I’m working on a concept paper that I hope will make the case for taking advantages of modern, networked technologies for “extracurricular,” informal learning within and across an academic department. My main contention is that we don’t have to limit learning to class time or even within classes or programs. We have students in masters programs and two doctoral programs (Ed.D. and Ph.D.) and, unless we bring them together for a colloquium or something, they have no opportunities to talk and learn with those not in their classes. Connected Learning or Networked Learning makes it possible for students to learn together in ways that weren’t possible not that long ago. In other words, how could we take Dave Cormier’s idea of Community as Curriculum and formalize it as an expectation for all students our department serves? Or, in the words of Roger Schank and Kemi Jona, could we use Connected Learning to think about Extracurriculars as the Curriculum?
I’ll be writing up a somewhat formal concept paper that will include some theoretical underpinnings and also some concept maps to explain how things will work; i.e. how information will flow. First, though, I wanted to write up a not-so-hypothetical scenario that vividly demonstrates the power of connected learning. What follows is a first (very rough) draft of the scenario. In true connected learning form, I’m sharing it so that you (my two readers) might comment on this post and offer additional ideas or thoughts.
I think, eventually, it would be good to depict this same scenario in video form. My colleague Molly Ransone produced a video for and with me a while back (see the bottom of this post), but I think we can make one that’s more succinct and that is in more of a story form, not unlike what my friend Ben Grey did a while back for his school district. Or, like Wendy Drexler produced a LONG time ago…
But, for now, here’s the scenario in narrative form. I’d really value your thoughts, ideas, edits, comments, etc…
Pat sits down on the couch after arriving home after a particularly intense discussion in class. The discussion was about vulnerability as it relates to leadership, an essential idea raised by the book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. Pat participated some in the class discussion, but she was having a hard time trying to articulate an argument about how some of the ideas Lencionni writes about assume a neurotypical leader. For some neurodiverse people, Pat thought, allowing oneself to be vulnerable is complicated and difficult. So, Pat turns on her iPad and opens her WordPress app to write a blog post. This affords Pat the time to think through her argument and to frame her argument in ways she couldn’t do in class. Furthermore, she can use hypertext in her blog post to link out to a few articles that support her claims. Pat can also share the articles to which she will link in her blog post to the department’s Diigo group. Less than an hour after sitting down on the couch, Pat has shared the articles in Diigo and hits publish on her blog post.
Pat wrote the post in the blog she maintains as part of her WordPress-based ePortfolio. Occasionally she writes posts as required parts of courses, but she and other students in her program are encouraged to write blog posts as they feel moved to do so. Pat writes at least two blog posts per week because the readings and class discussions are really interesting to her, but active participation in class discussion is not as easy for her as it is for other students. She has many thoughts to share, but does not want to occupy too much space in the classroom and also feels she has trouble being articulate and parsimonious with her words in a face-to-face setting. Blogging has been a really valuable way for Pat to share her thoughts.
Pat’s blog posts, along with those of all of the other students in her program, are aggregated (or syndicated) into a mother blog (or a blogging hub) for all of the students in the program. Any student in any class or cohort can read any other student’s posts via the mother blog. They can be notified of students’ posts by subscribing by email to the mother blog and/or by subscribing to the mother blog’s feed in an RSS reader. The mother blog also automatically feeds the department’s Twitter account and Facebook group. So, as soon as Pat hits “publish” on her blog post, the post shows up in her ePortfolio, on the mother blog, on the department Facebook page, and is broadcast via the department’s Twitter account…
Sonny is a university administrator and a graduate of the program Pat is in. Sonny is a fairly active Twitter user and is reading through her Twitter timeline when the tweet from the department’s Twitter account announcing Pat’s blog post shows up. Sonny is intrigued by the title of Pat’s blog post which is included in the tweet, so she clicks on the link in the tweet to read Pat’s post. Sonny reads the post and is interested in but not particularly expert in the ideas about which Pat wrote. However, Sonny has a colleague, Jo, a fellow university administrator at another university, who has written extensively about neurodiversity and leadership. This colleague also has a Twitter account, so Sonny goes back to Twitter to retweet the tweet from the department account and mentions her colleague Jo in the retweet to boost the signal to not just Jo but to others who follow Sonny on Twitter.
Jo happens to be checking Twitter at the moment Sonny posted the retweet and sees that Jo has mentioned her. She, too, clicks on the link in the tweet to read Pat’s blog post. After reading the post, Jo comments on the post sharing some thoughts and links to a couple of additional related articles that Jo thinks Pat might want to read. So, within a matter of minutes after publishing her blog post, Pat has received a comment and some suggested readings from an expert in the field who happens to work at another university.
About an hour after Pat published her blog post, Tony, an advanced student in Pat’s program, picks up his phone to check his email. He subscribes to the program’s mother blog and chooses to receive instant email notifications instead of daily or weekly notifications. He was worried about email overload, but he created a rule in Gmail that filters all email notifications from the mother blog into a separate folder. On this night, Tony sees that there is a new notification email in that folder and he opens it to see what Pat wrote about. Tony is really moved by what Pat wrote and has some thoughts about what she wrote in the post. So, Tony decides to take a little time to comment on the blog post. He leaves a thoughtful comment and, when prompted by Pat’s blog, elects to be notified when additional comments are left.
The following morning, Sam, a first-year student in Pat’s program, pulls out his phone while eating breakfast and drinking coffee. Sam opens the Facebook app and sees a notification of a new post on the department’s Facebook group page. Sam clicks on the notification and sees that Pat had published a blog post the previous night. Sam has never met Pat; they are in different cohorts of the program. Sam is a middle school principal who was diagnosed early in life as on the autism spectrum. He is considered HFA (high functioning autism) and has had to think about what this means for him as an educator and a leader throughout his professional life. He is not that comfortable sharing his story publicly, but he feels he has a lot to share with Pat. So, he finds Pat in the membership list of the department’s Facebook group page and sends her a private/direct message through Facebook Messenger. He tells Pat that he has lived what Pat wrote about and that he’d love to talk to her and asks if she would meet him for coffee some time to chat about the important issues Pat raised in her post.
— MLB (@MLB) April 2, 2017
Few, if any, organizations do social media as well as Major League Baseball. Today was Opening Day (sort of) for MLB, so this tweet from the official MLB account wins the day.
Yesterday, VCU, the institution for whom I work, announced the hiring of Tressie McMillan Cottom as an Assistant Professor of Sociology. This is a huge win for VCU and for our sociology program. I’ve come to know all of our tenure-track sociology professors and they are an awesome group. They are top-notch scholars who have also demonstrated a deep commitment to creating engaging learning experiences for undergraduate and graduate students. Adding Tressie makes this team extra fierce.
Tressie is an amazing scholar; a “public intellectual” in every sense of that term. The announcement by VCU barely begins to capture it, and the “About” page on Tressie’s website doesn’t do her work justice. So, on her own, Tressie adds enormous value to the VCU faculty.
But, I argue that we’re not just hiring Tressie on her own. That is, it has been said1 that “these days,” when hiring someone, you’re also hiring her network. That has always been true, to some extent, and perhaps even more so in academia. But, now, in the age of the social web, how we build, engage and use networks has changed dramatically. Veletsianos & Kimmons (2011) coined the term “Networked Participatory Scholarship” to mean “…the emergent practice of scholars’ use of participatory technologies and online social networks to share, reflect upon, critique, improve, validate, and further their scholarship” (p. 768). Tressie is an exemplary networked participatory scholar.
Back in 2011, Jo Van Every posed the following question to academicians: “How do you build an academic audience for your (published) work?” She went on to write, “Bloggers actively build an audience for their blogs. Newspapers actively build an audience for their newspaper. Are you actively building an audience for your scholarship?” Per her own website, Tressie’s “…public writing has appeared in Inside Higher Education, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Slate, Dissent Magazine, and The New York Times. Additionally, she has appeared on NPR and Dan Rather Reports.” By writing for publications such as The Chronicle, Slate and The New York Times, Tressie;s work is necessarily accessible by large audiences; they expose her work to mass audiences.
But, Tressie doesn’t stop there in building an audience for her work. She is a prolific blogger and a very active participant on Twitter. As of the writitng of this post, Tressie has 12,763 followers on Twitter2. That’s a few million short of Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber, but for a sociologist, that’s quite a following. On any given night, you might find Tressie tweeting about House Hunters on HGTV, but, from my perspective, Tressie uses Twitter as a platform to build an audience for her work. Twitter is a tool in Tressie’s toolbox of networked participatory scholarship.
What are the implications of having such a significant following? When Tressie went public with the news of her hiring on Twitter, she was making the news publicly available to her 12K+ followers. Given the ephemeral nature of Twitter, it’s not the case that all of her followers saw the tweet at that moment. But, also as of the writing of this post, Tressie’s tweet announcing her hiring (see below) has been favorited 344 times and retweeted 84 times. That latter number is significant because a retweet is a form of signal amplification. It means that after Tressie told her 12,763 followers, 84 other people passed along the news to their network of followers. There’s certainly overlap in those sets of followers, but network effects mean Tressie’s news about her hiring was pushed out far and wide. This is the power of social media and network effects.
— tressie mc (@tressiemcphd) January 13, 2015
Furthermore, it’s not just the sheer size of Tressie’s network that is important. Who is in her network matters, too. So, for example, when the great Audrey Watters tweets about Tressie’s appointment, it is made available to her 27,323 followers:
Today was the best day because Tressie got a kick-ass job. — Audrey Watters (@audreywatters) January 14, 2015
And, Ryan Brazell from the University of Mary Washington sent out a tweet that speaks to Tressie’s draw as an academic:
VCU’s Sociology program was already in my short-term hopes/plans. Now that @tressiemcphd is there? Y’all. Y’ALL.
— Ryan Brazell (@ryanbrazell) January 14, 2015
Ryan doesn’t have a huge Twitter following, but I’m certain that Tressie is known to Ryan almost exclusively through Tressie’s work in networked participatory scholarship. Finally, for the purposes of making my point about networks here, there’s Jennifer Vinopal tweeting today about a job that’s available at VCU Libraries. Jennifer is a librarian at NYU and didn’t just share the job posting on Twitter; she pointed out to her followers that they might be particularly interested in this job because they’d get to work with Tressie:
Tressie kindly credits me with initiating the process that led to her appointment at VCU. I don’t know if that’s exactly right, but it’s worth noting that I’ve never actually met Tressie in person. I know her only through screens. I know her only because our online networks brought us into contact with each other.
So, needless to say, I can’t wait to meet Tressie face-to-face. And, by virtue of network effects, I’m certain I’ll get to “meet” the tremendous network of Tressie’s that we’ve effectively hired as well.
For lots of reasons, it has been an interesting start to the new academic year. One particularly interesting development has been the number of high-level administrators at VCU who have joined Twitter in the last week or two. Academic deans, vice provosts, the provost, and the president of the university. Yes, the president of the university. Dr. Rao is certainly not the first university president to be active on Twitter, but over the first few days of his involvement, I have been impressed with his strategy. In particular, the tweet below from this past Thursday isn’t just an ordinary tweet; it demonstrates an understanding of Internet memes and the participatory culture of the Web.
— Michael Rao, Ph.D. (@VCUpresident) August 22, 2014
In an email to the whole VCU community, Dr. Rao stated that he would be changing his overall communications strategy. He is going to send fewer emails and communicate more through his blog, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter. That’s quite a statement from a president of a major, urban research university.
Dr. Rao’s new communications strategy has me wondering in lots of directions, including what my less new media-savvy colleagues think about this. More importantly, though, it has me thinking about OUR Twitter strategy.
My colleagues and I are launching the Academic Learning Transformation Laboratory (ALT Lab) at VCU. We’re in a sort of soft launch now, but announcements will be made to the whole university community in the coming days and weeks. I believe we’ll be fully “launched” when the provost sends an email blast to the whole university community this coming week. This is a very exciting time for us, and I will be writing MUCH MORE about this after we’re fully launched.
At a team meeting this past week, we discussed our Twitter strategy. The default assumption, I believe, has been that ALT Lab would have its own Twitter account. Of course we will, right? I mean, our tagline is “Connected Learning for a Networked World,” and social media potentially play a big role in connected learning. So, why wouldn’t we have a Twitter account. Well, here’s why; or, here’s my argument for why we might not have a Twitter account.
I often shake my head (#smh) at Twitter accounts for groups or organizations. It seems like every school, department, organization, club, etc. at VCU has a Twitter account. Based only on my observations, the vast majority of those accounts are broadcast only or mostly used for broadcast. I understand how vast the Twittersphere is, and, therefore, the temptation to shout things out to that vast audience. But, this approach misses at least a couple of key points about Twitter. First, Twitter is a form of social media; social being the key word there, for me. It is inherently more than a one-to-many medium. It is not email, or even a blog or a website. To use Twitter like email (or TV or radio) is to use it in ways that don’t maximize its affordances. When I see Twitter accounts being used as broadcast-only, I can’t help but to think, “You’re doing it wrong.” I’ll go one step further and say that I think lesser of organizations (or even individuals) with those kinds of Twitter accounts.
I recognize that we could have an ALT Lab Twitter account that does engage with followers. However, when I engage with organizational accounts, it feels impersonal. It’s like I’m communicating with an employee, not a person. Also, frankly, I don’t want anyone on our team to have to spend time responding on behalf of our Twitter account and having to “properly” represent the organization.
My thinking, instead, is that we’ll have a Twitter hashtag (#VCUALTLab) that my teammates and I will use when tweeting something relevant to our work. Currently, the Twitter icon on our website links out to the Twitter search page for that hashtag. Also, I’ve compiled a Twitter list with the accounts of everyone on our team. With one click, anyone with a Twitter account can follow everyone who works in ALT Lab. I believe this is more “personal” and, more importantly, is more consistent with Twitter as a network-based medium. In other words, if you want to know what’s happening in/with ALT Lab, don’t just follow one account, follow a dozen or so people. This gives you a diversity of perspectives on the organization, brings you closer to the people within the organization, and potentially exposes you to the networks of those people.
A few days ago, during our team meeting where we were discussing this Twitter issue, my colleague Tom Woodward noted that the company that makes his propane tank had a number of social media icons on the label of his propane tank. So, he sent out this tweet.
— Tom Woodward (@twoodwar) August 21, 2014
If you check out Blue Rhino’s Instagram account, you find nothing. And, so, all I can think is that some social media guru working for or with Blue Rhino has failed; I think lesser of that company.
What do you think? Do we need a dedicated Twitter account for VCU ALT Lab?