communities of practice

Etienne Wenger’s (now Wenger-Trayner) theory of communities of practice is a social learning theory. The concept of community of practice was initially coined by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger-Trayner in their work on situative learning (Lave and Wenger 1991) where they defined learning  as a process of social participation:

…learning does not rest with the individual but is a social process that is situated in a cultural and historical con-text. (Farnsworth, Kleanthous & Wenger-Trayner 2016:2)

As an approach to knowing and learning Wenger-Trayners theory of communities of practice from 1998 set off from the initial work with Jean Lave, investigating and defining how communities of practice are formed and developed:

Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly. (Wenger 2013)

In other words, to constitute a community of practice it requires a shared domain of interest, a community concerned about connecting and building relationships so that participants can learn from each other, a shared repertoire of practice and someone to take leadership in shaping a social learning space and seeing  to that resources are available (Wenger 2010:12). So learning happens through participation and negotiating relevant competences and meaning in the community with a core of people initiating the process and keeping it going. And moving from legitimate peripheral participation to full participation happens while you engage in the community of practice so you can get access to the knowledge of the community and take part in negotiating which knowledge is relevant and can count as knowledge in the context of that specific community of practice. In other words: moving towards full membership of a community of practice involves connecting and building competences so that the necessary cultural knowledge and experience is available to be able to participate in the ongoing negotiation of competence, knowledge and meaning.  In a recent interview Wenger-Trayner comments on the concept of community of practice this way:

“The notion of community of practice does not primarily refer to a ‘group’ of people per se . Rather it refers to a social process of negotiating competence in a domain over time. That this process ends up structuring social relationships among people involved in various ways is a secondary phenomenon. And this structuring process entails a specific type of relationship. For instance, there is a distinction between a community of practice and a team.” (Farnsworth, Kleanthous & Wenger-Trayner 2016:5)

In the interview Wenger-Trayner also states:

The theory is an attempt to place the negotiation of meaning at the core of human learning, as opposed to merely the acquisition of information and skills. And for human beings, a central drive for the negotiation of meaning is the process of becoming a certain person in a social context – or more usually a multiplicity of social contexts. That’s where the concept of identity comes in. And because this is a learning theory, identity is theorized with specific reference to changing ways of participating in a practice. (Farnsworth, Kleanthous & Wenger-Trayner 2016:7)

So learning is connecting and belonging – just as much as it is learning by doing and participating – and just as much as it is becoming through interacting and constructing identity – and likewise just as much as it is experiencing through interpreting and negotiating meaning. And these aspects of learning are all elements integrated in Wenger-Trayner’s social learning theory: learning as community, learning as identity, learning as meaning, and learning as practice.

communities-of-practice-and-professional-development-of-teaching-in-he

Enhancement Themes: Developing communities of practice

In the perspective of the digital era, the concept of community of practice has been challenged by the concept of network, and in a 2010-article, “Communities of practice and social learning systems: the career of a concept”, Wenger-Trayner has his conception of communities of practice up for evaluation (which I have written about earlier on this blog). Here Wenger-Trayner explores the uses of the concept of communities of practice, and among the perspectives that make him evaluate the concept is the critique, “…that there is too much emphasis on community for an adequate account of learning in a web-enabled globalizing world.” (Wenger 2010:10). Wenger comments the critique by saying:

“Again there is an important insight to this critique. Some of us have probably overemphasized community in our attempt to account for the directionality of learning. But it is a mistake, I believe, to think of communities and networks as distinct structures. I am often asked what the difference is between a community and a network. Rather than contrasting a community here and a network there, I think it is more useful to think of community and network as two types of structuring processes. Community emphasizes identity and network emphasizes connectivity. The two usually co-exist. Certainly communities of practice are networks in the sense that they involve connections among members; but there is also identification with a domain and commitment to a learning partnership, which are not necessarily present in a network.” (Wenger 2010:10)

“More generally, I find it more productive to think of community and network as combined in the same social structures – but with more or less salience. So the question is not whether a given group is a network or a community, but how the two aspects coexist as structuring processes. This is not only a richer way to think about social structures, it also has useful practical implications. Network and community processes have complementary strengths and weaknesses; they are two avenues for enhancing the learning capability of a group. If a community becomes too much of a community, too strongly identified with itself, prone to groupthink, closed or inbred, then fostering connectivity to generate some networking energy is a good way to shake it up and open its boundaries. There is something random and unpredictable about the dynamics of networking processes, which is a good counterpart to community.”(Wenger 2010:10)

This way new knowledge and content of a subject matter or a discipline could be the result of challenging the regimes of competence in a community of practice through negotiations of knowledge, competences, identity and meaning:

“Note that what is included in a curriculum is usually called knowledge, but knowledge is not a technical term in the theory. We talk about practices, regimes of competence and knowledgeability, but we refrain from defining knowledge. Whose practice and competence gets to be viewed as ‘knowledge’ is a complex historically, social and political process that it is not in the scope of the theory to define, at least in its current state.” (Farnsworth, Kleanthous & Wenger-Trayner  2016:7)

It is in this space, opening up between existing knowledge on the one hand and developing practices and competences on the other hand, I see rhizomatic learning taking place, and to me it fits very well with Dave Cormier’s idea of what education is for: “We need to make students responsible for their own learning and the learning of others”, as he puts it in the video “A talk on Rhizomatic Learning for ETMOOC”. So when dealing with education the rhizomatic way, students have to develop an understanding of the learning process they are going through while they are going through it. As Cormier highlights it in the video:

  • Students have to understand what they are looking for when joining the course.
  • Students have to take it upon themselves to engage and to continue to grow.
  • Students have to choose and to make a syllabus for themselves through connecting, responding and collaborating.
  • Students have to understand what it is to learn and what it is to know in a subject matter or a discipline and to be able to make decisions about how to create their own learning within that process. (Cormier 2013)

The open syllabus is, as far as I can see, what Wenger-Trayner calls ‘a living curriculum’. It frames the relevant knowledge and competences that emerge in the intersection between community and network and it is the result of the interaction with the regimes of competence and knowledge while developing new knowledge. The learning processes Dave Cormier describes – from students are entering a course and engaging with foundational knowledge through to a level where they have acquired the meta knowledge and the humanistic knowledge that is necessary to handle and engage in an era of knowledge abundance – are parallel to the learning processes participants have to go through while building identity in a community of practice. It takes a journey through three modes of engaging with the world – imagination, alignment and engagement – to know what you are looking for and to keep you going (Farnsworth, Kleanthous & Wenger-Trayner  2016:12). That is for example the imagination of becoming an online learner or educator, the alignment of what you need to go through to reach your goals and finally the engagement in the practices and the regimes of knowledge needed in the domain. As mentioned earlier, participation doesn’t just mean being active, it is also about being part of a shared practice and a culture. And that is what Dave Cormier tries to achieve, as I see it.

The aim of a community of practice is sharing and creating new knowledge in order to develop the domain, in the case of rhizomatic learning a complex domain, and in order to spot how the community of practice is intertwined in Cormier’s thinking about rhizomatic learning, it might be interesting to compare the list of important aspects in communities of practice with the three key elements in rhizomatic learning as they are presented in “A Talk on Rhizomatic Learning for ETMOOC”: the complex domain, the community of practice where people work collaboratively, and the rhizome that moves in different directions and at the same time is resilient while people are responding.

“Communities of practice are important because they:

  • Connect people who might not otherwise have the opportunity to interact, either as frequently or at all.
  • Provide a shared context for people to communicate and share information, stories, and personal experiences in a way that builds understanding and insight.
  • Enable dialogue between people who come together to explore new possibilities, solve challenging problems, and create new, mutually beneficial opportunities.
  • Stimulate learning by serving as a vehicle for authentic communication, mentoring, coaching, and self-reflection.
  • Capture and diffuse existing knowledge to help people improve their practice by providing a forum to identify solutions to common problems and a process to collect and evaluate best practices.
  • Introduce collaborative processes to groups and organizations as well as between organizations to encourage the free flow of ideas and exchange of information.
  • Help people organize around purposeful actions that deliver tangible results.
  • Generate new knowledge to help people transform their practice to accommodate changes in needs and technologies.” (Cambridge, Kaplan, and Suter 2005:1)

A real course

Working with complexity and problem-solving, while connecting to knowledge and responding to the unknown and to uncertainty, is at the core of the rhizomatic learning process according to Dave Cormier. But what does it look like when the principles behind it are transformed into a course design for a course in higher education?

Dave Cormier gives some insight in his own campus course – not to mistake for his cMOOCs – which he presents in his e-book, “Making the community the curriculum”. Here he not only introduces the principles behind rhizomatic learning and gives practical guidelines for a rhizomatic course, but also stresses that his focus is on the generative knowledge of networks to drive the collaboration, participation and the knowledge creation in the course as a community of practice. This is the vehicle for understanding knowledge as contingent and complex and an answer to a situation of knowledge abundance. ‘Old’, validated knowledge meets new information and data not yet evaluated, interpreted or negotiated and forms new knowledge, new approaches, new competences, and new understandings. This is echoed in the contract and the tasks for the course that require that the students engage in a rhizomatic learning process that is self-directed and based on collaboration and peer-to-peer learning: a learning process that has no marked route to follow but several pathways to try out, and also has no simple or correct answer but a multitude of answers depending on context.

So the concept of content is evolving in rhizomatic learning, and Cormier demonstrates this in the chapter “Moving your teaching up the collaborative continuum” where he explains:

I would posit that the ‘content’ of a course is just an excuse, or at least just a foundation, for getting accus-tomed to a context for a given field or discipline. We do need to get a sense of how language is used, and how concepts recombine in any new discipline, but definitions will hardly allow us to do that. We need to try things out, to test drive them, to see how they work out in conversa-tion to really round the edges of our understanding. The content is part of that ecosystem, but not the goal of it. (Cormier 2016)

This way of defining a subject matter or a discipline mirrors two of the assumptions about a pedagogy of abundance, Martin Weller has put forward:

  • Based on a generative system, unpredictability and freedom are essential characteristics of the internet.
  • 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 2011:229).

Moving up along Cormier’s collaborative continuum – from a content perspective – ending up at the student-centered end would meet these assumptions while building on the advantages of them in a course, so that students not only discover and master content together, but  also create and use new knowledge in the world. Social practices and new technology give possibilities for a radically different pedagogy, and that is what rhizomatic learning is about:  a pedagogy of investigation, serendipity and networking set within a community of practice, where Cormier’s  idea of ‘an open syllabus’ aligns with Wenger-Trayner’s concept of ‘a living curriculum’.  And as Wenger-Trayner has said it himself in a brief introduction to communities of practice: “However, the very characteristics that make communities of practice a good fit for stewarding knowledge – autonomy, practitioner-orientation, informality, crossing boundaries – are also characteristics that make them a challenge for traditional hierarchial organizations. (Wenger 2013)

Dave Cormier warns, that rhizomatic learning is not for any course, and I would say that it is only for subject matters and courses that can cope with the epistemological challenge that knowledge is under dispute, and that we don’t have a uniform agreement about what the facts are, as Henry Jenkins has put it.

And this just leaves the question: what else could rhizomatic learning look like across the entire educational system from primary school to higher education?

Further reading:

Cambridge, Darren, Soren Kaplan, and Vicki Suter (2005): Community of Practice Design Guide, EDUCAUSE

Cormier, Dave (2016): Making the community the curriculum, davecormier.pressbooks.com

Cormier, Dave (2013): A talk on Rhizomatic Learning for ETMOOC

Cormier, Dave (2008): Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum , Dave’s Educational Blog

Farnsworth, Valerie, Irene Kleanthous & Etienne Wenger-Trayner (2016):  Communities of Practice as a Social Theory of Learning: a Conversation with Etienne Wenger, British Journal of Educational Studies, DOI: 10.1080/00071005.2015.1133799

Lave, Jean and Etienne Wenger (1991): Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Cambridge University Press

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

Wenger, Etienne (2010): Communities of practice and social learning systems: the career of a concept. In Social learning systems and communities of practice, pp. 179-198, Springer London

Wenger, Etienne (2013): Communities of Practice: A Brief Introduction

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

Photo by KamalJith –  CC- BY  Some rights reserved on Flickr

Elna Mortensen

 

 

In an era of knowledge abundance – Part 2