Connected Learning as informal learning across an academic department, part 2

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…

2 thoughts on “Connected Learning as informal learning across an academic department, part 2”

  1. I really appreciated the schematic you provided, Jon. Diigo as a tool surprised me a bit though. I have been using this tool for the past eight years or so and keep thinking to myself, “There has to be a better/different tool out there.” Do you find much traction with Diigo with your audiences?

  2. Matt,
    Good question…
    IMHO, there is a better tool for bookmarking: Pinboard. But, that doesn’t have group functionality. And, Diigo groups has worked really well for me with a couple of my classes. In fact, in one class, students began commenting on each other’s bookmarks right in Diigo. I didn’t expect that.

    In the past, I’ve come to the realization that Diigo mostly solves a problem for people that they don’t know they have (or legitimately don’t have). I read a lot on the web and want to be able to save bookmarks in a way I can retrieve them later. But, my web viewing/reading habits (and I suspect yours) are not typical of my colleagues and/or students. So, for me, I hope Diigo is a gateway to more informal surfing, browsing, nomadic learning (in Will Richardson’s terminology).

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