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MultiMOOC 2.014 and Rhizo14: What was that about?

February 24, 2014

This post precedes an article being prepared for the On the Internet column in the Feb 2014 issue of TESL-EJ, The title of that article will be The Elephant in the Fire Hose

This derives from a presentation given by MultliMOOC co-moderator Jim Buckingham and I on Feb 23, 2014, Our third co-moderator Ali Bostangioglu was not able to attend.

The presentation was a part of Moodle MOOC 3

as well as doubling as a weekly Learning2gether event,

and a serving as a late wrapup of our participation in the EVO #MultiMOOC session as well as the Rhizomatic Learning MOOC, #Rhizo14 course.

The Elephant in the Fire Hose

I always say that nothing focuses like a good deadline. That’s why at the Rolling Stones concert in Abu Dhabi last night I was focusing through familiar yet magically hyper-rejuvenated melodies on what I would say in my presentation at Moodle MOOC 3 tomorrow. As the Stones went through their set I had the Satisfaction of being inspired by excellent performers who had been practicing their calling for decades and who in so doing had touched a huge percentage of the world’s population. I felt privileged to have been sharing a space with them for a brief span of my lifelong journey.


It occurred to me then that the Stones might serve as a parable for star performer teachers. Like both young and aging rock musicians these star teachers are either up and coming in their field as the Stones once were, or experienced and slick practitioners as the Stones have become. They are clearly passionate about what they do, and what they do is mostly second nature. Like musicians around the world, they touch hearts and minds and enable change in young and old among the world’s population. The stars, and even the most humble among them, are appreciated by all who encounter their work face to face, in writing, or online.

It used to be that we had to go long distances to attend conferences in order to have encounters with star performer educators. After talks given by such researchers and educators, a lucky few had an opportunity to ask questions in the short time available between one talk and the next one, and after a popular presentation, a crowd would often gather around the podium, most supplicants awaiting their turn for a moment with the celebrity, sometimes impatiently, late for the next presentation, until the star presenter would beg off on pretext of another presenter needing to set up in that space. And that was it for the attendees who would have to wait until another conference for a chance to interact personally with other star performer educators.

Things are different today (I hear every colleague say). Time with star performer educators is today abundant, not scarce. There are now exponentially increasing opportunities for teachers all around the world to connect with acknowledged star performers on an almost daily basis if they wish. Perhaps next year, we will be able to say with similar accuracy, that this opportunity occurs on an almost hourly basis.

And the really interesting thing is that star performer educators are in turn discovered in this ecosystem. Star performer educators were always present in the crowd around the podium at the end of the conference presentation by the sage on the stage, but the interaction was almost always top down. Online nowadays the stars tend to be more like guides on the side, encouraging voices from throughout the mix of those present. It’s much easier for people sharing passions to connect and hear each other, and continue interacting through their personal learning networks after an online event, so that participants can more easily become familiar to those with more established credibility, balancing out the appreciation for one another’s work.

Some teacher performers have taken to encouraging open mic events, where conferences or seminars are announced online, and there is a means for those wishing to present to nominate their own presentations at these events.  For example, the annual Global Education Conference (GEC) organized by Steve Hargadon and Lucy Grey have a Ning where anyone can join and make a proposal in a forum post. If the post is acceptable (most, but not all, are), it’s promoted to the official program. TESOL’s Electronic Village Online holds annual sessions where anyone wishing to moderate one can propose a session (and then go through training designed to help them develop their course with feedback from coordinaors).  Nellie Deutsch holds numerous conferences (e.g. Moodle MOOC and Connecting Online) where she outlines a schedule on a Google Doc and then opens it to anyone to write in their event in the available time slots, and the results are never disappointing.  Webheads in Action hosted three Online Convergences in 2005, 2007, and 2009 (WiAOC), and by the last one we realized we were just making work for ourselves by carrying out a vetting process, since no one proposes to speak at such an event without having done significant work or having something interesting to say. As in most social networks, people tend to deliver on their promises since such networks have become a significant part of their identity. In 2010, WiAOC morphed into Learning2gether, which works from a wiki where again, anyone can write in their own event. All of these encourage participants to simply sign themselves up, and give emerging star performers their own podium.

These events are but a part of what is commonly visualized as a fire hose of information gushing all around us.  The trick to benefiting from this growing plethora of resources is to work out strategies for sipping from the fire hose without being bowled over by all the water flowing past.  Nowadays there is so much going on in the fire hose that it’s devilishly difficult to describe what you take from it let alone the composition of the stream as it gushes past and all around; it would be like trying to describe what’s on TV.  So for example, if you are participating in a MOOC or two, and trying to attend occasional online sessions, while being distracted by work and life in general, your  characterization of what is going on online is likely to be quite different from another person’s.  Yet many are stuck on just that, what is going on online? How can we make sense of what is essentially chaotic?

Stephen Downes points out that all around you, everything you see is chaos ( This is the conundrum for teachers. How do we prepare students to leave the safety of their secure learning environments and step then into chaos? Dave Snowden’s Cynefin model of addressing problems with varying degrees of complexity explains that when we go from simple problems into chaotic ones, we step off a cliff, as can be seen in the boundary between the two in the diagram below (from


This seems to be a characteristic of connectivist online experiences (where participants learn from each other, as opposed to following a program set out by a course designer). When reflecting on one’s experience in MOOC learning, and in connectivist learning online generally, the metaphor comes to mind of the proverbial blind men seeking to understand an elephant by each touching one of its parts. In connectivist learning your perspective on that experience, and hence on the content of the course, will be unique to you. In a MOOC with hundreds or even thousands of prolific participants, so much happens in the course that it’s impossible to follow it all.  Most people dip in where they can; many feel overwhelmed and drop out. Much participation in the course will be in blogging or posting on Google+ Communities or Facebook, and reading other participants’ posts, commenting,and responding to comments.  It’s impossible to follow it all for the typical duration of such a course.

You can visualize this by zooming out and envisioning the fire hoses arrayed all around you as threads in a distributed network, and then zoom in to catch snippets of the content in the streaming hoses.  The content in the hoses might appear as elephant parts, comprising perhaps a whole, but revealed only in as much as one is able to glimpse before having to move on to something else.


To some the situation is chaotic and unfathomable (it is), and this to them is discouraging and off-putting. They feel that learning takes place best when teachers are present to call attention to what is important and make the process more efficient by relieving learners from distractions inherent in the fire hose. To others the situation is chaotic and unfathomable (it is) and this is exciting and stimulating and not a problem really because deep learning can only derive from meaningful attempts at resolving chaos. George Siemens says that for teachers to do the filtering that learners should be doing for themselves “eviscerates” the learning process (  How you stand on this might depend on what you have to teach or want to learn. Inexperienced learners will likely respond best to the former approach.  But the latter approach might be more appropriate for going beyond the basics to exploring a topic in a community of practice.

I was recently asked to come online and speak to a group of teachers at a distance who were winding up a set of workshops on meaningful learning. My talk would come at the denouement of their experience and I was asked to give them something take away from the process. The organizers said I would have limited time and therefore my presentation had to be concise. As I mulled this over, I felt there was a contradiction in what I thought I was being asked to do, come online and speak from a projected image to an audience of teachers about meaningful learning, so I began to parse my conception of the task. I found the only problem was the word ‘to’. I asked if I could speak ‘with’ the teachers, in order to model a means by which my presentation could become interactive and relate to what they were doing and be personalized for them (as they should be doing with their students; talking “to” the teachers would have modeled a role of teacher as sage on the stage; whereas meaningful learning comes from within the learner, not from the teacher). In the end, that is what I did. I created some slides to give my presentation some cohesion, but at junctures stopped to get input from the audience in the auditorium, whom I could see (and hear) via my camera-audio view.


 Speaking “with” a distant audience

This worked well, as I elicited bullet points from distant participants on characteristics of good teachers (one participant shouted that a teacher should be ‘theatrical’, a word that I had overlooked in my slide on the topic). At the end of our time together I asked the audience what difference their workshop would make in how they taught their classes, and one teacher responded with a long description of changes she had thought through and would implement the coming Monday. This was verging on meaningful learning. How meaningful is it if I tell these teachers, striving to do their best with the task and resources at hand, how I think they should do their job. Better they tell me, and in the process each other. Superstar teachers lead with a good riff but recognize the jazz musician in each student and teaching peer, and invite them to join in, to create a learning experience in concert. The best teachers understand that the learning is not about them; it’s about the participants in the experience. The participants were the superstar teaching performers in their context, not me. And my presentation sought to reinforce this mindset in their work in their classrooms.

Reflecting on the first 6 weeks of 2014, what have we learned from one another as a result of our experiences together? This is where the elephant in the fire hose comes in. The MOOC experience is geared toward learning from the fire hose by making out and piecing together in a personal process of closure the parts of the elephant as they (the elephants) stream past. It is learning in an extreme form of the berry bush metaphor. This metaphor derives from Scollon and Scollon (1982), the idea that computers encourage random access learning whereas the model up to that time was mastery learning, what the Scollons called a conduit approach. The idea is that learning via computers, or networks, is like foraging for berries in a berry patch or fishing in the ocean, you take what you want and can conveniently reach, or have the time and patience for, and leave the rest, maybe to return later, or simply complete your foraging in the supermarket or wherever greater understanding might be available to you.

The berry bush accommodates the role of lurkers in MOOCs and other participatory learning experiences. There are many bushes as well as many shops and markets and no one shops in all of them. Passersby might window shop, and perhaps learn something about the market by lurking at your shop window. They may or may not ever stop to shop, but the window should be kept informative and welcome and open to all in case they want to invest more time inside the store.

In the Rhizomatic Learning MOOC I was struck by one poster who decried lurkers who absorb knowledge from the community without paying back through overt participation, but we are all often lurkers at other people’s storefronts. Some of us maintain our own stores, and not everyone has the time that others can spend on frequent essay-length interaction (or in the case of another who postpones parental duties so she can interact prolifically, the dedication). From that last aside, the point is that we are all dedicated in something, and we have limited time to spend on our passions versus more time we must spend on our obligations (one obligation being to maintain health through proper rest). The fact that lurkers, what Wenger calls more gently, peripheral members, take the time to lurk is, in fact healthy to a community, because it connects that community with other communities in which the putative lurker is quite possibly passionately active, and might even be regarded in that community as a superstar educator.

Now we come back to the roots of connectivism, or rhizomatic learning to frame it in the context of Rhizo14, or at least as I see it from my vantage on the elephant, which is that it is a learning theory for the digital age because connectivist learning is especially capable of addressing the needs of individual learners. The theory suggests that learners forming and learning through networks have available to them knowledge that they can access as needed. That’s like having bits of knowledge in drawers all around your house, but it’s better than having to wonder which drawer you left that knowledge in when you need it because you have metadata you can search on to identify the door you should open, and also the drawers are somehow in communication with you and each other, reminding you of their contents if you have a moment to listen (or happen to see their tweets), and in any event the drawers with the most important content will make themselves known as they are referenced by other drawers on the network, so that the most important knowledge rises to the top, while the most obscure can be found through its metadata.

So to come back to what we have been doing this last 6 weeks of EVO, MultiMOOC, and Rhizomatic Learning 2014, I can’t answer that question for you, but only for me. My role as moderator of MultiMOOC and coordinator of Learning2gether, occasional presenter in CO14, MM3, and other EVO sessions, and editor of TESL-EJ On the Internet column, whose deadline looms and has in part evoked this stream of consciousness (and not to mention my roles as spouse, parent, grandparent, and full-time teacher of EFL) has precluded me from immersing myself as much as I would like to have in the MOOC fray during this time of opportunity, but I have been very impressed with the passion with which many apparently less encumbered have approached their interaction with one another (that’s me lurking, sorry), and so I have decided when these opportunities come around again, I need to clear my plate, not take on so much self-inflicted obligation, and use that space for participating much more in the day to day interaction among colleagues whose nodes would thus be strengthened in my PLN.

To try and describe what was going on in the spaces my learning journey touched in the past 6 weeks would be like trying to describe the elephants as they passed barely discernable in the fire hose spray, appearing in glimpses here and there like salmon leaping upstream. But more like salmon perhaps I did manage to catch a few, and those catches is what makes the hard work and lack of sleep worthwhile, as all of these things compete for available time. I’ll mention just a couple of these accomplishments by way of example, three things I learned in this 6 weeks that will serve to impact and change my practice in the year to come.

1. I learned that Google+ communities was a pretty cool tool. I got this lesson from rock star performer educator Shelly Terrell’s modeling of her community for the EVO Session, Crafting the ePerfect Textbook, at I liked the way the eBookEVO team consolidated group functionality within the one portal, using the ‘About this Community’ sidebar to incorporate links to other web 2.0 tools, in particular Listly to create a panoply of links to course content,

2. I learned from Dave Cormier what it takes to be a MOOC superstar, as he marshaled his Rhizo14 community from his webcam on Prince Edward Island, in a series of videos that introduced each of 6 week’s provocative topics, and I followed his YouTube channel to the Hangout recording that each produced. I watched bemusedly as Dave learned how NOT to record breakout rooms with large silences in the middle of the recording, and enjoyed Stephen Downes’s comments ( on how his letting the class get away from him on the topic of “Is books making us stupid?” was refreshing, again because only by embracing the chaos do we break things and then learn only afterwards how to fix them, in what Jenny Mackness called a Pedagogy of Risk This was my kind of learning. I loved the topics and how the community engaged around them (and I did participate now and then :-):

  • Week 1 Cheating as learning
  • Week 2 Enforcing independence
  • Week 3 Embracing uncertainty
  • Week 4 Is books making us stupid?
  • Week 5 Community as curriculum
  • Week 6 Planned obsolescence

For a glimpse of a piece of the elephant’s brain as it spurts by, some interesting reflections by the most die-hard of the participants can be found here

3. I learned how to do something difficult yet practical: make network maps from Twitter hashtags from a tool provided by Martin Hawksey on Rhizo14, and I documented the process here:

4. I learned about Badges from Jim Buckingham, at which point I handed off to my co-presenter.


Scollon, Suzanne & Ron Scollon. 1982. RUN TRILOGY: Can Tommy Read? Paper presented at the symposium Children’s response to a literate environment: literacy before schooling, University of Victoria, October 9, 1982.


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