“That’s not a course…it’s a community.”

In our most recent class session for GRAD602 we explored the idea of course sites as platforms of participation. My colleague Britt Watwood led the session and took us on a reflective tour of web-based course sites. This is a schtick Britt has facilitated many times before, and it always begins with a review of the history of the LMS – its development, functionality and the rapid adoption by faculty in higher education. The basic premise is that LMS technology is a rather teacher-centered technology whose appeal lies in the fact that it tends to reinforce existing practices, and functions well to serve as a parking lot for course content and keeps grades locked up safe and available to students. Britt paints a slightly more rosy picture, but that is the gist of it. Students in class reported that their experience of the LMS is not all that well aligned with the idea of being a platform of participation. It is a pretty good platform of compliance though.

Britt then transitioned to taking a look at our current course site which we’ve developed on WordPress, it includes a collection of course feeds via netvibes, a twitter feed, and podcasts. Nothing new here, in fact we’ve shamelessly copied much of this stuff from others far more creative than we are. Yet the course site has some life beyond any single semester instance…it hints at the hope of an extended community…but its not quite there yet. Still, the students noticed that the experience and feel of the WP site was more inviting and was a bit more in line with being a platform of participation (no pressure for them to say that, huh?).

We then took a turn to explore the idea of fan sites. Fan culture on the web is a pretty interesting seam in the conversation around course sites…at least we thought so. The idea of groups forming to share interests, ideas, resources…and engage in dialogue / banter / harangue…around a topic of mutual passion…these sound like awesome ingredients for building online communities. Britt pitched a Justin Bieber fan site (which I purposely will not link to here). There are literally tons of web-based community sites, where user-generated content is the coin of the realm. There really seems to be some value in having course sites collide with fan sites on the web. Henry Jenkins has written far more eloquently about this topic for years…so I’ll just leave that one on the table.

We then pitched ds106 as an example of a course site that seems to have successfully emulated this collision I briefly described. While ds106 was conceived as a course (an open course) it now seems more course-like as it evolved and grew into its current form from robust community involvement that helped to build and grow it…the radio show, the daily create, the assignment bank…user-generated learning content. The students in GRAD602 picked up on these ideas and I was particularly struck by a comment a student made during our discussion in response to ds106…”That is not a course…it’s a community!” That really rang in my ears for a while…and is worth stating again.

“That is not a course…it’s a community!”

Somehow the statement seemed to be suggesting that courses are not supposed to be communities. Or perhaps that notions of community are nice, but not altogether consistent with time honored notions of academic courses. Why not?

We used this statement as a springboard for a post-class debrief which we recorded and posted here:

We discussed a few pieces that seem to contribute to course sites moving towards communities:

  • Shelf Life – Ongoing access to the materials and discussions beyond any one semester
  • Multiple Entry Points – Supports sharing of learner-generated content
  • Open – Can engage the wider interwebs
  • [Re]engagement – “Can I come back?” Provides opportunities for past students to revisit the course

What else might you add?


“Hey Dad, can we get a life-sized 3D printer?”


It all started with my father-in-law sending along a mummified skeleton to my son, Lowell. We were all curious about what the animal may have been, and pitched initial ideas for figuring out how to identify it. A quick image search for squirrels and chipmunks did not yield any clear answers.

At my wife’s suggestion we reached out to the Anthropology Department here at VCU for some possible assistance in faunal identification. Dr. Bernard Means, who directs the Virtual Curation Lab (VCL) here, was both supportive and enthusiastic of my son’s exploration and invited him to the lab. It was a wonderful learning experience, comparing sample skeletons, examining additional artifacts, doing some hypothesis testing and getting an introduction to 3D scanning and printing. The specimen even garnered the attention of Dr. Elizabeth Moore of the Virginia Museum of Natural History (VMNH) who was a visitor to the VCL. The skeleton was eventually positively identified as a juvenile opossum…very cool. Dr. Means expressed interest in keeping the specimen, and offered to print a scanned copy of the opossum for Lowell.

“Print a copy?” Lowell remarked…he was more than willing to let Dr. Means keep the actual skeleton…and the thought of a copy was pretty intriguing for him, and me as well.

This idea of 3D printing is something I’ve had to warm-up to over the past several years. When I initially heard of the technology a few years ago I admit I did not readily see some of the possibilities for education. But seeing this through my son’s eyes has totally changed my perspective. He has now had an experience where his “real-life” opossum skeleton, could be scanned and reproduced by a 3D printer…something I never even considered within the realm of reason. This is now a baseline perspective for my son. Mummified juvenile opossum.

He emerged with the idea that anything could be printed. This is a rather profound state of affairs for a 9 year old boy. Not only does he have the view that these “real-life” things can be printed, but that things he imagines and creates virtually could also be printed. Real can be virtual and virtual can be real. This realization completely blew the doors open for him. It is this sense of possibility, of imagining things and having the perspective and confidence that you can actually make it in real life with a 3D printer was a transformative moment for Lowell and I. I think this sense of possibility, creativity and imagination holds some profound promise for education and learning in the digital age as well. A few days ago he was showing me a recent creation he made in Minecraft. His imagination and creativity in this environment never ceases to amaze me, and this day was no different. He had made what he described as a kind of a flying fortress…complete with an enclosed garden and living space. “Very cool” I said…to which he responded…”can we get a life-sized 3D printer?”

It is a profoundly different world…


What if your course was more like Chipotle?

I’ve been having some initial conversations with my colleagues Enoch Hale and Britt Watwood about how we conceptualize the narrative of innovation as it relates to our work in higher education. We had a wonderful conversation this morning about innovation in the business / consumer world, and used that as a way to map onto higher education (a thought I know will make some of you cringe, but bear with me here). I’m going to steal an idea from our conversation, and use that as my contribution (#3) to the 30-Day question challenge. So here goes:

Question #3: What if your course was more like Chipotle?

What has Chipotle done here that I (and others) find pretty interesting…and I’ll venture to say innovative? They took different pans of well-known taco / burrito ingredients (beans, chicken, carnitas, sofritas, corn relish, salsa, cheese, lettuce) fairly predictable stuff…and empowered their customers to [re]mix and [re]combine them in countless numbers of ways. Choices personalized! As Enoch shared in our conversation, there are exposed and known choices…and then there are the “hidden choices”…or the possibilities and options that folks envision and experience when they come into Chipotle to eat. Let’s face it, the taco / burrito is not a new consumer product. It is a known and familiar entity. But eh Taco Bell “Live Mas” pitch where they stuff the same fixins into a new and innovative wrapper “Doritos Taco Shell” just doesn’t do it for me.

I think higher education does a fair share of claiming new / innovative stuff by putting a new taco shell around old content and practices. Its not appealing…at least not to me.

So is there value in conceptualizing a Chipotle model for courses we teach? I see several potential value options…

1) Bringing imagination of new opportunities to the teaching & learning enterprise…i.e., there is common fare that can be re-conceptualized and shared in new ways.

2) There is opportunity for empowerment and choice for learners right out of the gate.

3) Learning can take on a personalized flavor (obvious pun…sorry couldn’t help it).

4) [Re]mix / [Re]combine…becomes a learning expectation for the course.

Its about option generation…


30-day Question Challenge (#2)

When you find something that works you tend to stick with it. Sometimes it is simply patterned behavior…no big surprise there. But these patterned practices can also become scripted thinking routines…entrenched in teaching and learning, almost to the point where we don’t question…its just accepted as obvious…its what we do.

We see this in simple ways, students (children & adults) who sit in the same place – all the time – and with teachers who do that same go-to activity year after year. We are comfortable with the routine and the predictable. its not that there is inherently anything bad with routine, but I think it can prevent us from thinking about something new, or trying a new practice – in essence – to sit somewhere else. A change of perspective can be healthy.

So my questions:

Question 2: How can we “sit differently” to gain new perspectives on teaching and learning?

What I’m thinking about here are activities that get our brains to do something different than what we might be used to. Its like trying to brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand. Or walking backward through your house. What are some possible analogues that might help us to think different about teaching and learning? I realize I may really have oversimplified the issues here…but I’m wondering about what benefit we might gain from shifting the way we engage in routine teaching-learning behaviors.

What do you think?


30-day Question Challenge (#1)

My colleague here in the CTE, Enoch Hale, who blogs over at Archer’s Paradox has issued a call that I found inspiring: “pose an out-of-the-box question about teaching and learning each day for 30 days.” So, I’ve decided to take the challenge, noting that my blogging frequency is less than a post per month…this is a very real challenge for me. So here goes…

Question 1: What might it mean to teach like an octopus?

OK, I have absolutely no idea what I mean by this, just yet. But I’ve been fascinated by the behaviors of these creatures…

For example…talk about literally thinking out of the box…check this out –>

I picture myself inside that box and think, “no way…IMPOSSIBLE…I’m imprisoned in here.” What is this octopus thinking that makes this seem so effortless and obvious? Believing in the possible? The implications of this for teaching seem worth pursuing for me…and at the same time a little daunting because I have no idea how the octopus pulls this off.

Or this clip depicting the ways in which an octopus can change color, be a shape-shifter, blend and reappear…

Again…the octopus is fascinating in the ways it thinks itself into the possible. What does it mean to teach like an octopus?


The Promise of Learning

A parent of a student once said to me, “When you have your own children, you begin to think about learning in a very different way.” At the time, I sensed that was obviously true, but she was right…you can’t really feel it in your soul until you have your own kids. I find myself thinking more about this lately as my son, who is 7, has begun his march through formal schooling. It can be a bumpy process when the sifting and sorting mechanism kicks into gear, and instructional efficiency begins to rule the day.

It has made me think – perhaps more than I should – about the promise of learning and what it means to teach…really teach. It is about way more than content and curriculum delivery…at least it should be. It should be about caring for individuals and recognizing that there are many paths to learning. As teachers, we sometimes lose sight of this…or trade it for some higher ideal.

What is your promise for learning?

It’s an interesting question…and I find myself asking it more often…as a parent.

Which is why I found this site of a Swedish primary school to be so interesting. On their site they outline their learning promises…simple perhaps, but I found them inspirational:

Vittra gives every individual the opportunity…

  • to find the best approach for them
    Children play and learn on the basis of their needs, curiosity and inclination in the best ways possible.
  • to learn based on experience
    Children’s learning is based on their experience which increases motivation and inspires creativity.
  • to understand their own learning
    Children are equipped with the tools to acquire new knowledge and increase understanding of ‘How I learn’, which enables them to learn more easily and effectively in the future.
  • to have faith in themselves and their abilities
    Children become more self-aware, aware of their strengths and potential for development which means they dare and like to be challenged.
  • to develop their ability to communicate and engage in respectful interaction with others
    Children understand and are considerate to the needs and interests of others, they can express and stand for their own views as well as take responsibility for their actions.
  • to be equipped for study and work in an international environment
    Children develop effective bilingualism in English and Swedish while experiencing and creating international contacts through networks and exchange programmes abroad.

I don’t know about you, but its not often I see a K-12 school – anywhere in the U.S at least – making any kind of promises about learning. One thing for sure, I have never seen a college or university make these kinds of promises about learning for students who enroll in their programs and courses. I wonder if it would make a difference? A difference in how we teach….


PLENK, Network Literacy and the Future of Education

This week I came across a few interesting links that served to gel some ideas, or at least confirm the importance of engaging in and understanding networked learning. The first was an open course being taught by George Siemens, Stephen Downes and Dave Cormier called PLENK 2010. This 8-week open course covers some pretty interesting topics and provides links to additional readings and resources. Spending some time on this site provided me with some insights about how learning is increasingly more open, connected (networked), and social.

The other piece was an interview that Will Richardson did for EdWeek. In the interview, Richardson touches on the idea of “network literacy” – an idea that really resonates with me – and shared some views about why the teaching of this new literacy is important. While his focus tends to be on the K-12 context his ideas are equally important in higher education. The PLENK 2010 course is a meaningful response to what Richardson is calling for, but I’m wondering where else this is happening? The concept of networked learning remains a bit of a fringe idea when I talk with other faculty about it…and as such it often gets easily dismissed. At the same time, I can’t help but sense that there is a profound transformation taking place right in front of our eyes, and too few people in education seem to be taking notice and considering the implications for education. I just don’t see this as a pervasive conversation in broader education circles… Should it be?

It seems to me there is a gulf of understanding between what many in higher ed. are seeing and thinking and what is happening around them. I liken it to what has happened to traditional news media in the wake of web publishing…none of them (editors, periodicals, newspapers, etc.) saw their own demise coming. Some were nimble and have adjusted…others are still scratching their heads.

A current example of the kind of change that is underfoot is the Drumbeat Learning, Freedom and the Web Festival. This “festival” (read conference) is one of the most interesting I have seen to date in terms of pushing the conversation about the Open Education and networked learning. Combine this with the the announcement this week that OpenStudy is partnering with MIT OpenCourseware and you begin to get a real glimpse of how traditional notions of course-based learning are morphing here. Some very interesting stuff in my opinion.

It seems to me that these examples of changes taking place….(Peer2Peer U., badges for recognizing informal online learning, open courses, open source learning content, etc.) represent a whole different ballgame. Perhaps a bit radical for those with a conservative lens…but I think any position / view of the future of education needs to take into account the changes taking place here.


Blogs for Learning and Reflective Practice?

With nearly 147 million blogs currently identified on the web, why should you consider adding yet another blog to the burgeoning blogosphere?

I’m not sure if that is the right question to be asking when we invite students to share their ideas on the web, but that is what I did. I wanted them to consider developing a rationale for writing in the open that could support learning and reflective practice, as well as explore opportunities for connecting and community building. I also understand that my asking them to enter this space is potentially at odds with what some might call “authentic” purposes for writing that are individually motivated. Many have written about the tension and disconnect that can emerge when students engage in this kind of writing for course-based purposes, and I still like Stephen Downes’ take on it.

I believe it is a valuable experience for students to engage with writing in the open for the purposes of reflecting on their learning and connecting their ideas with others who are engaged in a similar pursuit. Consideration of the potential audience is at once humbling, exciting and unknown. From my perspective, there is no other way to reap potential benefits of this experience, or to be able to level a reasoned critique of it, unless you engage in it.

All said, the brief clip below of Seth Godin and Tom Peters talking about why they blog seemed to resonate with us as we discussed a rationale for blogging. In less than two minutes, Godin and Peters offer some of the most honest and encouraging advice I’ve heard…

While their perspectives are great for a general audience, I think their message could apply to educational blogging as well. There are probably better examples for supporting my rationale for blogging in education, but the clip really gets the job done for me. As I think about specific educational examples, I’m hard pressed to find something that tops Gardner Campbell’s view of why he asks his students to blog, or Henry Jenkins’ call to academics to write in the open. Taken collectively, these examples form a foundation for my rationale about why I ask students to engage in blogging to support reflective practice and learning.

I know that there are multiple ways and reasons to engage students in the use of blogs in education…and probably an equal number of reasons not to. So I’m curious…if you are a fan of blogging to support learning what is your rationale? If you have some push back in the other direction I’d really like to hear that as well…