Getting another perspective

This post is a progress report on the research that we (Frances Bell and Jenny Mackness) have been conducting following our participation in the open course Rhizomatic Learning: The community is the curriculum in January 2014.  This research to date has included an online survey, email interviews and a conversation with the convenor of the course Dave Cormier. It has also resulted in a conference presentation (see http://altmoocsig.learningtechnologist.co.uk/category/altmoocsig/

Research approach

If your interest lies solely in the brief report of our conversation with Dave Cormier, go straight to the summary report below.

Jenny and Frances met through the first Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) CCK08, run by George Siemens and Stephen Downes in 2008. In contrast with the huge MOOCs that followed it, CCK08 has been characterised as a connectivist MOOC or cMOOC.  Separately, we undertook research from that MOOC , and though we have come across each other from time to time, we did not work together until January 2014 when we met on a MOOC convened by Dave Cormier, Rhizomatic Learning – The community is the curriculum, now commonly called #rhizo14.

Rhizo14 was a diverse and busy MOOC: light on readings and loosely structured around weekly ‘provocative’ questions posed by Dave.  Interaction between participants was lively, spread across a variety of platforms and spaces: the P2PU space, Dave’s and participants’ blogs, #rhizo14 Twitter hashtag, a G+ community, a very active Facebook group and of course the less visible but equally valuable backchannels.  There was evidence of joy, creativity and a few clashes of expectations where participants seemed to expect different things from #rhizo14 and were sometimes disappointed by the actions and behaviours of other participants. That is a scant description of what happened.

We were struck by the contrasts between #rhizo14 and other cMOOCS: there were plenty of learning moments but we also experienced and observed some rather painful interactions. Our curiosity was piqued: we wanted to know what was going on beneath the surface and how a range of participants were experiencing #rhizo14.  This seemed significant, given that MOOCs are an opportunity for learning for people who may not otherwise have access to formal education. This inspired us to undertake some research, starting by recording our participant observations, saving links to significant interactions, and then planning how to get participant views first hand.

Given that our research was, to some extent, precipitated by concerns, we were both conscious of the dangers of finding what we were looking for in our research, as outlined by Stephen Downes in his presentation on MOOC Research.  It seems to be a good thing to strive for objectivity, whilst acknowledging that it is an unachievable goal. In outsider research where the researchers see themselves as outside the researched situation, objectivity is a key element of the traditional science-based approach normally adopted.  However, the emphasis on the rigour of the research method can compromise the relevance of the research.  We were engaged in insider research, we became participant observers in #rhizo14.  We could acknowledge the danger of reduced objectivity (whilst taking measures to counteract it) but we could also benefit from the subjectivity of researchers and other participants who shared their views with us. Subjectivity can bring a significant contribution to research in complex situations involving people and their relations with material things and each other.

Our first steps were to declare that we were conducting research, and to engage with other participants (via a Google doc) on what would be ethical ways of using data in our research.  Having consulted and planned our data collection, we shared this as widely as possible in all the spaces in which rhizo14 was evident http://francesbell.wordpress.com/research/rhizo14-research/

Our research process developed organically – the current (but probably not final) representation of this is shown in the following diagram.

Research processv2

Organic Research Process

 

As well as being mindful of and explicit about our roles as researchers, we are very conscious of the partial nature of the data we have collected and are trying to analyse.  The distributed nature of the spaces, the mix of public / private, and the number of survey respondents (47) combine to remind us that we must be missing some important perspectives. What does encourage us is that despite this partial view, our decision to allow for confidential and electively anonymous responses to our surveys, has enabled a light to be cast on what people are thnking, and not saying in public and semi-public forums.. We will make a contribution to the hidden MOOC experience.

Having conducted our survey and email interviews,and recorded our observations, we were conscious that we were missing another important perspective, that of Dave Cormier the course convenor. We approached him to engage in a conversation, rather than an interview, loosely based on the issues  and ambiguities that had emerged to date in our research.  Whilst Dave’s natural inclination was towards openness, he graciously conceded the benefits of having a private conversation where we could discuss issues freely.  The outcome was that although we recorded the Skype conversation between Dave and Frances, we agreed that the recording would be shared between Dave, Frances and Jenny, to be used confidentially for research purposes.  Although this blog post is written by Frances and Jenny, it has been agreed by Dave prior to publication.

Summary of conversation

We started by establishing the privacy/ confidentiality arrangements for our conversation and how we would publish it on blogs. We explored the actual ethics of research as compared with formal ethical approval. It is interesting that some of the most interesting parts of the conversation don’t make their way into the following summary. In a way, this vindicates its private nature. The following summary is not in strict chronological order as the conversation took itsown course, returning to topics at different times.

Community – concepts and issues

Dave explained that his conceptions of community owed more to Nancy White than to Etienne Wenger’s Community of Practice. He feels that being able to participate in a community of knowing is the goal of the learning process, and for him community is people caring about each other.

Dave discussed his experiences in EdTechTalk community , that he started in 2005 with Jeff Lebow and the benefits of being part of EdTechTalk. Dave highlighted the impact involvement in EdTechTalk had made on his work at UPEI.

We discussed that while both teachers and learners may form community, teachers may particularly value parallel community experiences to those they are facilitating with their students.

Sustainability

Sustainability of communities and MOOCS proved to be an interesting topic. We discussed examples of more or less sustainable examples of each.

Compatibility of community with rhizomatic thinking

This was an interesting topic.  There seems to be inevitable tension between the two concepts, and we discussed the advantages and disadvantages that can emerge from this tension. Community is the curriculum is a concept that Dave explored in the lead up to his 2008 article. Dave has found the rhizome useful in the cause of getting rid of the ‘content’ in education as he sees that as in opposition to how people, doctors for example, really learn their practice.

De-centring the Leader

Several times we returned to the issue of the centring or otherwise of Dave’s role in the course. We explored the benefits that his leadership brought and also some of the problems in which it played a part. Is it possible to achieve benefits such as seen in EdTechTalks without a leader? We also discussed the effectiveness of some of the tactics that communities employ to take the focus away from a leader’s decisions and actions, including community guidelines, FAQs, distributed moderation.  This was a rich discussion drawing on real incidents from rhizo14, and made more possible in the context of a private conversation.

Inevitably, we ran out of time to discuss everything on our agenda.  It was a challenging, rich and warm discussion that will inform Jenny and Frances’ research and Dave’s planning for rhizo15.

Ice Bucket Challenge – the woolly liberal version

I suppose it’s almost inevitable that once you comment on people doing the Ice Bucket Challenge, you have raised your head above the parapet and should expect to catch a bullet.  In my case it was my dear sister-in-law Moira Richardson, a recent entrant to Facebook, who challenged me. Although I am rather too old and overweight for the wet t-shirt competition, I thought that I should stand up to the plate, and try to make the best of it in my best woolly liberal manner.

First question – to which charity should I donate?  I figured that the ALS Association in USA and the Motor Neurone Disease Association. in the UK had probably done very well from it already. I wondered about Macmillan but, alerted by my son Dan Bell, I noticed the paid ad at the top of the Google Search. I wondered how much they paid for that ad. So I decided to donate to a good cause dear to the hearts of friends Toni and Si Blower who lost their precious firstborn son within days of his birth.

Next question was the thorny issue of wasting water on this #firstworld tomfoolery.  I decided to stand in a tray and try to recycle the water.  The video will reveal my success? in this aim.

Finally whom should I challenge?  I have a lifelong horror of chain letters (and now emails).  The emotional blackmail makes my toes curl so this is my challenge:

To anyone in my network and circle of friends, I challenge you to choose to

  • Do your own version of the challenge and donate to the charity of your choice
  • Don’t do the challenge and donate to the charity of your choice
  • Ignore the tomfoolery

Whichever you choose is just fine with me.

I had some concerns about the exploitation around this initiative – teach your two year old to swear on video as she drenches herself, endless media feeding frenzy on the topic, competitive social media strategies by charities.  But…. If it means that we are stirred into some sort of action and give more money to charity than we have done otherwise , it’s not all bad. So do think about donating this good cause or any other.

P.S. I forgot to say that if nothing else, it’s a great opportunity to see me make a fool of myself.

Reflections on community in #rhizo14 – more questions than answers

These are some reflections on community in #rhizo14 inspired by the research that Jenny Mackness and I are doing, and my engagement with Maha Bali’s post and the rich comment stream that followed.  I just wanted to capture my thoughts as they are currently but would be really pleased to engage through comments.

One of the issues that Jenny and I are grappling with is the challenge of gaining multiple perspectives on the ‘experience’ that was/is #rhizo14. How can we know about all of the flowers that bloomed? And some of the ones that failed to thrive or died? Of course, the answer is we can’t but we can try to draw in as many flowers as possible: and acknowledge our partial view. We also have to beware over-interpreting the views of others and making assumptions about their thoughts and opinions.

many flowers

In rhizo14 we had to think about ‘community’ – it was in the title and it was where the curriculum was or should be. So it is not surprising that the topic should attract so much attention.  My own view is that the formation of community (or communities) in rhizo14 deserves close attention.  I am curious about how this links to ‘the community is the curriculum’, and I already identified  that the speed of emergence of community (and the context in which this happened) are particularly worthy of investigation.

Keith Hamon distinguished different experiences in #rhizo14 by proposing that some participants found community whilst others chose to find a social network. I was a bit puzzled by that as Keith suggested that the social network involved a social contract.  I didn’t see the rules that he refers to in #rhizo14 and would not really expect to see them.  As I said in the comments, network for me brings 2 things to mind – socio-technical platforms where we connect , and our own individual networks that map our connections – the ‘performed’ network.. If the people who ‘did’ rhizo14 could map their individual networks and they were overlapped , perhaps the dense areas might be community(ies) in rhizo14 (‘performed’ communities).

Keith went on to contrast his concept of social network with a covenant: a relationship that he characterises as meaning, “I will behave in good faith with you, regardless of what you do. I will not let you damage me, but neither will I abandon my commitment to you.”  He suggests that some in rhizo14 might have achieved community along  those lines. However Rebecca points out that a covenant is a solemn promise built within an intentional community, and although she thinks that Dave proposed activities that could be seen as  ‘intentional community building activities’, she sees thizo14 as more of an organic community.  This is very thought-provoking for me. I am looking at what was circulated prior to rhizo14, and the impact this may have had on people’s expectations.  I can be pretty sure that if a covenant had been part of this, I would have stayed away;)

Also I am thinking about the organic nature of rhizo14 community, and wondering again about the speed of formation. Alan talked about co-evolution of communities – this is an interesting concept and I wonder if it somehow suggests ‘slowness’.   If #rhizo14 was organic, is it now? And will it seem organic or more fixed to newcomers in#rhizo15?

‘Caring’ is identified as a distinguishing feature of community, and certainly in #rhizo14  the proclamation of community is often associated with friendship, even love.  Emotional connection is something I wish to explore in my research.  Like Alan, I have had the well-documented experience, of meeting people that I have hitherto know only online, and found that our friendship was as rich as I thought. I have also learned with and from people with whom I have no deep emotional connection.

A consistent theme in #rhizo14 has been dichotomies or dualisms – theorist/pragmatist ‘divide’, academics/ others (not sure who these others are since many seem to me to be academics).  It is not absent from this post and comment thread. Simon talks about ‘science-bound academics’ (I didn’t recognise them) where” representatives of this ‘dominant’ group were miffed that Dave didn’t reinforce their supremacy by being leader of the (their) pack. I find it interesting to question how people perceived a ‘majority’ in rhizo14. I get the impression it is linked to perceived sanctioning given first by Dave then by people recognised as ‘academic’” I found this to be an astonishing statement, and wonder how/if this has been validated.  One thing that I am wondering is whether the nature of the ‘provocative questions’ posed by Dave might have contributed to a tendency to see ideas/ people as either/or, and community as in/out.

As I say, these are some provisional observations but they have led me to think about a learner who might like to be ‘rhizomatic’ in her (his) learning.  I am thinking of someone who may be keen to learn outside formal educational institutions and processes. They stand tentatively on the brink of a community hoping it might be a place where they might learn with others. Possibly, they might relieved by the lack of structure and the presence of ‘nonsense’.  But what would they think of ideas of solemn promises, open expressions of emotion and love for other participants?  For some this might be attractive and draw them in. For others it could be off-putting and they might wonder why such high level of commitment and emotion are needed for a learning experience.  These could be some of the people who stand to gain most from social learning online. I am just wondering but thinking that such learners may not have received much attention in #rhizo14 (except perhaps by Barry Dyck and others who I may have missed).

Strong as silk

Strong as silk

Silk chiffon

Silk chiffon from my silk stash

Silk is natural, light, prismatic, gossamer.
We know no fibre stronger than silk.
One cocoon yields over 700 yards of filament.

Silk can be reeled, spun, woven, sewn, knitted,
patterned by weaving, printing, stitching, piecing,
made into beautiful artefacts, to wear and to enjoy.

Silk is beautiful and multiple.
Silk can be chiffon, organza, crepe, satin, raw, taffeta, velvet.
Silk keeps us cool in summer and warm in winter.

You are silk, we are silk.
You are more than silk, we are more than silk.
We cocoon living things.

From you and with you, beauty is created.
You are many,
you are strong,
you are beautiful.

A poem is quite a departure for me  – and was inspired by many strong women I know, some of whom will be receiving a tangible version.

Response to Simon Ensor’s comments

answers

Answers by Cavale https://www.flickr.com/photos/cavale/5439074678 CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Jenny Mackness and I are giving a presentation at the MOOCs – which way now event on Friday 27 June.  To accompany our presentation (aware that we have too much to cover) we have published a series of blog posts.

The first post was – The Rhizome as a Metaphor for Teaching and Learning in a MOOC 

The second post was – Making Sense of the Rhizome Metaphor for Teaching and Learning

The third post was – Principles of Rhizomatic Thinking

The fourth post was – Emerging Ambiguities and Issues

 

We received many interesting and useful comments and would welcome more but one keen reader gave very extensive comments, and we thought the best way to respond was via a blog post.  So the rest of this blog post is for Simon Ensor and was created by Frances Bell and Jenny Mackness.

Thanks for your comments Simon. They are useful, even if sometimes it felt as though our essays were being marked ;)

You raise several points that we will address later: initially in a summary response to all the feedback we receive on our presentation, and subsequently in our ongoing research. We have summarised these points as follows:

  • Potential contradiction in terms between ‘rhizomatic learning’ and ‘the community is the curriculum’, and whether or not the rhizome as a network can be a community – this is something we are already working on and it’s useful to know it’s of concern to others.
  • The centredness or otherwise of the course from a variety of participant perspectives (so thanks for your contribution here) – again already in our sights.
  • Discussion on rhizo14 that may be hidden – this is an important point that we are already aware of. We would not wish to be in an omniscient or surveillance role. However, we are finding that our data collection approach has surfaced some of the ‘hidden’ and that encourages us that we can make a contribution.
  • Multiplicity, deterritorialisation, connection and dominance are aspects we will pursue further so thanks for reinforcing that.

There are some comments that we can address now, and a few that we have probably missed/ ignored.

‘new kids on the block’

came from the thoughts of a survey respondent that interested us.

“Ah yes coming back to the rhizome metaphor for teaching and learning (or research) for me the most important contribution of it is to concentrate on complexity, mulitplicity and uncontrollable upshoots.
When we are looking for short-term ‘manageable’ research projects and ‘manageable data sets’ and ‘manageable outcomes’ we are going to look to artificially control ‘education’.”

We are very open to criticism of our research approach, and since our blog posts are informal exchanges to accompany a spoken presentation, we have not written about our methodology. We will post about that quite soon. However we can say that we don’t recognise your characterisation as fitting the research we are doing.

“The only thing worth concerning ourselves with is the essence of our connections.
This work coming from Terry Elliot says pretty much all there is:
http://zeega.com/162387

These comments are puzzling since we would have thought that D&G were anti-essentialist, and saying one object/utterance says all there is seems against the spirit of rhizomatic thinking.

“I think that are some ‘core issues ‘ here with identifying ‘core’ groups in a rhizome. Do you consider yourself(ves) as ‘core’?”

We used the term ‘core’ as it appeared in a survey response: it was also used (not by any of us) in a recent long thread on FB group.

“A ‘key contributor’ ‘a treasure trove’ – how do you identify ‘key’ what is a ‘contributor’ what do you consider to be ‘treasure’ or a ‘trove’? (Doesn’t sound very scientific all that..)”

That was our interpretation based on our observation. Frances has already directed you to her view of research. Key is a word that you have used yourself (in an interpretive fashion) and ‘treasure trove’ is a phrase unlikely to appear in any formal research publication but hey! What’s wrong with a compliment?

When we refer to the FB group we mean that in Facebook terms see http://francesbell.wordpress.com/2014/04/16/ethics-and-soft-boundaries-between-facebook-groups-and-other-web-services/

“‘This discussion around rhizo14 continues albeit in one space’. I imagine that you are not suggesting that your blog is the ‘one space’ so clearly what you are suggesting is demonstrably inexact.”

Yes – that is probably true – the difference being that Jenny does not primarily see her blog as a space for discussion, but more for clarifying and sharing her thinking. If discussion arises here she sometimes welcomes it, sometimes not. This is her space and this is the difference between blogs and forums which John Mak Roy Williams and she wrote a paper about a few years back. (and Frances agrees with all of that).

Ravelry: a knitting community as a site of joy and learning

That lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne

The Parliament of Fowls by Geoffrey Chaucer

Evidence that learning starts in the womb is revealed when babies hear lullabies that they will respond to after birth; and learning continues throughout life, as Chaucer says of love. We can all remember from an early age the social nature of learning – learning from family, friends, and subsequently peers from study and work contexts.  This is a community perspective, in contrast with a more typical view of learning as being chiefly the outcome of formal education.

Social Technologies

Social technologies have focused attention on networks and online/virtual communities. Virtual communities can be traced back to 1985 (and probably earlier) when the WELL started as a dial-up bulletin board. Early adopters of virtual community needed dial-up and later Internet access for their largely text-based communication: initially this was available to a minority, even in the global north. Despite this, bulletin boards existed for a broad range of hobbies and interests.

A parallel stream of development in virtual communication was in formal education: bulletin boards, web pages, and then groupware, and virtual learning environments.  Provision of Internet access at universities and colleges meant that students had access in educational institutions before it was commonplace in their homes.  The use of digital technologies in education and learning has moved from being conducted by pioneers and enthusiasts to being standardised as part of institutional administration, such as institutional virtual learning environments, and registration and student records systems. Much research effort (some of it to good effect) has been focused on the use of technology within online/offline classrooms and according to approved curricula.  This is research that tends to focus on what is provided, rather than how and why learners learn.  Even less attention has been paid to ways in which people, who would not identify themselves as students, are learning to do things that interest them with the help of the Internet.

The current context in the global north is of more people, across demographics of age and gender (if not class), having access to the Internet via broadband and mobile services.  Simultaneously, the variety of devices that we use to access the Internet contributes to a broader demographic, more people having access, devices and software becoming easier to use – smartphones, tablets and laptops. The combination of faster Internet access and devices with digital still and video cameras has enabled more people to create and consume multimedia – images, videos, audio and text.  Internet access then becomes less of an end in itself and more of an adjunct to what we do.

Knitting – Interest-driven learning assisted by social media

People of all ages follow their interests via the Internet – learning cartooning, playing games, studying esoteric topics. Of all of these interests, let’s look at a craft that has material, knowledge and social implications – knitting.

moebius strip

Knitted Moebius Strip by Pat Knight CC BY-NC 2.0

 

In an era when the local wool shop is becoming rarer, the Internet offers opportunities for purchasing yarns, needles, and patterns but going beyond that, what do knitters do on the Internet? Like other makers, they enjoy the opportunities to celebrate the products of their creativity: garments, knitted moebius strips, artefacts for the home, and public works of art. Such celebrations are visible on photo sites and knitting blogs, often interlinked so that the blogs can facilitate networking of knitters (via commenting, blogrolls and links within posts).

 

Knitters share ‘how-to’ videos on Youtube and other video-sharing sites.  If we don’t have a grandmother to stand behind us, helping our hands learn a new technique, the next best thing is watching a video, and trying out the stitch at the same time.  Video- and image-sharing sites become knowledge repositories but not solely dedicated to knitting and crochet.

Mason Dixon washcloths

Mason-Dixon Washcloths by Frances Bell CC-by-NCSA

 

Knitters have adopted social media with enthusiasm,and experienced unexpected consequences.  Mason-Dixon Knitting comprises Kay Gardiner who lives in Manhattan and Ann Shayne who lives in Nashville.  They came together via blogging through their shared interest in knitting that has led to a successful book, an iconic dishcloth pattern and a very useful web site.

 

 

 

Saltburnolympics knitting

Knitted canoeist – Saltburn pier by Hove9 CC by 2.0

Knitters have taken their passion to the streets (and piers) by engaging in guerrilla knitting or yarn-bombing to create street art.  This may be for self-expression or just fun, or for a reason : often anonymous and cloaked in mystery. One of my favourites is a celebration of London 2012 Olympics at Saltburn pier. There is no obvious activist reason for creating this pier art but the result was joyous, enjoyed by pier visitors and became a tourist attraction in Saltburn, North Yorkshire. Craftivism ( a mix of craft and activism) is about connecting beyond the individual crafter, and acting for broader issues.

When we unpick these achievements, we see that they go beyond the stereotype of the lone, gifted knitter. Knitters, like others, engage in learning networks and communities.  One of the places that knitters congregate online is at the knitting and crochet community site http://www.ravelry.com .

 

Ravelry is free to members, funded mainly by advertising but also by merchandising, pattern sales, Amazon and other affiliate programs.  Ravelry also engaged in donation drives at an earlier stage of its community development.

saartjeravelryRavelry – individual view by Frances Bell

Ravelry offers interesting affordances for becoming and being a knitter, learning in an active form.  Members can find patterns and yarns with the help of Ravelry, and create projects to record ongoing and completed knitting projects Figure 4.  Ravelry has a highly connected architecture, automatically displaying links to other projects using the same pattern and yarn. This means I can easily click a link to find the pattern, or images from one of the other 13900 projects using that pattern (to give me ideas on other yarns or colourways). Project owners are encouraged to rate patterns and yarns for sharing with other community members; and errors are soon corrected in this open community.  Ravelry is an international community with over four million members, who not only volunteer to translate popular patterns into other languages, but also moderate forums and collate help pages on collaborative wikipages within Ravelry itself. The whole thing runs with only 4 staff, one programmer and three editor/moderator/merchandising staff.

The Ravelry shop showcases Ravelry merchandise such as t-shirts and bags; the Marketplace where members offer supplies and services for knitting and crochet; and a Pattern Store where members sell their patterns.

The strong social element to Ravelry goes beyond member profiles and display spaces. Members can organise into groups to have local meetings, swap yarns, engage in knit-alongs (all making the same item), or associate with a particular shop.  Other groups are organised around a common interest, say in machine knitting or spinning.  Less formal opportunities for conversation are offered by forums, where members can help each other to solve problems or engage in general chat about knitting or crochet.

In our comparison of Etsy.com with Ravelry.com, Gordon Fletcher and I found that Ravelry had strong community aspects and exhibited a permeable boundary compared with Etsy.  Ravelry seems to be a community that is happy to acknowledge activity and objects elsewhere, thus increasing its networking and social potential.

This openness and support for the community member makes it a source of good ideas for those wishing to support other learners in a community setting. Facebook, the very successful social networking site (SNS), would superficially seem to support the social aspects of learning, but a learner wishing to keep track of what they and others have created and learned might become frustrated with the ephemeral nature of sharing there. Ravelry exhibits a strong focus on the learning and doing of knitting, where social interaction becomes the glue that helps this happen.

Designers and implementers of learning environments aiming to promote learning community could learn a lot from studying Ravelry, especially if they are tempted to delegate the social aspects to a self-organised group on a general purpose SNS.

Properly practiced, knitting soothes the troubled spirit, and it doesn’t hurt the untroubled spirit, either. – Elizabeth Zimmerman, Knitting without tears.

 

Acknowledgement

Many thanks to Suzanne Hardy (Ravelry id: glittrgirl) for improving my interpretation of Ravelry. All errors are mine.

 

This article, written by Frances Bell,  is used under Creative Commons license  BBy-BY-NC-ND  from ISSUE 10 JUNE 2014
Using Social Media in the Social Age of Learning
Guest Editors Chrissi Nerantzi and Sue Beckingham  http://www.lifewidemagazine.co.uk/

The Best Laid Plans …

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

Still, thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e’e,
On prospects drear!
An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!

Robert Burns

Research into complex phenomena such as networks of people and complex, connected technologies will almost certainly involve people working together who have different ways of seeing the world, and different ideas about what and how we humans and non-humans can know. I think that such research is needed to help us make decisions if we are to shape technologies, services, systems, even as they shape us.

On Saturday, I watched a recording of Stephen’s presentation on MOOC Research at Tübingen, Germany. I surprised myself with my very mixed reaction to what he said – agreement, disagreement but it certainly made me think.  I really appreciate that Stephen Downes lays out so clearly what his thinking is even if I don’t always understand what he means; and sometimes when I do understand him, I don’t agree with him. I am glad he is in my learning network, and I think on the whole I probably agree with him more often than I disagree with him.

Anyway, I just wanted to share some of thoughts that his presentation provoked for me..

Stephen has had quite a lot to say about theory in this and recent writings, and I was very interested in the idea that theory is already embedded in our interpretation of experience.  I wonder how that relates to our everyday theorising about the world around us that seems to me to be both conscious and unconscious.   For me, theories (from others’ writing and research) can be very useful, and they can help me (re-)evaluate past/current experience. So I do think that many theories are applied in context, especially ones that relate to the complex phenomena that I already mentioned.

I explored the possible use of theories and approaches in research and practice in a paper I wrote for IRRODL that I hope illustrates how what we are trying to achieve and the context in which we are making our efforts can influence both the theory and methodology we might use (see Table 2).

table2IRRODL

Stephen spoke about research methodology(ies) and proposed a model that was somehow common to research in general, but different to what he does.  I wanted to challenge this as it seemed to me that he was posing the scientific model of research that can be useful, but for me is incomplete on its own in the complex research that is my concern.  So technology-driven services can generate useful ‘big data’ as people use them but the rich picture of people’s experience requires a bit more work to tease out relevant data that can enlighten us about users’/ learners’ experiences and outcomes.  For me, this is part of the tendency of education technology research towards provider-centric (that concentrates on the resources and environments that are provided) rather than learner-centric research (that takes the perspective of the learner, looking across their experiences and use of technology).  In my own home discipline of Information Systems, there is an extensive resource on Qualitative Research that highlights many approaches eg Action Research, Ethnography that can contribute to these richer perspectives. These approaches do not rely on hypotheses, proof or refutation.

A criticism of research that Stephen made was that it tends to find what it is looking for.  This is a very valid potential criticism but I would claim that a combination of planning and flexibility can guard against this. An interesting example is from the PhD of Cristina Costa where in order to deal with the power relations and conflicts that emerged from the first two stages of analysis, she enrolled the theory of Pierre Bourdieu to help understand the data that confronted her.  I think that this is an excellent example of how, with a flexible approach, plans that are useful to guide a research study can be changed to accommodate the unexpected and to generate the richest understanding possible.

Fig_costa_Thesis

In April, I saw a really lovely example of the value of plans that can’t anticipate the context in which they will be completed when I visited La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, due to be completed in 2026.  Gaudi started his plans for the Basilica in 1893, died in 1926 yet today people are working to complete his vision with the help of technology of which he knew nothing.

3d-printer in crypt workshop of La Sagrada Familia

3d-printer in crypt workshop of La Sagrada Familia

Assumptions

I would really like to tease out what are Stephen’s assumptions in his talk – but of, course I don’t really know what those are, he would have to help me here.  I know it would help me to explore my initial thinking provoked by his talk.  Here are some areas where I wonder what his assumptions might be:

In talking about learning theories, Stephen Downes poses theories as explaining why learning occurs. I wondered if he thinks that a theory can generate the explanation (which feels a bit like prediction) or that some theories might help generate explanations that are more or less plausible depending on the context in which they are applied.

Stephen describes how he conducts his research in MOOCS – I wonder how he works (cooperates?) with others and how their research informs each other’s contributions.

I wonder if Stephen against methodology (flexible and open to change) or just against rigid method.

Acknowledgement

In between first watching Stephen’s presentation and writing this, I have been fortunate enough to have an exchange with Jenny Mackness and to have watched George Veletsianos’s keynote.  Both were very useful – not implying sameness of views, of course.  So thanks to all three of you.