Friday, July 18, 2014

hackAhack in light: #clmooc

My friend Maha Bali writes so well, and she is prolific. I've thought about trying to keep up with her, but I can't, so …

Still, she just wrote a wonderful post I ____ therefore I am human that challenges me to think about what it means to be human. She hacks Descartes' famous dictum I think; therefore, I am, shifting away from thinking to feeling, framing her thoughts within the current fighting between Israel and Palestine. She ends up with:
I feel therefore I empathize
I empathize therefore I am human
I think I see her point. Descartes grounded his scientific philosophy in an intellectual reductionism that tends to separate everything, breaking down wholes into the tiniest constituent parts and the most basic of interactions, with the assumption that he could put it back together with a more complete understanding. Well, try that with a frog sometimes. Take the frog apart, identify its constituent parts and the basic processes among those parts, and then put it back together. You don't get a frog. You get Frankenfrog—a monstrous, mechanistic mess with no life in it and little value to you or the frog.

Now try that with a people: Palestinians, European Jews, American Indians … you pick. There are plenty of examples. Try it with a person: your spouse, your children, your students. Take them apart, name their parts and processes, and then try to put them back together. You get Frankenkids and Frankenclasses. When you pull life apart, you lose something really important, and the knowledge or whatever else you gain may not be worth what you lost. Often enough, it isn't.

Now, I am not suggesting that a reductionist scientific point of view has no value. It does. As Edgar Morin has stated, much of the advances in modern culture can be directly attributed to the patient, inexorable workings of reductionistic science. But it isn't enough, and by itself, that kind of thought blinds us as much as it enlightens. We need something more.

We need a complex science that incorporates feelings along with intellect. Intellect alone will kill us. Intellect counterpoised with feeling just might save us. I don't suggest that the one resolves into the other; rather, they maintain a delicate, creative tension that informs the other without ever subsuming or canceling the other. They keep in dialogue, never completely agreeing, never disengaging, knowing that both are richer for the other, that one without the other is madness.

We need a science that values connections as much as it values separation. I connect with Maha Bali. We both connect with the communities of Rhizo14 and CLMOOC. I think it's those connections that make us human. Without those living connections, we are merely Frankenpeople.

So I want to hack Maha's hack. I want to make a hackAhack:

I connect to others; therefore, I am human. I could have used the word engage instead of connect. I've been using engage and engagement more in my writing lately, but I'll stick with connect and connection in this post as it may be the more inclusive term. Engagement seems to suggest a more intentional and deliberate connection; whereas, many of our connections are not intentional, deliberate, or even conscious. When I breathe air with you, I usually don't think about it, but it's a connection that I ignore at my peril.

I'm human, then, because I think and feel, and I think and feel because I connect to others. Without my communities, I really wouldn't have much thought or feeling. I wouldn't be human.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Hacking Post: #clmooc

Well, my first Make Cycle for #clmooc (write a how to) took longer than I anticipated, and now I have missed some of the other tasks, but this is one of the best things about MOOCs: only the organizers and facilitators have to stay on task, and even they can slip if they do it right.

Anyway, I've decided to skip to Make Cycle #4: Hack Your Writing. I'll hack my blog posts, which tend to be analytical pieces, with some poetry, starting with haiku. I'll use the titles of the hacked blog posts.

How to Study a cMOOC: Part 3 of a list for #CLMOOC

Pierre Dillenbourg
turns from fifteen years away,
answers, "Here I am."

Investigating MOOCs, Part 2 of a #CLMOOC List

a tweet uncalled for
as pointed as a finger

How to Study a cMOOC: A list for #CLMOOC

human scale hangs in
the balance against scaled fish
— a neuron waits to fire

Thursday, July 10, 2014

How to Study a cMOOC: Part 3 of a list for #CLMOOC

So I'm closely reading Dillenbourg's 1999 introduction to collaborative learning to see what guidance it may provide for studying cMOOCs such as Rhizo14 and CLMOOC. Dillenbourg's first point about looking at collaborative learning from different scales strikes me as most helpful, but his second point about defining learning at best provides negative examples: what not to do. His third and final point about defining collaboration also seems to be a negative example of how not to approach cMOOCs. Let's see what Dillenbourg has to say.

Dillenbourg looks at collaboration from four points of view, or on four different scales:
  1. situation,
  2. interactions,
  3. mechanisms, and
  4. effects.
I like that he keeps his commitment to working with any complex system from a variety of scales. This is a key, I think, to looking at any cMOOC. But he is clearly talking about collaboration and not cooperation, an issue that Jenny Mackness opened for me and that I addressed in my last post. This suggests to me that his approach to collaboration may be another negative example for me.

Collaborative Situations - The first way to explore collaboration, Dillenbourg says, is as a situation in which agents:
  1. are more or less at the same level: collaboration as a situation requires a symmetry in which all collaborating agents have similar freedom and ability to act, a similar level of knowledge, and similar status within the group. It seems that asymmetry disrupts collaboration. If you know significantly more than I, then you may try boss me, breaking the collaboration. A collaborative group, then, requires a certain homogeneity, a red flag for rhizomatic, cMOOC enthusiasts.
  2. can perform the same actions: again an implied homogeneity among collaborative agents. No one is particularly more skillful than the others, though Dillenbourg does allow for some specialization of skills within the collaborative group. Too much, though, undermines the collaborative ethos, it seems.
  3. have a common goal: collaboration requires a shared goal, whereas competition requires conflicting goals (this either/or approach leaves out cooperation altogether, it seems to me). Shared goals can partially assigned at the outset of collaboration, but also depends on the collaborating agents negotiating their shared goal, and in the process becoming aware of their mutual dependence.
  4. work together: Dillenbourg finally mentions cooperation, but I don't think it helps much. He notes that some scholars use the terms interchangeably, while some distinguish them: cooperation is when group agents "split the work, solve sub-tasks individually and then assemble the partial results into the final output," and collaboration is when agents "do the work together." I don't think Jenny Mackness or Stephen Downes would favor this definition of cooperation.
Collaborative Interactions - The second way Dillenbourg looks at collaboration is by the nature of a group's interactions:
  1. interactivity: collaborative interactions are, well, interactive, which seems intuitively obvious, but Dillenbourg defines the degree of interactivity not by frequency but by the intensity of the interactions, by the degree to which the interactions influence the peers' cognitive processes. This is an interesting approach to interactivity, but as Dillenbourg notes, devilishly difficult to measure.
  2. synchronicity: collaborative interactions are synchronous says Dillenbourg. Collaborators expect their peers to "wait for [their] message and … process the message as soon as it is delivered." Asynchronous communication is out for collaboration, but I see no advantage to Dillenbourg's definition here. Linux, for instance, is a collaborative effort that seems to thrive on both synchronous and asynchronous communication. I hope Dillenbourg has dropped this.
  3. negotiability: finally, collaborative interactions are negotiated rather than mandated. Negotiation implies for Dillenbourg space among the collaborators for negotiation and misunderstanding, a space for constructing shared meaning regarding the project and its execution.
Collaborative Processes - The third way Dillenbourg explores collaboration is by the mechanisms that enable group interactions and learning. He starts with those mechanisms that are common to individual learning but also occur in group learning: induction, cognitive load, self-explanation, and conflict. He then talks about those mechanisms more closely associated with group learning: internalization, appropriation, and mutual modeling.

Collaborative Effects - The final way Dillenbourg considers collaboration is through its effects on learning, usually as a measurement of individual task performance. He notes two main problems with measuring the effects of collaborative learning:

  1. It is difficult to isolate in a collaborative situation, with its many contexts and interactions, the specific causes of any identifiable learning.
  2. It is difficult to infer the degree of group learning from measurements of individual learning.
So what does this have to say about how the Rhizo14 auto-ethnography group, for instance, should go about looking at Rhizo14?

On the positive side, researchers will benefit from a multi-scale, multi-perspective approach to exploring any complex, multi-scale, self-organizing system such as a cMOOC. This is not to suggest that any single researcher or research effort must attempt to cover all scales and aspects of a cMOOC, but it does suggest that a research effort will benefit if it creates ample space for multiple approaches to the same system.

I am also interested in Dillenbourg's characterization of interactivity not as a quantity but as a quality. He doesn't measure the number of engagements so much as the degree to which an engagement affects a colleague's cognitive processes. This reminds me of Deleuze and Guattari's decalcomania, one of the six features of the rhizome and perhaps the feature least mentioned and discussed by others. Perhaps it is the least understood, or least impressive, but I think that is unfortunate. Decalcomania appears to me to be the process by which memes (a term coined by Richard Dawkins about the same time Deleuze and Guattari were writing A Thousand Plateaus, so perhaps unknown to them) spread through a system. It is a kind of staining. One is stained through an engagement with another and an exchange of energy, matter, information, organization, or all four. Dillenbourg rightly notes that this view of interactivity is difficult to measure and quantify, but everyone in a cMOOC experiences it: an idea emerges somewhere in the network and passes along tweets, posts, and discussions to many others in the network and outside it. Some stain, some don't. The more who stain, the more pervasive and powerful the meme and the more likely it is to spread more. There is a network power law at work here and definitely network propagation (decalcomania) which cMOOC investigators should keep in mind.

Then, Dillenbourg's take on the negotiability of collaborative interactions may hold as well for cooperative networks, but I have to think much more about this. Something wants me to frame the notion of negotiated social contracts in a different way, but I'm not ready to do it now, so I'll just pass.

Finally, Dillenbourg's thoughts about collaborative processes, the mechanisms that enable collaborative learning, seem equally relevant to cooperation as to collaboration. I don't think Dillenbourg was attempting to be exhaustive in the processes he discusses, and I see no reason why induction, cognitive load, self-explanation, conflict, internalization, appropriation, and mutual modeling would not play well in cooperative learning. Though it is possible that other mechanisms that I cannot think of just now play better in cooperative learning than in collaborative learning.

On the negative side, Dillenbourg's 1999 delineation of collaboration and cooperation seems, to me, to miss the concepts emerging in current conversations about cMOOCs. Jenny Mackness pointed to Stephen Downes' careful explanation about the differences between the two, and Dillenbourg's use of cooperation in this article does not match so well. Downes' distinction hinges on the differences between groups and networks and the role of the individual in each. In collaborative groups, individuals are subsumed under the group, becoming a part of the group, while in cooperative networks the individual is not subsumed by the collection of agents; rather, the network is an emergent property of the collection of individuals and their interactions. Dillenbourg's use of cooperation as mostly a difference in distributing the workload of the group misses most of the richness of Downes' use and affords very little help in understanding cMOOCs.

On the other hand, Dillenbourg's use of the term collaboration seems reasonably consistent with Downes' use, so I assume that they are mostly talking about the same kind of system. Thus, I take away from Dillenbourg's article some approaches not to use with cMOOCs. For instance, collaborative groups for Dillenbourg and Downes imply a certain homogeneity in the collection of individuals: similar capabilities, actions, goals, and affordances, especially similar languages and technologies. cMOOCs, on the other hand, are open to heterogeneity, and any effort to explore and map a cMOOC must account for this heterogeneity, this openness to divergent actions, aims, abilities, and affordances. For instance, lurkers have negative roles in a collaborative group and are often eliminated, but they can play a very productive role in a cooperative network, or rhizomatic community.

Dillenbourg's assertion that collaborative groups rely on synchronous communication doesn't match my understanding of what happens online in either collaborative groups or cooperative networks. I take the Linux project to be a monstrously successful collaboration, and I'm confident that group uses both synchronous and asynchronous communications to collaborate. I know that cooperative networks such as cMOOCs use both, so I see no need to limit either collaboration or cooperation to one or the other types of communication. I do see, however, a need to study how and why agents will chose one over the other and what each affords the agents in a system.

Finally, Dillenbourg's handling of collaborative effects seems hampered by its focus on local causality. Both online and f2f collaborative and cooperative systems can be explored and explained as much, perhaps more, by circular and global causalities as by local causalities. Self-organizing systems can seldom be explained by the local pushes of the one-to-one interactions among its constituent agents. Rather, one must include the global pull of the larger, emerging system as it seeks a comfortable function and form within its ecosystem. Likewise, the learning that emerges within a complex system must include circular causalities which account for the continuous flow and feedback of information, energy, and organization among the individual agents and between the emerging system and its ecosystem. To grasp a cMOOC, our field of reality must be enlarged. For instance, the Rhizo14 auto-ethnography cannot simply ask if an instructional technique employed by Dave Cormier led to a specific learning in any of the Rhizo14 participants, as we might do in a traditional classroom. Rather, the group should expand its field to explore how Rhizo14 emerged and self-organized, shaping and ordering itself around various conversational spaces such as Facebook, Twitter, P2PU, blogs, and G+. What global causes pulled Rhizo14 into this particular organization? The group should explore how one conversation fed into another conversation, reshaping both conversations in a mutually causal feedback loop. What circular causes looped Rhizo14 into poetic expressions? Did DS106 and CLMOOC feed into Rhizo14? Has Rhizo14 fed back into those systems? These are the kinds of questions that must frame any discussion of a complex, multi-scale system, I think.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Investigating MOOCs, Part 2 of a #CLMOOC List

This is the second in a series of posts about Pierre Dillenbourg’s 1999 article What do you mean by ‘collaborative learning’?, which introduces his book Collaborative-learning: Cognitive and Computational Approaches. I became interested in Dillenbourg when a Rhizo14 Facebook conversation favorably referenced him and this article. I wanted to see if his approach to studying learning provides guidance for those of us who are exploring rhizomatic learning, and I was delighted when Dillenbourg opened his article with a discussion of scales within learning groups, as I consider cMOOCs a function of complex, multi-scale networks (actually, I consider most everything a function of complex, multi-scale networks). Any investigation of a cMOOC must be aware of the scale or scales from which it is considering the cMOOC and must accept that its focus on any particular scale likely obscures or distorts equally relevant and valid processes, qualities, and affects/effects at work on other scales and that its own scale likely interacts in significant ways with those other processes, qualities, and affects/effects. Dillenbourg’s article, then, provided me with at least one positive approach to studying cMOOCs.

However, in her comment to my first post, Jenny Mackness points out that Dillenbourg is talking about collaborative learning and from her point of view most cMOOCs are all about cooperative learning. Jenny writes:
Cooperation in the sense of open sharing was more what the original cMOOCs were about. And indeed Stephen Downes at the time (2008) made a point of drawing attention to the difference between collaboration (groups) and cooperation (networks) and warned against the dangers of groups and group-think. … For me - MOOCs are still about cooperation. I don't participate in a mOOC for collaboration. For me collaboration might (and often has) been the result of my cooperative experience within a cMOOC.
She is exactly right. cMOOCs are mostly about cooperative learning, in the sense that cooperation tends to emerge in the cMOOCs I engage and that cooperation keeps me engaged; thus, we should rightly question if Dillenbourg’s article about collaborative learning is relevant. I think his observation about scales is relevant, though his subsequent observations may not be. Still, they are worth reviewing as they may provide a useful contrast to other approaches to online rhizomatic learning. I have to keep in mind that this particular article is from 1999, 5 years before the emergence of Web 2.0 and almost 10 years before the first MOOC. At the time, Dillenbourg likely had no frame of reference for online, cooperative, self-organizing learning groups numbering in the thousands from across the world. So I want to look at the second and third elements of Dillenbourg’s collaborative learning, keeping in mind that he almost certainly did not anticipate cMOOCs.

The variety of meanings for ‘learning’: Dillenbourg says that collaborative learning is usually defined as either a pedagogical method or a psychological process. He defines collaborative learning as neither, or rather as a bit of both:
the words ‘collaborative learning’ describe a situation [italics in original] in which particular forms of interaction among people are expected to occur, which would trigger learning mechanisms, but there is no guarantee that the expected interactions will actually occur.
The key to collaborative learning, Dillenbourg continues, “is to develop ways to increase the probability that some types of interaction occur”, and he suggest four ways to encourage interaction:
  1. to set up initial conditions: controlling for group size, group members, group arrangement, groupware used, suitable tasks, and so on.
  2. to over-specify the ‘collaboration’ contract with a scenario based on roles: forcing students to play different roles in some activity such as a discussion.
  3. to scaffold productive interactions by encompassing interaction rules in the medium: supplying structured responses (“I propose to …”) for students to complete or a set number of blog posts and comments.
  4. to monitor and regulate the interactions: performing minimal pedagogical intervention to redirect student work in a productive direction or to encourage students left out of the interaction. 
As I understand him, then, the situation is a pedagogical method, and the learning mechanisms are the psychological processes triggered, or not, by the pedagogical methods. To my mind, Dillenbourg is not defining learning. I know his main topic is collaborative learning, but his sub-title is the variety of meanings for ‘learning’. I expect a definition of learning, but all I see is that learning, whether alone or in a group, is a psychological mechanism of some kind sparked by some given situation that encourages interaction among people. To be fair, Dillenbourg does note that we learn not because we are alone or in groups, but because we “perform some activities which trigger specific learning mechanisms” such as induction, deduction, compilation, explanation, disagreement, mutual regulation, and so forth. Still, he says very little about what this learning is. This does not encourage me. I’m discouraged even more when he characterizes interactions as social contracts between student peers or between students and teachers. I sense that I will have to work hard to realize some benefit from Dillenbourg’s thoughts here. I am almost certain that I will have to push beyond the way he unpacks these ideas.

The way Dillenbourg characterizes learning in this article suggests to me staged collaboration in a closed class rather than open cooperation in the sense of a cMOOC or even open collaboration in the sense of Wikipedia, an xMOOC, or the Rhizo14 auto-ethnography. He says that “basically, collaborative learning takes the form of instructions to subjects (e.g. “You have to work together”), a physical setting (e.g. “Team mates work on the same table”) and other institutional constraints [italics in original] (e.g. “Each group member will receive the mark given the group project”).” I don’t know that this definition holds today even for collaborative learning in a classroom, but I’m certain it does not hold for online cooperative learning. This concept of collaborative learning is based on the traditional notion of a prepared course which marches a cohort of students (or subjects) through a fixed course syllabus toward some specified knowledge or skill and delivered, managed, and assessed by an authoritative teacher under the auspices of a sanctioning institution. The instructions to subjects (students) come from the teacher as an authoritative representative of the sponsoring institution. The physical setting, even when aided and mediated by computational devices, assumes a proximate cohort bounded by space and time. The institutional constraints embed the entire process in an institutional framework. This is all so brick-and-mortar.

This is NOT a criticism. Rather, it is 1999. And in the short 15 years since, cMOOCs have pushed education beyond what our brightest minds were able to conceive and frame. Cooperative, online learning is basically the opposite of the collaborative learning that Dillenbourg describes.

First, cooperative, online learning does not take the form of instructions to subjects. As the recent Rhizo14 and DS106 have demonstrated, open cMOOCs can function quite nicely without an authority figure giving instructions to his subjects. (Yes, I'm playing with the regal overtones of the term subject here, which I don't think Dillenbourg implies, but it makes my point. My apologies if I offend.) Open, online learning is certainly full of suggestions, often too many to process, but these suggestions must be framed quite differently from the instructions in a traditional educational system.

Then, cooperative, online learning does not have a physical setting, or rather is not limited to a physical setting, a prescribed space and time. It is not even limited to an online setting. Space and time become very fluid concepts in open, online learning systems. Participants engage as they can with the tools at hand, when they can, where they can, with whomever they can. This relaxation of a specific and specified space and time is quite disorienting to many when they first engage an open, online space. This fluidity disrupts the normal relationships among people, who become confused about who is in and who is out (I think the whole freaking world is in, but that's just me), perplexed about how to relate, when to assert, when to hold back. The familiar social contracts seem to melt, and attempts to reform them seem to flounder. Not only do the familiar relationships among people fade, but the relationships to content become disjointed. Am I learning? If so, what? (As Bob Dylan once said, "There's something going on here, but you don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?").

Finally, cooperative, online learning has almost no institutional constraints: no grades, no certificates, no ceremony, no sanctioned value. If you want value out of a cMOOC, then you have to create it for yourself with others. No one tells you the answer.

What are the implications here for research into cMOOCs? Mostly, we have to rethink everything. First, we must rethink the relationships among the participants. The old social contract assumed stable, discrete entities who formed stable relationships made explicit by contracts. Any violation in the terms of the contract dissolves the relationship. In the cMOOCs I like, leaders and groups wax and wane, emerge and fade. I constantly shift from lurker to speaker to leader to follower to in the group to out of the group, as do others. Relationships are very fluid. Are we learning together, or are you researching me? Sometimes it's hard to tell, so how do I relate, and do explicit rules make much sense? Finally, we must rethink how we determine the value gained from a course with no answer and no one purpose. How do I know when I'm finished? Am I still in Rhizo14? Have I really started CLMOOC?

It's hard to say, but that's what we are proposing to study.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

How to Study a cMOOC: A list for #CLMOOC

I’ve joined CLMOOC, and the first two tasks are underway:
  1. to create a how to as a way of introducing ourselves, and 
  2. to create a list.
This is my attempt to do both at the same time. I propose here a list of approaches to studying cMOOCs, such as CLMOOC and Rhizo14. Many of my Rhizo14 friends are here as well, so they will recognize some of the themes I touch on here, and those who are not familiar with me will learn something about me. This series of posts that I propose to write (I already see that I can’t do this all in one post) comes from a Rhizo14 Facebook conversation that started when Maha Bali asked how Rhizo14 was different from earlier cMOOCs such as CCK008. She sparked a long conversation that is well worth reading, but along the way, someone mentioned Pierre Dillenbourg’s study of collaborative learning. I was not familiar with Dillenbourg, but he seemed to have some respect amongst the Rhizo14 group, so I moved him to the top of my reading list to see if I could learn something about how to investigate a cMOOC, which I take to be a particularly enjoyable and rewarding instance of collaborative learning.

So I read first Dillenbourg’s introductory chapter What do you mean by ‘collaborative learning’? in his book Collaborative-learning: Cognitive and Computational Approaches (1999). Keep in mind that MOOCs did not exist in 1999, so Dillenbourg cannot be held accountable for them; still, I hoped that he might provide a useful approach to studying online, collaborative courses such as Rhizo14 and CLMOOC. I am particularly interested in wrapping my head around an auto-ethnographic study that is emerging in the Rhizo14 community. In his introduction, Dillenbourg explores collaborative learning “along three dimensions: the scale of the collaborative situation (group size and time span), what is referred to as ‘learning’ and what is referred to as ‘collaboration’. This seemed promising to me, so I want to see if his experience and insights can inform the Rhizo14 auto-ethnography (AE). 

The variety of scales: Dillenbourg insists that different scales of collaborative learning require “different theoretical tools in order to grasp phenomena on various scales” and that we should not generalize the results from studying a handful of people collaborating in one location for an hour to 40 or 50 people (he seems not to have imagined hundreds or even thousands of collaborators back in 1999) collaborating in different locations over the course of a year, and vice versa. Moreover, scale is not so much a property of the object as it is “a property of the observer, who selects the most appropriate unit of analysis.” Likewise, the observer defines the agents, or “functional units”, within a collaborative learning, which can include devices and systems as well as humans.

I like that Dillenbourg begins with scale issues, as I believe that online, collaborative learning is a function of complex, multi-scale networks, or what Deleuze and Guattari call rhizomes. (Networks and rhizomes are not synonymous, but they share some characteristics, and I find it easy to shift between the terms, using networks when I want a more precise model and rhizomes when I want a more expansive metaphor.) For instance, Rhizo14 has generated an auto-ethnographic study that begins with a collection of stories from Rhizo14 participants about how and why they engaged Rhizo14. The raw material for the study, then, is a collection of discursive snapshots taken of Rhizo14 from the different angles and perspectives of each of the story tellers. At one scale, these snapshots can be aggregated and merged into a more complete image of whatever Rhizo14 is. This is something similar to what Blaise Agüera y Arcas does with Microsoft's Photosynth, which collects images, say of the Eiffel Tower, from around the Net, aggregates those images, and produces one multi-dimensional image that is far richer and more informative than any single image. Thus, the multiplicity of the network produces an image that exceeds the sum of all the parts.

But this resulting, single image is just one scale. Fortunately, the Rhizo14 auto-ethnography is conducted by a group of scholars, each of whom can explore the snapshots at different scales and from different points of view with different critical methods. For instance, Rhizo14 featured a wealth of creative responses (poems, animations, stories, etc), and I see no reason why the auto-ethnography should be limited to typical, scholarly papers. Some aspects of Rhizo14 are better and more accurately captured in poetry. Others of the group might tie the auto ethnographic stories to Facebook discussions or Twitter streams. Some might focus on a single participant’s story. Another might analyze the narrative structures of the various stories to explore how people construct their participation within a cMOOC. My point here is that there are more scales and points of view than there are researchers in Rhizo14, and we can preserve the multiplicity of Rhizo14 by looking at it from different scales and different angles.

I’m also pleased that Dillenbourg emphasizes the role of the observer in his analyses of collaborative learning. According to him, the observer defines both the scale of the network and the characteristics of the agents within the network. This positions the observer within the system observed instead of privileging the observer with some objective, godlike view outside the observed system. Thus, the Rhizo14 auto-ethnography group must recognize its position within Rhizo14 and account for its presence and interactions there as an integral part of the effects and processes that it is studying. Said another way, the auto-ethnography group must recognize its own considerable gravitational impact in the solar system that it is studying. While it is easy and natural to define the various Rhizo14 human participants as agents within the Rhizo14 system, the auto-ethnography group is still responsible for its characterizations of those agents and even more so for the configurations and groupings of those agents into Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ cohorts, bloggers, lurkers, the auto-ethnography group itself, and whatever other large-scale agents they may devise. The AE group must accept its creative, imaginative role in defining a particular Twitter stream or blog conversation, say, as an agent in Rhizo14, and though the AE group did not create Facebook, they do create Facebook as an agent in Rhizo14, in large part, by choosing to treat it as an agent, or not.

In sum, the study of a complex, online, collaborative learning system starts, as Dillenbourg suggests, by positioning the researcher within the system studied and forcing the researcher to account for her own role within and impact on the system, accepting that the system is different than it would have been had the researcher been someone else or had there been no researcher at all. This repositioning of the observer from outside the observed system to inside challenges the traditional notion about the stability of reality. If the characteristics and behaviors of the observed cMOOC depend at least in part upon the presence and imagination of the observers, then can we say anything stable and lasting about the cMOOC? Probably not. But stability is likely a problematic expectation anyway. The more promising aim of research, I think, is to say something useful about cMOOCs. We should aim to provide actionable knowledge, not absolute knowledge. The absolute, even if it exists, has always been beyond our abilities. Einstein tried to give us our last absolute when he said that nothing could exceed the speed of light, and then quantum physics came along with its spooky action at a distance to suggest that something is moving faster than light. Damn!

And even actionable knowledge may exceed necessity. Maybe what the AE group should aim for is an expansion of the field of education to include the possibility of courses such as cMOOCs. In her post Reflections on the value of MOOCs, Rhizo14 participant Tanya Lau says:
What I get out of the cMOOC experience is not necessarily practical strategies, ideas or actions that I can apply directly to my workplace (which I might get from say, an industry event, workshop, conference targeted to the field of corporate L&D that I work – or indeed, an xMOOC targeted to a domain of knowledge or skill I have a need to develop). Yet it’s something that actually has greater value than practical application: it’s the shift in mindset that results from engaging with people who are driven to continually question, experiment, explore and improve -> it’s that you start to adopt this mindset yourself too. Start to see challenges as opportunities to explore possibilities, become a little braver, make the leap from thinking about experimenting to actually doing it. No longer (as) afraid of being challenged, but open to it – inviting challenge rather than being defensive. It’s more than just being inspired. It’s inspiration + action to = change. Change in the way you think, learn and act – about life, work, learning, and yourself. It is the personal, human connections and inspiration that Clarissa speaks eloquently of in her posts on #CLMOOC and #Rhizo14.

It’s the type of engagement that most conventional courses and programs dream of achieving, and it’s the reason why I get so frustrated with the continual focus on ‘completion’ as a means to evaluate the effectiveness or value of MOOCs. It’s not about completion; it’s about engagement. And thought-provoking, behaviour-changing engagement can be triggered even through one conversation or experience – as long as it’s with the right people, at the right time, and at the right level.
This is brilliant, and I thank Tanya for saying it just so. You don’t finish a rhizome, you engage it, and when the rhizome has reterritorialized within you and you within it, then you are never free of it, even after its intensity has faded. You certainly can’t study it without becoming part of it. Like gardening, the dirt gets under your nails.

So writing about a cMOOC, defining it from within, aims not so much at giving teachers practical strategies and formulae for modifying their classroom practice as at helping them to shift their mindset and to engage “with people who are driven to continually question, experiment, explore and improve”. And if the AE group can identify a reusable practice or technique—well, that’s okay, too.
I see that I have pushed beyond what Dillenbourg was suggesting, so I have to give my usual caution when I’m discussing the work of another. I am a somewhat poor scholar in that I am much less interested in figuring out what someone else means than in figuring out what I mean. Take my reading of Dillenbourg, then, not as critique of Dillenbourg but as an exploration of how I think we might systematically map a complex, multi-scale system such as a cMOOC.

Okay, that’s Item 1 in my list about how to study a cMOOC. Items 2 & 3 soon.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Turbulence and Dialogue in Rhizo14

Ronald L recently shared with me a link to Nicholas C. Burbules' article The Limits of Dialogue as a Critical Pedagogy (2000), which explores and challenges "the claims made on behalf of dialogue as an inherently liberatory pedagogy". It takes Burbules over half of his document to get to his primary issue with dialogue as a pedagogical strategy, but basically, he is troubled by how dialogue in education is too often abstracted and decontextualized. He writes:
The crucial shift in perspective outlined here is from a prescriptive model of dialogue as a neutral communicative process, a procedure in which all participants are treated equally, concerned only with the search for knowledge, understanding, and perhaps agreement, to dialogue as a situated practice, one implicated by the particulars of who, when, where, and how the dialogue takes place. … Rethinking dialogue along these lines holds promise for developing theoretical accounts of dialogue that are richer, more complex, and better attuned to the material circumstances of pedagogical practice. Dialogue, from this standpoint, cannot be viewed simply as a form of question and answer, but as a relation constituted in a web of relations among multiple forms of communication, human practices, and mediating objects or texts." 
In short, Burbule is saying that as a prescriptive educational technique, dialogue obscures and even denies the complex ecosystem of aims, views, and relationships at work in practical dialogue. Decontextualized, prescriptive dialogue ignores the who, when, where, and how (dunno what happened to what) of real-world, practical dialogue. He says:
  • Who: A dialogue is not an engagement of two (or more) abstract persons, but of people with characteristics, styles, values, and assumptions that shape the particular ways in which they engage in discourse.
  • When: A dialogue is not simply a momentary engagement between two or more people; it is a discursive relation situated against the background of previous relations involving them and the relation of what they are speaking today to the history of those words spoken before them.
  • Where: The dialogical relation depends not only upon what people are saying to each other, but the context in which they come together (the classroom or the cafeteria, for example), where they are positioned in relation to each other (standing, sitting, or communicating on-line), and what other gestures or activities work with or against the grain of the interaction. Dialogue has a materiality, which means paying attention to both facilitating and inhibitive characteristics in the circumstances under which it takes place.
  • How: The texts and objects of representation that mediate classroom discourse can have distinctive effects on what can be said and how it can be understood.
While Burbules does not prescribe ways to remedy prescriptive dialogue as an instructional strategy, he seems to suggest that practical dialogue opens itself to the rich, textured ecosystem in which it emerges. This has several implications for rhizomatic rhetoric.

First, it places dialogue in the complex domain, out of the simple and complicated domains. Dialogue is not simple—a script that any literate persons could speak or read—and it is not complicated—a script that any competent actor could perform with conviction. Rather, dialogue is an open-ended engagement in that zone between order and chaos, and while we want the dialogue to end in order (a meaningful consensus), chaos is always at hand and possible. Dialogue, then, is dynamically poised between promise and terror, meaning and nonsense, consensus and strife, resolution and dissolution. Dialogue is turbulent, and while consensus is possible, it is not always probable. And it is not necessarily desirable.

Proponents of prescriptive dialogue assume that at least consensus, if not indeed truth, is the proper and desirable outcome of dialogue. It is not necessarily so. For instance, the recent cMOOC Rhizo14 enabled much dialogue, but I do not think Rhizo14 achieved any consensus. I don't think that consensus and truth was its aim; rather, it intended exploration and insight, and many Rhizo14 participants achieved that. We did not, however, get the right answer. Nothing stops dialogue and discussion quicker than the right answer. And Rhizo14 has been blessed with continuing conversation in large part because there is no right answer, no consensus. Lack of consensus does not mean that Rhizo14 has not had its epiphanies and insights. It has. But I insist that continued epiphanies and insights depend on turbulence. If and when we reach consensus, then order will be fixed, that conversation will be done, and we'll move on to something else. I am still enjoying the turbulence, and I hope we never find the right answer or consensus.

A conversation is turbulent because it is a convergence of people, place, time, issues, and texts (spoken, written, tweeted, acted, etc.), each with its own trajectory and each already a convergence of other trajectories, known and unknown, explicit, implicit, and hidden. The participants in Rhizo14, for instance, all have "characteristics, styles, values, and assumptions that shape the particular ways in which they engage in discourse". They have personal, professional, and socio-economic histories that shape their interests, perceptions, and assumed positions within the group. Each of them has their own unique relationship to the conversational language, mostly English. They have their own trajectories with Facebook, Google+, Hangouts, and Twitter, or asynchronous and synchronous conversational streams. Some wanted to learn more about Deleuze and Guattari, while some were horrified that they might have to tackle those paragons of obscure, French post-modernism, but to use Deleuze and Guattari, a complex conversation is an assemblage, a rhizome, with territorializations and deterritorializations, flights down different lines, a swarm. Turbulence.

Enjoy the flight.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Emergence and Crying in Public

Before I engaged with Rhizo14, I was writing a series of posts about complexity and how it affects education in general and my own field, composition, in particular. I want to return to that line of thought, but from an oblique angle.

This past February, I found myself on a panel at the Southern Humanities Conference annual meeting with Linnéa Franits of Utica College, and two others. I delivered a paper entitled Missing God: Meditations on Time, Complexity, and Serres, and Linnéa gave a paper entitled Authentic Narratives Elicited from Photographs: History, Memory or Fantasy? I'm not sure what brought these two papers together in the mind of the conference organizers, but I'm glad it worked that way. Unfortunately, though, I read first that day.

I had written a meditation on the absence of signal, in part to explore the side of life that is not covered by positivistic communications theories that model signal generation, propagation, reception, and response. All of those approaches to communications assume that communications begins with a signal, and I wanted to think about those times when the signal is absent: no signal. As is often my tendency, I was wallowing in the deep end of cosmic chaos, and I tried to balance the far reaches of remote galaxies and epochs with some concrete examples from my own local life. So I spoke of three times in my family history when I looked for a signal and did not get one, and the meaning that emerged from no signal.

One example spoke about a particularly difficult time when my youngest sister did not communicate with me about my oldest son's health crisis. I knew this was an emotionally charged issue and that was, in part, why I used it, or so I thought. I wanted to give some heated emotion to a discussion that was too cool and airy. Though writing reminded me of some raw emotions in my past, I wrote the part calmly. I then practiced my delivery several times, editing to get the cadence and tone right, inserting pauses for dramatic and emotional effect, and each time I spoke the part just fine. I was pleased with myself. I was striking just the right emotional, minor, bluesy chord at just the right time.

Well, I wanted the part to move my audience, but I didn't expect it to move me. As I started reading the part about my sister, however, I could feel my throat tighten, my face tingle, and tears swell in my eyes. I almost panicked. I can't do this, I thought, I can't cry at an academic conference. Well, I was wrong. I could cry, and I did.

I didn't completely break down, I don't think. At the last second, I decided to embrace the moment and ride it, and that gave me the ability to lean into the reading, though with a wavering voice, and complete the presentation. So the paper worked, though not at all in the way I thought it would. After our panel, Linnéa promised to share with me her own account of crying in public, and a week after I returned home, she emailed me a copy of her article Mothers as Storytellers in the Lewiecki-Wilson and Cellio book Disability and Mothering: Liminal Spaces of Embodied Knowledge (2011). I've just read her article, and it helps me understand what happened to me. She describes a retelling of a well-crafted story about her own son's disability, which I quote at length:
This telling became completely different. I found myself becoming more and more moved by the words I was reading, to the point where my eyes welled up with tears, which eventually spilled out onto my face as l was overcome with sobs. I was a mess. My kind peers passed tissues my way, and the professor was gracious and gentle as I tried to regain my composure. I was perplexed by my response and struggled to figure out why this telling of the story was such a different experience for me than my typical presentations. For some reason, reading my written word aloud multiplied the emotional impact it had on me. The story was the same as it always had been, and I already knew the admittedly constructed happy ending. The words on the page were somehow more real, more powerful because of their written and then aural form. As I heard myself reading these words to my classmates I became a listener as well as narrator, a participant who received the story and who was not in control of the happy ending. The roller-coaster track had become unfamiliar to me, and the turn startled me as it did the rest of the group. I was reminded that the story of my son’s birth and early life was not the one I had mentally written before it happened, the one that other mothers had told me to expect.
By the way, you should read Linnéa's article, as it is about so much more than crying in public, but that is the part I want to respond to here.

Our experiences were similar: we both had a speech that we already knew, but when we spoke it before a different audience, then a new meaning emerged that neither of us expected. My leading question is, where did this new meaning come from? We both wrote our articles, and that emotional meaning was not there, at least not in that way. We both delivered the articles at other times, and that meaning was not there. So where was it hiding?

It was hiding in the noise, along with everything else. Meaning is an emergent property of events which are themselves the emergent properties of countless trajectories that intersect just here and now, which are themselves emergent properties of things all the way back to the noise. It's emergence after emergence, ad infinitum. But to talk about this, I need simpler models.

The communications triangle will do, though it is a static, flat model of an emerging dynamism. Think of this model as a snapshot of a football game—it makes no sense and is useless unless you already understand football. This model says that any written communications is made up of a writer, a reader, a subject, and a text to connect the other three, like this:
Literary scholars have variously located meaning in one or the other of these four points: in the writer's mind, in the reader's mind, in the world, or in the text itself. More progressive minded folk of the latter part of the 20th century attributed meaning to the interaction and social agreements between writer and reader. The emergent (think complexity) view says that meaning is not a static property of any one of these points but a dynamic property of the interaction of all four trajectories. Change any one of these trajectories, and a different meaning emerges. This makes meaning the emergence of a very complex set of interactions. Actually, it's more complex than that when you consider that each of these trajectories—writer, reader, subject, and text—is also an emergent property of countless other trajectories. And it's more complex still when you consider more than just these four trajectories: throw in the technology, the social context, economics, philosophy, and so on.

Then consider this: all of that is lying in wait in the undifferentiated noise, the background, until a reader engages this nexus of trajectories, bringing it/them into relief against the noise, and then releasing them to fade back into the noise. If you are reading this post, for example, you are bringing into relief a number of ideas to which I, the text of my post, and the subject contribute only a part, maybe a small part of the meaning you see emerging. All of your other readings (to pick just one other stream of many) is also contributing meaning to your reading, and I am likely oblivious to this trajectory of readings as are the other readers of this post. Your meaning cannot be my meaning, and should you read this post later in life, your meaning now will no longer be your meaning.

The principle of emergence appears to work throughout reality, and not just in books and blog posts. In their article The Sacred Emergence of Nature (2006, in Clayton and Simpson's The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science, 853-871), Goodenough and Deacon explain that emergence works from the ground up, and maybe from below the ground up:
Emergent properties arise as the consequence of relationships between entities. Robert Laughlin (2005) intriguingly suggests that emergent properties arise even at the level of relationships between subatomic entities—indeed, he suggests that the very ‘laws’ of nature may prove to be emergent—but since we are not trained in discourse at this level, we will begin with relationships between atoms. Atoms interact with one another, and hence generate emergent outcomes, in accordance with two general features: their energy and their form. … The key concept: if one starts with something like a water molecule, it is nothing but two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, but each molecule has something-else properties that cannot be ascribed to hydrogen alone nor to oxygen alone. The interaction between the three atoms entails a reconfiguration of electron orbitals and generates a trapezoid-shaped entity that is more electrically positive on one facet and more negative on the opposite facet. Compared with hydrogen and oxygen atoms, a water molecule has unprecedented attributes, because the joining of these atoms has distorted the shapes of each and produced a composite shape with its own intrinsic properties.
If this is the case, then we are all emergent properties among other emergent properties, and just as the meaning of a water molecule is an emergent property of the joining of the trajectory of one hydrogen atom with the trajectories of two oxygen atoms, then the meaning of a text is an emergent property of the trajectories of at least a writer, reader, subject, and text—and probably many more trajectories. Thus, when I stood to speak before a gathering of my peers in Richmond, VA, Saturday, February 01, 2014, at about 9:15 in the morning, the meaning that emerged was quite different—though in a self-similar, fractal kind of way—from the meanings that had emerged in other contexts.

I was surprised and initially embarrassed, though I don't know why. I know that meaning is emergent and dynamic; still, I was surprised. And now I know that I can cry, and why, in an academic presentation. Thanks, Linnéa.