Networked Learning Communities in Hybrid Courses

Diggs Roundtable Presentation, Virginia Tech

October 26, 2015

Links for materials referenced below here
I am a historian – not of the cut and dried variety, but of the shades of grey and multiple viewpoints persuasion. I have always been committed to promoting active learning, critical thinking, and analytical writing in my classes and helping my students become good historians. I have always seen myself more as a facilitator of learning than a font of knowledge. And I have always tried to teach in a way that helps students make sense of the world around them and appreciate the experiences of people who lived in other times and places. These principles remain at the core of my teaching praxis, but have been augmented in the last three years by a series of epiphanies about the potential for particular tools and learning environments to amplify this kind of learning.

The project I want to share today uses networked learning environments and active co-learning strategies to expand and extend the reach of the course beyond the physical confines of the classroom and the conceptual constraints of traditional writing assignments. I’d like to briefly describe what it is and how it works, and then say something about what I like about it. Questions, comments and suggestions will be most appreciated.

Course Design

A syndicated blog serves as the gateway to a hybrid course in which students author original research posts on topics of their choosing, using print materials, sources available on the open web, and databases provided by the Virginia Tech Library.

we use print materials, high value resources from the open web and primary sources from proprietary databases

The main course blog uses a WordPress template with a custom magazine layout to showcase exemplary posts, direct readers to relevant material, facilitate discussion of the posts (via a “shadow” comment blog), and articulate the content parameters of the weekly digest (via an “editors’ corner” sidebar).

We highlight content on the main course website with a slider, sticky posts, and two customizeable sidebars.

An editorial team comprised of the instructor and undergraduate alumni of the course curate the posts from individual researchers into a Weekly Digest. This builds peer-to-peer mentoring into the course design and allows the editorial assistants to further develop their web working skills and content expertise. A Twitter feed for the course hashtag provides additional social networking around the course content, and the “publicize” widget disseminates updates from the course to broader audiences via social media.

Editorial team members curate and comment on student-generated content
Editorial team members curate and comment on student-generated content
Students develop and maintain their own blogs, which become a key deliverable of the course

Students design and maintain their own blogs, which are syndicated to the main site. This format allows them to develop multi-media research projects (using images, video and sound as well as text), embed ancillary material, and document their sources via conventional citation formats and hyperlinking. They give and receive feedback on their work from their classmates, the editors, and the instructor through the comment function. They revise their work throughout the semester. At the end of the course their individual blogs serve as digital portfolios demonstrating their accomplishments in research, writing and web work. They comprise a key deliverable of the course.

In contrast to traditional “delivery” systems, this format positions students, editors and the instructor to create and curate content, thereby elaborating the course in a collaborative, accessible, and enduring medium. Blog posts are not just a key feature of the course, they are the course.
We also use Googledocs to support the course and help extend its reach. The class has a shared folder where we manage administrative details (such as nominating posts for a weekly “students’ choice” award, or suggesting primary materials to work with during class), and keep track of work done during class. A second shared folder gives the editorial team a work space where they can maintain records (of posts and comments) and consult (via Chat or Hangout) on the selection of exemplary posts to be featured in the weekly edition.
What students produce on their blogs conditions what we do in class:
The content students create provides a jumping off point for our face-to-face meetings. I don’t give set lectures, and I don’t lecture for more than twenty minutes per class. Instead I use the content created by the students to frame a particular topic or period. I help students see how their posts are connected and address the interpretive issues raised by them.
We also use class time for discussion, focused work with primary materials, and with databases. Having small groups of students working on a series of googledocs that I can see and contribute to in real time allows for a rich multi-lateral conversation about the source. I can encourage, query or correct as warranted and project a particular group’s document on the classroom’s screen if she wants to bring something to the class as a whole. Class sessions may also be devoted to “blog beautification” (workshops helping students customize and enhance the functionality of their blogs) and practice locating and citing high-value materials for upcoming posts. We also designate some classes as “make sessions,” where students produce digital artifacts such as interactive timelines, collectively authored blogposts or animated gifs illustrating a particular theme of the class.

Advantages of the networked learning community approach:

This course format puts students in charge of their learning and encourages them to pursue their own interests at the same time it stimulates collaboration and peer-to-peer mentoring. It engages students directly and immediately in the research process and the production of knowledge. I have found that student engagement with the material tends to be higher than in a traditional class setting, and it intensifies over the course of the term. Students gain confidence and satisfaction from producing longer, more sophisticated and better-documented posts as the course progresses.

Engagement intensifies over the semester as students gain confidence and expertise that supports their curiosity about the material.
Shifting the focus of individual posts away from “grades” facilitates lots of formative feedback about more qualitative indicators of accomplishment, including enhanced understanding of the subject and more sustained intellectual engagement with peers.

Because blogging is required but not “assigned” (in the sense that the parameters of the posts are left quite flexible), and the individual posts are not graded, the focus of the course shifts away from evaluation in favor of more qualitative indicators of accomplishment (i.e. discovery of new insight, intellectual engagement with peers, enhanced interest and effort in understanding the subject, enhanced skills in critical thinking and analytical writing).

Students’ work continues to resonate beyond the classroom and after the course is over.

Finally, access to the course site on the open web amplifies the project’s impact, especially when visitors to the site comment on salient posts – often long after the semester has ended.

Essentially historical Freire

It is all here:

“The teacher who thinks “correctly” transmits to the students the beauty of our way of existing in the world as historical beings, capable of intervening in and knowing this world. Historical as we are, our knowledge of the world has historicity. It transmits, in addition, that our knowledge, when newly produced, replaces what before was new but is now old and ready to be surpassed by the coming of a new dawn. Therefore, it is as necessary to be immersed in existing knowledge as it is to be open and capable of producing something that does not yet exist. And these two moments of the epistemological process are accounted for in teaching, learning, and doing research. The one moment, in which knowledge that already exists is taught and learned, and the other, in which the production of what is not yet known is the object of research. Thus, the teaching-learning process, together with the work of research, is essential and an inseparable aspect of the gnostic cycle.”

Paolo Freire — Pedagogy of Freedom, p. 34

I share the widespread admiration of Freire for his indictment of the “banking model” of education (deposit knowledge in empty vessels), his commitment to literacy as a vehicle for enlightenment (reading the word to read the world), and his insistence on the integral connection between teaching and learning (the former needs the latter).  I am captivated by his exposition via aphorisms that compel and provoke engagement: “There is no such thing as teaching without research and research without teaching.” And, “as I teach, I continue to search and re-search.”

Coming at Critical Pedagogy from historical contexts where the connections between education, creativity and political change were fiercely contested I imagine Alexander Bogdanov talking to Freire about the creation of a proletarian culture that would be free of the oppressive ideology and antiquated forms of the bourgeois heritage the Bolsheviks admired (as a hallmark of civilization) and sought to supplant. In Freire’s summons to action I hear echos of emancipatory projects committed to enhancing human dignity that stretch back to the Enlightenment and far beyond.

But for me, Freire’s acknowledgement of our historicity, our existence as historical beings – with all of the powers and limitations that implies is what makes his theory so complete – so all-encompassing – integrating both what is and what will be: “it is as necessary to be immersed in existing knowledge as it is to be open and capable of producing something that does not yet exist.” Here I find support for Paul Gee’s  ideas about the challenges of educating for the future as well as Seymour Papert’s insistence that students become the subjects rather than the objects of education. And in this pithy assessment of the integral relationship between research, teaching and learning I find a succinct and absolutely convincing validation of the university mission:

“The one moment, in which knowledge that already exists is taught and learned, and the other, in which the production of what is not yet known is the object of research.”

It is all there. You can’t separate out the teaching from the learning from the researching.  They work together as part of a whole.



GEDI Gems: Learner-Centered Syllabi Nuggets from GEDI@VT

In lieu of an introduction: After two glorious years facilitating the New Media Seminar, my charge as Faculty Fellow for Technology-Enhanced Learning and Online Strategies shifted this fall to the Graduate Education Development Institute (GEDI). These are distinctly different, but also related projects. While the New Media Seminar brought together faculty, staff and graduate students from across the university to explore the intellectual pre-history of Web 2.0 (and yes, there is at least one wrap-up post waiting to hatch about the experience of working through Gardner Campbell‘s elegantly constructed syllabus with so many talented people), in GEDI I lead some of the university’s best graduate students in an interdisciplinary conversation devoted to contemporary pedagogy and the development of an individual pedagogical praxis for the next generation of higher ed faculty. Developed by Shelli Fowler, the course integrates theory and practice in ways that support the understanding and articulation of the how, what, and most importantly why of learner-centered teaching and course design for future faculty from Animal Science to Women’s and Gender Studies and everything in between.

We are about halfway through the semester, and so far the ride has been invigorating, inspiring, mostly fun, and not nearly as bumpy as I’d imagined it might be. While I have not been writing here as much as I like, I hope that will change in the coming weeks. Before last week’s session on syllabus design slips off the radar, I want to highlight some of the terrific work the group shared in class. Designing a learner -centered syllabus is one of the key deliverables of the course, and as we workshopped drafts of the “front-end” of syllabi during the seminar, the following gems surfaced:*

*As agreed, no names are provided in what follows, but if you recognize your voice and want attribution, please let me know. I would LOVE to give you credit.

Course Descriptions that articulate a topic or curriculum in ways that make the relevance and significance of the course clear and compelling:

(1) “Welcome to BSE xxxx. This class will be an introduction to the physical, chemical and biological principles of non-point source pollution. Non-point pollution as you should know is the most complex form of pollution to control due to its dependence on non-constant environmental factors such as rainfall and wind. As, future biological systems engineers, most of you will be at the forefront of understanding this complex topic; therefore your education as biological system engineers will be quite incomplete without learning the details of NPS pollution. If you care to check, you will realize that more than half of the BSE professors are involved in NPS research, in the field or computationally.”Akin

(2) “Welcome to Transportation Engineering Research and Analysis. In this course, learning how to be adaptive in tough situations is paramount to being successful. Being adaptive, means learning how to acquire new skills without fear of failure. After all, in engineering, developing new skills to solve tough problems with which you have little or no prior experience is a common occurrence.”

Succinct, ethically informed, and clearly articulated course objectives:

“To understand the needs of the dairy cow, and how to maximize her well-being, and how this affects different management techniques and facility design.”

Structuring learning communities by outlining the instructor’s expectations and approach to the course (note the range of options and tone):

(1) “During our first class period, we will discuss the importance of learning communities and determine what type of online community we would like to create. Options include a Facebook page, collaboration through a class hashtag, and blogging; I am certainly open to other ideas and suggestions, as well. The goal of this online community is to extend our class discussions beyond the classroom. As such, weekly contributions will be required (more on this later in the syllabus).”

(2) “I expect that you will show up to class wanting to learn environmental engineering concepts, techniques, and problem solving.  You will not just be a lump in a chair being spoon fed information which you will later regurgitate on an exam.  You will be learning how to apply concepts, not just repeat them.  I hope to engage you in learning through problem solving with as little lecturing as possible.  You will need to help each other learn the material, learn to use credible resources, and self-teach concepts in order to succeed in this class (and in engineering).”


(3) “The way I envision to instruct this course is by using a student-centric approach. In other words, you will be responsible for constructing your understanding and I will act as a facilitator or guide in the process of knowledge construction. This will require you to take charge of your own learning and be an active participant in the learning process. And this is why I would strongly recommend you to go through this document during the first few days of the semester so that we can discuss the course policies in the first week of class. If you think that one or more aspects of this document need to be reconsidered to help you learn better, I would be happy to take up a class discussion on those aspects and change the document based on mutual consent. Remember, the idea is for you to learn and I will be happy to modify the syllabus (or the instruction) if it helps your learning.”

(4) The course has an approach with the following characteristics: It values collaboration and collective construction of knowledge; Its evolution is based upon students’ weekly participation in class and in blogging; It is experiential, meaning that students will not only learn about the “designerly ways”, but also experience it in applied situation; Its second part (weeks 10 to 15) is applied, working as a studio-based class.”

Course policies explained so that the rationale for them and the connections to real life are clear:

(1) “Treat your emails for this course as professional communications. Professional email (email written to professors, supervisors, or colleagues in a professional setting) is not an appropriate venue for expressing anger, complex feelings, or venting about others. Instead, think of each email as a strategic career event that represents you and creates a permanent record of your accomplishments, attitude, and professionalism. Here are some guidelines that I use and expect students to employ:…..

Specific Examples of Learner-Centered Activities and Assignments:

(1) “Toward the ending of the semester we will be having an inclusive activity, which will require the application of learnt course material to solve the problem. Because the students customize this part of the course, it will depend on what area of genetics you would like to focus on. The crime scene activity will be completed at a forensic lab where we will analyze samples collected from a crime scene using applicable techniques learned in class. The other option for this inclusive activity is to help a beef cattle rancher to make critical decision for his herd. We will collect data on his farm located in southern Virginia and assess the environmental effects on the performance of his herd as well as to determine a mating strategy and by extension the type of semen he should purchase to artificially inseminate his heifers and cows.”

(2) “An optional team project is designed for some motivated students to challenge yourself and have hands-on project development experience. By participating in the project, you will be exempted from the comprehensive exam. But I can assure you that you would spend more time on this project than the preparation time for the final exams! This project will help you gain experience in building an IT system. Each project can be completed by two or three students as a team. Each team will go through different phases of a Text Analysis project, including preprocessing, analysis, implementation, evaluation, and report. This experience will not only improve your understanding of our course material, but also benefit you in the long run with regard to your future employment opportunities. Past BIT graduates’ experiences show that it is well worth all the efforts and time spent on this project. Please make sure that you are motivated before committing to this team project.”

There are many more fine examples, but this sampling gives a sense of the variety of approaches and innovation that made our discussion of the learner-centered syllabus so rich.  For those wanting more on the context for the syllabus assignment, the guidelines are here.

And finally….When I saw Shelli Fowler last week we talked about doing an “interview” on the backstory of GEDI and its wonderful syllabus. It may take us a couple of weeks to get organized, but please stay tuned.

Image: Ball, Round, Alone, Different (CCo Public Domain)

Almost back in the game

Last night’s GEDI seminar provided plenty of action and interaction, as we thought about various ways to engage the imaginations of 21st-Century learners, debated whether or not gaming might save the world (or condemn it once and for all), and concluded with an impressive round of Massively Multi-Player Thumb Wrestling guided by Jane McGonigal herself.

Our discussions focused first on the kinds of pedagogies and tools we might use to build in more play and gaming into class projects and experiences, and then shifted to a more meta-level inquiry about the challenges of motivation in the broader context of the costs and purposes of higher education (inspired by this especially nuanced reflection on Ortega y Gasset).  I have drafted several posts in my head these last few weeks, but am still waiting for the mental space and clarity I need to produce something coherent enough to warrant spending pixels on it. (I just started Helen McDonald’s H is for Hawk yesterday, and imagine her observation that “the goshawk is like grace. It is rare and you never know when it will appear,” might apply to the muse as well.)

But as a preliminary step to producing something significant of my own, I need to give a shout out here to the author of Wide. Open. Learning, who assembled a wonderful array of resources and ideas about game-based learning.  This is not an exhaustive list, but rather a thoughtfully curated synthesis of reflections, suggestions and resources.  Whether you are a novice or expert, have just leveled up or never leveled up, this is a gem you will want to use and admire: game-based learning

Creating Community #digped

Our afternoon session at the Digital Pedagogy Lab today focused on using digital environments to support student learning communities.  I promised a couple of people I would post / tweet references for the blogging guidelines and course websites where my students have come together to create rich learning environments that outlived the chronological parameters of the semester and the physical confines of the classroom.  So here goes:

This is the syllabus for the second iteration of “Deep History and Domestication” (which prompted the reference to “dinosaur afterlives”).  As I mentioned today, this course was my first foray into networked and connected learning. Gardner Campbell gave me the inspiration to try something new, and my students showed me how incredibly powerful, fun, and effective such endeavors could be.

These are the Soviet History courses that extended the networked component of the Deep History and Domestication format to include class-sourcing the majority of the content and supporting students’ use of proprietary databases as well as openly accessible high-value sources on the web.

A couple of people asked about the mechanisms for framing and supporting vibrant student interaction in these online environments.  Here’s an excerpt from the blogging instructions for Deep history:

While this syllabus provides a road map to the course, a large part of our work together will be constructed, elaborated and refined on the web. I am interested in deepening and expanding on our in-class discussions and research endeavors and hope that this experiment with blogging will help us create the course together in an immediately accessible, professional, enduring and transparent medium.

You are required to blog at least once per week about the assigned readings, and you are required to comment on another person’s blog at least twice per week. There is no assigned length or format for your blogging. I just ask that you engage the readings thoughtfully and substantively, and that you explore and play with the many nuances of the blogging modality. You might comment on the author’s theoretical/methodological framework or relate the assigned text to other readings for the course, other perspectives you have encountered elsewhere, and the thoughts, questions, and responses of your classmates on their blogs. You may also respond to the text’s major arguments in more personal terms, as long as you engage those arguments carefully. Individual blog posts are not graded, but will be considered holistically as evidence of your general commitment to the course and its content.

Guidelines for blogging and commenting in the Soviet History courses are here.  You can also look in the category “blogpost guidelines” for the weekly prompts.

And finally, I’ll note that all of these courses use two blogs — one that aggregates posts from the students’ individual blogs (the main course website), and one that aggregates the comments from all of the students’ blogs.  I pull the second blog through an RSS feed on the main blog so that students can see all of the comments on the main site.  If you really want the deep dive on setting this up, I’ve outlined the process here.


freegifmaker.me_27f7yI savored every moment of the first ALTFest at Virginia Commonwealth University this week. From the first afternoon’s “unconference” ALTCamp to the final showcase lunch, opportunities for interaction, experimentation and engagement abounded. Indeed after Mimi Ito’s wonderfully interactive keynote there were so many synchronous sessions and activities; my only complaint is that I couldn’t take advantage of all of them!

The session I most regret not being able to clone myself for was the hackjam devoted to interrogating and reimagining “the syllabus.”  What is a syllabus anyway? A descriptive overview? A schedule? A contract? All of the above? So, a big shout out to Jon Becker for his post about the highlights of the hackjam that includes so many cool examples of what a syllabus might be and might inspire…. I don’t even know where to start poaching as I start developing the syllabus for the newly networked course on Soviet culture I’ll be teaching in the fall. Continue reading “ALTFest@VCU”