Driving Connectivity with Pedagogy.

The Connected Courses experience been insightful. As someone who is still a student and hasn’t had the opportunity to independently lead my own course, I have been left with new ideas and a new perspective of how the nature of instruction is evolving. I have tools that will prove invaluable as my teaching responsibilities increase over the coming years.

I have found the online and mixed-media composition of Connected Courses to facilitate inclusion. While internet-based courses have the potential to feel isolating, the constant discussion and diverse participant contributions keep things going. It is quite amazing that we live in a time in which we have the technology to participate in academic discussions at any time and from any place in the world.

One of the topics of the most recent Connected Courses sessions has been the Indie Web: a movement in which we simultaneously remove our sole trust in commercial internet media sites and centralize our own data. The concept of using the Indie Web to create, compile and publicly present our academic contributions has a lot of merit. However, I wonder if we need to be cautious in whether or not we put all of our eggs into one basket, even if it is one we have more control over. Specifically, I am slightly concerned about how social media aggregation might continue to erode the boundaries of our personal and professional lives. I am a proponent of openness but can think of several examples in which it may not be desirable to allow unregulated crossover of these realms.

Perhaps this represents a potential roadblock for the sustained application of social media in the classroom. The Indie Web movement is in part supposed to prevent students from being “locked out” of their data and allow the conversation to continue outside of the classroom. Surely, giving students “ownership” can be empowering and encourage deeper engagement. However, I question how much participation will actually continue after the semester ends, when students turn to new pressures and obligations. And how long will students want their names permanently attached to their contributions? Sometimes we might be less likely to contribute when we know our causal comments will exist longer than we will. We are vulnerable when we are learning. That is a good thing, but I feel that we need to consider the implications of this vulnerability when balancing new open course formats in order to make sure our practices are truly inclusive. I admire the focus of driving technological advances with current practice instead of the other way around, and perhaps selective anonymity will be something that is considered as the Indie Web develops.

This will not be my last blog post, but I must say how interesting my time with Connected Courses has been. I may not have participated in all of the writing prompts, but I have taken away a great deal, all while experimenting with unfamiliar topics and new methods. Definitely recommended, and I found the small breakout sessions with #VTCCourses to be especially valuable, despite my limited participation.

The Internet and Open Knowledge.

Not only is web fluency is a requirement for success in most modern work and social environments, but language of networks and social structures are increasingly used in how we talk about the offline learning experience as well.

The paradigm shift in higher education in the direction of active learner-centered engagement and empowerment parallels other societal changes of the new millennium. As David Weinberger puts it in his article on A Unified Theory of the Web, the internet is “is changing our understanding of what puts things together in the first place.” Making an analogy to education, perhaps the classroom can be thought of as “many small pieces loosely joined” rather than in the traditional structure of givers and receivers of knowledge. Increasing openness, diversity and inclusion can do nothing but increase the quality of the experience for all involved.

Within individual disciplines, the internet analogy can be taken further. According to Roy Fielding, the internet is a system to “interconnect information networks across organizational boundaries.” The revolution in interdisciplinary education similarly aims to transcend barriers in order to both enrich academic scholarship and lead to new advances that bridge traditional disciplinary silos. One step further, and we discover ways to better communicate esoteric ideas with an informed and curious public.

Wikipedia itself can serve as an interesting example of public communication of various topics. Jon Undell shows how “a loose worldwide federation of volunteers” exerts progressive evolutionary improvement of open-source articles. Like natural selection, he comments on a particular edit at 2:47, “that wasn’t very successful, and it doesn’t survive long”. Gone are the days of individual dominance of knowledge. We just have to figure out how to work with this information in strategic, constructive ways, and teach students to do the same.

Social Engagement in Higher Education.

My posts have been somewhat delayed due to a whirlwind of lab benchwork, travel and postdoc hunting. I have been participating in the live discussions but sometimes find it difficult to sit down and consolidate/communicate my thoughts. That’s one of the great things about Twitter (@0dwyVT): active discussion without necessarily the time commitment! As a first-time user of Twitter, I find it to be a perfect supplement to the video streaming and blogging going on in this course.

Speaking of social media, the first discussion in Unit 2 emphasized this social aspect: namely the utility of investment in social capital and the principal of reciprocity. There are two classes of network architecture representative of typical communities, whether we are talking about online relationships or face-to-face. Dense networks build trust and cultivate shared norms, while open networks are better characterized by diversity and information flow. Personal networks build meaningful communities (for learning or otherwise). It was interesting to me to consider the necessary balance of open/closed networks in the classroom or in mentorship relationships. How can we make sure there is both trust and new information in these networks?

These leads me to an interesting point noted in the second discussion of Unit 1. Social interaction is a critical driver of learning/engagement in high-level learning environments, and is not necessarily in opposition to education. This may be correlated with what students ultimately leave with, or Ito’s “life changing-metric”. As the societal motivations for higher education evolve, it’s important to be open-minded to new ideas that might challenge your opinions. I never thought I’d be required to use Twitter in graduate school, nor did I think I would find it so rewarding when a panel of excellent speakers address my Tweets in their live streams!

I think project-oriented or socially-driven courses can take a variety of forms, and one of my aims as I develop my career in higher education is to merge the necessity of acquiring core knowledge/theory with the learning that otherwise only happens “around the edges”. There are still core competencies that need to be developed in order to progress in any field, but how we introduce these concepts and how we assess them needs to change. Furthermore, every student must find her/his own purpose and motivators. We can’t do all the work as educators/mentors, but we can catalyze the process.

Introduction for Active Co-Learning.

It is time to (re)introduce myself this semester as a participant in Connected Courses: Active Co-Learning in Higher Ed. I was given the opportunity to take part in this course as one component of the Future Professoriate Graduate Certificate at Virginia Tech. As a PhD candidate in the basic biological/medical sciences, I recognize an obvious lack of training in teaching and mentorship. There is an assumption that a good researcher makes a good teacher, to the dismay of many a student in top-tier research institutions. I hope to be part of the solution to this problem, and am enrolled in the Active Co-Learning course to acquire new tools and new ways of thinking as the landscape of higher education rapidly changes.

I am not currently teaching a course. In fact, nearly the totality of my experience teaching has been confined to laboratory settings: albeit laboratories also equipped with chalkboards. I am more accustomed to lecturing on methods, presenting new data, or training new students about life in an academic lab than I am used to lecturing from a textbook or syllabus. Laboratory classes, whether in the natural sciences or otherwise, are quite different from lecture or pure discussion sections, and I imagine there are several advantages and disadvantages to teaching in this setting. One of the upsides is the more obvious “why”, since most of what I do is applied (in the bioengineering sense) rather than theoretical. However, even in this setting it can be all too easy to oversimplify the process, as Mike Welsch put it, as the “ultimately wrong notion of learning as the simple acquisition of knowledge”.

Education is a transformative process. That’s what got me hooked on science from the beginning. The scientific method provides more than a tool for answering questions: it is a worldview. Learning experimental design in high school biology opened up a whole new way of understanding and BEING on the planet Earth. I still fondly remember the foundational projector slides: a flow chart of Gregor Mendel’s plant hybridization experiments is SO MUCH MORE than a simple gardening task! It was empowering, and provided a broad framework for looking at other problems. As was discussed in the first session, education CANNOT be about checking boxes. Education is about TRANSFORMATION.

I credit a few inspiring mentors for helping me along my path, and I aspire to facilitate similar experiences in my students by giving them a purpose and helping them apply their passions and build their own niche. I was really interested to hear from the panel last class about how to move beyond outcomes-driven education and how to harness the REAL learning that seems to only take place in the periphery of the traditional classroom experience.

Even the pedagogical training I have received at Virginia Tech has been transformative. I entered the PFP program expecting to learn a few tools for being a better teacher, but have instead become immersed in the latest theories and ideas of higher education at its core. I am excited to see the changes that this course will facilitate, and hope to be able to share my insights and experiences along the way.