The community as the curriculum

I’ll continue my journey describing my observations during rhizo14 in the light of the heading: the community is the curriculum. It is the other heading of the course but usually the first Rhizomatic learning has been dealt with. I am interested in the latter part because I’ve been working on that theme many decades, I had to write a curriculum using personal learning orientation in the 1990’s (had to write tells about my attitudes against administration, I had to work as a head of teacher education programme for six years). My solution was that I began the curriculum by describing the students’ co-learning, how it must be organised.  Much has happened after those years and now I am interested in open online communities.

What can be said about open courses, what is the normal process. I use the image, which Doug Cloud has developed.

dougclowThere was discussion about the power law of diminishing participation but Doug wanted to turn the discussion to a different direction. The diminishing does not follow the power law, we have to explore what happens in the process. What factors lead to ending  or proceeding during the studies.

In my previous post I dealt with rhizo14 a little. We, the participants have different levels of awareness and motivation at the beginning of rhizo. Many of us have participated in CCK or edcmooc or PLE or whatever courses and many are involved in other courses all the time. There seems to be some competition between courses, which to choose and use time with it. The basic motivation to take part is broader than only rhizomatic learning or Dave Cormier. I am grateful to Tanya who commented on me and so I found her blog. She offers the option to be interested in facilitation or learning more generally than in rhizomatic learning specifically. This helps me give up my guilt about my lack of interest in Rhizomatic learning per se. I drew an image about this situation: crossing and moving motivations and expectations etc but it is so messy that I left it out. You have that image in your head, your personal image.

I am not interested in the numbers of participants in rhizo14. Dave shared the results of his survey some weeks ago: 65 answers were given and they can be found in Dave’s blog.  About engagement I chose 2, because I wasn’t engaged in that moment. About connections I chose a bigger number. The assessments are sensitive to many factors and change from moment to another. But something they do tell. The number of active participants have been 30-40 in every mooc which I have followed.

What is interesting in rhizo14? It is an experiment about a totally personal curriculum without a teacher. Dave speaks about “new kind of self-evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology instantly available”.  Mariana in her tweet called it a power shift. When I have been thinking and observing the rhizo14 community, I have become conscious about the quality of the participants (students, learners > read a thread began by Apostopolos in the FB group). We have many years’ experience about moocs and, what is perhaps more important, about work life and education generally. We should be able to analyse our community and our curriculum.

We know (psychology knows) a lot about cognitive and social processes and dynamics. We have experts in this course. How do we combine the older knowledge with the analyses of this time. The sociologist Barry Wellman showed this slide in LAK13.


We function more as networked individuals. Our social networks are large. Networks are sparsely-knit and loosely-bounded. Rhizo14 is an interest-based community but there is a great variety of interests inside it.

The core concept in developing a curriculum (or a course?) must be interaction. It is easy to build connections with like-minded people. It strengthens and sharpens, Lou tweeted today. We live in the middle of self-made abundance. We know that innovations happen near the borders. There must be people who break them and connect with different people. For instance Wenger has built excellent models about this many years ago. You remember the circles crossing each other, do you? I should like to draw some circles about rhizo14, but I am afraid of naming them. It is a taboo to classify people, isn’t it? I cannot do it, it is hard enough to describe myself for my front-page.

How about our interaction in our numerous discussions? We explore the edges of what is possible in open online learning, said Tanya in her blog. She spoke about thoughtless sharing and creation as well. Jaap spoke about a market and walking around, choosing what we need and going home. Mariana mentioned the ripples following every action or saying. So am I in a trap: do not deal with difficult issues? The borders of openness and freedom, where are they, how near or far?

I take an example. When somebody says in a discussion:

Your negative response to the course has been a strong pattern. While I have found your critiques of the course helpful, I wonder if there isn’t some other underlying critique that has kept you from trying on the ideas in the course. I would very much appreciate it if you would address this underlying critique.

How do we interpret this? Many were astonished, because they had no idea that the response was negative. But every interpretation is true, so the writer was also right. Norms are created in this way, what is allowed and what is not.  If the speaker has power, he gets followers and it happened. The story continues when the same person says:

My request for more information is not a rhetorical flourish.  I’ve followed XXs work for years and would like to better understand what it is that concerns her if there is a deeper issue involved.

Now we have the interpretation problem again? Does he mean that he expects better, stronger and deeper critique from XX because he knows her work or is it a bitter comment: be quiet if you haven’t better thought to express. I don’t know and I don’t want to solve that question. I have told my opinion already. But I want to illustrate how we, adult and well educated people in our networking, we behave as people always have done. Defensive behavior arises when we feel threat or criticism, real or not. We may project our own problem to another participant and blame him/her. I use these old findings of psychology in order to understand this kind of happenings. We are human beings. The new nomad is like the old one and he behaves using ancient mechanisms in a stressful situation.

Something positive in the end. Here comes a presentation which Matt Holland, a participant of Elearning and Digital Cultures published as his digital artefact. There was discussion in the forums during the process. Matt shows the way, which is not complex at all. Or is it? What should be added to these five rules for being human in a MOOC:


EDIT 8.2. I have received excellent feedback which helps me to understand that there is great diversity inside rhizo14 and I use “we” too much. I speak to a tribe which has been hanging out here for years and knows the basics of networking. I try to build that community forwards when I say “we”.

10 thoughts on “The community as the curriculum

  1. Hi Heli, thank you for telling me about this post, I’m humbled you asked me to read it. I really love how you’ve drawn from many different sources – including other moocs- and integrated these to develop a sense of the community evolving through rhizo14.
    You have much, much greater experience in open online learning than I do and I’m glad to have found you because I’m sure there’s a lot I can learn from your experiences.
    I think you’ve hit on what is probably the defining feature between rhizo14 and other moocs that may have gone before – that the interaction and conversations have been primarily driven by the participants’ various interests and interpretation of Dave’s ‘questions’ (or thought prompts, if you like).

    Aside from topic, and these weekly prompts, there really isn’t much else directing what happens, so it becomes up to us. And there is a huge variety of interests and lines of thinking that people choose to pursue. Even discussions in blog posts tend to evolve and morph into directions that may stray from the original post. There’s no explicit ‘goal’ or ‘task’ to complete or focus on that might otherwise lead us to form more tightly focused collaborative groupings. Thus we wander looking for threads of interest, and finding connections along the way. So are we really a ‘community’, or just a network of individuals with a common interest in open online learning? Is posting to a common hashtag together for 6 weeks enough to create ‘feelings of membership’, ‘identification with the group’, and ‘immersion’? (some of the factors from the slide in your prev post).
    Who or what is the ‘group’? (as you say, where are the boundaries?)

    In terms of a sense of ‘community’ – I think this might be felt by some more than others. And probably be related to degree and time spent participating, and engaging deeply with other people’s posts, ideas, comments etc.

    But I think there’s probably also something in the distributed nature of the rhizo14 experience – that goes against the easy formation of ‘community’ – the multi-platform nature of it, that there is no ‘core content’ – which means ‘content’ is pretty much scattered throughout participants’ blogs, shared links, comments, discussions….so with this being the case, how is a sense of community being developed? Does it emerge simply by bumping into some of the same people over a period of time?

    I’d be interested in your perspective on how it compares to other moocs as a ‘community’ – does it feel different, and how?

    I really like the prezi from Mike Holland that you shared – I really identify strongly with those 5 things he’s presented as being critical to supporting conversations that get you thinking, learning and potentially changing your perspective. These are the types of conversations that lead to deeper connections with people that last beyond the end of the course.
    It is interesting to consider these things though in the context of the ‘negative’ discussion excerpts you posted. I suppose one could interpret the presence of these threads as potentially a good sign – a sign that participants are comfortable enough with each other to have these types of conversations in the open? Or is it a clear break of the norms around civility? it’s a bit hard to judge without knowing the context, and also depends on how well the two people involved know each other.

    I’ve really rambled around your post Heli! I’m really interested in this though and would certainly love to continue conversations with you about it. I also have a post in mind on things like community, participation, play which I haven’t quite worked out yet…..

  2. Thanks Tanya,
    you give words to continue my thinking.

    “Thus we wander looking for threads of interest, and finding connections along the way. So are we really a ‘community’, or just a network of individuals with a common interest in open online learning? ”

    “In terms of a sense of ‘community’ – I think this might be felt by some more than others. And probably be related to degree and time spent participating, and engaging deeply with other people’s posts, ideas, comments etc. ” – Yes, that was called diligence in past times, now we have new brilliant concepts.

    I was pondering whether it is wise to present those negative feedbacks but i can assess them as a test of quality in rhizo. If we cannot handle with that thread in an adult-like manner, we are little egocentric children. I appreciate children greatly but their personality and emotion control is weak and they need support in it. I can also think that every adult sometimes behaves defensively and it is a human feature. It is in everybody.

    I am very happy about your comment, it makes me continue with this theme

  3. aww thanks Heli – I wasn’t sure after I posted it whether it would be very useful. It was just a bunch of rambling thoughts that tumbled out prompted by your post. But I guess that’s what we’re here for….! Testing out ideas, turning things over…

  4. In a course, if it is online or off line, first weeks are positive and careful. The first incident is a healthy shock to participants., Sometimes trainers try to provoke an incident, in order to get a more natural and creative atmosphere in a group.
    Cultural differences in a world wide group of participants make it more difficult to become a real group. be back soon

  5. Thanks for your interpretation Jaap.
    You continued to use the well-known psychological knowledge about the group process. Just as you said:
    1. positive (fall in love) and careful (inner control by participants
    2. incident (I had to use dictionary and learned that incident has negative connotation)
    3. emotional stir up > after that people know each other better and the atmosphere changes, more commitment and identification to the group
    4. new level of trust and better collaboration etc.
    Shortly said: forming> storming> norming> performing> mourning

    BUT if we are a crowd or network or tribe or whatever is the new concept which describes cMOOCs – we should have new concepts for the process – or do we deny the process and “just network”.

    I see these two ways going to different directions. I tried to follow both but in the future : choose one or try to connect both ways?? That is my question today – following the Winter Olympic Games

  6. @heli thanks for your post and the deep conversation it has provoked. I met you in CCK08 and have come across you from time to time since then. When I think of you the attributes that come to mind are strength and wisdom. I wrote about different dimensions of power in a recent blog post where I tried to analyse the previous ruckus (characterised as theorists vs pragmatists) in rhizo14 and I found it helps to think about power as relational (it takes two to tango) and sometimes hidden. I also pointed out dialogue and learning is hard work.

    I challenged the comments that you quoted at the time they were made. I admire the person who made them for reconsidering them. However the dialogue around what happened left me with rather a nasty taste in my mouth. My connection with the FB group in future will be the cool web I posted on my blog – no long threads for me;) I suspect.

    I think that dialogue and power relations are important issues in community formation. I don’t know what we are in rhizo14 – group, network, tribe, community or none of these. What I have noticed is that the weekly tasks may be shaping the community (and hence the curriculum). I am finding them difficult to interpret, and increasingly samey. The either/or approach is OK to kick of discussion but there is a danger of us getting stuck in polarisations of ideas when what we are trying to make sense of is much more complicated than that. This ties in with what @tanyalau says here about community. I sense that Dave Cormier will try to address this and we can also shape the curriculum ourselves if we are honest and tough with civility.

  7. From Frances’ comment:

    ‘I also pointed out dialogue and learning is hard work.’

    ‘The either/or approach is OK to kick of discussion but there is a danger of us getting stuck in polarisations of ideas when what we are trying to make sense of is much more complicated than that.’

    We can move forward ‘if we are honest and tough with civility’.

    Just how much commitment are we willing to put in to engage honestly, toughly and with civility around the power issues and the (inevitably) different interpretations we will have about what we experience on this course?

    I for one know that I am unable to commit the time this would take and I am unsure who the ‘group’ I would do this with would be? I have not been on FB so all I hear is third hand, I know some people have applied the law of two feet already, and others have chosen a ‘light’ involvement.

    The suggestion here seems to be that the group process and its effect on learning (or not) becomes the ‘curriculum’. Heli is offering a number or theoretical frameworks as I did in my Storify to make sense of what is happening. The Huma Bird Project data is really interesting in this context – it is saying that even where Dave is not determining the content he is still controlling and central to interaction. This is interesting as it is based on data not perception. It also says that the majority of our interactions are about resource sharing (links) much safer than sharing feedback, I guess.

    Off to enjoy my weekend now….Really interesting dialogue making me think about what it actually would mean for me to create the learning environment I would want were I to consider running my classes online. Massive they could not be 🙂 #rhizo14MF

  8. Hi Heli, Tanya, Jaap, Frances and Mariana – this is an interesting and valuable discussion. It has much to contribute to ongoing discussions around the web about learning in online networks and communities. Just to add some thoughts that have come to mind whilst reading your post Heli and the comments.

    – I have written elsewhere that for me we don’t have a community of practice in this course – not in the sense that I understand it. Yes we have a domain – rhizomatic learning – yes we are mutually engaged but do we have joint enterprise? That’s difficult because as Tanya has pointed out it’s difficult to identify what to have joint enterprise around. Do we have a shared repertoire – well not yet. History takes time to develop. So I feel more part of a network than a community – and this wouldn’t matter except for the title of the course – The community is the curriculum – so I have been trying to work out what we mean by both community and curriculum.

    – As Stephen Downes has pointed out many times, networks and groups have different affordances. Groups, for example, are prone to group think and echo chambers. He prefers networks for many reasons which he has clearly explained in his blog posts.

    – As Etienne Wenger has pointed out – all communities are networks, but not all networks are communities. He has also pointed out that communities can be dysfunctional and can continue being dysfunctional for a long time! Of course that is not the ideal. The ideal is socially negotiated learning, which impacts positively on meaning and most importantly on identity.

    – Your post Heli did remind me of Mark Granovetter’s paper – ‘The strength of weak ties’ – which I haven’t thought about for a while. I wonder if there’s been too much emphasis on the strong ties in this course? I don’t know.

    – And Simon Ensor has posted a link to a paper on my blog – – in which the author writes that negative feedback in a complex adaptive system has a tendency to return a system to equilibrium (which I interpret to mean ‘make it more closed’). We also found this in our CCK08 footprints of emergence – see p.76 of our emergent learning paper – – when it’s easy to see the closing down effect of the CCK08 Troll and the effect of a demonstration of power – which we have called the Control phase.

    So lots to think about here. Many thanks Heli. Looking forward to further discussion. Jenny

  9. Thanks for all the comments

    I have learned a lot by processing these issues about community as curriculum. My previous post began this process with “a sense of community”.

    I cannot write a conclusion about all that has been said, so many ways are open now and I trust that the participants in rhizo14 are able to draw their conclusions.

    In my mind is today the finding that – this has a connection to Jenny’s comment – networks and communities are as prone to group think and echo chambers than groups. The concept group is quite neutral. Also the concept ” group process” which I discussed with Jaap – it is well-known human process and I have seen that also networks may implement that process.

    The human mind and human relationships do not change as rapidly as technology does. This truth has been found many times. Where is the new networking or nomad mind? What is it like? My next post will be about social self organisation in networks. A networks’s self? (awful English but try to follow pls).
    See you!

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