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.
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.
The executive summary goes on to outline a plan of action:
- A 30-hour general education common curriculum – common to every school and the College of Humanities and Sciences
- Substantial increase in formal and informal modes of effective, influential, learner-centered digital engagement
- 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.