Teaching and Learning
Why Blogging Is Key to the Future of Higher Ed
A massive experiment at Virginia Commonwealth University involving 7,000 blogs could lead to a new view on how college students learn.
When Gardner Campbell became the vice provost for learning innovation and student success at Virginia Commonwealth University and founded its Academic Learning Transformation (ALT) Lab just two years ago, anybody could see he had lofty ambitions.
One goal for the Richmond, VA, campus was to eventually get as many of its 30,000 students as possible blogging and tweeting regularly about their schoolwork. So one of the first projects at the ALT Lab was the Connected Learning/Digital Engagement Initiative, which introduced the use of course Web pages to incorporate blogs created by students as well as other uses of social media.
What started with several online pilot courses in the summer of 2014 led to even more for incoming first-year students in the fall of 2014, and today, more than 7,000 blogs and Web sites have been created across courses in a wide number of academic disciplines — everything from biology and sociology to nursing, African-American studies and French.
However, even that massive logistical accomplishment — characterized by Campbell as a "catastrophic success" — does not do justice to his real vision for both VCU and higher education: He wants to change the direction, definition and purpose of concepts like online education and curriculum.
"We've taken a number of efforts that have been in the academy for some time," Campbell said, "thought about them through the frame of connected learning and then said, 'What does this look like if it becomes a way to make the goals of a curriculum explicit within higher education?' Not only explicit, but visible."
Blogging for Connected Learning
To get the Connected Learning/Digital Engagement Initiative started, VCU worked with a vendor to set up a multisite WordPress installation that would be capable of handling a potentially high volume of activity. Then, the university began rolling out courses in the summer and fall of 2014, in which students were required to set up blogs on "Rampages" (named after VCU's mascot, the Ram). Using these blogs and other forms of social media, students could communicate with one another and with their teachers, and do much of their coursework online.
At the same time, faculty members began to participate in intensive face-to-face Online Learning Experience training sessions, followed by an additional online component that could introduce them to a broad range of connected learning ideas and tools.
As Campbell said, "These are early days," but eventually the goal is for students to continue to use the blogs, Web sites and social media tools as they advance through their collegiate careers. The technology will not only help students to make connections about what they're learning, but will also function as an e-portfolio, documenting their work. In turn, administrators hope this will lead to an institution-wide cultural change, as students do more of their work on public platforms, work collaboratively with each other and respond to each other's work online and with digital tools.
Campbell cited the example of professors in the biology department organizing an online course in field botany. "I know," he said, "it's counterintuitive. How can you study field botany online?"
Students were asked to go out into the Richmond area with their smartphones, take photographs of plants and tag them by categories. The resulting material was knit together on a blog that aggregated the students' individual blog sites, creating a vast, student-generated information base of plant data and plant identification — "all under the guidance of experts who were willing to engage with this idea that networks of interest and learning will begin to be self-sustaining and self-stimulating," Campbell explained.
In other words, the students began to make connections. "As one student put it," Campbell remembered, "as a result of this course, they can't stop looking at the world around them and thinking about it."
The ability to work together, making connections across disciplines, creating networks, Campbell said, is the essence of higher education. "We're trying to make the network explicit," he said, "to help students demonstrate the connections they're making as they move through curriculum, as they begin to get these higher-order thinking skills."
Faculty benefit as well, as they begin to think of new ways to communicate with and engage students — especially online. "It's not simply e-mail or discussion forums or recorded videos," Campbell said. "Those things were there too, but the way the instructor's presence could be made almost tangible within the environment was instructive."
While it's too soon to tell whether this particular pedagogical style will really make a difference, Campbell is certainly optimistic, as are all the researchers at the ALT Lab. Eventually, some "tried and true" assessment tools will come into play, like the National Survey of Student Engagement and the Collegiate Learning Assessment.
But that's not the only way in which VCU will ultimately assess the Connected Learning/Digital Engagement Initiative's success. As a matter of fact, one research fellow at the ALT Lab devotes almost all of her time right now to coming up with tools to track, measure and assess the formation of connected learning networks that haven't even been invented yet.
"For example," Campbell asked rhetorically, "how many connections are made through a Twitter stream at the beginning of a course as opposed to the end of the course? Is the student interacting more frequently with fellow students, with people outside the environment who have expertise they begin to identify and link to?"
The ALT Lab is also looking at "between-ness centrality" — those individuals who become "hubs" and connect with others on a frequency that's greater than others, becoming, in some ways, "poster people" for integrated thinking and connective learning.
As Campbell and his colleagues at VCU attempt to focus on the connections that can be made with the help of online learning, there are struggles and challenges. They worry about the mindset of administrators at all universities who sometimes see online options simply as opportunities to lower costs or move students more quickly and efficiently through a traditional higher ed pipeline. "Maybe what we need to be thinking about is how we can reflect our commitment to our core values in ways that don't play into a commodity or a factory model," Campbell said, "but instead double-down on what you get from a university education."
And there is that challenge of "catastrophic success," in which resources become stretched as the program becomes more successful and students work to add more blogs, more online activity. "Say we've got 60 people signed up, but we can only accommodate 30," Campbell said. "That's a great problem to have but, oh dear, it's a catastrophic success. As we are successful, the resources are always lagging a bit."
Nevertheless, he suggested, any institution of higher education looking to replicate the VCU model should look beyond the technological challenges. "Read a lot in the writings that were part of the early stages of the design of the Internet," Campbell said. "It's very aspirational stuff. There were dreams that were at the heart of what formed this digital environment." Reaching back to the Internet's earliest days, he noted, will help higher education advocates understand that the culture of a university should be about more than content or course delivery.
Reframing fundamental concepts of higher education will take some time: "This is a marathon, not a sprint," Campbell said, "even though we feel like we're running a sprint every day."
Happening at the ALT Lab
While the Connected Learning/Digital Engagement Initiative may be one of the largest ongoing projects at Virginia Commonwealth University's Academic Learning Transformation (ALT) Lab, it is not the only one. ALT Lab has a number of ongoing projects, all intended to model and inspire connected learning in a networked world.
Among those initiatives, both large and small:
- The ALT Lab Agora is part coffee shop and part meeting place. Anyone in the university community is invited every Wednesday and Thursday from noon to 2 p.m. to meet in the Academic Learning Commons and "talk shop." There is no set agenda, just a wide-ranging discussion on professional learning.
- Faculty Learning Communities are ongoing online discussions in which faculty members engage with one another on a number of different topics.
- A Brown Bag Lunch forum project offers occasional midday lectures and demonstrations on various subjects.
- There are ALT Lab blog posts, a Twitter stream and a community Diigo group.
- Three or four times a year, the Online Learning Experience is a structured online learning program to help VCU faculty and staff with their online teaching skills.
- A three-day New Faculty Academy is held in August to introduce new faculty members to the options available to them in terms of connected learning.
- The Academic Learning Commons has 3D printers that faculty and students can use to learn more about the new technology.
- The Incubator Classroom is a state-of-the-art learning space that faculty and students can take advantage of to explore technologies and furniture they can implement in their own classrooms.
- An ALT Fest was held May 12-14, featuring an ALT Camp, Hack Jam, Active MakerSpace and an ALT Lab gaming space.
"A year and a half ago, I knew where we wanted to go," said Gardner Campbell, vice provost for learning innovation and student success and founder of the ALT Lab. "We had a map but, at a certain point, you need a compass because you're exploring new territory. Now we are identifying things that are emerging as we go along and saying, 'Ah, now I've learned something.' ALT Lab is itself a transformative environment for its own understanding."