Very tight boxes (part 2)

Let us suppose that the theory of Rhizomatic learning is correct, and that people learn best within an open curriculum that does not define where you start and where you stop. Where does that leave formal education?

Formal education in the UK has tended to become more explicitly labelled.  For example. National Curricula define the school syllabus and subject benchmarking statements set expectations at undergraduate level. What you learn, how you will learn it and how you will be assessed on it are set out in advance in black and white. Can this system accommodate rhizomatic learning?

The obvious answer is no, it can’t. It is difficult to create a ‘garden space’ for learning, when – at some point – someone is going to sit in judgement and decide whether you have met the required standards (i.e to differentiate between those who have passed and those who have failed).  As such, there is an argument that the current educational system has more to do with educating children to take their place in the economies of the 21st century than it has on helping people to learn. In this view, formal education might be a barrier to learning rather than a catalyst for it.

If formal education is failing its students then perhaps we should look to MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) to fill the void. In this model, students create their own journey from  learning materials that are freely available. Setting aside the issue about the authority of those materials (many of which are produced by the same educational institutions that MOOCs are threatening to supplant) the key differences as I understand it are commitment and validation.

Signing up for a programme of study in a formal institution is a commitment. It is a financial commitment, a time commitment, and a personal commitment. It says ‘ I want to learn this so much that I’m prepared to devote my time, resources and energies to doing so.’ Even if the educational experience is a poor one, that single act of publicly committing to your learning may act as an incentive to sticking at it. Equally, if you pass that course, it is also a public demonstration of your ability to learn and your competence to practice. As I’ve mentioned before passing your test does not make you a good driver, but I’d rather be ferried home by a taxi driver that has.

I worry with MOOCs, and with rhizomatic learning more generally, that you lose that sense of commitment. I may want to learn biomedical engineering, and have the resources to do so at my fingertips, but what is stopping me from being distracted by a million other things demanding my time. Without the ‘threat’ of assessment, what keeps me going? Perhaps it’s just me. Perhaps I am uniquely fickle. I suspect I’m not. I suspect that there are a lot of us who find it easy to start but difficult to see it through to the…


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