Sunday, April 13, 2014

Who Belongs to Rhizo14?

I have been edging up to this post for the past few weeks, but a Rhizo14 Facebook discussion today (Saturday, 2014 April 12, -5:00 GMT) and a comment to my last post by Frances Bell have pushed me into it. The Facebook discussion was kicked off by Sarah Honeychurch asking, "How do we feel about others who were not part of rhizo14 using our autoeth? Somebody asking yesterday on Twitter Interesting question." In the thread, Frances Bell asked, "what does it mean to belong to rhizo14"? In a comment on my previous blog, Frances also said, "although I consider myself to be part of rhizo14 and did write a few words on the collaborative auto-ethnography, I do not consider myself to be part of the rhizo rhetoric writing group. Is that the only way to write rhizo14 without being considered to be 'writing about'? That was 'Frances' rhetorical question because I am going to be writing rhizo14 without permission ;)" Go, Frances. I can't wait to read what she, Jenny, and Maria have to say.

Anyway, I see two issues emerging in this conversation that I want to address in this post (maybe in two posts, depending—I haven't finished yet so I don't know):

  1. Who belongs in a cMOOC such as Rhizo14, and
  2. Who belongs in the group writing the authoenthography of Rhizo14?
I'll start with the first question. (By the way, I live next to a nature preserve in south Florida, and a raccoon just walked along the fence outside my balcony. I am also having an expensive Canadian whiskey and a fine cigar (I control my bad habits by having only the most expensive) under a brilliant south Florida sky. This will make all the difference in what I have to say.) I find nested parentheses so fractal and rhizomatic.

The first question: who belongs in a cMOOC such as Rhizo14?

For me, the short answer is anyone who shows up at any time (even after the cMOOC is officially ended) is in. But it's more rhizomatic, or complex, than that.

My discussion here will be highly informed by James Gleick's book Chaos, which discusses the rise of chaos theory, which I consider to be part of the emergence of complexity, along with relativity and quantum theories, in the 20th century. I think that complexity will come to inform almost all serious thought of the 21st century and most popular thought, but that remains to be seen. At any rate, it informs my thought at the moment, so you know where I'm coming from.

Asking who is in Rhizo14 and who is not creates a boundary issue, and as Gleick explains, boundaries are problematic in complexity thought. Boundaries are trivial in reductionist, mechanistic thought, either/or propositions: one is either inside the system or outside, and there is a clear line between the inside and outside, usually with a gatekeeper or social contract to manage the exchanges across the boundary. This concept, perhaps best expressed by John Locke but encoded in most of our Western laws, is clear and legible. It manages most of our thinking: social, economic, political, religious, educational, and more. A student is either a junior or a senior, but not both. Both is confusing and messy (read: complex), and we don't like confusing and messy.

Complexity, on the other hand, sees boundaries as problematic, non-trivial structures. We want discrete boundaries where all on this side is red (or any other characteristic you can think of) and all on that side is blue, but as Gleick illustrates in his book, nature doesn't seem to work that way. In the 1970s and 80s, scientists exploring turbulence with the new fractal geometries of Benoit Mandelbrot, non-linear mathematics, and new computers found that the boundaries within complex, dynamical systems are never discrete: some red always mixes with some blue at the boundaries of even the simplest of systems. I think this is the case with complex systems such as Rhizo14. Let's use an analogy to see how.

Think of a single-celled organism, an amoeba, which is about as close to simplicity as complex systems can get. At a certain scale, it appears that the amoeba has a distinct, discrete boundary, a membrane, between its inside and its outside, but if we zoom down a couple of scales, we find that the cell membrane is not so distinct or discrete. It is textured. It has thickness. It has pores where it can, and must, exchange matter, energy, information, and organization with its surroundings. Bacteria move through and across this boundary, doing helpful things and harmful things. Are the bacteria in or out? Are they part of the amoeba or not? We humans have more bacteria in our bodies than we have cells. Are they in or out, part of us or not? Neither the amoeba nor we can survive without the bacteria. We cannot survive without the membrane, either, and while clearly some things are on the inside doing much of the hard work to sustain the system, we cannot overlook the things at the boundaries that are moving information and energy in and out.

For me, most people in a MOOC are at the boundary. Our skin, after all, is our single, largest organ. We on the inside, including me, unkindly call those on the boundary lurkers, and we imagine that we on the inside are the hard-working, privileged heart of the MOOC, but it's at the boundary where most of the interesting things happen as energy, matter, information, and organization flow in and out of the system—in and out of amoeba, humans, and MOOCs. The boundaries are where our connections are formed. It seems to me that most of the people at the boundary of a MOOC don't even know they are in the boundary of the MOOC, but they are, and the heart of the MOOC should rejoice that they are there, for without them we would cease to beat.

So I want a fuzzy boundary where it's hard to tell who's in and who's out; I want even the bacteria. That is a fortuitous term because it carries a negative connotation, and I think many of us at the heart of Rhizo14 have negative feelings about those bacteria that take our treasured information and use it in other systems. But that, after all, is what is supposed to happen. We want our information out there, and once it is out there in the wider ecosystem, we lose control over it. I think of how the early MOOC pioneers must feel about how their treasured concept is being used in the wider higher education ecosystem, but the only way to prevent that would have been to trap the concept, if that was even possible, and then it would have died. The best response to what is happening to the concept of MOOCs is to continue to express it as well as you can, and I think that is what the Rhizo14 ethnography group should do: use our information as well as we can, put it out, and trust that our interpretation will add value to the larger system. And we must remember that whatever we write will be an interpretation even if somewhat privileged by proximity. We should also be mindful that proximity can be a disadvantage. The scale from which we observe anything affords us some information and blocks other information.

Some might argue that while we should allow the good bacteria in, we should guard against the bad bacteria. I agree, but I confess that I don't have a good sense of who is good and who is bad. As of yet, I do not feel injured by any use of the information by anyone.

Finally, I want to note that openness is the spirit of cMOOCs such as Rhizo14. All of us were invited in, entitled to rip, mix, and burn whatever we found, and enabled to take the information outside the MOOC to use in other systems, such as I'm doing in this blog. I want to remain in that open spirit, which makes me wonder: is this blog part of Rhizo14? What about part of the Rhizo14 auto ethnography? That's a complex question that I'll address in a second post.
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