Category Archives: #thoughtvectors

How can a nail in a board help students think about thinking, writing, and responsibility?


One of the courses I teach is an undergraduate, general education course titled: Inquiry & the Craft of Argument. It is one section of a six section cohort teaching the Thought Vectors track. The course is designed as an introduction into scholarly thinking and writing.  Recently, I challenged students to solve a puzzle (solution above). Why? The puzzle is a metaphor for problem solving and collaboration as well as a metaphor for a few fundamental parts of a quality research paper.  It was a very successful activity.

My goal was to create an anchor for thinking about thinking (metacognition) and writing. I find that if I establish a few strong anchors that align with key ideas/methods/topics/problems in the course, then students are better able to make substantive connections between course concepts, their thinking, and other courses. It’s not a silver bullet, but it is a sound pedagogical practice.


  1. Groups of 3 students.
  2. Balance eight nails on the head of one nail that is partially nailed into a board.
  3. Cannot use extra materials (e.g. gum, glue, tape, or supports)
  4. Before you begin, discuss your understanding of the problem and possible solutions with your group. Write out ideas.
  5. Try it.

It’s a tough exercise kinesthetically and intellectually. Moreover, it’s difficult to collectively problem solve – from communicating clearly to executing action. Students were failing. I gave them approximately 8 minutes to work on the problem. During this time, I probed their assumptions, challenged their approaches, and gave hints. Eventually, I instructed the class to search for the solution on the Internet and try again. Much more successful.


Thinking about our Thinking

– What can our experience with this puzzle teach us about how we approach problems in general? What obstacles emerged? For example, any intellectual rigidity at play? How effectively did we work as a group? Are there any axioms or guidelines we can generate to help us with future problems or challenges?

Thinking about our Writing

– How is this puzzle a metaphor for writing a quality research paper?


Thinking about our Thinking

I don’t want to pretend that this was an easy activity or that insights emerged in such transformative ways that students walked away more amazing than when they entered. There was a lot of Socratic questioning to surface any insights. What did they say?

  • We learn best by doing. Action is an amazing, albeit frustrating, teacher.
  • It’s good to plan before jumping in. In other words, planning can help surface the assumptions that frame our preconceptions about how we think the world (its problems and people) function.
  • It’s important to stop and regroup when we are stuck rather than continuing down the same ineffective path. Exploring and systematically implementing alternative approaches to solving problems is a necessary condition for success. In other words, be cautious of intellectual rigidity!
  • Let every voice be heard and seriously considered. Don’t assume my point of view is the most accurate or the most effective.
  • Critically listening requires that we are able to accurately restate and elaborate on what our peers have said. Such acknowledgement is an important form of respect.
  • Identify and use your resources: peers, instructor, books, the web.
  • Persevere! It goes a long way.

Thinking about our Writing

I’ll summarize one of my student’s explanations because it was excellent.

  • The base is the topic. It must be significant and interesting to be solid enough to be seriously considered and capture the reader’s attention.
  • The nail is your thesis. It must be firmly grounded; based on a sound showing that you have something important to say about the topic [literature review].
  • The remaining nails represent a balanced perspective. They show the reader that you have considered all relevant perspectives fairly.
  • The entire picture is quite eloquent; beautiful in a way.

I was very impressed with this explanation. It actually moved me emotionally because it was beyond the lesson I intended to impart. That was a teaching moment; it was  firm anchor.

THE QUIZ (a.k.a. – commit to the responsibilities we have to our learning and our peers)

Two weeks later I gave a pop-quiz. My first question was:

“One of your peers (insert name) gave an explanation of the nail puzzle as a metaphor for writing a quality research paper. What was her explanation?”

This was an eye opening experience for students. We need to think of all our class sessions as connected, rather than disjointed and independent. I wanted them to see the course as having a logic and, therefore, structure. I also wanted to remind them that they are responsible critically examining (and remembering) what their peers contribute to each class. Know your Thought Vectors.

The whole learning experience was a very rewarding for me, and for many of my students.

Driving Questions: Student Perspectives

What questions are guiding your thinking about college?


What are we teaching? At once we’re teaching students to think within a particular discipline, teaching them to critically reflect on how they think and formulate beliefs; and we teach them to what it means to be a serious student. Taken together, we help them discover the insights, skills and dispositions that move beyond gamesmanship and toward self-efficacy, autonomy and responsibility.


Many years ago, I took a hint from a John Bean’s remarkable text, Engaging Thinking, and Stephen Brookfield. They both argued that one key to helping students learn deeply about the subject, about being students and about themselves is to help them surface and evaluate the assumptions that guide their beliefs and actions. Bean argued that having students complete the statements “The teacher’s job is…” and “The student’s job is…” is a strong way to do this. You can read about my efforts and see some results herehere and here.



To provide the opportunity for my students to explore the what, who, why and how of learning, I asked them to write down a list of questions that are currently driving their thinking about college. In other words, I asked: What are the questions you have about college that are at the forefront of your minds? I was actually surprised at their answers.


I expected statements like: “What does this class have to do with my major? ” or “What will I get from this class?” or “What do I have to do to graduate?” Instead, students actually thought seriously about the prompt and ventured within themselves. I believe their questions are telling. It made me wonder: Are we doing enough to help them see the value of college as an integrated whole? 

I am teaching one of the Thought Vectors sections of Inquiry and Argument here at VCU. Currently, we are in the “inquiry” phase of the course. Our goal is to have explore interesting ideas by asking probing questions, forming networks and following our inquiry trails using innovative thinkers to help point the way. Last week I had students map out the course. I wanted them to go back to the syllabus and figure out the big picture including its structure, organizing questions and ideas, and requirements. In doing so, I push them to make connections between our class discussions, the course readings and their learning.


Asking them to consider the questions that guide their thinking about college was one big picture prompt that paralleled the big picture of the course. Based on their questions, I believe they are on the right track. Is it perfect? Of course not. Is it one of many attempts? Yes. Like a master sculpture, I seek to slowly chip away at the stone until the sculpture that is within emerges.

Blimage Challenge – Bow Tie as Content


[This is the blimage  (blog image) challenge: Use an image above sent to you and “incorporate it into your blog, and write a post about learning based on it…See what you can make of it! (Then pass an image of your choice on to someone else so they can do their own #blimage challenge).” Read about the original idea here.]

I have taken a few days to think about this one. Admittedly, I am trying to interpret this image through the lenses of education, but  that is just too broad. I could focus on an individual vehicle arguing that we are all just trying to get somewhere in a larger system that dictates our direction. This interpretation might betray the 10,000 foot view, not to mention the clear overtones of critique. Rather, I am going to use this image as a metaphor for CONTENT.

How many times have we said and heard other instructors say something like: “I have too much content to cover and not enough time!” Although I have not only heard this sentiment, I have said it and felt it deeply. Nonetheless, it is a misconception of what content is and what it means to “cover” it.

If I may take license to generalize, humans are excellent at compartmentalizing. We chunk information to best suit specific tasks. It is a very efficient way of thinking….for short term gains. For numerous reasons, many of which can be contributed to a beautiful combination between human nature and subsequent educational systems, students often fail to see (organize, conceptualize and visualize) the purposes, key questions, point(s) of view, assumptions, methods and key insights of a given course. In other words, if I wanted my students to address a single question at the end of a course, what would it be? If students cannot organize their thinking in this manner, can they see alternative constructions?

I want students to see my course as a product of my reasoning. Just like any article, book, blog, or television program to name a few constructs. Moreover, I want them to see their work in the course as a product of their reasoning.

A former colleague of mine, Gerald Nosich, argued in his book, Learning to Think Things Through, that content is a system of interconnected meanings informed by claims, information and methods that help us reason through problems and issues unique to the discipline. When we teach students content, we are introducing them to the reasoning that makes the thing what it is. Like Adler and Van Doren argued in How to Read a Book, when we read critically we are engaging in a dialogue with the author: we explore her assumptions, her lines of inquiry, her conclusions, her concepts, her choices, we ask her questions, etc. Ultimately, we begin to construct the 10,000 ft view. Gardner Campbell explores this idea for education as a whole here.

Another way to metaphorically express this concept is found in David Perkins’ book Making Learning Whole.  When it comes to intellectual engaging in the construction of content understanding, we can ask: What do searchlights and lasers have to do with student intelligence?

What’s the alternative? Well, we can cover material, data and even information. That’s easy, but if we want students to see the relationships between the information and the conclusions and interpretations that it informs, then something more than passive exposure is necessary.

I see the bow tie highway intersections as a strong metaphor for what content is. If we tell students what it is, they will not necessarily experience the logic that informs the what and the why. They might be able to passively follow a path, but they will not be able to understand what is going on around them. Moreover, only by thinking through the content as a system will they be able to explore options: those exits and side roads that illustrate new lines of inquiry and contribution.

It’s a move from passenger to driver, or from user to designer.

#thoughtvectors – Concluding Thoughts on a Learning Experiment – Evening



From the first day faculty met to explore the Thought Vectors cMOOC, I looked at things from faculty development, adult learning, transformative lenses. Although the grand purpose of any faculty development effort is that new insights, lessons and skills transfer to students’ learning experiences, I chose to focus on what the instructors did. Specifically, I wanted to look for innovative practices; innovative in that what they do represents something outside of normal FD actions; innovative in that what they do challenges those traditional structures that (explicitly or implicitly) act as obstacles to deep engagement; innovative in that new skills emerge that can be directly applied to one’s classes; innovative in that faculty experience the excitement of genuine inquiry and substantive collaboration; innovative in that imagination points to new possibilities for teaching and learning. Big goals, I know, but if learning is not transformative, then what is it? Rote? Reinforcing? Just as I want students to exit my classes different people than when they entered, so too do I want faculty to experience positive transformation. Thought Vectors made me curious.

In an earlier blog I discussed that what the instructors in this course were doing characterized many of the best practices in faculty development. For example, regular meetings (twice a week), collaborative problem solving, flexible authority (power) structures, humility, exploration, experimentation, healthy debate, freedom to develop and change structures/experiences, respecting autonomy, multiple modes of communication are a few that come to mind. Despite my ability to articulate they thinking moves that were taking place, I still sought to find a concept that suitably captured the essence of these experiences. My mind kept coming back to the concept of “relationships.” At its core, faculty development is about cultivating honest and supportive relationships. I want to highlight three examples that, I think, are central to meaningful and transformative faculty development practices. These are only three, and there are more.

The case of Jessica Gordon – Moved by reason.

Having a confidence in the benefits and power of sound reasoning is a disposition that education tirelessly works to cultivate  or instill within student minds. This happens every time one genuinely (fair-mindedly) asks the question “Why?” As in: Why do you think that? What evidence do you have to support that? Why do you support that conclusion over alternative conclusions? and so on. However…how often do we live such a conviction? When was the last time you or witnessed a person say “Oh. Your argument is much stronger than mine. I will therefore change my beliefs and actions.” Or, “Wow. Your argument is so convincing and mine is weak. So, I will suspend my convictions until I’ve conducted further research.”  This type of thing rarely happens. Human thinking is much more complex. If convictions change, they typically do so over a long period of time where moments of cognitive dissonance regularly present themselves and resources needed to critically confront one’s beliefs are present. Nonetheless, so much in our daily lives is presented in argument form. This is the power of the UNIV 200 title: Inquiry and the Craft of Argument.  How do we navigate the regular “arguments” from ads, from our churches, from our instructors, from the media and news, from politicians, and so on? How do we make critically minded decisions? How do we make informed decisions regarding what to believe and do?(NOTE: I’m using the term argument broadly knowing much of what passes as an argument is less an issue of structure, and more an issue of rhetorical persuasion.)

Call me a skeptic, but it is my experience that much of faculty development is based on presenting an argument to faculty in an attempt to convince them to move away from one practice and embrace another. The assumption behind such an approach is that a strong argument WILL change believes and, consequently, behaviors. This rarely happens. Arguments are not enough. I’ve been writing on this, which I will post soon. For now, I wish to highlight an exception to my “argument.”

Jessica Gordon is one of the instructors in the cMOOC thought vectors course. During a discussion on whether or not instructors should provide models of they type of thinking and actions they wish for their students to emulate. There were excellent points made by all those in the discussion. Some argued that modeling is necessary for precise thinking and output. Others argued that modeling limits creativity and promotes conformity. Both agreed that students need to identify and solve problems, but the method was clearly different. This was an excellent example of a dialectic discussion without a clearly decided solution. What happened a week later made me so happy; I was pleasantly surprised.

During our next meeting, Jessica told Gardner Campbell (and the group) that after much consideration, she believed that Gardner’s argument against providing models was convincing. Moreover, she said she changed her view on the issue and would alter the way she crafted the week’s lessons for students. I am not taking a side here on the issue of providing models; rather, I want to emphasize that Jessica embodied through example the disposition of holding a confidence in good reasoning! Why was I so surprised? Shouldn’t this be the expectation for trained thinkers? One would hope, and indeed many examples exist on the micro level. All too often our personal agendas and egos get in the way of sound reasoning. I was impressed by Jessica’s honesty, openness, and willingness to practice that to which education aspires.

The case of Bonnie Boaz – Connections as resources

Bonnie and I sat down recently for a chat on approaches to teaching in our incubator classroom here at VCU. I asked her what she has personally taken away from her experience in the thought vectors course and what, if anything, she plans to transfer to her future iterations of UNIV 200. I was impressed by her clear thinking on the matter. I wish to highlight a couple key ideas despite that she had much to say on the topic: connections and resources.

These two concepts are not only central to her reflections, but to the thought vectors course itself. Thought vectors in concept space challenged students to both freely explore by following “associative trails,” or connections that are loosely tied together by the spirit of interest, exploration and inquiry, and by identifying and following particular connections that lead to a particular question or problem to be addressed.

Twitter Connections

Bonnie emphasized that the process that the course was leading students through similarly engaged her on multiple levels. Connections between ideas and new interpretations continuously emerged. Connections between specific ideas and new questions surfaced. Connections between people across modes (e.g. google hangouts, twitter, blogging, email) crossed geographic boundaries opening up conversations and interactions. Bonnie also noted the important connections that were cultivated between she and her colleagues in the thought vectors class leading to the second key idea: resources.

Sharon Bailin out of Simon Fraser University emphasized the vital importance of cultivating a mindset aware of the need to seek out and utilize intellectual resources as a necessary condition to think critically. When one is aware of a resource and is able to mindfully (and responsibly) use that resource to make informed decisions, then that resource becomes part of how one sees the world. Additionally, the disposition to actively seek out intellectual resources is a hallmark of humility and relationship building. Whether it be a person, a book, a website, or an oblique strategy, resources provide us with different lenses, questions and support systems needed to guide thinking in new and productive ways. Bonnie emphasized the value her colleagues played as resources to her own intellectual development and that of her students. For example, “Put your question out on twitter” became a regular mantra that was often met with surprising results. Bonnie credited Tom Woodward for the consistent flow of websites that helped students explore topics.

Together, the concepts of connections and resources make very powerful lenses for examining faculty development as a learning enterprise.

My experience- Less isn’t always more.

For those who know me, I often speak of the importance to do a few things well rather than many things poorly. It goes back to an argument John Henry Newman made in his book The Idea of a University and restated in numerous books on teaching and learning. We can take it back to Socrates for that matter. It has become a comforting thought, but like all things comfortable, it runs the risk of stagnation or even rigidity. Watching faculty invite multiple modes of communicating and the path of associative trails made me question my comfort with doing a few things well. There are times where less isn’t always more; more is more. It reminded me of the importance of imaginative exploration, of intellectual playfulness, of unfettered experience as a integral part of what it means to do intellectual work. I know my knowledge and experience with certain technologies has been expanded in this thought vectors experiment. It has opened my mind to new teaching and learning possibilities both for the undergraduate class I will teach this fall and the faculty development relationships I cultivate.

So, like good food, less is not always more.

less is not more




#ThoughtVectors in Concept Space – Afternoon

This has been a tough post for me to develop because of the layers of complexity that are emerging as I look at and reflect on the Thought Vectors cMOOC. I want to remind the reader that my reflections on the VCU cMOOC focuses primarily on how faculty learn, how faculty collaborate, how faculty innovate, and how all that transfers to students. Navigating this sea of data is going to take some time, but looking at specific dimensions of the faculty experience in this space is somewhat manageable for now.

The course is closing in on its last two weeks. Students are well into the research process, which means a research question has been identified and hopefully clarified. This is a process though, and I want to look at the support and collaborative dimensions of that process as far as faculty are concerned. What are a few of the key factors that characterize the way instructors are interacting in this cMOOC? Are they successful? Can they be generalized?

1. Thought Vectors, as a concept, translates into exploring associative trails and future paths and having a path one can see and reflect on as a guide to action and maybe belief. When placed in a context of collaboration, the individual is provided with potentially exponential opportunity to see new things. When done well, there is a deep respect that characterizes interactions; this is a fundamental quality of deep collaboration. Faculty in the Thought Vectors space model respectful collaboration and communication throughout their daily interactions. One important dimension of this is making it a practice to acknowledge contributions.

As part of a twice a week meeting, the Thought Vectors instructors and librarians addressed the topic of citation as a canon of scholarly thinking. The central idea is that we build our ideas on the work of others, and it is important to give credit where it is due. Doing so is a act of respect in that we are engaging in mindful conversation. The act of critically listening to someone (literally, virtually, and in writing) is one of the highest forms of respect we can give another because we are in essence saying “your thoughts are worth my time, and I wish to explore them with you.” ‘Critical’ in this context represents actively questioning, empathizing before judging, posing alternative interpretations, following out implications, etc. Respect conceived this way is indicative of a habit of mind that values intellectual transparency and collaboration. In the context of this cMOOC, the instructors have made this concept central to all communications. It creates community by extending the conversation to multiple people and challenges traditional power roles of teacher, student and outside expert. A recent tweet by Jessica Gordon (one of the instructors in section Team Create) captured this point well in a recent tweet:

Here Gordon highlights a student’s work linking her in conversation to an expert and modeling transparency and citation for other students via twitter. You can follow the Twitter feed @thoughtvectors. Such communication methods and modes are dramatically increasing connectivity (concepts, people and resources) and communication.

2. Inclusiveness: multiple perspectives are invited. I think invited is too simplistic because faculty not only invite multiple perspectives there is a sense in which they are required. I do not use the word ‘required’ to imply an authoritarian mandate. One characteristic of the cMOOC faculty culture that has emerged is that contrary and alternative perspectives are considered an important part of the knowledge construction and course construction process. In other words, dissent is encouraged because it is intellectually healthy. Inviting dissent and disagreement empowers compromise, expands associative trails and validates contributions. Moreover, there is a conscious attempt to call upon outside perspectives as resources for students to consider as they formulate their own conclusions. This comes in the form of blogs like Your Exorcist of Ignorance, and videos like interviews:


Actively seeking out and including alternative points of view is modeled well in this Thought Vectors cMOOC and points to a best practice in faculty development.  If at the very least, this practice contributes to a culture of curiosity by virtue of emerging questions.

3. Transparency: begin conscious of the importance to make one’s thinking visible so that it can be considered and evaluated without out fear of being unjustly judged. A regular practice among instructors is filming short narratives that address students in the Thought Vectors cMOOC and placing them on YouTube for the world to see and comment if desired. I wrote “if desired” because so much of empowering young adult learners is providing them with opportunities to make choices and learn from those choices. Whether or not a student chooses to watch these short clips to gain further direction is completely up to her/him, but the opportunity to tap into this resource is there. Here is one example from instructor Bonnie Boaz.


The entire Thought Vectors enterprise is on an open platform. There is a confidence that accompanies valuing and practicing transparency in one’s work. The instructors are not claiming they do not make mistakes. Of course if this class was to run a second time things would be done differently. We learn as we go, we problem solve, we manage complexity with a mind to move forward. The collective goal isn’t to be error-free or fault-free, but to be learners along side students. Valuing transparency models the spirit of the scientific mindset, and it has become a hallmark of this course.

4. Reflection: being deeply aware of the need to critically examine what one does and how one does it with a mind to hold one’s thinking to a high standard of evaluation so that one can actively look for areas and ways to improve, to connect, to grow. It is well established that when faculty systematically reflect their work as instructors improves. Stephen Brookfield wrote a book about it entitled: Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. Critical reflection is one of the canons of faculty development, but how often is the opportunity to systematically reflect encouraged, valued and rewarded? I can’t answer that question, but it is present and practiced within the collaborative culture of this Thought Vectors space. Jason Coats provides an excellent example of self reflection on pedagogy doubling as a guide for deep learning.

I have quite a lot scholarly texts on faculty development, adult learning, instructional support, etc. Here is a small pile I quickly pulled off my shelf.


The reason for the photo is merely to illustrate that there are scholars who take the topic of faculty development seriously. In fact, it is one of the four pillars of the VCU quality enhancement plan (QEP). Many discuss the need for faculty to develop communities of practice where time is dedicated to exploring and addressing the challenges facing teaching and learning. As I have observed and participated in this cMOOC, I began to explicate a connection that links me back to learning as a transformative process.

It’s interesting that this course is officially about inquiry and argumentation because I have come to believe that as far as tendencies go and as far as the big issues go I don’t think that opinions, beliefs and actions are largely moved by a strong argument. There are exceptions, of course, but to what extent do each of us (do faculty) have a confidence in the power of strong reasoning as far as it applies to the construction and shifting of our beliefs and behavior? This is one key question my reflections have turned to.

I believe that shift can and does happen, but it requires something more than a good argument. It requires tapping into a network of emotions, challenges, supports, and opportunities to practice in order to move deep set opinions and beliefs. There is also the issue of underlying habits of mind that influence how we see and act, whether they be catalysts for positive change or obstacles to good thinking.

I’m not suggesting that the course and faculty interactions are perfect. In fact, I don’t subscribe to such a concept as perfection when it comes to complex issues and human relationships. Rather, there are sets of best practices that are present and emerging that, I believe, may serve as a model for faculty development that can scale up. That’s a huge challenge.


Curating Deep Learning Environments – cMOOC at High Noon

It is the fourth week of the VCU thought vectors cMOOC, and the focus continues but with greater emphasis: create and curate ultra-rich learning environments. This is the concept I wish to focus on today particularly as it relates to faculty learning in communities of practice.

Last week I wrote identified two emerging characteristics of this cMOOC community of practitioners: (1) instructors refuse to allow the challenges to create paralysis, and (2) instructors are learning along side students. This second point is what I wish to unpack today.

I have been looking at what students are doing in this class as well as what instructors are doing. I am particularly focused on what they do together and how they do it.

  1. Do they  (students and instructors) seek input from peers, or do they wait and hope it will come?
  2. Do they utilize all available forms of communication, or do they stick to one?
  3. Do they create focus groups to identify and solve problems, or do they tend to attempt all intellectual work in isolation?
  4. Are they moved by strong arguments, or if one yields is it merely a pragmatic choice?

As far as students go, some are more active, engaged, innovative and connected than others. To be expected. It is also to be expected that instructors will provide the support, guidance and prodding necessary to succeed. Beyond these expectations, however, is the really interesting stuff of faculty learning.

Two weeks ago, I identified four concepts that I believed were central to the way instructors worked with one another: creative problem solving, pragmatism, excitement, and surprise. I chose these four because they were quite visible. Today, I am once again encouraged to see that instructors are still charging forward in strong, innovative and supportive ways. There doesn’t seem to be any mid-point, hump day blues or apathy.

Instead, instructors continue to drive ideas forward. How and why? Part of it is the pure dedication that participating instructors have to students. Another key part is that they have dedicated themselves to the community; they have created a community of practice.

In thinking through the four aforementioned questions, I see instructors modeling exactly what they want their students to do. This, of course, is from my perspective; it doesn’t mean that students can see it. It also doesn’t imply that disagreement is absent. Quite the contrary. I’ll elaborate.

If I was challenged to provide brief answers to the above questions, I would say:

  1. Yes, instructors actively seek out and invite discussion as they develop their work (ideas, virtual interfaces, and assignments).
  2. Yes, instructors utilize multiple forms of communication to develop and evaluate their work.  (E.g. – thought vectors home page, google docs, twitter, blogs, email, google hangouts, live online interviews via).
  3. Yes, instructors are organizing themselves into large and small groups to develop and evaluate their work.
  4. Yes, instructors seem to be open to being persuaded; however, there is a necessary dimension of pragmatic choice at play.

I don’t want to over simplify or give the impression that this group is perfect. I actually hesitate using the word “perfect” to describe human interactions let alone intellectual development. However, as far as I can see, the group embodies what a community of practice needs to have in place for successful and dynamic development and collaboration. Debate happens, different perspectives exist, but civil dialogue and problem solving reign despite any differences. The course functions on a limited time frame and this requires compromise. So, if there is a pragmatic dimension to the decisions individual instructors are making it is based on informed compromise while respecting individual autonomy. Respectful and challenging thoughts are invited, but not always implemented.

As I observe and participate,  another question begins to emerge: How efficient it this group in making effective decisions that lead to ultra-rich learning opportunities? This is actually a complex issue. There is an enormous amount of data to filter; not only what students and instructors are producing in the form of blogs, tweets, links, emails, assignments and videos, but in what instructors have to consider as they curate and organize material and resources that matches one’s personal interpretation of the course and relationships with one’s students. Nonetheless, as far as the meetings go and how instructors use that time, I am very impressed with the moment from ideas to action.

One of the most difficult characteristics of any group meeting, in my opinion, is moving from brainstorming and general discussions toward specific examples and action plans for implementation. This happens each meeting within a one hour time frame twice a week. Each meeting begins with a topic and/or question, which is proving to be best practice because the question tells us the direction of our thought: conceptually and methodologically. Moreover, the group is flexible enough to change the question if needed. Nonetheless, the mental framework is to figure something out, so seeking clarification is central even if the issue is not totally settled.

I mentioned areas of disagreement. I want to provide a brief example because it is relevant to unsettled issues where divergence exists. How should students cite their sources? All agree that it is required and important to the research process. After all, the course introduces students to scholarly practice. However, views on the forms of citation differ. So, what was the agreed upon solution? Two fold: (1) have a google hangout where we discuss, as scholars, the value and importance of citation; (2) respect instructor autonomy. Such respect reveals that we see each other as scholars, as valid, as informed contributors. This attitude of respect is central, with all its implications, to the cultivation and operational success of any community of practice.

I am pleased to report that there is no showdown at high noon; rather, we continue the journey into concept space.

Following Thought Vectors into Concept Space toward an Event Horizon – Mid-Morning

My observations and involvement in the 2014 VCU cMOOC “Living the Dreams: Digital Investigation and Unfettered Minds” has been nothing short of challenging.

  • The challenges are intellectual in that we are weaving together a complex web of interconnections and associations with the goal to come to a researchable question.
  • The challenges are also emotional. As our minds are stretched, we are struggling to find solid ground which results in some uneasiness at times. We must become fairly comfortable with ambiguity.
  • The challenges are technical as we work to infuse our blogs with interesting images, gifs and hyperlinks.
  • Time is also the limited and very valuable commodity, which is constantly challenged.

These are but a few of the pressures faculty, students and participants face daily (and nightly) as this cMOOC moves forward. Despite these challenges, people are facing them with boldness and ingenuity. The challenge I wish to reflect on today is the attempt to take what appears (at times) to be random associations toward a question that can be researched. Is this a paradigm example of deductive logic on steroids?

In an earlier post, I began to explore the pedagogical (let alone conceptual) complexity of using associative trails as a means to define a specific research agenda because it is beyond that of mere brainstorming. It turns out to be a very intentional process the readings of which have elegantly captured. Dr. C’s recent assignment articulates this process, this thought experience, this thought vector well: “Augmenting Human Intellect: Concept Experience.

What appeals to me is the embedded meta-cognition (thinking about thinking so we can make our thinking and learning better). When presented with the opportunity to deeply reflect on not only what we are thinking about, but how we think about it, we have been given a potentially powerful resource: our minds. When placed in an open, online environment that resource becomes resources: mind becomes minds! Now students can begin to see each other as resources, and when facilitated well, a community of inquiry, of learning, of respect emerges.

So, what began as a lesson in open-mindedness characterized by networking and free exploration has moved toward constructing concept networks and formulating questions. Next stop…Event Horizon! A place of intellectual density. It’s a fun metaphor at least.










I have to applaud the instructors. I’m interested in how faculty learn. Two defining characteristics of this group are that (1) they refuse to let the aforementioned challenges be paralyzing obstacles, and (2) they are learning along with students. I believe these are two fundamental characteristics of what a true community of inquiry looks like.

The Grand MOOC Experiment: Dawn

A few concepts that I believe are central to the beginning of this summer MOOC from a faculty engagement perspective include: creative problem solving, pragmatism, excitement and surprise.

The Faculty Team

  • Creative problem solving: the devil’s in the details when it comes to writing code. The design team seems to be working around the clock trouble shooting errors, glitches, and settings. They are also providing creative ways to help instructors navigate the work, their students, and even their emotions. Moreover, the faculty are finding dynamic ways to interact with their students. Some students are struggling, but the multiple methods of communication are proving to be very useful: blogs, twitter, email, open communication across sections.
  • Pragmatism: Practicality might be a better word, but the beauty here is the balance between seeking wonder and understanding the importance of helping students successfully navigate the connectedness of the websites and concepts.
  • Excitement: Who isn’t excited by unfettered ideas? I’m sure I’d be surprised, but this group has embraced the flowering of ideas. Excitement in this context is closely linked to opportunity: opportunity to make new connections, opportunity to meet new people, opportunity to learn new skills, opportunity to find new resources, and opportunity to see things one has yet to imagine.
  • Surprise: To my knowledge, this is VCU’s first MOOC. I don’t even know if MOOC is the most accurate term. It’s more of a open connected learning experience (OCLE?). Nonetheless, much of the surprise I have observed and participated in comes in two forms. First, all those involved have been regularly surprised at the depth by which many students are engaging in the course content. It’s exciting and encouraging. Second, the instructors’ themselves seem regularly surprised at the strong community that has been established. This community of MOOC practitioners / enablers are open to ideas as a group; no idea is dismissed without due consideration. It’s a very healthy and empowering faculty environment.

If I was to make a broad comment on faculty development, I would have to say that this MOOC cohort is emerging as a model. My first year teaching, I was told that if I raised the bar and aided my students, they would rise to the challenge. This group is exemplifying this. I wonder if it can scale up?

A question remains: Can students learn to refine their research questions following associative trails? In other words, will following a wide network of ideas aid students in the act of narrowing their thoughts on a particular target? With these instructors, I have little doubt.      #thoughtvectors

#ThoughtVectors – Observations on a Great Educational Experiment – Predawn

This is a reflection on a great experiment: a thought experiment, a learning experiment, a teaching experiment, a social experiment, an experiment in connectivity and the potential power of associative trails. The VCU UNIV200 (inquiry and the art of argument) summer MOOC website launches tomorrow!

My role is that of a participant-observer. I have an interest in all levels, which I will use the next two months to reflect on here. I have a particular interest in how faculty have collectively thought through and continue to think through the development, application and particular iterations. We can simplify the concept as reflections on faculty development, but the concept of “development” is fraught with assumptions, many of which need exploration.

What have I seen thus far? Are there any practices that are strong models for faculty development? What have been the obstacles?

Observations Thus Far

  • Power: despite the various administrative levels represented in this cohort of people participating in the design of this MOOC, honesty has been valued; in fact, it’s paramount! Devil’s advocacy is encouraged. Disagreement is common, but not personalized. Ideas are explicitly credited and sources shared. Bureaucratic roles include a vice provost, two directors (that I know of), tenured professors, term professors, instructional consultants, Ph.D’s, Master’s, and J.D.’s, young, and older-young, and in-between, technical gurus to idiots (like me). This group seems to embody the spirit of genuine inquiry, open-mindedness, and intellectual responsibility.
  • Community: This group also consists of a variety of personalities: some outspoken and others quiet. Nonetheless, all have a voice. All ideas are taken seriously, and there is a genuine spirit of collective problem solving and exploration. Interestingly, autonomy is valued and is built into the MOOC structure despite the intimately connected nature of the interface. This group is emerging as a paradigm example of an intellectual community….or so I think.
  • Time: All those involved have agreed to dedicate time to collective development. People who cannot be there physically are there virtually.

I reduced the dynamic context to three concepts, but they are central, core, fundamental and they are powerful.

I can’t wait to see what comes next!