Author: Jennifer Roth-Burnette

Digital Sanctuary: New-Fashioned Hospitality, Slack and More

Starbucks machine on first floor of Hurley Convergence Center, UMW.
Nothing says “welcome!” like a Starbucks machine.

The past couple of days at Digital Pedagogy Lab have me thinking about the confluence of hospitality (a point of southern pride at UA, and perhaps also here in Fredericksburg, Virginia) and the new-to-me-concept of digital sanctuary (introduced by Amy Collier; more below!)

Hospitality clearly means something here at University of Mary Washington.  Beautiful architecture, brick sidewalks and fountains delight the eye; covered walkways provide shelter on rainy days; librarians adorn their outward-facing windows with declarations of “we will help!”  The Hurley Convergence Center offers all kinds of space for gathering and building community (not to mention a Starbucks machine on the first floor).

We at DigPedLab have been treated to a hot lunch every day in the student center cafeteria (even with school out of session!). A “Digicart” is ready to drive us when we need assistance, ensuring that no-one should struggle to be part of this group.  We have been offered pronoun buttons–they/them/theirs; she/her/hers; he/him/his–that help us not only signal easily about our preferred pronouns, but even more fundamentally hold space for any and all to be welcome and comfortable in their own personhood.

Implicit Design Principles: One Does Not Merely Sit

Hello from the Digital Pedagogy Lab (DigPedLab) Institute 2017!  Andrew Richardson and I are here from the Innovation Team, with 7 more faculty* from across The University of Alabama, already immersed in questions and practices surrounding Critical Digital Pedagogy and associated themes such as design, networks, data, and domains.

Inside UMW Hurley Convergence Center
The University of Mary Washington Hurley Convergence Center is full of spaces for small-group collaboration.

We are meeting in a collaboration-friendly, tech-filled space at the University of Mary Washington Hurley Convergence Center.  I especially like the Herman Miller Magis Spun Chairs on the fourth floor, which turn their riders (there really is no other noun for this — one does not merely sit) into human spinning tops — see HM’s spun chair YouTube video for the full effect.

My avatar is a scout with a light saber and fabulous hair — guiding folks down the path, with light, power, tech in hand!

Add to these the Lego™ minifigure avatars we made for one another in an opening icebreaker and you get the picture of DigPedLab as a place where community matters, play and collaboration are encouraged, and we all have the opportunity turn, to spin, to look around (or be twirled!) for new perspectives.

While play might seem to some a non-starter, I find it sets the tone for an open, willing-to-learn attitude that infuses and inspires the whole community. In our lives and jobs we are teachers and designers and administrators; but here, we are learners.  The theme of play also puts me in mind of John Seely Brown‘s keynote at UA’s Online Learning Innovation Summit 2017, in which he showed us how play is essential to curiosity about and engagement with a topic, and thereby critical to learning.

As I moved into my smaller-group track on Critical Instructional Design, I was already in a space of curiosity, eager to play with ideas.  The Design group members come from many backgrounds and experiences, so I was particularly interested to see what people would write on the board for this question: What are your implicit and/or explicit design principles?

Collabothink at DigPedLab: what are your implicit and/or explicit design principles?


It was easy for me to think about the explicit principles that form part of my institution’s approach to design:  clarity, modularity, organization, accessibility.  But I have to be quite honest and say I had never really taken a moment to consider what my own implicit design principles might be.  I quickly realized I had a set of personal design principles around relationship and community, but I felt there must also be others to discover.

My sense of wonderment and possibility took over as I considered these, written on the board: empathy, exploration, affective relationship, agency.  What could the online courses we work on become if a set of implicit design principles were agreed on by faculty, instructional designers, media and innovation teams from the beginning?  They could (and probably should) be different for each course, and would increase our ability to bring online students course material that aims not only to deliver subject matter, but to be an experience–an immersion in the principles, ethos, meaning and implications of that subject matter.

This type of approach wouldn’t be entirely new for our group.  I am sure my instructional design colleagues could offer some excellent examples, and here I’ll share one of mine:   This year, one of the Innovation Team’s projects is a collaboration with Innovation Spirit Scholar Dr. Jennifer Becker, of the UA College of Communication and Information Sciences.  Dr. Becker came to us with this conundrum: when faculty new to online teaching are assigned to teach Interpersonal Communication, they have a very large learning curve just in teaching online, not to mention connecting with online students.  How, she asked, can we help them model positive interpersonal communication as they engage with students enrolled across many time zones, cultural backgrounds, age groups and life situations?  In the terms used in today’s discussion, Dr. Becker’s implicit design principles, as she expressed them to us, include community-building, affective relationship, and empathy. Knowing those, we were able to collaborate on the development of guidance and strategies to help new instructors teach interpersonal communication online not only through readings and activities, but also through embodiment of its concepts in their own, intentionally personalized communication with students.

Clarity about implicit design values could also help us rethink how we engage our online student population.  For instance, what would the implicit value of non-isolation look like for online courses?  How would that value prompt us to think in new ways about familiar ideas like community-building and cohort formation within an online course or degree program?  How could that implicit value prompt us to think about possibilities we haven’t even thought about yet?

I admire what Dr. Becker has done for her online course, and I look forward to conversations with future UA Innovation Scholars and Innovation Catalysts (UA Instructional Designers, it’s a new opportunity for you – stay tuned!) around implicit design principles, relative to their own disciplines and teaching perspectives, to see how those could shape a more holistic way of engaging, enfolding, including online students.

* Angela Benson (College of Education), Kim Colburn (New College/New College Life Track), André Denham (College of Education), Traci Ferguson (ACCESS English), Michelle Hale (College of Human Environmental Sciences), Heather Pleasants (Office of Institutional Effectiveness/QEP), John Ratliff (College of Arts and Sciences/UA Early College)

We Unconferenced, Now What?

On February 3, 2017, faculty and staff from 14 different colleges and over 25 divisions or academic units gathered for the first, annual University of Alabama Online Learning Innovation Summit.  Several participants remarked that this was the first time they had come together at UA to discuss online learning with such a diversity of disciplines and perspectives.

After a plenary session around online teaching, with a look at the projects of this year’s Innovation Scholars and Mentors, we broke into small group discussions around fostering academic community, communicating effectively with students, creating useful videos, using ThingLink, and user-generated media.

In the keynote by John Seely Brown, we were invited to consider for 21st-century learners the role of play and imagination, the importance of tinkering to stimulate lifelong learning, blended epistemologies in which learners create both content and context, and participatory knowledge strategies.

We heard from some of you after OLIS that you felt more encouraged to offer students a framework within which they can “tinker” or “play” to find more depth of knowledge, and that you were inspired to look for ways to allow students to participate more deeply in class activities.  One participant remarked, “I already focus on imagination and play in my courses, but I will do so even more and will guide students to reflect on how flexible thinking will help their future success.”

We’re providing you the OLIS Survey Results so you can learn how the unconference was experienced and what new ideas have emerged.  For an “in the moment” read, take a look at #olis2017 live tweeting, as well as the photo stream.

We look forward to exploring with you the potential outcomes (teaching ideas? tools? initiatives?) of OLIS and hope you will not only join us next year, but bring even more of your colleagues!  In the meantime, we would love to hear from you about how you are moving forward with exploration and implementation of new tools and ideas in your teaching.


What Innovation Looks Like

On January 26, 2017, eight Innovation Scholars and three Innovation Mentors were honored by the College of Continuing Studies (CCS) for their forward-thinking proposals to bring innovation to online teaching and learning.  Not long after, they served on a panel at the opening plenary session of the Online Learning Innovation Summit (#olis2017), jointly hosted by CCS, The College of Arts and Sciences, and UA Libraries.

The 2017 Innovation Scholars have proposed a range of projects aimed at increasing student engagement, building academic community and exploring emerging technologies in their online courses, and will work with the Innovation Team throughout the year to bring these projects to fruition. Innovation Mentors, recognized for the innovations they have already brought to their online courses, will be available to the online teaching community through posts on this blog, and in a fall workshop.  You can learn more about their projects here.  Subscribe to this blog for updates as their projects progress!

One of the greatest outcomes thus far has been the community that is forming around innovation in teaching, with all of its questions and possibilities. With two recent opportunities to come together, the Innovation Scholars and Mentors have not only shared their own projects, but have begun to explore ways in which ideas from one could be applicable to another–in other words, their ideas have the potential for multiple applications, and innovation is as contagious as we might have hoped!

Click here or on any of the reception photos below to see the full gallery. Photos taken at OLIS will be available soon. (If you would like higher-resolution versions of any of these photos, please contact the Innovation Team!)

Innovation at the Starting Gate

I’ve sometimes wondered how I would respond if asked to name one innovation I would bring to a course I teach.  What would it be, and what would it accomplish? Would it solve a problem, serve as an experiment, increase student engagement? What would motivate me to pursue my innovation?  How would my students respond to it?

These are some of the questions I have been asking my colleagues and now have a chance to extend to all faculty at The University of Alabama.  The reason is because I am now leading an Innovation Team effort. For me, it’s an extraordinary opportunity to work with faculty from across UA who want to make their online courses more engaging, more student-centered, more technologically current, more fresh and inspiring.

Dean Edelbrock has charged our newly-formed Innovation Team with bringing innovation to online degree programs at every level—from promotion of specific courses and the degree programs to which they pertain, to better engagement of students within those courses and programs, to fostering broad academic communities that endure outside the online classroom, and to improving retention and engaging alumni.

Who we are

So let me start by telling you who I am and what I hope to share with you in this blog and through our Innovation Team efforts as we work to support your hopes and needs for innovation work in online education.  I come to the team with an academic background in the humanities (music history and medieval studies), and with experience teaching and cultivating academic communities both online and in the classroom.  My Ph.D. work at New York University was cross-disciplinary and data-driven, and has contributed to my strong interest both in technologies for teaching and in metadata applications for research. My Innovation Team colleague Andrew Richardson brings to the table an academic background in higher education administration and communication, as well as experience in computer programming, marketing, media production, and many other technical skills. Together, we are excited by the daily opportunity to brainstorm ideas and develop implementations for online teaching and learning.

Starting in the Sandbox

I want to share with you some of the things we are working on – so that you have an idea of the kinds of materials we hope to make available for experimentation, along with our time and support.  At the moment, Andrew and I are focusing on concepts and materials we believe could be applied broadly to various subject areas and student groups.  We recently came across a set of geo-mapping tools in Leaflet and Mapbox, and found these to have interesting capabilities not only as presentation items or learning objects, but also as components of interactive assignments or group projects.  We are preparing to pilot community-building tools like Slack and GroupMe because we see how these could enable both individual faculty and entire degree programs to nurture virtual academic communities that persist beyond the online classroom. These and other tools will be featured in the Innovation Sandbox, an ever-growing repository that we hope will both inspire you and invite further conversation.

Hearing from You

Most importantly, we want to hear from you! We think of ourselves as your Innovation Team, which is to say we look forward to working with any and all who would like to explore with us the potentials of technology in the online classroom.

Please do not hesitate to ask questions and share your ideas here on our blog.  We would also be pleased to visit by phone, email or meet with you in person. Here’s to the grand adventure!