The (medium) Hard Work of Open

Long Trail

My what a couple of weeks it’s been….So much anticipation, trepidation, incredulity, outrage, sorrow….resolve…

No, I’m not talking about #OpenLearning17. The course launch last week provided a wonderfully affirming forum for engaging with the forces of enlightenment.  Laura Gogia’s masterful facilitation of a Twitter Journal Club (#TJC17) on Friday brought folks together around a close reading of Jeffrey Pomerantz’ and Robin Peek’s Fifty Shades of Open, and through Twitter magic and generosity Jeffrey Pomerantz was able to participate in the discussion. Some of us even carried the conversation further by annotating it on . And because the #TJC17was open and coincided with the annual AAC&U conference in San Francisco, conference participants could join the fun and those of us who were not physically in attendance could share in some of the buzz generated by the big gathering.

Continue reading “The (medium) Hard Work of Open”

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)


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”

Time for Co-Learning

The world within my hands – Capture Queen (2007) Flickr: Licensed by Creative Commons 2.0

It’s week thirteen of the semester and I no longer pretend I’m going to catch up. Read, make, watch and blog half of what I want to for Connected Courses? Revise and submit the Belyaev fox paper? Pick up the threads of chapter four of Space Dogs? Nope. Not going to happen.

Because when you teach two or more connected courses that is just about all you do (besides the committee work and administrivia that are as inescapable as research hours are elusive). I am not complaining. I love teaching this way. In fact I was enormously relieved to hear Howard Rheingold emphasize during one of the #ccourses Webinars this week that engaging students in co-learning using a networked environment just takes time. This has certainly been my experience, but I think until now a piece of me thought that I was missing something — that because I spend hours and hours thinking about and with my students I must be doing something wrong. I’ve just been teaching this way for a year or so. Maybe more practice, more experience will make me more efficient, better able to balance all of the parts of my job?

Before I taught this way I did have some semblance of balance between teaching and research. I have always loved the classroom, but I used to see it as a physical space where I met students two or three times a week. I prepped for class, taught class, graded and returned papers. Remixed, recycled, repeated. Everything was fine — good even. I liked my students. They mostly liked me. They sent me nice notes telling me how much they enjoyed Russian history, asked me to write recommendations for them, invited me to their weddings, and asked me  to help translate the old letters they found in their grandmother’s attic. As faculty at a research 1 institution, I knew from day one that I needed to be a good teacher, but that I should not spend too much time teaching if I wanted to get tenure. After all, books and articles do not write themselves. Ask just about anyone in the humanities what they need for their research, and I bet nearly everyone would put “time” near the top of the list.

Connected courses dissolve the physical and temporal boundaries of the classroom in ways I believe benefit our students tremendously. They learn to research and synthesize their findings by writing about subjects that interest them. They create something meaningful to them and accessible to anyone with an internet connection. Over the semester their blog posts become more sophisticated — the writing improves, they become more adept at finding and analyzing high-value sources, they learn and model collegial dialogue about their findings by commenting on each others’ work, they curate their content more expertly and seek out feedback on it, they interact with the instructor and the editorial team as co-curators and co-learners, because we all share in the creation, presentation, and maintenance of the weekly digest that is our motherblog. By the time the course ends, they have a blog of their own that illustrates their skills in historical analysis and demonstrates their understanding of the key developments in Soviet History (or the Deep History of Domestication, or historiography….). In addition, students on the editorial team gain experience in peer-to-peer mentoring (on line and during class), and proficiency curating content for a fairly complex site.

Most of this happens outside the 150 minutes we spend together in class each week. And whereas in the old model I assumed that students worked harder (and spent more time) on the course than I did, teaching a connected course requires that we be more equally invested. It’s an investment I’m happy to make. I look forward to responding to weekly posts in a way that I never did for reflection papers or essays. I am energized by working collaboratively with students on their research projects using shared documents on GoogleDrive. Because the docs are always there I can comment and respond to questions on them anytime. If I see that the student is online when I am we can chat about their project. I can put them in touch with each other and they can point me toward shared concerns and challenges. When someone posts about a topic I find interesting or troubling I can find related material or another source and include it with my comments. And when the discussion in a comment thread really takes off I can stay up and chime in — or just watch.

Being connected with the editorial team also makes for some terrific interactions — usually late in the evening — when we meet each other in our shared folder and make curatorial decisions for the weekly digest. What did you like about this post? Which image do you think will look best in the slider? Did you checkout the Pravda article he cited about the invasion of Afghanistan?

Making the motherblog the class keeps us all engaged with the content and each other much more consistently over the week than the traditional formula of 2 meetings/week + written work=class. Which is wonderful and valuable. But there are obvious tradeoffs here for faculty who are supposed to be equally attentive to research and teaching. This semester, I have been able to re-calibrate some of the time I spend with my co-learners in ways I hope haven’t compromised our shared enterprise. But I’m not sure I can encourage my pre-tenure colleagues to join me in this synergistic connected space because it seems that the challenges of juggling these kinds of courses and producing the research needed for tenure could be overwhelming.

Obviously there are some larger issues in play here — the rewards / incentive structures for faculty at research institutions, the two-tier system of tenure-track and adjunct / part-time faculty, the broader challenges of this nugget from last nights #ccourses webinar:

But I have to think we can make this work, that there is a win-win here for students and faculty, and for our institutions as well. I need help figuring this piece out. How do we develop incentives for faculty to embrace co-learning modalities? For some of us the uptick in student engagement and competence are reward enough. And here at Virginia Tech, Ralph Hall uses GoogleGlass to combine research on sustainability with teaching connected courses. Identifying more ways to integrate teaching and research definitely seems promising. But we also need something more. We’ve figured out how to empower students to leverage the amazing resources of networked learning environments. Now we need to find ways to support faculty, especially junior faculty, who want to embrace the connected courses / active co-learning model but also want and need to devote equal time to research. Thoughts anyone?

Double Creative Disruption Nugget

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The internet’s disruptiveness is a consequence of its technical DNA. In programmers’ parlance, it’s a feature, not a bug – i.e. an intentional facility, not a mistake. And it’s difficult to see how we could disable the network’s facility for generating unpleasant surprises without also disabling the other forms of creativity it engenders.     — John Naughton (2010)

My connected courses this semester have been full of unpleasant surprises of the technical kind. Many people of good will have tried to help coax overloaded servers back to the front lines. But without a warp drive we are all left peddling along.

Faster Captian Picard, faster!

Taking control would make things easier: We should lock down that platform, kick out those unruly widgets, limit the size, shape, and format of the content — for the sake of stability, for the sake of control, for the sake of the greater good.  Right?  Resistance is futile, right?

Not so slow!!!! Let’s not take away the flexibility that enables the creativity as well as the unpleasant surprises. Instead, let’s fix the warp drive so the Enterprise-internet can do what we made it to do, and what we do with it every time we engage it.

This nugget from John Naughton’s piece “Everything you need to know about the internet” highlights the yin and yang of creative disruption. In the seventies Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn sought to design a future-proof system that would link networks simply and seamlessly.  They did that by setting up a decentralized net where no one person or entity has ownership or control and by embedding “neutrality” in the core architecture of the system. The network is simple in that it moves data packets from point to point. But it is neutral as to the content of those packets. So the same features that facilitate so many unpleasant surprises (malware, cyber stalking, incompatibilities) support the amazing, invigorating good stuff that brings us together and makes us smarter (communication, creation, augmentation, innovation).

Fencing off a little corner of the net as a kind of sandbox for students is a natural impulse.  Locking things down will keep us safe, make things more efficient, and short circuit the frustration. But natural as it is, the impulse to exercise this kind of control thwarts the simple, empowering, free-range qualities that make the net the net and make the web a wonderfully flexible communication medium. The safe, impulse-drive installation would limit the unpleasant surprises, but it would also hamstring the creative potential that brings us here in the first place.

The disruption can be negative or positive, but it is embedded in the net’s DNA. Fiddling with that disruptive capability undercuts the whole enterprise. Disruption is a feature, not a bug.

I need to understand that feature better in order to deal with the unpleasant surprises and cultivate more pleasant surprises. I need to take Ted Nelson’s injunction to heart:

Computer Lib cover by Ted Nelson 1974” by Ted Nelson – The New Media Reader (2003), page 302. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

Because creativity requires facility, disruption enables innovation, and bugs in a web can be beautiful.

Oh, Had I A Golden Thread
Oh Had I A Golden Thread – Loco Steve (2010)

Oh, had I a golden thread
And a needle so fine
I’d weave a magic strand
Of rainbow design…..

Thinking Animals – The “Why” for a New Connected Course

Rainbow Web
Rainbow Web by Jennifer Nish

My “why” for previous connected courses has centered on developing empathy (closeness) and analytical perspective (distance) for things that really matter. For me, those things include: people, animals, and an appreciation of the unique cultural contexts in which we relate to each other.

In an honors colloquium on domestication we worked to unpack the assumptions we have about what domestication is (answer: on ongoing multi-lateral interspecies relationship, rather than an event or engineering feat). We gained insight about how our historical assumptions condition our current experiences with real animals and left the course with a more robust analytical toolkit for moving those relationships forward.

Last fall I shifted my Soviet History course to a “100% class-sourced” model, by having students research and author blog posts for a weekly digest. Rather than trying to convey my understanding of the Soviet experience to them and then testing them on it, I helped them identify high quality research materials for topics and events that were interesting to them.  We produced a rich compendium of analytical posts in which students not only demonstrated competence with the research process, but, more importantly, developed an appreciation for historical contingency and cultural relativism. Studying a history steeped in negative stereotypes and a society that seems quite “foreign” on their own terms gave us a more constructive perspective on the contemporary political climate and an appreciation of our own cultural baggage.

I’ve been amazed and invigorated by the power of networked technologies to amplify the learning experience.  I still have a lot to learn and will continue to develop the two connected course models I currently have in play.  I am also looking ahead and thinking seriously about a course that would connect students and faculty from different campuses in the interdisciplinary field of animal studies. The why of that course is that relationships between humans and animals are fundamental, essential, but often unacknowledged or certainly unexamined aspects of our lives as social creatures embedded in historical contexts.  Animal studies, a developing academic field that mobilizes practitioners from the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and applied fields to study our relationships with non-human animals in theory and in practice seems ideally suited for a connected course.  Such a course could bring together faculty with different areas of expertise,  practitioners outside the academy, and students at any level to create a dynamic web of inquiry, expertise and action.  I will be knocking on the doors I know exist shortly.  If yours isn’t one of them and you are interested, please let me know!

Your motherblog might need a (mostly invisible) spouse

Course blogs are everywhere these days. While Tumblr and instagram might be the “it” social media of the moment, a course blog’s suitability for exchanging ideas, presenting research, and engaging in an open, distributed conversation is hard to beat. Course blogs come in all shapes and sizes of course, but the format I’ve been using extensively this year came about with the help of Gardner Campbell. I’ve deployed it in a range of course settings, from seminars with six undergraduates to upper-level courses with thirty-eight. It has worked beautifully for helping new graduate students come to terms with historiography as well. Several people have asked me about the set-up, and although it can be explained with spoken words and hand motions, it will be easier to lay out here.  So what follows is partly a plug for this particular configuration and partly a “how-to” for those who want to try it themselves.

Why does a motherblog need a spouse?

Like many course blogs, this format uses a “motherblog” that syndicates posts from all of the contributors’ individual blogs. Each student has their own “childblog” which they can customize according to their own preferences. The student’s blog becomes an eportfolio of their work, a “deliverable” they can take away (and continue to build on) when the course ends. The motherblog aggregates the feeds from all members of the course in one easy to find and search place.

Mother Blog


 Child Blog


But how do you handle the comments?  One of the main advantages of having students blog is the amplification of the audience. Instead of completing an “assignment” for me (“Is that what you wanted?”), they are writing for a much more diverse and interesting audience — it includes me, but is mainly comprised of their classmates and anyone else who happens to be interested in what they have to say. Commenting gives us a chance to engage in a multilateral conversation about the substance of the posts over a few hours, several days, or the entire term. But since every student has her own blog, the comments on a particular post are going to be attached to the individual blog, rather than the course blog. (You can set the motherblog up so that comments on the syndicated posts appear on the course blog, but then they won’t be attached to the student’s blog.)  This means you have to click around and look for a conversation to join, which could be serendipitously fun, but might also be a pain in the neck.

The solution is a second blog that aggregates all of the comment feeds from the students’ blogs. I think of it as a (mostly invisible) spouse to the motherblog, because it does a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of pulling content together and pushing it forward. But like many spouses, it does this quietly and without much recognition. It will work just as hard as the motherblog, but never rise to a search engine’s attention.  This blog of the collected comments from all of the students’ blogs appears in an RSS feed on the mother blog. When someone goes to main website to see what’s been posted recently, the comments on those posts are visible on the front page as well.  Clicking on a post or an interesting comment will take you directly to the student blog you want to engage.

Comment feed on Mother Blog


Student Blog Post


  It’s elegant, functional, and not hard to set up:

1) Create and set-up your motherblog to aggregate the posts from all of your contributors. (If you don’t have access to a WordPress enterprise installation, you can use an RSS multiplier to get the similar kind of functionality as you have with the syndication application.)

2) Create another blog to do the same for the comments.

3) Syndicate the individual blogs to the comment blog:


4) Select the “comments” feed:


5) On the motherblog, pull the comment blog through the RSS feed and relabel the RSS feed as a comment feed:


6) Drag the “recent comments” widget on the mother blog to the “inactive” area of the dashboard:


7) Create a link to the comment blog on the motherblog (optional):


8) That’s it!