Book of the Week (2): Knowledge and Learning in the Age of Innovation

* Book: Education in the Creative Economy: Knowledge and Learning in the Age of Innovation. Edited by Daniel Araya & Michael A. Peters. Peter Lang, 2010

For our second and last installment of this book of the week, selected because it makes such a clear linkage between education and p2p trends, we have chosen 2 excerpts. One by Jean-Claude Geuneon, on the concept of phonemic individualism, a new form of peer subjectivity, from chapter 11, and the other by David Cormier, of chapter 23, on the ‘community as the curriculum’.

* Jean-Claude Geuneon: Towards ‘Phonemic’ Individualism

“Whereas division of labour is seen by Smith as the result of a top-down, managerial intent, as a production masterplan that sets everyone in a well-defined role, Benkler, when he deals with the ‘green’ world, sees the division of labour as an emergent phenomenon stemming from interactions between individuals: out of the constant dialogues, discussions and debates fluid roles arise. Like eddies in a stream, these roles enjoy relative, but only relative, stability. Individuality, in this perspective, sums up the possible role shifts one person may live through.

In the ‘Green’ world, individuals are found positioning themselves temporarily in one role or another according to the relations they develop with other individuals. In other words, in the green world, individuality is no longer built like an atom, in full self-sufficiency. It is no longer an individual simply endowed with ‘properties’ – the whole polysemic wealth of the term is needed here – but rather an individual whose very essence, paradoxically, depends on his/her relations with other individuals. More precisely, existence depends on distinguishing oneself from others.

A form of individuality that necessarily rests on the individuality of others calls for a general interpretative scheme that goes beyond what earlier theories of society have contributed. It goes beyond an ‘emanation’ or holistic theory of individuals, based on divinities and their human proxies, leading to a feudal vision of society. It cannot limit itself to the self-sufficient atom-like individual that stands as the foundation of the liberal age (where ‘liberal’ here means adherence to the tenets of classical economics). We must therefore reach beyond emanation and atom-like individuals to reach for a third kind of individuality. Let us call this third way the ‘phonemic’ approach. Although as powerful in its reach as the holistic or atomistic approaches, it has not been used nearly as much until now.

What is a ‘phonemic’ approach’? It is based on the concept of phoneme, of course. Here, it is adduced as, in a sense, a synthesis of the holistic and atomistic explanatory modes: imagine a universe where every existing entity would have the appearance of an atom, but, simultaneously, would appear to emanate from a number of these other apparent atoms. Let us add that the emanation is not a transitive, transparent process: the link between two phonemic entities is not guided by some form of analogy, but, on the contrary, by some distinctive characteristic. The total result could be described as a ‘peer-to-peer emanation system’. Phonemes, in the field of phonology, behave precisely in this manner. They exist only by being distinct from other phonemes. The existence of one entity depends on the existence of all, and it also depends on maintaining a distinctive uniqueness with respect to all of the other entities. Their existence marks the fact that their difference makes a difference – precisely the definition of information according to Gregory Bateson. They offer, therefore, a powerful metaphor to think beyond atomistic or emanation-based individualism.

What Yochai Benkler is founding with his important book is not only a revision of the market concept, or of the division of labour that accompanies it. What Yochai Benkler is really inviting us to do is to revisit our understanding of markets and division of labour in terms of a new form of individuality that cannot be thought within the atom category, or denied on account of a divine hierarchy out of which everything emanates (and to which it must return).

What remains difficult to apprehend with social phenomena such as the free software movement, Wikipedia and other peer-to-peer processes that seem to fly in the face of long accepted notions of ‘human nature’ becomes far more comprehensible if we begin to look at human beings behaving like phonemes. If we remember that phonemes relate to language and that human beings do speak, the metaphor appears far less contrived. On the other hand, the reasons why human beings should be apprehended as emanation of some wholeness can only be based on faith. And if human beings chose to apprehend themselves as the similes of as atoms, it may simply have been a reaction to that faith. Neither emanation nor atoms need language incidentally, but human beings distinguish themselves through language. And the full deployment of language requires the existence of phonemic individuals. The wealth of networks, therefore, lies in phonemic individuality. Any other approach to human beings will simply be sub-optimal and that is the fundamental thesis of Yochai Benkler’s crucial work.”

* Excerpt 2: Chapter 23, Community as Curriculum, by David Cormier

“Most of us have, in spite of ourselves adjusted—at least incrementally—to this transmission-focused military model of education. There is a sense in many educators’ minds that learners need to explore their way through their learning, and have the experience of learning, of searching out ideas and discovering them for themselves. This process, though, is usually bounded by the learning objectives laid out at the beginning of the course of study by the designer/instructor. There is still, implicit in most widely held conceptions of learning that the instructor, designer, or at least the institution knows what a learner should get out of a given course.

The problem, then, only comes into play when we are not sure what “people should be learning.” What is the curriculum for innovation? How do we impart creativity? Where do students turn to be guaranteed that they are learning what is new and current? These are the questions that face us on a more or less regular basis now. As knowledge becomes a moving target and the canon starts becoming less reliable, we need a new—or in fact an old—model of education drawn out on a new canvas: community.

The answer is to stop trying so hard, to stop looking for a systemic solution, and to return to a human-based knowledge plan. We need to return to community as a valid repository for knowledge, and away from a packaged view of knowledge and expertise. Knowledge can be fluid; it can be in transition, and we can still use it. We need to tap into the strength provided by communities and see the various forms of community literacy as the skills we need to acquire in order to be effective members of those communities.

Community as curriculum is not meant as a simple alternative to the package version of learning. It is, rather, meant to point to the learning that takes place on top of that model and to point to the strategies for continuing learning throughout a career. There is a base amount of knowledge that is required to be able to enter a community, and there are methods for acquiring the specific kinds of literacy needed to learn within a specific community. A learner acquires basic forms of literacy and associates with different peer groups. Networks begin to form and, occasionally, communities develop. Knowledge is created and sometimes discarded as the community interacts. Knowledge does not develop and spread from and through concentric circles. There are no “plastics” to be learned and no canon to consult to ensure that a new skill has been acquired. Knowledge is a rhizome, a snapshot of interconnected ties in constant flux that is evaluated by its success in context. We need a move toward a more practical, sustainable learning model that is less based on market-driven accreditation and more on the inevitable give and take that happens among people who engage in similar activities and share similar forms of literacy and worldviews.

The rhizomatic view of learning reflects an organic, practical approach to thinking about learning and knowledge. It has a distinct connection to the traditional academic knowledge model, with its interlinking references and people. Each piece of information and knowledge is interlinked and supported by at least one other element, with no one place where knowledge about a matter begins or ends. The rhizomatic model, in contrast to the academic one, keeps the knowledge in the people and in the community rather than distilling it into a paper based product – be it the final publication of a journal, book or other ‘changeless medium.. The problem with the paper publishing cycle is the time it takes to proceed through the entire cycle, and the constraints on time and space that go along with the medium place severe restrictions on the flexibility and applicability of the academic tradition. It is not to say that it is not valuable, just that it does not always—and cannot always, today—respond in ways that meet the needs of learners in a world where what is known in many fields changes from month to month.

If we are working in a field where what is new or current is continually in flux, then we need to have a way of keeping our knowledge up to date. With the huge increase of academic publications, the simple process of choosing has become more difficult, and the sifting through what is out there a significant task for any professional. Our ideas of learning and knowledge need to become more flexible to allow for this mutability. “The term [rhizomatic learning] encapsulates a sort of fluid, transitory concept; the dense, multi-dimensional development and integration of several different sets of tools and approaches, appearing in diverse forms under separate settings, using all the multidimensional networking information technology tools, the social web, etc.” (Szucs, 2009, p. 4). rhizomatic learning distributes the channels of knowing outside traditional hierarchical models and into the social realm, allowing for help in sifting through the flow of information and knowledge. These “social learning practices are allowing for a more discursive rhizomatic approach to knowledge discovery” (Cormier, 2008, p. 3). rhizomatic knowers use a variety of approaches and tools to blend together bits of information and knowledge in order to form what they need. They especially need a learning community to help them test ideas, filter information and knowledge, and seek advice.”

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