June 7th, 2017 by Jon Becker

I’ve shared the first two pieces of a larger concept paper I’m writing. Part I presents a scenario-based view of what connected learning as informal learning across an academic department looks like. Part II includes some introductory text and a schematic of the concept. In that schematic, you can see that student ePortfolios play a central role in the design. It so happens that, over a year ago, I had the opportunity to work with Laura Gogia to write a major federal grant proposal that centered on ePortfolios. The grant wasn’t funded; I think something like 2% of applicants received funding. I had been looking for the right moment to share some of what we (well, really Laura) wrote in the proposal because I think it’s pretty great. Some of the narrative works nicely as part of the concept paper, so what I share below is a natural third blog post as I publicly share the development of the concept paper.

Additionally, Martha Burtis’ keynote at #domains17 served as a good provocation for sharing part of the grant proposal. Burtis asks three questions at the foundation of the Domain of One’s Own project/initiative/movement:

  1. How do we create a space within our schools (with all their political, technical, and institutional realities) that truly embodies a spirit of self-determination and agency for our students.
  2. How do we free our students from the shackles of corporate and commercial Web spaces without creating some new kind of shackle?
  3. And, how do web build a platform for the practical, valuable, discernible activities of building on the Web while also grappling to understand the Web on which we build in deep and discerning ways?

Burtis goes on to highlight a really important and real tension: The Domain of One’s Own project/initiative/movement got it’s initial energy from a pragmatic need (ePortfolios) that may now be constraining the project/initiative/movement. Martha says,

“On the one hand, attaching our project’s goals to a defined institutional need allowed us to move forward. We were able to secure both resources and support from important stakeholders by suggesting that Domains was a way to address some of the goals of the ePortfolio working group… All that said, I believe we have to push beyond pragmatism now. I think it’s time for us to expect more of our Domains projects… I believe there are opportunities… to push beyond the pragmatic goals of Domain of One’s Own into deeper more reflective and more critical territory…”

I totally agree with Martha. 100%. But, I also don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water. That is, let’s not just dismiss ePortfolios entirely; let’s consider them part of a larger effort around helping students explore the affordances of the Web. In that vein, I’ve copied and pasted four paragraphs from our grant proposal below. I believe Laura Gogia wrote about 97% of it, so she should get most of the credit should you care to give anyone any credit. I should also note that Gardner Campbell gave us the time, space, and resources to write the proposal. He inspired the idea and let us run with it.1


For more than a decade, universities and colleges have used digital or electronic portfolios (e-portfolios) to document student learning across curricular and co-curricular activities (Yancey, 2009). When compared to paper-based portfolios, e-portfolios have proven easier to share with multiple audiences and desirable for providing students with opportunities for multimodal expression. Research suggests that e-portfolios may promote student reflection and engagement, particularly when students are allowed to take as much ownership as possible over the content, structure, formatting, and aesthetics of the project (Eynon, 2009; Yancey, 2009). In other countries, such as the United Kingdom, students and faculty tend to use e-portfolios to facilitate social learning and formative assessment, while many colleges and universities in the United States present e-portfolios as opportunities to create summative compilations: collections of completed works meant to demonstrate competencies or show improvement over time. As a project, they are often presented as opportunities to impress audiences of faculty, administrators, and potential employers rather than for the students, themselves (Yancey, 2015).

The VCU Discovery Project, and its proposed student intervention, the VCU ConnectBook Program, offers an alternative approach to e-portfolios, one that is designed to promote integrative and deeper learning by applying a connected learning lens to existing general education curriculum and academic support programs. Although connected learning is a novel pedagogical approach, it is firmly rooted in the long-established learning theories of Dewey (1916/1985), social constructivists (e.g. Bruner, 1996; Wenger, 2000), and constructionists (e.g. Harel & Papert, 1991). It encourages students to make meaningful connections between academic learning, life experience, and professional goals through the creation of knowledge products for authentic audiences and participating in dynamic, peer- and mentor-supported affinity networks that build and distribute information, feedback, and the social capital necessary to broker high impact learning (Ching et al, 2015). Instructors who strive for connected learning understand learning as distributed across space, time, and a number of formal and informal environments, including but not limited to school, home, community organizations, peer “hangouts,” and online spaces (Kumpulainen & Sefton-Green, 2014). They help students network or link these distributed learning experiences in ways that allow students to examine and build on uniquely personal patterns of passion, skills, motivation, ambition, and social connections. The discovery, building, and shaping processes, as well as the patterns themselves, are called the “learning life.” When fashioned into a concrete, yet dynamic, narrative, the learning life reflects and facilitates a broader and deeper understanding of learning and the relevance of formal education (Kumpulainen & Sefton-Green, 2014).

Connected Learning e-portfolios, called “ConnectBooks” in this proposal, are student-established, networked, digital spaces existing on the open web where students discover, build, and shape their learning lives in an ongoing, social process of meaning making. Like traditional e-portfolios, ConnectBooks support learning by encouraging students to reflect on and construct knowledge products. However, ConnectBooks are formative processes as much as finished products, changing and changeable as students connect, disconnect, and reconnect their distributed learning experiences. Furthermore, ConnectBooks are designed to be launch pads for social learning: meeting posts for students, their peers, and mentors that facilitate the formation and activity of affinity networks. Finally, unlike many e-portfolio initiatives in U.S. colleges and universities, ConnectBooks are housed on the open web rather than in closed learning management systems, allowing students to access resources, inspiration, collaborators, mentors, and audiences beyond the local academic community (Groom & Lamb, 2014).

The implementation of ConnectBooks as a method to support student discovery, learning, and educational persistence requires a paradigm shift in how faculty, staff, and students perceive e-portfolio initiatives and higher education. Framed through connected learning, e-portfolios are no longer situated at the margins of academic courses, repositories for course-specific assignments. Rather, they are deeply and explicitly integrated into early general education courses; they become the foundation as well as the purpose of curricular design. In these environments, faculty and students co-construct learning activities that enable students to explore their existing personal interests, talents, and skill sets, as well as their formal and informal learning pasts (Ito et al., 2013). Faculty also model and provide opportunities for students to develop, shape, and use personal learning networks (PLNs) to access learning opportunities. In this context, personal learning networks become a form of social capital, networks of other people who provide students with “smooth access to the mainstream marketplace where privileges, institutional resources, opportunities for leisure, recreation, career mobility, and political empowerment are abundant” (Stanon-Salazar, 2001, p. 105). Faculty and staff broker learning activities, using their own personal learning networks to offer students access to people, ideas, events, and resources, while seeding the students’ emerging PLNs so that they can engage in acts of self-brokering (Ching et al., 2015).


Bruner, J. (1996). The culture of education. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press.

Ching, D., Santo, R., Hoadley, C., & Peppler, K. (2015). On-Ramps, Lane Changes, Detours and Destinations: Building Connected Learning Pathways in Hive NYC through Brokering Future Learning Opportunities. New York, NY: Hive Research Lab. Retrieved from: http://hivenyc.org/wp-content/uploads/Hive-Research-Lab-2015-Community-White-Paper-Brokering-Future-Learning-Opportunities.pdf

Eynon, B. 2009. Making connections: The LaGuardia ePortfolio. In D. Cambridge, B. Cambridge, and K. B. Yancey (Eds.), Electronic portfolios 2.0: Emergent findings about implementation and impact, (pp. 59–69). Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Groom, J., & Lamb, B. (2014). Reclaiming innovation. Educause Review, 49(3). Retrieved from: http://www.educause.edu/visuals/shared/er/extras/2014/ReclaimingInnovation/default.html

Harel, I. E., & Papert, S. E. (1991). Constructionism. New York, NY: Ablex

Ito, M., Gutiérrez, K., Livingstone, S., Penuel, B., Rhodes, J., Salen, K., Schor, J., Sefton-Green, J., Watkins, C. (2013). Connected learning: An agenda for research and design. Irvine, CA: Digital Media and Learning Research Hub. Retrieved from: http://dmlhub.net/publications/connected-learning-agenda-for-research-and-design/

Kumpulainen, K. & Sefton-Green, J. (2014). What is connected learning and how to research it? International Journal of Learning and Media, 4(2), 7-18. doi: 10.1162/IJLM_a_00091

Stanton-Salazar, R. D. (2001). Defensive network orientations as internalized oppression. In B. Biddle (Ed.), Social Class, Poverty and Education, (pp. 101-132). London, UK: Routledge.

Wenger, E. (2000). Communities of practice and social learning systems. Organization, 7(2), 225-246. doi: 10.1177/135050840072002

Yancey, K. B. (2009). Electronic portfolios a decade into the twenty-first century: What we know, what we need to know. Peer Review, 11(1), 28.

Yancey, K. B. (2015). The social life of reflection: Notes toward an ePortfolio-based model of reflection. In M. Ryan (Ed.), Teaching Reflective Learning in Higher Education, (pp. 189-202).

  1. Gardner is also responsible for the name “ConnectBook.” I never loved it, but I had no better alternatives. []

Posted in Digital engagemetn, Open, portfolio, VCU Tagged with: , , , , , , ,

May 11th, 2017 by Jon Becker

Lindsey Downs, Manager of Communications for the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technology (WCET), published a blog post today about definitions and distance education. It’s a really good post and you might choose to read that and come back here for more…

I am thankful that Lindsey included me in her round of interviews. She only included parts of my replies to her good questions, so I thought I’d post a slightly modified version of the longer response I sent to her.

If you didn’t click over to Lindsey’s article, here are the questions she posed:

  1. What is your opinion of distance education definitions from IPEDS, accrediting agencies, states, and institutions?
  2. What works and does not work for you regarding those definitions?
  3. How would you improve the definition?

Here is a slightly modified version of how I replied:


When I applied to be the Director of Online Academic Programs at VCU, the cover letter started with the following paragraph:

In my more skeptical moments, I find myself wondering things like: If formal schooling had existed in the United States when Gutenberg invented the printing press, would there have been lots of discussion and hand-wringing about the inevitable move towards print-based learning? Would formal learning organizations have created new units and positions around print-based learning? From there, I begin wondering if, some day, we will look back upon the present time and laugh at the idea that we used terms like “online learning” and/or “hybrid courses.”

Today, though, we wring our hands and bend over backwards trying to come up with definitions of various course modalities. From my perspective, we mostly do this for reporting purposes. I understand the need for various stakeholders to create these sorts of definitions, but I believe we are mostly herding cats. Furthermore, different stakeholders have different goals/needs, thus creating the havoc that we have now.

One group of stakeholders typically not consulted in these definitional efforts is students. No surprise. I’m in full agreement with Marshall Hill who, according to Lindsey’s post says “our focus here should be on how to best serve students. Colleges and universities should not decide how to deliver education based on what they need to report, but rather what will best meet their student’s needs. And then we (meaning accreditors, government agencies, policy geeks, etc.) should figure out how to count that. Not the other way around.”

So, when looking into online programs or considering registering for online courses, what DO students need to know? Well, as best I can surmise, they mostly need to know: Do I need to be in any particular place at any particular time? So, place and time.

From a place perspective, I’d say there are basically two key possibilities: fully or even partially face-to-face (I will have to be in a particular geophysical location at some point during the life of the course) and fully online (I never have to be in one particular place). From a time perspective, I’d say there are also really only two relevant possibilities: fully or even partially synchronous (I will have to commit to doing some part of the course at a specific/particular time at some point during the life of the course) and fully asynchronous (I can do everything I need to do on my own time). From there, we can create a 2×2 grid:


Ever synchronous Fully asynchronous
Ever face-to-face A B
Fully online C D


Most higher ed. courses are Type A (insert neuroticism joke here) – you go to your assigned classroom at assigned times. Additionally, I believe that when most stakeholders talk about “online learning,” they are assuming Type D (or maybe even C). Type D fits the narrative of “flexibility” and taking courses in bed in your pajamas (a narrative that needs to be incinerated in a massive fire).

If a course is designated as A or B, I am geographically constrained in my choices. If it’s C or D, I can be in Timbuktu for all I care. If the course is A or C, I have to be sure that my schedule/calendar/lifestyle allows me to commit to a learning experience at a specific time, even if it’s just a one time event. For example, let’s say a course is a C because there are a couple of instances when, on a given day at a specific time, a guest speaker will be appearing via a videoconferencing platform. Furthermore, the instructor expects the students to participate live though from a distance. Does my schedule allow me to be present for those virtual guest speakers?

If we could start with those four designations, I think we would help students a lot. But, from there, I think it behooves institutions to be crystal clear upfront and early enough in the registration process about what a given course looks and feels like. If it’s an A or C, how often will the synchronous events occur? If it’s an A or B, how often will I need to be in a particular geophysical location? That information should be available via the course registration system and in any other information systems potential and current students might access.

I think these designations could work for programs, too. Over the life of a degree program, will I ever need to be in a particular geophysical location and/or will I ever need to commit to working at a specific time?

I’m sure some key stakeholder could pick apart my classification scheme, but I feel like the more we try to capture the nuances of courses and programs with definitions, the crazier we’ll all get.

So, in the name of distance education love…

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

April 17th, 2016 by Jon Becker

As a lawyer dude who lives in the world of online learning, the news about a complaint filed by a class of students at George Washington University has me intrigued. According to Inside Higher Education,

Four graduates of the university’s online master’s degree program in security and safety leadership last week filed a class-action lawsuit in the District of Columbia Superior Court, saying the program doesn’t live up to its promise of being designed for an online setting and not a physical classroom.

I haven’t read the complaint, but the IHE story says that the students are “…suing the university for fraudulent and negligent misrepresentation, unjust enrichment and violation of D.C. consumer protection laws.” In other words, the students claim that the university is making money off of them by providing an educational experience that’s not at all what was promised to them. This framing is important; you can’t just file a lawsuit claiming that the program sucked. You need an actual cause of action, and these students are going the consumer fraud route. They could have tacked on a claim of educational malpractice, but those lawsuits are almost never successful.

More specifically, according to the GW Hatchet, and independent student newspaper at GWU, the students appear to claim that, among other things:

  • Course materials included “often nonsensical PowerPoint slides pilfered from other instructors’ in-class lessons.”
  • Instructors were unqualified to teach online.
  • Instructors were “…consistently unresponsive and demonstrated an unfamiliarity with the subject matter and material.”
  • Misrepresentation of the program in advertisements to prospective students, including a claim that the program is “universally lauded by alumni” despite the fact that there were no alumni when the online program launched.

That’s some heavy stuff. Of course, it’s just the language from the complaint which is the initial salvo from the lawyers carrying out their ethical obligation of zealous advocacy. We’ll see how the university responds.

Yet, this development got me wondering if we’ll see more of these kinds of lawsuits. For lots of reasons, many colleges and universities are ramping up their online offerings. In the minds of some stakeholders, this is a fairly simple proposition. Fire up a learning management system, build some courses in there consisting of mostly content and quizzes, assign faculty members as instructors of record, and, voila, an online program. If only…

While the complaint against GWU is framed as, essentially, a consumer fraud case, there are a host of regulatory standards to which online programs are held. From the federal government to national reciprocity agreements to regional accreditation agencies, universities that wish to offer online programming are held to a complex web of standards. Consider just the following:

Federal Regulations

By federal law “correspondence” and “distance education” are defined in section § 600.2 of the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations.  These definitions have been in place since July 1, 2010.

Distance education means education that uses one or more of the technologies listed in paragraphs (1) through (4) of this definition to deliver instruction to students who are separated from the instructor and to support regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor, either synchronously or asynchronously. The technologies may include—

(1) The internet;

(2) One-way and two-way transmissions through open broadcast, closed circuit, cable, microwave, broadband lines, fiber optics, satellite, or wireless communications devices;

(3) Audio conferencing; or

(4) Video cassettes, DVDs, and CD-ROMs, if the cassettes, DVDs, or CD-ROMs are used in a course in conjunction with any of the technologies listed in paragraphs (1) through (3) of this definition.

The key language in that definition is “…regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor…” If one or more of those technologies is used and there is no regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor, courses and/or programs could be classified as “correspondence courses.” From there, “According to Section 102(a)(3)(B) of the HEA, an institution is not eligible to participate in the Title IV programs if 50 percent or more of its students were enrolled in correspondence courses during its latest complete award year.” So, if an institution of higher education wants to engage heavily in online learning, it behooves the institution to make sure it is truly providing “distance education” and not “correspondence courses” or else they risk losing federal financial aid. The distinction, there, is “regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor.” I wonder if the GWU students believe the interaction between them and the instructors was “regular and substantive;” doesn’t sound like it.

State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA)

Institutions that want to offer online courses and/or programs to out-of-state students must make sure they are compliant with consumer protection laws in the states where those out-of-state students are domiciled. To avoid having to deal with 50 different laws, the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements was formed. As of the writing of this post, 34 states were participating in SARA. In those states, over 500 institutions of higher education are now participating in SARA.

Among other things, institutions that participate in SARA are expected to abide by the Interregional Guidelines for the Evaluation of Distance Education developed by the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions (C-RAC) in 2011. The C-RAC guidelines are a set of 9 principles, each of which has  a set of actions, processes and facts that institutions might use to demonstrate that they meet the guidelines. The principles/guidelines are perfectly reasonable/sensible, and the suggested evidence is exhaustive. For example, as evidence of principle #3, an institution might need to demonstrate that “the institution’s faculty have a designated role in the design and implementation of its online learning offerings.” Also, an institution might need to demonstrate that it “…ensures the rigor of the offerings and the quality of the instruction.”  Finally, in support of principal #4, we see language similar to what’s in the federal definition of distance education. That is, the C-RAC guidelines suggest that institutions might want to ensure that “[c]ourse design and delivery supports student-student and faculty-student interaction.”

Thus, if an institution wants to stay in good standing with NC-SARA, it must be in compliance with the C-RAC guidelines which are perfectly reasonable, but comprehensive standards to ensure quality in online offerings.

Regional Accreditation

Higher education accreditation agencies each have their own set of expectations around online learning. My institution is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) which has Guidelines for Addressing Distance and Correspondence Education. These guidelines contain a set of expectations and a list of questions that an evaluator might ask of an institution as part of the accreditation process. Among those expectations is the following:

Comparability of distance and correspondence education programs to campus-based programs and courses is ensured by the evaluation of educational effectiveness, including assessments of student learning outcomes, student retention, and student satisfaction.

This notion of comparability is very much a part of the complaint filed by the GWU students. From the IHE article:

“In sum, plaintiffs were deceived into spending tens of thousands on tuition alone for a program that functionally required them to teach themselves the material,” the complaint reads. “They paid more than their peers who completed the same degree in a classroom, and yet received far less.”

These federal regulations, state reciprocity agreement guidelines, and expectations of accrediting agencies provide a comprehensive web of standards/guidelines/principles/expectations around online learning. In other words, lest anyone think that institutions of higher education can quickly, easily and negligently provide online courses and/or programs, the rules of engagement around online learning in are really comprehensive.

So, whether or not we see more complaints and/or lawsuits like the one filed by the GWU students, institutions of higher education WILL be held accountable for the quality of their online offerings.

Posted in Online Learning 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: , , , ,

February 9th, 2016 by Jon Becker
Image courtesy of Wendy on Flickr

Image courtesy of Wendy on Flickr

The latest and greatest cohort of our intensive online learning faculty development program, the Online Learning Experience (OLE), begins this week. We’ve got 32 faculty members from all corners of the university signed up and ready to dive into an 8-week open, online course on online learning.

I am writing this post knowing that it will be automagically aggregated into the conversation hub of the course site where all participant blogs will syndicate. Mostly, what I am writing is for our faculty participants to read. But, by posting it to my blog, I’m also writing more publicly for those who might benefit from reading it. Connected learning, FTW.

I wrote about OLE last summer when we had a couple of dozen faculty participants. Much of what I wrote there still stands1, but we make changes to the curriculum each semester. You might say the OLE program is in “perpetual beta.” That’s part of what I hope we model for faculty participants; a course is a living, breathing experience that needs regular attention to thrive.

This idea of modeling raises one of the many tensions we deal with as we devise the curriculum and design the course. I’ll share just a few of those tensions here, but I hope our participants trust that MUCH thought goes into this course. It’s a huge opportunity for us and we owe it to our incredibly busy faculty participants to get it as close to “right” as we can.

Modeling vs. Explicit instruction

We could design a course that is quite instructive of different approaches to online learning, different theoretical orientations, different tools, etc. And, in some ways, we do that. But, we favor a bit more of modeling here. For example, we could have created a course wherein faculty participants spend a great deal of time exploring, critiquing and reflecting on the theoretical foundations of connected learning (our preferred orientation). There’s plenty of material for such a course. However, instead, we chose to model what connected learning looks and feels like; the course is designed/dressed in a connected learning motif. On the course overview page, David Croteau does a nice job of succinctly summarizing how connected learning is different from more “traditional” modes of online learning. There, we’re offering some explicit “instruction” about the course’s theoretical orientation. And, there will be moments where we point to additional resources about connected learning. But, again, particularly since there’s too much to do given the limits of time necessarily built in to the course, we model connected learning more than we explicitly instruct about it. There are other ways in which we choose modeling over explicit instruction, especially with respect to technology tools.

Activities vs. Tools

There was a time when our faculty development was pretty tool-centric. “Let us teach you about some tools and you’ll decide if they work for you.” For a lot of reasons, we’ve moved away from a tools-centric approach. This is a real tension, though, as evaluations of the course range from “Woah! Way overwhelmed by the number of tools introduced…” to “I learned so many great new tools! Every time a new one was introduced I realized there are so many possibilities and that’s awesome; more please!” Our course, though, is organized more around categories/types of activities than it is tools. We know that some form of “class discussion” is something faculty members want for their classes, so we include a couple of ways for the faculty participants to be in discussion with each other. Also, videoconferencing is likely something that faculty participants might want as part of their courses, so we have a point in the course where they videoconference with a small group of fellow faculty participants. The tools of class discussions and videoconferencing are not taught explicitly, they are embedded into the experience.

Open/Connected vs. Closed

This is the big one. ALT Lab’s tagline is “connected learning for a networked world.” So, it would be hypocritical of us to offer this course in any way other than as a connected learning-style course. In that sense, then, it’s not a real tension. But, it is. We’re well aware that “learning out loud” is uncomfortable for many, and we do our best to accommodate that. We’re also well aware that our “students” (the faculty participants) are incredibly busy and it would be easier for them to take a “traditional” course housed in Blackboard. At the end of the day, though, we really want our faculty participants to experience what the modern Web affords for teaching and learning. That’s just not fully possible within Blackboard, we believe.

Additionally, and finally, for now, as we try to model what an online course could look like in an open, connected paradigm, I want to make it clear to our faculty participants that we fully believe that what faculty participants learn through OLE is, for lack of a better term, “backwards compatible.” That is, we believe we’ve designed the course in such a way that by the time it is completed, faculty participants will know enough to create a really good course that is either similarly open and connected or one that uses the affordances/constraints of Blackboard. “Backwards compatible” is probably not the best language because I don’t want to suggest that a more “traditional” course in Blackboard is necessarily “backwards” or somehow “less than’; it’s just not what we advocate for or model. But, our guarantee to you, the faculty participant, is that if you fully commit to the OLE experience, you’ll walk away confident enough to design a very good online course within whatever platforms and paradigm of teaching and learning you desire.



  1. though the leadership of OLE has switched over to Dr. David Croteau and we’re using the #vcuole hashtag []

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

August 2nd, 2015 by Jon Becker

In faculty development generally, and certainly in #VCUALTLab specifically, the goal is often to help professors design new and (presumably) better learning experiences. When working with willing and creative professors, this can be tremendously exciting. Working with the modal faculty member, though, can be a slog. Now that I’m two years into my current gig, I see some of the barriers we face in faculty development. Some of these barriers are more mutable than others, but here are the defaults and constraints we work with and within.

The Apprenticeship of Observation

Unlike most K-12 teachers, most college/university professors become teachers without ever really exploring any of the history or theories of teaching and learning. If I say “constructivism” to a professor outside of the School of Education, I mostly get blank stares. Name dropping Jerome Bruner gets me nowhere. This is a burden we bear.

On top of that, most professors start teaching during or shortly after their doctoral programs. All they know to do, then, is to emulate what they’ve seen as students in their own college and grad school classes. Based on his study of K-12 teachers, Dan Lortie, in the classic book Schoolteacher, coined the phrase “apprenticeship of observation.” Lortie posited that “the average student has spent 13,000 hours in direct contact with classroom teachers by the time he graduates from high school” (p. 61). Add college and graduate school to the mix, and the “apprenticeship of observation” becomes even more of an insurmountable obstacle to new ideas or thinking about teaching and learning. That is, by the time a graduate student or a junior professor teaches her first class, the pull of doing what she has seen her teachers and professors do is incredibly strong. As a result, professors default to what they’ve observed their teachers and professors do in the classroom.



Speaking of the classroom…

One of the least explored defaults in higher education is the classroom itself. There are some faculty members and some faculty developers who have explored ideas such as the active learning classroom. Some have explored eschewing the classroom altogether (and by that I don’t mean online learning). For the most part, though, in a given semester, professors are given a course load and told which classrooms they will be in. How that classroom is furnished is a built-in constraint. Want to engage your students in active learning? Good luck with that in your typical lecture hall.

In VCU’s ALT Lab, we have an Incubator Classroom, “…a state-of-the-art learning space that has been designed to support VCU faculty members and students in their exploration and study of new learning spaces…[T]he Incubator Classroom contains a wide array of technologies and furniture that combine to provide unique opportunities to enhance teaching and learning.” Faculty members apply to teach in the space, and, if accepted, they work in consultation with ALT Lab staff to design a learning experience that takes best advantage of the affordances of the space.

Teaching and learning in the Incubator Classroom is a great opportunity for the professor and the students. The problem is that I’m not sure we’re incubating much beyond ideas. Once a professor teaches in that space, they have nowhere to go to implement the ideas. There are no other learning spaces furnished like the Incubator Classroom. Instead, the professor has to go back to the default classroom the next time she/he teaches that course.


P&T and Course Evaluations

I’ve often said that nearly every conversation about higher education ends up as a discussion about promotion and tenure (P&T). It could be a conversation that starts out as about food on campus, and somehow, it will end up being a conversation about P&T. So, it’s only natural that I would end there.

Those of us who work in research-intensive universities know where teaching stands in the pecking order of priorities for most professors working in those universities. Scholarship is priority #1, and it’s not close. Teaching and service are a distant 2nd and 3rd on the priority list. That’s a default of sorts.

We can take this a little further, though, and see that two sets of “standards” are what guide faculty in their teaching. Like most universities, we have university-wide P&T guidelines as well as school/unit and/or department-specific guidelines. Take a look at the VCU Psychology Department’s P&T Guidelines. They list 12 categories by which faculty members might be judged in their teaching. However, “[e]ntries in all the categories…is not required, but a candidate seeking promotion to associate professor must, at minimum, be very good in teaching as indicated by positive contributions in categories 1 to 4.” Those categories basically ask candidates to list what classes they taught, how much advising they did, and how their students rated their teaching on course evaluations (more on this in a second…).

Here’s the kicker, though. “Teaching excellence at this level requires excellence in the act of teaching itself. Less essential, but still required for a rating of excellent, is ‘evidence of commitment to improving educational practices’ (Guidelines, p. 4).” In other words, a faculty member can be deemed a “very good” teacher without providing any evidence of a commitment to improving educational practice. (Read that last sentence again.) And, a professor in the psychology department can earn tenure with a very good rating in teaching so long as her/his scholarship is rated as excellent.

Now, back to those course evaluations. At VCU, we use a product called Blue by eXplorance as a software platform for course evaluations. Within that system, “[w]e use the questionnaire provided to us by your school or department. It is the same questionnaire that have [sic] been used for paper based evaluations in the past.” So, for example, here is the course evaluation for courses in the VCU Department of Psychology. That evaluation is, apparently, common to all courses in any department in the College of Humanities & Science (except, it appears, the English Department, which has crafted its own course evaluation).

There’s a kicker here, too. Can an individual professor add questions to the course evaluation, perhaps questions that are specific to how she/he chose to teach the course? “Sorry, the system doesn’t allow an instructor to add questions to the form.” Now, it’s true that a professor could use another platform like Google Forms to query the students on specific issues related to teaching and learning, but it’s hard enough to convince students just to fill out the “mandatory” course evaluation.

In other words, the course evaluation form, which largely determines a professor’s rating on teaching for P&T purposes is a default set of questions.


In sum, professors often come to teaching with no training and no language with which to think and/or talk about teaching and learning.  From there, they are handed learning spaces with default furnishings and technologies and are then judged in their teaching by a common, default set of items. And, in most cases, they can earn tenure without providing any evidence of a commitment to improving their practice of teaching.

This is the burden, the challenge, we bear in faculty development.

Bring it on! 🙂

Posted in ALTLab, Pedagogy Tagged with: , , , , , ,

June 7th, 2015 by Jon Becker

My last two posts have highlighted connected learning opportunities offered through VCU. In the first post, I showcased courses taught by VCU faculty members with whom we’ve worked closely to design and develop their courses. The second post was about an online faculty development experience that we are facilitating ourselves. All of those are models of our commitment to “Connected Learning for a Networked World.”

Tonight, I’m proud to announce three additional courses that begin tomorrow and that are also framed through connected learning. According to Laura Gogia, our amazing doctoral fellow, connected learning is “…a learning philosophy that supports experiential, integrative, interdisciplinary and social learning in the context of networked, digital learning environments.  Connected Learning privileges the act of making connections – connections between people, resources, and people and resources – in the process of learning and the production of knowledge.” With that in mind, here are three undergrad-level connected learning courses taught BY ALT Lab faculty members.

Complimentary and Alternative Medicine: Health, Hype, or Hocus Pocus?

Lisa Phipps is not just an online learning innovation liaison in ALT Lab, she’s a real deal pharmacist. She has about 17 different doctorates in pharmacy, and has taught about complimentary and alternative medicine (CAM) to pharmacy students and other health sciences students. At some point, we decided that it would be really cool for Lisa to create a course about the topic, but aimed at the general student body. When discussing the course with Lisa, I said to her something like, “Imagine I’m taking a trip to GNC or some other health store. Could you design a course that would help me make sense of that experience?” So, here we are. It should be really interesting to follow along with this openly-networked course since CAM is such a contested terrain. If all goes to hell well, there should be some interesting teachable moments throughout this course.


Seeing your Thoughts: Clear Thinking for Visible Learning

Yin Wah Kreher is a Learning Innovation Design Specialist in ALT Lab, and per her ALT Lab website bio, “a multifaceted boundary crosser and a quadrilingual thinkaholic.” She thinks deeply about many things and is offering this course to help students think more clearly. Per the course website, Yin hopes “…that as a result of this course, you will cultivate thinking skills and dispositions that will help you to think more clearly and learn more powerfully for yourself across all your courses.” In other words, I kinda wish all students could take this course. In my mind, it could be a great foundation for a larger program of connected learning experiences.


Sociology 101

David Croteau was a faculty member in the sociology program at VCU many eons ago, before leaving to work in the (*cough*) publishing industry. He came back to VCU to work with the sociology program, but as an online learning innovation liaison in ALT Lab. Point is, dude is a legit sociologist1. He taught Sociology 101 online last summer, and he’s designed it to be even better this summer. Interestingly, he had 40 students last summer but capped the course at 30 this semester. We continue to explore how these sorts of experiences scale, so we’ll be monitoring David’s pulse throughout the summer to see if he feels a difference between 40 and 30 students. That’s of interest to us; hopefully what’s of interest to you is both the design and substance of the course.


So, there you have it. We’re trying to practice what we preach about connected learning. Have at it! Follow along. Learn with our undergraduates. Participate in full or in part. Connect!



  1. unlike Tom Woodward who is just a wannabe sociologist []

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

May 25th, 2015 by Jon Becker

VCU ALT Lab’s commitment to “Connected Learning for a Networked World” is starting to take hold. In the coming days, I will be sharing some of the many connected learning opportunities that are popping up. For now, I’ll call your attention to two courses that just got started last week.

Visual Poetry



The brainchild of Dr. Jason Coats, Visual Poetry is an undergraduate English course at VCU.  Jason asks his students to engage in a number of really fun and interesting exercises throughout the course including significant integration of Twitter.  Follow #vizpoem on Twitter to play and learn with Jason and his students. If you’d like to do some of the writing and assignments with students, I believe you can ask Jason to syndicate your blog into the course blog feed. I see that fellow Department of Focused Inquiry faculty member Dr. Kristin Reed is playing along at home.  Because connected learning.




Collaborative Curiosity: Designing Community-Engaged Research



This is a graduate-level research course taught by Dr. Valerie Holton and Tessa McKenzie, both from VCU’s Division of Community Engagement.  According to the course site, you might want to participate in Collaborative Curiosity if:

You are someone who seeks answers to important questions. You look to collaborate with others to find answers and develop solutions. You know that expertise is found everywhere in our communities. You see partnerships as a powerful strategy to accomplish good work. And you want to understand how research can have a real world impact.

You are interested in learning more about community-engaged research. CEnR.

Valerie and Tessa have students engaged in all sorts of connected learning activities, including blogging, tweeting, sychronous Google Hangouts, etc. I strongly encourage you to check it out and follow along on Twitter at #CuriousCoLab.


That’s just two courses; there are more to come this summer and beyond. Stay tuned…


Posted in Digital engagemetn, Online Learning, Open, Social Media, VCU Tagged with: , , , , ,

April 20th, 2015 by Jon Becker

Imagine your university was going to shut down for a whole week within the first month of the semester because the UCI Road World (bicycling) Championships was overtaking your city. Residential students could stay in their residence halls, but classrooms were to be closed and traveling to campus would be extremely difficult for non-residential students. Next, imagine you are charged with considering how you might turn that situation into one or more learning experiences. The World Wide Web to the rescue, #amiright?

The Great VCU Bike Race Book (#vcubrb) was borne of this opportunity (and, mainly from the brilliant mind of Gardner Campbell). The Great VCU Bike Race Book is a unique Connected Learning experience under development at Virginia Commonwealth University that will take place during the early part of the Fall 2015 semester. Per the RFP crafted for proposals from faculty members:

There are at least three primary purposes for the the Great VCU Bike Race Book. 1) To provide a purposeful, enjoyable learning experience during the Bike Race week, especially for residential students who would otherwise not have any academic work to occupy them. 2) To give VCU students an opportunity to participate in an innovative online course that aligns with the VCU Quality Enhancement Plan’s goals of integrative learning by means of digital fluency. 3) To provide a unique faculty development experience that will advance VCU faculty’s involvement in distinctive online education aiming at deeper learning and high engagement that fosters student success.


Over the last few weeks, faculty members from across the university proposed “tracks” which will focus on areas of creativity and/or inquiry that will be organized around disciplinary or cross-disciplinary themes. Ultimately, 25 faculty members from multiple disciplines proposed tracks involving topics ranging from physics (“The Physics of Bicycling”) to kinesiology (“Bike Athlete Performance”) to sociology (“Cycling Culture & Identity”). Each track is a 1-credit section of an “online” class that students can register for at a massively reduced rate ($50!). Given the nature of the “online” course, each track could accommodate many students, perhaps as many as 100 or more per track depending on the activities and design.

Also, per the RFP:

During the week of the race, students will produce various kinds of work related to the bike race, e.g., blogs, tweets, photographs, audio, video (YouTube, Vine, Instagram, Imgur, etc.). Also during the race, these learning products, categorized by tracks and identified by tags, will be aggregated in more-or-less real time onto a learning engagement “dashboard” page created and maintained by VCU’s Academic Learning Transformation  Lab (ALT Lab). In short, during the bike race week, VCU students will be creators, researchers, and “citizen journalists,” making the academic vitality, creativity, and diversity of our students visible to the world in an exciting, innovative way.

In the weeks following the race, faculty and their student teams will work with our ALT Lab team to curate the best works into a “Great VCU Bike Race Book” that will live on the open Web. “Book”, then,  is a metaphor suggesting a collection that is organized and curated. The aggregated materials during the bike race week will be an initial instance of the “book.” Materials selected for the online showcase of the “best of the race” will make up the next instance of the “book.”

This is going to be a pretty amazing learning event, and it is going to take a village of creative and talented professionals to “Make it Real.” My ALT Lab colleagues, including and especially Tom Woodward, Molly Ransone, and David Croteau will be working with me and the faculty members to bring this whole thing together. Also, we’re bringing back the amazing Alan Levine (aka CogDog) to work his WordPress and syndication magic. And, we’ve got Amy Adkins, postdoc fellow and geneticist (a geneticist, y’all!) to be our coordinator, faculty wrangler, shepherd, etc.

Some design notes and initial thoughts on #vcubrb:

  • The “instructional design” borrows from the highly successful #Thoughtvectors experience. Every student will have his/her own space on the Web where he/she learns out loud. Student work will be aggregated into the 25 track or section sites. In turn, each of the 25 track/section sites will be syndicated/aggregated into the “mother blog;” the Great VCU Bike Race Book site. There’s probably a bike-related joke here about a spoke-and-hub design, but I’m no comedian.
  • I love what the Great VCU Bike Race Book site IS at this point. It’s mostly just an invitational placeholder until we start doing the work of aggregation/syndication, but it’s also informational. Additionally, it embodies the spirit of VCU ALT Lab and the joy of learning imagined for the whole experience. From a design perspective, the spirit of ALT Lab comes through in a general design by Tom Woodward brought to life with the animation of one of our newest staff members, artist/animator Emma Gauthier. Then, there are the Bike Fortunes, a Tom Woodward production. Go ahead, try it. See what bike fortune you get!
  • Starting tomorrow, we’ll be working with all of the faculty members to level-set and to have them begin to flesh out their learning experiences and to begin to develop their track/section site. Tomorrow is April 21; by May 4, each faculty member will have a site that represents their section/track to potential students and the world. Those sites, too, will be placeholders as faculty members will, behind the cover of their placeholder sites, further develop the full section/track site to be unveiled before the Fall 2015 semester begins. This will be quite a faculty development challenge for us, but, WE GOT THIS!

Things are still emergent at this point, so stay tuned as we roll (#SeeWhatIDidThere?) this out. Follow developments on Twitter at #vcubrb (more Tom Woodward brilliance in coming up with this double (at least) entendre hashtag).

Oh, and how could I forget… Molly Ransone and her team of creatives produced a trailer for VCU’s academic efforts around the race. Enjoy!

Posted in ALTLab, Digital engagemetn, Education, Innovation, Online Learning, Open, Social Media, Technology, thoughtvectors, VCU Tagged with: , , , , , ,