Beau went to Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, WA. He became a VISTA because it is giving him the opportunity to do real, meaningful work around social service, specifically access to higher education, and to gain valuable experience as he considers a career in education. After VISTA, Beau writes he plans to “join a graduate program, likely a Master’s of Education or Master’s of Arts in Teaching, continue my work with Big Picture Learning and the College Unbound program, begin mediating in Providence, learn Spanish, run a marathon. That’s a one year plan. Two year plan to come.” Beau is originally from Ketchikan, Alaska and once had a black bear tear the door of his first car, a maroon 1987 Toyota Corolla. Just a day in the life in Alaska.
Who thought ten or even five years ago that the primary medium for education could no longer be a book but a MOOC? How many people even knew about MOOCs? I didn’t. But I’ve learned quickly serving as the Assistant Coordinator of Online Systems at Big Picture Learning, a nearly two decade old education non-profit based in Providence, RI, which entered the postsecondary landscape four years ago with College Unbound (CU). CU is a self-directed and student-centered Bachelor’s degree program for adult learners, where personal learning plans and projects take precedent over courses, textbooks and exams.
MOOCs – massively open online courses. Edtech – education technology. LMSs – learning management systems. Open source. Google Suite. Wikis. E-portfolios. These are terms that I’ve built into my vocabulary in my seven months of service, and they are part of a growing movement. There’s a burgeoning industry around education, in both K-12 and postsecondary, composed of startups, legacy service and product providers, entrepreneurs and disruptive innovators. There’s a million products and services to choose from. Most if not all colleges or universities have technology departments to sort through the spectrum of systems and services to deliver content and provide management assessment tools for faculty and students. College Unbound has me. While I work under the direction of the Director of Communications, I play the role of IT department to meet the needs of a unique organization and program.
My VISTA Assignment Description (VAD) is to plan and implement online systems for CU. With a program to run, currently with fifty-two students in Rhode Island, and an associated cohort of ten students in New Orleans and another cohort of 9 in Manchester, New Hampshire, the Big Picture Learning/CU staff and faculty, many who are adjunct, don’t have the capacity to investigate the seemingly endless and, frankly, overwhelming market of education tools to find the right solution for a program based around individual projects, self-directed learning and pursuing personal and professional passions and interests, all while attempting to maintain close contact with academic faculty. As Dennis Littky, the Director of CU, often says, “we want high touch, high tech.” Okay. To do that, as part of the VISTA project, CU is pioneering a new social learning network called TheCN (Course Networking LLC). Part social network (it’s ‘Facebooky’, part learning management system (it was developed by the creator of Sakai), TheCN is a completely new learning technology that promotes public sharing and social interaction.
After months of exploring various learning management and communications systems, I have been able to have an immediate systemic impact with College Unbound through leading the integration of TheCN in the CU program. Working closely with the team at TheCN, we were able get all CU students online in a matter of weeks over winter break. Consequentially, TheCN has taken CU to the next level, allowing for rich discussions between students and faculty anytime, anywhere. Students are more engaged with their education and the CU learning community, which we believe will lead to greater degree completion. In addition, CU is continuing the use of Google Documents for portfolios so that students have a solid record of their real-world work, for their college career and life career.
My service at College Unbound has provided a bounty of opportunities for learning in an effort to combat poverty through post-secondary success. While immense challenges have existed in working to develop online systems on a programmatic level, with no prior IT experience, the reward has been observing the new tech skills developed by the adult learners and the interactions happening between students and faculty, some who had never used social media. As one CU student said, “I feel so much more connected to my peers on TheCN.” And, as one tech-phobic faculty said, “I’m addicted to the CN!” No doubt, the response has been positive. The challenges now are to maintain the engagement, assess the impact and improve the systems.
I encourage you to visit www.thecn.com and join the learning!