Prologue: Welcome and Overview

In the coming weeks, we’ll be exploring some of the possibilities of online learning by working together online. Most of the OLE uses a hands-on learn-by-doing approach but, as an introduction, we begin by providing an overview of our general approach to online learning.

Thinking About Learning: Content, Pedagogy, and Technology

One way to think about teaching and learning online is to consider the three types of knowledge necessary to do it well: content knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, and technological knowledge.  You already have expertise in the content area in which you teach. Our focus here will be on pedagogy and the technology that can support it, trusting that you will apply these lessons to your content area.


We will address basic pedagogical questions every instructor must think about in preparing a course:

  • What are my goals for this course?
  • What do I want my students to be able to do?
  • How will I encourage students to be engaged?
  • How can I best present course content?
  • How can I be a catalyst for student interaction, collaboration, and community-building?
  • How will I handle feedback and assessment?

The twist, of course, is that answering such questions for an online class means acquiring some technological knowledge and familiarizing yourself with some of the unique possibilities of the Internet. To that end we’ll learn about some digital tools and platforms.  Knowing how to take advantage of the Internet’s unique features will enable you to think “outside of the box”–literally. Without physical classroom walls to box you in, an online course offers new opportunities. It also offers some challenges and we’ll deal with those as well.

Our Approach: Connected Learning and Open Educational Resources

This course embodies some features of “connected learning,” which emphasizes the development of lifelong learning skills. For example, it emphasizes learning how to learn on the open web (beyond the confines of a learning management system (LMS) like Blackboard) in a way that will continue to be relevant long after students leave the university. So in the OLE:

  • You’ll begin creating a personal learning network by connecting to resources and people online.
  • You’ll learn to how to find, organize, and manage the wealth of information available on the web.
  • You’ll create some new content, using various digital tools.
  • You’ll share your thoughts and creations, and exchange feedback and support with others, modelling some of the interactions that might take place in your own course.

Many of these activities are made possible by working on the open web and making use of open educational resources (OER), which is what we’ll be doing.   OER is perhaps best known for things like open access textbooks but it can be much more than that, incorporating readily available platforms and resources on the open web.

A Connected Learning approach is more about pedagogy than technology.  It can be contrasted with a more traditional approach to online learning in the ways outlined below.  This is an oversimplified heuristic device, of course.  Real world courses exist along a continuum, incorporating various features of both approaches.  Still, by comparing these approaches you can see the relative emphasis each places on varying pedagogical goals.

"Traditional ""Connected"
Information Focus
Focus is often on information retention and restatement.
Skills Focus
Focus is on “learning to learn” and helping nurture life-long learning skills in a networked world with abundant information.
Instructor Driven
Instructor typically sets the agenda for all topics and work to be done
Student Driven (partially)
As part of the assignments, student is expected to find ways to apply new skills and knowledge to topics of ongoing student interest. The onus is more on students to prove their competencies.
Standardized, Traditional Assignments
Work often:

  • involves multiple choice quizzes/exams

  • writing assignments in response to instructor questions

Innovative, Experimental Assignments
Work often:

  • is project-based

  • leverages multimedia elements

  • has an external audience/purpose

  • uses self-reflection as a major component in proving growth/competency

Emulate Face-to-Face Classroom
Approach is often an attempt to replicate face-to-face experiences, especially through lectures, discussion forums, and, sometimes, synchronous video seminars.
Be “Of the Web”
Approach is to create distinct learning experiences that take advantage of the Internet’s unique capabilities and involve experimenting with assignments.
Work Privately

  • Work often takes place within closed course management system.

  • Courses are isolated from each other.

  • Students lose access to course material shortly after the course is completed.

Work Publicly

  • Much of the work (though not necessarily all) takes place on the open web, often via individual web sites (a.k.a. “blogs”) that are aggregated to a course site.

  • Student work across multiple courses “lives” on their own blog sites, which they control.

  • Students have continued access to the course site after the course is completed.

Standardized Assessment
Emphasis is on working alone, privately, on standardized assignments intended to produce similar results. Identity authentication, cheating, and plagiarism become significant concerns.
Individualized Assessment
Emphasis is on sharing (often collaboratively-created) distinctive work with classmates and the broader world to make a contribution and to be open for potential feedback and dialogue. The unique nature of the assignments and work make identity authentication, cheating, and plagiarism less of a concern.
Assignment as Disposable Practice
Assignments are used only as material for assessment. Work produced can be “thrown away” at the end of a course. Competency is implied through grades.
Assignment as “Real”
Assignments are used for assessment while also often making a contribution to be shared publicly. Work produced can be archived online on publicly-viewable sites and in student e-portfolios.
Standardized, Faculty-Independent
Once created, standardized courses can almost run themselves. They can be efficiently scalable to high-enrollment classes, especially if they rely on automatically-scored multiple-choice exams. The faculty role is less central and potentially expendable, for example, with publisher-created courses intended to be simply managed rather than taught.
Unique, Faculty-Dependent
Most courses are distinctive, requiring extensive faculty monitoring, assessment, and feedback on the unique assignments being completed. This relatively labor-intensive approach makes faculty central to the teaching process and limits the scalability of some features.

As we advance through the OLE, you may want to refer back to this material for the context to our activities.

What is WordPress?  And What About Blackboard?

Love it or hate it, Blackboard is the default learning management system (LMS) at VCU.  You are likely to have to do some things in Blackboard, even if it’s nothing more than record grades.  Meanwhile, this site is built on the WordPress platform, which is a web publishing platform, not an LMS.  Here’s an overview of the Blackboard/Wordpress differences that should give you a better sense of the strengths and limitations of each.

How We’ll Work

Typically, you are the instructor. But in the context of this course you are playing the role of “student.” You will receive assignments, feedback, and assessments from us, your “instructors.” We’ll be asking you to do various types of assignments.  Often, there will be a combination of larger required activities and a variety of smaller “makes” (a term that come from maker culture) from which you can choose.  Obviously, this is not a typical “real” class but we do want to introduce elements that mimic the sorts of activities that you might use in your own class. We hope that your experience as “students” will help inform how you design your own course.  We’ve sometimes incorporated “design notes” that reflect on the reasoning behind the choices we made (and that appear when you hover over the underlined phrase). You may agree or disagree with those choices but, either way, we hope that making our process more transparent will prompt you to think deliberately about your own design choices.

A Diversity of “Students”

Students come to your class with a diversity of backgrounds and levels of preparedness.  That’s both a challenge and an opportunity.  So too with the OLE.  Some of you have considerable experience teaching online; others none.  Some of you are adept with and enthusiastic about digital technologies; others are intimidated by them or are skeptical about their usefulness.  It’s all good.  We’ll be introducing both some fairly mainstream ideas about using technology to teach but also pointing to examples that are edgier and wildly innovative.  It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea but we hope it’ll inspire you to think about your own course in new ways.

As “students” in OLE, you’ll have the opportunity to dive in as deep as you’re willing and able.  If you’re already familiar with ideas and tools we’re discussing, we hope you’ll share your experiences with others and try to use these resources in ways that are new to you.  If you’re feeling overwhelmed or lost, check in with other participants or come see us during ALT Lab’s “Agora” open-office hours on Wednesdays and Thursdays from noon to 2:00.  We’re happy to help.

Enough of the preliminaries . . . let’s get started by setting up your digital toolbelt.