Category: VCU

March 30th, 2017 by Jon Becker

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.

(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:

  • They don’t know what they don’t know; these sorts of media just aren’t on their radar screens as even possibilities.
  • They aren’t considered “scholarship” within the bounds of tenure and promotion guidelines, so why bother.
  • They don’t have the capacity to do it themselves. I know I sure don’t.
  • Absent writing support for data visualization into a grant proposal, there’s no institutional support for this kind of work.

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:

  1. Create standalone support units. At VCU, we have an office called University Relations. Their focus is mostly on marketing and PR. We also have some burgeoning efforts around scholarly communications within VCU Libraries. But, they’re not at all staffed to help faculty with data visualization. So, wherever it is housed, we could have our own little internal visual arts firm. We could have VCU’s own Pixeldust Studios or Planet Nutshell that is mission-driven to work with faculty to help them tell stories with their data. This wouldn’t be cheap because we would be competing with the private sector for top talent which is clearly in high demand. But, this is true of other units within universities, including, for example, University Relations and Technology Services. And, there are, believe it or not, people with talent who would prefer to work at a public institution with an educational mission than a private firm.
  2. We could partner with or outsource to firms like Pixeldust Studios or Planet Nutshell. This would also be costly, and I always prefer to invest in human capital and to build internal capacity than to outsource things. But, this would be the quickest way to get started in supporting scholars/researchers.
  3. At VCU, we have a unique opportunity in that our School of the Arts is the top public school of the arts in the country. We have stellar programs in graphic design and kinetic imaging, for example, Those programs are staffed with amazing visual artists and their students are incredibly talented and eager for learning opportunities. There must be a way for social scientists and humanists, for example, to partner with faculty and students in the School of the Arts on data visualization projects. It feels to me like there’s a win-win possibility here, but it’s probably easier said than done.

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. 🙂

Posted in Education, thoughtvectors, VCU Tagged with: , ,

December 5th, 2016 by Jon Becker

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.

More soon…


[IMAGE ATTRIBUTION: By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use,]
  1. I actually got to pick out my temporary office space this afternoon. I picked a lovely 3rd floor walkup that has “charm.” VCU people know what charming office spaces in our brownstone buildings are like. []
  2. at least that’s what I keep telling myself []
  3. at least that’s what I keep telling myself []
  4. FWIW, I didn’t leave my first gig after 5 years because I wasn’t going to get tenure. I was ready to stand for tenure at Hofstra, but my colleague came to VCU and recruited me to come with her and my tenure clock started over. []

Posted in ALTLab, VCU Tagged with: , ,

May 27th, 2016 by Jon Becker

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. 

  1. with a margin of error of about 2.7% []

Posted in Education, Innovation, VCU Tagged with: , , ,

April 8th, 2016 by Jon Becker

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” 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 What if a course registration system had, for every course, among other things:

  • Sophisticated, faceted search capabilities (keyword searching is the low-hanging fruit)
  • A detailed description of the course
  • Amazon-like reviews from other students
  • A course trailer for the course (here’s the course trailer for Lisa’s course)
  • A listing of “If you liked this course, you might also like…” (and/or, “Students who enrolled in this course also enrolled in…”)
  • Work products from students who’ve taken the course, syndicated in

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.

  1. notice that the directions say “Class Search,” but the button actually says “Course Search.” Sigh. []
  2. as always, I have to give attribution to Tom Woodward for this phraseology []

Posted in Education, Innovation, Online Learning, Technology, VCU Tagged with: , , , , , , ,

March 1st, 2016 by Jon Becker


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.


Posted in Online Learning, VCU Tagged with: , , , ,

February 14th, 2016 by Jon Becker
"Rhythm's Hands" courtesy of Woody Hibbard on Flickr.

“Rhythm’s Hands” courtesy of Woody Hibbard on Flickr.

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.

’S’ TV Shows Quiz


  1. Because wonder! Research/inquiry should be driven by wonder, IMHO []
  2. Yes, I ended up teaching from my hospital bed. Online learning, FTW! []

Posted in Online Learning, VCU Tagged with: , , , ,

January 25th, 2016 by Jon Becker


Due to #JonasBlizzard, VCU closed on Friday and is closed again today. We got bunches of snow in a city not well equipped to handle it all. There’s no question that much of the city has had to shut down because it’s just too dangerous to be driving around Richmond. But, I do wonder about closing down business altogether…

Last semester, when Richmond hosted the UCI Cycling World Championships, the university cancelled classes for a whole week. But, the university wasn’t closed. For students, those days were considered “reading days.” Here’s the official statement of the university:

The university has established special courses with assignments that occur during the bike race. Though these days are university “reading” days; due to the extended length of the reading days and the timing of the bike race near the beginning of the semester, assignments can be set during these reading days. We encourage faculty to develop course-related assignments thematically related to the bike race to encourage student engagement.

Those special courses were pretty special and they were coded as “online” even though much of the work for the courses occurred in and around Richmond during the bike race.  For other classes, per the statement above, professors could give students assignments to work on during the week. For employees, the university administration encouraged a “liberal telecommunications policy” for all departments and employees.

So, why is a snow day different? What if:

  • Teaching faculty were encouraged to consider how the modern Web affords possibilities for the continuity of learning? Truth is, many (most?) of the classes that were cancelled would have involved a faculty member lecturing or delivering information to students. Recording lectures and posting them as videos is the low hanging fruit of educational technology. For smaller, seminar-style classes, there are many possibilities for engaging students in discussion online. Seminar-style discussions could even be held synchronously on any number of platforms. The university just invested a significant amount of money to add Zoom videoconferencing to a few other related videoconferencing technologies.
  • The same liberal telecommuting policy was in effect and faculty, staff and administrators were encouraged to not cancel the meetings that were on their calendar, but to use those same videoconferencing technologies?
  • Faculty, staff and administrators were encouraged to use other synchronous and asynchronous communications technologies to carry out the business of the programs, departments, units, etc.? In VCU’s ALT Lab, we use Slack for all internal communications. Am I not supposed to communicate with my teammates today because the university is closed?

Clearly, not every aspect of the operations of a university can be done virtually. But, that doesn’t mean that a weather event should shut down the whole university.

In part, I’m being intentionally provocative here. I do believe, though, that this may be an opportunity to cause university personnel to examine what modern forms of computer-mediated communication and new media afford for an institution of higher learning. Changing our approach to snow days might cause personnel to learn new technologies that, in the long run, might ultimately allow them to work smarter and not harder. Teaching faculty would be given an opportunity to explore what it’s like to teach online in a short, low-risk situation. Students can continue to be learners.

Again, this is a provocation, and maybe I’m missing some reasons for closing down completely. But, I don’t think so.

So, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get ready for a videoconference meeting with colleagues from other universities across Virginia. But, wait, am I not supposed to participate in that meeting? My university is closed, right?…

"Egyptian Building in Snow" courtesy of VCU Libraries.

“Egyptian Building in Snow” courtesy of VCU Libraries.

Posted in Education, Innovation, Online Learning, Social Media, Technology, VCU Tagged with: , , , ,

January 12th, 2016 by Jon Becker

I’m absolutely thrilled to announce that VCU’s Academic Learning Transformation Festival (ALTfest) is coming back to a theater near you! By all accounts, the inaugural ALTfest last year was a rousing success. For this year, we’ve planned an even bigger and better professional learning event.1

Here’s a sizzle reel of last year’s event compiled by our very own Max Schlickenmeyer:


Some highlights for this year’s ALTfest:

  • The keynote address will be delivered by Dr. Mark Sample from Davidson College. In my mind, few people are doing the work of learning transformation like Mark is.
  • We have four “Transformers-in-Residence” who are educator/innovators who will serve as energy inputs throughout the event and who will be conducting half-day workshops on the first day of ALTfest. I’m overjoyed to have Laura Gibbs, Jesse Stommel, Lee Skallerup and Andrew Ilnicki serving as our TIRs.
  • Our makerspace will be expanded. Last year, the space was absolutely amazing and bursting with energy, so we found a bigger space to allow for more makers and making.
  • Our very own Molly Ransone will be offering a FULL DAY workshop on video production and editing. Want to make media for your courses or for your own scholarly work? Molly can help you make it real.
  • ALTfest kicks off with a quick, half-day unconference called ALTCamp.
  • We’ll have our own WordCamp, an unconference within the conference; an entire track of sessions/conversations/workshops will be devoted to integrating WordPress into higher education. This aspect of ALTfest will be organized by our own WordPress guru, Tom Woodward.
  • We’ll have Ignite!-style talks.
  • We’ll have food trucks.

And, at the heart of the learning event are the stories of transformation. If you’ve got a story of learning transformation to tell, submit a proposal to tell your story in a compelling way.

It goes on and on…

Propose to tell your story of transformation! Propose an Ignite!-sytle talk! Join us! It’s going to be GREAT!


  1. NOTE: I very specifically didn’t use the word “conference.” There will be lots of conferring at ALTfest, but this isn’t your grandmother’s conference… []

Posted in ALTLab, Innovation, VCU Tagged with: ,

January 10th, 2016 by Jon Becker
Photo courtesy of Joshua Adelman

Photo courtesy of Joshua Adelman

Ever since VCU’s Center for Teaching Excellence became the Academic Learning Transformation Lab (ALT Lab), a persistent challenge opportunity has been to let the VCU community know what ALT Lab is and does. Getting that challenge out is complicated on a number of levels, and there are days I just want to shout “Follow us on Twitter and read our blog and join our Diigo group and, and, and…After all, our tagline is ‘Connected learning for a networked world!'” But, most of the time, that’s hardly appropriate or sufficient. We do lots of face-to-face messaging, too. Shortly after the transition from CTE to ALT Lab, we held an open house party of sorts. We’ve been to the last few instances of New Faculty Orientation at VCU to introduce ourselves to new faculty and staff. We hold our own New Faculty Academy at the beginning of every year. A couple of our team members (mostly Molly and Enoch) attend Faculty Club every month to network and get the word out. I’ve asked for time (5 minutes, even) on agendas of department faculty meetings to introduce myself and ALT Lab. We have three liaisons assigned to various units around the university. We have a website (which isn’t up to our standards, but that’s not terrible relative to our peers). We tweet. We blog

And, yet, it’s never enough. VCU is a massive institution and the academic mission is carried out across mainly two somewhat separate campuses. Furthermore, a lot of what we try to do is fairly cutting edge and pretty foreign to most within the VCU community. But, those are just excuses; we can and will do better to communicate to the VCU community1 about who we are and what we do. That’s the opportunity and figuring out how to do better is one of my big goals for the Spring 2016 semester.

One thing I hope to do more of, but that I wasn’t able to do last semester (because surgery), is to get out and meet faculty and staff where they are. I have to be more shameless and extroverted in my attempts to get on agendas of faculty meetings. I need to attend more university-wide functions and “schmooze” more. In doing that, I’ll need to get better at my elevator pitch about ALT Lab. Lately, I’ve been saying that ALT Lab is about helping faculty members create awesome learning experiences for students. Period. Full Stop. That seems to be resonating, so I’ll stick with it for now.2

So, I’ll be out “pounding the pavement” more this semester. That seems apropos in a presidential election year.

Additionally, one new (to us) form of digital communication that I’ve been thinking about a lot is the newsletter. For lots of reasons, I’m not going to do the old-fashioned print newsletter. And, though I originally started down this path, I’m not sure I want to produce another MailChimp newsletter. I’ve checked out TinyLetter (which I know is owned by MailChimp) and I’ve been inspired by people like Caitlin Dewey and Laura Olin. I feel pretty confident I could find a workable platform for an eNewsletter.

The big problem with eNewsletters is figuring out who to send it to. You could use multiple avenues to invite people to subscribe and hope you build up a decent subscription base that way. Alternatively, we have built up a pretty sizable database of names and email addresses of VCU faculty and staff who have engaged with us in one way or another. When people register for faculty development sessions, for example, we keep that information in a database. But, to this point, I’ve been hesitant to use that database as a mailing list because those people didn’t ask for us to send them anything when they registered. Lately, I’ve been leaning more towards using that database and making the unsubscribe option clear and easy. We’ll see…

In addition to our newsletter, I’m thinking of ways to amp up our social media presence. We have an ALT Lab Twitter account, but until recently, it was only announcing new posts on our blog. Last week, I added Diigo to the mix. We have a fairly active, public Diigo group where we share articles of interest with others in the group. Now, whenever someone in the group bookmarks something in our Diigo group, it will be automatically (through the magic of IFTTT) broadcast via the ALT Lab Twitter account. But, I’ve long moaned about Twitter as broadcast-only, and nobody is really acting as the wizard behind the @VCUALTLab curtain. Implementing a good Twitter strategy is hard.

At the end of the day, whether it’s a newsletter, or a blog, or a Twitter account, or whatever… you need content. So, last week, at our first full ALT Lab team meeting of 2016, I did something I didn’t want to do. I told everyone that I expected at least one blog post per week. Until now, there was a general expectation that if you work for ALT Lab, you share your work publicly in some way. I asked team members to blog and/or tweet as they feel moved to do so. Doing so is even built into our annual performance plans. Unfortunately, the truth is that there was much unevenness, and a lack of content to share. Lots of interesting ideas, projects, musings were communicated within ALT Lab, but not beyond that. I told the ALT Lab team that we need to communicate who ALT Lab is and what we do and the best way to do that was to document what we do. I framed it very explicitly as documentation; public/open documentation. If the team members produce the content/documentation, I will make it all sing. It’s my job as the Director to find the best ways to promote and share the good work that the team does, and if they give me good content, I can make that happen.

So, to the VCU community, I’d say, look for me out and about on campus. Watch us on our blog, on Twitter, and in Diigo. And, as soon as I get the newsletter thing figured out, I hope you’ll subscribe to that, too. Finally, if you have additional ideas/ways for me to communicate who ALT Lab is and what we do, I’m all ears!

  1. note this doesn’t include communications external to VCU or communications within ALT Lab; those are separate strategies that might warrant a blog post at some point []
  2. I should add here that *WHAT* we communicate about who we are and what we do is another major challenge opportunity. We’re probably due a good strategic planning process that would help streamline the message. But, until then… there’s probably a good blog post here too. []

Posted in ALTLab, Open, Social Media, VCU Tagged with: , , , , , ,

November 3rd, 2015 by Jon Becker

Last week, at Educause 2015, I had the privilege of sharing the ALT Lab story alongside Gardner Campbell, Tom Woodward and Molly Ransone. We each quickly shared the aspects of the work that we do in VCU ALT Lab. Gardner started by talking about the larger governance issues and how ALT Lab was able to build on our predecessor, the Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE), which integrated teaching and learning with teaching and learning with technology; VCU doesn’t have a teaching center which is separate from a teaching with technology center. Tom talked about the work that he does with faculty members to create awesome web-based learning experiences. Molly talked about the work that she does with faculty members to create innovative media, mostly involving video work. Tom and Molly stressed the importance of working WITH faculty members; everything is framed as faculty development and collaboration. We’re not a dry cleaners; we don’t make websites or videos or anything FOR faculty members.

For my ~7 minutes, I focused on how we conceptualize faculty development. I started by doing a Poll Everywhere poll with the following prompt for respondents: “In one or two words, how would you describe faculty development at your institution?” Here’s a word cloud of the responses:


Not a very hopeful set of responses overall. I should add that there were close to 200 people in the room. We got 108 people to respond.

From there, I argued that the word I would use to describe faculty development through ALT Lab is “open.” ALT Lab’s tagline is “Connected Learning for a Networked World” and we try to model that at every turn. The three faculty development approaches I spoke of are all “open” in one or more ways.

ALT Lab Agora is one of our main paths for faculty development. Basically, Agora is “open office hours.” Every Wednesday and Thursday, from 12-2 faculty and staff are invited to come to ALT Lab and join us in our cafe area. We challenge faculty and staff to bring their wickedest problems of teaching and learning. The whole ALT Lab team is there to support faculty and staff. If they need help on the Web, Tom or any number of us can help. If they need help with media, Molly or any member of her team can help. If they’re looking for ways to engage a large enrollment class, Enoch Hale or any number of us can help. By doing this work in the open, we effectively “engineer serendipity” (Tom’s language). One faculty member might overhear another and strike up a partnership. Or, one ALT Lab team member might hear a faculty mention the use of video and chime in with an idea. The image below is from one of our Agora sessions. On same days, nobody shows up; on other days, 5-10 people will show up. It’s kinda like Twitter, but in person. 🙂



The Online Learning Experience (OLE) is our major faculty development program for online learning. It’s online learning for online teaching. OLE is currently an 8-week fully online program. The course site is built in WordPress and open to the world. All participants have their own blog that’s aggregated into the main course site. Faculty members are strongly encouraged to use Twitter as well. We are advocating for connected learning and have designed our faculty development program to model what that can look like.


Finally, at least for the sake of the Educause session, I talked about how we encourage faculty members to engage in open, informal faculty development with us. Every member of the VCU ALT Lab team is expected to blog and that is aggregated into our ALT Lab blog, 3rd Space. Every member of the VCU ALT Lab is expected to use Twitter to engage with the larger professional community. We maintain an active Diigo group that anyone can join and where we regularly share links to articles and resources. We share what we build for the Web in a Github repository, and all of our videos are housed on YouTube.

Open, open, open. We’re all constantly learning and teaching out loud.

That’s how we think about faculty development in ALT Lab.

Posted in ALTLab, Innovation, Online Learning, Open, VCU Tagged with: , , , , , , ,