Sunday, April 25, 2010

Trends in Education: Connectivity and Heterogeneity

I am enrolled now in an Open Course in Education Futures taught by Dave Cormier and George Siemens. I'm interested in the course for several reasons:

  1. I want the experience of taking an online, open course that connects educators from around the world.
  2. I want to learn how to systematically think about the future, especially the future of education.
  3. I want to work with Cormier and Siemens. I'm familiar with their work, and I like their takes on education. Cormier has some insight about rhizomes, and Siemens has developed a new pedagogy called connectivism. I want to know more about both.
One of our first tasks in the class is to identify trends in education. To my mind, the emergence and success of rhizomatic structures is a key trend to watch, especially in education. In short, rhizomatic structures are network-like structures that have always existed, but that are becoming more explicit in human culture as we develop the technology, especially the Internet, to extend them and use them for our purposes. Rhizomatic structures subsume and replace hierarchical structures, which have formed the basis of human culture for the past five thousand years. A quick scan of the six features of the rhizome mentioned by Deleuze and Guattari (D&G) will outline my thoughts.

Connectivity & Heterogeneity
These first two features of the rhizome, which D&G group together, tie closely to technology, especially to the Internet. D&G say that "any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be" (7). This simple statement has profound consequences, especially in light of traditional hierarchical structures. Hierarchies are command-and-control structures that define 
  • clear, enforced boundaries between inside and outside the group (a vetted, verified member of this class or not),
  • clear, enforced, discrete roles and positions for all those within the group (teacher or student), and
  • clear, enforced homogenous identities for those in the group (Education 101 students).
Connect-and-collaborate rhizomatic structures ignore those boundaries, roles, and positions. Anyone can and must connect to anything or anyone else. This is incredibly disruptive to orderly hierarchical structures and disorienting to those who are accustomed to functioning within hierarchical organizations.

This class could be a fine example, I think, of the effects of connectivity and heterogeneity. The boundaries between who is in the group and who is not are quite fluid, and the barriers for entry are extremely low. Anyone with Internet access can join (though Siemens and Cormier have perhaps done some gatekeeping, it certainly is not the gatekeeping of traditional universities). The roles between teacher/student are quite blurred. We have almost no homogenous identity other than being educationists, and I'm not sure about that. The course content is supposed to be the futures of education, but I think we can already see that 500 curious people can quickly sheer off into different directions (see asignifying ruptures below). In short, this class is free to connect to anything or anyone else, and we do not have to be the same or have the same goals and aspirations.

And as we've already seen, this disruption of normal, hierarchical structure is stressful to people who want to know who is in and out, what content is in and out, what roles we are to play, what tasks we are to perform, and who is going to tell us that we've done it correctly. These familiar signposts are gone, and we are not sure how to proceed. This can be invigorating, or terrifying. Most of us are still not quite convinced that groups of people really can connect and collaborate on their own—self-select and self-organize—to accomplish anything of value, despite the evidence of Wikipedia and Linux and, perhaps, of this Education Futures class.

This trend, of course, is not limited to education. We can see expressions of connectivity and heterogeneity in discussions about inclusion, the Commons, privacy, wikinomics, digital piracy, the flat earth, immigration policy, information overload, and more. But education is grievously stressed by the emergence of connectivity and heterogeneity. We simply do not yet know how to work with the ability of students to connect to whomever, whenever, whatever, and wherever they want. As the technology director in a public school system in the United States, I spent way too much time keeping students away from YouTube and Facebook, and not enough time connecting them to their imaginations.

To my mind, then, connectivity and heterogeneity form one of the most potent trends in education. They have the potential for disrupting everything we do and enabling everything we want to do. Schools and their societies will hate and resist the disruptions, while at the same time yearning for the possibilities. This will not prove easy, but I think—I hope—connectivity and heterogeneity win out.

I realize that this is a trend in and of itself. I will discuss the other features of rhizomatic structures as separate trends.
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