Thursday, April 29, 2010

Trends in Education: Multiplicity

A second key trend in education can be described by the third and fourth characteristics of rhizomatic structures as discussed by Deleuze and Guattari in their book A Thousand Plateaus:
  • multiplicity
  • asignifying ruptures
In this post I will use the single term multiplicity to speak of both characteristics, except when I want to speak of asignifying ruptures by themselves. 

Multiplicity is a complex concept that we might approach first from the ideas of connectivity and heterogeneity. Every point in a rhizome can and must connect to everything else; thus, we cannot understand any single point, except in a most abstract and academic way, without considering and accounting for all its connections. This brings us directly to holistic, environmental, systemic, relativistic, organic, fractal, chaotic thinking, and is in direct tension with the kind of rigidly reasonable individualism that has dominated much of Western thought and almost all of American thought for the past two centuries. In terms of multiplicity, then, any thing is best thought of as an assemblage of multiple assemblages—both near and far, now and then and yet to be, in and out, up and down—themselves assemblages of multiple assemblages. Thus, at whatever level or scale we consider any thing, we see assemblages of assemblages within assemblages, all interconnected in a fluidly orderly fashion, like a beautiful fractal image.

Orderly brings us to a key second feature of multiplicity: any multiplicity is self-organized. This is self-evident from a modern scientific point of view. If we consider the Universe—the uber-Rhizome—we see that most everything in it has self-organized. The initial spray of light coalesced into hydrogen and other atomic structures, which then organized into stars, then into planets, then into … well, us and eventually into this class at We ourselves start with a couple of cells and then self-organize into an infant within another rhizomatic structure, or multiplicity, that we call mother. A star has its own light and gravity and self-organization, but that light and gravity extends throughout the universe, and to understand that star, we must consider both its own light, gravity, and self-organization and its relation to all the other lights, gravities, and organization. Any rhizomatic structure, then, contains all the facts and all the mystery possible, and to understand it, we can neither limit ourselves just to the facts or just to the mystery, but must consider the star in all its multiplicities. Clearly, we'll never completely understand any single star, or any single flower or person, and I take great comfort and joy in that. The Universe and everything in it is an infinite multiplicity.

A third point, also self-evident, is that rhizomatic structures are dynamic. They don't self-organize into static entities. They morph, they shift, they merge and sheer, they reorganize. They are susceptible to asignifying ruptures, those exchanges with and sheers into other rhizomatic structures that can so rearrange the rhizome that it appears to lose its significance and signification for us. It becomes asignified, no longer matching the language we've used to signify it. We try to capture rhizomes in language, establishing signs that point this way and that, walling in this space or that, but then the rhizomes shift and the signs point the wrong way. As Robert Frost so plainly says: something there is that doesn't love a wall.

And signification brings us to the final point for this post: our languages for signifying a rhizomatic structure are themselves multiplicities, giving us multiple ways to speak of and to signify any thing, each language with its own value and utility and each language interacting with and engaging the thing differently than another language will. We can start measuring anywhere in the rhizome, on any scale, using any language. Any measure will be more or less useful than others, more or less skillful, more or less salient, more or less common. No measure will be absolutely right or wrong.

To my mind, a multiplicity is easily envisioned in Blaise Agüera y Arcas' wonderful demonstration of Microsoft's new Photosynth technology. Basically, Photosynth is provides the technology to collect images, say of the Eiffel Tower, from around the Net, aggregate those images, and produce one, far more complete, multi-dimensional image that is far richer and more informative than any single image. Thus, the multiplicity produces an image that far exceeds the sum of all the parts.

So what is the point for education? That no student, no teacher, no subject is reducible to a single term. All statements about any student are provisional. "This is John, an exemplary A student, and this is Mary, a problematic F student" are both provisional, and do not say all that can be said or measured about either John or Mary or about ourselves for measuring and saying such things. That to teach any thing, we must define that thing, but our definitions are always provisional, always subject to change, usually sooner rather than later. That crowd sourcing in the style of Photosynth will produce a far richer image of reality than any single teacher or textbook can produce. 

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Trends in Education: Connectivity and Heterogeneity

I am enrolled now in an Open Course in Education Futures taught by Dave Cormier and George Siemens. I'm interested in the course for several reasons:

  1. I want the experience of taking an online, open course that connects educators from around the world.
  2. I want to learn how to systematically think about the future, especially the future of education.
  3. I want to work with Cormier and Siemens. I'm familiar with their work, and I like their takes on education. Cormier has some insight about rhizomes, and Siemens has developed a new pedagogy called connectivism. I want to know more about both.
One of our first tasks in the class is to identify trends in education. To my mind, the emergence and success of rhizomatic structures is a key trend to watch, especially in education. In short, rhizomatic structures are network-like structures that have always existed, but that are becoming more explicit in human culture as we develop the technology, especially the Internet, to extend them and use them for our purposes. Rhizomatic structures subsume and replace hierarchical structures, which have formed the basis of human culture for the past five thousand years. A quick scan of the six features of the rhizome mentioned by Deleuze and Guattari (D&G) will outline my thoughts.

Connectivity & Heterogeneity
These first two features of the rhizome, which D&G group together, tie closely to technology, especially to the Internet. D&G say that "any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be" (7). This simple statement has profound consequences, especially in light of traditional hierarchical structures. Hierarchies are command-and-control structures that define 
  • clear, enforced boundaries between inside and outside the group (a vetted, verified member of this class or not),
  • clear, enforced, discrete roles and positions for all those within the group (teacher or student), and
  • clear, enforced homogenous identities for those in the group (Education 101 students).
Connect-and-collaborate rhizomatic structures ignore those boundaries, roles, and positions. Anyone can and must connect to anything or anyone else. This is incredibly disruptive to orderly hierarchical structures and disorienting to those who are accustomed to functioning within hierarchical organizations.

This class could be a fine example, I think, of the effects of connectivity and heterogeneity. The boundaries between who is in the group and who is not are quite fluid, and the barriers for entry are extremely low. Anyone with Internet access can join (though Siemens and Cormier have perhaps done some gatekeeping, it certainly is not the gatekeeping of traditional universities). The roles between teacher/student are quite blurred. We have almost no homogenous identity other than being educationists, and I'm not sure about that. The course content is supposed to be the futures of education, but I think we can already see that 500 curious people can quickly sheer off into different directions (see asignifying ruptures below). In short, this class is free to connect to anything or anyone else, and we do not have to be the same or have the same goals and aspirations.

And as we've already seen, this disruption of normal, hierarchical structure is stressful to people who want to know who is in and out, what content is in and out, what roles we are to play, what tasks we are to perform, and who is going to tell us that we've done it correctly. These familiar signposts are gone, and we are not sure how to proceed. This can be invigorating, or terrifying. Most of us are still not quite convinced that groups of people really can connect and collaborate on their own—self-select and self-organize—to accomplish anything of value, despite the evidence of Wikipedia and Linux and, perhaps, of this Education Futures class.

This trend, of course, is not limited to education. We can see expressions of connectivity and heterogeneity in discussions about inclusion, the Commons, privacy, wikinomics, digital piracy, the flat earth, immigration policy, information overload, and more. But education is grievously stressed by the emergence of connectivity and heterogeneity. We simply do not yet know how to work with the ability of students to connect to whomever, whenever, whatever, and wherever they want. As the technology director in a public school system in the United States, I spent way too much time keeping students away from YouTube and Facebook, and not enough time connecting them to their imaginations.

To my mind, then, connectivity and heterogeneity form one of the most potent trends in education. They have the potential for disrupting everything we do and enabling everything we want to do. Schools and their societies will hate and resist the disruptions, while at the same time yearning for the possibilities. This will not prove easy, but I think—I hope—connectivity and heterogeneity win out.

I realize that this is a trend in and of itself. I will discuss the other features of rhizomatic structures as separate trends.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

PLN: Connect to Others

Another step in creating a personal learning network is to connect to others. You have a starting point and an identity in the Net wilderness, you have some tools for cutting paths through the bush, so now it's time to start blazing a path to some other points of interest. Don Juan tells Carlos how to do this:

Go first to your old plant and watch carefully the watercourse made by the rain. By now the rain must have carried the seeds far away. Watch the crevices made by the runoff, and from them determine the direction of the flow. Then find the plant that is growing at the farthest point from your plant. All the devil's weed plants that are growing in between are yours. Later … you can extend the size of your territory by following the watercourse from each point along the way. (88)

This is the best practical advice I have seen for navigating the Net, and it graphically captures my own sense of how I explore my own personal learning network: watch the crevices, determine the direction of the flow, follow the watercourse from each point along the way. It fits nicely with what Cheun-Ferng Koh says about mapping the rhizome: a process of active construction based on flexible and functional experimentation, requiring and capitalizing on feedback. Follow this crevice, often to a dead-end, back up, float further downstream, follow another crevice, find something interesting, and link it to my blog, reader, social bookmarking tool, or all three. Gradually, over time, my PLN has emerged with some well-worn pathways between me and others, and with a wealth of offshoots still to explore.

I want to stop for a quick aside. I started this exploration of how to build a PLN with Step One: Create an Online Identity and Presence. Well, I had to start somewhere, but I must note that I could as easily have started here, with Step One: Connect to Others. In some ways, it makes more sense to start here, but either way, it really doesn't matter. Indeed, you might as well start with both steps, doing both simultaneously. Writing demands something of a linear progression in describing a process, and most of us want a clearly delineated Step One, Step Two process, but that strict linear progression does not really capture the dynamic, experimental approach required of navigation in the rhizome. Strict, classically arranged process papers do not allow for asides, such as this one, but descriptions of the rhizome demand it. So start with whatever step makes sense at the time.

Actually, our decision early on to emphasize either creating an identity or connecting to others depends a great deal on our own status. If we are already professionals with a firm professional identity and a grasp of the scope of our professional conversation, then we may begin our PLN with establishing our own online identity. If on the other hand, we are students with an embryonic professional identity and only a shaky grasp of the profession's conversation, then we may begin our PLN with an emphasis on connecting to others more experienced than ourselves. And in true rhizomatic fashion, we will sometimes emphasize one approach and sometimes the other, depending on the PLN we are creating. When I started both my professional and my personal PLNs, I initially emphasized my own identity, having a fairly strong sense of what I already thought about connecting and collaborating in online environments on the one hand and my role in my network of friends and family on the other. I was confident that I already had value to add to both those networks, so I emphasized my stuff. However, when I began to develop a network about creating online videos, I emphasized connecting to others who knew much more about video cams, storyboarding, filming, editing, and YouTube. I had no identity as a videographer, so I wisely kept my mouth shut and read and watched until I was familiar with the conversation.

And this brings me nicely to what could be a separate point about creating PLNs, but I'll include it here as an aside to an aside: Step One: Learn the Conversation.

When you find an interesting conversation on the Net, spend some time learning the scope and tone of the conversation before you butt in. This is obviously important for newbies and students, but it is just as important for professionals, who can assume that they know where the conversation is going when they really don't. Nothing will annoy an existing group more than having a new person speak in a loud voice either about something they don't understand as well as the group does or about something that the group has already discussed and closed. If you don't want to get a curt RTFM or an annoyed bugger off message, then read the freaking manual before you talk. Review the group's FAQ, scan the blog's archives, google the people in the conversation, look at the group's video channels, attend to the group's tone of conversation. Form some idea of who you're talking to and what they're talking about and how they want to relate to each other. Then jump in if the conversation still interests you.

Well, let's return to connecting to others. How do you find interesting sites to begin with? Lots of ways. Make note of sites that you hear about in the actual world from your colleagues and other experts—at this conference, for instance. Net links are a ubiquitous and common aspect of professional life, and if you are attentive, then you will have no problem picking up the addresses of more interesting sites than you will have time to visit.

Then, conduct your own network search. Google your favorite passion, something such as massively multiplayer online role-playing games to connect to more than you will ever want to know about Second Life and World of Warcraft. Google a noted scholar or personality. Use more than one search engine. As fine a tool as it is, Google is not the only way to search the Net. Want to find music files? Try MP3Realm and TuneFind. Want to find videos? Use ClipBlast and Blinkx. And don't overlook the other general purpose search engines: Yahoo!, Bing, and WolframAlpha. Each of them can do something that Google doesn't. Study the advanced search techniques for the various search engines, and become more adept at extending and refining your searches. Trust me: with more than one hundred terabytes of information on the public Net, you'll have no problem finding something about anything.

While using the search engines are wonderful, they have one shared problem: they too often lead you down unproductive paths. A more focused method for finding new connections is following the connections your connections follow. Most every blog that I read avidly has links to other blogs that share similar interests and orientations, or often better, to blogs that provide a rich and fertile access point to an entirely different conversation that can still contribute to the current conversation. These cross-boundary links are often the most productive for me.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

PLN: Add Value

Don Juan counsels Carlos to "go first to your old plant and watch carefully the watercourse made by the rain. By now the rain must have carried the seeds far away." This is a subsequent step in mapping the rhizome, or building a PLN: distribute seeds, add value.

Building a PLN requires that we determine our own value-add. What do we bring to the conversations we are exloring? Networks are built on value, both what we take and what we add. At first, we may be more interested in taking value from the work of others on the Net who are exploring topics that interest us, but that is only half a network, with value flowing only in toward us. If we want a vibrant, lively, sustainable PLN, then we must add value back to the Net. This is very important. A node that adds no value to the Net will eventually be ignored, dropped, isolated, and in a network structure, an isolated node is a dead node. Connectivity between you and others requires that you add value. You must bring something to the conversation, or eventually, people will quit talking to you.

So how do you add value to the Net, thus increasing your own PLN? There are more ways to add value than anyone of us will become accomplished with, but you begin with your own interests and with your familiarity with the various Web 2.0 tools. If you are interested in writing, then you could consider building a blog, such as this one. There's a huge network of over 126 million blogs out on the Net for you to fit into and a variety of blogging tools such as Blogger, Wordpress, and Posterous. It's a rich environment, but it is far from the only one.

The Upside Learning Solutions Blog has a fine image that captures just a bit of the range of tools available for constructing a vibrant PLN:

Are you interested in building a PLN that gathers, vetts, and shares online information? Then look into RSS readers such as Google Reader, Bloglines, or Newsgator and consider social bookmarking tools such as Diigo and Delicious.

Want to build networks not around the written word but around images and videos? Then consider image sharing tools such as Picasa, Photobucket, and Flickr and video sharing tools such as YouTube and Vimeo. Again, this is a very rich environment, with YouTube alone serving up over one billion videos per day. You can find a place for your interests, whatever they are.

Want to host your own talk show? Then consider podcasting tools such as iTunes, Audacity, and Winamp. Your thoughts about the role of Deleuze and Guattari's concept of the rhizome in modern social networks can sit on iTunes along with lectures by professors from Berkeley, MIT, and Oxford. It's a very rich environment with lots of room for you.

Want to talk face-to-face with people? Then look into video-conferencing tools such as Google Chat, Skype, DimDim, or one of the instant messengers. There are millions of people out there who are also looking for someone like you to talk to. You can connect.

Want to connect through a game? As too often happens in the serious world of education, business, and government, games are overlooked as valid tools for connectivity and collaboration. Note that they don't have a place in the pretty graphic above, but games are serious business, so consider World of Warcraft, Battlefied 2, or Second Life. They all have millions of online players, and they have proven both their entertainment value and their connectivity value. Many major universities are holding online classes in Second Life, and BestBuys' Geek Squad unit uses BF2 to facilitate online connectivity among its agents. In the book Wikinomics, Tapscott and Williams include an account from Geek Squad founder Robert Stephens about how his geeks were self-organizing themselves through BF2 even as he was trying to create a sophisticated company wiki to help keep them organized:

    Then one day Stephens asked a deputy director of counterintelligence at corporate how things were going in the field. “I worry about those agents in Anchorage, Alaska,” he said. “There’s about twenty of them there, and I worry about them staying connected to the mission.” The deputy director said to Stephens, “Oh, those Anchorage guys, I talk to them all the time.”
    Curious, Stephens prodded him to reveal more details. So the deputy director sheepishly told him that they all play Battlefield 2 online. “With each server you can have 128 people simultaneously fighting each other in a virtual environment,” said the director. “We wear headsets and use Ventrilo software so that we can talk over the Internet while we are running around fighting.” Stephens, who now joins in himself from time to time, says the agents taunt each other, saying, “Hey, I see you behind the wall. But then, you know, while we’re running along with the squadron with our rifles in our hands, one of the agents behind me will be like, ‘Yeah, we just hit our revenue to budget,’ and somebody else will be like, ‘Hey, how do you reset the password on a Linksys router?’ ”
    Stephens was aghast when he first learned of the agent’s antics. “I just stood there in the hallway going, ‘Oh my God,’ I’m sitting here trying to build this shiny playground with all these tools for collaboration and I failed to notice what the agents were already doing. While I had my head down doing this in preparation to open the wiki’s floodgates, the agents had self-organized online in probably the most effective and efficient collaborative tool that’s already out there.”
    Stephens says that the agents now have up to 384 colleagues simultaneously playing at any one time. “They’re talking and they’re hanging out, and often they’re talking shop and swapping tips,” Stephens said. Geek Squad agents had just unofficially added another collaboration tool to the palette. Stephens says the experience changed his thinking completely. “Instead of trying to set an agenda,” he said, “I’m now going to try and discover their agenda, and serve it.” Stephens even muses that he may get the agents to hack Battlefield 2 into a Geek Squad video game that he can use for training and recruitment.

There are more tools, but you get the idea, so I'll conclude with some good news and some better news and some best news: The good news is that Web 2.0 has an incredibly wide range of tools that will help you create and navigate a vibrant PLN. The better news is that most of them are free and rather easy to use. The best news is that you need use only a few of them.

For instance, I have built my own PLN with just a few tools:

  • a blog (Google Blogger),
  • an RSS reader to track online information (Google Reader),
  • a social bookmarking tool to capture, annotate, and share online information (Diigo), and
  • a wiki to include others in building new information (Google Sites).
On reflection, I notice that I left out email, but I think I'll leave it out. Email is so standard, so expected, that it is hardly worth noting, though that doesn't mean that it is not important. It is.

PLN: Fix a Point

In the book The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, Don Juan tries to help Carlos get his bearings in this new, strange world of the Yaqui shaman that Carlos is exploring, having left the familiar security and terrain of the university. In some ways, then, Carlos Castaneda is like those of us who leave the familiar learning environment of the university for the unfamiliar environment of the Internet. And like Carlos, we often cannot quite figure out where we are or how to proceed. Don Juan gives Carlos some advice that may help us as well.

First, fix a point on the Net. Don Juan says to Carlos, "Go first to your old plant." To my mind, this is key, and so I want to explore fixing a point for yourself and creating an identity as one of the early steps to building a personal learning network, or PLN.

We always build our personal learning networks from the center, from where we are and what we are; thus, defining ourselves is a key early element in constructing a PLN. Constructing the self is a lesson far outside what I want to discuss here, but we are all familiar with the task. Perhaps the first practical question for us to ask is, "Do I want a public, professional self or a private, personal self?" If you want to create a public, professional self, then perhaps gravitate toward a blog, such as Google's Blogger. If you want to create a private, personal self, then perhaps gravitate toward a social network such as Facebook. Or do both. Or build a professional self on Facebook and a personal self on Blogger. You can easily have multiple selves on the Net, but for the rest of this discussion, I want to talk about building a professional self, fixing a professional point.

In general, we should decide what we are about on the Net, and we should be authentic. We must ask what we are truly interested in learning more about and talking with others about. Being authentic is as much practical advice as moralistic. Building a PLN is hard work, and most of us will grow tired of cultivating a false interest and identity. For instance, I want to explore and talk about how the emerging world network is affecting the way we live, think, and communicate. This blog is the center point of my online professional identity. It is ground zero of my professional PLN. It is where I synthesize the information I glean from the Net and where I create new and hopefully valuable insight into how networks (or what I'm now calling rhizomes) are changing humanity, especially education, though I feel free to wander along any crevice like Carlos Castaneda to follow any asignifying rupture into whatever looks promising to me at the moment.

This blog gives me a known reference point from which I can branch out to other places and people on the Net. With it, I don't feel quite so lost, as I know how to get back to here, but this blog does more than just provide a reference point for me: it also provides a reference point for others on the Net. This blog is a beacon that signals my interest in social networks, personal learning networks, rhizomes, Deleuze and Guattari, education, writing, and so forth and that demonstrates whatever competence or expertise I have in these fields, assuming any. Others can readily enough decide if they want to stop here for a moment, testing the site before they decide whether or not to connect to it and to me. If they like the content here, if they find an interesting voice, if they find some value for their own PLNs, then they will connect, and both their and my PLNs will grow. If they don't find some value, then they will move on. No offense implied, none taken. In a PLN, no one is ever stuck in a boring class that adds no value to their education.

Building a Personal Learning Network

I have become quite interested in the emerging concepts of personal learning networks, personal learning environments, and social learning environments. For me, the phrases are somewhat interchangeable, but I most commonly use the phrase personal learning network, or the acronym PLN. Whichever phrase we choose, I think all of them refer to our creation and exploration of rhizomatic spaces, and building a PLN can be disorienting for students who are schooled in traditional hierarchical structures that tell them what to study, when and where to study it, with whom to study, and why, and then tell them when they have studied enough, and finally, validate that study for the rest of society. The hierarchical institution, whether K12, university, or yeshiva or madrasah, provides all the signposts and pathways for a student's learning. In the words of D&G, the institution provides the tracing onto reality that the student demonstrates competence in following. Seldom are students encouraged to explore on their own, with or without an experienced guide, and yet, that is exactly what a personal learning network demands.

Landing in the middle of the Internet with the notion of building a personal learning network can be quite disorienting, somewhat similar to being set loose in the middle of a virgin rain forest. We know that the forest teems with life both wonderful and dangerous, with great treasures and equally great perils, but we do not know where we are or how to navigate to someplace we want to be, while avoiding places we don't want to be. What do we do? How do we proceed? How do we navigate the forest?

Or how do we map the rhizome? Deleuze and Guattari are of some help. They provide us with a quote from Carlos Castaneda's book The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge that may be instructive. In the quote, the Yaqui shaman Don Juan is trying to teach Carlos how to determine the extent and shape of his garden of hallucinogenic plants:

Go first to your old plant and watch carefully the watercourse made by the rain. By now the rain must have carried the seeds far away. Watch the crevices made by the runoff, and from them determine the direction of the flow. Then find the plant that is growing at the farthest point from your plant. All the devil's weed plants that are growing in between are yours. Later … you can extend the size of your territory by following the watercourse from each point along the way. (88)

For my purposes here, Don Juan seems to be teaching Carlos how to map his way through the rhizome, and I think we can draw a nice Sunday School lesson from the given text. Note first that Don Juan is not telling Carlos to follow a tracing onto reality. He does not say, "Measure out a plot of land twenty feet by thirty, plow straight rows two feet apart, and then plant seeds every twenty-four inches atop each row." In educational terms, Don Juan does not provide Carlos with a set curriculum to follow, with tests and measurements at fixed intervals along the way to measure progress, and a certificate of achievement at the end of the harvesting season. Rather, Don Juan's advice is to proceed by fixing a point (the first, old plant) and then following crevices from that point. Carlos is to proceed with mapping reality, not tracing over it. Remember the quote from Chuen-Ferng Koh in Internet: Towards a Holistic Ontology that mapping is an “active construction based on flexible and functional experimentation, requiring and capitalizing on feedback. The map is not … a blueprint whose workability has to be taken on faith; the map is never fixed, but a changing flux of adaptation and negotiation.”

This seems to be exactly what Don Juan is telling Carlos, and to my mind, this is good advice for building a personal learning network. Let's follow it for a few posts and see where it takes us.