May 19th, 2017 by Jon Becker

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.


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

January 23rd, 2017 by Jon Becker

I might have to rename my #365project “Twitter thread of the day.” This is now the 2nd tweet of the day that was actually the beginning of a good thread/string of tweets (again, click on the timestamp of Korte’s tweet to see the whole thread).

I know Twitter has some serious problems around harassment, microaggressions, abuse, etc., and I’ve been leaning with those who’ve recently said that they can no longer ask students to use Twitter as part of a course. But, I would still like to run a completely elective course where students know what they’re getting into where we follow lots of really informative Twitter accounts to supplement other forms of media and content. For example, imagine a course running this semester that’s an interdisciplinary course cross-listed between political science and journalism. Among the accounts the students follow is Gregory Korte, White House correspondent for USA Today. Then, this morning, after President Trump issued a few executive orders, students see Korte’s Twitter thread on executive orders vs. memorandums (and proclamations later in the thread). The thread starts with a link to a 2014 article Korte wrote which is very informative. That article includes lots of links, including one to a Harvard Law Review article written by Elana Kagan, former Clinton associate White House counsel. Oh, the associative trails student could blaze just by having followed Gregory Korte this morning!

Now imagine the students following bunches of political reporters and conversing about what they’re seeing, both using Twitter and perhaps a blog. It would be real-time, timely, relevant connected learning.

So, yeah, maybe I’m looking forward to getting back to teaching in the Fall…

Posted in TOD Tagged with: , , , ,

September 24th, 2015 by Jon Becker

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. ( – What is TPACK?)


Reproduced by permission of the publisher, © 2012 by

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 []

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

July 2nd, 2014 by Jon Becker

Image courtesy of

Each of the 6 instructors in our UNIV200 digital engagement pilot (aka Inquiry and the Craft of Argument, aka Living the Dreams: Digital Investigations and Unfettered Minds, aka #thoughtvectors…) is leading students through the learning experience a little bit differently. There are some core elements of the design of the course that are constant across all sections, including the (final) inquiry project. In fact, as a side note, I learned yesterday that one of the students in my section will be teaming with a student in another section of the course on the inquiry project. That’s pretty awesome.

In the first 5 weeks of the learning experience, all students in all sections are engaging in “concept experiences;” web-based activities that bring to life a key concept articulated in an essay or article written by the specific computing pioneer who is the subject of the week’s reading (and writing) assignment.  For example, when students read “As We May Think” by Vannevar Bush, they “experienced” the concept of associative trails by documenting their associative trail during a web surfing/expedition (i.e. they navigated around the web for a bit, took a screenshot of their browser history, and then reflected on it).

This week, students are reading “Computer Lib / Dream Machines” by Ted Nelson. To get at the idea of an “ultra-rich environment” and to explore concepts around information retrieval/curation that Nelson more than hints at, the instructors discussed implementing a Twitter-based activity. Jessica Gordon’s section is doing this. So is Bonnie Boaz’s section. Same with Ryan Cales and Jason Coats. I chose not to engage my students in this particular concept experience1.

I come to this a little jaded, burnt perhaps. On a few occasions, I have asked/encouraged/prodded students in online courses to engage with Twitter. I’ve watched other professors integrate Twitter into courses. I’ve tried to get other faculty members involved through sustained faculty development initiatives. Based on these experiences, I currently believe that “mandating” use of Twitter as part of a singular “assignment” doesn’t work; in fact, I’d argue, it misappropriates Twitter as a connected learning tool.

Twitter is ephemeral, and it blurs lines between a synchronous and asynchronous communication medium. If I send a reply to an account on Twitter, I might get a response right away or I might get a response an hour or more later. I might get no response. One needs to be comfortable with, and even eternally cognizant of that uncertainty. Additionally, Twitter works best as a connected learning space when the user has the time to develop a network that is not undirected; that is, there is some reciprocity between nodes on the network. Combing those two points, consider the Twitter user who poses a question or request on Twitter. How soon a reply comes, if at all, depends on lots of things, including the nature of the request, how “connected” the user is, time of day relative to others on a users network, etc.  It simply takes time as a Twitter user for this to make sense; it takes time for Twitter to become a meaningful tool for connected learning. By inserting it into the middle of a course as an exercise doesn’t recognize this ephemerality and uncertainty of the medium.

In addition to issues of time, part of what makes Twitter “work” in a connected learning sense is dispositional; it’s about the stance of the user. A related condition is that Twitter is most useful and meaningful when the user adopts certain tools and habits.  How one engages with Twitter matters, a lot. “Doing” Twitter on the web through is very different than using, say, a columns-based application such as TweetDeck. Twitter on a mobile device is different. Twitter apps that automatically refresh are different than when the user needs to click/swipe to refresh. Tool choice notwithstanding, Twitter habits matter, too. How often do you “check” Twitter? When I’m working at my desk, I have Janetter (my Twitter client of choice for desktop) open on one of my monitors (I have a dual monitor setup that I’m certain many don’t have). When do you “check” Twitter? Do you use Twitter on a mobile device? As you’re walking from meeting to meeting (or whatever walking you do), do you sneak a peek into your Twitter timeline? That’s a very different approach than the Twitter user who “checks” Twitter once or twice a day; it’s a different experience. Until one gains experience and has the time to develop these habits and attitudes, Twitter can easily seem fairly useless.

Twitter is not a complicated tool to use; to get the most out of Twitter, however, takes some patience, tinkering and deliberation. There’s something of an interaction effect between the ephemerality, the character limit, and the tool choice that gives Twitter a complexity that makes it hard to grok right away.

This is not to say that I don’t think Twitter is useful as part of a connected learning experience; quite the contrary. I think that for Twitter to be a valuable and meaningful tool for connected learning, it has to be a significant component of the learning experience; learners should tweet early and often in the learning experience. In fact, I could make an argument that a professor could develop an entire course with Twitter as the main platform.

However, for this particular course, at this particular moment in the course, I’ve chosen not to incorporate Twitter into the concept experience. I do very much wish for my students to take the time to tinker with Twitter as a connected learning tool. I even made a video that I shared with my students where I tried to make the case for why they should use Twitter (see below).  Should, however, is different than must.

This is my argument, and I’m sticking to it… for now. I’m watching the #thoughtvectors stream and open to being wrong.


  1. There was talk about coding this as a #BlogParty with the use of that hashtag, hence the title of this blog post. It looks like that might not have taken hold.. []

Posted in Social Media, thoughtvectors Tagged with: , ,

May 18th, 2014 by Jon Becker

Remember that commercial? It ends with Sy Sperling saying, “Remember, I’m not only the Hair Club President, but I’m also a client.”

Tomorrow, our Online Course Development Initiative (OCDI) begins in earnest. After asking the participants to engage in some pre-Institute activities, the week-long, face-to-face Institute will unfold over the course of this coming week. Beyond that, the participants will experience what it’s like to be a learning in an online learning “course” over three weeks. Then, when they go on to teach an online course, they’ll have continued support from our faculty development team.

It’s a good model that Jeff Nugent, Britt Watwood and others at VCU developed a number of years ago. I reference the Sy Sperling commercial because I was a member of the first faculty cohort of the OCDI. Now, alongside Jeff, Britt, Tom Woodward and others, I have the opportunity to co-lead the effort.

“I’m not only the Interim Director of Online Academic Programs, but I’m also an OCDI graduate!” Or something like that.

We’ve made some tweaks to OCDI, especially as we ramp up our efforts to advocate for connected learning as an orientation to online learning at VCU.  This is a tremendous opportunity to work with 17 faculty and staff, ranging from doctoral students to adjunct faculty members to tenured associate professors.  As we orient the faculty and staff towards a connected learning stance, I hope you’ll follow along and connect where you can. We’ll share actively with the #vcuocdi hashtag and all participants will be blogging (and have already); we’re aggregating all of their posts in the OCDI Community Hub. Please follow along and connect!

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