Monthly Archives: September 2015

On Rhizomatic Learning, Virtual Connections, and Sherwood Anderson


For several weeks I have been immersed in a digital world. Coming back into a face-to-face reality has given me pause to reflect on the contrast between what is “virtual” and what is “real.”

It’s really Simon Ensor’s fault. In a Google Hangout during a conference, Simon asked someone to define “virtual buddy.”  He asked the question again on Twitter. He followed that with a blog post. And then he wrote a poem about belonging.  And so I started thinking.

The Hangout that began the process was a “between” space during the annual conference for the Association for Learning Technology, this year in Manchester, England. A number of presenters were from a virtually connected associates discussing a project called #Rhizo14. I had followed along with #Rhizo15 in connection while actively participating in #clmooc (another virtually connected community focused on learning), so I had an interest in the conference, even though I could not attend. I was introduced to the “between” Hangouts during yet another conference about hybrid pedagogy (#digped) when I was invited to participate by colleagues I met on Twitter through #clmooc. *

These “between” spaces were supposed to be a sort of “third space” for collaborative discussion about the keynote speakers at the conference. As they evolved they became a sort of debriefing for participants while the online participants (from all over the world) became sort of eavesdroppers who gleaned whatever information came through the on site players. It made me feel both connected and disconnected at the same time. When the on site players shared a single computer their conversation was often between themselves as they developed tactile relationships while the rest of us watched. When they returned to conference activities, those of us left in the Hangout tried to make sense of the information and even found ways to create our own “mini-sessions” of informal collaboration.  While I had connected with many of the participants (both on site and online) before this conference, Simon’s question made me consider the reality of those relationships beyond the words shared on the screen.

In a reflective post about Rhizo15, Dave Cormier discusses the challenges of creating a structured community in an unstructured idea (rhizomatic learning is by nature without formal structure). How can individuals belong to a community without creating a division between “we” and “them”; in this case those who had been around since the first experiment (Rhizo14) and the newbies who were just figuring out the concept? Dave writes far more eloquently than I about the conflict between Instructivism and Constructivism, but it all goes back to Simon’s original query: What exactly is a virtual buddy?

I have playing on the digital playground long enough that I no longer consciously differentiate between local acquaintances and those whom I have only met online. In many ways, I often feel MORE connected to those virtual friends because we have to make an effort to connect across time zones, geography, and cultural barriers. Underneath that, however is a common interest in how to harness the power of the internet to make education both accessible and relevant to as many people as want it. Along the way we discover other common interests: knitting, photography, Doctor Who, and other facets of life that have nothing whatever to do with education.

So are these friends “real”? And if they are, why is there a disconnect when some of them are together in a place while others of us connect from our own individual spaces? This whole new world of digital relationships and collaborations is messy. But then, new things are often messy. And not always “right”, especially at the beginning.

This idea of messy newness is a reflection of something Sherwood Anderson said to William Faulkner in June, 1953:

…America ain’t cemented and plastered yet. They’re still building it. That’s why a man with ink in his veins not only still can but sometimes has still got to keep on moving around in it, keeping moving around and listening and looking and learning. That’s why ignorant unschooled fellows like you and me not only have a chance to write, they must write…it won’t ever be quite right, but there is always next time; there’s always more ink and paper and something else to try to understand and tell. And that probably wont be exactly right either, but then there is a next time to that one , too. Because tomorrow’s America is going to be something different, something more and new to watch and listen to and try to understand; and, even if you can’t understand, believe.

(as cited in Meriwether, 2004, p. 8)

And there is the answer. Online relationships won’t ever feel “quite right”, but we must keep trying new ways to connect and eventually we will see something “different…more and new” that, even if we don’t fully understand, we can believe. In its imperfections, there is still connection. Perhaps the best part of being “virtual buddies” is the journey we are taking together into something unexpected.



*All the acronyms are confusing, but much of the hybrid pedagogy/virtual connections take place on Twitter with extensions to Facebook and/or Google Plus. All of the things in which I participated were forms of MOOCs (massive open online courses) geared toward educators who wanted to explore and promote the idea of open learning. Rhizo  is based on the idea of the rhizome plant, one that sends out new growth from its roots so that the visible growth is supported by an underground structure that is interconnected. Dave Cormier is probably the leading expert in the current iteration and his ideas on the purpose of education need more thought that I intend for this particular post. DigPed is attached to the Hybrid Pedagogy journal. The Connected Learning MOOC (#clmooc) was a six-week course for educators organized mostly by professionals connected to Youth Voices. All of the hashtags are still active on Twitter.






Meriwether, J. B. ed. (2004), William Faulkner: Essays, speeches, & public letters. New York, NY: Modern Library. Random House, Inc.

Labor Day, Teaching, and Vocational Education


Once upon a time, Labor Day meant the end of summer and the beginning of the school year. That, I believe, is what the Almighty intended. Of course, with schools today starting at the beginning of August and summer not really over until the end of September, Labor Day is fast becoming just another holiday without meaning or purpose.

Perhaps it would be wise for educators to spend a few hours sharing with students the plight of the American worker at the beginning of the Industrial Age. We are horrified at the “sweat shops” we read about, but this was the common practice in this country for many years. By the late 1880s, conditions were so poor that workers, backed by the then necessary Labor Unions, staged revolts and strikes, one of which led to a clash between federal troops and protesters. Attempting to reconcile with the workers, Congress made Labor Day a national observation of the contribution of America’s working class (

In the last several years I have had numerous conversations with colleagues regarding the current push to send every student to college. I suspect this may be partly in reaction to the continuing struggle between politicians, educators, and unions. The student voice seems to get lost in the debate.  There are students who are not college bound and who should not be pushed that direction. There are some for whom vocational education is more important and more practical than college-readiness. Reasons vary by circumstance, but may include career goals in areas that do not require a college degree, a family business, or a distaste for school in general and a willingness to work up from the lowest position.  Coming from a working class family myself, I see a need for a resurgence in vocational education.

Living in the suburbs, my position is not popular. The mindset of that particular demographic is that value only comes with a college education. This thinking is wrong, and must be addressed both in the classroom and in society. In an article published on Edutopia and reprinted in the Washington Post, Mark Phillips wrote,

“We live in a society that places a high value on the professions and white-collar jobs, and that still considers blue-collar work lower status. It’s no surprise that parents want their children to pursue careers that will maintain or increase their status. This is even more evident in high socio-economic communities. And for most teachers, if the student is academically successful, this will be seen as a ‘waste of talent’ ” (Phillips, 2012).

I could not agree more.

How may students feel stigmatized because they prefer working with their hands to sitting in classrooms? How many homeowners would be completely lost without well-trained electricians or plumbers? And why do we assume that mechanics are not well-read or welders cannot write? I know a certain truck driver who writes beautiful poetry without an advanced degree. Artistry is hard to teach, but the best nail technicians and hairdressers are skilled artisans. Why must our culture belittle these choices? I was horrified to hear of a former student who chose to pursue work as a dental hygienist and was told by a school administrator that she was aiming too low. What that administrator refused to see was the passion this young lady had for improving people’s smiles and how she planned to take her skills to under-developed countries where she could help people in a tangible way. If students have dreams of practical work, then we, as educators, must both prepare them for that work and encourage them to follow their hearts no matter what the culture around them says.

This is where vocational education comes in. If students are afforded a choice between practical academics and apprenticeships or college preparatory work, they can better prepare for the futures they choose. Just because we as educators believe that higher education must be accessible to all does not imply that we should mandate it for everyone. If education is truly about the students, then they must be given the tools and the choices to dictate their own futures. All students must become literate in language arts, practical mathematics, history, and science, there is no question of that. Those skill can readily be addressed by tenth grade. Advanced studies in vocation or academics can them specialize in the fields that profit the student most.

We as educators must lead the way to de-stigmatizing vocational education. College is not for everyone; nor is vocational education. Both ensure students have goals and the tools to achieve them according to their individual skills, talents, and desires. It is time to elevate vocational education as an equally viable option to college preparation. Then we can focus on teaching students to learn for the love of learning alone, rather than crushing them all under a load of school work some neither want nor need. In becoming adaptable to student needs, we become better teachers, focused on students and whom they will become in time.

References Staff (2010). Labor Day. A&E Entertainment. [Weblog] Retrieved from

Phillips, M. (2012, May 29). Why should we care about vocational education? Edutopia. [Weblog]. Retrieved from