Rhizomatic Learning

rhizomeRhizomatic learning is a way of thinking about learning. A rhizome, sometimes called a creeping rootstalk, is a stem of a plant that sends out roots and shoots as it spreads. One idea is that, like learning, a rhizome has no beginning or end.

I heard about it years ago probably on Dave Cormier's blog. It has been associated with critical pedagogy, but it came into the zeitgeist again when MOOCs were surging around 2012 along with other emergent online learning practices.

It goes back further to a rather unlikely book, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (French title: Mille plateaux). This is a 1980 philosophy book by the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze and the French psychoanalyst Félix Guattari. It talks about the work Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Wilhelm Reich and does not seem like a book for educators. From what I have read about the book, it is a difficult read, or at least possibly a confusing read, because it is itself like a rhizome. The book is non-linear and the reader is invited to move among plateaux in any order. It has been both influential and criticized.

It spawned the idea of rhizomatic learning as pedagogical practices. This is something very much in the realm of learning theory and initially it was considered an application of post-structural thought to education.

It has also been used in discussions of methodologies for net-enabled education. As I said, the rise of the MOOC gave it a shot of interest again. In rhizomatic learning, the path is not goal-directed in the way of hierarchical theories of learning. If you follow this rhizomatic path, you would believe that learning is most effective when learners are allowed to react to evolving circumstances. In that way, this path is fluid and evolving based on the current task and how the participants deal with it. Therefore, it reminds some people of the way roots and rhizomes grow, avoiding obstacles, branching and connecting to other rhizomes while constantly seek nutrients and water as objectives for growth. 

Though most online learning in formal courses does not follow this methodology, MOOCs and some less formal online learning where "the community is the curriculum" do not follow the traditional "instructional design" models. Most of us are used to setting objectives before students are involved in learning, but rhizomatic learning would allow most objectives to emerge, or at least allow for the order of objectives and the ability to add new objectives along the way.

I fall more on the side of George Siemens (who was one of "inventors" of the MOOC) who questions the usefulness of the rhizomatic metaphor. He prefers traditional network analysis, and though rhizomes are a way to describe the structure and form of learning, it doesn't provide a true methodology.

Dave Cormier continues to work on adapting rhizomatic concepts to learning and developing the ideas that he first wrote about in 2008


The UX of Course Design

UXI stumbled upon a post on Medium by John Spencer called "8 Ways UX Design Theory Transformed My Approach to Course Design - How a Small Side Project Changed the Way I Teach."  As someone who has taught for a quartet of decades and done UX design and even taught UX, I was intrigued by what he might have learned about "how to build community, communicate clearly, and set up effective systems as we design our courses."

A few basics to start: User experience design theory is confusingly abbreviated as XD, UX, UXD or UED, But it is about focusing on the user experience of a device, tool, platform or web application. In doing this, a designer considers accessibility, usability and the easy to overlook pleasure someone might get from the interaction. Do you think Facebook would be as popular if people didn't get pleasure from using it?

Spencer says he first embraced UX design when he worked on creating a blogging platform for students called Write About.

As with any design, you make the best that you can, add features you think users will want - but then you have to deal with how users react and use it.

Is there a connection to teaching?

Every lesson has a design and teachers learn to design based on what works with a course or even with a specific group of students. Even larger in the design scheme is our current use of classroom systems and course architecture.

Building tools and systems that can be used intuitively understand with a minimum of additional instruction or training is key to UX. If you as a teacher spend a lot of time teaching procedures and methods rather than teaching your content and concepts.

Some of Spencer's takeaways make a lot of sense to me. For example, embrace onboarding. Onboarding is the mechanism through which new employees acquire the necessary knowledge, skills, and behaviors to become effective organizational members. When you sign into a website or register for a service, you might get virtual tour and buttons have pop-ups or rollover text. The designers want you to feel comfortable as you navigate that first experience. Do we offer that to students when they enter a course?

Read Spencer's post, but maybe think about course design as a system that should seem invisible. I don't know that you need to be a UX designer to teach, or that we can all create a course that when you enter it you immediately know where to go and what to do, but we can certainly put the learner at the center of the design.

And the next generation of learning management systems will be...


Earlier, I wrote about Google Classroom developing as a nontraditional learning management system (LMS). Now, I want to consider what the next-gen LMS might include.

One thing I have read is that rather than being just an eLearning portal, this next-gen LMS must be an "engagement engine." That is a buzzworthy term because not only in education but in the social media marketing world "engagement" is considered to be very importent. 

In the U.S., we don't hear much about LMS products from other part of the world. Growth Engineering is a UK  Learning Technologies company, and they see their mission as making learning fun with gamification and engaging content. Their LMS (Academy) and their authoring tool (Genie) are both new to me. They appear to me to be intended for corporate training rather than school use, but I suspect the next-gen LMS will be able to operate in both domains.

Juliette Denny, of Growth Engineering when writing on elearningindustry.com, notes 9 Characteristics Of The NextGen LMS. I could come up with other characteristics and I'm sure a group of faculty or instructional designers could come up with others. With a focus on corporate training, her list probably won't agree with one from academia but, again, I think that next-gen LMS will work in both places.

I agree with her that the earlier Learning Management Systems were very much portals and content depositories for learning units. In the late 1990s, we sometimes called them a CMS which could mean course management system or content management system and institutions used them both ways.

I worked for a few years designing corporate training and clients definitely want a way to manage content - documentation, help files etc. - as well as a way to track employee uses of that content. The ability to monitor employee progress and mastery of training was the next thing that was a concern. This is not unlike academic use of an LMS.

The LMS of 2017 is much more sophisticated than the ones I used at the end of the 20th century. They are easier to do authoring. They are not beautiful, but they are less ugly. They take into account user experience much more and their use is much more intuitive.

In corporate use (and perhaps in some free and non-credit use) "informal learning" is a definite consideration. One key element of that is a system's ability to track and predict in order to direct the learner toward the next piece of content. This individualized learning path is something being developed more recently but will certainly be built into the next-gen LMS.

Connected to this informal learning is social learning. The current LMS you use probably has ways to interact with social networks. It might even have its own social tools. Most of these do not have the appeal of the most popular networks (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram et al). The next-gen LMS will include the qualities of a social network and will "help organizations capture and retain intellectual capital."

Some social features appear in LMS, but many companies use separate application (such as Sharepoint) for social collaboration, and in schools outside social network still rule. Combining the two successfully means learners have a reason to return to the LMS and complete more training or coursework. We are not there yet.

The next-gen LMS will be mobile. I still have not seen a really well done mobile version of an enterprise LMS, though vendors will tout that their LMS is "optimized for mobile use."

What about this engagement engine concept? As the aforementioned article points out for the corporate world, "It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that employee engagement is a big problem. Training aside, poor engagement is responsible for low productivity, high employee turnover and lifeless company cultures. The sad thing is that these consequences exacerbate the issue of engagement, locking organizations in a downward spiral." In education, these translate to poor grades, dropped courses and lower enrollments.

Things you will see being developed more now are improved vectors for feedback and communication from facilitator to learner and from learner to learner. Learners want to know how they are progressing and want to be "rewarded" for progress. Whether those rewards will be most engaging as grades/salary, status/advancement, badges, rankings or some other system is yet to be decided. 

Gamification is currently one of the ways to let learners see progress and become engaged. But "gamification" still carries with it the incorrectly applied impression (especially in higher education) of playing games and "making learning fun." Learning, at its best, is fun, but don't tell professors that is the goal for them to strive for.

I realized early on in doing corporate training design work that tracking employees’ "key performance indicators" was surprisingly much more important to companies than it was to educators. Our corporate courses were actually more concerned with formative assessments (frequent checks for learning), than our academic courses that more commonly used summative assessments (quizzes and tests).

That future ideal LMS will include "performance management suites that tie together objectives, competencies, reviews and training in one streamlined process."

Are these unrealistic goals for a future LMS. No. In fact, I know that all of these items are being studied and tested by developers. It is just a question of how long it will take for them to be ready in one LMS.

Nontraditional Learning Management Systems in Higher Education

Classroom logoWhen I interviewed for an instructional designer position with Google a few years ago, I was convinced that they were looking to take their Classroom product wider and deeper. I thought that they were ready to take on Blackboard, Canvas et al and start to integrate their free LMS with student information systems, add a gradebook etc.  Mixed in with all their existing tools for video streaming (YouTube) and conferencing (Hangouts) plus Docs and the rest, I really expected them to offer a free LMS that colleges would use. It would be very tempting. Look at how many colleges switched over to Gmail as the official institutional mail system. 

"Nontraditional" learning management systems (I'm thinking of both paid and free ones) have increased in online courses. Much of that movement has come from MOOC use and also from companies who have created their own systems to promote training and course offerings.

A new article from EDUCAUSE looks at graduate student use of Google Classroom. If you were using Classroom for your course a few years ago, you were more likely to be teaching in K-12 than at the undergraduate or graduate levels.

The study looks at many of the areas that have been studied before: improving effectiveness, increasing students' interactions with each other and their instructors and building community online. The difference is the audience of grad students.

The earliest MOOCs were using nontraditional web applications like Facebook and Twitter for higher education. But their use has been more limited - perhaps for an assignment - and few educators would call any one of them or a combination to be the equivalent of an LMS.

The study also points out that products like Schoology have borrowed a lot of UI and design from sites like Facebook. 

This study is small - "When asked if they would use Google Classroom again, five of the seven participants said, "yes." I would consider using Google Classroom again as well, but only for a small course."  But it is a study worth conducting at other institutions and with larger classes, even MOOC-sized ones. 

The author, Stephanie Blackmon, feels "the stream can be a bit daunting for some students" and she is hesitant to rely on it for larger classes. I would be less hesitant, but I don't think Classroom is ready to be the nontraditional LMS for a traditional college-credit course.

But some company, perhaps Google, is going to offer that free LMS and that's when things will really get interesting.



An overview of Google Classroom features:

Does Education Have a 'Next Billion?'

next billion"Next Billion" is a term you will find used in talking about the future of the internet. It refers to not only the exponential growth in connectivity in emerging markets, such as India, but also the growth of next-level technology in more mature markets. 

One thing that is evident is that the next billion internet users are much more likely to be using mobile phones than a computer.  Globally, half of all internet users got online in February 2017 using mobile devices. It is still a close race with 45% accessing the web on laptops or desktop computers, but break out the number for emerging markets, like India, and the mobile wins easily. In India and other countries that did not have wired infrastructure in place for Net connectivity, and did not have a population able to purchase computers, mobile and wireless are the only choice. Indians accessed the internet through their mobiles nearly 80% of the time. 

This is also changing the way providers, carriers, phone manufacturers and related companies (such as Google/Alphabet) design.

For example, the emerging next billion tends not to type searches, emails, or even text messages. These newcomers avoid text and use voice activation and communicating with images. Part of this is due to their unfamiliarity with the devices, and partly it is due to a less educated and literate population. They are using low-end smartphones (Android dominates) and cheap data plans along with the most intuitive apps that let them navigate easily.

What does this have to do with education?

My first thought is that even if your students are part of the "first billion" population, delivery of learning online needs to very seriously address mobile use, and the user interfaces need to be intuitive and less text-based.

My second thought is that educational providers, especially post-secondary, need to be prepared for the next billion learners who will not be coming to them in the same ways, or with the same goals, or with the same devices. When I say "educational providers," I am thinking of much more than schools and universities.

No doubt some of this has already been taking place through online learning and especially with the rise of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) and Open Educational Resources (OER), but the pathways are not even well established for the first billion, and certainly not for the next billion.