Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Novelty, noise, and scaffolding


Some days you come across an idea that provides you with unexpected insights. The idea is simple and should have been obvious to you long ago, but somehow was not, until some other person articulated it well enough.

A couple of days ago, this insight came from a comment on Dave Cormier’s blog post about the upcoming open course on Rhizomatic Learning. Scott Johnson, building on the concept of scaffolding which another commentator mentioned, said:

“Without structure or some realization that help or accompaniment is available (the presence of a sense-making companion maybe?) novelty can be pushed aside as noise”

I’ve known about scaffolding and Vygotsky for years and years, I use the concept often, but this statement opened up my eyes to two important realizations:

1. It made me realize why, at work (I work as a faculty developer), sometimes a new idea that is mentioned in an email or meetings gets “shot down” very quickly by more conservative members of the team – I think I always realized there was some element of others not truly understanding where the new idea comes from, or not truly knowing the dimensions of it, and that this is partly the fault of the speaker for not communicating clearly in the first place and accounting for listener’s background. But the concept of “novelty as noise” is very enlightening. Recognizing that novelty might seem like  “noise”, means we understand that this noise causes discomfort, and you want to “shut it out”, because who wants to keep listening to noise? You’re not able to listen to it, you don’t understand the content of it, and it’s distracting you from listening to more important things. It never occurred to me when introducing novelty in a work setting (vs. a teaching setting) that one could use the concept of scaffolding. Yes, it now sounds obvious, but it was not that obvious to me beforehand!

2. An insight into connectivism: This (the need for some kind of sense-making e.g. via a peer or expert) might be what is truly problematic about connectivism. I have argued elsewhere (publication in process) that cMOOCs are not necessarily scalable across contexts because not all people feel comfortable with the technology or the lack of structure or info overload, and not all disciplines can easily be adapted for that kind of learning especially for non-autonomous and younger learners (well, I might have said it slightly differently, but that is the gist). But maybe what  Scott mentions is what is truly problematic with connectivism – the novelty of it, without peer (or expert) support, seems like noise to the external observer who is not an extremely connected/networked individual… and so it goes totally over their heads. Actually, I think the theory behind connectivism is difficult to imagine or absorb, and even harder to experience for the person who is not highly networked to begin with. I might be wrong, but I think the rest of Scott’s comment about the same people showing up in connectivist learning opportunities rings true: these people are feeling supported and trust each other enough to keep learning together.

This all also made me realize why #edcmooc (eLearning & Digital Cultures MOOC) might have worked really well – it had a lot of elements of connectivism (use of social media not just the traditional MOOC platform) but also some (quite loose) structure. And also encouraging lots of peer support (participants in the first run of the MOOC say they built community before the course even started and that this personal learning network stayed with them beyond).

And so… I think I know why the idea of rhizomatic learning and community as curriculum resonated with me a little more than connectivism. Because the emphasis on “community” seemed to emphasize the importance of the social relationships between learners… versus connectivism which seemed to emphasis the network connections which sounded to me (as a former computer scientist) as emphasizing the network (software or hardware) rather than the people and the social aspect. I’ve never gone too far in reading up on connectivism, and I assume it’s possible “network” means “social community”, but somehow it does not sound completely like that to me… I think I might get my head around all this as we go into #rhizo14. Or not. Either way, I’m excited about that course and the possibilities and social networks I could build and learn with/from through it.

More later…


  1. Pingback: Why #rhizo14? | Reflecting Allowed

  2. Pingback: Creativity, innovation are this rhizomatic concepts? Questions to orient | connectiv

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