Problems with Rhizomatic thinking in an Educational Context

LoVid in performance

LoVid live in performance - image from


Today I quietly took issue with the use of post-structuralist theory as a foundation for a learning model. Given the recent shift in philosophy, the so-called speculative turn, why are we returning to 1970s French theory? My issue is predominantly a philosophical one based on the types of reactions I am seeing from ETMOOC’s community and a larger one about realism in education.

There has been a fair bit of misuse of the ‘rhizomatic learning’ concept forwarded by Dave Cormier this week. The problem is one of metaphor and it reared its head in the first blackboard session when Dave accidently suggested the rhizome was a metaphor. There have been a large number of posts cropping up where the writer suggests that this type of learning ‘is like’ a rhizome. This is absolutely not the case, the rhizome in rhizomatic theory is never like something else, it cannot be metaphor nor mimic, as it is a rhizome. A rhizome must always be becoming. I have already suggested a couple of times that if we are going to use this model then we absolutely must not work on our networks in terms of stability and stabilisation. The rhizome is nomadic, it is unstable and again it is always becoming. The links are themselves ‘lines of flight’ that connect ‘planes of consistency’ briefly. If these lines if flight become strong and stable they have been ‘reterritorialised’ and loose their power to build a body without organs (they become organs!).

Yikes too much Deleuze - I have to have a shower cos I feel a little dirty.

 Now I am no Deleuzian and my simplification of some pretty mad and wonderful philosophy might be a little weak but I am hoping you can start to see the issue I am having here. The rhizome and rhizomatic thinking can be seen in the internet - this is 90s thinking that sees ‘the net’ as a huge net and thus a rhizome (note, not like a rhizome). The way we are learning and connecting however is ‘like’ a rhizome and this is demonstrated by people wanting to do things properly (this is not rhizomatic) to develop and work on their PLN structures etc. I do not think we generally want to be nomadic in our thinking, the ETMOOC machine might be very open compared to Intro to Maths 101, but it is still (loosely) bounded.

While I think that we might be able to make a solid argument for rhizomatic learning I have a far greater issue with the re-use of 70s post-structuralism. In the last few years we have seen a strong turn back to realism in philosophy in ‘speculative realism’ (see Wikipedia for a good intro). There is a very good reason for the turn based in current world issues such as global warming, finical crisis, globalisation etc. Now is the time to look to realism and face these issues head on, not the time to turn back to a philosophy that believes there is only the text and deliberately works in a non-materialist realm. By take a post-structuralist theory into our new educational model we not only return to a very old understanding of the world but we always turn our backs on realism. I’m sounding preachy here and the post-structuralist would have sniggered a few years back but Object Oriented Ontology and other realisms are starting to take hold. Surely as educators we are not going to put realism back into the subject but rather to look at the objects of learning as being real.

The TED-ification of ideas

I recently returned to twitter after not using it for a few years. On returning I was amazed by the changes I found and was surprised by the mass of info I was shown by the people I am following. I read a lot in the first weeks and was shocked at the amount of new material I was reading. Quickly, however, persistent blog reading started to raise questions.

I wonder about the TED-ification of ideas (or the essaying of ideas) and about how to take much of the reflection I was reading. What was missing, in general, was scholarly support for the ideas. I was left wondering if there was evidence, if there was proof of certain ideas, and if the ideas were valid beyond personal ideas, thoughts and reflections. 

I certainly understand the need for reflection and the idea of using various tools to aid in reflecting. I am certain that the wave of blogs is a great way to construct self reflection and also to illicit collegial reflection. (Here I am think of Brookfield’s ‘four lenses’ see Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher (1995).)

What I would like to see is more scholarly and evidence based reflection. What are these blogs being based on - students perhaps and if so how many or from scholarly reading/research? I think a hell of a lot of it is coming from TED-ified thinking. It is true because I think it, I can write it well enough so others also think it and I know they do because they follow me or comment in my blog.

What to do about this: 

  • be aware that these are personal and often self-reflections
  • if we take on the ideas make sure to get feedback and reflect after using the ideas (4 lenses again)
  • be critically engaged - question these ideas 

Orientation - key thoughts

"Using Web technology primarily for the purposes of content distribution and secure communication between faculty and students in higher education is akin to using a desktop computer for a doorstop. A desktop can certainly work well for that purpose, but it falls far short of its intended use and its full potential." (Mott and Wiley).

As a way to reflect on classes I plan to post after each session, or after key learning moments. This blog is then about the first session.

Key to this type of learning is the actual ‘real’ use of tools as a student-user. I recently completed a course on Higher Education at the University of Sydney, and what I most got out of the course was experiencing life as a student again - from enrolling to lectures/tutorials/assessments and of course using educational technology - as a student.

This MOOC is already having the same effect - we are using tools that we could use in class - trying them out and thinking about how we engage with them.

In the blackboard session I came across the idea that LMS (or CMS) were not always seen as a very useful tool. In my thinking was the concept that LMS provide a one stop shop and allow students and staff a single portal with a single login. There were ideas about giving students too many ‘clicks’ and loosing them into the internet and how hard it is to access multiple sites etc. 

Then an answer seemed to appear: template-driven, plug-and-play, turnkey web applications that would empower all faculty, even the most mulish Luddites, to “put their courses online.”” (Gardener Campbell)

Campbell begins his article “A Personal Cyberinfrastructure” by discussing the early days of on-line (HTML etc), followed by LMS style all-for-one systems and finally web2 with twitter, youtube, blogger, facebook, wikipedia etc. Mott and Wiley point to research that strongly suggests that academics use LMSs for their adminstrative potentials - gradebook, assessments, document storage, announcements and email. While the learning focused elements of Blackboard, in this case, have very low take up (Mott and Wiley).

Milligan observes, the CMS are “fundamentally a conservative technology … [for] managing groups, providing tools, and delivering content” (2006, 1).”(Mott and Wiley)

While these outcomes are useful they are teacher focused rather than student and suggest LMS are being used to save time.

LMS use was causing me issues. The university has stopped using Blackboard and they are in the middle of a closed trial of Moodle. My faculty has made their own LMS system that is based in web1 technologies and ideas. There is a drive to upload content onto the LMS and use it to deliver content, links, outlines, and perhaps run forums (although the environment is so terrible i doubt it will be used by students).

Having read and reflected I plan to use microblogging (twitter) and blogs (tumblr). These might be collected within the LMS but they will be run by the students and for the students. I hope to introduce students to the potential benefits of networks, research/idea sharing and collaboration through these online tools. 

Jan 7


Today I am working on some strategies for incorporating Twitter into the course. The problem that needs thinking about is caused by the size of the class. The class is 550 students and they never all come together as a full group. Instead they are split into classes of 20 from day one. The issue is then how can we build a community across the whole cohort?

Twitter seems to be a good way to do this. Microblogging without a stream of required logins makes sense in this situation. Using twitter and class-based hashtags will mean the potential for networked learning is engaged beyond the small class groups.

Twitter is good for “sharing, collaboration, brainstorming, problem solving, and creating within the context of our moment-to-moment experiences” (Dunlap & Lowenthal 2009). If the course can hook into these potential outcomes there is a good chance for dynamic and engaged self-directed and network directed outcomes.

I found this blog entry by Dunlap & Lowenthal very useful in thinking about possible pitfalls etc,  "horton-hears-tweet".

I can see some issues with engaging the 14 staff teaching in the course to use Twitter.

Also will the open and public format cause issues. I will be suggesting that everyone sets up a new and clean twitter account and use it only for course tweets and follows (i know i dont want to use my regular twitter account to post class related items and answers etc.

The course starts in March so i will blog the findings and any issues etc as i go.

Jan 6

#etmooc blog

This is a blog that has been set up for the MOOC #etmooc. The theme of the on-line course is Educational Technology and Media.

You can see some links to the things i do academically here

My main interest in terms of educational technology is to develop learning strategies for first year art school students (fine art, media arts and design) at the College of Fine Art, University of New South Wales.

The course i run is for 550 first years across all studio based programs in the faculty. Art Schools in Australia have been very slow in picking up technology in their learning and teaching strategies - although blogs have been in use for sometime few lecturers are prepared to go beyond.

A key question for me is, “How can on-line, blended learning occur in courses that are based in a studio?”