Connectivist MOOC helps students embrace digital media

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More than 100 Virginia Commonwealth University students and several dozen additional scholars from around the world participated during the summer in VCU’s first connectivist Massive Open Online Course, also known as cMOOC.

The course, a special “digital engagement pilot” version of UNIV 200: Inquiry and the Craft of Argument, was designed to increase digital fluency by teaching students how to use digital media as a means for learning, thinking more deeply and solving problems.

“Our iPhones and iPads and computers are much more than fancy gadgets. They are part of a global environment for learning,” said Gardner Campbell, Ph.D., vice provost for learning innovation and student success and architect of the course. “It was an opportunity for students to plug their brains and creativity into what Michael Chorost calls our expanding ‘worldwide mind.’”

The cMOOC was called “Living the Dreams: Digital Investigation and Unfettered Minds,” and introduced students to the thinking of digital age pioneers. Students read and reflected on essays by Vannevar Bush, J. C. R. Licklider, Ted Nelson, Alan Kay, Adele Goldberg and Doug Engelbart.

Engelbart, who passed away in 2013, is best known for his work addressing the challenges of human-computer interaction. He invented the computer mouse and developed graphical user interface, knowledge management, hyper-media, collaborative technologies, teleconferencing, online communities and what he called “digital knowledge repositories,” an interactive form of digital libraries.

Campbell first became aware of Engelbart’s vision of “augmenting human intellect” 10 years ago and set out to apply it to higher education.

Engelbart’s daughter Christina, who is executive director of the Doug Engelbart Institute, said VCU’s course honors her father’s legacy by creating a learning environment that uses some of the tools he envisioned and promoting his vision.

“His desire was to help the world become a better place, to help humanity become a lot smarter, faster, more intelligent about how it makes decisions and moves forward, whether it’s in business or institutions or society in general. So, all the technology that he did and all the ever-pioneering work that he did that was associated with that was all for that goal – to make us all collectively smarter as a human race – one organization, one team at a time,” said Engelbart during an April visit to campus.

The Doug Engelbart Institute also provided $5,000 scholarships to William Sullivan, who is majoring in art, and Mary “Anisa” Kannan, who is majoring in biomedical engineering. The scholarships, the first of their kind to be offered by the institute, covered tuition for the course and will allow the students to help catalogue Doug Engelbart’s archives in the upcoming year, including travel to California to work at the institute and a stipend to fund activities related to the award.

The course challenged students to build their own personal cyber infrastructure, which they did through personal blogs that they used to share their assignments and thoughts. Information from each blog was also collected and displayed on the class website, Thought Vectors in Concept Space. In all, 2,871 posts were added to the website from students doing work from as far away as the United Kingdom, the Middle East and Australia.

“The idea was that as students did their work, it would be published on this single site,” Campbell said. “We wanted them to write, create and explore and share it all in a single concept space. It was an opportunity to robustly participate in free-range learning and sharing.”

A dedicated hashtag -- #thoughtvectors – allowed the class to share thoughts through Twitter.

Through their blogs and interactions, students responded positively to the learning experience.

Asa Collins, who used the nickname “anonymous octopus” during the class, described the course as rewarding in a video message he created to reflect on what he had learned. Collins said the class allowed him to reflect on how technology is used in learning and gave him an opportunity to share his thoughts with others in a way that was much more intimate than a traditional classroom setting.

“I felt more connected than most classes I’ve taken before. It felt more intimate,” Collins said. “It was an interesting experience getting to know people that I had never met based solely on what they decided to write about.”

Christina Engelbart will return to VCU next week to meet with the scholarship recipients and other students and instructors from the class.

“I’m just really impressed with VCU for the opportunity to do this, because there are a lot of universities that are starting to do a massive online course, but the nature of this one that Gardner’s putting together has a lot of qualities to it that make it very special,” Engelbart said.

Campbell said VCU’s approach to massive open online courses will help to establish the university as a leader in rethinking what’s possible in higher education. He intends to offer the course again next summer or fall.

“This will be an ongoing opportunity,” Campbell said. “We’ll make it bigger and better.”


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