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: , , , , , , , ,

April 8th, 2016 by Jon Becker

Here’s a dilemma that I’m certain is not unique to my institution, but that raises complex questions for me:

VCU ALTLab’s very own Lisa Phipps is teaching a (open, online) course this summer about complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). She’s uniquely qualified to teach this course as a pharmacist with about 17 doctoral degrees. She’s taught versions of this course to various types of graduate students, and we thought it’d be a great course for undergraduates, especially if we dressed it in a connected learning motif. Lisa taught the course last summer to much good feedback from the students. So, the question is, how would undergraduates at VCU know that this course is being offered this summer?

Because the course is not yet officially a course in the bulletin, it is being offered as a “special topics course.” Its course code is UNIV291, and it’s “official” title is “Complementary & Alt Medicine.” Banner limits the number of characters for a course title. I forget the exact number, but it’s not much. In fact, IIRC, we may have maxed out with that title. It has a UNIV designation because, for now, it’s being offered through University College which is probably the best “home” for a course that’s interdisciplinary.

So, again, the question is, how undergraduates at VCU would know that this course is being offered. As best I understand it, students pick courses based mostly around what they need, what they’re advised to take, and/or what fits in their schedule. They find out what’s available through Banner. Here’s what Banner looks like from the start:


Inspiring, right? The directions on the screen say, “Use the selection options to search the class schedule. You may choose any combination of fields to narrow your search, but you must select at least one Subject. Select Class Search when your selection is complete.1 The first problem here is that a student must select a subject. Not an idea or a keyword, but a subject. So, if a student is interested in let’s say, “health” or “medicine”, there is no mechanism for the student to see if there are any courses related to health or medicine. Furthermore, in the case of Lisa’s class, if the student doesn’t first select “University College,” she will never find that course. And, why would a student select “University College” (which isn’t a major; it’s an important unit that houses our first-year seminar and a sophomore-level research writing course that all students take)?

Let’s go a little further into this Banner-based course selection process… Imagine a student is going home for the summer, but wants to be able to take classes and online learning makes that possible. Lisa’s class is online this summer. So, how would a student find out which online courses are available? Well, they’d have to know to start by clicking on “Advanced Search.” Once in “Advanced Search,” the student would have to look towards the bottom and know that “Course taught online” is an “attribute type” (see where the cursor is in the image below). So, what if the student selects the “Course taught online” attribute type and then hits “Section search” to see all of the online courses? Nope. Error. The student must also select a subject… Sigh.




We’ve tried to address this problem by developing our own “storefront” where current and prospective students can learn about all of our online offerings. On the online courses page, students can filter by a few variables and can also do a keyword search. But, do students know about our storefront? Unlikely. We’ve posted digital signage “advertising” throughout the Student Commons. But, does anyone actually pay attention to those monitors? Who knows.

Most recently, I sent an email to the head of advising in hopes that she’ll send the email to all of the advisors at the university in the hopes that they’ll get the information to the students… Yeah, that’s not terribly hopeful or efficient. There has to be a better way…

I mean, shouldn’t there be a way that allows for the possibility that a student might serendipitously learn about Lisa’s course? What if shopping for courses were more like shopping on What if a course registration system had, for every course, among other things:

  • Sophisticated, faceted search capabilities (keyword searching is the low-hanging fruit)
  • A detailed description of the course
  • Amazon-like reviews from other students
  • A course trailer for the course (here’s the course trailer for Lisa’s course)
  • A listing of “If you liked this course, you might also like…” (and/or, “Students who enrolled in this course also enrolled in…”)
  • Work products from students who’ve taken the course, syndicated in

I feel like that’s just the tip of the iceberg of possibilities…

I also know that at the University of Virginia, a physics professor has gone rogue and created an unofficial course search system known widely as “Lou’s List.” That system has some nice features, but, well, you look and judge for yourself.

This all gets back to my last ranty blog post. I’m not willing to concede that all students view the course selection process as purely functional/operational. I certainly don’t want them to think of the process as “which checkboxes can I check off next semester.” The idealist educator in me has to believe that we can create a system that engineers serendipity2, that inspires and causes students to wonder. If we had a system that allowed a curious student to more easily scratch an itch about, oh, say, “complementary and alternative medicine,” we might help some students see higher education as a time of inquiry and wonder and not just a time of checking off boxes on the way to a credential.

  1. notice that the directions say “Class Search,” but the button actually says “Course Search.” Sigh. []
  2. as always, I have to give attribution to Tom Woodward for this phraseology []

Posted in Education, Innovation, Online Learning, Technology, VCU 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: , , , ,

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: , , , , , ,

March 10th, 2015 by Jon Becker

These are only the stories that came across my radar during just the last 4 months.


Harvard secretly photographed students to study attendance (Boston Globe, 11/5/14)

Harvard University has revealed that it secretly photographed some 2,000 students in 10 lecture halls last spring as part of a study of classroom attendance, an admission that prompted criticism from faculty and students who said the research was an invasion of privacy.

The clandestine experiment, disclosed publicly for the first time at a faculty meeting Tuesday night, came to light about a year-and-a-half after revelations that administrators had secretly searched thousands of Harvard e-mail accounts. That led the university to implement new privacy policies on electronic communication this spring, but another round of controversy followed the latest disclosure…


U. online facial recognition system presents major privacy risk (The Daily Targum, Rutgers U. student newspaper, 2/12/15)

Are you planning on taking an online course at Rutgers next semester? Then you might need to download University-sanctioned software that will track your facial identity, photo ID and browser activity. According to an article published on New Brunswick Today by Daniel Munoz this past weekend, Rutgers University has implemented a recognition suite called ProctorTrack for online courses. ProctorTrack records face, knuckle and personal identification details during online courses. Munoz also notes that the system “keeps track of all activity in the monitor, browser, webcam and microphone” throughout each session…


Lynn University To Track Student Attendance by iPad Location (Campus Technology, 3/9/15)

Next spring, Lynn University in Boca Raton, FL, will pilot Core Principle’s Class120, technology that monitors class attendance by “pinging” the location of students’ iPads. (The insitution’s iPad initiative provides an iPad mini to all students on campus.) University administrators hope the implementation will help boost student performance by improving attendance rates, citing data that Lynn students who miss one quarter of their classes per semester have a 68 percent chance of earning a grade point average below 2.0…

Class120 uses geolocation technology and proprietary campus mapping to detect a student’s smartphone or tablet in class. If the device is not found at the scheduled class time, the system can send e-mail or text alerts to designated individuals. (The app does not provide actual location information at any time other than the scheduled class.) A dashboard view allows professors and administrators to track student attendance in real time.

I’m breaking from my self-imposed constraint of only writing about what I see as positive applications of technology-enhanced active learning because these stories have me very concerned. The stories, first and foremost, raise SERIOUS concerns around student privacy. Additionally, I feel like stories like this give all digital educational technologies a bad name.

Finally, I’ll add that these efforts are “solutions” to perceived problems of attendance and cheating. For me, those problems are mitigated by better, engaging pedagogy and authentic assessment. Also, trust.

So, getting back to my personal positivity promise, I’ll go back now to working to help students use digital and Web-based technologies in ways that empower them and that give them as much control over their work and their data as possible. Also, trust.

Posted in Assessment, Digital engagemetn, Education, Online Learning, Pedagogy, Technology Tagged with: , , ,

February 22nd, 2015 by Jon Becker

One strategic priority around online learning at VCU is online learning during summer sessions. As VCU President Rao has framed online learning as an issue of access and degree completion, we have put considerable resources towards working with departments and faculty members to offer online courses over the summer. Based on feedback we’ve received from students and data from registration last summer, it is quite clear that this is an important strategy. Many VCU students go home and/or work long hours over the summer, but would still like to continue their progress towards degree completion.

So, currently, there are 250 sections of courses on the schedule for Summer 2015. That’s considerably more than any other previous summer.  Many of those courses are graduate-level courses that are part of online programs. Increasingly, though, we are adding courses aimed at VCU undergraduates.

The VCU ALT Lab team is proud to be offering three such online courses this summer. They will all embrace a Connected Learning orientation, meaning they will be open for public viewing, participation, input, etc. Consistent with my recent post on Courses as Narratives, each course has a course trailer that works to recruit students and orient students to the narrative of the course. I highly recommend Yin Wah Kreher’s post about the process by which her course trailer came into being.  The courses we will be offering are:

UNIV 291: Complementary & Alternative Medicine: Health, Hype, or Hocus Pocus?

Complementary and alternative medicine is a subject of interest to all people in all walks of life, especially as the concept of integrative health increases in popularity. In this online course, students will explore the scope of the field of complementary and alternative medicine by following the story of a young woman who seeks to increase her own awareness of integrative health practices and how they interface with modern western medicine.


UNIV 291: Clear Thinking for Powerful Learning

We can’t see our thoughts but we can make them seen. In this course, I want to help learners who are struggling to articulate their thoughts. Together, we will explore how to communicate our thoughts in concrete and creative ways so as to extend and challenge our thinking and learning.


Sociology 101: General Sociology

Sociology is about how we create our social world; how the culture, structures, and relations of power that characterize our world influence who we are and how we live our lives; how societies maintain some semblance of social order amid constant change; and how some people break out of predictable routines to help change the world. Sociology 101 introduces this sociological perspective to help us better understand ourselves and our constantly changing world.


I hope you’ll register, follow along, participate, etc.


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

October 14th, 2014 by Jon Becker

One of these days, we’re going to do a “This is how I work” series for the VCU ALT Lab team. It’ll be much like the lifehacker series that I love.  For whatever reason, I’m totally fascinated by how different people work. I’m particularly interested in how people in similar life and professional spaces as me work. Hence, the forthcoming VCU ALT Lab series, as a starting point.

For now, I wanted to write a bit about how I read. On any given day I read a LOT. I read early and often. In order of increasing length, I read anything from tweets and texts to Facebook posts to blog posts to longform articles to books.

I read on multiple devices. In my office at work, I have a dual monitor setup that gives me lots of reading real estate. My laptop follows me around to lots of places and I read a lot on my laptop. Finally, more than ever, I read a lot on my phone phablet1. My phablet was ridiculed by many, particular Apple juicers. But, now that Apple came out with the bigger iPhones, I’m suddenly the guy that was ahead of the curve. My point here, though, is that my phablet is a lovely device for reading. I read my first full-length eBook2 entirely on my phablet this summer and it was quite enjoyable.

What do I read? Or, better yet, how do I decide what to read?

I used to live in Google Reader3. I subscribed to dozens of feeds and that was my go-to place to find what I thought I wanted to read. Over time, though, as Twitter became more prominent in my life, Twitter began to be redundant to an RSS reader. I would often check in on Twitter and click on links provided by people or accounts and later see that same link in Google Reader. Redundancy is OK, but time is a limited resource and I found myself mostly just reading what was in the browser tabs I had opened from Twitter. Then, Google Reader died and I came to mostly rely on Twitter (and Facebook on a very limited basis) to find stuff to read.

I still get much of what I read from Twitter4. But, time seems tighter than it used to be and I’m also on the move more; my browser tabs on my office workstation and on my laptop are less accessible during the day than they used to be. So, here are some ways I’ve adjusted my reading habits:

1.  I did return to an RSS Reader, but on a very limited basis. I decided to give Newsblur a shot, though on a very limited basis. I use the free version because I’m testing it out and only plan to have a few feeds in there for now. And, that is how it’s worked out. I have a handful of feeds I subscribe to through Newsblur. It’s a super secret list. Your blog might be on it, but probably not… One feed I subscribe to is the ALT Lab blog, 3rd Space. That way, I can be sure to keep up on what my ALT Lab teammates are writing. Also, the Newsblur mobile app is pretty fantastic. It has earned prime real estate on the home page of my phablet.

2.  My absolute favorite source of articles to read these days is Caitlin Dewey’s TinyLetter. A while ago, I’d read an article about how tinyletter is making us fall in love with email again. I was intrigued by the resurgence of eNewsletters. Then, about 6 months after that article, Fast Company published Tips on crafting a popular newsletter, from top newsletter authors wherein I discovered Caitlin Dewey. What a revelation. Her daily newsletter is full of links to fun and interesting stories.

As I wrote on Twitter tonight:


3.  One other great source of material for me is Longreads. You can read most of what is curated there for free, or you can pay $3/month to be a Longreads member5. I take the free route, for now. Mostly, I look for The Top 5 Longreads of the Week. You can sign up to get an email every Friday with links to those top 5 stories and/or you can get them as a Readlist for Kindle. Based on my experience with Longreads, and with the caveat of my limited expertise in journalism, I’d say high-quality longform journalism is not dead so much as it is buried. Longreads helps me uncover tremendous journalism and writing.

That covers most of how I read. There’s probably a bit more to it, but having written this, I notice that I collect less reading material on my own and I’ve come to rely more on a small set of trusted curators of content. That may be a function of changes in my professional lifestyle; I don’t know.

I’d be interested in knowing how you read. Care to share?

  1. A Samsung Note 3 []
  2. The Circle, ironically []
  3. RIP []
  4. There’s another post to be written about how I deal with the dozens of tabs I open in a given day/week. Maybe that’ll wait for the larger “How I work” series. []
  5. To be honest, I don’t really know what membership buys; I haven’t checked it out yet []

Posted in ALTLab, Technology Tagged with: , , , , , , ,