Identifying Connected Learning Course Designs

As part of my work as the Graduate Fellow at VCU ALT Lab, I try to make sense of the rapidly evolving body of literature on designing higher education connected learning experiences. To be frank, it is rapidly evolving because there isn’t much officially written, yet.  Nevertheless, for the purposes of my dissertation proposal, I outlined a list of learning activities consistent with connected learning that I synthesized from a variety of articles and think pieces.  A short excerpt:

Connected Learning experiences in formal, higher education settings tend to involve five key activities: establishing a personal learning network; curating, critiquing, and organizing data; connecting or coordinating concepts over space, time, and spheres of learning; transforming data into new products; and sharing new products with the personal learning network (Dede, 2009; Kop, 2011; Downes, 2006).

At the moment, I am trying to analyze five connected learning courses offered by VCU during the summer of 2015, described here and here.  Although my analysis will be turning more towards the student experience, eventually, right now I’m focusing on instructional design – what was it about these courses that make them identifiable as “connected learning courses?”
Some people equate “connected learning course” with public course documents, blogging, and online discussion. Warning: I disagree, and with extreme, somewhat flaming passion.  If you want to understand why, start by reading this.  That being said, I’m also having difficulties using the “key activities” framework I outlined in my prospectus to provide institutional criteria for identifying connected learning courses. The points surrounding the PLN are particularly difficult to document at the design stage; we can make students sign up for public social media accounts, but we can’t make them use them effectively to produce PLNs.  Furthermore, I think PLNs can’t be proven to exist until they have been sustained across more than one class – and since their effectiveness may wax and wane, serious longitudinal work is required.  I cannot in good faith say that making a student sign up for Twitter fulfills a criteria of “establishing a personal learning network.” 

Therefore, I’m working on a new way to think about identifying “connected learning instructional designs.”  Much of my thinking arises from my recent immersion in the open education, connected learning, and networked learning literature.  It’s a mix of the three, really.  I’m not suggesting that all connected learning courses need to have all components; ultimately, connected learning instructional design should probably be considered on a spectrum, kind of like the PLOS criteria for open access (see “How Open Is it?”)  

If I were to make a similar infographic for “How Connected Is IT?”  I would probably assess course designs along the following criteria (note that the descriptions provided focus on the furthest end of the spectrum of connectedness) :

  1. Open Educational Resources (course documents, activities, content and materials).  The most connected learning spaces would make course documents (including syllabus and activities) public; it would privilege the use of OER and encourage students to use or make additional OER.
  2. Collaboration and Curation.  The most connected learning spaces would require students to work on collaborative projects.  One example might be a collective curation of web resources that would be available after the end of the course – and also for the public (as a form of OER). 
  3. Network Fluency.  The most connected learning spaces require students to practice their networking know-how through interaction in public spaces such as twitter.  It’s not just about co-constructing knowledge around the topic; it’s about figuring out how to develop social capital.  Therefore, learning activities should be structured to support network fluency; course documents should be explicit about why these activities are taking place how and where they are occurring.  Course design would provide opportunities (probably some engineered by faculty) for students to mix and mingle with potential mentors in and beyond the immediate academic environment.
  4. Digital Fluency and Maker-Oriented Design. The most connected learning spaces require students to stretch their understanding of digital platforms.  For some students, just putting together a blog is hard.  Ok, but it shouldn’t stop there.  Weekly blog assignments should move beyond having them write text-based responses to exploiting the affordances of digital media – images, infographics, video, concept maps, audio.  I pulled this from Yin Kreher’s connected learning course site to help describe Maker Oriented design.  Creative makes, explicit privileging of artfulness, multimodal expression.  There should be evidence of this sort of thing in the course documents. 
  5. Student Choice – The most connected learning spaces provide students with a lot of leeway in designing their own research and learning.
  6. Peer/Self Assessment – The most connected learning spaces focus on making assessment sustainable, as an essential element of lifelong learning.  Sometimes this means providing structured support in helping students assess themselves.  
I haven’t actually tried to use this list to assess instructional design. I’m going to, though, probably as soon as I finish this post.  Would love to hear what you think.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. jtdellinger says:

    So I am experimenting with all of these things in my large, closed, online history course. I am looking to find ways to personalize learning opportunities using only free resources and having students work collaboratively to develop writing fluency and increase critical thinking skills while learning history. I am restricted by certain department, university, and state standards, but do have some flexibility. I hope that we can discuss this some more at the #dLRN15 conference!

    One item on your list proves to be a challenge for my students – digital fluency and maker design. En lieu of previous multiple-choice exams for unit assessments, I have included another option where students can create whatever they want as long as it hits my objectives (so they have two pathways). Some students will create a video, some a brochure, and others a newspaper, but they could do far more if they wanted to do so. They can also work by themselves or in groups. The biggest reasons that I am finding students not participating in this option are 1) not having digital technical expertise (an integrated LMS exam is easy!), 2) anxiety of having to work with others (I have them do some no-stakes peer evaluation to work to improve submissions and increase analytical thinking), and 3) fear of venturing out to trying something new (even if they do not like MC-style assessments). I hope to get at this more with some targeted surveys in my current course.

    I have also used a Facebook page and have found (through summer survey) that a good chunk of the students do not like the collaborative component; rather, they want to just get through on their own to get done with the course and move on. I suggest that this checkbox mentality is indicative of the demographics of the student population (non-traditional – most working, many with family, procedural due to occupation (nurses), etc.) I received good feedback on my peer review discussions.

    Anywho, that’s enough for now, but I would definitely be interested to continue this conversation. I suggest that a lot of it comes down to have multiple pathways through courses to address learner preferences and needs, but there are a lot of walls that can stand in the way of making it an easy reality.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Laura Gogia says:

      Hello JT! It sounds to me like you are actually experimenting with everything that I’m calling “connected” – although the fact that it is in a closed environment can limit connectedness, by definition. Although you say promoting digital fluency is difficult, it seems you are already working towards that. If you can get students who aren’t comfortable making videos, online newspapers, or brochures to make those things, then you are helping them learn how to make things online that they couldn’t do, previously. In one recent VCU course (Collaborative Curiosity,, we triggered students to increase their digital know-how through makes. For example, the instructors told them to make infographics related to their area of research. How they chose to do that was up to them. They explored about a dozen different platforms (some of which I hadn’t even heard of) with the support of Twitter-based learning community (each other, graduate assistants, some friendly open participants). I have survey data suggesting all respondents felt the course very frequently required them to use digital tools creatively. As for the collaborative work – I hear you. People don’t like it because it’s hard. It’s hard because we all need to work on it. But I don’t feel that every course needs to incorporate collaboration (just because something is “more” connected doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better, particularly in the context of a bigger programmatic picture). Moreover, not all students can make collaborations work for their context (for the reasons you listed). Personally, I like to see a combination of cooperative and collaborative work over a program (not necessarily both in every class) because both are essential, and they require different skills. That being said, I think most of us get more cooperative practice in our daily lives (e.g. the traffic app Waze is my favorite example) than collaboration. I’m glad you are trying to get students out of their comfort zone. If things are too easy, then what’s the point of doing them (for us and them)? Anywho, that’s enough for now :). I’m looking forward to continuing the convo, and I love that we are all trying to find creative ways to get around the old barriers. They do get tiresome, don’t they?


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