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Designing for Discontinuities

The Strength of Weak Ties

Learning Conversations; A key factor in the practical emergence of the current community of WikiSqolars has been the Everything Unplugged group who meetup every Wednesday for learning conversations. This exhibits the key quality of sociality, from which I see self-organised learning emerging, and have recently been having discussions about social learning, which Tony Hall is passionate about. The recent conversations have covered a range of topics which have, implicitly, helped me with my thinking about the post-institutional principles that inform the WikiQuals project. It has made me realise that what the current WikiQuals group needs to engage with, over our next cycle of activities, are the discontinuities of learning.

We are Rhizomatic; I recently took part in the excellent #fslt MOOC (first steps in learning and teaching) run by Oxford Brookes University, partly organised by Jenny Mackness who has been involved in organising and thinking about MOOCs for sometime. As I made clear in early discussions, I get the OO (Open Online) aspect but I don’t see the point of the MC (Massive Courses). I don’t think that learning scales like a product sells because learning is about engaging in social processes. I’m beyond being interested in the pedagogy of subject based-courses; subject-based study is not about learning it is all about *delivery*. However reflecting within the group on various MOOCs that we have been involved in recently has helped us at Everything Unplugged think about what appears to be the rhizomatic quality of (our) learning. Over the last few weeks I think we’ve come to an understanding that, as a group, we are rhizomatic in terms of our learning behaviours. The current global rush to MOOC everything is much more about extending the grip of institutionalised education.

Discontinuous Connections; If you join an Everything Unplugged session when you haven’t been before, it can be difficult to understand what is actually happening. The group structure is very informal. Someone usually has highlighted a topic, such as situated learning, created a Facebook event and posted a useful link beforehand; perhaps a YouTube film, a pdf or a Wikipedia entry. We have some warm and rambling opening chat, move onto the topic after about 30 mins, keep that as a focus for about an hour, chat a bit more and then that’s it. If it is one of our milder days then you might have missed what Keith Sawyer calls the ‘deep listening’, or you might have experienced one of our longer more intense spells when we almost agree. I think what actually happens is what I described in the Everything Unplugged paper ‘Agile Learning’ that ‘we discuss until we reach agreement, then we get up, walk away and disagree all over again” It is in these oscillations of agreement that, as a group, we reveal our rhizomatic qualities and from which we learn.

Apart Together; We have a shared interest in learning, in discussing its qualities, and in various emerging ideas, tools and processes. However we all have other lives in which we also engage in learning differently to one another. As a group we lack an orthodoxy in how we engage with learning. In network theory this might be described as a weak tie, and it is argued that it is through these weak, or ‘loose’, ties that change and innovation occurs. However I think that we exhibit both strong and weak ties to the group. The strong tie is perhaps to the ethos of the group whilst the weak tie is both to attending and in reflecting on what its discussions mwan to us personally. It is through the fluidity of the relationships that we hold to the group, and to one other, that we can discern some dimensions of the post-institutional future that Clay Shirky celebrates as ‘organising without organisations’ in Here Comes Everybody.

Designing for Discontinuities; Traditionally education institutions, despite starting off as self-organised learning groups, have demanded strong ties from its scholars whom they ultimately will lock down as alumni. The original scarcity of resources from which the lecture (as delivery) emerged in the Middle Ages (despite Plato and Socrates having previously developed the Socratic method of learning through dialogue at the Academy) allowed for the original institutionalisation of education; come to us as only we give lectures. However in our post-scarcity world of 2.0 access, and participation in the ‘flipped curriculum‘ (or perhaps a ‘community-responsive curriculum‘ or Dave Cormier puts it ‘the community is the curriculum‘) these demands for strong institutional ties can be revealed as the socialisation into existing models of society that they are, rather than initiation into a community of scholars. What we are trying to develop on WikiQuals are new socially based processes, which reflect the value of learning for each of us, so that we might better engage with society, and with the full range of contexts with which we consequently deal, right up to the planet itself; engaging instead with what Bridget McKenzie calls The Learning Planet.

Designing post-institutional learning; WikiQuals originated as a way of developing the Emergent Learning Model where the informal processes of sociality, rather than assessment or institutions, are identified as the core of learning. The current set of WikiSqolars all wanted to extend their learning but had previously, in varying ways, been rejected by existing educational institutions. My approach, as it has always been, was to ask “just what is it that you want to do?” As you can see they all want to do stuff, make a difference, push themselves, learn more and do things in the real world. It is in this doing of things in the real world, such as Mark Narayn & Lucy Johnson‘s new Everything Unplugged East project, and the loose ties and discontinuities to learning that this necessitates, in which WikiQuals expresses an identity different to existing educational institutions (although David Kernohan argues that #ds106 has this quality too).

Thinking is for Doing; Clay Shirky quotes William James that ‘thinking is for doing’ and it is in what they do that WikiSqolars will demonstrate their learning, and over which institutions cannot exercise their limiting control. It is why we need to design for discontinuity and allow for the ‘strength of weak ties‘ to emerge from their learning if we are to enable learners to find meaning in the world by acting upon it. Consequently what we will be developing over the coming weeks is the idea of ‘affinity groups‘ (extending the ‘affinity partner‘ concept) within the WikiQuals community as a one way of instantiating a rhizome-based approach to learning. David Weinberger talks about a future (present?) in which Everything is Miscellaneous, with a rhizome-based approach this becomes “Everything is Miscellaneous but I know where it is

Everything Unplugged;  More on Everything Unplugged here 

Everything Unplugged – Learning Conversations from London Knowledge Lab

About Digital Citizen Network

Oliver: Communication, Media and Technology focused on new business driven by social change, innovation and collaboration. Road mapping the future now, using technology that exists to change the world and inspiring others to do the same. Fred: Curating Innovation Conversations. Building the Ambient Learning Cities. Working on post-hoc accreditation strategies. Developing Public Sector Innovation Strategies, Building the Knowledge Democracy.

9 responses »

  1. Fred, I’m responding partly to the general discussion above and recently at Unplugged, and I’m also responding specifically to your mention of the Socratic method. My personal Internet-enabled learning journey in alternative academia benefits from a kind of Socratic method, so something I wrote recently about it may interest you.

    I’ve edited down the original piece, and shared it here – – I’ve included some context, but you may prefer to just scroll down to the Socratic section, so here are the subheadings: Introduction, An overview of learning options, Some useful vocabulary, Theory and practice, The value of written assignments, Socratic pedagogy, Assessment and accreditation.

  2. Hmm – I want to tick the box for emails of follow-up comments, and the only way I can see how to do that now is to write another comment – sorry!

  3. Pingback: Designing for Discontinuities via @fredgarnett « juandon. Innovación y conocimiento

  4. Pingback: Designing for Discontinuities via @fredgarnett | A New Society, a new education! |

  5. Great post Fred. One q – no ds106. Why? You’re pretty much describing the approach that is baked in to this course/web happening.

    • Thanks David, praise indeed! No disrespect to ds106 but i think that the nature of Rhizome’s is not to refer to everything, but rather to carve out their own clear identity. My motto for this is ‘Everything is Miscellaneous, but I know where it is!’ 🙂

  6. Pingback: Affinity Groups « WikiQuals

  7. Pingback: Building Democratic Learning « WikiQuals

  8. Good stuff Fred. I’m currently doing a module ‘Educational Enquiry’ at the Open University as my first step on the Wikiqual.


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