Next week, we begin the next iteration of what we call the Online Learning Experience (OLE), an intensive faculty development experience for VCU faculty members who will be teaching an online course. Our approach to faculty development has morphed from a hybrid format that was heavy on the f-2-f side (a weeklong, 40-hour f2f institute + a 3-week online course) to a more pure hybrid format (a 3-day f2f institute + a 3-week online course) to what it is now: fully online for 8 weeks. If we’re going to teach people about the possibilities for online learning, we ought to be able to do it online.

Offering an 8-week online course for faculty members is a resource-intensive effort on our part. We spend a lot of time as a faculty/staff designing and implementing the course, and we compensate faculty participants pretty well. For the faculty members, participating in the course is a major commitment. But, hey, somebody’s gotta do it.

Why such an intensive commitment? Well, there are a lot of reasons. But, suffice it to say, we are taking the road less traveled when it comes to online learning. That is, we are not creating a separate, standalone, satellite operation that’s aimed at increased enrollment and, therefore, increased tuition dollars. Rather, we are trying to augment teaching and learning opportunities at VCU with online learning that’s integrated into the university. And, we’re trying to do so in ways that respect the learning process and that take full advantage of what the modern Web affords for teaching and learning. Jonathan Rees, professor of history at Colorado State University at Pueblo, wrote about his ongoing efforts to develop and teach an online course. On an individual level, his approach mirrors what we’re trying to accomplish institutionally.

After all, if I create a respectable, popular class that takes advantage of the Internet to do things that can’t be done in person, then it will be harder for future online courses at my university (or elsewhere for that matter) to fail to live up to that example. In short, I want to stake out the high ground in the online education space before that ground becomes completely inaccessible.

Respectable, popular class(es) that take advantage of the Internet to do things that can’t be done in person… Yes, please. That’s what we’re after… and more. That is, we advocate for a particular approach to online learning called connected learning. As Laura Gogia, ALT Lab’s doctoral fellow wrote in her dissertation prospectus:

Connected Learning (capitalized in the context of a specific pedagogical framework) is an emerging pedagogical philosophy and practice that aims to promote student engagement, empowerment, and deeper learning through networked participation in digital environments (Ito et al., 2013). In higher education settings, Connected Learning practitioners tend to engage students in learning activities that take place on the open web, using the affordances of public social media platforms to facilitate connections across space, time, and academic and community domains (Ito et al., 2013)…  It values connection as a meaningful and culturally relevant pedagogical practice. Connectivity is defined as the act of making connections between people, resources, and people and resources (Kumpulainen & Sefton-Green, 2012).

The challenge of OLE for us, then, is to help faculty members understand connected learning and to help them design connected learning courses1. That’s an enormous challenge. ENORMOUS. Just getting faculty members to the point where they can design and teach an “ordinary” online course is difficult. One way to think about those difficulties is through a framework that’s commonly used in K-12 education to understand the challenge of technology integration.

Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge (TPACK) is a framework that identifies the knowledge teachers need to teach effectively with technology.The TPACK framework extends Shulman’s idea of Pedagogical Content Knowledge… At the heart of the TPACK framework, is the complex interplay of three primary forms of knowledge: Content (CK), Pedagogy (PK), and Technology (TK). The TPACK approach goes beyond seeing these three knowledge bases in isolation… Effective technology integration for pedagogy around specific subject matter requires developing sensitivity to the dynamic, transactional relationship between these components of knowledge situated in unique contexts. Individual teachers, grade-level, school-specific factors, demographics, culture, and other factors ensure that every situation is unique, and no single combination of content, technology, and pedagogy will apply for every teacher, every course, or every view of teaching. (tpack.org – What is TPACK?)

TPACK-new

Reproduced by permission of the publisher, © 2012 by tpack.org

Though research and practice involving TPACK is extensive in the K-12 ed. tech. space, the framework has been very lightly applied to online learning, particularly in higher education. Though not perfect as a framework, it’s useful for explaining the particular challenges we face in OLE. In higher education, we don’t have to worry about the Content Knowledge (CK) part of the framework; we’re fortunate to work with some amazing content experts2. The typical challenge for online learning faculty development in higher education, then, is around the TK and the PK (and the overlaps across those circles). As a faculty development team, we are constantly struggling with how much emphasis to put on each. Many faculty members come to us with limited PK; they have a default orientation towards teaching and learning that’s (over)simplified as “content delivery.” Helping faculty members understand alternate pedagogical frameworks can be a big challenge. At the same time, many faculty members come to us with very limited TK. As one colleague likes to say, many faculty members don’t even know what they don’t know about technology.

Thus, for online learning, it’s a HUGE challenge JUST  to help faculty members develop their PK and TK and to then put it together with their immense CK to design a course that also respects the unique institutional contexts of VCU and our students.

Remember, though, that we’re aiming at connected learning, not *just* online learning.

To truly grok connected learning and to best design and teach a connected learning course, the faculty member needs to go beyond TPACK. A high-quality connected learning course requires the faculty member to be a connected learning herself. To be a connected learner demands a reasonably high level of TK (and probably TCK as well). We can help faculty members get there, technologically.

 

connected learning practices

Figure 3 from Laura Gogia’s dissertation prospectus.

The REALLY hard part is that to be a connected learner goes beyond mere knowledge; it’s about habits and dispositions.  What sorts of habits and dispositions? Here are just a couple of rich,  comprehensive, and intertwingled habits/dispositions:

First of all, connected learning is about connectivity -making connections between people, concepts/disciplines/modalities, and across time3.  That time part is key. Connected learners commit regularly to making connections online. You can’t “check in” to the web for 30 minutes a day for connected learning. Engaging and connecting across various web-based platforms (as depicted above) must become habitual. A connected learner is “of the web.”

Second, connected learners have to embrace vulnerability. For professors engaging in connected learning, that vulnerability comes in the form of giving up control of content expertise. There’s still very much a place for faculty members to share their expertise, but one of the main roles of a faculty member in a connected learning course is to bring one’s personal learning network to bear on the experience. Though almost 8 years old now, I still think Wendy Drexler’s “Networked Student” makes this point well and clear. Some of the tools have changed, but not the processes. Stay tuned for the last minute of the 5-minute video to see what it looks like for a faculty member to relinquish some subject-matter control.

 

Another way vulnerability comes into play is in the willingness to be public with one’s thoughts and ideas. It might seem hard to believe, but when talking about blogging or microblogging with faculty members, I regularly hear things like “But I have nothing to say, really.” These are brilliant scholars who genuinely believe they have nothing to say online. That’s a vulnerability issue; a dispositional challenge.

I’ve only begun to delve into the habits and dispositions that go into the practice of connected learning as graphically depicted in the image above by Laura Gogia. I’m sure you will all4 add more in the comments below.

There is lots of research and literature on how to help educators develop technological knowledge and pedagogical knowledge. There’s not a lot of research and literature on changing habits and dispositions of faculty members. That is the immense challenge we take on in ALT Lab. As we learn more about what works and what doesn’t work, we’ll be sure to share. IN the meantime, starting Monday, please feel free to connect with our latest cohort of intrepid OLE participants online and on Twitter5.

  1. If they so choose. Our belief is that from what they learn with us, they can always dial it back to something less connected. []
  2. The term often applied here in the online learning space is “Subject Matter Expert” or SME []
  3. Hat tip to Laura Gogia there, too []
  4. both of you that will read this []
  5. If you’re this far down, you’re really interested… so, try tracking both #vcualtlab and #vcuole []