Category: Social Media

May 26th, 2017 by Jon Becker

Last week, I wrote about how I was working on a concept paper that I hope will make the case for taking advantage of modern, networked technologies for “extracurricular,” informal learning within and across an academic department. In that post, I laid out some scenarios that I hope provide a narrative picture of what this might look and feel like. Today, I’m posting the introduction to the concept paper as well as a graphic representation of the connected learning ecosystem I have in mind for my Department. First, though, a bit about the Department of Educational Leadership at VCU:

  • We have a masters program, a Ph.D. program, and an Ed.D. program.
  • The Ed.D. program is our most subscribed and our most popular at the moment. Starting this Fall, we’ll have three intertwined cohorts of the program focused on: Higher Ed. Leadership, SPED Leadership, and General Leadership.
  • Across all of our programs, I’d estimate that we have probably 70-80 students at some point of graduate study.
  • We’re moving more and more in the direction of distance education as that is where the demand appears to be (though there is still demand for face-to-face programs)
  • Including me, we have 5 tenure-track faculty. We’ll be adding one more before the Fall semester starts. We have 1 full-time term faculty member (teaching only) and we’ll be adding one more before the Fall. We have a number of adjunct faculty members who are regular contributors to our program and some that work with us more sporadically.

So, here’s the introduction to the concept paper:



In this new interactive Web world, I have become a nomadic learner; I graze on knowledge. I find what I need when I need it. There is no linear curriculum to my learning, no formal structure other than the tools I use to connect to the people and sources that point me to what I need to know and learn, the same tools I use to then give back what I have discovered. I have become, at long last, that lifelong learner my teachers always hoped I would become. Unfortunately, it’s about thirty years too late for them to see it.

Will Richardson

This “Web world” that Will Richardson wrote about wasn’t even so new when he wrote about it. That was in 2006.

We are now more than a decade beyond Richardson’s declaration. In that time, the growth of formal distance education courses and programs has been tremendous and has received the most attention from mainstream media and academia. However, the possibilities and opportunities for informal learning afforded by the modern, connected Web have also exploded and have received a good amount of attention as well. We now have a conceptual framework for web-enabled informal learning (Connected Learning), a nascent learning theory (Connectivism), many examples and anecdotes,  research frameworks, and we even have critiques of the theories and the ideas in practice

That said, much of the thinking and writing about connected learning as applied to formal institutions of higher education is limited in two ways. First, there is a clear bias toward egocentric models. That is, much of the research and literature on connected learning as applied to formal institutions of learning has focused on the individual development of “personal learning networks.” The idea, generally, is that individual learners use any combination of tools and platforms to build their own learning networks. Those individual networks are connected to each other in multiple ways, thus creating a loosely tied network with many nodes of varying density. The burden here, then, is on the individual whose personal network may or may not allow the individual to become a viable node on the larger resultant network.

The second limitation of the literature on connected learning as applied to formal institutions of learning  is the focus on the “course.” We have numerous examples of within-course activities that carry the hallmarks of connected learning, and we have a growing number of courses offered by colleges and universities that could be considered exemplars of connected learning (see e.g. Gogia, 2016).

What we lack, though, is a conceptualization of how connected learning might look if it were applied not just by individuals or in individual courses, but rather across an entire academic program. A high-quality academic program is more than just a series of courses with associated learning activities and assessments. That is, high-quality academic programs supplement coursework with extracurricular activities including, but not limited to, colloquia, reading groups, guest speakers, etc.; opportunities for students and faculty to come together and to learn together outside of designated class time. There are often also the unstructured learning occasions that happen before and after designated class time and, where offered, in dedicated study and learning spaces. Those “extracurricular activities” structured or not, are time- and place-based; they are face-to-face and synchronous.

Circling back to Will Richardson’s 2006 article, the title was, “The Internet Breaks School Walls Down.” A more precise construction of that idea is that the Web affords learning opportunities that are agnostic to time and place. So, how do we employ connected learning in the service of the unstructured learning occasions that happen before and after designated class time, but entirely via the Web?

This paper lays out the conceptual/theoretical framework, proposes a connected learning infrastructure for an academic program, and makes the case for why this makes particular sense for students and faculty in the discipline of education.


And, here’s a first pass at a schematic of the connected learning ecosystem I have in mind:

Some notes:

  • Student ePortfolios would be WordPress-based and would include a blogging component as well as other learning artifacts. This is already an expectation of our Ed.D. students. Here is what one such Portfolio looks like, from John Hendron, a graduate of the program.
  • The different colors of the student ePortfolios represent different cohorts of students. They could be masters students, Ph.D. students, or Ed.D. students.
  • The black, bidirectional arrows between student ePortfolios represents connections between them that include, but is not limited to, comments, links (hypertext) to each other’s posts, etc. There’s no reason students couldn’t or wouldn’t read, comment on, link to, etc. students in other cohorts; in fact, that’s ideal. But, I’ve kept the sociogram simple for now.
  • The blue dotted lines represent optional notifications. That is, I might choose to subscribe to the HUB (mother blog) to get instant, daily or weekly notifications by email of new posts. Same with Diigo.
  • Anything syndicated to the HUB (mother blog) would be broadcast by a departmental Twitter account and into a departmental Facebook group/page.
  • Diigo would syndicate into the HUB (mother blog) in any number of ways. I’m leaning towards a weekly, automated post of “top” bookmarked stories.

For me, right now, the biggest question (among many) is, would this be:

  1. Required as a standalone part of the curriculum (i.e. students actually get credit, maybe 1 credit per semester, for doing this).
  2. Required as integrated into the curriculum; i.e. faculty members would integrate it into courses
  3. Required as co-curricular activities? (right now, only our Ph.D. program has explicit expectations about co-curricular activities)
  4. Not required; voluntary of any/all students, but highly encouraged

There’s more, but I’ll stop here. I welcome your feedback. Laura Gogia is skeptical that I’ll get any traction. I take that as a challenge…

Posted in Innovation, Social Media, Technology, VCU Tagged with: , ,

May 19th, 2017 by Jon Becker

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.


Posted in Social Media, VCU Tagged with: , , , ,

January 27th, 2017 by Jon Becker

I tried something new a few months ago, and I’m not sure I like it.

You see, I used to tweet a lot about sports. Still do, kinda. I tweet about lots of things related to my interests, but for some reason, tweeting about sports always felt different to me. I felt like:

  • it was turning off people who follow me mostly because of my identification with professional pursuits around education and/or technology. I just felt like VERY few of the people who follow me and/or with whom I engage somewhat regularly have any interest in sports.
  • it was stopping people who might otherwise follow me from following me because it meant a volume of tweets that may be offputting. Mind you, I have issues here that are personal. For example, I don’t want to be viewed as a blabbermouth and/or a know-it-all. I think this is somewhat cultural in that ever since I moved from New York to Virginia, I feel like I’ve been coded as a blabbermouth and/or a know-it-all. I don’t like that feeling, so I don’t want that feeling carrying over onto Twitter.
  • it was somehow “less than;” that is, relatively speaking, sports is neither particularly important nor high-minded. Thus, for some reason, I felt a little embarrassed to tweet about sports. To be a sports fan is to be a heathen relative to other pursuits such as the arts or literature or even politics. This is likely personal, too, but, I’m just sharing why I made this move.

So, I created a separate Twitter account, @profballer. Before I offer my observations of having done this, let me say a bit about the logistics of the move.

  1. First, I created the account and followed a bunch of sports writers and clearly sports-related accounts1. Each time I followed someone new, I looked at Twitter’s recommended “similar accounts” and followed accounts I thought I’d be interested in. I also looked at some lists that sports writers had created and followed individuals on those lists. I currently follow 111 accounts.
  2. Second, I unfollowed overlapping sports-related accounts from my @jonbecker account. This uncluttered the stream of tweets I was seeing via @jonbecker rather considerably. This wasn’t a clean separation, though. People like Richard Deitsch and Seth Davis work in the sports media, but they tend to tweet about other things, including journalism and politics. Same with Jeff Pearlman. There are probably a handful of such accounts that I follow with both accounts. I can’t seem to fully dissociate…
  3. Third, I added @profballer as an account to TweetDeck such that my first 4 columns (left to right) are as below. This makes it pretty easy to follow the streams and mentions of both accounts. On mobile, I use the Twitter app and it’s pretty easy to toggle back and forth between accounts.
  4. Fourth, I stopped tweeting about sports via @jonbecker. Maybe not entirely, but pretty close, at least initially.
  5. Finally, I started using @profballer and engaged from time-to-time with other accounts.

I should also add that when I created the @profballer Twitter account, I also bought and thought I might try out sports blogging as a hobby. You’ll see that I didn’t get far with that. But, I haven’t given up on the idea entirely. I actually went to college thinking that I wanted to be a sportswriter. My first year at college, I wrote for the sports department of The Chronicle. It wasn’t a great experience. I was assigned women’s lacrosse and men’s and women’s soccer. I enjoyed those sports, but I hated tracking down the coaches after the game and asking them questions about the games. I was just a little too introverted and not assertive or confident enough. Maybe I needed to give it more time, but I stopped writing for The Chronicle after my first year in college. Then, later during college, I was locked out of a course taught by the great John Feinstein who was a visiting professor one semester. I took that as a sign that I wasn’t meant to be a sports writer. But, again, I’m not giving up all hope. I think I’d enjoy sports blogging, but I’d have to prioritize it in my life in ways I’m not yet comfortable with.

But, back to Twitter…

After three or four months, mostly, I feel dissociative. I feel like I’m not being true to myself at @jonbecker. And, I feel a little too anonymous and inauthentic at @profballer. But, I’m also cognizant of the possibility that what kept me from fully enjoying my time as a sports writer for The Chronicle may also be stopping me from enjoying using @profballer. That is, I’m a little shy and hesitant to engage with that account. Having been on Twitter for so long as @jonbecker, I had completely forgotten what it’s like to be a noob on Twitter. When you mention someone using an account with 20 followers, they are really unlikely to take you seriously. Most of my engagements using @profballer have been with people who follow me at @jonbecker and who also follow me at @profballer. So, it takes some courage to reply to or mention someone like Bomani Jones who has over 379K followers. Why would he bother to engage with me?

Additionally, I find it hard to engage with other completely random people. So, for example, during a VCU basketball game, I look at the #LetsGoVCU hashtag and see folks tweeting about the game. Often, those tweets come from an individual who presents as maybe 19 years old and who mostly otherwise tweets about getting drunk and hating college classes. It just feels weird to me to engage with that person. It’s probably completely elitist and snobby of me, but I just can’t get past the feeling of not wanting to engage with someone with whom I’d most certainly have nothing else in common.

So, I have had no luck trying to engage with people who are really smart and who think a lot about sports but who are likely bombarded with tweets and therefore unlikely to reply to me. And, I don’t feel fully comfortable tweeting with Joe or Jane sports fan who is probably half my age and who probably doesn’t want to have conversations about sports like I do. And, frankly, that’s kind of what I’m looking for; much like I have actual conversations about education and/or politics over at @jonbecker, I’m looking to have reasonably sophisticated conversations about sports on Twitter. And, that’s hard to find and to do.

When we see events like Serena and Venus Williams reaching the finals of the Australian Open like they did this week, that kind of event transcends sports. There are massive socio-cultural implications of that story and it’s not possible to put it in the box of just sports. And, it’s not possible for me to comment on that with *just* my sports hat on over at @profballer. Same thing with the upcoming Super Bowl. That sporting event has become a massive cultural event in this country. It’s not *just* sports.

I’m constantly reminded that David Weinberger taught us that these days, Everything is Miscellaneous. The subtitle of that book is “The Power of the New Digital Disorder.”

I’m going to keep the split for now, but you may also see me going back to tweeting a little bit about sports via @jonbecker. If I decide to trash the whole experiment, it’ll be because I’ve decided that in the digital age WE are miscellaneous; our identities are not meant to be dissociated. Time will tell…

  1. For example, I followed some official team accounts []

Posted in Social Media Tagged with: , , , , ,

Image courtesy of Tijakool Yiyuan
October 28th, 2016 by Jon Becker

[featured image courtesy of Tijakool Yiyuan ]


If I did this right, I will have hit publish on this blog post when I’m at 99,999 tweets and IFTTT will have automatically pushed out a tweet announcing that I’ve written this post.

My 100,000th tweet shouldn’t be a particularly big deal, but I have a thing about round numbers. Thus, I’ve been thinking about what to do at the moment I hit 100K. And, worrying. Because I also have generalized anxiety and high expectations of myself. So, yeah, Dan…


Ultimately, I decided the best way to to recognize/celebrate/mourn this moment is to thank my Twitter network. As I’ve said before, people find community in different ways and in different places. Some people find community in houses of worship, some at bowling alleys. I found and continue to find community on Twitter.

Earlier this week, this happened:

I love that. I’ve engaged with Jen on Twitter for a number of years, and we’ve only met once, face-to-face, for a few minutes at a conference. Yet, she knew about my first date with my wife. We’ve had many conversations, both in the public timeline and via direct messages. I know Jen pretty well, and I think she knows me. I’ve watched her beautiful children grow up and she mine. I have Twitter to thank for that.

And there are many other reasons why I’m thankful for Twitter and my Twitter network. Over 8 years ago, I wrote about how I’d come to know many amazing educators on Twitter who I wanted to teach my own child1. Only one of the people I mentioned in that post have disappeared from my network.

I’m not keen to singling out people or instances as I’m sure I’ll leave some out I should mention. But, off the top of my head, Twitter had a part to play in VCU getting to hire the great Tressie McMillan Cottom, The university I work for is a better place because of Twitter.

Twitter is also the first place I “met” Tom Woodward even though we lived in the same city. We subsequently got to know each other professionally at face-to-face events, but we cultivated a professional relationship on Twitter. Then, 3 years ago, when I got my current job, Tom was the first person I recruited to join our team. Again, the university I work for is a better place because of Twitter.

I first met Laura Gogia face-to-face when she was a reasonably new Ph.D. student. I encouraged her to apply to be a doctoral fellow in the teaching center at VCU2. When I got the opportunity to join her as a colleague and supervisor3, she wasn’t a big Twitter user. I like to believe I encouraged her to become more engaged on Twitter, and she sure did. Eventually, I had the magical opportunity to be Laura’s dissertation advisor and to watch and support her as she did some amazing and ground breaking research that was to some extent about the affordances of social media for Connected Learning. It’s an incredible piece of work that deserves a bigger audience. Thus, I firmly believe that the scholarship of teaching and learning is better because of Twitter.

When I taught a course on Educational Technology for School Leaders, I argued to my students that Twitter is at least 4 things for me:((yes, yes, I know, Google Sites… I didn’t know any better at the time))

  1. Human-powered search
  2. A formal conversation space
  3. A professional networking platform
  4. The faculty lounge/water cooler

I like that construction; I still think of Twitter this way, and I’d add news aggregator to that list.

Recently, Lee Skallerup Bessette, another great Twitter friend of mine, wrote about how Twitter changed her life.

Seeing the real connections that have been made over the social media platform, started there and nurtured elsewhere, or even continuing on over 140 characters, it reminds me why I can’t quit Twitter. I still have too many friends, people I legitimately care about, who live all over the world, with whom my primary contact with them is through Twitter. People I never would have met without Twitter. It is still where I can learn a lot about a lot; I have long argued I was custom-built for the Twitter firehose, so it is the best way for me to learn.

Amen, Lee.

Twitter has made me a better person because it has afforded me the opportunity to come to know some truly wonderful people. Thank you Twitter, and thank you Twitter friends. Here’s to the next 100,000 tweets4.

  1. I only had 1 child at the time []
  2. called CTE at the time []
  3. sort of; it’s complicated… []
  4. unless and until, of course, Twitter is sold to Salesforce or some other entity that will surely ruin it []

Posted in Social Media, Technology Tagged with: ,
June 15th, 2016 by Jon Becker

Confession: I find the “disconnecting” or “going off the grid” genre really unappealing. I just find that most people who write about their time come off as really self-important and dishonest. In writing about these “disconnectionists,” Nathan Jurgenson wrote:

But the disconnectionists’ selfie-help has little to do with technology and more to do with enforcing a traditional vision of the natural, healthy, and normal. Disconnect. Take breaks. Unplug all you want. You’ll have different experiences and enjoy them, but you won’t be any more healthy or real.

At the risk of coming off as really defensive, I *feel* like if I’m going on a vacation, I’m expected to “disconnect;” that somehow I can’t *really* enjoy my vacation if I’m “plugged in” all the time. YMMV, but for me, this is nonsense.

My little family of 4 will be bringing 2 smartphones, 1 laptop, and 2 tablets1 For the 10 members of my extended family going on the vacation, we have a 9-device WiFi license through the cruise ship. When we’re not physically together, on the ship or during excursions, we’ll communicate with each other through WhatsApp. I just downloaded 3 ebooks from our public library for me to read during our travels, and I’ll be reading them on my “phone.”2 I will be taking LOTS of pictures with my phone; maybe even a whale selfie or two (gasp!). So, my phone is an important companion for me on this trip. It’d be silly for me, then, to claim that I’m “disconnecting,” and for me to make some blanket rule about not checking email, social media, etc.

Will my “online” activity be different over the course of the trip than it is during a regular week in my life? I’m sure it will; I hope it will. But, if you’ve engaged with me online, you know that I like to share my life with my friends and family online. I don’t see why I’m supposed to stop doing that just because I’m on “vacation.” Also, I’m scheduled to spend a full week with my whole immediate family, some of those days at sea on a boat. I love my family dearly, but I will absolutely need time to disconnect from THEM; I’ll need “me time” and will also look to my “online” friends and colleagues for an outlet from time-to-time.

So, I’m going on vacation and I’m not “disconnecting.” I’m confident my experience won’t be any less healthy or real.

(Oh, and I was kidding about live-tweeting the whole thing. Kinda…)

  1. My son has some special needs and is a voracious reader; reading is his mode of self-regulation. We can’t travel with a bunch of print books on our vacation. So, for him, reading on a tablet is of tremendous value. He’s got a long way to go to get to the end of the 17,000+ comic books available through the Marvel Unlimited app []
  2. I own a phablet; I’ve come to really enjoy reading on it. []

Posted in Social Media, Technology Tagged with: , , ,

March 21st, 2016 by Jon Becker

In my (simple) mind, one overarching theme of VCU ALTLab‘s online learning faculty development initiative, the Online Learning Experience (OLE), is exploring the affordances of the modern Web for teaching and learning. In recent days, I have said on multiple occasions that I think this is an amazing time to be a learner and an educator. The ways in which web-based technologies allow us to augment “traditional” learning experiences are myriad, and I really believe we are only beginning to scratch the surface. As a VERY small sampling of what we’ve been working on here in ALT Lab, I recommend exploring our “examples” site that Tom Woodward has constructed. I dare you to take in the different examples on that site and to not start to imagine other amazing possibilities.

In the spirit of that theme, I’m particularly excited by one of this week’s activities. I’d gotten pretty jazzed by web annotation tools and had great success using with my undergraduate students last semester. So, I asked David Croteau, our lead coordinator of OLE, if we could incorporate web annotation into OLE, and he was agreeable. Furthermore, he wisely suggested it was an opportunity to have the OLE faculty participants read an article of interest as well; that is, the purpose of the assignment was to learn about how web annotation works, but we could “surreptitiously” “get” the participants to read something we think they should read. “Brilliant!”, I thought.

As I was pondering what article or web page we should have the OLE faculty participants annotate, I happened to see that Dr. Remi Holden was hosting a live Twitter chat (#profchat) about the use of web annotation (, in particular) in higher education. I wasn’t able to fully participate or even follow the chat, but I did peek in from time-to-time. Fortunately, Remi wrote a blog post about the Twitter chat which includes embeds of some of the tweets. It’s a really helpful post; a summary and reflection of an ephemeral event that now serves as a resource for those who couldn’t be a part of that event.

Now, it’s the case that all of our OLE faculty participants have created their own blogs, we encourage them to use Twitter (see #vcuole), and now we’re introducing them to web annotation using So, I decided that Remi’s blog post was the perfect piece for us to have the faculty participants annotate. In other words, while having faculty participants use blogs and Twitter, we were going to have them annotate a blog post about a Twitter chat about annotating the web. It’s all kinds of meta!

It’s also nice that before we released the assignment to our faculty participants, a few folks had already laid down some annotations on the post. So, our faculty participants can see how a conversation/discussion (the theme of OLE that week) can happen around a web-based artifact via annotations.  Only a few of the participants have done the assignment so far, but I’m really eager to see how the faculty participants engage with the activity.


Posted in ALTLab, Online Learning, Pedagogy, Social Media, Technology Tagged with: , , , ,

January 25th, 2016 by Jon Becker


Due to #JonasBlizzard, VCU closed on Friday and is closed again today. We got bunches of snow in a city not well equipped to handle it all. There’s no question that much of the city has had to shut down because it’s just too dangerous to be driving around Richmond. But, I do wonder about closing down business altogether…

Last semester, when Richmond hosted the UCI Cycling World Championships, the university cancelled classes for a whole week. But, the university wasn’t closed. For students, those days were considered “reading days.” Here’s the official statement of the university:

The university has established special courses with assignments that occur during the bike race. Though these days are university “reading” days; due to the extended length of the reading days and the timing of the bike race near the beginning of the semester, assignments can be set during these reading days. We encourage faculty to develop course-related assignments thematically related to the bike race to encourage student engagement.

Those special courses were pretty special and they were coded as “online” even though much of the work for the courses occurred in and around Richmond during the bike race.  For other classes, per the statement above, professors could give students assignments to work on during the week. For employees, the university administration encouraged a “liberal telecommunications policy” for all departments and employees.

So, why is a snow day different? What if:

  • Teaching faculty were encouraged to consider how the modern Web affords possibilities for the continuity of learning? Truth is, many (most?) of the classes that were cancelled would have involved a faculty member lecturing or delivering information to students. Recording lectures and posting them as videos is the low hanging fruit of educational technology. For smaller, seminar-style classes, there are many possibilities for engaging students in discussion online. Seminar-style discussions could even be held synchronously on any number of platforms. The university just invested a significant amount of money to add Zoom videoconferencing to a few other related videoconferencing technologies.
  • The same liberal telecommuting policy was in effect and faculty, staff and administrators were encouraged to not cancel the meetings that were on their calendar, but to use those same videoconferencing technologies?
  • Faculty, staff and administrators were encouraged to use other synchronous and asynchronous communications technologies to carry out the business of the programs, departments, units, etc.? In VCU’s ALT Lab, we use Slack for all internal communications. Am I not supposed to communicate with my teammates today because the university is closed?

Clearly, not every aspect of the operations of a university can be done virtually. But, that doesn’t mean that a weather event should shut down the whole university.

In part, I’m being intentionally provocative here. I do believe, though, that this may be an opportunity to cause university personnel to examine what modern forms of computer-mediated communication and new media afford for an institution of higher learning. Changing our approach to snow days might cause personnel to learn new technologies that, in the long run, might ultimately allow them to work smarter and not harder. Teaching faculty would be given an opportunity to explore what it’s like to teach online in a short, low-risk situation. Students can continue to be learners.

Again, this is a provocation, and maybe I’m missing some reasons for closing down completely. But, I don’t think so.

So, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get ready for a videoconference meeting with colleagues from other universities across Virginia. But, wait, am I not supposed to participate in that meeting? My university is closed, right?…

"Egyptian Building in Snow" courtesy of VCU Libraries.

“Egyptian Building in Snow” courtesy of VCU Libraries.

Posted in Education, Innovation, Online Learning, Social Media, Technology, VCU Tagged with: , , , ,

January 11th, 2016 by Jon Becker

It’s trite at this point to compare education and journalism as “industries” struggling to adapt in increasingly digital times. So, when Chris Hughes took to Medium to announce that he was looking to sell The New Republic, it was too easy to read the following sentence and to replace “company” with “institution,” or, better, “university.”

Yet I will be the first to admit that when I took on this challenge nearly four years ago, I underestimated the difficulty of transitioning an old and traditional institution into a digital media company in today’s quickly evolving climate.

It was equally striking to then read Dave Winer’s take on the sale where he wrote:

What it means is that now the newsmakers and the people who want news are directly connected. 

The newsmakers don’t need the intermediaries to reach the people who they influence. 

If we replace “newsmakers” with “educators” or even “experts” and “people who want news” with students, we’re left with: “What it means is that now the educators and the students are directly connected. The educators don’t need the intermediaries to reach the people who they influence.” Who, then, are the intermediaries? If they are the publishers, we’re in the land of open educational resources. If they are institutions of higher education, we’re in the land of Oplerno, Skillshare, Rheingold U., etc. Y’all can discuss and decide that…

After reading about TNR and Winer’s take, I was a bit down thinking about higher ed. and how, in my opinion, for the most part, the institution has failed to understand the World Wide Web1 and its implications on society. Far too many educators in higher education are just ignoring new media and hoping it will all go away.

But, then, I was offered a glimmer of hope by my colleague David Croteau.

That post from the Online Journalism Blog (new to me) starts with “The media’s reaction to David Bowie‘s death from cancer early this morning demonstrates just how widely curation has become in journalism practice – and specifically, how it has become the web native version of the obituary.” The author did his own bit of curation to show how mainstream media outlets such as The Telegraph, Time, Sky News, etc. were generating dynamic multimodal, multimedia tributes to Bowie by curating bits from around the web. These MSM outlets are not exactly doing groundbreaking work here, but they aren’t just ignoring new media. They’re trying new forms of journalism that involve new forms of media. I’m also reminded of some of the really amazing things the New York Times is doing with NYT Interactive. See e.g. Dear Architects: Sound Matters.

These MSM outlets are trying to add new modes of journalism (curation); they are figuring out how new media augments journalism. I’m not saying that TNR failed to try some new things. I am, though, suggesting that new media don’t mark the end of “traditional” journalism institutions.

Too much of the narrative around online learning and technology in education is framed as a zero-sum game. “MOOCs will destroy higher education!” “The Internet means we’ll ultimately only have/need about 10 universities…” etc. It doesn’t have to be that way. In Winer’s terms, the challenge opportunity in front of higher education is as follows: How do we take advantage of the fact that now the educators and the students are directly connected. How do we take advantage of the fact that educators don’t need publishers to reach the people who they influence? How do we take advantage of new media and the modern web to augment human intellect?

  1. and, yes, I’m well aware that the Internet was born, largely, out of institutions of higher education []

Posted in Education, Innovation, Social Media, Technology Tagged with: , , , , ,

January 10th, 2016 by Jon Becker
Photo courtesy of Joshua Adelman

Photo courtesy of Joshua Adelman

Ever since VCU’s Center for Teaching Excellence became the Academic Learning Transformation Lab (ALT Lab), a persistent challenge opportunity has been to let the VCU community know what ALT Lab is and does. Getting that challenge out is complicated on a number of levels, and there are days I just want to shout “Follow us on Twitter and read our blog and join our Diigo group and, and, and…After all, our tagline is ‘Connected learning for a networked world!'” But, most of the time, that’s hardly appropriate or sufficient. We do lots of face-to-face messaging, too. Shortly after the transition from CTE to ALT Lab, we held an open house party of sorts. We’ve been to the last few instances of New Faculty Orientation at VCU to introduce ourselves to new faculty and staff. We hold our own New Faculty Academy at the beginning of every year. A couple of our team members (mostly Molly and Enoch) attend Faculty Club every month to network and get the word out. I’ve asked for time (5 minutes, even) on agendas of department faculty meetings to introduce myself and ALT Lab. We have three liaisons assigned to various units around the university. We have a website (which isn’t up to our standards, but that’s not terrible relative to our peers). We tweet. We blog

And, yet, it’s never enough. VCU is a massive institution and the academic mission is carried out across mainly two somewhat separate campuses. Furthermore, a lot of what we try to do is fairly cutting edge and pretty foreign to most within the VCU community. But, those are just excuses; we can and will do better to communicate to the VCU community1 about who we are and what we do. That’s the opportunity and figuring out how to do better is one of my big goals for the Spring 2016 semester.

One thing I hope to do more of, but that I wasn’t able to do last semester (because surgery), is to get out and meet faculty and staff where they are. I have to be more shameless and extroverted in my attempts to get on agendas of faculty meetings. I need to attend more university-wide functions and “schmooze” more. In doing that, I’ll need to get better at my elevator pitch about ALT Lab. Lately, I’ve been saying that ALT Lab is about helping faculty members create awesome learning experiences for students. Period. Full Stop. That seems to be resonating, so I’ll stick with it for now.2

So, I’ll be out “pounding the pavement” more this semester. That seems apropos in a presidential election year.

Additionally, one new (to us) form of digital communication that I’ve been thinking about a lot is the newsletter. For lots of reasons, I’m not going to do the old-fashioned print newsletter. And, though I originally started down this path, I’m not sure I want to produce another MailChimp newsletter. I’ve checked out TinyLetter (which I know is owned by MailChimp) and I’ve been inspired by people like Caitlin Dewey and Laura Olin. I feel pretty confident I could find a workable platform for an eNewsletter.

The big problem with eNewsletters is figuring out who to send it to. You could use multiple avenues to invite people to subscribe and hope you build up a decent subscription base that way. Alternatively, we have built up a pretty sizable database of names and email addresses of VCU faculty and staff who have engaged with us in one way or another. When people register for faculty development sessions, for example, we keep that information in a database. But, to this point, I’ve been hesitant to use that database as a mailing list because those people didn’t ask for us to send them anything when they registered. Lately, I’ve been leaning more towards using that database and making the unsubscribe option clear and easy. We’ll see…

In addition to our newsletter, I’m thinking of ways to amp up our social media presence. We have an ALT Lab Twitter account, but until recently, it was only announcing new posts on our blog. Last week, I added Diigo to the mix. We have a fairly active, public Diigo group where we share articles of interest with others in the group. Now, whenever someone in the group bookmarks something in our Diigo group, it will be automatically (through the magic of IFTTT) broadcast via the ALT Lab Twitter account. But, I’ve long moaned about Twitter as broadcast-only, and nobody is really acting as the wizard behind the @VCUALTLab curtain. Implementing a good Twitter strategy is hard.

At the end of the day, whether it’s a newsletter, or a blog, or a Twitter account, or whatever… you need content. So, last week, at our first full ALT Lab team meeting of 2016, I did something I didn’t want to do. I told everyone that I expected at least one blog post per week. Until now, there was a general expectation that if you work for ALT Lab, you share your work publicly in some way. I asked team members to blog and/or tweet as they feel moved to do so. Doing so is even built into our annual performance plans. Unfortunately, the truth is that there was much unevenness, and a lack of content to share. Lots of interesting ideas, projects, musings were communicated within ALT Lab, but not beyond that. I told the ALT Lab team that we need to communicate who ALT Lab is and what we do and the best way to do that was to document what we do. I framed it very explicitly as documentation; public/open documentation. If the team members produce the content/documentation, I will make it all sing. It’s my job as the Director to find the best ways to promote and share the good work that the team does, and if they give me good content, I can make that happen.

So, to the VCU community, I’d say, look for me out and about on campus. Watch us on our blog, on Twitter, and in Diigo. And, as soon as I get the newsletter thing figured out, I hope you’ll subscribe to that, too. Finally, if you have additional ideas/ways for me to communicate who ALT Lab is and what we do, I’m all ears!

  1. note this doesn’t include communications external to VCU or communications within ALT Lab; those are separate strategies that might warrant a blog post at some point []
  2. I should add here that *WHAT* we communicate about who we are and what we do is another major challenge opportunity. We’re probably due a good strategic planning process that would help streamline the message. But, until then… there’s probably a good blog post here too. []

Posted in ALTLab, Open, Social Media, VCU Tagged with: , , , , , ,

January 5th, 2016 by Jon Becker

If nothing else, if this post causes you to learn that Dissociative Identity Disorder is the actual term for what lay people call “split personalities” or “multiple personalities” (or entirely incorrectly “schizophrenia”), I will feel good about having written it.

But, that’s not what I’m writing about.

I’m writing about social media and identity. Not in the way that Bonnie Stewart writes about it; if only I could…

Rather, I’m writing about a conversation I had on Twitter a couple of nights ago. It started with this tweet.

This is something I’ve given considerable thought to, before that tweet and since. The responses I received all told me not to create a separate account. Here’s a strong sampling of the responses.


OK, Audrey, I’ll blog about it…


I believe that anyone who says that they don’t care who follows them on Twitter is (a) lying, (b) failing to understand networks, (c) not nearly the insecure narcissist I am, or (d) all of the above.

I’ll focus on the most serious of the choices, aka (b). Without a whole lecture on Network Theory, let me just say that on Twitter:

  1. I care most about my betweenness centrality.  (“A node with high betweenness centrality has a large influence on the transfer of items through the network, under the assumption that item transfer follows the shortest paths.”) That is, my position within a social network matters to me. I see Twitter as a space for, among other things, community and cooperation. I believe we can be most cooperative when we pay attention to our positioning and centrality within networks. If someone I follow doesn’t follow me back, they won’t see my tweets and won’t, therefore, be in a cooperative relationship with me.
  2. I care about the density of my network. In other words, I want my ties to other nodes on the network to be bidirectional and not unidirectional. I believe we’d all get more out of the network if we paid attention to our positioning and had as many bidirectional relationships as possible. When someone I follow doesn’t follow me back, it creates a unidirectional tie.((This is not to say that I follow everyone who follows me; I don’t think that would serve me well. But, I do give a LOT of thought to who I follow back.))
  3. We all have our own ego networks, but “…each alter in an ego network has his/her own ego network, and all ego networks interlock to form the human social network.” When someone I follow doesn’t follow me back, our networks are joined, but the person I’m following becomes less central to our combined network; they become a potential point of failure of information flow and cooperation across this larger network.

Fancy network jargon notwithstanding, I’m also a terribly insecure narcissist. So, I care who follows me on Twitter…


Though I have no empirical evidence to back this claim, I am fairly confident that people I follow have made an active decision to not follow me back because of at least the following two reasons: (a) I tweet too much (I mentioned the insecure narcissist thing, right?), and/or (b) I tweet too much about things they don’t care about. Namely, sports.

I tweet a lot about sports. I’m a big sportsball fan. I know more about sports than I care to admit. I don’t know why I don’t care to admit it. Maybe because caring about sports feels gauche compared to many of the educator-scholars I do interact with on Twitter. (I mentioned the insecure thing, right?).

And, when I tweet about sports…


Notice that I put the little asterisk do-dads around FEEL in that tweet. It’s that feeling of a lack of connection that bothers me. When I tweet about sports, I feel like I’m shouting into the abyss. Not the wind, the abyss. And, that’s too bad, because I do crave connections around sports. I have (strong) opinions, thoughts, questions, etc., but Twitter hasn’t given me a platform for that with my current account. Worse, yet, I feel my network is less dense because I do tweet about sports.

Maybe I just need to go hangout in the message boards of MSM sports sites, but I don’t want to. I like Twitter. And, I’m an insecure narcissist and I don’t want to have to make new friends in a new place…

Posted in Social Media, Technology Tagged with: , ,