Holton, Valerie, Laura Gogia, and Tessa McKenzie "Collaborative Curiosity: A Connected-Learning Course on Community-Engaged Research." PUBLIC: Arts, Design, Humanities 4, no. 1 (2017). http://public.imaginingamerica.org/blog/article/collaborative-curiosity-a-connected-learning-course-on-community-engaged-research./.
Collaborative Curiosity: A Connected-Learning Course on Community-Engaged Research


Increasingly, research universities are promoting community-engaged research (CEnR) as a means to increase the relevance of research on contemporary questions, as well as to enhance translation and application of scholarly research findings into the public domain. Consequently, there is a growing interest in developing higher education courses that prepare future scholars to collaborate with community stakeholders through research design, implementation, and dissemination (Gibson 2012; Stanton, 2012). Collaborative Curiosity: Designing Community-Engaged Research (Collaborative Curiosity) was an open, fully online course that aimed to introduce doctoral-level students to the design and implementation of CEnR. The course featured an openly networked connected-learning instructional design. This pedagogical approach leveraged the digital architecture and participatory culture of online spaces to promote more relevant, authentic, and personally meaningful learning. The purpose of this paper is to describe the theoretical underpinnings, instructional design strategies, and learning outcomes of the Collaborative Curiosity course. Our reflections on the course suggest that openly networked connected learning, with its foundation in and expressions of digital participatory culture, both conflicts with and complements the underlying principles of CEnR itself. If recognized and made explicit, the resulting tension has the potential to challenge and trigger reflection in ways that create a unique and meaningful learning experience for instructors and students alike.

Origins of the Collaborative Curiosity Course

In the summers of 2015 and 2016, a team at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) launched a digital learning experiment. Our course, Collaborative Curiosity: Designing Community-Engaged Research, was an eight-week, doctoral-level, openly networked connected-learning course. We hoped the course would further the growing interest in community-engaged research (CEnR) at our university, which is also reflected in the national trend toward the use of CEnR in dissertation research (Jaeger, Tuchmayer, and Morin 2014). The team that developed the course included Valerie Holton, Director of Community-Engaged Research; Tessa McKenzie, Research Coordinator; Laura Gogia, a fellow at AltLab; Jennifer Jettner, PhD student in Social Work; Jennifer Early, PhD student in Health Services Organization and Research; Meghan Resler, graduate student in Social Work; and Tom Woodward, Associate Director of Learning Innovation. We also received expert assistance from our university librarians. While we did not have a community partner as a core member of the team, we intentionally consulted with community members in the course development, and several of us had extensive and recent experience in community-based nonprofits.

Our aim for the course was to introduce CEnR design, implementation, and dissemination primarily to doctoral students, as well as other interested individuals in the academy and broader community. We broadly defined CEnR as research that benefits society as well as the academic discipline(s) through a collaborative process that engages academic-based researchers, community members, and students. The intensity of collaboration, the ways in which the collaboration occurs, and the individuals and organizations involved in CEnR vary based on the research questions, preferences, and capacities of all the partners. At its best, CEnR enhances the relevance and impact of the research by incorporating questions and approaches that are responsive to community needs, increase mutual capacity through stronger partnerships, attract and blend resources from diverse stakeholders, and increase opportunities to translate research into action (Jagosh et al. 2012).

We intentionally designed the course to engage students and participants through openly networked connected learning, an innovative approach that leverages digital architecture, open digital spaces, and digital participatory culture to facilitate authentic learning experiences and collaborative knowledge construction (Kumpulainen and Sefton-Green 2014). Proponents of this approach suggest that digital affordances such as hyperlinks, tags, hashtags, and RSS (Really Simple Syndication) provide opportunities for students to make strategic connections across concepts, contexts, and networks of people (Campbell 2016). Additionally, when these digital affordances are employed on the open web (and not in a closed learning management system), the possibilities for serendipitous discovery, opportunity, and learning expand exponentially because the affordances allow learners to access resources and audiences that would otherwise be inaccessible or possibly even unimaginable (Ito et al. 2012; Groom and Lamb 2014). Finally, open digital environments tend to promote what Henry Jenkins (Jenkins et al. 2009) has termed “digital participatory culture,” or

. . . relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices. A participatory culture is also one in which members believe their contributions matter and feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created). (3)

The course instructors viewed the openly networked connected learning approach for teaching to be a good fit for exploring CEnR for several reasons. First, the course was part of a larger, openly networked connected-learning initiative that was taking place at VCU, which aimed to study the pedagogical approach as a means to promote student engagement, integrative thinking, and digital literacies (Office of the Provost 2014). This allowed us to situate the course within this dynamic context of resources and activity. Second, the instructors recognized both digital participatory culture and CEnR expressly challenge individuals to (re)consider assumptions about community, knowledge construction, and power. We anticipated this would give rise to complementary dynamics and tensions between the course content and pedagogy that would create a richer learning experience. Finally, we thought that questions about audience, voice, and vulnerability would likely emerge as faculty and students built an online community focused on engaging communities. These, in turn, would drive deep and meaningful conversations about the fundamental nature of CEnR: How do the relationships between belonging, identity, access, power, and knowledge really play out in collaborative research efforts with diverse stakeholders, or even among members of the course? In this article, we describe the development and implementation of the course so that it might inform other efforts that use digital spaces to bridge academic and community learning and inquiry. Readers will find links to course materials, related scholarship, and other resources throughout the paper.


Pedagogical Framework

Openly networked connected learning is an evolving digital instructional design that emerges from the integration of two complementary but epistemologically distinct pedagogies: connected and connectivist learning. As described in Ito et al. (2012), connected learning instructional designs are characterized as accessible and inclusive, facilitating diverse pathways to academic success. The method is founded on the work of early progressive educators such as Dewey ([1916] 1985) and Montessori ([1912] 2013), as well as contemporary ethnographic research on informal learning in digital spaces (Gee 2005; Ito et al. 2009). The underlying assumption of connected learning is that educators should empower students to find productive ways to “connect” their personal passions, identities, and peer cultures with their formal academic or professional endeavors. The goal is for students to create more personally meaningful, holistic, and authentic learning experiences (Connected Learning Alliance 2015; Kumpulainen and Seton-Green 2014).

Although connected learning design is not defined by the presence of digital technologies, connected-learning scholars and practitioners often draw on the values and activities seen in digital participatory cultures to support creative collaboration, self-expression, and networking because the method offers increased access to mentors and social capital (Ching et al. 2015; Garcia et al. 2014). Connected-learning values include autonomy, inclusivity, creativity, and authenticity; and common learning activities include curation and remixing, collaboration and crowdsourcing, self-directed and multimodal expression (Campbell 2016; Jenkins 2009).

By comparison, connectivist approaches to teaching and learning primarily emerged from the field of open education in the mid-2000s (Downes 2006; Siemens 2004). Although the unquestioned conflation of “open,” “accessible,” and “digital” has triggered recent objections among theorists of critical pedagogy (e.g., Gourlay 2015; Knox 2013), the field of open education has always been closely tied to digital technologies as a potential pathway to sustainability and scalability (McConnell, Hodgson, and Dirckinck-Holmfeld 2011). Connectivist-centered, open educators tend to draw from chaos (Gleick 1987), actor network (Barabási 2002), and emergence and complexity theories. The latter describes the relationship between humans and their technologies as coevolutionary, shaping even as they are shaped by each other (Engelbart 1962; McLuhan, Fiore, and Agel 1967). As such, connectivists believe that the information saturation, complexity, and rapid change that characterize increasingly ubiquitous digital environments are altering the way humans think, learn, and behave (Siemens 2004). The purpose of connectivist-learning designs is to provide opportunities for learners to practice acts of filtering, curating, connecting, remixing, and sharing information across networks of institutions and people, so that they might thrive in all digitally enhanced environments (Siemens 2004).

The best documented connectivist-learning design is the cMOOC (connectivist Massively Open Online Course), first created and implemented by George Siemens and Stephen Downes at the University of Manitoba (Canada) in 2008. Although not the first “massive” online course or “open” online learning experience, it was the first course widely recognized for combining the two concepts, allowing for high levels of open (public) participation alongside and equal to credit-bearing academic enrollment. The learner populations mingled, creating and engaging in learning activities across multiple digital platforms. Each of these platforms supported a different type of learning task, such as real-time conversation, long-form writing, document curation, video conferencing or streaming, etc. (Saadatmand 2017).

Although contemporary cMOOCs may or may not be associated with educational institutions or academic credit, there are certain characteristics that signal a typical cMOOC design. cMOOCs are positioned on the open web with options for public (open) participation. They privilege open educational resources whenever possible, so that course materials may be as accessible to as many participants as possible. They provide options for different levels or types of engagement, so that the course can engage participants of diverse baseline skill sets and motivations. cMOOCs emphasize learning tasks that capitalize on digital affordances, such as collaborative curation, group annotation or writing, or blogging. They engage learners on multiple digital platforms to support varied approaches to learning. Finally, cMOOCs typically have a central course website or “hub” that can serve as a primary location of instructor announcements, a schedule and/or map for learning activities, and an aggregator for learning products, so that participants can begin to make sense of how they—as a group—are constructing knowledge around course content (Saadatmand 2017).

In our own case, Collaborative Curiosity emerged as part of a larger university effort to foster the development of openly networked connected-learning courses, or “connected courses,” driven by the VCU Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) with support from the Division of Learning Innovation and Student Success (Office of the Provost 2014). As part of this initiative, the Division established the Academic Learning Transformation Lab (ALTLab) to work with faculty to create course experiences that combined the principles of connected and connectivist learning to enhance integrative thinking, digital and information literacies, scholarly engagement, and success among faculty and students. The characteristics of specific connected courses varied according to instructor comfort, discipline, and the degree level of student participants. For example, while all connected courses were positioned on the open web, not all allowed for active participation by the public. However, all connected courses, including Collaborative Curiosity, supported the interest-driven, creative, multimodal expression typically associated with connected learning, while maintaining a digital classroom structure reminiscent of a cMOOC (Gogia 2016a).


Course Description

The Office of Community-Engaged Research in the VCU Division of Community Engagement (DCE) first offered Collaborative Curiosity in the summer of 2015 as an eight-week, fully online, doctoral-level pilot course. The course was offered again in summer of 2016. While contributing to the university's goal of increasing online and connected-learning offerings, the course also responded to growing faculty and student interest in CEnR and the university-wide identified need for more summer and research methods-oriented classes. This section describes the evolution of the course design, people involved in its development and delivery, and recruitment efforts.

Course Design

We organized Collaborative Curiosity through a university-hosted, public-facing WordPress site. This housed all course documents, including the syllabus; technical, logistical, and explanatory materials; and hyperlinks to required readings or other content (see Fig. 1). The visual syllabus (see Fig. 2) embedded in the course website provides an overview of the course objectives, guiding questions, activities, and desired learning outcomes. The overall course design resulted from a series of consultations with community-engaged researchers and teaching specialists, a review of the literature on teaching CEnR (including textbooks and syllabi), and feedback from related trainings and workshops conducted by the instructors at VCU. As a doctoral research methods course, we chose to structure student learning around a generic grant proposal because we targeted students enrolled in research-intensive degree programs who would likely have a need or interest in preparing proposals to support their work. The content for this eight-week course, therefore, was organized into seven learning modules (see Collaborative Curiosity Learning Modules chart) that aligned with the common components of a grant proposal. An instructor posted a draft of the course syllabus for comment by potential students and participants on a blog that was promoted through Twitter and email. We then integrated feedback into the final syllabus.

Figure 1: The Collaborative Curiosity course website.
Graphics by Meghan Resler.
Figure 2: The Collaborative Curiosity visual syllabus.
Graphics by Meghan Resler.


Collaborative Curiosity Learning Modules

Module Topics
Origins and Principles of CEnR

▹ Community engagement in higher education

▹ Origins and principles of CEnR

▹ Case examples of CEnR

Perspectives and Ethical Considerations

▹ Power dynamics and social justice

▹ Ethical and human subjects considerations

Designing CEnR

▹ Spectrum of CEnR

▹ International perspectives of CEnR

▹ CEnR grant writing

Building and Maintaining Collaborative Relationships

▹ Creating a research team

▹ Qualities of strong partnerships

▹ Cultural considerations

CEnR Methods

▹ Community-based participator research (CBPR)

▹ Participatory action research (PAR)

CEnR Data Collection and Analysis

▹ Engagement of all partners in collecting and analyzing data

▹ Photovoice

▹ Civic media

Dissemination and Translation of Findings

▹ Best practices in dissemination, including shared authorship

▹ Alternative dissemination platforms

▹ Ways to share information


The learning activities fell into six types, and we provide examples of each throughout the paper:

  1. Grant Proposal: Blogging a grant proposal that would support a CEnR project (see CEnR Grant Proposal Assignment). For enrolled VCU students, the proposal typically focused on a dissertation project. The proposal was assigned in weekly sections: identification of research topic, research question(s), literature review, development of a statement of need, research design and methods, data collection and analysis plan, dissemination plan. Two of the assignments prompted structured reflection on the previous work and feedback received via the blog and instructors' comments, and provided an opportunity to revise the work. Each assignment required an explicit discussion of the role of the community partner(s) in that phase of the research project.

  2. Intellections: Blogging reflective posts that encouraged critical thinking and could lead to descriptions of personal “aha” moments experienced during the course. These posts encouraged students and participants to explore the affordances of the web and to develop their ability to communicate and connect through an online platform.

  3. Open Educational Resource Review: Reading or watching required course materials, which were exclusively open educational resources, including CEnR-related peer-reviewed articles and book chapters. The instructors also produced and facilitated live-streamed and recorded panel discussions over Google Hangouts Air involving involved community leaders, organizers, and researchers.

  4. Resource Curation: Curating CEnR-related articles, websites, and other educational resources through a group Diigo account that continues to be publicly available.

  5. Twitter Discussions: Participating in weekly, synchronous Twitter discussions focused on a weekly topic and assigned course materials. These scheduled, one-hour events were structured with guiding questions released by the instructors every 15 minutes and used the hashtag #CuriousCollab.

  6. Creative Makes: Weekly blog posts requiring approximately fifteen minutes to complete, and challenging students and participants to describe a core CEnR concept (e.g., community, partnership) through original or properly cited images, music, videos, and other forms of art, and a brief narrative.


We explained our decision to organize the course content and learning activities around a grant proposal in this way:

CEnR Grant Proposal Assignment

Funding proposals are essential (and often intimidating) aspects of developing and implementing community-engaged research. Upon reviewing the weekly assignments, you might notice that many of the weekly assignments mirror the sections of a typical community-engaged research grant application. However, we added a twist: We want you to focus on developing your communication skills—that is your ability to communicate your research in terms that lay people can understand. After all, research is only as good as it can be understood by all people—inside and outside your area of expertise. Brevity, clarity, lack of jargon, and effective use of illustrations, videos, graphics, and other non-text-based elements, are all important skill sets to have. Alan Alda shares some advice on how scientists can communicate more effectively with the general public.

This learning activity has three parts:

Weekly Posts

Each week you will post a blog that mirrors sections of a typical grant application. The weekly assignments will encourage you to explore the role of the community partner and the collaboration in the development and proposal of a community-engaged research protocol. More information can be found in the Learning Modules.

Grant Reviewer

Each week you will serve as a grant reviewer because there is no better way to learn how to write a research proposal than to review a research proposal. Review panels are the gatekeepers who decide who will get the money to fund research, and it is a large amount of money, as universities consume over $67 billion in R&D funds annually (National Science Foundation 2015). This opportunity will provide you with the chance to develop a more thorough understanding of the grant-seeking process and to get a sense of the things that work and what definitely does not work. Strong research questions will stand out and give you ideas for developing your research questions. We will learn together in this course as we do in our community-engaged research.

Using this grant review rubric, you will provide feedback each week to an assigned proposal. You will use the course Google calendar for schedules and the Learning Modules for details.

Reflect, Connect, and Synthesize

The development of a community-engaged research proposal requires just that, development. It is a process that is informed by active engagement with previous work, critical reflection, integration of new knowledge, testing, and creativity. Therefore, you will review all your previous blog posts (i.e., Research Proposal, Intellections, Creative Makes, and any other blogs you may have written related to community-engaged research) and tweets. As you reread them, reflect on the principles of community-engaged research, partnerships, and your knowledge of research methods.

You will compose a short analysis and reflection on your community-engaged research proposal. If appropriate, you will also revise aspects of or the whole proposal. More information will be found in the Learning Modules.


Blog posts and tweets produced through these activities were aggregated using the hashtag #CuriousCollab, and displayed on the course website through an RSS feed (the Bloggregate) and an embedded Twitter feed. Group Twitter activity was also displayed via TAGS Explorer, a tool developed by Martin Hawksey (see Fig. 7). The first iteration of the course, summer of 2015, encouraged students to comment on the blog posts of the other students and participants. The instructors subsequently noted that students did not comment adequately, so the second iteration required students to comment on each other’s posts, and we provided guidance on how to engage in critical conversations in a public space in order to enhance the work of their colleagues. In both iterations, the instructors commented on student and participant posts, and in some situations they communicated with students in private (email, phone, and in person) to address confidential issues (i.e., academic performance concerns, students' personal situations impacting their learning). The instructors also offered, and several students elected, to meet in person or talk on the phone about their dissertation, career development, or the course. Grades were communicated through restricted Google Sheets that were shared between the instructors and each student.



The course was structured so that people could participate in ways that were most meaningful, relevant, and feasible to them. As a result, we defined participation broadly, as visualized in Figure 3. Levels of participation ranged from following course activities to creating and disseminating content through various platforms. One collaborator, Dr. Gogia, conducted qualitative and quantitative analysis of participation in the course’s first iteration as part of her dissertation research on openly networked connected learning (Gogia 2016a). She identified four different types of course participants: 1. instructional team; 2. enrolled students; 3. open participants; and 4. other participants. The permeability of the course's open spaces allowed for multi-way engagement among these groups. Students were provided with opportunities to learn “beyond the classroom” through exposure to different perspectives, additional resources, and relevant “real-world applications." In addition, open and other participants had opportunities to study, engage, and learn with them (Gogia 2016a).

Figure 3: Levels of participation in Collaborative Curiosity.
Graphics by Jennifer Early.


Instructional Team. In its first iteration, summer 2015, the course was facilitated by two instructors (Valerie Holton and Tessa McKenzie) and three graduate assistants (Jennifer Jettner, Jennifer Early, and Meghan Resler). The instructors developed the course content, maintained their own course blogs, commented on student and participant blogs, engaged students and participants through Twitter, and graded all assignments. The assistants played semi-formalized roles in recruiting, engaging, and troubleshooting for participants and students (Gogia 2016a).

In its second iteration, summer 2016, the instructors facilitated the course with significantly less support from the graduate assistants due to changes in their assistantships. Based on student feedback from the first iteration, the course instructors, along with Dr. Gogia, developed the role of the “connected-learning coach.” This involved offering formative feedback and technical support around connected-learning activities for both participants and instructors. Dr. Gogia assumed this role, and engaged course participants in Twitter discussions (outside of the scheduled hour-long course discussions) on the nuances of digital workflows, Twitter, and self-promotion. She also performed a social network analysis (SNA) of the course, and reached out to individual participants to assist them interpreting and reflecting on their roles within the network. Finally, she commented (via her own blog, as well as on the posts of others) on the digital connections participants were making through their use of hyperlinks or embedded materials to document their thought connections across modalities, disciplines, and contexts (Gogia 2016b).

Enrolled Students. A total of 18 VCU doctoral students (10 in 2015 and 8 in 2016) formally enrolled in the course. In order to receive credit, they were required to complete all the assignments with the expectation of receiving formalized feedback and grades for their work. Among the students’ home disciplines were education, social work, and pharmacy.

Open Participants. Open participants took advantage of the course’s open design to complete at least some of the blogging and tweeting activities. In the first iteration, four open participants registered for the course and had their blog sites linked to the course website. They did not pay tuition or fees, and they did not receive formal feedback or academic credit. These participants contributed 251 tweets and 57 blog posts to the first iteration of the course (Gogia 2016a). Open participant data was not collected in the second iteration, but instructors’ observations suggest that the level of open participation was similar to that observed in the first iteration.

Other Participants. Other individuals participated by tweeting with the course hashtag. As part of her dissertation research, Dr. Gogia analyzed Twitter profiles, content of course-related tweets, and relevant publicly available information to separate these other participants into two primary groups: academic participants (i.e., faculty, staff, or students from VCU or other higher education institutions) and nonacademic (community) participants. Other participants during the first iteration included 189 individuals who contributed a total of 719 tweets to the course (Gogia 2016a). Again, no analyses were conducted in the second iteration; however, the level of other participants appears to be approximately the same.



As we note in our introduction, although the primary audience for the course was VCU doctoral students interested in receiving an introduction to the purpose, design, and conduct of CEnR, the instructors believed that other communities might also be interested in the course, including VCU faculty, faculty at other universities, and community members curious about CEnR. In support of its goal to offer more online courses, VCU dedicated resources to the development of video course trailers to promote enrollment. We created a trailer for Collaborative Curiosity, which we shared within VCU via targeted emails, social media, and websites. To reach a broader audience, we distributed the trailer across the instructors' professional or other national membership networks with a known or likely interest in CEnR (i.e., International Association for Research on Service-Learning and Community Engagement, Campus Compact, Community-Campus Partnerships for Health, and Imagining America). Based on informal feedback, we learned that the course trailer proved effective for describing and attracting participants to the course. It also demonstrated VCU's support for CEnR and connected learning.

Under the creative leadership of graduate assistants, the course was branded using a dot motif consistent with the color scheme of the university. We used this brand and the course hashtag on flyers posted across VCU (targeting high-traffic areas) and in local businesses. Business cards (see Fig. 4) and stickers (see Fig. 5) with the same branding also assisted our recruitment efforts by initiating interest in the course and establishing a course identity. Both were shared at VCU events, at national meetings (e.g., IARSLCE), and in other forums (i.e., two talks on CEnR given in Taiwan and a statewide meeting of a Campus Compact chapter). While these efforts generated awareness of the course across the internal and external academic community, they may have been less successful across the nonacademic community, as evidenced by low participation from outside the academy.

Figure 4: Course-branded business cards.
Photo by Sara Hinterlong.
Figure 5: Course-branded stickers.
Graphics by Meghan Resler.


Bridging the Divide: The Connections and Disconnections of Collaborative Curiosity

Openly networked connected-learning approaches and CEnR share many of the same underlying values and principles. Both privilege participation, information accessibility, ecological or complex understanding, and the building of interpersonal, interdisciplinary, and cross-sector connections. However, the assumptions that participants brought to the Curious Collaboration experience—specifically about the nature of “digital,” “community,” and “scholarly research”—held the learning environment and subject matter in pedagogical tension because they are embedded in the complex interplay of power, privilege, and expertise that CEnR and open learning seek to expose. This prompted the following questions: How does a digital environment support a community? How are relationships built between individuals who never meet in physical space? Can writing that is expressed in lay terms, supported by open sources, and published outside the academic literature still be scholarly? We analyzed how well the course structure encouraged students and participants to explore these questions, as apparent in their pre- and post-course expectations and reflections.


The Nature of Community

The nature of community was a core theme of the course, and we examined the use of digital tools to build and maintain community. In the first week, we invited students and participants to respond with a Creative Make to the following prompt: “Community can mean many things. Create a visual representation of what ‘community’ means to you. It could be a photograph you take, a drawing, a collage, or something we haven’t thought of.” As revealed then and through later assignments and course discussions, many students and participants began with understandings of community that were firmly rooted in geography and physical space. However, the students were able to transcend these assumptions when they were asked to think of community through visual metaphors. For example, one student pictured community as a tree with deep roots (i.e., shared experience) that continues to grow over time. One participant depicted community as a composite construction (i.e., mutual fulfillment of needs) reflecting the intentionality of building community. Another participant used a spider web to represent community as a network of connections (i.e., shared interest) through space and time. A second assignment asked students to reflect on the Civic Media Project, which describes how digital tools are used to connect and engage with communities, conduct CEnR, disseminate findings, and enact social change. As observed in assignments, Twitter discussions, and informal conversations after the course, many students and participants determined that the definition of community depends on the community members’ own explicit and implicit identities; they observed that community involves shared process, qualities, and identities. They further expressed that, while some communities are firmly rooted in geography, others are connected through experience, time, and space, and can involve connections made and maintained through digital tools.


The Nature of Professional Relationships

Most students had not engaged in public blogging or tweeting as a pedagogical or scholarly practice before taking our course. In blog posts focused on the intersection of open scholarship and CEnR, we saw that many were hesitant to work in the open for reasons ranging from personal safety concerns to "professional scooping" (the appropriation of one's ideas) to fear of making mistakes or feeling they had nothing valuable to say. These provided opportunities for students to discuss and explore how to be authentic while also maintaining professional boundaries.

Other course assignments encouraged reflection on the nature of professional relationships in community-academic partnerships. A panel interview on developing and maintaining relationships in CEnR and the associated Twitter discussion offered practical tips for handling real-world situations that arise in this work. One Creative Make encouraged students and participants to reflect on the development of community-academic partnerships by cocreating with a community partner a digital representation of relationship- or team-building. One of these, created by a doctoral student in education and a local community activist, is represented in a poem (see Fig. 6).

Collaborative Make: A Poem


Building Relationships in Community Engaged Research

Building Bridges

To cross over, to invite other people to come

Linking Shareholders

To reconcile with our past, for our children’s future.

So we’ll be one community.

Building a foundation

Of strong partnerships built on trust;

Of words that reflect a shared vision.

Building pathways

We walk toward a shared dream,

Make our different voices harmonious

With integrity For truth and justice.

Christopher Rashad & Divya Varier

June 12, 2016


** This poem is a result of amazing teamwork that relied on Twitter for communication. Our collaboration itself is a representation of building teams/relationships.

Figure 6: Poem on building relationships in community-engaged research.



The Nature of Networks

Communities are, in essence, networks of individuals. CEnR generally requires academic researchers, who are part of a university community along with other networks, to identify and engage with communities they may not be primarily affiliated with. So, the course encouraged students to understand networks and how they might participate in them as researchers. We centered learning activities around the processes of building, engaging, and reflecting on relationships and networks using digital tools, chiefly Twitter. Students were required, and participants were invited, to engage in weekly scheduled Twitter chats, and all were encouraged to use the platform as a means to build personal connections within and beyond the course. Course-related tweets, under the hashtag #CuriousCoLab, were aggregated and displayed using TAGS Explorer (Hawksey 2014). TAGS Explorer enables interactive social network analysis of Twitter activity using a specific hashtag. A static screenshot of the TAGS Explorer embedded on the Collaborative Curiosity website is shown in Figure 7. At the community level, circles (“nodes”) represent unique participants and arrows (“edges”) represent tweets sent from one individual to another. Nodes not connected by edges show individuals who tweeted with the course hashtag but did not engage other individuals in discussion. The Explorer allows individuals to click on their node to review specific tweet content and frequency, which facilitate understanding of their role, position, and engagement in the network.

Instructors used social network analysis and the TAGS Explorer to start conversations about the importance of information transmission in influencing community views and behavior. We challenged participants in one assignment to consider the nuance of communication networks, with different individuals playing different roles in information transmission based on their network position. We asked them to use the TAGS Explorer in describing and evaluating their own roles within the Collaborative Curiosity community. Based on their assessment, we then asked students to create a plan to grow their personal network, influence, and reach for the remainder of the course.

Figure 7: The Collaborative Curiosity social network map.
Created through TAGS Explorer. An interactive version is available https://rampages.us/communityengagedresearch/tags-explorer/.

The Nature of Scholarship

Finally, the open nature of the course design reinforced two fundamental principles of CEnR that often challenge traditional values in academe: recognition that expertise lies both within and outside of academia, and the imperative to share what we learned in an accessible format. The instructors intentionally invited a blend of national scholars, nonprofit leaders, community-based researchers, and other academics to review course assignments and content, engage with students through Twitter discussions, and participate in panel interviews over Google Hangouts Air. We also challenged participants to privilege openly accessible sources in their coursework and to express their thoughts in ways that would be more likely to engage and better inform general audiences. In doing so, the students became more aware of the bias in academia that associates more rigorous scholarship with publication in subscription access journals and the use of exclusionary, disciplinary “lingo.” By making this bias explicit, the instructors and participants were better able to examine and discuss the power hierarchies that can operate within research projects, especially those involving community-academic partnerships.


Impact and Outcomes

As instructors, we agreed that we met our primary goal; namely, to offer a research course that crosses traditional boundaries by using a pedagogy that also crosses traditional boundaries. As evidenced in their coursework, self-reports, and evaluations, students learned the basics of CEnR and applied what they learned to a potential grant proposal. They used their personal experience in the course, along with the course resources, to critically examine their understanding of community, explore their individual comfort levels with exposure and vulnerability, build relationships with each other, and consider scholarly voice in relationship with their audience. This suggests that the emergent tension and complementary dynamics of exploring the tenets of CEnR within an open, digital environment fostered deeper engagement in the learning activities.

The instructors frequently sought participant and student feedback during both iterations of the course. Participants and students were able to freely share their ideas and suggestions through the digital platforms (i.e., tweets or blog posts and comments), and instructors responded to and were able to incorporate that input. Student feedback came through informal midcourse evaluations, anonymous course evaluations at the end of the course, and an informal face-to-face gathering after each course. Across the two iterations, the anonymous course evaluations suggest that students thought the subject matter was challenging and motivated them to learn. Almost all described the course as “outstanding” or “very good.” Students noted that while the course was well organized, it required a “steep learning curve” for an eight-week summer course. Informal feedback indicated that these doctoral students appreciated the opportunity to practice using nonacademic language to convey their research ideas. For instance, one assignment asked students to produce a video “elevator pitch” of their research idea that they could use with a funder or community partner. However, students also described struggling with the vulnerability of sharing their work through different stages in open scholarship and, at times, with stepping out of the role of expert, especially because they were enrolled in academic programs that generally encouraged them to become academic experts.

With approval of the university’s Institutional Review Board (IRB), Dr. Gogia’s dissertation research studied the Twitter interactions and blogging practices of course students and participants to capture how learners used these platforms to make connections with other people and across disciplines, contexts, and time. The students were not required to participate, and the instructors were not aware of who participated. Findings revealed that the course deepened respondents' digital fluency, awareness of open scholarship, and perceptions of the professional and scholarly possibilities for online spaces. However, the digital participatory approaches used were sufficiently novel that many participants (and instructors) needed significant pedagogical and technical support to take full advantage of the experience (Gogia 2016b).

The innovative nature of Collaborative Curiosity captured the imagination of academic and educational research communities beyond VCU. Since completing the second iteration, the course website has been reformatted to serve as an online resource for those who want to learn more about and teach CEnR. We published all content under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license, which means that it is available for public use as long as the source is cited and it is not for commercial use. A partial digital footprint of the course can also be found in this Story Map. The university has intentionally used the course materials to support other efforts in order to strengthen the climate for CEnR. For instance, the video clips related to CEnR grant proposals are used in trainings and the university’s intramural funding guide for engaged activities.

The course instructors and their ALTLab collaborators have been invited to speak and write about the experience for audiences that include nonprofit sector organizers, community-engaged scholars, educational technologists, digital pedagogists, institutional researchers, and practitioners. Notably, one instructor, Dr. Holton, has been awarded a Fulbright Scholar position to teach CEnR in National Taiwan University (NTU) during the spring of 2018 based, in part, on the content, focus, and success of the course. She will work with the NTU faculty and students to adapt the course to the Taiwanese context.


Lessons Learned

The success of Collaborative Curiosity hinged on multiple factors beyond the instructional design of the course. First, as evident in this thank you and blooper video from the first iteration, teaching this course fostered humility because all mistakes were made in the public space (and often recorded). Second, it was a very resource-intensive course, requiring our team to invest time in developing our skills. We had to learn how to use multiple platforms (e.g., Twitter, Diigo, WordPress, Google Hangouts, etc.) prior to (and sometimes while) developing and leading course assignments. Our decision to use only publicly available resources also meant that we had to identify and curate new source materials.

As noted throughout this paper, the course benefited from—and even required—a team approach to design and delivery. The instructors developed and facilitated the course; created the assignments and their assessment; identified, coordinated, and conducted the panel interviews; structured and led the Twitter conversations; and identified and aggregated the open source readings and materials. We published our own weekly blogs to introduce the upcoming content, and remained actively engaged with the course (before, during, and immediately after) by commenting on blog posts and connecting over Twitter. The graduate assistants developed the recruitment and visual materials, provided general technical support, and participated through Twitter. We found that the course design and method of delivery resulted in all members of the team being involved in the course as co-learners with students and open participants.

The ALTLab faculty provided technical expertise, inspiration, and guidance on connected learning. The VCU Libraries created a guide for those who wanted to learn the basics of research, and subsequently offered instrumental support to a faculty-learning community on dissemination of research findings over social media, which was identified as a critical need during the course. The connected-learning coach was an important addition to the second iteration, and she offered students, participants, and the team extensive feedback and technical support around connected-learning activities. While a team effort, the lead instructor, Dr. Holton, coordinated us through regularly scheduled meetings, frequent emails, and Twitter conversations.

Additionally, we were not successful in marketing the course to nonacademic participants. Despite intentional recruitment efforts, the course had little sustained nonacademic community participation. This is consistent with similar findings in the broader literature on adult, self-directed, informal, and online learning. We have reflected that one possible means to increasing nonacademic participation may be to use the course as part of a training for members of a community review board or other group of community members who are interested in or actively participating in CEnR.



Collaborative Curiosity serves as an example of how learning environments convey pedagogical values that can complement or be held in tension with course content and underlying assumptions of learner-participants. When clashes occur, they become rich moments of discovery. In the case of Collaborative Curiosity, the openly networked connected-learning environment placed participants in authentic spaces of openness and accessibility in which they had to explore the nature of community, relationships, voice, audience, and knowledge-related power. Furthermore, we found the use of connected learning helped to create a learning environment that parallels in key respects the environment hoped for within CEnR: one characterized by inclusivity, flexibility, creativity, and authenticity.

Our commitment to these overlapping principles in content and pedagogy required the instructors to rethink previously held beliefs about course design and implementation; resources; and the roles of instructor, student, and participant. The intention to welcome and support nonacademic participants required multiple shifts in traditional course management and delivery practices. Our language had to be inclusive of people across various backgrounds and involvement in the course. Similarly, the resources and each platform used had to be free, easily available, and relatively easy to use. Ultimately, we found these adjustments to be beneficial to the learning experiences of students, participants, and ourselves. We believe that Collaborative Curiosity revealed how powerfully openly networked connected learning supports the exploration of mutually beneficial and deeply participatory approaches to scholarly inquiry and dissemination.

Figure 8: End-of-course tweet.
Tweet by Donia Spott.


We are deeply grateful to all who have honed and generously shared their talents and passions through this course. In addition to all those who have been mentioned, we would also like to thank Dr. Jim Hinterlong for his contributions to this paper.


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