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: , , , ,

December 1st, 2014 by Jon Becker

Image courtesy of


Do you want to be a unicorn? If so, I might be able to help.

We’re hiring at VCU ALT Lab. Specifically, we are looking for a digital engagement specialist and a couple of learning technologists. I’ve linked to the job descriptions, but, basically, I’d say we’re looking for interesting people who are interested in helping faculty members create awesome learning experiences.  That’s all. The ad copy for the jobs includes the following text:

The Academic Learning Transformation Laboratory (ALT Lab) is an intensely aspirational unit within the Office of the Vice Provost for Learning Innovation and Student Success at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). ALT Lab models and inspires connected learning for a networked world through faculty development, student engagement, communities of practice, and technology enhanced active learning. We cultivate distinctive experiences of deeper learning fostered by high engagement for student success. As Campus Technology put it recently, we are attempting nothing short of “Reinventing Teaching and Learning Centers for the 21st Century.”

Want a piece of that?

ALT Lab is poised to take a leadership role as VCU begins a massive digital engagement journey, as codified in our Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP), and we are looking for a new member of the ALT Lab leadership team to help us lead those efforts. We welcome individuals with diverse experiences and backgrounds who will contribute to an already diverse community of faculty, staff, and students.

I can’t promise puppies and unicorns, but I can promise opportunity. We write on walls often. We hang out in cemeteries with students. We play video games with students. We do faculty development in the open and as a team. And we occasionally make Tom Woodward do goofy things.

Want a piece of that?

Posted in ALTLab, VCU Tagged with: , , , , , ,