I’ve shared the first two pieces of a larger concept paper I’m writing. Part I presents a scenario-based view of what connected learning as informal learning across an academic department looks like. Part II includes some introductory text and a schematic of the concept. In that schematic, you can see that student ePortfolios play a central role in the design. It so happens that, over a year ago, I had the opportunity to work with Laura Gogia to write a major federal grant proposal that centered on ePortfolios. The grant wasn’t funded; I think something like 2% of applicants received funding. I had been looking for the right moment to share some of what we (well, really Laura) wrote in the proposal because I think it’s pretty great. Some of the narrative works nicely as part of the concept paper, so what I share below is a natural third blog post as I publicly share the development of the concept paper.
Additionally, Martha Burtis’ keynote at #domains17 served as a good provocation for sharing part of the grant proposal. Burtis asks three questions at the foundation of the Domain of One’s Own project/initiative/movement:
Burtis goes on to highlight a really important and real tension: The Domain of One’s Own project/initiative/movement got it’s initial energy from a pragmatic need (ePortfolios) that may now be constraining the project/initiative/movement. Martha says,
“On the one hand, attaching our project’s goals to a defined institutional need allowed us to move forward. We were able to secure both resources and support from important stakeholders by suggesting that Domains was a way to address some of the goals of the ePortfolio working group… All that said, I believe we have to push beyond pragmatism now. I think it’s time for us to expect more of our Domains projects… I believe there are opportunities… to push beyond the pragmatic goals of Domain of One’s Own into deeper more reflective and more critical territory…”
I totally agree with Martha. 100%. But, I also don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water. That is, let’s not just dismiss ePortfolios entirely; let’s consider them part of a larger effort around helping students explore the affordances of the Web. In that vein, I’ve copied and pasted four paragraphs from our grant proposal below. I believe Laura Gogia wrote about 97% of it, so she should get most of the credit should you care to give anyone any credit. I should also note that Gardner Campbell gave us the time, space, and resources to write the proposal. He inspired the idea and let us run with it.1
For more than a decade, universities and colleges have used digital or electronic portfolios (e-portfolios) to document student learning across curricular and co-curricular activities (Yancey, 2009). When compared to paper-based portfolios, e-portfolios have proven easier to share with multiple audiences and desirable for providing students with opportunities for multimodal expression. Research suggests that e-portfolios may promote student reflection and engagement, particularly when students are allowed to take as much ownership as possible over the content, structure, formatting, and aesthetics of the project (Eynon, 2009; Yancey, 2009). In other countries, such as the United Kingdom, students and faculty tend to use e-portfolios to facilitate social learning and formative assessment, while many colleges and universities in the United States present e-portfolios as opportunities to create summative compilations: collections of completed works meant to demonstrate competencies or show improvement over time. As a project, they are often presented as opportunities to impress audiences of faculty, administrators, and potential employers rather than for the students, themselves (Yancey, 2015).
The VCU Discovery Project, and its proposed student intervention, the VCU ConnectBook Program, offers an alternative approach to e-portfolios, one that is designed to promote integrative and deeper learning by applying a connected learning lens to existing general education curriculum and academic support programs. Although connected learning is a novel pedagogical approach, it is firmly rooted in the long-established learning theories of Dewey (1916/1985), social constructivists (e.g. Bruner, 1996; Wenger, 2000), and constructionists (e.g. Harel & Papert, 1991). It encourages students to make meaningful connections between academic learning, life experience, and professional goals through the creation of knowledge products for authentic audiences and participating in dynamic, peer- and mentor-supported affinity networks that build and distribute information, feedback, and the social capital necessary to broker high impact learning (Ching et al, 2015). Instructors who strive for connected learning understand learning as distributed across space, time, and a number of formal and informal environments, including but not limited to school, home, community organizations, peer “hangouts,” and online spaces (Kumpulainen & Sefton-Green, 2014). They help students network or link these distributed learning experiences in ways that allow students to examine and build on uniquely personal patterns of passion, skills, motivation, ambition, and social connections. The discovery, building, and shaping processes, as well as the patterns themselves, are called the “learning life.” When fashioned into a concrete, yet dynamic, narrative, the learning life reflects and facilitates a broader and deeper understanding of learning and the relevance of formal education (Kumpulainen & Sefton-Green, 2014).
Connected Learning e-portfolios, called “ConnectBooks” in this proposal, are student-established, networked, digital spaces existing on the open web where students discover, build, and shape their learning lives in an ongoing, social process of meaning making. Like traditional e-portfolios, ConnectBooks support learning by encouraging students to reflect on and construct knowledge products. However, ConnectBooks are formative processes as much as finished products, changing and changeable as students connect, disconnect, and reconnect their distributed learning experiences. Furthermore, ConnectBooks are designed to be launch pads for social learning: meeting posts for students, their peers, and mentors that facilitate the formation and activity of affinity networks. Finally, unlike many e-portfolio initiatives in U.S. colleges and universities, ConnectBooks are housed on the open web rather than in closed learning management systems, allowing students to access resources, inspiration, collaborators, mentors, and audiences beyond the local academic community (Groom & Lamb, 2014).
The implementation of ConnectBooks as a method to support student discovery, learning, and educational persistence requires a paradigm shift in how faculty, staff, and students perceive e-portfolio initiatives and higher education. Framed through connected learning, e-portfolios are no longer situated at the margins of academic courses, repositories for course-specific assignments. Rather, they are deeply and explicitly integrated into early general education courses; they become the foundation as well as the purpose of curricular design. In these environments, faculty and students co-construct learning activities that enable students to explore their existing personal interests, talents, and skill sets, as well as their formal and informal learning pasts (Ito et al., 2013). Faculty also model and provide opportunities for students to develop, shape, and use personal learning networks (PLNs) to access learning opportunities. In this context, personal learning networks become a form of social capital, networks of other people who provide students with “smooth access to the mainstream marketplace where privileges, institutional resources, opportunities for leisure, recreation, career mobility, and political empowerment are abundant” (Stanon-Salazar, 2001, p. 105). Faculty and staff broker learning activities, using their own personal learning networks to offer students access to people, ideas, events, and resources, while seeding the students’ emerging PLNs so that they can engage in acts of self-brokering (Ching et al., 2015).
Bruner, J. (1996). The culture of education. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press.
Ching, D., Santo, R., Hoadley, C., & Peppler, K. (2015). On-Ramps, Lane Changes, Detours and Destinations: Building Connected Learning Pathways in Hive NYC through Brokering Future Learning Opportunities. New York, NY: Hive Research Lab. Retrieved from: http://hivenyc.org/wp-content/uploads/Hive-Research-Lab-2015-Community-White-Paper-Brokering-Future-Learning-Opportunities.pdf
Eynon, B. 2009. Making connections: The LaGuardia ePortfolio. In D. Cambridge, B. Cambridge, and K. B. Yancey (Eds.), Electronic portfolios 2.0: Emergent findings about implementation and impact, (pp. 59–69). Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.
Groom, J., & Lamb, B. (2014). Reclaiming innovation. Educause Review, 49(3). Retrieved from: http://www.educause.edu/visuals/shared/er/extras/2014/ReclaimingInnovation/default.html
Harel, I. E., & Papert, S. E. (1991). Constructionism. New York, NY: Ablex
Ito, M., Gutiérrez, K., Livingstone, S., Penuel, B., Rhodes, J., Salen, K., Schor, J., Sefton-Green, J., Watkins, C. (2013). Connected learning: An agenda for research and design. Irvine, CA: Digital Media and Learning Research Hub. Retrieved from: http://dmlhub.net/publications/connected-learning-agenda-for-research-and-design/
Kumpulainen, K. & Sefton-Green, J. (2014). What is connected learning and how to research it? International Journal of Learning and Media, 4(2), 7-18. doi: 10.1162/IJLM_a_00091
Stanton-Salazar, R. D. (2001). Defensive network orientations as internalized oppression. In B. Biddle (Ed.), Social Class, Poverty and Education, (pp. 101-132). London, UK: Routledge.
Wenger, E. (2000). Communities of practice and social learning systems. Organization, 7(2), 225-246. doi: 10.1177/135050840072002
Yancey, K. B. (2009). Electronic portfolios a decade into the twenty-first century: What we know, what we need to know. Peer Review, 11(1), 28.
Yancey, K. B. (2015). The social life of reflection: Notes toward an ePortfolio-based model of reflection. In M. Ryan (Ed.), Teaching Reflective Learning in Higher Education, (pp. 189-202).
Last week, I wrote about how I was working on a concept paper that I hope will make the case for taking advantage of modern, networked technologies for “extracurricular,” informal learning within and across an academic department. In that post, I laid out some scenarios that I hope provide a narrative picture of what this might look and feel like. Today, I’m posting the introduction to the concept paper as well as a graphic representation of the connected learning ecosystem I have in mind for my Department. First, though, a bit about the Department of Educational Leadership at VCU:
So, here’s the introduction to the concept paper:
In this new interactive Web world, I have become a nomadic learner; I graze on knowledge. I find what I need when I need it. There is no linear curriculum to my learning, no formal structure other than the tools I use to connect to the people and sources that point me to what I need to know and learn, the same tools I use to then give back what I have discovered. I have become, at long last, that lifelong learner my teachers always hoped I would become. Unfortunately, it’s about thirty years too late for them to see it.
This “Web world” that Will Richardson wrote about wasn’t even so new when he wrote about it. That was in 2006.
We are now more than a decade beyond Richardson’s declaration. In that time, the growth of formal distance education courses and programs has been tremendous and has received the most attention from mainstream media and academia. However, the possibilities and opportunities for informal learning afforded by the modern, connected Web have also exploded and have received a good amount of attention as well. We now have a conceptual framework for web-enabled informal learning (Connected Learning), a nascent learning theory (Connectivism), many examples and anecdotes, research frameworks, and we even have critiques of the theories and the ideas in practice.
That said, much of the thinking and writing about connected learning as applied to formal institutions of higher education is limited in two ways. First, there is a clear bias toward egocentric models. That is, much of the research and literature on connected learning as applied to formal institutions of learning has focused on the individual development of “personal learning networks.” The idea, generally, is that individual learners use any combination of tools and platforms to build their own learning networks. Those individual networks are connected to each other in multiple ways, thus creating a loosely tied network with many nodes of varying density. The burden here, then, is on the individual whose personal network may or may not allow the individual to become a viable node on the larger resultant network.
The second limitation of the literature on connected learning as applied to formal institutions of learning is the focus on the “course.” We have numerous examples of within-course activities that carry the hallmarks of connected learning, and we have a growing number of courses offered by colleges and universities that could be considered exemplars of connected learning (see e.g. Gogia, 2016).
What we lack, though, is a conceptualization of how connected learning might look if it were applied not just by individuals or in individual courses, but rather across an entire academic program. A high-quality academic program is more than just a series of courses with associated learning activities and assessments. That is, high-quality academic programs supplement coursework with extracurricular activities including, but not limited to, colloquia, reading groups, guest speakers, etc.; opportunities for students and faculty to come together and to learn together outside of designated class time. There are often also the unstructured learning occasions that happen before and after designated class time and, where offered, in dedicated study and learning spaces. Those “extracurricular activities” structured or not, are time- and place-based; they are face-to-face and synchronous.
Circling back to Will Richardson’s 2006 article, the title was, “The Internet Breaks School Walls Down.” A more precise construction of that idea is that the Web affords learning opportunities that are agnostic to time and place. So, how do we employ connected learning in the service of the unstructured learning occasions that happen before and after designated class time, but entirely via the Web?
This paper lays out the conceptual/theoretical framework, proposes a connected learning infrastructure for an academic program, and makes the case for why this makes particular sense for students and faculty in the discipline of education.
And, here’s a first pass at a schematic of the connected learning ecosystem I have in mind:
For me, right now, the biggest question (among many) is, would this be:
There’s more, but I’ll stop here. I welcome your feedback. Laura Gogia is skeptical that I’ll get any traction. I take that as a challenge…
As I transition back to being “just” a tenured faculty member, I spend much of my time thinking about how I want to spend my time come Fall. While this transition is not of my own choosing, I have come to see it as an opportunity to get back to my roots and values as a scholar and an educator. I now know what courses I’ll be teaching in the Fall, and I look forward to getting back to teaching graduate-level courses which I haven’t done in over 4 years. The last four years as a university administrator and leader of faculty development and online learning initiatives have given me some new perspectives on teaching and learning and equipped me with some new tools and ideas to incorporate into my teaching.
I have also come to see this transition as an opportunity to reinvent myself as a scholar. My tenure portfolio was built around scholarship focused on, broadly, educational technology at the K-12 level. I was one of a small group of scholars housed in a department of educational leadership who studied and wrote about educational technology. My scholarly work lived at the intersection of technology, leadership, and policy all with a focus on equity. Staying that course would be the easy road, and the group of like-minded, like-focused educational leadership professors hasn’t gotten any larger; there’s enormous need for more research around leadership and policy around educational technology within the K-12 system.
However, having spent the past 4 years in a leadership position largely focused on distance education, I find myself really wanting to focus my scholarly pursuits on distance education in higher education. As a scholar, I have long struggled with the expectation of having a sufficiently narrow research agenda. That works against my natural intellectual curiosity. That said, I also understand the need to be efficient with the limited time we have for research, and I value expertise which is a natural result of sustained, focused scholarly activity around a bounded area within a discipline. In fact, I think I understand this better now than I did even 5 years ago as a faculty member.
This is also a good time for me to focus on distance education in higher education because my department, Educational Leadership, is expanding our offerings and adding programs in higher education administration. Most immediately, we are adding a higher education-focused cohort to our Ed.D. program, and there are plans to develop a masters program in higher education administration. We are in the final stages of hiring two faculty members focused on higher education.
“Distance education in higher education” is still a broad area and I’ll need to really find my pigeonhole. As a starting point, I have applied for research leave for the Spring ’18 semester and internal funding to engage in a research project that I can’t say much about right now. I am still waiting to find out if my leave application is approved and/or if I won the competition for internal research funds. Those decisions will largely shape how I go about my scholarly pursuits over the next 12-18 months.
Furthermore, I want to get back to my roots in the politics of education and as an educational policy analyst. From my perspective, the vast majority of the research on distance education in higher education is focused on issues around teaching and learning. This is critically important, of course. Additionally, there’s a lot of research trying to get at “effectiveness” of distance education. I understand why that’s being done, but it’s not of particular interest to me right now. Where I think there’s a real gap is in good critical policy analysis around distance education in higher education. According to Diem et al. (2014):
Critical theories facilitate the exploration of policy roots and processes; how policies presented as reality are often political rhetoric; how knowledge, power, and resources are distributed inequitably; how educational programs and policies, regardless of intent, reproduce stratified social relations; how schools institutionalize those with whom they come into contact; and how individuals react (e.g. resistance or acquiescence) to such social and institutional forces.
What might critical policy analysis around distance education in higher education look like? In an article today in Inside Higher Ed, Christopher Haynes writes,
“Online education aspires to more than the predatory neo-liberal nightmare its harshest critics make it out to be. While there are many questions yet to be answered, online education is promising, effective, and vital to the health of contemporary college and universities.”
That strikes me as an ideal prompt for critical policy analysis. If Haynes is correct, how to explain the following language from other recent Inside Higher Ed articles? In an article about class sizes in online courses, we get the following statement:
“These are business decisions,” said Stephen C. Head, chancellor of Lone Star College, meaning that if an online class doesn’t have enough students to earn the institution money, it won’t be offered. After that hurdle is cleared, colleges have to consider whether the academic needs of the student are met, Head said.
Then, in an article about a nationwide survey about the online education market, we see this:
“One of our basic premises is that online education is a business, and it is establishing itself at the majority of two- and four-year institutions,” Legon said. “As it joins the mainstream, one would want to ask how this fits into the organizational structure of these institutions, the budgeting, agenda, priorities for investments and development, and how it affects the role that faculty and staff play — just a variety of issues that come together to make online learning a viable, long-term aspect of higher education.”
How do we reconcile Haynes’ claim about neoliberalism and the language of the stakeholders above? And that is language just from the last couple of days just from one publication. We need some good critical policy analysis here.
I am fortunate in that Dr. Katherine Mansfield is a departmental colleague at VCU. She has done a bunch of really great work around critical policy analysis in education and I have an opportunity to learn and hopefully work with her. I look to Kat, my other colleagues, and you all, both of my readers, to help me as I begin nesting in my pigeonhole.
I’m working on a concept paper that I hope will make the case for taking advantages of modern, networked technologies for “extracurricular,” informal learning within and across an academic department. My main contention is that we don’t have to limit learning to class time or even within classes or programs. We have students in masters programs and two doctoral programs (Ed.D. and Ph.D.) and, unless we bring them together for a colloquium or something, they have no opportunities to talk and learn with those not in their classes. Connected Learning or Networked Learning makes it possible for students to learn together in ways that weren’t possible not that long ago. In other words, how could we take Dave Cormier’s idea of Community as Curriculum and formalize it as an expectation for all students our department serves? Or, in the words of Roger Schank and Kemi Jona, could we use Connected Learning to think about Extracurriculars as the Curriculum?
I’ll be writing up a somewhat formal concept paper that will include some theoretical underpinnings and also some concept maps to explain how things will work; i.e. how information will flow. First, though, I wanted to write up a not-so-hypothetical scenario that vividly demonstrates the power of connected learning. What follows is a first (very rough) draft of the scenario. In true connected learning form, I’m sharing it so that you (my two readers) might comment on this post and offer additional ideas or thoughts.
I think, eventually, it would be good to depict this same scenario in video form. My colleague Molly Ransone produced a video for and with me a while back (see the bottom of this post), but I think we can make one that’s more succinct and that is in more of a story form, not unlike what my friend Ben Grey did a while back for his school district. Or, like Wendy Drexler produced a LONG time ago…
But, for now, here’s the scenario in narrative form. I’d really value your thoughts, ideas, edits, comments, etc…
Pat sits down on the couch after arriving home after a particularly intense discussion in class. The discussion was about vulnerability as it relates to leadership, an essential idea raised by the book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. Pat participated some in the class discussion, but she was having a hard time trying to articulate an argument about how some of the ideas Lencionni writes about assume a neurotypical leader. For some neurodiverse people, Pat thought, allowing oneself to be vulnerable is complicated and difficult. So, Pat turns on her iPad and opens her WordPress app to write a blog post. This affords Pat the time to think through her argument and to frame her argument in ways she couldn’t do in class. Furthermore, she can use hypertext in her blog post to link out to a few articles that support her claims. Pat can also share the articles to which she will link in her blog post to the department’s Diigo group. Less than an hour after sitting down on the couch, Pat has shared the articles in Diigo and hits publish on her blog post.
Pat wrote the post in the blog she maintains as part of her WordPress-based ePortfolio. Occasionally she writes posts as required parts of courses, but she and other students in her program are encouraged to write blog posts as they feel moved to do so. Pat writes at least two blog posts per week because the readings and class discussions are really interesting to her, but active participation in class discussion is not as easy for her as it is for other students. She has many thoughts to share, but does not want to occupy too much space in the classroom and also feels she has trouble being articulate and parsimonious with her words in a face-to-face setting. Blogging has been a really valuable way for Pat to share her thoughts.
Pat’s blog posts, along with those of all of the other students in her program, are aggregated (or syndicated) into a mother blog (or a blogging hub) for all of the students in the program. Any student in any class or cohort can read any other student’s posts via the mother blog. They can be notified of students’ posts by subscribing by email to the mother blog and/or by subscribing to the mother blog’s feed in an RSS reader. The mother blog also automatically feeds the department’s Twitter account and Facebook group. So, as soon as Pat hits “publish” on her blog post, the post shows up in her ePortfolio, on the mother blog, on the department Facebook page, and is broadcast via the department’s Twitter account…
Sonny is a university administrator and a graduate of the program Pat is in. Sonny is a fairly active Twitter user and is reading through her Twitter timeline when the tweet from the department’s Twitter account announcing Pat’s blog post shows up. Sonny is intrigued by the title of Pat’s blog post which is included in the tweet, so she clicks on the link in the tweet to read Pat’s post. Sonny reads the post and is interested in but not particularly expert in the ideas about which Pat wrote. However, Sonny has a colleague, Jo, a fellow university administrator at another university, who has written extensively about neurodiversity and leadership. This colleague also has a Twitter account, so Sonny goes back to Twitter to retweet the tweet from the department account and mentions her colleague Jo in the retweet to boost the signal to not just Jo but to others who follow Sonny on Twitter.
Jo happens to be checking Twitter at the moment Sonny posted the retweet and sees that Jo has mentioned her. She, too, clicks on the link in the tweet to read Pat’s blog post. After reading the post, Jo comments on the post sharing some thoughts and links to a couple of additional related articles that Jo thinks Pat might want to read. So, within a matter of minutes after publishing her blog post, Pat has received a comment and some suggested readings from an expert in the field who happens to work at another university.
About an hour after Pat published her blog post, Tony, an advanced student in Pat’s program, picks up his phone to check his email. He subscribes to the program’s mother blog and chooses to receive instant email notifications instead of daily or weekly notifications. He was worried about email overload, but he created a rule in Gmail that filters all email notifications from the mother blog into a separate folder. On this night, Tony sees that there is a new notification email in that folder and he opens it to see what Pat wrote about. Tony is really moved by what Pat wrote and has some thoughts about what she wrote in the post. So, Tony decides to take a little time to comment on the blog post. He leaves a thoughtful comment and, when prompted by Pat’s blog, elects to be notified when additional comments are left.
The following morning, Sam, a first-year student in Pat’s program, pulls out his phone while eating breakfast and drinking coffee. Sam opens the Facebook app and sees a notification of a new post on the department’s Facebook group page. Sam clicks on the notification and sees that Pat had published a blog post the previous night. Sam has never met Pat; they are in different cohorts of the program. Sam is a middle school principal who was diagnosed early in life as on the autism spectrum. He is considered HFA (high functioning autism) and has had to think about what this means for him as an educator and a leader throughout his professional life. He is not that comfortable sharing his story publicly, but he feels he has a lot to share with Pat. So, he finds Pat in the membership list of the department’s Facebook group page and sends her a private/direct message through Facebook Messenger. He tells Pat that he has lived what Pat wrote about and that he’d love to talk to her and asks if she would meet him for coffee some time to chat about the important issues Pat raised in her post.
Let me attempt to piece together three things that presented themselves to me in the last couple of days. In doing so, I will continue to beat the modern scholarly communication drum I’ve been beating, particularly in my own discipline, education.
First, yesterday, I saw that the Institution of Education Sciences (IES) put together a new report on “best practice” for communicating findings of research driven by research questions that call for descriptive statistics. A LOT of educational research fits into this bucket, including, but not limited to, studies using survey research designs and secondary data analyses. I did a fairly cursory review of the IES report and my first instincts are that it’s decent and somewhat useful, but limited, particularly when it gets around to data visualization. If colored heat maps are the top end of our creative thinking for visualizing data, we’re way behind the curve.
Then, today, The Upshot at the New York Times produced an “interactive” visualization called
“Good Schools, Affordable Homes: Finding Suburban Sweet Spots.” Substantively, it’s all kinds of problematic. Jack Schneider, Assistant Professor of Education at Holy Cross, and a boffo education historian, went on a lovely rant about the “tool” that’s worth reading.
Tools like this NY Times "good schools" infographic are toxic. Why? Here comes a list…
— Jack Schneider (@Edu_Historian) March 30, 2017
(It starts with that tweet, but click through to see the whole thread)
For the purposes of this post, though, I’m more interested in the technical and visual aspects of what the NYT accomplished. It’s not their best “interactive” data visualization they’ve ever done, but it’s eleventy bazillion times better than the black and white histograms we see in print journals in academia.
Finally, today, my awesome colleagues at the VCU Libraries hosted another event in their ongoing Digital Pragmata series.
Digital pragmata flourish at the nexus of research, teaching, and creativity. They can be textual databases, creative visualizations of information, multimedia explorations, collaboratively annotated maps, and a thousand other projects. How do they fit into a world built on books and scholarly journals? Will these new ways of communicating displace a world made on paper, or will they blend into new forms of scholarly expression that grow from the best of the past?
Today’s event was called “Information in Motion” and featured three absolutely amazing visual artists. All three talked about and showed examples of what happens when animation is used to tell a story, particularly educational stories. Donna De Smet is a medical illustrator who produces incredible animations that help explain heretofore mysterious medical concepts. Whitney Beer-Kerr works for a company called Pixeldust Studios where she works on short-form videos like this:
I mean… that’s a video they produced for a NOVA television series based on the book by best-selling author/physicist Brian Greene. In other words, they took ridiculously complex scientific ideas from a scholar and made a compelling two-minute video to help people like me understand them. And, that video is SOOO two years ago.
We now live in a world consumed by data and information, and we now have the technologies that afford seemingly unlimited possibilities for how we share those data and information. Institutions of higher learning are awash in incredibly important data collected by top researchers and scholars who truly have stories to tell from their studies. There are many, many problems with the way the vast majority of scholars communicate their findings in this day and age, so I’ll only focus on the issue of data visualization. Why aren’t more scholars working within higher education thinking about modern forms of data visualization and modern ways of telling stories with their data? I can think of at least four reasons:
The last two are key. I sure don’t expect scholars to learn how to do programming or video production on top of the work they’re already doing. So, if institutions of higher education are serious about modern scholarly communication, if they want to help scholars #MakeItReal, they need to think about how to support that work. I can think of at least three ways this can happen:
I’m sure I’m not thinking of all of the possibilities. But, I am certain that colleges and universities MUST do better in the ways we support our top-notch scholars in communicating their research findings. Again, if we are to continue to lead the way in producing new information, and if we are committed to remaining relevant, we have to find ways to grow our data visualization capacity.
I don’t know if the old saw is true and that information wants to be free, but I now think information wants to be in motion. 🙂
Last week, I was
fired “reassigned.” Not only was I told that my contract wouldn’t be renewed for next academic year (which I expected), but I was told that “effective immediately,” I’d be sent to an empty office in another building1 to do “special projects” between now and the end of my current contract (August 15, 2017).
Now, before you get all, “Awwww, Jon, that’s horrible…”, please know that it is horrible for many reasons, but that, ultimately, I’ll be just fine2. I am a tenured associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership here, and I have the option of returning to that position starting on August 16, 2017. As of now, I have every intention of triggering that option.
But, for now, it’s off to the rubber room. Not a padded room in a psychiatric ward, though I will likely be banging my head from time to time. You may be familiar with the documentary The Rubber Room, about the New York City Department of Education’s infamous “reassignment centers” I’m not under any kind of investigation (that I know of), but it seems to be fairly standard operating procedure (at least around here) to send people on terminal contracts to the hinterlands. I think the theory of action here is that we don’t want bitter, angry lame ducks to poison the culture of a unit. That strikes me as coming from a very pessimistic viewpoint about human beings, but, hey, this is probably why my leadership is no longer wanted; I tend to trust people.
I’ve written versions of this post in my head for the last 4 days. The different versions contain more or less information about how this all came to be. Ultimately, I’m choosing not to say very much #onhere because I don’t feel safe doing so. And, THAT should probably tell you most of what you need to know. My reassignment letter has all kinds of language about acting in a “professional” manner with specific references to our codes of professional conduct. The irony, perhaps, is that I am tenured and *should* have the associated academic freedom to share my thoughts on how I got to this point. But, the truth is that I’ve been reassigned having never received anything but strong performance evaluations and having been given no reason for the immediate reassignment other than “we’re going in a different direction.” So, in an environment like that, I choose, for now, to not divulge specifics. Maybe, someday, I’ll find my tenure/scholar-activist voice and point out what I see and feel are injustices. Maybe. Some. Day…
Shortly after being notified of my reassignment, I read the Rolling Stone interview of President Obama on the day after the presidential election. The interview includes the following exchange wherein the author asks the president about the election:
But aren’t you feeling chagrined, pissed off, upset, dismayed?
Well, I … no. You know, I don’t feel dismayed, because, number one, I couldn’t be prouder of the work that we’ve done over the last eight years. When I turn over the keys to the federal government to the next president of the United States, I can say without any equivocation that the country is a lot better off: The economy is stronger, the federal government works better, and our standing in the world is higher. And so I can take great pride in the work we’ve done. I can take great satisfaction in the people we’ve helped.
I think that’s the diplomatic Barack Obama because I think it’s possible to be both dismayed AND proud of the work that’d been done. Actually, I don’t just think it’s possible, I know it’s possible because that’s where I am; in fact, I’m pissed precisely because I’m so proud of all of the good work we’ve done over the last few years and because I no longer get to work with our team of awesome people. We did SUCH. GOOD. WORK. In less than 3 years, we built an award-winning team that inspired other universities around the country. We built AWESOME. LEARNING. EXPERIENCES. SO. MANY. INTERESTING. COURSES. Our open faculty development efforts yielded MULTIPLE (OPEN EDUCATIONAL) RESOURCES. But, that all started two provosts (in less than 3 years) ago, and the current provost and her leadership team want to go in a different direction. So be it.
And that other direction has me shipped out immediately such that I don’t get to work with the few awesome people that are left here in ALT Lab. So, yeah, unlike the POTUS, I’m also pissed and I’m sad. But, again, I’ll be fine3. I
am fortunate to have tenure worked my ass off for almost 10 years at two universities4 to earn tenure, and I’m glad I get to lean on it now. I officially became a tenured associate professor on July 1, 2013 and then started in this administrative and professional faculty position on July 25, 2013. So, I only got to live life as *just* a tenured associate professor for 24 days. Come August 16, 2017 (my 20th wedding anniversary, BTW), I get to go back to that status. And, between now and then, I get to think about a new research agenda. And I get to try to find my tenure voice.
I also (probably) get to work with my home department on moving a couple of their programs online. The current goal is to have our masters and post-masters programs in educational leadership online starting in Fall 2017. Also, the Ed.D. program. So, if you are looking into online graduate programs in educational leadership, stay tuned.
I encounter a lot of resistance to the work that I do. It comes in many forms, and in many spaces. It happens within my workplace and out in the larger world. It happens online and offline. The resistance ranges from subtweets from colleagues within my institution to articles and op-eds by prominent scholars in mainstream media.
One easy way to approach this is to put my head down, put my blinders on, and just do the work that I believe matters. On most days, I can do that. I could also stop following, reading, and engaging with the critics, but that would open me to claims of living in an echo chamber. Generally, I’m in agreement with George Siemens about being willing to “…listen to the critique and insight that smart people have to offer” and I think hard about “… our obligation to pursue questions about unsavoury [sic. “Canadian”] topics that we disagree with or even find unethical.”
What I’m struggling with lately is that I’ve come to believe that in about 98%1 of the cases, the critique and the resistance comes from people with whom I am almost entirely in violent agreement with. That is, we all believe that students deserve amazing learning experiences, irrespective of modality. We all believe that the “disruptive innovation” narrative is a bunch of hooey, particularly as applied to higher education. We all have serious concerns about privacy and student ownership of data. And, frankly, we ALL think that much of what passes as “educational technology” today is crap.
My fear though, particularly lately, is that the resistance will cause us to throw the learning innovation baby out with the ed. tech. bath water.
In other words, where I think I part ways with most of those who actively resist the work that I do is that I also see hope and possibility and affordances of modern (particularly digital) technologies to design those amazing learning experiences we all want for students.
My job title is Director of Learning Innovation and Online Academic Programs. I’m keenly aware of “innovation fatigue;” that’s part of what fuels the resistance I face. But, the irony, in my mind at least, is that much of the snark around “innovation” comes from people who heartily defend higher education and universities as bastions of scholarly pursuit and knowledge creation, as institutions devoted to research and development. I recently did some research and thinking about the term innovation and was reminded that the word innovate derives from the Latin “in” which means into and “novus” which means new or “novare” which means make new. Thus, one definition of innovation that worked for me is as “the exploration and exploitation of opportunities for new or improved products, practices or services, based either on an advance in technical practice (“know-how”) or a change in market demand, or a combination of the two” (Pavitt, 2006, p. 88). If universities aren’t places for the exploration and exploitation of opportunities for new or improved products, practices or services based…on an advance in technical practice (“know-how”), then what are? I’d throw “new ideas” into the mix, but isn’t that EXACTLY what research universities are for?
Yet, it seems to me that many would limit that research and development to pretty much anything but teaching and learning.
A couple of years ago, the fine folks with whom I work came up with a new name for the team, the Academic Learning Transformation Lab. The “Lab” part was inspired by places like the MIT Media Lab, but it was also a nod to the idea that we are an academic unit within a research university and that we would explore new opportunities for improved teaching and learning practices, particularly those that involved technology-enhanced active learning. That is to say, we do faculty development and we are also an R&D shop. In the beginning of this year, in a provocative Inside Higher Ed. piece, Thomas Carey asked Can a Teaching Support Center also be an “Innovation Incubator”? At the time, I strongly believed the answer to that question was “Yes, yes it can.” After all, that’s what VCU’s ALT Lab was all about. I use the past tense there because our future is very much up in the air right now; most signs suggest that we’ll be told that a teaching support center at VCU can’t also be an innovation incubator. It’s not clear that there will be any space here at all for a teaching and learning innovation incubator. The resistance has won. That would be a terribly unfortunate development at a place that holds itself up as a “premiere urban research university.” But, at this point, that’s not up to me.
So, about that innovation baby…
A while ago, I started what was to be a weekly blog series documenting some interesting products/practices/services/ideas in education. I didn’t get that far in the series, but not because I was running out of possibilities; I just began to prioritize other aspects of my work. Yet, I still look back at a number of those examples and marvel at the possibilities they conjure. Here at VCU, we’ve accomplished a great deal in just a couple of years. Tom Woodward put together a site that points to a number of examples of what our explorations with VCU faculty and staff have yielded. That site doesn’t cover all that we’ve accomplished; not by a longshot. Documentation is hard. Here’s Tom’s Diigo bookmarks related to VCU. Molly Ransone and her creative crew have worked with faculty to explore the power of various forms of media, especially video. You can see the results of some of that work on our YouTube channel. The course trailers that are on Vimeo are part of our efforts to help nurture curiosity through course selection/registration. Enoch Hale, and now Mike Forder, has/have worked with faculty members to explore the idea of learning spaces and to consider deeply what it means to teach and learn in a space not configured like a traditional classroom. A few of us have taught online courses in ways that respect active, student-centered learning. Here’s Lisa Phipps’ course on Complementary & Alternative Medicine. I could go on… And, we have failed a number of times as well. I don’t believe we’ve ever failed in ways that hurt students; by failure I mean efforts we undertook that never got any traction with faculty. For example, along with a faculty member in the Department of Focused Inquiry, Tom built a site to explore the VCU Common Book (Dave Eggers’ The Circle, at the time) in new and interesting ways that might even generate some insight into the major themes of the book. As Tom wrote, the site was a way “to take advantage of reading as a community, to knit together the many conversations people are having in many different places.” How’d that go? Mostly crickets… But, that’s the nature of innovation; that’s the nature of research and development.
Yesterday, I read an article about an artist who was dismayed by what she saw as inaccuracies and false claims made in the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas. So, she developed an augmented reality app that allows users to point their phones at 10 “trigger images,” and to read a “more balanced view of the information presented.” I couldn’t help but think about what it would mean for students to use technologies like AR to help fact check the world.
Last week, I happened upon the Washington Post piece about the history of the Run DMC – Aerosmith collaboration and wanted all of our students to explore what digital technologies afford for multimodal composition. That kind of powerful publishing and composition is only possible because of new web-based and other digital technologies.
There is no shortage of ed. tech. products and services that should be avoided; they are not helpful at best and malpractice at worst. However, my larger point of writing this post is that, in my mind, there has never been a better time to be an educator or a learner. There has never been a more exciting time to explore opportunities for new or improved educational practices based on advances in technical practice (“know-how”). And, in fact, I believe we are absolutely obligated to engage in those explorations at a research university. So, to the resistance, I ask, humbly, let’s please explore our common ground and let’s not throw the learning innovation baby out with the ed. tech. bath water.
Here’s a dilemma that I’m certain is not unique to my institution, but that raises complex questions for me:
VCU ALTLab’s very own Lisa Phipps is teaching a (open, online) course this summer about complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). She’s uniquely qualified to teach this course as a pharmacist with about 17 doctoral degrees. She’s taught versions of this course to various types of graduate students, and we thought it’d be a great course for undergraduates, especially if we dressed it in a connected learning motif. Lisa taught the course last summer to much good feedback from the students. So, the question is, how would undergraduates at VCU know that this course is being offered this summer?
Because the course is not yet officially a course in the bulletin, it is being offered as a “special topics course.” Its course code is UNIV291, and it’s “official” title is “Complementary & Alt Medicine.” Banner limits the number of characters for a course title. I forget the exact number, but it’s not much. In fact, IIRC, we may have maxed out with that title. It has a UNIV designation because, for now, it’s being offered through University College which is probably the best “home” for a course that’s interdisciplinary.
So, again, the question is, how undergraduates at VCU would know that this course is being offered. As best I understand it, students pick courses based mostly around what they need, what they’re advised to take, and/or what fits in their schedule. They find out what’s available through Banner. Here’s what Banner looks like from the start:
Inspiring, right? The directions on the screen say, “Use the selection options to search the class schedule. You may choose any combination of fields to narrow your search, but you must select at least one Subject. Select Class Search when your selection is complete.”1 The first problem here is that a student must select a subject. Not an idea or a keyword, but a subject. So, if a student is interested in let’s say, “health” or “medicine”, there is no mechanism for the student to see if there are any courses related to health or medicine. Furthermore, in the case of Lisa’s class, if the student doesn’t first select “University College,” she will never find that course. And, why would a student select “University College” (which isn’t a major; it’s an important unit that houses our first-year seminar and a sophomore-level research writing course that all students take)?
Let’s go a little further into this Banner-based course selection process… Imagine a student is going home for the summer, but wants to be able to take classes and online learning makes that possible. Lisa’s class is online this summer. So, how would a student find out which online courses are available? Well, they’d have to know to start by clicking on “Advanced Search.” Once in “Advanced Search,” the student would have to look towards the bottom and know that “Course taught online” is an “attribute type” (see where the cursor is in the image below). So, what if the student selects the “Course taught online” attribute type and then hits “Section search” to see all of the online courses? Nope. Error. The student must also select a subject… Sigh.
We’ve tried to address this problem by developing our own “storefront” where current and prospective students can learn about all of our online offerings. On the online courses page, students can filter by a few variables and can also do a keyword search. But, do students know about our storefront? Unlikely. We’ve posted digital signage “advertising” online.vcu.edu throughout the Student Commons. But, does anyone actually pay attention to those monitors? Who knows.
Most recently, I sent an email to the head of advising in hopes that she’ll send the email to all of the advisors at the university in the hopes that they’ll get the information to the students… Yeah, that’s not terribly hopeful or efficient. There has to be a better way…
I mean, shouldn’t there be a way that allows for the possibility that a student might serendipitously learn about Lisa’s course? What if shopping for courses were more like shopping on Amazon.com? What if a course registration system had, for every course, among other things:
I feel like that’s just the tip of the iceberg of possibilities…
I also know that at the University of Virginia, a physics professor has gone rogue and created an unofficial course search system known widely as “Lou’s List.” That system has some nice features, but, well, you look and judge for yourself.
This all gets back to my last ranty blog post. I’m not willing to concede that all students view the course selection process as purely functional/operational. I certainly don’t want them to think of the process as “which checkboxes can I check off next semester.” The idealist educator in me has to believe that we can create a system that engineers serendipity2, that inspires and causes students to wonder. If we had a system that allowed a curious student to more easily scratch an itch about, oh, say, “complementary and alternative medicine,” we might help some students see higher education as a time of inquiry and wonder and not just a time of checking off boxes on the way to a credential.
Being asked what good #onlinelearning looks like is akin to being asked what a good meal looks like.
— Jon Becker (@jonbecker) February 23, 2016
I remember being asked recently what good online learning looks like. That wasn’t the exact question, but it was something to that effect. I also remember not being satisfied with my answer. To be fair to myself, it’s a nearly impossible question to answer. For one thing, online learning is not monolithic despite what many people think and what the question assumes.
In one of my many ruminative moments subsequent to being asked that question, I sent out the tweet above. I think the metaphor works and might be useful in helping folks realize that online learning contains multitudes. What constitutes a good meal depends. It depends on lots of things including who the meal is for, what time of day the meal will be served, what resources are available for preparing the meal, etc. Similarly, what constitutes a good online course or program depends on lots of things, including who the students are, what the goals of the course are, and, of course, what resources are available to the faculty and students.
To that last point, I just read a blog post by one of the faculty participants in our Online Learning Experience (OLE). In the post, the faculty member very fairly raises the concern of overwhelming students with too many platforms. She is feeling overwhelmed herself by the number of platforms we have incorporated so far (WordPress, Twitter, Google Drive, and Diigo) into the faculty development program. The frustration for me is that we’ve barely touched the tip of the iceberg with respect to platforms and tools. I mean, there’s VoiceThread and Flipgrid and Glogster and on and on and on. This is one of those tensions I explored in an earlier blog post about the OLE.
That said, I’m totally sympathetic to our faculty participants concerns. The struggle is real.
But, I wonder if we can reframe the question to one of the degree of ease we’re supposed to offer our students. I truly believe that learning is messy and there’s real value in causing learners to feel some discomfort. Not too much, obviously, but a little cognitive load is OK. The LMS is easy and safe for everyone involved, but is it the best environment for learning? One could reasonably conclude that it is the best; perhaps that it’s most cost-effective when considering all of the costs of platform-switching.
Returning to the meal analogy, it’s almost as if the option is to prepare the meal to be eaten in a nice cozy kitchen or to prepare the meal to be eaten in a beautiful, wide open field with a gorgeous view. The latter option *feels* better to me, but it is most certainly more difficult to pull off for both the person(s) preparing the meal and those who will eat the meal. Out in the elements, things could get messy. And, there are times when I just want to sit down to eat a quick meal without having to think too much and/or prepare too much. There are many days when dinner time rolls around that I’m thankful that my refrigerator and cupboards are reasonably bare. This constrains the set of possible answers to the question of what to eat for dinner. When it comes to online learning, though, the refrigerator and cupboards are not so bare; it’s perfectly sensible to look over the vast ecology of tools and platforms and to get overwhelmed.
My hope, though, is that faculty members will come to see that vast ecology in the spirit of opportunities and possibilities. The modern Web and its many associated platforms and apps is a wonder to behold and holds amazing affordances for teaching and learning. In my mind, there’s never been a more exciting time to be an educator.
For our newest cohort of faculty participants, it’s now the end of the first week of the Online Learning Experience (OLE), our intensive online learning faculty development program. Week one was about getting folks situated and getting them equipped with the digital toolbelt they’ll need to participate in the course. Some got started early in the week or somewhere in the middle of the week. But, many (most?) have waited until this weekend to do what was expected of them. That’s perfectly fine for week one, since this week wasn’t necessarily designed for engagement among the learners.
Moving forward, though, things will change. The faculty participants will be expected to connect with each other in multiple ways, all in the name of connected learning and meaningful student engagement.
When I teach online, I think a lot about the rhythm and pace of the course. In a typical, traditional face-to-face course, there is something of a built-in, default rhythm and pace. When I taught graduate courses, for example, we met once a week for 3 hours at a time. Typically, the students would do their “homework” the day/night before the day of class and then come to class the next day “prepared.” So, their attention to the course was divided across 2 of the 7 days in a week. That was mostly fine.
But, what happens when there’s no face-to-face class meeting time? Many online courses, especially those that favor content delivery/mastery, are designed around weekly assignments with a due date at the end of the week. For those kinds of courses, the rhythm and pace ends up looking a lot like week one of OLE where most of the students do the work the day/night before they are due.
However, in courses designed with community, connections and engagement in mind, it is important for the professor to be clear about expectations around the rhythm and pace. Last semester, I taught a fully online undergraduate research writing course. I called the course and students WonderPeople1. We got off to a rocky start because I had to have emergency surgery right as the course was starting2. So, I sent the students the email I’ve reproduced below. I could have posted it to the course site as a blog post, but students weren’t quite grokking the flow and structure of the course, so I emailed them. This was my way of trying to be explicit and clear about the rhythm and pace of the course. There’s more than one way to do that, but I offer you the email as one example.
Hello again WonderPeople,
Since the beginning of our semester has been so shaky, I’d like to try to right the ship a bit so that we can move forward with all deliberate speed.
(Hopefully our journey ends better than that one)
As Director of Online Academic Programs at VCU, one question I often get from faculty and students is “How much time should students expect to work in an online class?” It’s a hard question to answer, but the basic answer is “The same amount of time as any other class.” So, we can do some basic math here. In a face-to-face class, there are 3 hours of class time. Beyond that, as a general policy, students are expected to spend 2-3 hours per week per credit on work outside of class time. So, generally, you are expected to do 6-9 hours of work outside of class. In total then, for any given 3-credit course, the expectation is that you’ll be doing at least 9-12 hours of work per week for that class (in and out of class). That’s no different here.
When you are in a face-to-face class, 3 of those hours happen at a dedicated time. The rest is kind of up to you. For this class, though, you’ll need to strongly consider spreading out those 9-12 hours over the course of the week. That is, I fully expect you to check in to the learning experience regularly throughout the week. Maybe 1-2 hours per day; maybe 2-3 hours every other day? The schedule is setup that way anyway. That is, you’ll have assignments due roughly Monday, Wednesday and Friday. So, if you’re thinking that this is the kind of class that you can blow off until the weekend and then catch up over the weekend, you’ll have to disavow yourself of that notion.
Furthermore, please consider reading the expectations page on our clubhouse site again. I’m perfectly serious when I write that, in the end, your goal is to commit and to impress yourself in everything you do. Also, note this part of the first quote on that page: “All students are required to share ideas and skills with their classmates and to expand their own personal knowledge in ways beneficial to their classmates.” You won’t meet that expectation by not committing regularly to the learning experience over the course of any given week.
For some of you, your work is starting to become visible to me and your classmates (see image below). Some of you just need to properly categorize your blog posts so that they start feeding in to our clubhouse. Others of you are showing no signs of work. If you get too far behind, it’s going to be really hard to catch the ship moving forward.
There is much fun and learning ahead; I promise. We’ll get to know each other a little better. We’ll learn some cool new tech. tools. We’ll read some really interesting articles. Etc. But, to get there, I just needed to make sure the rules of the road (the sea, to continue my metaphor?) are clear.
I very much look forward to working with you all this semester.