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Technology at The Starting Line: VCU's Great Bike Race Book

A Q&A with W. Gardner Campbell

Earlier this academic year, Virginia Commonwealth University was faced with a huge logistical challenge. Not an earthquake, or a flood, or some other emergency situation — rather, it was a bike race! An international sporting event, the 2015 UCI Road World Championships race, would speed though town, disrupting traffic patterns, interrupting supply lines, and throwing the main undergraduate campus into potential chaos for a week.

The university's response could have been to take time off — just give all the students reading days and instructions to stay home. But technology leadership recognized the potential to offer students intensive mini-courses, using the race environment as a giant learning lab and a means to provide students and faculty with focused learning, experimentation, and cross-disciplinary interactions.

Even given a relatively short planning window of slightly more than six months ahead of the event — three of them summer months — faculty responded with an array of 25 Web-connected, truly experiential courses. A range of technologies supported students in their real-time work in the real-world environment of an international sporting event.

Campus Technology spoke with VCU Associate Professor of English and Special Assistant to the Provost W. Gardner Campbell about the thinking behind the project.

Mary Grush: You say that VCU mustered "every piece of Web-facing technology on campus" during the race. How did technology factor into these very short, intensive courses, and into the overall experience of the event?

Gardner Campbell: There is a powerful symbiosis between expensive, school-centered A/V and Web-facing technologies, and the astonishing proliferation of personally affordable, distributed, high-quality audio and video technology that people are carrying around in their pockets. We are now at an inflection point where what should be centralized and is most powerfully provided in a centralized environment, has a beautiful match with the extraordinary equipment that people routinely have with them.

To me, this is the triumph of an idea that I've been hearing about for the past twenty years: ubiquitous computing. People used to think that simply meant that everything in their lives would be run by computers. But we can see now, that woven into the fabric of our lives are opportunities for documentation and reflection in ways that we haven't experienced before.

Because your work is digital, you can gather your documentation in the field, edit it back at school, and put it out to the Web in a way that everyone with a half-decent Internet connection — whether that's desktop or mobile — can experience what you have created. That affordance just wasn't there sixteen years ago, or even ten years ago.

The technologies we used in the project — everything from YouTube, to smartphones, to the Adobe Creative Cloud, to 3D printers — all of these things can be distributed among various environments so that your students are working in relation to the "real world" at every moment.

And during the race, you couldn't get more "real" than the bike race itself — very highly trained men and women, from all over the world, whizzing by you, in brightly colored costumes, racing bicycles. All of this was so rich in terms of sensation, and all of it could be documented by students — tracked, recorded, amplified, considered — as they experienced it, and then shared with the world, all via digital technologies.

Grush: What are a few of the big gains that happened as a result of this event?

 Campbell: One of the biggest gains was that, both for faculty and students, consciousness was raised — about what was possible for them as learners, as teachers, and as a community devoted to higher learning.

I think we all pinched ourselves and said, "Look at what’s possible." That's very much needed, especially in a time of upheaval and uncertainty, to remind ourselves of what a special thing higher education can be: how there are things that we can contribute to the world around us, and how we are privileged to be able to do these things in ways that no one else can.

One of the fascinating things for me about the week of the race and the courses the students were taking — a fabulous range, from gender studies to physics — was that faculty were exploring some new and fresh perspectives on their own courses. It was dazzling to see a university coming together, with faculty experiencing, once again, the sheer intellectual delight that got them to be professors in the first place.

They commented, "We seldom have a chance to make connections with each other like this." But it became clear that they didn't need to be tied to that sense of frustration. They could see that there was another way to rediscover their scholarly passions with these learners in a novel context. Normally, some of that excitement gets swallowed up, from day to day, operating within existing structures. But our design for the bike race and the short courses uncovered a new path — something very different — that may help us imagine a better way to share with the world the mission and meaning of a university.

Grush: Did the nature of the bike race — with highly tuned athletes pushing their own limits — impact the sense of commitment for your students?

 Campbell: I think it's vital to recognize that the bike race was not just the experience of a sporting event. It represented something more, having to do with the possibilities of human accomplishment and the commitment it takes to get to your goals. When I talk with students, I often talk about "committing to committing." It's that moment when we say, "We're all in — we are going to do this."

Our students saw — as they were pushing themselves in the context of their own intensive course — world-class athletes who were committing their hearts and minds and bodies to excellence.

Some of the reports that we got back from faculty were that there was a marked difference in the student behaviors and work that they were getting as a result of this project. What they were saying was, "We are seeing students learning for the joy of learning. They are not asking us about the required length of a paper, or percentage points that go into grading, and so forth. They just want to do something interesting that's related to this event."

That's the Holy Grail for me: intrinsic motivation within a framework that makes you want to commit and makes it clear that the real reward is in the experience. Our assessments indicate that both students and faculty found the project beneficial in this way, as well as in terms of disciplinary knowledge, digital technologies, and online learning. That's a great set of outcomes, in my view.

Grush: What about the notion of the Great VCU Bike Race Book [sample]? Why are we talking about a book here, and not just about courses?

 Campbell: David Wiley, of Lumen Learning, has a great phrase for work that's done merely for a grade in a course. He talks about "disposable assignments." Everyone knows what those are. We aspired to non-disposable assignments, what the AAC&U calls "signature work." So, what we wanted to do with the metaphor of the "book" was to lift students' eyes and aspirations higher, with the idea that their work could be preserved, as a curated digital publication, in the university's scholarly repository, and thus become part of the history of the event itself.

We told our students, "You will be creating something in the moment, during this week, that will become an enduring part of the cultural heritage of this university. And the world will be able to see your accomplishments."

Grush: Is this a one-off event, just as a response to a logistical challenge? Or, especially given the success you've just had, might VCU try to offer another experiential learning opportunity like this at some point?

 Campbell: Many people have asked me, in the wake of this event, "Do you think you could do this again? Do you think there might be another event where this approach could be used?" My answer is, "Why not?" The limiting factors are always imagination and institutional will.

I have to give senior leadership credit for giving us the go-ahead for our work during the bike race event. Our Interim Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, John Wiencek, who is now provost at the University of Idaho, broke the log jam in a way: There had been a lot of talk about whether we should close the school down during the race, and keep students home. But Dr. Wiencek helped us determine how to frame this as personal learning, a kind of "growth spurt" for students in short, intensive, and experiential courses. Dr. Cathy Howard, Vice Provost for Community Engagement, was also a vital partner in designing the project. Once we had the basics worked out, the project came together very quickly with great contributions from all over the university.

We know how to do this now, and should there be another event, we know we can do it. My fond hope is that enough people will remember this event and want to do it again.

Still, there was something so magical about this particular instance — our first steps. I feel very fortunate to have helped to catalyze and lead it, but I hasten to add that the team of faculty, staff, and students involved in this project deserve the lion's share of credit for the project’s success.

There are so many things about higher education that need to be preserved; that need to be maintained — that intellectual commitment, and the belief that what we do with our minds and hearts can help to make this world better, safer, and more just. These are things we can't afford to lose about higher education — but the great irony is that many of our current practices seem to hide or work against the values at the heart of what we are trying to do. But, if you can re-invent key aspects of how you address your mission, then why you do it can potentially be preserved. It's not too late for higher education to embrace the idea of digital agency for all its learners, to discover the network of possibilities — practices that can be re-invented even within traditional higher education — and to make them visible, to scale them, and make them newly available to the world. We are just at the starting line.

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