I have an incredible opportunity to work with some great people to build a great organization. I am the interim director of the Office of Online Education at VCU. This office is relatively new and when I took on this position, I was the sole employee. I took on this role on July 25 of this year, and it has been a wild and wonderful semester. On many occasions, I have been asked to explain my new job, and I’ve gotten better at doing that over time (I think). Recently, though, I was asked that question through a slightly different frame. The question was something like, “Why is VCU engaging in the business of online learning?” The question was contextualized and framed through the lens of VCU as an urban-serving research institution. So, given that context, it is certainly fair to ask the question.

Separately, I recently had cause to re-visit Simon Sinek’s well-worn TED talk (13,759,263 views as of this writing) about how great leaders inspire action. It’s not much more than a commercial for his book and his consulting services, which makes it standard TED fare. But, while I’m reasonably skeptical of pop-psychology and pop-business books and ideas, Sinek’s general idea of The Golden Circle feels right to me; it resonates.

In hindsight, then, I wish I’d have applied the concept of The Golden Circle to the question posed to me about VCU and online learning. But, the timing was off. Now, though, I will attempt just that.

We have goals for online learning, generally, that come from a very strong report from an online learning task force of which I was a part in the Spring semester. Those are laudable goals. On top of that, Dr. Gardner Campbell, with and for whom I work here at VCU, has articulated a great set of three principles that drive everything we do in the Office of Online Education.

  • Distinctiveness (Why would an off-campus student choose this course instead of one offered through another university?) – when geography (and time, to some degree) is no longer a concern, the “market” for higher education becomes bigger and more complicated. As providers of online learning experiences, we must distinguish ourselves from the rest of the field/market.
  • Deeper learning (How will the course be about more than content delivery and mastery?) – this is a nod to the work of Jerome Bruner (i.e. that learning should be about going “beyond the information that is given.”) as well as the National Research Council’s report called Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Centurywhich defines deeper learning as “…the process of developing durable, transferable knowledge that can be applied to new situations” (p. 69).
  • High student engagement (What affordances of the web as a platform of (social) participation will be utilized to move beyond didactic paradigms that focus on the acquisition of information by students?) – there is overlap here with both distinctiveness and deeper learning in that we believe that one point of distinction for us, and what will, in part, lead to distinctive learning is the strong consideration and adoption of ways that the modern Web affords social learning. Here, we look to a number of sources, but especially Henry Jenkins’ notion of participatory culture.

This “three-note chord” (as one colleague describes it) is beautiful; it’s consistent with everything I believe about how online learning can happen and what it offers. It is not, though, our “why” in Simon Sinek’s term. Rather, I think it is our “how.” What, then, is our “why?”

For that, I turn to Ted Nelson’s recent eulogy of Doug Engelbart. If you haven’t seen the eulogy, it’s well worth watching.

The most poignant moment, for me, is when Nelson says, “I used to have a high view of human potential. But no one ever had such a soaring view of human potential as Douglas Carl Engelbart — and he gave us wings to soar with him, though his mind flew on ahead, where few could see.”

From there, I turn to something my friend Dr. Gary Stager wrote about three competing visions of technology and education.

The third vision is a progressive one. The personal computer is used to amplify human potential. It is an intellectual laboratory and vehicle for self-expression that allows each child to not only learn what we’ve always taught, perhaps with greater efficacy, efficiency or comprehension. The computer makes it possible for students to learn and do in ways unimaginable just a few years ago. This vision of computing democratizes educational opportunity and supports what Papert and Turkle call epistemological pluralism. The learner is at the center of the educational experience and learns in their own way.

And, that’s it, isn’t it? That’s our “why.” The amplification of human potential.

If we run this through Sinek’s Golden Circle, it looks like this:

Everything we do here is about the amplification of human potential. We do that by designing learning experiences and learning environments that are distinctive and that foster deeper learning and high engagement for student success. Oh, and we do that via online learning. Want to learn with us?