Online Masters Applied…decisions and observations

Hello all.  We had a wonderful discussion yesterday about the goals and structure of the program.  For me, I gained a lot of clarity about the work flow and organization of the courses and individuals.  And in the spirit of openness, I want to share my thoughts and our conclusions out in the open :-).

As we begin to ramp up the online option, we needed to think through what it would look like, how it would function as a collective of courses rather than a series of individual courses, how work would be assigned, submitted and assessed and how the professors and students would function in the network being built.  I am not sure we fully answered all of these questions, but I believe we made some very good progress at yesterday’s OCDI.  Here are some things that came out of our discussion:

1.  The Online Applied Option in the VCU Masters of Sociology program (MOAO) would be a blend of open and closed pedagogy.  We will still rely on Blackboard (BB) or password protected sites on our WordPress (WP) sites for privacy issues such as sensitive assignments and grading.  However, our goal for the MOAO is to take full advantage of open digital learning thus a majority of assignments for courses should be geared towards openness and collaboration.

2.  All incoming Fall 14 graduate students will be required to develop and maintain an ‘e-portfolio’ (EP) to curate and chronicle their work.  The goal of the EP is give the student a platform for developing their professional, public identity for them to take with them as a digital CV.  For students in MOAO courses, this will be the primary way in which they submit and ‘do’ their work. This will require some mental reorganization about workflow.

For me, I came to understand this workflow as the reverse of BB where all participants–profs and students–go to BB to ‘do’ their work.  With EP’s, all participants go to their respective WP sites to ‘do’ their work and the course site is the aggregation of the member WP sites.  In the process of doing their coursework, they are simultaneously building a repository of their work for which they can use to demonstrate growth and the program can use for assessment.  (Note: we have yet to determine exactly how demonstration of growth and evaluation will take place).

While this seems streamlined, I also realized that work can be submitted in numerous ways and places and through the use of ‘tags’ and other tech magic, the work can still be aggregated into a central site.  Thus, there are many ways in which work can be completed, submitted and assessed which gives lots of flexibility to courses but also requires an ability to work in a bit of chaos.  However, out of the chaos comes an interconnected network of faculty and students sharing ideas, assignments and collegiality.

For students in the on campus applied option (MAO) and thesis option (MTO), the EP will function, at least initially, more sporadically, depending on how the professors use it in the on-campus courses.  It is my belief that the presence of the EP and the impact of the MOAO will alter course work in all classes.

3.  The goal of the MOAO is to ‘do’ public sociology broadly defined.  By making it open, we are doing public sociology in the sense of making sociological knowledge accessible to the public.  By focusing courses and internships on social justice issues, we are doing public sociology by using sociological knowledge to make a difference in public life.  Lastly, by focusing on professionals and people interested in working directly in their communities, we are training future public sociologists to apply sociology to occupations beyond the academy.  All of these foci characterize the heart and soul of public sociology.

4. As we transform our courses and program options, it is clear we need an organized orientation for graduate students.  As VCU Quest and the QEP focus more on career preparation, we realized that we need to increase our interaction with career services.  We need to connect the students with this office early in their time at VCU.  We also need to conceptualize how the EP works across all programmatic options in terms of evaluation and assessment.  These decisions will inform how we orient the students to the EP.

For me, the OCDI was a great experience because it gave us time to step back from the daily instrumental tasks which occupy so much of our lives as academics these days (particularly at VCU) and discuss our larger pedagogical goals and what type of department culture we want to build.  The ‘openness’ and academically driven development (as opposed to commercially driven development) promoted by the OCDI resonated with me as a sociologist interested in political economy.  I came to realize the urgency of faculty taking control of online learning; participation is a form of insurgency against commodification of learning.  This is not to say that we throw the baby out with the bath water and ditch all traditional forms of f2f learning but I came to realize that online learning is a “juggernaut” similar to the way in which Giddeons describes modernity…”an irresistible force that demands attention”.  Like modernity, online learning has some awesome stuff associated with it–creativity, customization and expansive community and social networks.  But, like modernity, the frenetic pace of change can be overwhelming, vulnerable individuals can get lost and power can easily be concentrated.  As faculty concerned with pedagogical excellence yet operating inside a structure with competing priorities, our task is to look for ways to control, however tenuous, the “run away train” of social change inside the academe.  My hope is the Sociology at VCU can contribute in a productive and positive way!

Ok, enough of my musings…now, let me figure out how to share this blog in an open way!

1 thought on “Online Masters Applied…decisions and observations

  1. Nice post, Jennifer. We are all working through the idea of open and closed…public and private. Yet, I agree with you that we are in the midst of a seed change in higher education. Something as simple as seeing a program as a “connected collection” rather than a “list” of courses is powerful!

    It has been a great week…I look forward to seeing the magic continue!

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