Five Important Questions about Connected Learning at VCU

Every dissertation advisor will tell their students that they need to develop an “elevator speech” about their dissertation work.  I converted my assignment into a dissertation tweet and it goes like this:

Digital annotation devices such as hyperlinks & mentions can be used to document & assess student connectivity in VCU connected courses.

As I move towards the completion of my dissertation, the soundbite remains important, but I’ve identified five questions that allow for clearer explanations of what I’m trying to convey.   They are not the only questions (in other words, there will be more blog posts).  However, they represent a place to start.  Here they are along with some answers.

  1.  What is connected learning at VCU?

As I documented in a prior post, educators  use “connected” to mean a lot of things, from situated, interdisciplinary, holistic, to online (in a purely technical sense) learning.  In 2013, the Connected Learning Alliance published a pedagogical framework  that synthesized the common uses with their own predominantly ethnographic research and the work of Dewey and Montessori.  While the framework goes a long way to explain connected learning in general, Virginia Commonwealth University has juxtaposed connected learning with open education in order to shine a spotlight on the core messages of both connected learning and open education.

In other words, connected learning at VCU isn’t JUST connected learning; it’s really learning at the INTERSECTION OF CONNECTED AND OPEN.

At VCU, we have blended the educational approaches of connected learning and open education to promote their own version of educational equity and accessibility, active and social learning, and digitally networked participation.  The VCU approach aligns with connected learning and its focus on improving student engagement through more compelling, inclusive, and relevant learning experiences for more students. It interprets educational relevance through both connected and open lenses: courses should facilitate the integration of informal and formal learning and recognize the co-evolutionary, emerging, and augmenting qualities of digital networks and technologies.  VCU emphasizes digital learning as active, social, creative, and authentic learning and encourages students and faculty to elevate their digital fluency in terms of developing personal learning networks and digital workflows for the purpose of lifelong learning in a digital age.

2.   What is a connected course?

Again, this term can be used to mean many things.  I am arguing that courses that are situated at the intersection of connected and open must take certain stances along four axes: openness, creative expression, networked participation, and student agency.  My proposal is best represented in this picture (also found here):

course design

3.  What are the learning goals in a connected course?

Like all courses, connected courses should have multiple types of learning goals.  Some might relate to content.  Some might relate to a certain type of professional development or skill.  However, in connected courses, some should relate to something I have identified as “connectivity.”

If you read the VCU QEP, you’ll see that we are aiming for generalizable education, or “learning that matters.”  It argues that one interesting route towards learning that matters is the promotion of digital fluency and integrative thinking.  I explore these in my dissertation but focus predominantly on the intersection of the two, which is connectivity.

Connectivity is the ability of the learner to connect their current thoughts, ideas, or experiences with and across other people and concepts across space in time.  I developed a model that is based on the experiential learning model created by Kolb (1971) and defines the components in terms of social learning theory, schema and transformative learning theory, and research on knowledge transfer.

connectivity-model This model of connectivity lends itself to a list of proposed learning objectives, listed here.  If you would like slightly more information, I’ve written about this in more depth in a previous post.

4.  How do we promote connectivity through learning activities?

Connectivity is promoted through activities that encourage students to make connections and then reflect those connections back to the student so that they can reflect on  and make decisions related to them.  E-portfolios and the development of personal learning networks are two closely related, synergistic activities that do this for students on personal and social levels.  Both of these activities are supported by blogging and other forms of social media such as (but not limited to) Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, Facebook, Discourse, and similar.  

VCU established an open campus publishing platform named after the university mascot, Ram Pages, which offers students, faculty, and staff the opportunity to develop individual, course, and organization websites.  Ideally, as these sites are used to support personal interests, social and co-curricular activities, and formal academic experiences, their content will become networked to form a rich, virtual learning environment layered onto and extending beyond the physical VCU campus.  

All of VCU Connected Courses include blogging; some include the use of other social media.  My dissertation focused on blogging and tweeting as common activities found in these contexts.

5.  How do we assess connectivity?

The educational research literature is still catching up on this one; ideas that are emerging include the use of e-portfolios, perception surveys, and learning analytics based on digital traces (i.e. the capture, storage, retrieval, and visualization of digital actions taken by students in digital learning environments.  My student focused on digital annotation devices as digital traces that may reveal/document student acts of connection (as defined in #3).

Annotations are discourse devices included in the body of the digital text but serve an organizational or communicative purpose, directing or providing additional information about the main content of the text. Examples include hyperlinks, embedding codes, mentions, and hashtags added to blog posts or tweets.

My research showed that student use of annotation devices did capture evidence of student connection to people and concepts across space and time.  However, there are nuances to this statement, which will be discussed in my next blog post.