The Personnel Development in Special Education seminar (SEDP 706) is a core doctoral-level course offered by the Department of Special Education and Disability Policy in the School of Education at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond, Virginia. Drs. Evelyn Reed and Frances Smith use the seminar as a means to involve VCU doctoral students in the Global UDL Virtual Classroom, a collaborative effort of Virginia Commonwealth University and Mico University College in Kingston, Jamaica. VCU doctoral students help build and evaluate the open “virtual classroom,” where Jamaican educators can learn about, share their experiences with, and pilot innovative pedagogical methods related to universal learning design (UDL).
(The basic, essential, or enduring part)
On-going, “real world” projects lend themselves to Connected Learning. Reed, Smith, and their Jamaican colleagues intend the Global UDL Virtual Classroom to be a dynamic educational community. As such, it offers diverse learning opportunities for the doctoral students who participate in its ongoing development and assessment. According to Reed, “These are not short projects…they go on for years,” which allows for varied student skill development and engagement beyond the length of a semester.
Teaching through “real world” projects is challenging but rewarding. “Being a flexible educator can be hard,” says Reed. “I talk to the doctoral students about how this course is challenging for me too.” According to Reed and Smith, it has been challenging to let go of feeling responsible for the transmission of a pre-planned body of knowledge to the students. “Although allowing the real world experiences to guide the learning is rewarding, it still requires significant thoughtfulness and planning on the part of the instructor. Knowing how much to do and how much not to do is hard,” says Reed.
(How digital technology optimized course impact)
As a means of educating through modeling, Reed and Smith have always actively engaged VCU doctoral students in their scholarly activities. When the Global UDL Virtual Classroom project received funding and formal international support, it seemed natural to involve students by incorporating the project into a doctoral course (SEDP 706). Doctoral students in the seminar are tasked with the virtual classroom’s content creation, curation, or assessment, all while receiving and responding to online feedback from their Jamaican colleagues. Students also blog about their learning and complete a final paper on a related topic of their choice.
In Connected Learning, “openly networked” refers to the opportunity for students to connect classroom learning with other aspects of living, working, or “doing” across space, time, and spheres of influence or community. The use of digital technologies often makes open networking possible, because it provides incomparable access for learners across both space and time.
Networking across space. Learning experiences that network across space provide students with the opportunity to see their place in a larger, sometimes global, community of practice. The Global UDL Virtual Classroom is a WordPress site, chosen because it is freely available and has the technological capacity required for the resources that make up much of the classroom content. Using WordPress allows participants to access the site worldwide, and the scale of project inspires graduate students to work harder and learn more deeply. Moreover, just as classroom participants can access the site worldwide, VCU graduate students can access their “course materials” from any place they happen to be, potentially increasing time-on-task through convenience.
Networking across time. Learning experiences that network across time provide students with models of or opportunities for lifelong learning. Some students are so engaged with the subject matter of SEDP 706 that they continue to revise their final papers and ask Reed and Smith for input after the semester is over. “This sort of project certainly takes you a long way from the notion that scholarly writing is finished at the end of a semester.” Because the Global UDL Virtual Classroom is an evolving, on-going project it will always provide students with new opportunities to learn. Students may engage in project-related coursework multiple times; for example they might focus on curriculum development one semester and educational assessment another. Students may also enter the project as classroom participants long after they have completed their own formal schooling.
Networking across spheres of influence. Learning experiences that network across spheres of influence allow students to connect their studies with “the real world” or other aspects of their lives. Learning through work on a “real” project inherently crosses spheres of influence in ways that other educational experiences can only attempt to approximate.
Making the Connection
(How SEDP 706 embodies Connected Learning)
Learning through the Global UDL Virtual Classroom Project is:
Participating in a peer-supported community. Connected learning experiences are participatory, encouraging students to learn by providing and receiving feedback to and from multiple sources. Reed and Smith feel that peer-assessment is an effective form of formative assessment, and they structure the final paper to include a formal process of peer-review before it is turned in for grading. This simulates the process many of the doctoral students will encounter throughout their careers.
SEDP 706 also involves blogging on a public WordPress platform, a practice that Reed and Smith claims is a richer educational experience than turning in a paper-based reflective journal to a single professor. “Not only are the students reading and learning from each other’s insights, but they are also practicing their online scholarly voice. This is a skillset in itself. How will they use social media or blogging in their teaching? The practice of blogging allows students to establish who they are as an educator in the digital age.”
Doing with purpose. SEPD 706 is an example of how seminars and special topics courses can be designed around the scholarly activity of faculty. However, teaching through projects requires educators and students to remain flexible about learning objectives and outcomes: “This is dynamic, organic learning in which students get to see how what they read is applied in the real world. Because it is a real project, we have all the wonderful opportunities that the real world gives us – the often unexpected and often expansive need to learn new skills and do new things that we as instructors cannot begin to anticipate.” Although Reed and Smith had to learn how to “let go” of traditional perceptions about responsibility for delivering pre-planned content to students, they were rewarded with seeing students take responsibility for their own learning.
Doctoral students enrolled in SEDP 706 are all dedicated educators in their own rights and are inspired by the needs of other teachers. However, the doctoral students enrolled in SEDP 706 always bring diverse interests, professional goals, and skill sets with them. One SEDP 706 cohort might include a public school teacher with access to K-12 classrooms, a speech and language practitioner, and a rehabilitation researcher with excellent computing skills. Reed and Smith value diversity in their classroom because it increases everyone’s capacity to learn from each other while working efficiently on the project. Students contribute in ways that suit their personal preference, and in doing so they practice the art of collaboration and embody the power of collective intelligence.
Openly networked for greater impact. SEPD 706 provides evidence that real world projects situated in digital environments have profound potential for creating openly networked learning (as discussed in detail in “Zooming in”). However, open networks also promote sound academic practice as well as connected learning. Reed and Smith model open access practices and advocate open source technology for students and colleagues: “There is definitely a social justice component to our work,” they say. “Open networks not only promote equitable education for everyone, but also sound scholarship; the development of UDL pedagogy requires input from a diverse set of contributors. Open networks are a viable way to discover and connect voices.”