September 7th, 2017 by Jon Becker

In my best Dennis Green voice… when it comes to Betsy DeVos, she is who we thought she was!

(Read this thread)

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February 7th, 2017 by Jon Becker

Betsy DeVos was confirmed as the new Secretary of Education today. I’ve tried to blog about my opposition to her candidacy, but I haven’t been able to put the many words and thoughts I have into anything coherent. Mostly, she’s unbelievably unqualified and what scares me most is her worldview. Combined with Jerry Falwell Jr.’s apparent role with respect to #highered, this appointment has us headed towards some kind of edu-theocracy that bothers me to no end.

One theme throughout this #365project has been my need to turn to humor to dull the pain of enduring the first few weeks of the Trump administration. James Martin’s tweet made me “lolsob“. It is, therefore, today’s tweet of the day.

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February 2nd, 2017 by Jon Becker

So, Audrey Watters becomes the first person to earn a 2nd tweet of the day from me. No surprise, really, since of Audrey Watters, I am a big fan.

Today, I had the distinct pleasure of seeing Audrey again, face-to-face, as she delivered a powerful talk, the text of which she shared via the tweet. Though I know it’s been a big part of her thinking and writing, I didn’t know that Audrey’s focus today would be on data and privacy. For whatever reason, I thought it would be focused more on the automation and teaching machines aspect of her research and writing. It was a timely and powerful talk, though. And, it so happens that it came on the same day that the New York Times published an article on “big data” in #highered. On top of that, shortly before Audrey’s talk, a big red blip came across my Twitter radar screen in the form of a new report called The Legacy of inBloom. The report is accompanied by pieces by smart folks like danah boyd and Bill Fitzgerald. I haven’t had a chance to dig into any of those resources yet, but I look forward to it.

So, yeah, today’s major theme for me was education + data + privacy. And, far and away, the highlight of the day was Audrey’s talk (and the hug I got afterwards).

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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 []

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April 14th, 2015 by Jon Becker

Martin Baron, executive editor of The Washington Post, delivered the 2015 Hays Press-Enterprise lecture at the University of California, Riverside on April 7. The text of his speech titled “Journalism’s Big Move: What to Discard, Keep, and Acquire in Moving From Print to Web”, as well as a video of the speech, is available on the Washington Post. Go ahead and read/watch the speech. This post will still be here when you get back…


For those of us in education, at any level, the low hanging fruit is to say/write something like, “You can just substitute education for journalism in that speech…” I’d be surprised if someone hasn’t already done that. For example, let’s try this early quote…

This has been my profession for 39 years, and never have I seen a moment of so much excitement and yet so much anxiety…

Excitement because journalism [education] is being thoroughly reimagined. Anxiety because … journalism [education] is being thoroughly reimagined — because our traditional economic model is disintegrating.

That works at some level, but it’s imperfect. There is plenty of excitement and anxiety amongst educators; probably more the latter, I’d argue. Also, if education is being “thoroughly reimagined,” it’s happening at the margins (and mostly in Silicon Valley).

Where the substitution really falls flat is that journalism and education have different purposes and bottom lines. I’m no expert on journalism, but I believe journalism is primarily about content delivery. There’s certainly a growing social element to journalism, but, first and foremost, journalists and journalistic agencies are focused on information delivery. Education, or perhaps schooling more accurately, has purposes that go well beyond information delivery. There are spaces within educational institutions where information delivery still plays a big role, and I’ll say more about the next post. For now, I’ll argue, along with Kieran Egan, that education has at least three goals.

I will argue that thinking about education during this century has almost entirely involved just three ideas: socialization, Plato’s academic idea, and Rousseau’s developmental idea. We may see why education is so difficult and contentious if we examine these three ideas and the ways they interact in educational thinking today. The combination of these ideas governs what we do in schools, and what we do to children in the name of education.

Egan goes on to argue that each of those ideas is fatally flawed and that, in combination, they are incompatible. Three wrong ideas don’t make a right idea.

In exploring Plato’s academic idea, Egan hints at a default pedagogical assumption that information delivery produces knowledgeable citizens:

The really bad news is that there isn’t any knowledge stored in our libraries and data-bases. What we can store are symbols that are a cue to knowledge. People can read the symbols and not understand the knowledge, or partially understand it, or have a vague sense of what it means. This happens in schools to such an extent that we expect it and grade children by the degree of understanding we think they have achieved… The problem here is that knowledge exists only in living human minds, and the literacy codes we use for storage are cues that need to go through a complex transformation before they can be brought to life again in another mind…Many educationalists, and even more non-educationalists, confuse the codes with knowledge. They assume that if the students internalize the codes they will have the knowledge. Alas, not so. We can relatively easily compel or persuade or seduce people into internalizing literate codes; so they can pass exams and seem knowledgeable. This kind of learning has been the bane of insightful educators down the centuries. What it produces is not knowledgeable people, but, as Michel de Montaigne put it, asses loaded with books.

In education, particularly higher education, we do a fantastic job of loading students asses with books. We don’t, I’d argue, do as well in producing knowledgeable citizens. We certainly haven’t done a good enough job of, to use Michael Wesch’s terminology, producing knowledge-able citizens in new media environments.

My point here is only to point out that education is fundamentally different than journalism, thus rendering straight substitution of the disciplines in Baron’s speech highly imperfect. Furthermore, I argue that when educators attempt to do what journalism does most, deliver information, they’d do well to consider whether that is sufficient given their aims. Producing the symbols that are cues to knowledge is often important and necessary, but rarely sufficient.

In my next post, I’ll look at where information/content delivery has lived, and continues to live, within the confines of higher education, and will argue that we do, in fact, need to reimagine how that looks and feels. In other words, higher education does need to make some big moves.

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December 20th, 2013 by Jon Becker

I have an incredible opportunity to work with some great people to build a great organization. I am the interim director of the Office of Online Education at VCU. This office is relatively new and when I took on this position, I was the sole employee. I took on this role on July 25 of this year, and it has been a wild and wonderful semester. On many occasions, I have been asked to explain my new job, and I’ve gotten better at doing that over time (I think). Recently, though, I was asked that question through a slightly different frame. The question was something like, “Why is VCU engaging in the business of online learning?” The question was contextualized and framed through the lens of VCU as an urban-serving research institution. So, given that context, it is certainly fair to ask the question.

Separately, I recently had cause to re-visit Simon Sinek’s well-worn TED talk (13,759,263 views as of this writing) about how great leaders inspire action. It’s not much more than a commercial for his book and his consulting services, which makes it standard TED fare. But, while I’m reasonably skeptical of pop-psychology and pop-business books and ideas, Sinek’s general idea of The Golden Circle feels right to me; it resonates.

In hindsight, then, I wish I’d have applied the concept of The Golden Circle to the question posed to me about VCU and online learning. But, the timing was off. Now, though, I will attempt just that.

We have goals for online learning, generally, that come from a very strong report from an online learning task force of which I was a part in the Spring semester. Those are laudable goals. On top of that, Dr. Gardner Campbell, with and for whom I work here at VCU, has articulated a great set of three principles that drive everything we do in the Office of Online Education.

  • Distinctiveness (Why would an off-campus student choose this course instead of one offered through another university?) – when geography (and time, to some degree) is no longer a concern, the “market” for higher education becomes bigger and more complicated. As providers of online learning experiences, we must distinguish ourselves from the rest of the field/market.
  • Deeper learning (How will the course be about more than content delivery and mastery?) – this is a nod to the work of Jerome Bruner (i.e. that learning should be about going “beyond the information that is given.”) as well as the National Research Council’s report called Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Centurywhich defines deeper learning as “…the process of developing durable, transferable knowledge that can be applied to new situations” (p. 69).
  • High student engagement (What affordances of the web as a platform of (social) participation will be utilized to move beyond didactic paradigms that focus on the acquisition of information by students?) – there is overlap here with both distinctiveness and deeper learning in that we believe that one point of distinction for us, and what will, in part, lead to distinctive learning is the strong consideration and adoption of ways that the modern Web affords social learning. Here, we look to a number of sources, but especially Henry Jenkins’ notion of participatory culture.

This “three-note chord” (as one colleague describes it) is beautiful; it’s consistent with everything I believe about how online learning can happen and what it offers. It is not, though, our “why” in Simon Sinek’s term. Rather, I think it is our “how.” What, then, is our “why?”

For that, I turn to Ted Nelson’s recent eulogy of Doug Engelbart. If you haven’t seen the eulogy, it’s well worth watching.

The most poignant moment, for me, is when Nelson says, “I used to have a high view of human potential. But no one ever had such a soaring view of human potential as Douglas Carl Engelbart — and he gave us wings to soar with him, though his mind flew on ahead, where few could see.”

From there, I turn to something my friend Dr. Gary Stager wrote about three competing visions of technology and education.

The third vision is a progressive one. The personal computer is used to amplify human potential. It is an intellectual laboratory and vehicle for self-expression that allows each child to not only learn what we’ve always taught, perhaps with greater efficacy, efficiency or comprehension. The computer makes it possible for students to learn and do in ways unimaginable just a few years ago. This vision of computing democratizes educational opportunity and supports what Papert and Turkle call epistemological pluralism. The learner is at the center of the educational experience and learns in their own way.

And, that’s it, isn’t it? That’s our “why.” The amplification of human potential.

If we run this through Sinek’s Golden Circle, it looks like this:

Everything we do here is about the amplification of human potential. We do that by designing learning experiences and learning environments that are distinctive and that foster deeper learning and high engagement for student success. Oh, and we do that via online learning. Want to learn with us?

Posted in NMFS_F13, Online Learning, Technology, VCU Tagged with: , , , , , , ,