By way of its Quality Enhancement Plan, Virginia Commonwealth University is attempting to elevate the digital fluency and integrative thinking of its students through a collective, institution-wide exploration of openly networked connected learning in online, hybrid, and web-enhanced academic courses (“connected courses”). I’ve written on this at length. Briefly, digital fluency can be considered the ability to leverage digital processes to develop productive, meaningful, and flexible workflows within and across networks of people and platforms. Students who are digitally fluent can function within multiple digital platforms, communicating through text-based and non-text forms of expression. Furthermore, they can manipulate information flow across digital platforms for the purposes of amplifying and contributing to parts of Bonnie Stewart’s CONVERSATION.
On the other hand, integrative thinking can be considered the ability to embrace the existence of multiple perspectives and generate creative solutions that move all stakeholders beyond the tensions that lie between them. Students who are integrative thinkers recognize and leverage patterns found across disciplines and contexts; value multiple perspectives and experience in terms of cross-disciplinary and -contextual knowledge; and possess dispositions and skills necessary to collaborate across disciplines and contexts.
At the center of these things is connectivity – the ability to connect thoughts, experiences, and plans with those of other people or to those from other disciplines, contexts, or times for the purpose of making meaning, solving problems, or informing future action. Connectivity is an essential, integrated component of digital fluency and integrative thinking. However, if someone were to isolate “connectivity” and ask why it is essential for higher education learning, the answer is fairly straightforward: We know that connecting things is an effective way to learn, and if we can teach students strategies for making connections, we are providing them with the skills they need to achieve lifelong learning.
Virginia Commonwealth University has chosen to explore openly networked connected learning environments as a platform for promoting digital fluency, integrative thinking, and connectivity. I’ve addressed the definitions and overlaps of “open,” “connected,” and “networked” in other places, but I will add this here:
- Open spaces imply the opportunity for multi-way engagement: a “beyond the classroom” experience for students and educational opportunity (access + meaningful participation) for non-students.
- Networked participation implies impactful social (networked) interactions in digital environments.
- Connected learning implies an ethical stance regarding student agency: students have a right to engage in interest-driven learning opportunities that invite them to take charge of their own education.
To research and evaluate the impact of connected courses, we must be able to identify them, cohort-style, understanding how they can be manifested in a variety of disciplines, course formats, and for different types of students. We need to set some criteria – not only for identification but for the purpose of evaluating fidelity.
This is not to say that everything about openly networked connected learning can be controlled or designed or planned out in advance in terms of course documents, syllabi, and website layouts. Instructors play an undeniable role, and students are in control of their own learning.
Therefore, when I write about “identifying connected courses,” I’m talking about about designing opportunity – opportunity that needs to be evaluated for fidelity to the underlying philosophies, goals, and educational approaches AND for impact on student learning, engagement, and success. I offer you this.
THE BONES: OPEN LEARNING SPACES
Open learning spaces are the bones of the connected course (bear with me, the metaphor should become clear…eventually). They are important because they often expose students to different perspectives, make academic relevance explicit, and increase opportunities for interest-driven learning. However, they also offer opportunities for community engagement in terms of public interaction and collective knowledge building. I believe open learning spaces should be identified and documented from the perspective of the students and non-students. Three potential indicators include bridging, access, and engagement.
Bridging. Connected courses bridge: (a) groups of students across sections, courses, programs, campuses, universities; (b) communities or contexts such as study abroad programs or service learning; or (c) academic disciplines or fields.
How can we tell if and what a course bridges?
- Before the course starts, an instructor survey could easily answer questions about intention or design related to bridging.
- While/after the course takes place, evaluation approaches include social network analysis or content analysis to describe and quantify bridging interaction. A student survey sheds light on student perception of presence or value of bridging communications? (For the record, I suspect there may be some difference between what really happens and student perception; traditionally, we do not encourage students to appreciate bridging interactions, so it might take a while for them to recognize, value them, or even take full advantage of an open learning space).
Access. Assuming a public-facing course website, who can enroll to participate in course activities? While this question would not make sense at all universities, VCU has a public publishing platform called RamPages, on which many course websites live. Some of the courses support the public linking their blog to the course website so that they might engage in the learning activities just like registered students, thereby diversifying learning products and opportunities for interaction. A brief examination of course websites on RamPages suggests that most courses fall into one of three categories: (a) just registered students; (b) the VCU community (i.e. anyone with a VCU email address and therefore the capacity to sign up for a RamPages blog); or (c) anyone on the Internet.
How can we establish the type of access afforded by a course?
- Before and after the course: An instructor survey or course website review easily answers this question.
Engagement. This indicator goes beyond just access; assuming a public-facing course website, what sort of public engagement is actually feasible? This is not a question for an instructor survey, other than to ask them how they intend to recruit members of their personal learning network or other individuals in the broader community to join in the class; however, you can look at public-facing course websites and decide fairly quickly how public friendly they are. On my first pass of some of VCU’s course websites, I’ve found four patterns of engagement:
- Public as authentic audience for student work. In these cases, the public is not meant to engage in the coursework. There is no opportunity to link their blog. There are no course documents or syllabi to follow. There is little or no opportunity to engage students in conversation. This is not necessarily bad – in fact, students do good work and can provide excellent and useful information for the public.
- Public as self-directed/mirroring learner. These course websites have course documents, syllabi, and enough information about the required materials and learning activities that if a member of the public were interested enough, they could engage in the course in isolation. If student learning products are also included on the course website, the public might also benefit from looking at what the students made and any sort of critique/feedback that was left for them by their peers or instructor.
- Public as full participant. These course websites allow the public to engage in the course activities on the website, along with the registered students. They might not get formal feedback from the instructor and they certainly won’t get academic credit or a grade, but they are otherwise a member of the learning community.
THE SOUL: NETWORKED PARTICIPATION
Networked participation is the soul of the connected course; if it occurs (and recall that design only sets up the opportunity for networked participation – much depends on the instructor and the students), these are the activities that support connectivity and digital fluency; I believe it is the goal of future research to inform us if connectivity then leads dependably to integrative thinking. Networked participation can be considered through diverse lenses; I have chosen concept connectivity, social connectivity, and digital fluency.
Concept Connectivity. Concept connectivity is the act of making connections between current thoughts and experience with those from other contexts, disciplines, and times.
- What: I’ve written on digital workflow before; in many ways, concept connectivity aligns with the curator’s practice of filtering, analyzing, critiquing, remixing, and presenting.
- Where: In terms of digital spaces, concept connectivity can take place anywhere that students create content: blog posts, tweets, wikispaces, googledocs…the list goes on.
- How: Hyperlinks, tags, categories, annotations, or embedded in content.
- Before the course: instructors indicate how students will be engaged in the practice of curation or concept connection.
- During/after the course: Rubrics for qualitative and quantitative analysis; potential use of network analysis. Student perception survey.
Social Connectivity. Social connectivity is the act of making connections with people over ideas for the purpose of sharing information or resources; brokering learning opportunities; giving or receiving feedback; and collaborating or co-constructing knowledge. Diversity counts.
- What: Interestingly, social connectivity mimics the individualized activities of curation, just with a group. It can be considered in terms of contributing; remixing, annotating, or challenging; and co-presenting.
- Where: Anywhere people can mingle; discussion forums, blog posts, hypothes.is, Twitter…the list goes on.
- How: Mentions, hashtags, annotations, blog comments, googledoc comments, embedded in content.
- Before the course: Instructors indicate how students will be engaged in social connectivity. Openness of learning spaces counts here.
- During/after the course: Social network analysis; rubrics for qualitative and quantitative evaluation. Student perception survey.
Digital Fluency. As previously defined, students need to be able to work in platforms, across platforms, and through diverse forms of expression (i.e. multimodality). I feel like the what, where, and how on this one is fairly obvious, with one exception – what and how does one describe movement across platforms. Nor those of us who move across platforms, we know it when we see it. However, how do you describe this a priori, or for people who don’t know it? For those of us who move across platforms, we know it when we see it. However, how do you describe this a priori, or for people who don’t know it?
- What? Students synergizing across digital platforms to enhance communication or promote information (“amplify signal”).
- Enhance communication: Embedding materials from other platforms within a blog post to advance the narrative (e.g. a slideshow from slideshare.net; a video from YouTube; a picture from Flickr; a podcast from Soundcloud).
- Enhance communication: Making something on a digital platform to embed on another platform (e.g. making a concept map in bubble.us; making a infographic in canva.com; embedding a google form or google doc)
- Amplification: Promoting a blog post, event, or similar (one’s own or otherwise) through other platforms such as Twitter or Google Plus
- Before the course: Instructors indicate which platforms will be used for the course, how they intend to scaffold use for less digitally literate students; how student will need to work across platforms to enhance communication or promote information.
- During/after the course: Rubrics, student survey
THE HEART: STUDENT AGENCY
If openness relates to the space, and networked to the activity, then connectedness relates to the heart or ethics of the connected course: namely, student agency. Based on initial survey of connected courses, agency falls on a documentable spectrum from least to greatest:
- Membership. Students are considered part of a learning community with identified co-constructed products. Because connected courses take place on public facing websites, students have access to these co-constructed learning products after the course is completed.
- Contributor. Students not only co-construct learning products, but were asked to contribute actively to the learning materials used during the course. Examples include crowdsourcing web-resources in a group Diigo folder and developing tutorials for classmates. Students not only have access to their learning products, but also these learning resources.
- Designer. Students co-construct products, learning materials, and design their own learning paths or assignments. These are courses that allow for interest-driven learning.
- Evaluator. All of the above, but students are also engaged in formalized, systematic self- and peer-evaluation. I don’t just mean reflection papers; I mean evaluation that means something in terms of final grades AND is scaffolded – students need to learn how to assess (I’ve written on this before, too).
Documentable? Of course – through surveys or syllabi review. Student perceptions of the experience can be assessed through surveys. A comparison of student self-assessment versus instructor assessment might be interesting – although done at least a handful of times already in the literature (spoiler alert: if student are taught how to assess their work, they do a pretty good job).
[This post was edited for content on 3/30/06]