Our Summer cMOOC: Living the Dreams

Actually, that’s the short title. If this were a book (which it is, kind of), and it had a full title (which it does, broadly considered), it would go like this::

UNIV 200: Inquiry and the Craft of Argument. Digital Engagement Pilot. Alternate title: “Living the Dreams: Digital Investigation and Unfettered Minds.” Organizing principle: Thought Vectors In Concept Space. TLT (top-level tag): thoughtvectors (on Twitter: #thoughtvectors — see also @thoughtvectors — coming soon, thoughtvectors.net).

Many books in the Renaissance had such long titles, so why not our course?

There’s a lot to the story of how we got here, but here’s a quick timeline for now:

1. The initial idea came to me during a solitary lunch at Chipotle in late August, 2013. I brought the idea right after lunch to Jon Becker, VCU’s Interim Director of Online Academic Programming. Jon tweeted the after-lunch conversation. I think that tweet’s flying around here somewhere–I’ll have to ask Jon for it, so we can have it for the archives.

2. Now comes a long incubation time. The big haunting unresolved question: what course is the best way to get at, share, frame, experience the idea? That choice is recursive, obviously, as we were about to discover.

3. The next big refinement comes during lunch again. (Moral: eat lunch every day, at least once a day, more if possible–a corollary to the put-a-shower-in-your-office idea generator I’ll call Kay’s Law, after Alan Kay’s strategy–but I digress.) This time I was lunching with three brilliant colleagues: Chip German, Shelli Fowler, and Derek Bruff. They asked me to explain the idea behind the summer cMOOC. They kept asking good questions, collegial questions. I never felt trapped, set up, “critiqued,” or “examined.” Because of their curiosity, friendship, intelligence, and openness, I could find a moment of “beginner’s mind,” indeed a moment in which I had “a mind lively and at ease.” And I realized: this could be a course in research. This could be a course in inquiry and the craft of argument. UNIV 200. Many miles to cross after this, but now I had a compass. An exciting, daunting moment. Time for more incubation, more thought. (And time here to record my deep gratitude to Chip, Shelli, and Derek for their generous brilliance–when the student was ready, the teachers appeared.)

4. From November through February, I’m talking to as many stakeholders as possible, exploring possibilities, learning about complexities and complications, being patiently tutored in the many things I had to learn. Among my many generous teachers to be named in future posts, I must here name two key teachers who emerged for me at this moment. One is Tom Woodward, who joined Online Academic Programs in November. As the ‘net well knows, if Tom joins, many possibilities appear. “Many” roughly equals “infinite,” give or take a few. (I could say more but he would fix me with icy stares at our next staff meeting, so I’ll leave off. For now. You hear me, Tom? For now.) The other is Patty Strong, Director of Core Writing, who oversees UNIV 200 in University College. Patty patiently mapped out both the shoals and the shipping lanes, and I’m convinced this project would never have gotten into the sparkling blue water without her guidance.

5. Sometime in February or March–I’ll have to consult my calendar for a date–we began to put the core team together. In alpha order, the instructors of record are Jon Becker, Bonnie Boaz, Ryan Cales, Gardner Campbell, Jason Coats, and Jessica Gordon. Chief unindicted co-conspirator (oh those Watergate memories) and lead innovation cook: Tom Woodward. Archdesigner, Meme queen, and SCUBA officer: Alana Robinson. Gold-shod mediation engine by digital nonfiction yarn spinner Molly Ransone.

AND architectural consultant and chief musher: Alan Levine.

And many others to be named in future posts.

And if I may be permitted one more allusion to the past that maps our future …

On the back of the Jefferson Airplane’s epic and epochal Surrealistic Pillow, there’s a credit for “Spiritual Direction” given to Jerry Garcia. For the back of the album cover of this cMOOC (there will be a vinyl version of our course, someday), the credit for “Spiritual Direction” goes to Christina Engelbart, Executive Director of the Doug Engelbart Institute. We’ve just spent three days with Christina, and I assure you that the spiritual direction she has provided has taken this whole project to a new level, just as her father’s work did for my own thinking ten years ago–and has continued to do in all the years following.

What is this course? What do we hope will happen? How have we described it to the 120 VCU students (20 to a section, all sections visible to and interacting with each other) who will take it for credit, and to the potentially global network of participants who will follow along, contribute, and learn with us? Here’s the back of the flyer we distributed at registration time:

thoughtvectorsVBush_Page_11 Here’s the action item: wake up and dream.

And here’s an obverse for one of the flyers:

thoughtvectorsVBush_Page_10

And here, yesterday, is most of the core team, gathered in VCU’s new Learning Studio (an incubator classroom):

Digital Engagement Pilot core team

L-R: Jessica Gordon, Jason Coates, Bonnie Boaz, Gardner Campbell, Jon Becker, Christina Engelbart, Tom Woodward, Ryan Cales. Not pictured: Patty Strong (get well soon, Patty!)

Why “thought vectors in concept space”? Because that’s how Doug Engelbart envisioned the mental environment that personal, interactive, networked computing would make possible, an environment in which our “collective IQ” could realize itself and rise to its full and necessary potential. For me, “thought vectors” are the lines of inquiry, wonder, puzzlement, and creative desire emerging from individual minds. We launch our thought vectors into “concept space,” the grand commons of human invention and communication, the space in which we build our symbols and work toward mutual intelligibility, mutual hope, mutual inspiration. If the thought vectors are weak or stunted, the concept space will be too, and vice-versa.

For me, the meta-inquiry that the course considers is this: can school in a digital age help to strengthen thought vectors and concept space in uniquely effective ways, especially at this developmental moment in our students’ learning?

I think so.

I’m excited to try.

More soon.

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