For the past six weeks I have been serving as the connected learning coach for Collaborative Curiosity: Designing Community Engaged Research, a fully online, graduate level, connected learning course sponsored by the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Division of Community Engagement and taught by Valerie Holton and Tessa McKenzie.
Like connected learning, which has been used in the educational literature to indicate everything from online to social to experiential learning, I suspect connected learning coaching can mean many things to different people. In this case, I am a resource introduced by the instructors into a learning community to provide personalized student support related to the digitally networked participatory practices associated with openly networked connected learning.
Collaborative Curiosity belongs to a portfolio of innovative online courses that emerged from VCU Academic Learning Transformation Lab under the creative guidance of Gardner Campbell and Jon Becker from 2014 to 2016. Currently in its second iteration, Collaborative Curiosity takes place entirely on the open web. All course materials freely accessible on the public course website to allow for community participation and engagement in the course. Weekly synchronous class discussions take place on Twitter, and assignments are completed via blogging on personal student websites (a variation of Domain of One’s Own). The individual student websites are networked through tagging and RSS feeds to the course website so that participants, observers, and instructors can visualize the big picture of how participants are making sense of the materials and activities related to the course.
Based on my prior research, the digital landscape of Collaborative Curiosity – the blogging, the tweeting, and the openly networked course space – provides ample opportunity for students to engage in connected learning. As described by the Digital Media Learning (DML) Research Hub, connected learning is an experiential educational approach that encourages students to recognize, strategically reflect on, and forge new connections between people, contexts, ideas, and personal experiences for the purpose of deeper, more authentic learning. Digital environments are particularly powerful connected learning spaces, because they allow students to access more resources and authentic audiences, express themselves through near-professional grade media, and make more immediate connections via hyperlinks and personal learning networks.
Having spent several years studying openly networked connected courses at VCU, I am convinced these environments are (potentially) powerful spaces with endless possibilities for inclusive, authentic learning. Very preliminary findings suggest that most students find Collaborative Curiosity more engaging and equally as challenging as other instructional approaches while recognizing that it deepens their digital fluency, awareness of open scholarship, and perceptions of the professional and scholarly possibilities for online spaces. However, the digital participatory approaches used in courses like Collaborative Curiosity are so novel that many students (and instructors) need significant pedagogical and technical support to take full advantage of the experience.
In today’s higher education environment, instructors seldom have the time or resources to provide such intensive personalized support in any sort of sustainable way. Hence the idea of a connected learning coach: a person that is neither an instructor nor a student, but rather a class consultant willing to provide formative feedback and technical support around digitally networked participatory practice for both students and instructors when they need it.
The Role of a Connected Learning Coach
Given the highly experimental nature of connected learning coaching, the course instructors and I agreed to allow the defining characteristics of my role to emerge as the course took place. Six weeks into the experience, I see my purpose in this particular learning community as meeting the following needs:
- Promoting the pedagogical value of making connections. Let’s face it – most graduate students already know to make connections between their work and traditional information sources such as scholarly research articles (it’s called “citation”). These connections are important, but connected learners look for other types of connections in their school work as well. They connect to the ideas of their peers, through their own work over time, and across contexts (e.g. work, hobbies, other courses) and modalities (e.g. images, music, kinetic movement). Documenting these connections through hyperlinks or embedded materials makes them explicit and immediately accessible. It allows a student’s thought process to be shared with others and provides a historical record to support ongoing personal reflection. Because these sorts of connections and their documentation are not often discussed in traditional classrooms, they need to be modeled and explicitly and consistently valued. As the connected learning coach, I discuss these ideas in blog posts, tweet great student examples, and analyze student hyperlinking patterns in their blog post comment sections.
- Helping students navigate digitally networked participatory culture. Many students participating in Collaborative Curiosity had never tweeted or blogged prior to the course. Therefore, they were not initially attuned to the cultural nuances of digitally networked communication. Students and I have informal Twitter discussions on the nuances of digital workflows, Twitter, and self-promotion. I performed a social network analysis of course Twitter chats as a means of formative feedback and shared personalized results with students via email. Furthermore, I wrote a blog post on the purpose of course hashtags and continue to monitor the course’s Twitter chats to capture and retweet any student tweets that did not include the course hashtag. Interestingly, students have begun to police their peers’ use of the hashtag, and my role in Twitter chats has declined.
- Providing technical and moral support. Despite written instructions, instructional videos, and a streamlined process (developed in-house at VCU Academic Learning Transformation Laboratory), some students still have difficulty navigating the technical process of establishing and personalizing a blog site, linking their sites to the course website, and creating posts. For generalizable assistance, I write blog posts based on common student needs. When real-time, personalized help is required, I use a combination of screenshots, email, and direct messaging to provide step-by-step support in a media in which the student is already comfortable. I even arranged a face-to-face visit with one student who was having trouble.
The course is still in progress. Therefore, I only have initial thoughts on outcomes and impact to share. I’ve enjoyed watching students expand their digital communication and connecting skills quickly. Anecdotal evidence suggests these particular students have appreciated having someone there to help them with the technical aspects of blogging and tweeting. Furthermore, an initial, informal analysis suggests they are making diverse and powerful connections across the learning community and their own work. Six weeks into the experience I’m focused mainly on staying out of their way as they continue to learn. Some things I have learned and will carry with me into my future experience:
- Assessment matters. The Collaborative Curiosity instructors have always been explicit in their dedication to promoting digital fluency, open digital scholarship, and connected learning through their course. They reference it in the course trailer, course competencies, and the assessment rubric. However, student interest in my blog posts, feedback, and assistance increased after they received grades on their first blog posts, which included marks for their digital presence. I am not sure students would have invested time in enhancing their digital skills or engaging in connected learning without the formalized connection to assessment.
- Moral support is important. Over the years I’ve assisted many students – undergraduate, graduate, professional, and adult – in digital learning experiences similar to Collaborative Curiosity. Instructors are often surprised when students find it difficult to set up their digital workspaces despite ample access to written or screencast instructions. I have found that some students have a level of anxiety related to “technology” that prevent them from following direction – no matter how adequate the instructions are. Nevertheless, many of them are able to do everything required in the presence of real-time support. Students who ask me for technical help often answer their own questions without real input from me and go on to do amazing things on their own as the course progresses; they just need someone to be present at the very beginning of the process to boost their confidence.
- Coaching takes time – but not necessarily instructor time. Targeted blog posts, twitter conversations, personalized social network analysis, and one-on-one instruction take time – definitely more time than most instructors have to offer. However, my experience suggests that instructors don’t necessarily have to do the work alone. Connected learning coaching can be performed effectively by third parties – interested community members, teaching assistants, probably even (and possibly more effectively) trained peer coaches.
Independent Educational Consultant
Connected Learning Coach Blog Posts (to date):