In search of connected learning: Exploring the pedagogy of the open web

On Friday May 6, 2016, I had the honor of giving the keynote address at University of Edinburgh’s eLearning@Ed: Making Connections. Here is a close transcript (minus a couple of slip ups and ad libs, but including a couple of typos, I’m sure), a link to the slide deck, and some digital artifacts from the event. Special thanks to Susan Greig of the University of Edinburgh’s Educational Design and Engagement Team, who blogged her views on the presentation.


Good afternoon, thank you for inviting me to speak this afternoon.  It’s such an honor, because I’ve been watching Edinburgh with considerable interest from across the ocean all year long. To have as many digital pedagogy & edtech conferences converge here in such a short time period says something about this place and all of you in it.  Thank you so much for providing me with the opportunity to be a part of it and to learn from you today.

I should address the fact that the title on the slide doesn’t match the title in the program. What’s in your program is quite accurate – we are going to talk today about course design and educational blogging and tweeting and how students use digital annotations – all of that is true. But it doesn’t really get to the heart of the story I want to share which is – I think – one of valuing wonder, one of exploration, curiosity, and being open to considering different ways to use the digital spaces to support learning.

Our journey starts here, in an ironically undigital space.


In the back right hand corner of the first floor of the Boston Public Library sits a collection of globes scattered across the bookcases. When we visited the library, my oldest daughter, Sydney (then seven years old), spotted the globes immediately and ran to them, ready to play. You see, Sydney has always loved globes and the diverse societies and geographies they represent. I took this photo to capture her look of wonder, the one she gets when she is completely engaged in what she’s doing. As a parent I watch for these looks, because they provide me with clues to how to help her learn. For example, when Sydney had no interest in learning fractions, I knew the answer lay in studying recipes from all the places she could find on the globe. If Sydney wanted to know how the world eats dinner, she was going to have to use fractions to measure the ingredients to get there. I learned early on that if I could connect schoolwork to those things Sydney loved she would find the internal motivation to learn.

Of course, valuing wonder and curiosity in and for learning is more than maternal instinct. It is part of student-centered learning. I do not intend to review all of the educational literature supporting student-centered learning today, but I feel confident that we can all agree that  there is literature to support the following argument: Most people tend to be happier, more resilient, more internally motivated, and ultimately more successful learners when they feel their learning is relevant to their personal needs, interests, and lives.

What is Connected Learning?

Connected learning is a student-centered educational approach that aims to help students make connections across their personal, social, and academic contexts so that they might develop a more cohesive vision and strategic approach to their own learning goals. Connected educators aim to diversify approaches to academic success so that students can find out what makes them tick and then leverage it to succeed. Drawing from Dewey, Montessori, and other progressive educators, Mimi Ito and her colleagues at the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub have created a framework for supporting connected learning research and instructional design that is rooted in student-centered, experiential, participatory, and authentic learning experiences, but places these concepts in the context of the digital age.


The connected learning approach relates to Henry Jenkins’ description of the digital participatory culture, one in which there are “relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices…” (p. 3)  Connected learning practitioners and scholars advocate for the incorporation of the digital participatory culture into learning experiences, so that students can actively create for and interact with authentic audiences, peers, and mentors at a potentially global level.

Additionally, George Siemens, Stephen Downes, and others have argued that digital age learners must learn how to live with decentralized and oversaturated information sources, developing digital workflows to filter or aggregate information, interpret our information sources through critical and appreciative lenses, remix and repurpose information for the specific context of here and now, and push our newly created knowledge out into the noisy world, where, if we want to receive feedback or find an authentic audience, we must learn to amplify our signal or capture the attention of people who might find it useful. Therefore, connected learning educators and scholars find ways to incorporate these practices into the learning experience, so that students can begin to develop their own approaches to digital workflow.

However, much of what has been written on connected learning emerges from the K-12 and informal learning sectors. What might connected learning look like in formal institutions of higher education?

In 2014, my home university, Virginia Commonwealth University, sought to address this question through a massive, institution-wide experiment in openly networked connected learning: learning experiences that use the underlying structure of the Internet and the principles of web culture to support connected learning, student agency, engagement, and success. We are only two years into the experiment so the concept and its implementation are still emerging. What I bring here today is not a finished account or a guaranteed success story but rather the beginning of a big idea, the journey into a different kind of approach, and early research that I hope you will find interesting.

A little institutional context might be helpful in understanding the scale this experiment. VCU is a large, urban research university located in the southeastern region of the United States. We have more than 30,000 students enrolled in 13 schools and one college. We have a large health science campus, which includes professional programming in medical, dentistry, and pharmacy. We have a satellite campus in Qatar. We have the number one public school of the arts in the United States. We have a diverse student body with high numbers of first generation, underrepresented, adult, and international students. In short, VCU is a fairly interesting and dynamic place to be.


Intricately woven into this story is the university’s web publishing platform, which was also started in 2014. It’s called RamPages, after our university mascot. It’s a publicly visible WordPress installation, open to the World Wide Web as a whole. Any student, faculty, or staff member can obtain as many websites as they wish through RamPages. Over time, it is hoped that as VCU faculty, staff, and students create RamPage sites to support their personal learning, social and co-curricular activities, and formal academic courses and scholarship, the content will become networked to form a rich, virtual learning community layered onto and extending beyond the physical VCU campus. RamPages supports a variety of potentially powerful connected learning experiences, but today I’m going to focus on one: the formal academic course or what we call connected courses.

What Are Connected Courses?

Connected courses are digitally forward learning experiences.  They involve significant digital presence among faculty and students, but they are not necessarily fully online. In fact many are hybrid and some are face-to-face courses. They exist in different schools and departments, cater to different student levels, and are designed and taught by different instructors. Therefore, they look very different from each other but their underlying design structure is the same. They all make use of openly networked digital spaces, networked participatory activities, and authentic learning products.  Let’s walk through what I mean by those terms.

Openly networked digital spaces. In openly networked digital spaces, the learning process and most if not all of the learning products are visible. Students maintain their own blog sites usually on RamPages, but if they have a previously established website they want to use they are usually free to do so. When they enroll in a connected course, students know that a significant portion of their course work will involve blogging, and they link their blog to the course website via an RSS feed. When they complete an assignment for that course, students include the course tag on the blog post and the completed blog post is aggregated with the other students’ posts on the course website.

openly networked

A student blog on RamPages is typically a standard personal blog, with blog posts listed in chronological order. The student chooses the heading, the template, the widgets, and the way she wants to organize course material via categories and tags. When a student writes a blog post for a connected course, she uses the appropriate course tag and it will be aggregated to the course bloggregate (blog and aggregate combined). The bloggregate facilitates sharing, commenting, and from an instructor’s standpoint – assessment.

Digitally networked learning spaces offer two important design features. First, students maintain autonomy over their own workspace. They control the aesthetics, organization, and ultimately the content. Furthermore, they maintain control over their own learning products between and after courses and degree programs. The e-portfolio literature particularly the work of Kathleen Blake Yancey at Florida State University and the Center for Teaching Excellence at LaGuardia Community College in New York suggest these features significantly enhance student engagement, agency, reflective and connected learning around these sorts of projects.

Second, by openly networking learning spaces together, students are able to peer into worlds that they would not necessarily see in a traditional, one course section experience. For example, in the past, VCU faculty have successfully networked and aggregated the work of students representing both the US and Qatar VCU campuses; students from VCU and University of Richmond – an entirely different institution; graduate and undergraduate level students; and students taking separate but complementary courses in different disciplines.

Networked Participation. Many connected courses engage students in a variety of networked participatory activities, including tweeting, crowdsourced curation of web resources, collaborative annotation in something like, or group work in spaces such as Google Drive. The pedagogical goals of integrating digital crowdsourcing and collaborative activities into coursework are multifold. These activities may support:

  • The development of student agency, which requires students to learn how to become interdependent and self-regulated in relationship with their environment;
  • Digital fluency by encouraging students to develop awareness, skills, and mindsets around digital workflows;
  • Authentic learning products; when students work together to create living, public, digital projects they can often be designed to find an authentic audience.

networked participation

Crowdsourcing and collaboration for authentic projects: Examples

UNIV 291: The Great VCU Bike Race Book. In October 2015, Richmond hosted the UCI Road Cycling World Championships. The local impact was significant; the university officially cancelled classes for the week because much of the event took place on campus, but it offered one-credit, pass/fail electives collectively known as The Great VCU Bike Race Book Course. Twenty-four participating faculty designed complementary but unique course sections addressing topics like films and cycling, cycling safety, bike race poetry, and the anthropology of the crowd. The students who were enrolled in these courses engaged with relevant learning materials in advance, but their primary learning goal was to attend the bike race and document it through the lens of their course section. In doing so, they collected and discussed various forms of data including pictures, videos, writings, art, interviews, and audio recordings. Each student published their work through their own website, which was first networked at the section level and at the course level, where coverage from all 24 sections could be explored simultaneously to create a dynamic, diverse, and multimodal perspective of the bike race.

brian palmer

BIOL 495: Field Botany. Field Botany is a hybrid, summer undergraduate seminar in which students work in instructor-led teams to identify plants and trees within the James River Park System. These students upload their photos and descriptions to a public digital field botany guide, where entries are organized by plant name, description, and location via tags and categories.

RVArts Cultural Passport. Similarly, students in the RVArts Cultural Passport seminar, a hybrid course offered through the School of the Arts, are populating a public online calendar and information guide for local art events. Students attend events separately and in teams and then use a variety of social media platforms to report on and critique events and their venues.

Multimodal composition: Examples

multimodal 1

While crowdsourced or collaborative activity can take place away from the individual student blog, I need to come back to the idea that almost every connected course involves student blogging, which supports a number of pedagogical activities including reflective writing, content or topic driven writing, multimodal composition, and the art of commenting and receiving feedback. Many faculty encourage students to use their digital platforms to explore forms of expression beyond the use of text. Mostly this results in students using images, videos, graphics, and animated gifs in their blogging and we’re going to talk about that in more detail in a moment. However, some faculty actually structure learning activities around multimodal expression, with interesting results.

CMST 691: Collaborative Curiosity. Inspired by the digital makes found in University of Mary Washington’s DS106, the instructors of VCU’s Collaborative Curiosity designed creative make assignments to challenge students to find visual or audio metaphors for abstract concepts related to the course. Every week, students would receive a prompt. They would find – or oftentimes make — a representation…this group of students tended to create their own graphics with a picture and a quote – and embed it in a blog post. Then they had to briefly explain their choice. The posts were aggregated on the course website to inspire discussion.


Although these assignments were only intended to take about 15 minutes to complete and they weren’t even graded beyond whether or not they were completed on time, students loved them. They spent significantly more than 15 minutes each week on them. The students felt more confident using more and mixing different types of digital tools because of them. And – this course was open to the public for open non-academic credit bearing participation – and I’m going to describe that in a moment – but these were the assignments that open participants most frequently completed.

Focused Inquiry. In some general education communication courses, instructors invited students to replace a major formal writing assignment with a website. In this example, students created websites that had to include images, video, and text to address the topic of their own choosing. One student chose to develop an information site synthesizing data on multitasking and another created a multi-section narrative on the impact of the atom bomb on the people of Hiroshima.


Connected Learning as an Outcome

Now I’d like to shift gears a little bit and offer you an overview of my research into student blogging and tweeting in these environments. As I mentioned, the openly networked connected course is an experiment in learning innovation. As we begin to shift gears from basic design to our first wave of evaluation, we needed to find ways to assess whether or not these courses were doing what we hoped they would do. As part of that task, I focused on the idea that if students are to engage in connected learning, we must help them recognize and forge connections with people and across concepts, contexts, and time. As part of that, we need to be able to document those connections, so that we can reflect them back to students, discuss their quality, and assess changes in student behavior over time.

I focused on blogging and tweeting, because these are two activities that are frequently seen in connected courses. And I asked myself, is there something in the inherently digital nature of these activities that might point to the formation of connections – something that is more scalable and less costly (in terms of instructor time) than a full content analysis of the material.

I settled on digital annotations as a possible indicator of connectivity. Digital annotations are the symbols and phrases that are distinct from but included within the post or tweet, meant to demonstrate communicative intent. In terms of blogging, I’m talking about hyperlinks and I added embedded images because I was interested. In terms of tweets, I’m talking about hashtags and mentions. We are encouraging students to do these things, so what are students actually doing with them?

When I analyzed approximately 600 hyperlinks and 500 embedded images and videos from 500 student blog posts and 5000 tweets from four connected courses, I discovered that digital annotations are incredibly rich spaces for teaching and learning.


Because Twitter API and WordPress allow for automatic collection and organization of many of these digital annotations, it becomes easy to display student annotation data in real time to help initiate conversations about connected learning with students.  In terms of describing how students interact with people, this social network analysis describes the social interactions that took place during the twitter chats from #CuriousCoLab, the graduate level course that I previously mentioned in the context of creative makes. You may recall that I said community members were invited to participate at no cost alongside formally enrolled students. The only difference between the enrolled students and open participants was that enrolled students received academic credit, formal instructor feedback, and a grade.


In this sociogram, the instructors are green, open participants are red and students are blue. From a researcher’s perspective, I used this analysis to examine the integration of open participants into the course discussion, and based on these and other data, enrolled students appeared to engage open participants as equal contributors within Twitter chats.  However, this data has instructional value as well; the instructors used a similar real time social network analysis to ask students to reflect on their participation in the class discussions in terms of quality, quantity, and their willingness to converse with diverse groups.

Similarly, this is a network analysis of the sources of the materials a group of sociology students chose to hyperlink in their class tweets. The students are blue, their hyperlinked sources are black. In this visualization, it becomes easy to find students who tend to link directly from the CNN website, compared to several others who tend to access their sources entirely through their Twitter timeline.  This sort of information becomes particularly useful when helping students learn to critique their source materials.


Hyperlinks and images in blog posts: Examples

Students used hyperlinks in blog posts for a variety of reasons. They hyperlinked their work to additional resources, references, or used them to embed definitions and examples.  But some students also used hyperlinks to make connections across their own body of work and sometimes to link back to the course website, suggesting that they might have been thinking about an audience beyond the instructor and the other students – someone who wouldn’t know why they were completing these assignments.

list of hyperlinks

At its most basic, the hyperlink could be used as part of an additional resource. A student would write something like “for more info, check out these hyperlinks,” and then provide a list of hyperlinks to additional resources that may or may not have been used to inform the rest of the post. You would find this with the undergrads in a course that had very little instructor feedback, modeling, or oversight on their writing.

blog 1

And I think this is where we would like that student to get…and you saw this frequently with graduate as well as with some undergraduates. In line 1 we have a traditional intext citation. If you click on it, it goes exactly where you’d think it would. But Line #3 is much more interesting to me. If you click on it, it goes to a web document that describes different forms of nonverbal communication. But in this case, the reference and all of its content is embedded in the primary narrative. So the hyperlink allows the student to provide additional description without cluttering up of the primary narrative. The definition of nonverbal communication is not the primary point of the sentence, but this link acts as a sort of value added to the narrative that you would not have received in a paper-based essay.

Blog 2

In this example, which reads “as part of this course, I have created a framework and design structure for…

The hyperlink in line one “this course” links back to the course website. And in lines 3 and 4, you see one of my favorite types of hyperlinks – the personal narrative or timeline. So in this case, the student creates a summary of the work they have completed thus far by hyperlinking to older posts. First I did this and then this and this…. This sort of hyperlinking gets really interesting when students move away from a procedural list and more towards a conceptual list, that is more integrated into the work of other people. I would love to have the opportunity to work with students around that sort of thing.

Blog 3

In analyzing student use of images and video in almost 500 blog posts across four different connected courses, I found that students tended to incorporate them in several different ways.

  • Many used photographs to set an aesthetic – typically a picture at the top or bottom of a blog post. These seldom had a caption or an explained presence within the post
  • However, some images provided additional information about a specific topic. Students typically captioned these, because they were using them to help illustrate a point. For example, the ginseng root
  • But, at their best, images took the post narrative to an entirely different level. They could further the narrative in such a way that the student integrated an explanation of the image into the post. For example, they would speak to the table or the infographic. They would speak to how the video acted as a metaphor for the concept they were trying to explain. In fact, this always happened with videos. Students never just threw a video in at the end of a post – it was always explained. Alternatively, sometimes students would include an image to help explain a personal connection to the topic. This was most frequent when the student had made the image or video themselves. It appeared that if students actually generated the image themselves, they were more likely to explain it.

Hyperlinks in Tweets: Examples

Students behaved differently on Twitter than in their blog spaces, which may speak to the point that different digital platforms encourage different types of behaviors. In general, students hyperlinked in tweets to contribute resources to the group and to promote their own work.

But even these had extremely rich layers to how students used them. The top tweet is very basic, and shows some effort to contribute a resource to the group as a whole. The middle tweet it’s still a contribution, but it also shows a conscious effort to link to a specific aspect of the course materials. A solid connection was made. The third example, is still a contribution but it links to a specific person in the class – it is engaging a classmate in a specific, targeted sort of way that is much more likely to lead to discussion around the contribution.

tweet 1

Self-promotion was equally layered; the first represents the most common and basic form of self promotion, whereas the second tweet  suggests a more targeted and amplified approach, with the inclusion of three hashtags – or three potentially different groups of people — in play.  This approach was rarely if ever used by students.

tweet 2


First, digital annotations are interesting spaces and we shouldn’t discount or ignore them for their potential in teaching and learning as well as course evaluation and even student assessment.

Second, in my four connected courses, I found that students seldom mentioned peer efforts – and that’s a problem that I suspect goes back to how we train US students in the K-12 sector. If we are to teach students to work collaboratively, if we are to make connected courses successful, we need to get them to actively think and write and talk about each other’s work. So I have my eye on this.

Finally, I saw significant differences in how students used digital annotations and participated on digital platforms in general based on course design and instructor behavior. When expectations were explicit, activities were modeled and scaffolded, and explicit feedback was supplied, students tended to engage more and in more complex and interesting ways. Not all instructors provide this sort of support.

I want to close early to leave plenty of time for questions and conversation, but I want to close with a couple of quotes from undergraduates who had recently completed the first connected course at VCU. This was a formal part of my research, rather it was part of an informal listening tour that I did around campus, just to see what students thought. And I asked them, what is learning – how do you want to learn? And here’s what they said:


An open space in which to explore, engage, experiment, and share. This sentiment, I think, gets us back to the library and the globe and the look of wonder. Can some students discover and grow their sense of wonder without the open digital pedagogies, sure. Can students succeed in the world without being digitally fluent? Maybe. But incorporating the open web into our formal academic learning experiences increases and diversifies opportunities for more students to succeed in meaningful ways.


8 Comments Add yours

  1. sensor63 says:

    Laura this is a wonderful piece of work. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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