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5.5 Rhizomatic learning

Figure 15

Another learning theory closely associated with MOOCs and open education is that of rhizomatic learning. This invokes the biological metaphor of a rhizome, likening learning to the roots of a plant. The roots can spread out laterally and horizontally, consisting of a series of nodes, with no distinct centre, beginning or end, and no defined boundary – the only restrictions to growth are those that exist in the surrounding habitat. Rhizomes resist organisational structure and chronology and instead grow and propagate in a ‘nomadic’ fashion. Seen as a model for the construction of knowledge, rhizomatic processes hint at the interconnectedness of ideas as well as boundless exploration across many fronts from many different starting points.

The rhizome work develops a metaphor proposed by French post-modern theorists Deleuze and Guattari (1987), but Dave Cormier [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] has done most work on this as a theory in modern education. Cormier suggests that rhizomatic learning is a means by which learners develop problem-solving skills for complex domains.

For the educator, supporting rhizomatic learning requires the creation of a context within which the curriculum and knowledge are constructed by contributions made by members of the learning community, and which can be reshaped and reconstructed in a dynamic manner in response to environmental conditions. As Cormier (2010) puts it, ‘the community is the curriculum’. The possibly open syllabus represents the scope of the local habitat the rhizomatic learning process can explore, and provides the context for a community-negotiated curriculum. The learning experience itself may build on social, conversational processes, as well as on a personal knowledge-creation process, through the creation of large, unbounded personal learning networks that may incorporate formal and informal social media.

Some examples of rhizomatic learning are often found in MOOCs, where students are expected to operate in a networked, open manner and offer peer support. Dave Cormier ran an open course on rhizomatic learning itself, which naturally embodies the approach in its pedagogy.

Work with adolescent gamers by Kathy Sanford, Liz Merkel and Leanna Madill (2011) looked at how adolescent gamers’ experiences revealed the complex learning systems in which they contributed, created and participated in their gaming communities. The authors of the paper conclude that there is ‘no fixed course’ in gaming, and that their subjects actively blurred the boundaries of the following traditional identity categories: producer/consumer, teacher/learner and individual/collective.

The advantages of a rhizomatic approach are that, as with connectivism, it is more ‘network native’ as a theory than many existing pedagogic approaches. It promotes peer support, learner responsibility and an appreciation of the power of the network. You may like to consider the differences and similarities between connectivism and rhizomatic learning.

Activity 20: Exploring rhizomatic learning

Timing: Timing: 3 hours
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  • Consider your reaction to the video.
    1. Were you convinced by rhizomatic learning as an approach?
    2. Could you imagine implementing rhizomatic learning?
    3. How might rhizomatic learning differ from current approaches?
    4. What issues would arise in implementing rhizomatic learning?

Write a brief blog post discussing your thoughts about rhizomatic learning and if you are content to use Twitter to share your thoughts, Tweet about your blog post using the hashtags #h817open and #Activity20.