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Strategic Directions | Feature

Reinventing Teaching and Learning Centers for the 21st Century

A Q&A with W. Gardner Campbell

Virginia Commonwealth University's vice provost for learning innovation and student success tells CT about the university's new ALT Lab, which — with an open house Sept. 10 — is just now launching to redefine the notion of centers for teaching, learning and instructional technology and reshape the way the university supports excellence in teaching and learning.

Mary Grush: What was behind your interest in forming a new kind of center for teaching and learning at VCU?

Gardner Campbell: The question that I've been interested in addressing in my work over the past few years, is what does a center that supports excellence in teaching and learning look like in the 21st century?

Over time, I think we've seen most institutions come up with some kind of faculty development center that's aimed primarily at improving instruction in a face-to-face environment.... And we've also seen a number of institutions, especially since the Web took hold, really work on this idea of teaching and learning effectively with technology. (In my very first experience with this at the University of Mary Washington, the phrase for this was instructional technology.)

But over time, it was clear that all this wasn't just about instruction — it was about learning. It wasn't just about teaching — it was about learning. It wasn't just about faculty — it was about learning. And all of those things were intertwined.

The key question becomes, how do you put together a set of programs, a set of talented people on a team with a commitment to help the university both locally and in higher education generally, to be able to make the shift into a paradigm of connected learning?

We wanted to form something devoted to ideals of learner-centered pedagogies that are digitally empowered. We wanted to create the kind of place where we would see a commitment to what we think of as the four pillars of our center's work with learning innovation and student success: faculty development, student engagement, communities of practice and technology-enhanced active learning.

We were fortunate at VCU that we never quite split into teaching and learning with technology on one side, and purely pedagogical faculty development on the other side. There was always an attempt to find a unity between both of those. The Center for Teaching Excellence got started here in 2000, so there's a long tradition of that kind of work here.

Grush: Now that your new center — or maybe I should say lab — is becoming a reality, what, specifically, is the ALT Lab?

Campbell: The more I thought about it and got started working with the new team members I brought into the environment, and having talked to my colleagues across the university and at other institutions of higher education, it seemed to me that the time was right for us to send a new signal here at VCU and perhaps for the conversation across higher education as a whole, that this new approach to teaching and learning and digital engagement really did need a new kind of identity.

The team's idea was that we would embrace the identity of "alt" — alternatives, things that were alternatives to the mainstream. We are always restless and experimenting, putting the emphasis on innovation — not just iterating on current practices, but really trying to be bold and experimental.

As we thought about "alt," the idea emerged, also from our team, that it was great to be thought of not as a center, but as a lab. That word conveyed experimentation, discovery, and invention that would be shared by many participants. Out of that the name was born: the ALT Lab.

ALT stands for three words — academic learning transformation. All of these words are important to us:

Academic because this is about particular kinds of learning in particular kinds of learning contexts. We want to cast a wide net, but we want to work within certain kinds of structured environments a university provides, enhancing learning as efficiently and effectively as possible.

Learning because it's also about transforming what schoolwork is, what schoolwork can mean. I think it's pretty well known that academics can be conservative in what they define as learning or what they define as professional activity. We are trying hard to push against that and just say, there's a whole spectrum of formal and informal learning we want to consider — not only learning within a particular course, but also learning that happens across courses as well; learning that presents a possibility for integrative thinking on the part of the student that might actually be out in front of the curriculum and could pull innovation with it.

Transformation because we embrace not simply development (though that's important), but the idea that you can't cross a chasm in two small steps — it really is time for some bold ideas, and to try new things. We love the word "pilot" here in the ALT Lab. We love the possibility of structuring formal opportunities for faculty and students, but also to have the "agora," the time twice a week for an open meeting where the design team and our faculty colleagues come with ideas, hopes, and ambitions for things we were never able to do before (in classes).

Grush: Could you point to exemplary labs with similar characteristics or motivations at other higher education institutions (even if their mission is not specific to learning transformation)?

Campbell: Well, the ALT lab owes some spiritual connection, if you will, to the Media Lab at MIT, which was famously constituted as "the department of none of the above." People who couldn't find their disciplinary homes in a conventional departmental structure joined the lab. Of course, these included people who were very highly regarded — people who were committed not simply to polishing up what we already have, but to coming up with truly new ideas. You don't get distracted by whatever the "latest thing" is, rather you think in a deeper way and analyze things at a conceptual level.

That's where we are at the ALT Lab, we want to bring in the spirit of the Media Lab, to be at a place where we can identify the best and the freshest ideas about teaching and learning — and support and encourage them, and maybe initiate some of them. We want to be partners with people across the university community — faculty, students, and staff — as well as empower our faculty colleagues to do the best work that they can both in the classroom and online. We hope the ALT Lab will at the very least be an example of a brave attempt to reinvent teaching and learning centers for the 21st century.

Grush: I know that the ALT lab is to be a place where people bring in new ideas — but is there a particular, more general research area you wish to see included in the ALT lab's work?

Campbell: We are very interested in thinking about the values of the open Web, in which an interest-driven, peer-supported, inquiry-based kind of learning — connected learning — really does situate our students here at VCU for a lifetime of learning that matters.

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