“Make it Real:” The Cultural Context of My Connected Learning Collection

In 2013, Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU; my home institution), re-introduced itself to the world as a place where students and faculty work together to “make it real.”  The slogan, as explained in this VCU News article, is meant to celebrate the university’s connection with and participation in the broader, “real” world.  Its core message is that the VCU community is “…deeply engaged in modern life, crossing disciplines and time zones to make a difference in the world in myriad ways.”   The campaign’s most consistent image is the classic wooden school desk, which is meant to represent academic rigor, placed in a variety of non-academic settings, driving home the point that research, creativity, service, discovery, and learning are never confined to the classroom.

One of many “Make it Real” billboards around Richmond
The wooden desk, which is reaching near-iconic status all over town.

The message of the make it real campaign is that education should be modern, holistic, interdisciplinary, global, and change-making.  

VCU is “making it real” as an institution in transition, an institution still working towards being one of the nation’s premier urban, research universities.  Since President Michael Rao arrived in 2009, the university has been in a rapid growth and development stage: growth in terms of real estate, capital construction projects, grant acquisition, and strategic fundraising initiatives; development in terms of refining who we are as an institution and explicitly defining our goals and values.  In 2011, VCU unveiled an aggressive new strategic plan, the Quest for Distinction, which speaks directly to institutional thoughts on academic quality, student success, research and innovation, faculty excellence, community impact, and resource accountability.  If you read beyond the headings, you’ll see that the focus on student success is not so much about increasing enrollment as it is about student graduation and retention.  As such, the plan focuses on student engagement and support services, teaching excellence, and enhanced learning outcomes.

The message of the Quest for Distinction is that VCU must provide students with education worth having and the global community with an institution worth keeping – because it is uniquely relevant, innovative, and making a difference.  

Enter the VCU Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP), revised in 2014. QEPs are a part of the accreditation process in which the school provides evidence of a strategically aligned plan for academic quality and student success.  Our QEP, a project spearheaded by Gardner Campbell, our Vice Provost of Learning Innovation and Student Success, has an executive summary that is a thing of beauty.  Speaking in a voice that strives for both distinctiveness and making it real, the QEP outlines an institutional desire to promote “learning that matters” through a cultural commitment to generalizable education.

Generalizable education: education that has substantial and lasting impact beyond any course, major, or degree.

The summary goes on to describe a need for proof of concept and offers up an area in need, an area of focus – General Education.  It goes on to suggest that VCU students need general education for a digital age, specifically, a program that addresses the learning objectives of integrative thinking and digital fluency.  Digital fluency, promoted through digital engagement within and across general education courses, is presented as a means to help students practice integrative thinking.qep

The executive summary goes on to outline a plan of action:

  1. A 30-hour general education common curriculum – common to every school and the College of Humanities and Sciences
  2. Substantial increase in formal and informal modes of effective, influential, learner-centered digital engagement
  3. Substantial increases in opportunities for VCU students to participate in creative, distinctive online learning.

The message of the QEP is that VCU can create a relevant and inspirational (i.e. “real”) learning space by offering educational opportunities to faculty, staff, and community members that are creative, holistic, and integrative.  Furthermore, working within a framework of open education and connected learning is a powerful pathway to achieving the goal.


Therefore, VCU ALT Lab functions at the intersection of connected learning and open education.  The world is watching as we rapidly and massively experiment with the technical and pedagogical aspects of student blogging on open platforms. I think we just hit 10,000 student blogs registered in less than two years (there are other people who can speak to this better than I can). With that goes innovative course designs.  Thoughtvectors.  Collaborative Curiosity.  Visual Poetry. Field Botany.  And so on.  VCU is making Connected Learning real, not just in the humanities, but across disciplines, course formats, class sizes, academic cultures.  This is a university-wide initiative, and VCU is a big university.

It is my opinion (and not meant to reflect the opinions of my bosses or my unit) that VCU is inventing its own distinct brand of Connected Learning.  It has qualities of open education, but it’s not about MOOCs (x or otherwise).  It shares a name and theoretical foundations with DML Research Hub’s Connected Learning, but it is situated within formal, institutionalized, higher education – with all the unavoidable trappings of accountability, assessment, and evaluation.

Enter me, Laura Gogia, the VCU ALT Lab graduate fellow working towards a PhD in educational research and evaluation.  My work in creating assessment and evaluation strategies for Connected Learning relates directly to the VCU manifestations of Connected Learning. We are higher education. We are a large, urban, public university. We are taking (calculated) risks and making sweeping change.  We have very real pressures from and responsibilities to our students, accrediting bodies, stakeholders, faculty, and ourselves. If we are to continue experimenting, we need some (interim) definitions and documentation.  And we need them now.  And because we are doing things at a scale and in a context I have yet to see in other places, we need to take some initiative in creating some (interim) definitions and forms of documentation.

Therefore, as a VCU student who is trying to make it real, that’s what I am trying to do. Like Here. and Here. and Here.

Identifying Connected Learning Courses (Continued)

Since my last blog post, I have continued to think about how we in formal, higher educational contexts might identify “connected learning courses,” as a type of instructional design or format.  I can think of several, very practical reasons why this might be important:

  • It helps move universities that have embraced a connected learning agenda towards a tracking system – for the purposes of watching growth across and within departments and programs – identifying what you are trying to promote an essential part of any needs analysis or progress report
  • It helps with educational research and development.  How am I supposed to provide evidence that connected learning is useful (or that courses are triggering connected learning) if we can’t agree on a viable definition of connected learning?
  • It helps faculty understand what we mean by connected learning in the context of designing their courses.
  • Once they understand what we mean by “connected learning course,” it indicates to students what to expect within a course.  There may be times when students would prefer to sit back in a lecture rather than work as hard as they have to in connected learning courses.  We should acknowledge and respect that.

So, here goes.

If you read that last post, you know that I am working on defining connected learning through the lens of syllabi/course document review – the sort of thing graduate fellows like me might do when trying to identify “connected learning” courses to study.  I don’t think you’ll find my table too different from the Connected Learning Alliance definition of connected learning.  Beyond this obvious connection, my thought process in creating Version 1.0 of my “How Connected Is It?” table was shaped by the following things:

  • I’ve spent the last three months buried in my own obsession with the overlaps between open education, connected learning, and networked learning fields.  If you are familiar with these three bodies of literature, you will recognize certain things.
  • I’ve spent the last weekend pouring over the course documents for the five “connected learning courses” that my university piloted last summer – I am using them as the sources of data for my dissertation research, which is on the documentation of connected learning.  None of the courses are the same – in fact, in some ways, they are all over the map – and I have (personal) opinions on just how “connected” they actually were. I’m going to have to explain all this in my dissertation and in any future research I might pursue, particularly in this stage of connected learning development.
  • I love the format of the PLOS “How Open Is It?” This very useful pdf outlines the spectrum of open access journals. In the old days when I was working to start an open access journal and I was trying to explain open access to faculty, I found that this one pdf spoke volumes – they looked at it, and they got it.  THEY GOT IT.  They ALL got it.  And, trust me, I’d tried everything else to explain it – even interpretive dance. The caveat was that some faculty thought you had to be on the same level (in the same row) for all of the categories, and of course you don’t, but that’s easy to explain away.  I feel like “connected learning courses” are very similar to “open access journals” because they both have a variety of key elements that can be expressed along a spectrum.  Therefore, because of my past experience, I am dead-set on making one of these tables.

Here’s the first draft.  Please remember that the purpose of this is to help people identify connected learning course designs through the process of syllabus/course document reviews.  It does not actually speak to whether connected learning occurred – that’s the purpose of course evaluations and student assessments.

Many of you are going to hate it. That’s ok – dig in.  My biggest problem with it is the ordering of the items in the columns…why are some of the things considered more open than others? Right now, my order is based partially on my reading and partially on what I’ve seen in my own course document review. I freely admit that it’s not right yet, and I am hoping you are going to help me make it better.


Identifying Connected Learning Course Designs

As part of my work as the Graduate Fellow at VCU ALT Lab, I try to make sense of the rapidly evolving body of literature on designing higher education connected learning experiences. To be frank, it is rapidly evolving because there isn’t much officially written, yet.  Nevertheless, for the purposes of my dissertation proposal, I outlined a list of learning activities consistent with connected learning that I synthesized from a variety of articles and think pieces.  A short excerpt:

Connected Learning experiences in formal, higher education settings tend to involve five key activities: establishing a personal learning network; curating, critiquing, and organizing data; connecting or coordinating concepts over space, time, and spheres of learning; transforming data into new products; and sharing new products with the personal learning network (Dede, 2009; Kop, 2011; Downes, 2006).

At the moment, I am trying to analyze five connected learning courses offered by VCU during the summer of 2015, described here and here.  Although my analysis will be turning more towards the student experience, eventually, right now I’m focusing on instructional design – what was it about these courses that make them identifiable as “connected learning courses?”
Some people equate “connected learning course” with public course documents, blogging, and online discussion. Warning: I disagree, and with extreme, somewhat flaming passion.  If you want to understand why, start by reading this.  That being said, I’m also having difficulties using the “key activities” framework I outlined in my prospectus to provide institutional criteria for identifying connected learning courses. The points surrounding the PLN are particularly difficult to document at the design stage; we can make students sign up for public social media accounts, but we can’t make them use them effectively to produce PLNs.  Furthermore, I think PLNs can’t be proven to exist until they have been sustained across more than one class – and since their effectiveness may wax and wane, serious longitudinal work is required.  I cannot in good faith say that making a student sign up for Twitter fulfills a criteria of “establishing a personal learning network.” 

Therefore, I’m working on a new way to think about identifying “connected learning instructional designs.”  Much of my thinking arises from my recent immersion in the open education, connected learning, and networked learning literature.  It’s a mix of the three, really.  I’m not suggesting that all connected learning courses need to have all components; ultimately, connected learning instructional design should probably be considered on a spectrum, kind of like the PLOS criteria for open access (see “How Open Is it?”)  

If I were to make a similar infographic for “How Connected Is IT?”  I would probably assess course designs along the following criteria (note that the descriptions provided focus on the furthest end of the spectrum of connectedness) :

  1. Open Educational Resources (course documents, activities, content and materials).  The most connected learning spaces would make course documents (including syllabus and activities) public; it would privilege the use of OER and encourage students to use or make additional OER.
  2. Collaboration and Curation.  The most connected learning spaces would require students to work on collaborative projects.  One example might be a collective curation of web resources that would be available after the end of the course – and also for the public (as a form of OER). 
  3. Network Fluency.  The most connected learning spaces require students to practice their networking know-how through interaction in public spaces such as twitter.  It’s not just about co-constructing knowledge around the topic; it’s about figuring out how to develop social capital.  Therefore, learning activities should be structured to support network fluency; course documents should be explicit about why these activities are taking place how and where they are occurring.  Course design would provide opportunities (probably some engineered by faculty) for students to mix and mingle with potential mentors in and beyond the immediate academic environment.
  4. Digital Fluency and Maker-Oriented Design. The most connected learning spaces require students to stretch their understanding of digital platforms.  For some students, just putting together a blog is hard.  Ok, but it shouldn’t stop there.  Weekly blog assignments should move beyond having them write text-based responses to exploiting the affordances of digital media – images, infographics, video, concept maps, audio.  I pulled this from Yin Kreher’s connected learning course site to help describe Maker Oriented design.  Creative makes, explicit privileging of artfulness, multimodal expression.  There should be evidence of this sort of thing in the course documents. 
  5. Student Choice – The most connected learning spaces provide students with a lot of leeway in designing their own research and learning.
  6. Peer/Self Assessment – The most connected learning spaces focus on making assessment sustainable, as an essential element of lifelong learning.  Sometimes this means providing structured support in helping students assess themselves.  
I haven’t actually tried to use this list to assess instructional design. I’m going to, though, probably as soon as I finish this post.  Would love to hear what you think.