Monday, May 25, 2015

How Does rhizoANT Work?

In my previous post, I summarized Farzana Dudhwala's article What is Actor-Network Theory?, but I didn't really explore what it might mean for the rhizo14 collaborative autoethnography (CAE). I want to do that here.

I start with Dudhwala's first observation that for ANT, the social is a network of relations and "does not exist as an objective reality prior to the research having even begun" (3). This is a particularly tricky issue for rhizo14 participants because we are all educators engaging an online class. Thus, we can easily bring to the class all of the social and educational structures that we have learned and learned very well, given that most of us are successful students, teachers, and administrators. For instance, we can easily assume that Dave Cormier is the teacher and that we are the students, bringing to our research all of the power and social relationships implied by those roles, which can blind us to the structures that actually emerged in rhizo14. If we expect Dave to be a traditional teacher, then we will interpret his behavior, for better or for worse, based on that expectation. An ANT approach to rhizo14 tries to drop expectations of Dave as the teacher and rhizo14 as a MOOC.

This is one of the issues Simon explores so well in his Hybrid Pedagogy article "Insoumis" when he responds to Mackness and Bell's published analysis of rhizo14. If I'm reading Simon correctly, then he suggests that Mackness and Bell bring to their analysis certain assumptions about the roles and responsibilities, especially of the facilitator, that do not apply to rhizo14, given that what emerged was not a traditional on-line class but something else.

Let me say that I do not believe researchers can bring no expectations to a given situation. We are always informed by our theories and models, and the best we can do is recognize and work with our biases, models, and theories. This takes great discipline and rigor. It also helps to have a swarm of researchers who can look at a given social event such as rhizo14 from many more angles.

ANT certainly begins with its own models of reality, which Latour has complained about. ANT assumes that rhizo14, for instance, is best approached as actors interacting in a network of relations, and the structure of rhizo14 is not given beforehand (say by the facilitator, Dave Cormier), but emerges from all those interactions. The global follows the local, unlike traditional classes in which the local interactions among students, teachers, tests, and texts follow from the carefully laid out global course plan.

Keep in mind, however, that ANT is still a model of reality, and while it's the model that I prefer, we have to recognize that it is a model. Therefore, it is wrong in the sense that like all models it is limited, it leaves out too much. I think we use ANT because we find it useful, but we must remember that the old models were useful in their day and may still be useful in some contexts for some tasks. Someday, ANT will not be so useful. Like all models, it will always be wrong.

This model means that we approach rhizo14 "not as attributors of a hidden social force or context, but simply as tracing the associations between heterogeneous entities and following their lead" (3). We don't attribute to rhizo14 characteristics of connectivist or constructivist educational theories; rather, we identify as many actors as we can and follow them, scribbling notes madly, to see where they go, how they get there, and what else they connect to. The hope is that if we look closely enough, long enough, then a shape will begin to emerge. We will identify that emerging shape as rhizo14. Perhaps a MOOC, but perhaps not. We will wait to see what emerges. It may have some patterns that resonate with other patterns we know about (MOOCs, connectivism, etc.), but it likely will also have patterns that are peculiar to itself. ANT wants to capture both.

Several distinctive characteristics of ANT emerge here. First, what are actors? We think of people, of course—all of us who engaged in rhizo14—but ANT takes a global view of actors: people, organizations, ideas, things, processes. Thus, when we explore rhizo14, we have to consider Google Docs along with Maha, Sarah, Simon, AK, and others. For ANT, actors are heterogeneous entities. AK writes in his post "Swarm the Google Doc, or so says the ANT" and Len in his post "Actor-Network Theory and Google Docs" about the characteristics of Google Docs that both enabled and shaped the interactions among the humans writing about rhizo14. For ANT researchers, Google Docs is an actor in its own right, just as the humans are. ANT says that we cannot understand the interactions between Rebecca and Sandra if we don't include their interactions with Google Docs.

Of course, we can't stop with just Google Docs. Once we begin this line of thinking, we have to include our devices (PCs, laptops, tablets, smartphones, ISPs, electrical grids, the Internet, and all the rest). In short, there is no end to the amount of detail that we can collect, and this is a real problem for ANT researchers. The work-load is overwhelming, as the CAE cohort has already discovered. Every relevant detail is interconnected with 10 other relevant details, all clamoring for our attention. It can drive a researcher mad.

To my mind, this is where the novelists come to our rescue. Ever since Laurence Sterne wrote Tristram Shandy, novelists have recognized that telling any story connects writers to more details than anyone will publish or read. A novelist is successful as much for what she leaves out as for what she puts in. I suspect that ANT researchers are in the same situation. I will have to read more from them to see how they handle this situation. For a hundred years, we've tried to deal with too much data through statistical analysis: collecting fewer random data points and applying statistical algorithms to them to extrapolate to the whole system. One new approach, though, has to do with big data and computers, which allow researchers to collect more, sometimes almost all, data points from any given situation and process that data with computers in ways that reveal patterns previously obscured by the sheer amount of data (weather patterns are an obvious example). So far in our swarm, we have taken a mostly novelistic approach to studying rhizo14 with our collection of ethnographic stories, but we can apply computers even to those stories, as I started to do with my work on the prepositions in the CAE. I used a computer and text analysis software to identify all the prepositions in the CAE and then followed the connections made by one preposition, identifying the actors and the network of interactions revealed by the CAE. Of course, a more complete study would look not just at the CAE, but also at all the tweets, the Facebook discussion, the blog posts, and even the more remote and obscure hallway discussions as rhizo14 participants discussed rhizomatic learning with their local colleagues. There is no end to data, and we should explore how computers can help us collect and analyze more data in rhizo14.

Another characteristic of actors is their flat status. As Len notes in his post:
ANT does not support levels of importance or status for any set of actants. In other words everything in a system takes on a sort of equal level of importance. While this is difficult to accept at times, I believe the general premise that you do not assign or think about levels of importance (agency/ a flat ontology ?) of actants. In fact, ANT suggests, I believe, our understanding of a system of actants cannot be determined a priori – that things unfold (in situ?).
So we don't assume going into our study that Dave Cormier is the key figure in rhizo14. Indeed, if you look at rhizo14 across the past year, you will most likely identify several figures more prominent than Dave (I think he will happily agree with that assessment). Certainly, this current swarm of participants has been more prominent in my experience of rhizo14 than Dave has been. Jenny and Frances have been more prominent. This flat ontology (thanks for that term, Len) does not mean that ANT doesn't recognize macro, meso, and micro actors—it does—but it doesn't recognize them before it sees them. If we examine all the interactions of rhizo14, and Dave does not emerge as a key player in most of them, then we cannot grant him some special Big Honcho status with special obligations and responsibilities (back to Simon's observations). If some were not happy with rhizo14, then we are all implicated, and all includes all the human and non-human actors. Twitter gets just as much consideration, and possibly as much blame and credit, as Dave does or I do.

Finally for this post, I want to mention a last characteristic of actors: that they are all mediators of the messages they carry and the relationships they form. In other words, when I talk about actor-network theory as I am doing in this post, I stain the message. Google Blogger stains the message. The Internet stains the message. English stains the message. Because I am an American, the U.S. stains the message. I always leave my fingerprints on any message I channel in or out. When you get this message, this post, you will put your fingerprints all over it with your peculiar reading. There is no clear communication free of noise and static. (This, by the way, is probably the single biggest fault of traditional education: the assumption that communication of knowledge from teacher to student can be clear and thus reliably tested. It cannot.) ANT researchers, then, must look for and account for the stains. When we look at Google Docs in rhizo14, we must look for the ways that Google Docs shapes and translates the energy and information that flows through it. When we used Google Docs to write both the original CAE and The Untext, Google Docs was as much a shaping, translating, forming actor as we humans were. And we all shaped and translated and in-formed. ANT recognizes this network phenomenon and tries to account for it.

For me, then, ANT itself is not so difficult an idea; rather, its practice is difficult as it exposes the researcher/s to an overwhelming swelter of information. Try this thought experiment: consider 4 or 5 children playing in a sandbox for an hour. Start with as few preconceptions as possible about what they are doing and how they should do it. Observe as much as possible with the hopes of later explaining what emerges through their play. Now imagine all the technical apparatus you would need to capture all the relevant data (speech, action, toys, games, personalities) unfolding in even this small a space/time. You could write a book about this one hour. Laurence Stern did.

Monday, May 18, 2015

ANT via Dudhwala: #rhizo15

In her article What is Actor-Network Theory?, Farzana Dudhwala explores actor-network theory (ANT) in positive and negative ways: saying both what ANT does and, by contrast with traditional sociologists, what it does not do. She says that ANT practitioners differ from classical sociologists first in their concept of the social. For Durkheim and Comte, society was a thing with both positive and negative characteristics that could be relied on and pointed to as existing prior to the issue at hand. For ANT practitioners such as Callon, Latour, and Law, the social is a network of relations and "does not exist as an objective reality prior to the research having even begun. … Consequently, the sociologists of associations envisage their role not as attributors of a hidden social force or context, but simply as tracing the associations between heterogeneous entities and following their lead" (3). As a method of inquiry, then, ANT refuses the "imposition by the sociologist on the social of an a priori social context or framework" (3). Rather, the social must emerge from close observation that follows the actors and traces the rhizomatic connections they forge. It is the dynamic interweaving of these connections from which the social emerges. The social structure is not given; rather, it emerges. Thus, ANT is more inductive than deductive, explaining large social structures (the macro) through close observation of the small details (the micro).

Macro actors such as religion, economy, and politics are traditionally seen as the cause of the behavior of micro actors, and thus, they are of more importance. ANT insists that the macro and micro must be examined on equal (more flat) terms, and that the micro actors are often more complex than the macro. ANT further flattens the social by mixing non-human actors alongside human actors in the sociological soup. Dudhwala says:
Callon's study of scallops in St. Brieuc bay shows how humans and non-humans alike form networks and associations in order to translate their will and shape their world. This paper therefore, true to ANT's methods, treats researchers, fish farmers, scientists and scallops all in exactly the same way: as actors.
Latour distinguishes intermediaries from mediators. Intermediaries transport force or meaning without transformation, while mediators transform all that they transport among other actors. Mediators, then, introduce an element of surprise and unpredictability in connections among actors that must be allowed and accounted for.

Dudhwala summarizes her amazingly clear examination of ANT this way:
Actor-network theory evidently differs from the classical tradition of sociology at its very core. Its belief in a flat ontology puts all entities, human and non-human, on the same plane – a notion unspoken of in the Durkheimian tradition. Actors are awarded the same level of knowledge about their world as sociologists, and therefore the task of the sociologist is simply to follow these actors.
Finally, she seems to agree that ANT is more a methodology than a theory, though its treatment by sociologists seems to be forcing it into a theory-producing role, much to the dismay of ANTians such as Latour, who insist that the acronym ANT is more appropriate than the term actor-network theory, as the acronym perfectly describes "a blind, myopic, workaholic, trail-sniffing, and collective traveler" such as himself.

The lessons for me, then, from Dudhwala's observations: Study of Rhizo14 may best proceed along the lines of an ethnomethodology which treats Rhizo14 as a hyperobject, to use Timothy Morton's term, or as noise, to use Serres' term. These are objects that are not formed beforehand, but out of which a form emerges. To form an image of the larger object (Rhizo14), we track the connections that actors such as Ensor, Hamon, Honeychurch, Twitter, Facebook, laptops, and others make through the noise. This is something like forming an idea of wind currents in the sky by tracing the paths of murmurating starlings. This is hard work, but we hope that the actual shape of Rhizo14 will emerge from our tracings, or from our mappings as Deleuze and Guattari say it (for them, a tracing is going over a given, existing pathway—which is not what ANT implies by the term—while mapping is following an emerging pathway).

We do not privilege any particular actor in Rhizo14, though clearly some actors had a macro role and others a micro role. Lurkers should be regarded as well as Dave Cormier or Facebook. Finally, we do not privilege our own language as researchers over the language of the actors, especially given that we researchers are also actors in Rhizo14. Finally, I'm particularly interested in Latour's distinction between intermediary and mediator; however, I don't know of many intermediaries. I think most every actor transforms or translates the forces and meanings that it transports among the other actors within the emerging social structure. For instance, when I use Google Docs to communicate with others in Rhizo14, Google Docs translates my meaning. What I put in is not necessarily what others take out. Rather, as Serres notes, there is always a parasitism at work in the movement of information and energy through a system such as Rhizo14. The parasites (such as auto-correct in Google Docs, to pick an obviously parasitic feature) always translate the meaning and the force, changing it as it flows from here to there within Rhizo14 and out. This translation cannot be predicted, and it cannot be ignored.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Ethics for MOOCs: Power in Rhizo-MOOCs

Maha Bali just published a post Power that Remains When We Leave the Classroom that talks about the results of pulling the teacher and, thus, the teacher's power from the classroom. She notes that this does not leave an absence of power and a group of equals. To my mind, this still leaves power that is now up for grabs whether or not the students have a "sense of community and trust". The group has power, even if it doesn't know what to do with it.

I have written about power in this blog before, but not within the context of ethics. So I want to do that today. I also want to provide a more nuanced response to Dave Cormier's #rhizo15 challenge question: is rhizomatic learning an invasive species? Dave characterizes community learning in terms of aggressive power:
Rhizomatic plants are chaotic, aggressive and resilient. It models some of the qualities that can make a good learner. The rhizome, however, can also be an invasive species. It can choke other plants out of your garden such that only the rhizomatic plant remains.
He is suggesting, of course, that rhizomatic learning is an aggressive process that drowns out other processes, crowding them out of open learning spaces with their incessant posting and tweeting. Sounds like an unwelcome exercise of power to me. Is this so? I don't think so (hence, my short response in my previous post), but now I want to explore why.

Several years ago I read John Henry Clippinger's book A Crowd of One: The Future of Individual Identity (2007), and I recall an argument he makes that freedom is best understood as freedom to rather than freedom from. These prepositions and the directions they take are important.

For me, the argument goes something like this: We humans exist always within social and natural networks, these networks create power, and thus, we are always within networks of power. Freedom from power, then, is not possible. Freedom from a given power may not even be possible, though we can insulate ourselves somewhat. For example, I can insulate myself from this year's flu, but even if I don't catch the disease, I am still affected by the power of this disease by forced changes in habits and associations and the illness of friends and family. During the Cold War, I was insulated somewhat from the power of communist dictatorships, but I was still not totally immune—I can recall even now the suffocating fear of imminent nuclear holocaust. That is power.

Of course, the flu and nation states are very large power regimes, much bigger than MOOCs, and I use them to highlight my point. However, all actors at all scales are entangled in power, and I define power as the struggle of a system to develop and maintain its own identity and to exchange matter, energy, information, and organization within the context of other systems trying to do the same. I imagine the difference between the power effects of a nation state and those of my own immune system as the difference between dropping a huge boulder in the water and dropping a pebble. The boulder causes bigger ripples that extend further, but the pebble causes ripples as well. Power ripples through all our different ponds, lakes, and oceans. We emerge physically and socially through rippling power. We swim in it. (I do not know if the ripples cause power or power causes ripples. Perhaps ripples are only the obvious manifestations of power, but that's another post.)

Freedom from power, then, is not an option, and disengagement from a system and its power offers at best some insulation, some distance, perhaps to the degree that you can ignore the power. I insist, however, that you are never really free from any source of power given the entanglement of all within all. Ripples run all the way across the lake, but eventually, they don't rock our boats.

The only real option then is freedom to power, especially in social networks. In other words, we exercise our freedom when we engage the power of the group. We are free when we both can and do engage the power of the group. Freedom is not a negative—an absence of power—it is a positive—an exercise of power.

We can exercise our power, our freedom, in two ways: by engaging and by disengaging. We can stay and play or we can walk away. But keep in mind that walking away is not negative as we are always walking into some other power system. As Timothy Morton has explained quite nicely in his book HyperObjects (2014), there is no away, no space outside of a system and its systemic power. Moreover, we always walk away carrying the stain of whatever we are leaving. There is no away, only a fading influence that we eventually come to ignore if we work at it hard enough (though that very working can sometimes only remind us of what we are working to forget. Damn!).

RhizoMoocs are systems, and like all systems, a given rhizoMOOC generates power, or rather, power emerges as the system tries to form itself and as it exchanges matter, energy, information, and organization with its ecosystem. I have participated in few events that are more open, with more evenly distributed power than rhizoMOOCs. (In 1970, I did attend the Second Atlanta Pop Festival for 3 days of "peace, love, and music", and it may have been a bit more open, but not much.)

In open, self organizing systems with freedom to move—to engage or disengage—knots form. In our bodies, we call these knots organs: stomach, heart, lungs and so on. Such knots form in social systems as well, almost inevitably. We call them cliques, companies, and countries. We preserve freedom in social systems by allowing movement from system to system, knot to knot. RhizoMOOCs preserve this freedom.

For instance, in all the RhizoMOOCs I've participated in a knot has formed around Twitter, as participants congregate there and engage one another. Inevitably, a few people tweet more and more engagingly than do others, and as these prolific tweeters gain more connections, they gain more power. Actually, they don't gain power like a possession. A better way to say this is that because of the number of connections to the prolific tweeters, their words and actions are amplified (power) and perturb the system more than the words and actions of other, less well connected actors. In our current #rhizo15, for instance, both Maha Bali and I use Twitter, but Maha tweets far more than I do with far more connections. Thus, she manifests in #rhizo15 more Twitter power than I do. Maha starts movements along Twitter and perturbs the #rhizo15 system. The following short video shows how such knots can form in open spaces such as a rhizoMOOC or an outdoor music festival. Give a look:

Is this sort of self-organizing knot a problem? Does it threaten the music festival?

It can be a problem if, for instance, the concert organizers try to limit dancing or to limit the number of people who can dance, forcing everyone to sit still and listen to the music. This might seem far-fetched, but we do this in traditional classrooms all the time: limiting conversation to one channel and one content, both belonging to the teacher. Self-organizing knots can also be a problem if the dancing becomes so dominant that no one else can hear the concert. Such things have happened on the Net. DOS attacks are common examples.

But this kind of knot is not a problem first if its boundaries are open, if you are free to engage or not engage. Lots of people freely join the dancing guys, but more do not. This is freedom. You can join, but you don't have to. Note that, even though the dancing guy and his second and third mates attract lots of followers, most people in the crowd do not join. They lurk instead, watching from the sidelines, or they remain focused on the stage act. It is possible that some in the crowd were annoyed at the dancing mob and would have supported the police moving in and breaking up the mayhem, but they show a profound misunderstanding of open spaces, and they are too easily annoyed.

Then, self-organizing knots are not a problem if you can form your own knot. The best response if you don't like the Twitter dance is to join another dance or start your own dance. In #rhizo15, you can write a song with Kevin Hodgson, a story with Terry Elliot, a play with Tania Shelko, a poem sequence with Simon Ensor, maps and graphs with Daniel Lynds, or blog posts with Autumm Caines. Nothing in an open space precludes you changing the topic. You are free to engage the power. You are not free to expect an absence of power. It takes power to do all those things, and I am pleased that so many want to do so much. God bless the rhizome.

If Maha is brave enough to start dancing in Twitter, and if one or two others join her, then a knot can form in #rhizo15. As it grows and exerts power, this knot of activity can annoy and intimidate others, especially those who brought their lawn chairs and picnic baskets and have rather strict ideas about decorum at a rock concert, as is beginning to happen in the grey zones at Rolling Stones' concerts (it's a main reason for the very expensive seats: to separate those who no longer dance and drink only wine from those who dance too freely under the influence of other spirits). But Maha is not the problem here. She is behaving ethically and correctly in a rhizomatic learning space.

So what are the ethics? What is appropriate behavior in an open, rhizomatic learning space?
  • Expect power to emerge and cluster just as it did in galaxies.
  • Exercise your right to engage in that power and to emerge with it.
  • Shape the power, and be shaped by it.
  • If it isn't working for you, shift to some other galaxy.
  • Don't expect to ever leave the power totally behind. You've been stained.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

#rhizo15: An Invasive Species?

In this week's #rhizo15 question, Dave Cormier asks if rhizomatic learning is an invasive species.


Friday, May 1, 2015

Content in #rhizo15

It's Week 3 in #rhizo15, and Dave Cormier has asked us to consider content and its role in education. He says:
I’ve always been a little confused by the word ‘content.’ There is something lonely and unconnected about the word somehow, when i hear it used with reference to what happens in learning. I imagine a lone student, huddled away in a dorm room, reading sanitized facts in the hopes of passing a multiple choice quiz. The content somehow merging with the learning objective and the assessment to create a world where learning is about acquiring truth from the truth box. … So what happens when we peek under the word ‘content’ to see what lives there? What does it mean for a course to ‘contain’ information? What choices are being made… what power is being used?
So what can we say about content? Consider this post that I am now writing and you are now reading (different nows, but that is relevant). Is there any content in this post? If there isn't, then what am I writing and what are you reading and why?

If we look at Google's dictionary, we see that the word content has two distinct clusters of meaning. The first cluster has to do with satisfaction and satisfying, being content with a situation or causing someone else to be contented. This is not the meaning Dave has in mind, but it may be relevant, so let's keep it handy.

The second cluster is more to the point: the stuff contained inside something. It could be an ingredient in a mixture (contents of a cake batter), an object in a container (contents of a barrel), or an idea in a communication (contents of a blog post). I suspect that Dave means mostly the last, contents of a communication, but the others are also relevant. A course could, of course (sorry), actually contain some objects: handouts, textbooks, performances, events, classrooms, chairs, desks, pens, papers, computers, tablets, phones, and so on. It can even contain virtual objects: blog posts, Twitter, Facebook, LMSes, chatrooms, etc. All of these objects are not irrelevant, but I don't think that's the content Dave was asking about. Those objects, that content, does not seem particularly well-aligned with learning objectives, though I suspect most of us would argue that they should be IF we are going to mess with learning objectives at all.

Still, I don't think Dave is asking about objects in a container, like stones in a crate; rather, he is asking about knowledge in our minds. I believe his concern is that we usually treat knowledge in our minds like stones in a crate: an object to transfer from the teacher's crate to the students' crates through the apparatus of a course of study. Knowledge is not transferred from teacher to student like a stone. There is no nugget of knowledge that I can give you, for instance, in this blog post. We speak as if there is, but it is only a convenient manner of speaking. Too often, it is a misleading manner of speaking. It leads us to ask of education: did you get the stone, the chunk of knowledge about fractions that I gave you? did you put it in the correct slot in your hierarchy of stones? and can you retrieve this stone upon demand on a test? I think this pretty much sums up traditional education. Dave doesn't seem to like it, and I don't either. It's stone age education. Actually, it isn't. Calling it stone age seriously denigrates the Stone Age. It's simple, mechanical education, and it works only in very limited situations for very limited objectives.

Knowledge is not an object like a stone. Actually, I don't believe a stone is an object like a stone, but that's another post. Knowledge is not composed of discrete, individual chunks. Knowledge is more like a weather system, and I cannot give you some weather. I can give you pause to consider the weather, but I can't bottle (container) some weather (contents) and transfer it to you. Knowledge is a thing like the weather, a different kind of thing.

Consider this blog post that I am currently writing and you are currently reading. This juxtaposition of two different nows points to the different kind of thing that I mean when I say knowledge. We want our things to cohere in one place and time, not to smudge across different spaces and times and scales. We don't want things to be in multiple places at multiple times on multiple scales, yet here I am writing now AND here you are reading now. Your reading is already in my writing, as my writing is already in your reading. The knowledge in this post—indulge me here—smudges across my here/now AND your here/now and in some way coheres. It is not as if the knowledge is here like a stone with me now/earlier, is transferred along the wires of the Internet, and is then with you now/later. The knowledge is here/now and enfolds both you and me, like the weather.

And like the weather, I can write of raining and you can read of raining, and we will behave as if some chunk of meaning about raining was transferred from me to you, but it wasn't. It's just raining all the way from me to you, but I see only my bit of rain and you see your bit of rain. And of course, we don't see the same bit of rain nor do we see all the rain. Actually, I don't want to say it's raining all the way from me to you. It's more that we are both enfolded in the raining. That's what I mean about knowledge, about content. It isn't a collection of stones to transfer, but a weather system that enfolds us.

So how do you design the weather and what are your learning objectives? And welcome to the rhizo-storm.