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).


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.


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


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.


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.

The Perils of Rhizomatic Learning

In this post I am trying to make sense of what (little) I think I know about rhizomatic thinking and fitting it in some sort of context with other post-structuralist thinking in my journey to rhizomatic learning whilst engaged in the #rhizo14 MOOC. Comments and corrections would be most welcome.


Post-structuralist Thinking

Post-structuralism can be seen as a response to structuralism (a means of understanding human culture by its structures). Rhizomatic thinking is seen as post-structuralist as is the work of Derrida, Baudrillard, Butler, Latour and Foucault. In rhizomatic thinking the rhizome is posed as an alternative to arboresent (hierarchical) thinking.

DeLeuze and Guattari shared their thinking within an academic community that was steeped in 19th and 20th century social and political theories.  Many theorists questioned structural and hierarchical explanation of social and societal relations.  Rhizomatic thinking has been applied to many aspects of political and social life since the latter part of the 20th Century.

As digital and networked technologies proliferated and presented challenges for people trying to use and make sense of them, post-structuralist theories were used widely in scholarly work and empirical research.  Abandoning  hierarchical structures fitted well with the network and connectivity exhibited by the Internet.

More formality was shed when the digital reached into our daily lives with the uniquity of networked computing and the rise of the ‘social’: media, learning, commerce, culture, politics.

For example an incomplete snapshot of the theories used in learning technology can be found in this Special Issue

They include Actor-Network Theory, Social Construction of Technology and  Critical Social Theory.

I have not read enough to speak about any commonality in political leanings among the major writers in rhizomatic thinking but I would assume that all post-structuralists have been influenced by Marx even as they turn away from his structural concepts.

“post-structuralism was constituted by an engagement with Marx; a critical engagement, but an engagement nonetheless ”

Rhizomatic  thinking in this MOOC

Where does all that leave us in this MOOC?

Speaking for myself, I am trying to find out about rhizomatic learning whilst I am still learning about the basics of rhizomatic thinking.

One concept that I think of as ‘short-cutting’ and relates to the multiple entry points and the connection of any point on the rhizome to any other.  From what I can grasp the lack of need to go up and down a hierarchy enables short-cutting but there is still a lot more for me to work on as this seems potentially problematic to me, suggesting I need a better context.

Two examples that I have thought of are:

  1. Cheating as short-cutting.  Short-cutting (not bound by a hierarchy or rules) that leads to more valuable or significant learning (obviously that’s open to interpretation) is rhizomatic whereas shortcutting that is getting someone else to write a piece of assessment for you is only rhizomatic from the point of view of paper qualifications.
  2. Scholarly reading – today I have sent to Amazon for 2 books, And the reader to accompany it    If I only read the reader (that might be a useful ploy for someone with limited time before an exam on Rhizomatic Thinking) rather than use it to get more from my reading of a Thousand Plateaus, then that shortcut will not improve the sense I make of Rhizomatic Thinking.

I include the following principles (text cut and paste from Wikipedia) that I am told that DeLeuze and Guattari used to outline the concept of the rhizome

1 and 2: Principles of connection and heterogeneity: any point of a rhizome can be connected to any other, and must be

3. Principle of multiplicity: only when the multiple is effectively treated as a substantive, “multiplicity” that it ceases to have any relation to the One

4. Principle of asignifying rupture: a rhizome may be broken, but it will start up again on one of its old lines, or on new lines

5 and 6: Principle of cartography and decalcomania: a rhizome is not amenable to any structural or generative model; it is a “map and not a tracing”

My gift offering of a shortcut is that I have annotated this with relevant links to Keith Hamon’s blog , an excellent source.


I leave you with twin perils that might obscure rhizomatic thinking on this MOOC:

  • Trying to learn about rhizomatic learning via a MOOC supported by semi-discrete services and technologies (P2PU, Facebook group, Twitter hashtag, Google+, etc.) all of which have elements of structure and barriers to  as well as enablers of connection
  • Falling into the tendency to think about rhizomatic learning ONLY within formal educational contexts

My fallback position is always to think about the impact of the Internet on learning to knit – but you will have to find your own cherished example to help you.

edited to add word only in second ‘peril’