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: , , , ,

October 29th, 2014 by Jon Becker





Richmond, Virginia has the distinct privilege of hosting  The World Road Cycling Championships in September of next year. This is a major international event, and Richmond is the first U.S. city to host it in over a decade. Given the layout of the course and that there will be nearly a half-million spectators, Virginia Commonwealth University is taking the unprecedented step of closing for a full week one month into  the Fall 2015 semester. By my account, folks around here have been very thoughtful and planful leading up to the event. I was in a meeting, not long ago, where our interim Provost charged the Vice Provosts with thinking creatively and in bold ways about how we can conceive of this event as a learning catalyst and not just a week off from classes. Then, I received an invite to a meeting from one of our Vice Provosts who is leading an effort to take advantage of the cycling championships as a learning opportunity. I’ve excerpted the email invitation below:

Dear Colleagues:

 As you know, Richmond will be hosting the 2015 World Bike Races September 19-27, 2015. This world class event offers grand learning possibilities for our students through multiple forms of engagement. The Provost has challenged us to consider the possibilities across the disciplines and student activities and to submit ideas – along with budget considerations. This is truly one of those unique opportunities to consider interdisciplinary, real-time, on-line, volunteerism and other forms of experiences for VCU students, faculty and staff. So how can we capitalize on this event?

 I would like to invite you or your designee(s) to attend a special presentation and planning session on Friday October 31, 2014…

 …We will then have time to brainstorm and discuss options. So many disciplines can play a role – homeland security, economics, kinesiology, public relations, logistics, language translation, history, project management, health and sanitation, arts, journalism, and the list goes on. 

Please let me know if you or someone else from your area will be able to join us… I welcome suggestions of others to attend – the more creative thinkers the better.

Thank you for your assistance with this once in a lifetime event for the VCU and Richmond community.


In my current capacity as Director of Learning Innovation and Online Academic Programs, this feels like a HUGE opportunity. Then, the other night, I was reminded of something Steve Jobs said about computers:

“…and that’s what a computer is to me. What a computer is to me is, it’s the most remarkable tool that we’ve ever come up with. And, it’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.”


So, with that as the prompt, I challenged the VCU ALT Lab team to come up with some ideas I could bring to the meeting on Friday. That is, if computers are the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds, how might we take advantage of the affordances of modern computing to craft “grand learning possibilities” centered on the World Road Cycling Championships?

I started a Google Doc and the VCU ALT Lab team went to town.

Now, I’m opening that document to you all.

Would you consider adding ideas, “grand learning possibilities” relating to bicycling for the VCU community?

Thanks in advance!


Posted in ALTLab, Digital engagemetn, Innovation, Open, Pedagogy, Technology, VCU Tagged with: , , , , ,