April 19th, 2017 by Jon Becker

I grew up listening to Mike and the Mad Dog. Mike now does his own show and he’s lost his fastball (if he ever had one). Not sure anyone can really appreciate this video if you aren’t that familiar with Francesca, but I imagine it’s still pretty humorous…

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April 2nd, 2017 by Jon Becker

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.

Play ball!

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April 1st, 2017 by Jon Becker

Be right bird. Don’t be left bird.

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March 8th, 2017 by Jon Becker

Today marked the beginning of my very favorite time of year: postseason college basketball season, aka #MarchMadness. Sure, there were conference tournament games before today. But, today, Duke beat Clemson, marking the beginning of MY #MarchMadness. VCU begins postseason play on Friday. 

So, in honor of this special occasion, I share today’s tweet of the day, which is particularly cool given that we’re a big LEGO family. 

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March 3rd, 2017 by Jon Becker

Spent most of the day being sick, but this video gave me a moment of joy. It’s not a long video, and be sure to stick around for the surprise ending.

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January 26th, 2017 by Jon Becker

I don’t know who Jesse McLaren is, but this video won the Internet for today. It wasn’t even close.

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July 12th, 2015 by Jon Becker

In a return to the good ol’ days of educational blogging, Martin Weller wrote a blog post that has generated 49 comments as of this writing (which comes about 72 hours after he posted). I can’t remember the last educational blog post that generated as many comments so quickly. And, to add icing to the cake, the post caused the great Kate Bowles to write her own post in response. Hooray for the edublogosphere!

The conversation in those posts focus on the role of instructor personality in higher ed courses. Weller ultimately wonders about it all:

Whenever I do my social media for academics sessions, I always stress that it’s called social media for a reason, so put a bit of yourself in there. What I’m genuinely unsure about is the extent to which we should deliberately seek to place the learning process. If we remove it, learning can become dull and dry and possibly out of sync with the social media world it needs to operate within. But if we place too much emphasis on it, we risk highlighting the extrovert academic, the jokester, the good looking one, above academics with better subject skills.

Bowles explores the question: what does gender have to do with personality in MOOCs in particular? Her exploration raises important issues worth considering. For me, though, the key paragraph in her post is this one:

In a sector shaped by the persistent anticipation of audit, personality is a bit of a handful. The hallmarks of personable teaching—improvisation, creativity,  anecdote, all the idiosyncratic connections that an individual gets to make between one thing and another—are flatly at odds with the ideals of standardisation and repeatability that assure the student experience.

I’m not so sure that it’s personality that’s at odds with standardization as much as it is the related idea personalization.

There’s this persistent belief in higher education that if we somehow standardize the curriculum. we will “assure the student experience” (to use Bowles’ language). That is, if we don’t have the same syllabus and materials used for every section of a given course, we won’t get consistently good results. Furthermore, no one student should have a “better” experience than any other, so a standardized approach will ensure that this doesn’t happen. I can’t tell you how hard I argued with my colleagues for the “right” to use (or not use) the same textbook as others teaching sections of School Law. My colleagues genuinely believed that every student in our department taking the same course had to use the same textbook, regardless of who was teaching the course.

Hogwash, I say! Actually, I feel more strongly than that. It’s bullshit!  Why? Exactly because of personality. And teacher quality. Those two things, which aren’t entirely unrelated, vary greatly across teachers/professors/instructors. There’s no two ways about it.  And, rather than try to minimize that variance, I think we have to see the variance as a feature and not a bug. That is, we should let teachers/professors/instructors personalize the learning experience in ways that best take advantage of the unique skills, talents, and, yes, personality of  the teacher/professor/instructor.

At VCU and VCUALTLab, we are facing a related challenge. We are working with faculty members and departments to create course trailers. Originally, we were doing this only for online courses, but we’re now moving into the realm of general education. Additionally, our academic bulletin is transitioning to a new platform called CourseLeaf. I’m excited by what I’ve seen from CourseLeaf; well, as excited as one can get about a course bulletin management system. One exciting feature of CourseLeaf is that we can integrate course trailers into the platform. So, when students are browsing the bulletin, or when they’re directed to a description of a course in the bulletin, they can not only read a short description of the course, but they can also watch a course trailer. So far, so good.

The problem/challenge we face is that course bulletins only go course-deep, not section-deep. In other words, there’s a generic description of, say, Introduction to Africana Studies (AFAM111 at VCU). There’s nothing in the bulletin about individual instructors or individual sections. So, a little while back, Molly Ransone and her team worked with Chioke l’Anson, a faculty member in the Department of African-American Studies, to create a course trailer for an online section of AFAM111 Chioke was teaching during a January intersession. It was an online course being offered during an unusual term. The course trailer would be used both to recruit students to the course and also as an introduction for the students in a way that creates genuine instructor presence, a key factor for successful online courses.

Now, if we put that video in the bulletin as a course trailer for AFAM111 generally, it creates a couple of problems. First, that particular course trailer perfectly reflects Chioke’s personality. A prospective student might see the video and expect, if not Chioke himself, another professor with a similar personality. Second, Chioke’s framing of the course is tailored, personalized to his personality and his particular expertise. Not every faculty member will explore Africana Studies by examining the cultural phenomenon that is Flava Flav.

One solution to this problem is to create generic course trailers for general education courses. One example of that is the course trailer for Focused Inquiry (UNIV 111 and 112), a two-semester sequence that all first-year students take. The video is fantastic, but it gives students no expectations of their particular instructor or section. This isn’t the best example because students are placed into sections of these courses and don’t have a choice about whether to take it or not.

But, for courses in Tier II of our core curriculum (UNIV 111 and 112 are part of Tier I), where students have a choice of which courses to take, course trailers can play a more important role. One role it might play is to get students excited about taking a particular course. So, if, for example, the Sociology program wants students to take Sociology 101 so that they might interest students in becoming sociology majors, a course trailer could really help. But,a generic course trailer makes that harder. More importantly, though, for the student considering taking Sociology 101, knowing which section to take would really help the student. That would be aided by section-specific course trailers that reflected the unique personalities, expertise and style of the instructor. One prospective student might be attracted to a section taught by a professor who has a wry sense of humor and seeks to examine sociological issues through real-world examples and lots of small-group activities. Another prospective student might be attracted to a section taught by a professor who is serious and who wants students to do lots of individual writing.

Of course, none of that matters if we don’t allow instructors to personalize all aspects of their courses. And, to allow instructors to personalize their courses would be to accept that courses, or sections of courses, necessarily reflect the personality (and expertise, style, etc.) of the professor. So, whereas Martin Weller has concerns about DS 106 taking on the personality of Jim Groom, I say huzzah. Let personalities shine!

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January 23rd, 2015 by Jon Becker

In her timeless TED talk on vulnerability, Brene Brown jokes about how taken aback she was when someone called her a storyteller. How dare someone call her a storyteller. She’s an academic, dammit! Of course, Brown goes on to say how she grew more comfortable with the label and how she began to see stories as “data with a soul.”

I was reminded of this during a brief Twitter exchange with a VCU colleague the other night. In that conversation, Lyndsay Durham wrote:

Amen, Lyndsay.

My experience is that most faculty members don’t think of their courses as stories or narratives. Mostly, they are a series of activities strung together for the purpose of teaching to a set of learning objectives. So, how can we help faculty members think about creating learning experiences that have a coherent narrative arc that draw learners in the way a good storybook or movie or TV show does? Here are some ways we might get there:

1. Course trailers – our innovative media team, under the leadership of Molly Ransone, is working with faculty members to develop course trailers. We are by no means the first university to be doing this, and the Courseras and edX’s of the world have used course trailers (even if they don’t call them that) effectively. Here’s a recent course trailer that Molly worked on with Ryan Cales, a faculty member in our Department of Focused Inquiry:

Course trailers might be used as a recruiting tool and/or as an introduction to the course for students who have already registered. Regardless, our experience early on in the game is that the exercise of planning and designing a course trailer forces the faculty member to think about the overall narrative of the course. That is, they are confronted with the question of “What story do I want this course to tell?”

2. Course site – whether your course is online, face-to-face, or anything in between, you’re likely to augment the course with a course site. At most universities, these days, every course has a site within the LMS. At VCU, every section of every course has a Blackboard site.

Still, we are working with faculty members to think about taking advantage of the affordances of the open web for course sites. An LMS is customizable, but within very tight limits. You can change the shape of buttons, for example (“Woohoo, rounded buttons. I love this course!” – Nobody, ever). But, for the most part, as an instructor, you are forced into a bunch of constraints built into the LMS (the LMS vendors sell these as features; I see them as bugs). Building a course site on the open web, using a platform such as WordPress, means the possibilities for a course site are almost limitless. The images below are from the Blackboard site of a section of a course I taught last summer and of the course site I created on WordPress for the course. Which is more inviting? Which helps tell the story of the course site as a treehouse where we gather for conversation?




Take a look at the course site Brian Croxall at Emory University created for his Introduction to Digital Humanities course. Do you want to hear/read/see more of *that* story? I do.

3. Syllabus – related to the course site, what does the syllabus as a technology tell us about a course? When presented with a 20-page syllabus constructed in MS Word, are you sucked in wanting to read/see/hear more? Yeah, me neither. Most syllabi are curiosity drains; they suck the joy of learning out from the very beginning. Furthermore, the “story” most syllabi tell is one of “musts” “wills”and compliance.  Sure, there is boilerplate language that students must be notified about, but that language can be placed on a course site instead of the syllabus.

We can think differently about syllabi. I’ve gathered some examples of interesting syllabi in my Diigo collection. How about this syllabus for a course called Internet Resistance? Doesn’t that syllabus give you a sense of the overall narrative of that course? The great Howard Rheingold introduced me to the idea of a mind map or concept map as a course syllabus. What you see below is the image of a mind map of a course on Network Literacy. Each node on the map is a link to information and activities for the course. Furthermore, it’s a course about networks and uses a network representation as a course syllabus/platform.



If we tie course sites and syllabi together, the possibilities are endless. Our awesome new colleague at VCU, Chioke l’Anson, used a Story Map as the launch point for his course. How could any history course not be framed as a story? Enter StoryMap. Click on the image below to see how that works. Students are asked to navigate back-and-forth across a map to learning artifacts; they can actually see the geography of the story using this tool.



So, thanks, Lyndsay, for prompting this blog post.

What story do you want your course to tell and what design elements have you crafted to help tell that story?


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

July 14th, 2014 by Jon Becker

I have been waiting to reveal the video below for a while. I don’t remember exactly how we got here, but I know it’s the result of working with wonderfully zany and creative people.

Shortly after we knew we would be teaching an open online course about research writing, which naturally includes helping students understand logic and argumentation, an idea came up in conversation. It was something like, “We should do a spoof on the song Do You Want to Build a Snowman? from Disney’s Frozen. It would be called Do You Want to Build a Straw Man?” Before I knew it, Tom Woodward had posted some lyrics in a Google Doc and away we went. Throw in Molly Ransone’s amazing videography and Alana Robinson’s creative spirit and amazing connections to creative and talented people like VCU student Tommy McPhail, and magic like the video below happens.

The lyrics are about straw man arguments, and the video highlights internet culture, where straw men abound. I don’t know if you can appreciate the amount of creative thought and energy that went into the video, but I hope you enjoy it nonetheless.

There are some fun things we can do with this video, from deconstructing the lyrics to identifying the various highlights of internet culture.

For now, though, I’m throwing out a joint challenge to the #thoughtvectors and #ds106 communities. I think it would be awesome and super helpful to the current #thoughtvectors students and all future UNIV200 students (and, really, anyone studying logic and argumentation) to have some fun open educational resources about logical fallacies.

Inspired by the video above, and given that Thou Shalt Not Commit Logical Fallacies, what could you create?

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