March 21st, 2016 by Jon Becker

In my (simple) mind, one overarching theme of VCU ALTLab‘s online learning faculty development initiative, the Online Learning Experience (OLE), is exploring the affordances of the modern Web for teaching and learning. In recent days, I have said on multiple occasions that I think this is an amazing time to be a learner and an educator. The ways in which web-based technologies allow us to augment “traditional” learning experiences are myriad, and I really believe we are only beginning to scratch the surface. As a VERY small sampling of what we’ve been working on here in ALT Lab, I recommend exploring our “examples” site that Tom Woodward has constructed. I dare you to take in the different examples on that site and to not start to imagine other amazing possibilities.

In the spirit of that theme, I’m particularly excited by one of this week’s activities. I’d gotten pretty jazzed by web annotation tools and had great success using with my undergraduate students last semester. So, I asked David Croteau, our lead coordinator of OLE, if we could incorporate web annotation into OLE, and he was agreeable. Furthermore, he wisely suggested it was an opportunity to have the OLE faculty participants read an article of interest as well; that is, the purpose of the assignment was to learn about how web annotation works, but we could “surreptitiously” “get” the participants to read something we think they should read. “Brilliant!”, I thought.

As I was pondering what article or web page we should have the OLE faculty participants annotate, I happened to see that Dr. Remi Holden was hosting a live Twitter chat (#profchat) about the use of web annotation (, in particular) in higher education. I wasn’t able to fully participate or even follow the chat, but I did peek in from time-to-time. Fortunately, Remi wrote a blog post about the Twitter chat which includes embeds of some of the tweets. It’s a really helpful post; a summary and reflection of an ephemeral event that now serves as a resource for those who couldn’t be a part of that event.

Now, it’s the case that all of our OLE faculty participants have created their own blogs, we encourage them to use Twitter (see #vcuole), and now we’re introducing them to web annotation using So, I decided that Remi’s blog post was the perfect piece for us to have the faculty participants annotate. In other words, while having faculty participants use blogs and Twitter, we were going to have them annotate a blog post about a Twitter chat about annotating the web. It’s all kinds of meta!

It’s also nice that before we released the assignment to our faculty participants, a few folks had already laid down some annotations on the post. So, our faculty participants can see how a conversation/discussion (the theme of OLE that week) can happen around a web-based artifact via annotations.  Only a few of the participants have done the assignment so far, but I’m really eager to see how the faculty participants engage with the activity.


Posted in ALTLab, Online Learning, Pedagogy, Social Media, Technology 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: , , , ,

November 3rd, 2015 by Jon Becker

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

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


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

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

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



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


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

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

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

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

June 1st, 2015 by Jon Becker
Image courtesy of neil banas

Image courtesy of neil banas

In my last post, I invited you all (both of you?) to follow and learn along with two online summer courses taking place right now.

Today, I’m inviting you to learn and follow along with our signature faculty development initiative. The Online Learning Experience. It’s online learning for online learning. Nearly two dozen VCU faculty members have committed themselves to a summer of learning to facilitate learning online. And, in the spirit of “Connected Learning for a Networked World” (VCU ALT Lab’s tagline), everything is openly networked. The course site is public and serves as a syllabus, a blog aggregation hub, and an information source. Each participating faculty member will have their own blog and Twitter account.

Because other obligations were keeping me from doing my best job leading OLE and because he’s awesome, I turned over leadership of OLE to Tom Woodward about 6 weeks ago. With grace, professionalism and speed, Tom whipped the experience into the shape it’s in now. Tom does a nice job explaining some of the thinking behind the design of OLE in his last blog post.

This is not just online learning for online learning; it is a model of connected learning. This is us practicing what we preach.

I hereby encourage you all to follow along and participate in part or in whole. There are in-depth, required small-group activities as well as voluntary “makes,” which may be an easy way to play along.

Also, follow the posts in the Blog Hub.

Follow the #vcualtlab hashtag.

Subscribe to the Twitter list of OLE participants.

Have fun with us!


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

January 5th, 2015 by Jon Becker



This week, the VCU ALT Lab team begins the 3-day, face-to-face Institute part of an intensive faculty development experience we’ve collectively developed. Called The Online Learning Experience (OLE), the experience actually consists of three parts: (1) Pre-Institute Activities where participants equip themselves with their own digital toolbelt and begin to explore the Web as a platform of participation, (2) The Institute, where we come together, face-to-face, for 3 full days, and (3) A 3-week online module where participants experience what it’s like to be a fully online student.

Per the home page of the OLE site, participants in the OLE will:

  •  *Explore and examine assumptions about teaching and learning
  •  *Understand the principles of Connected Learning
  •  *Explore the affordances of the open web for teaching and learning
  •  *Learn new technologies that bring Connected Learning to life
  •  *Engage in online course and program development activities
  •  *Experience online learning as a student
  •  *Teach an online course

Those are the outcomes and/or “learning objectives,” and there are a few program features that are not as explicit but worth mentioning:

  • The 3-day, face-to-face Institute is a streamlined version of a prior iteration that lasted a full week.  Though faculty participants are well-compensated for committing to the experience, it’s hard to ask faculty members to commit to a full week in a classroom. Also, there’s the irony of teaching about online learning face-to-face. We’ve tried to make sure that the Institute is a worthwhile effort and that it maximizes the 3-days of face-to-face time.
  • In fact, on the 3rd day, faculty participants work in small groups/teams all day discussing, designing, building, etc. It’s a “roll-up-your-sleeves,” hands-on, minds-on day. Because we have worked hard to bring in groups of faculty members from the same department, this is really valuable time together to do the work of collaborative course and program1 design.
  • If you poke around the site and the various parts of the OLE, you will notice that we never mention Blackboard. That’s purposeful; this is about exploring the principles of Connected Learning and the affordances of the open, networked web for teaching and learning. Full stop.
  • We’ve got 41 faculty participants going through the OLE this time around. For the Institute, participants will be in two locations; one group on the Monroe Park Campus and one group on the Health Sciences Campus. All participants will follow the same schedule and we’ll connect the two groups via videoconference at strategic moments. During the 3-week online module, all participants will work as one “class,” and we will purposefully have them work together in small, interdisciplinary teams.
  • This is a resource-intensive experience for us. Faculty are compensated for participation and virtually the whole VCU ALT Lab team is involved at one point or another. That’s like a 4:1 faculty:”student” ratio.

If you’re reading this and not a participant, I hope you’ll follow and play along. All faculty participants will be blogging and we’re aggregating all posts into an aggregation hub. Please feel free to comment as you feel moved to do so. Also, we’ll be tweeting using the #vcuole hashtag.


  1. We have a few departments that are launching (or already have launched) online programs and this is a rare opportunity to work together for an extended period of time on courses + program issues []

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