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Inside The FOLD: Marist College's Game-Changing Online Learning Domain

A Q&A featuring 2014 CT Innovator award recipients Radley Cramer and Melissa Halvorson

Fashion, long recognized as a discipline driven by change, was among the first academic program areas challenged by Marist College's President Dennis Murray and its board of trustees to begin to develop game-changing, cutting-edge education applications for the institution's Academic Community Cloud (ACC).

The resulting vision was The FOLD (Fashion Online Learning Domain), an online interactive space and collaboration environment to engage students, industry participants, and the global fashion community at large in exploring the fashion discipline and real-world trends.

Students developed and maintain The Fold's Web site, many of its MOOC offerings, and its growing international community. The foundation technology is the college's Academic Community Cloud (ACC). Open source software from Apereo (, Sakai and the Open Academic Environment (OAE), are the two key technology components powering The FOLD's collaboration and interactive elements.

The technology environment both promotes online interaction and allows easier collaboration on the ground, among teachers and learners. The sharing of documents, images, and other forms of information is enhanced for local, face-to-face exchanges as well as far-flung international collaborations.

CT asked faculty leads Radley Cramer, Fashion Program Director and Melissa Halvorson, Visiting Professional Lecturer about The FOLD's ongoing development.

Mary Grush: The FOLD seems to be growing quickly, as a vibrant community with both MOOCs and various spaces for interaction. What are the main functional components, from a user's point of view, of The FOLD at this point? Some people talk about three areas…

Melissa Halvorson: First, we have a menu of faculty and student developed MOOCs that we hope to add to on a continuing basis. Second, we have access to the OAE (Open Academic Environment), which serves as a place where people can commune and share resources and ideas, and have discussions. And the third area is global trend studies. As far as the landing page — or the Web site — is concerned, this is what we see as the portal to get to these locations.

Grush: In terms of content, one of the focus areas we hear about is the tracking of street trends. Is there a lot of interest in the fashion community for posting street trends?

Halvorson: People worldwide have posted street trends. At this point, most of them are students who are traveling abroad. But this is an area where we can build community further, and it provides a means to communicate the global reach of fashion — and of Marist's Fashion Program.

Grush: How would you characterize the participation of the fashion community outside Marist at this point?

Radley Cramer: I think that's something we are still building. We're actually in the early stages of development and activation of this project. We wanted to get everything 'right' within the Marist community first, so the stages we've gone through so far have been very foundational — including working out the small kinks that one would expect when introducing a new platform.

Also, we want to give our students a chance to contribute to the growth and evolution of the whole process. So, we've made this an entrepreneurial effort and are working with the students very closely — as we have been for a year now.

Our next step will be further outreach to industry. And I do think that the whole network will grow very quickly from this point on.

Grush: But for now, are students the main beneficiaries of The FOLD? What's an example of the value for them?

Cramer: It's becoming a "win-win" for everybody. But right now it's very clearly a big win for the students: For example, a student from New York is able to communicate with someone in Shanghai, visually, via a photograph of street trends, and then connect to someone in London, who might have a very different point of view of the fashion, and then someone in Florence… or Hong Kong… So, for most of the students the process is to communicate visually first, and then to reap the benefits of the other interactions that follow.

It's been a fascinating process to watch The FOLD grow, in just one year, to this really amazing potential.

Grush: You've started with street trends, which is a great topic to explore in Marist's Academic Community Cloud environment… but are there any other topics you see coming up — or maybe even growing out of these initial exchanges?

Halvorson: One of the goals we had was to illustrate to the world at large, the breadth of fashion concepts. For example, one of the more interesting topics that we often come up against is tension — even fear — when fashion makes people uncomfortable. A Marist student became very interested in this idea and did some social research, in the form of a national survey.

Working with the Marist Institute for Public Opinion over the past semester, the study generated data that was recently released to the press. We're pleased to have such scientifically derived data to offer scholars, the press, and the public. And we hope that there's more to come as we work out the best ways to offer, provide access, and make available this kind of objective data. We want The FOLD to host this kind of work along with its other more subjective communications.

Grush: Where do you plan to go with MOOCs?

Cramer: I think that there's great interest from students in developing MOOCs. So, the peer-to-peer format is something that we will continue to do. We have some plans for the Fall semester in terms of working with and mentoring students who want to develop peer-to-peer MOOCs.

There is also interest from faculty, especially in short-format MOOC offerings. This provides a great opportunity for faculty to talk about something they are really expert in, and thereby generate wide interest via a MOOC in a topic they are very passionate about.

Grush: Do you have any goals for working with pre-college level students who are looking to pursue, eventually, some type of fashion program?

Halvorson: I think our target audience has always been someone who is curious about fashion, regardless of age. So this would include a younger person who is considering entering the field or just has a deep curiosity about it. As we understand it, the ethics of MOOC development rest heavily on the idea of access for anybody at any time, from any background. Certainly these students may end up at Marist, but if not, we connect with them anyway, and we have some value to offer them. I think that's one of the most meaningful aspects of the project — it's free, and it's open access. And it's being given in the spirit of learning and sharing.

Grush: What about partnerships or collaboration with other institutions?

Cramer: We are looking at a lot of outreach to make this a very open project. We've already connected with many high schools, for example, and we encourage students from high schools and other colleges to participate in The FOLD. We have partners in the OAE, and in the same way we welcome other colleges or universities to contribute content to The FOLD. The issue may become how we curate a potentially vast amount of content, but we are totally open the to concept of doing that — of course we have been resolving logistics each and every step of the way in The FOLD's development. So, yes, we are absolutely open to collaboration across the board.

Grush: Are there any particular hurdles that might prevent you from doing even more innovative work with The FOLD?

Cramer: There are really no limits to what we can do on The FOLD. But it's driven by the level of innovation that every participant wants to bring to the project. And that, in a nutshell, is what makes this project so exciting. It's the new frontier in education and it has much more opportunity than it has limits. That's what makes us so enthusiastic about moving forward with it.

[Editor's note: Marist College will receive a 2014 CT Innovator award for The FOLD at Campus Technology's annual summer conference in Boston, July 28-31. See CT's description of this innovative project and then visit The FOLD's Web site.]


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