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A Networked Approach to Online Learning in a Public Relations Design Course
by
William A. Croom
M.A., Pepperdine University, 2015

Thesis Submitted in Partial Fulfillment
of the Requirements for the Degree of
Master of Arts
Learning Technologies

Pepperdine University
Summer 2015

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Abstract
In a 2008 report, The New Media Consortium and the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative
urged educational institutions to recognize the changing landscape and provide “formal
instruction in information, visual, and technological literacy as well as in how to create
meaningful content with today’s tools.” This study was aimed at implementing an online designfocused public relations course at the University of Oklahoma. The study follows the students’
work as they complete course assignments and weekly reflections on self-owned and maintained
web domains; giving students agency and control of their learning environment. The work was
subsequently syndicated to a centralized course site using the blog’s RSS feeds in efforts to share
their work amongst their peers. Students’ blog posts were qualitatively analyzed using
HyperRESEARCH to observe the frequency of mentions that correlate to the Connected
Learning framework principles as characterized by Mimi Ito (2013) over five cycles of action
research. The blog posts were also analyzed with Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count, a
computerized text analysis program that categorizes and quantifies language use. The analysis
revealed that a higher percentage of social words led to decreased expressions of anxiety (r= .63).
Students expressed that this course was more peer-supported, interest-powered, academically
oriented, production-centered, openly networked, and had a greater shared purpose than previous
courses.

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Dedication

To the beautiful women in my life: Katie, Faye, and Lucy.

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Acknowledgements

I would like to extend the utmost thanks to the faculty overseeing the Masters of Arts in
Learning Technologies program at Pepperdine University who allowed me to be a part of one of
the gold standards in online programs.

Thank you to Dr. Paul Sparks who has shown me through his actions how to truly care
for my students and their learning. Thank you to Dr. Bill Moseley for showing me that learning
can be fun and that the home can be a great classroom. Thank you to Dr. Valerie Schmitz for
your support and encouragement. This paper is littered with your thoughts and recommendations.

Thank you to my Pepperdine cadre mates. You have given me friendships and memories
that will last a lifetime. Your kindness and humor made this experience incredibly enjoyable and
I am proud to be forever bonded to you as a fellow member of MALT Cadre 17.

Thank you to Mom and Dad, who have always told me to follow my passions.

Last, thank you to my family. To my beautiful wife, Katie, whose support during this
journey was unmatched. To my daughters, Faye and Lucy—Daddy does all of this in efforts to
create a better world for you to learn and play.

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Table of Contents
Abstract ............................................................................................................................... 2
Chapter 1: Introduction ....................................................................................................... 9
Research Question ........................................................................................................ 10
Significance of the Study .............................................................................................. 11
Design Methods ............................................................................................................ 12
Chapter 2: Literature Review ............................................................................................ 14
Introduction ................................................................................................................... 14
Defining Connected Learning ....................................................................................... 14
Peer-supported. ......................................................................................................... 15
Interest-Powered. ...................................................................................................... 15
Academically Oriented ............................................................................................. 15
Shared Purpose.......................................................................................................... 15
Production-Centered. ................................................................................................ 16
Openly Networked. ................................................................................................... 16
Integrating New Media in Public Relations and Communication Courses .................. 18
Chapter 3: Methodology ................................................................................................... 20
Understanding Action Research ................................................................................... 20
My Philosophical Stance on Education ........................................................................ 21
Advantages of Action Research .................................................................................... 22
Designing the PR Publications Course Site .................................................................. 23
A Systematic Approach to Examining Connected Learning in Cycles ........................ 25
Data Collection Methods .............................................................................................. 26

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Surveys.......................................................................................................................... 26
Reflection Blog Posts.................................................................................................... 26
Study and Methodology Limitations ............................................................................ 28
Chapter 4: Analysis of data and results............................................................................. 29
Cycle 1: Peer-Supported ............................................................................................... 29
Background Information. .......................................................................................... 29
Cycle Research Question. ......................................................................................... 29
Pre-Course Survey. ................................................................................................... 29
Implemented Actions. ............................................................................................... 30
Reflection. ................................................................................................................. 36
Cycle 2: Production-Centered ....................................................................................... 37
Background Information. .......................................................................................... 37
Cycle Research Questions......................................................................................... 37
Actions Implemented ................................................................................................ 37
Reflection. ................................................................................................................. 41
Cycle 3: Openly Networked.......................................................................................... 42
Background Information. .......................................................................................... 42
Cycle Research Questions......................................................................................... 43
Actions Implemented. ............................................................................................... 43
Reflection. ................................................................................................................. 45
Cycle 4: Interest-Powered ............................................................................................. 46
Background Information. .......................................................................................... 46
Cycle Research Questions......................................................................................... 46

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Actions Implemented. ............................................................................................... 46
Reflection. ................................................................................................................. 49
Cycle 5: Shared Purpose ............................................................................................... 50
Background Information. .......................................................................................... 50
Cycle Research Questions......................................................................................... 50
Actions Implemented. ............................................................................................... 50
Reflection. ................................................................................................................. 55
Chapter 6: Conclusion....................................................................................................... 56
References ......................................................................................................................... 61
Bibliography ..................................................................................................................... 61

Figure 1: Connected Learning: An integration of three learning and three design principles. ..... 15
Figure 2: Action research spiral of change ................................................................................... 20
Figure 3: PRPubs.us: The PR Publications Course Site Homepage ............................................. 23
Figure 4: A Lesson View on the PR Pubs Course Site ................................................................. 24
Figure 5: Aggregated Student Posts on PRPubs.us ...................................................................... 25
Figure 6: Cycle 1 - Student Mentions of Connected Learning Principle Ideas (n=13) ................ 33
Figure 7: Cycle 1 - Growth in Connected Learning Principle Mentions ...................................... 34
Figure 8: Cycle 1 - How Students Refer to Peer-Support in Blog Posts ...................................... 34
Figure 9: Cycle 1 - Percentage of Social Words in Blog Posts .................................................... 35
Figure 10: Cycle 1 - Positive and Negative Emotion in Blog Posts ............................................. 35
Figure 11: Creating a Triggering Event: Redesigning—or hacking?—the course website.......... 38
Figure 12: Cycle 2 - Student Mentions of Connected Learning Principle Ideas (n=13) .............. 39

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Figure 13: Cycle 2 - How Students Refer to Production-Centered in Blog Posts (n=13) ............ 39
Figure 14: Cycle 2 - Percentage of Positive and Negative Words in Blog Posts ......................... 40
Figure 15: Cycle 2 - Percentage of Social Words in Blog Posts .................................................. 41
Figure 16: Cycle 3 - Student Mentions of Connected Learning Principle Ideas (n=12 students) 43
Figure 17: Cycle 3 - How Students Refer to Openly Networked in Blog Posts (n=12 students) 44
Figure 18: Cycle 3 - Percentage of Causal Words in Blog Posts.................................................. 45
Figure 19: Cycle 4 - Student Mentions of Connected Learning Principle Ideas (n=12 students) 46
Figure 20: Cycle 4 - How Students Refer to Interest-Powered in Blog Posts (n=12 students) .... 47
Figure 21: Growth in Blog Post Word Count ............................................................................... 54
Figure 22: Percentage of Social Words in Blog Posts .................................................................. 54
Figure 23: Percentage of Negative Emotion Words in Blog Posts ............................................... 54
Figure 24: A Positive Correlation Between Social Words and Anxiety in Blog Posts ............... 55

Table 1: Actions Cycles Plan as Defined by Project and Connected Learning Principle............. 26
Table 2: Example of Student Blog Data Processed by Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count........ 28
Table 3: Percentage of Words Referring to Humans, Positive and Negative Emotion ................ 47
Table 4: Function Words Percentages in Student Blog Posts During Cycle 4 ............................. 48
Table 5: Social Processes Percentages in Student Blog Posts During Cycle 4 ............................ 48
Table 6: Cognitive Processes Percentages in Student Blog Posts During Cycle 4 ....................... 48
Table 7: A Pre and Post Course Evaluation of Learning Objectives ............................................ 50
Table 8: A Pre and Post Course Evaluation of Learning Outcomes in PR Publications .............. 51
Table 9: Changes in Student Attitudes Towards Technology as a Result of an Online Course ... 52
Table 10: Students Evaluation of Connected Learning Principles ............................................... 53

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Chapter 1: Introduction
Classroom ethnographers have long documented a disconnect between where learners
find meaning and social connection (Ito, et al., 2013). While it is thought that the knowledge and
skills acquired in today’s classroom will simply “transfer to” the workforce, the research is
inclusive. A 2012 report concluded that “Over a century of research on transfer has yielded little
evidence that teaching can develop general cognitive competencies that are transferable to any
new discipline, problem or context, in or out of school (National Research Council, 2012).” An
earlier report offered a possible solution by urging educational institutions to recognize the
changing landscape and provide “formal instruction in information, visual, and technological
literacy as well as in how to create meaningful content with today’s tools” (The New Media
Consortium and the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative, 2008).
This sentiment has similarly been verbalized by undergraduate students at the University
of Oklahoma (OU). The deans of the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication
annually visit each undergraduate-level capstone class in the college to solicit feedback from the
graduating seniors. After visiting in the spring semester of 2014, it was identified that students
felt that they had a conceptual grasp of the theory of their field of study, public relations (PR),
but the students articulated that the program lacked the necessary technology integration leading
them to feel like they were at disadvantage in their ability to technically perform the necessary
tasks that would be expected by today’s public relations professional. Students wished that they
had received “more training on the software programs they are expected to use in their courses.”
They also requested an expansion of courses for advertising and public relations majors that
focused on graphic design. Further, they requested that the college should begin to offer online

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versions of required courses to assist with students who required a more flexible school schedule
due internship and job commitments.
Research Question
In response to this feedback, I was approached by the dean of Gaylord College in August
2014 and asked to consider teaching PR Publications, which puts a public relations lens on
graphic design and web design techniques as an online course beginning in the spring of 2015,
online. I have decided to research the design and implementation using the Action Research
method. While there are several professional motivations with such a project (e.g. the
opportunity to expand my teaching portfolio, gain experience, teach within a new medium, etc.),
there is an additional broader personal motivation to impact the college by properly identifying
an online framework which is consistent with the vision of the college. My desire is that by
researching the question, “How can I create an effective online course using the Connected
Learning framework?” I will be able to direct faculty towards an adoptable online course model
that is rooted in research-driven design.
This specific research question affords me the opportunity to define some largely
unknown questions within my community. Gaylord College has never offered a single online
course, which raises the question, “How do we, as a College, being newcomer in online learning,
define ‘online?’” Does “online” merely refer to the network that delivers content or is it, as
Seymour Papert articulated in reference to the personal computer, the tool that creates “personal
media capable of supporting a wide range of intellectual styles” (Papert, The Children's
Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer, 1993)? It’s also possible that how one
defines “online learning” in higher education may have been recently influenced by an influx of
popular media conversation. One example is Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) which

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focused on model of online education focused on technology platforms and scale (Siemens &
DawSon, 2015). Watters (2015) argues that this has shifted conversations from research and
design driven approaches to a conversation about online education as a means to scale large
enough to create a “budding revolution” where higher education is globally accessible (Friedman,
2013). By acknowledging the current landscape and its conversations, I am to make an argument
for a learning environment that closer resembles Papert and “learning-by-making” (1991) or
constructing as it can be argued that students inevitably create more of the course makeup than I
ever could.
Significance of the Study
My aim in this research is to push beyond a shifting, loose definition of traditional
distance education, and examine implementing Connected Learning, an emerging pedagogical
framework that aims to promote student engagement and deepened learning through network
participation in digital environments (Ito, et al., 2013). Largely guided by the students’
comments referenced earlier, a significant portion of my research will focus on creating a
connected learning environment that has value to the student beyond the course by giving the
learner opportunity to interact with commercial design tools which are valuable in the workforce.
As an instructor of technology-driven courses, I’ve often attempted to empathize with
students by peering into my past and attempting to recall what it was like for me when I first
learned the subject matter I now teach. I vividly remember my early interactions with the web;
being eleven years old and learning the fundamentals of HTML for the very first time by
referencing one specific website. The site was titled “Lissa Explains It All” (lissaexplains.com)
and was, at its core, HTML “for kids.” I remember being attracted to the bright colors and easyto-understand language and phrasing that Lissa used, and I would spend hours referencing

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lissaexplains.com for how to build out website for my various middle school boy interests;
professional wrestling, Harry Potter, and my little league baseball team to name a few.
Recently, I went online to see if this website was still in existence and to what degree, if
any, it is maintained. Lissa was kind enough to post an update in 2007 that gave me surprising
insight into the history and impact of her website. I learned that Lissa was, in fact, my age, and
eleven-year-old 6th grader when she started lissaexplains.com as a simple repository for HTML
codes she occasionally forgot (Daniels, 2007). To my astonishment, I had been learning the
whole time not from an adult or trained educator, but a peer. Lissa’s ability to relate to myself,
and millions of others kids, was the simple fact that she was one of us.
This learning experience is what Mimi Ito and others have characterized as connected
learning, which looks to digital media and communication as an affordance to self-expression,
interactivity, and access to knowledge and information. These activities are supported through
social media, online affinity groups, and link a broad range of culture, knowledge, and expertise
(Ito, et al., 2013). It is with the knowledge of my own learning experiences, coupled with a body
of literature on learning theory, that I set out to design a fully online, undergraduate-level
connected learning experience for public relations students in hopes that they would be afforded
the opportunity to pursue an interest or passion with the support of their peers.
Design Methods
I took an ecological approach to the design of the course and the subsequent research.
The course aims to not focus on the creation of individual pieces of media, but, rather, on how
student’s actions, when embedded in a social learning academic environment, lead to the
intersection with interests and openly networked media. In the following chapter, I present a
comprehensive review of literature relating to my research question beginning with an

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examination of how technology, in particular social media, has been integrated into courses in
the field of public relations, an analysis of the use of “personal cyberinfrastructure” (Campbell,
2009) as a pedagogical approach, as well as an overview of Connected Learning and examples
that have relevance to the research. Chapter 3 presents the Action Research method and justify
the methods for which data was collected and analyzed. This chapter also presents the datagathering methods including a content analysis method using Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count
(LIWC) (Pennebaker, Francis, & Booth, 2001), a computerized text analysis program that
categorizes and quantifies language use (Kahn, Tobin, Massey, & Anderson, 2007). Chapter 4
describes the five action research cycles that took place between January and May 2015. These
five action research cycles correspond with five of the six foundational pillars of Connected
Learning: peer-supported, production-centered, openly networked, interest-oriented, and shared
purpose (Ito, et al., 2013). Here I will present the evidence collected, my interpretations, and how
each cycle affected the subsequent cycles. Chapter 6, the conclusion, is a reflection of the themes
that have emerged from the study as well as an account of my own personal learning.

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Chapter 2: Literature Review
Introduction
Chapter one gives an introduction to the research question, acknowledges the work
environment, and speaks to the significance of building an undergraduate-level connected
learning course. Chapter two introduces the Connected Learning framework, tools used in online
connected learning courses, and examines technology-enhanced courses within the public
relations discipline.
Defining Connected Learning
The notion of learning being connected has taken on different connotations through
history. The earliest use of the word “connected learning” was used to describe how
architectonics of knowledge requires knowledge to be ordered into categories and, thus,
connected (Phenix, 1967). Since the dawn of the World Wide Web, connected learning has been
used to describe students’ ability to connect online with each other to form personal learning
networks (Bowen, 2011) and as the connection between the physical and virtual (Watson, 2007).
It has also has been used to refer to connecting a student’s academic work to their life outside the
classroom in efforts to “offer inspiration to all who seek more than instrumental knowledge”
(Boxer, 1998).
This study focuses on Connected Learning, a pedagogical framework and research
agenda published by the Digital Media Literacy (DML) Research Hub in 2013 (Ito, et al., 2013).
This framework is defined by six principles that allow every young person to experience learning
that is social, participatory, interest-driven, and culturally relevant.

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Figure 1: Connected Learning: An integration of three learning and three design principles.

Peer-supported. Learning that takes place in online environments that overlap with a
student’s peer culture are supported through personal communication technologies and social
networking. In peer cultures that are based around interest, and not necessary around age cohorts,
these cultures can drive knowledge and expertise.
Interest-Powered. Personal interests such as hobbies, academics, sports, and artistic
interest are discovered and cultivated within a social and cultural context. Interests can be
supported by online tools such as blogging platforms such as Tumblr or LiveJournal, curation
platforms such as Pinterest, and interest groups networks such as DeviantArt and fantasy sports
leagues.
Academically Oriented. The term “academic” as described in Connected Learning
refers to “a more general orientation to future success, opportunity, and access to to sites of
power” (Ito, et al., 2013). This can be achieved through academics, civic and political
engagement, or career-oriented achievements.
Shared Purpose. Shared purpose connects academic activity to a collective goal through
collaboration (Miell, 2004), competition, and with cross-generational leadership and ownership.

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These environments can be enhanced when they take place outside of the classroom, or “in the
wild” (Hutchins, 1996) bringing together adult and young people alike (Vygotsky, 1978). Other
descriptors for this notion are experience and education (Dewey, 1938) and experiential learning
(Kolb, 1984). Connected learning also promotes a distribution of authority and ownership of the
learning environments with the students, technologists, and the broader community infrastructure.
Production-Centered. By equipping learners with tools and means to produce, students
have the opportunity to produce, circulate, curate, and comment on media. This pedagogy has
been characterized as “learning-by-making” (Papert, 1991), “learning by doing” or project-based
learning (Dewey & Small, 1897), and situated learning (Greeno, 2006). Connected Learning
emphasizes digital media as a method for distributing, sharing, and gathering feedback on
created content.
Openly Networked. Connected learning infrastructures are anchored on the principles of
openness, accessibility, transparency, and low barriers for participation and entry (Ito, et al.,
2013). Connected learning environments help make learning visible through content feeds and
embeddable widgets to networks outside of the formal learning environment. These
environments also reward informal and self-directed learning through the building of portfolios,
open badges, and certifications that reward interest-driven learning (Jovanovic & Devedzic,
2014) (Carfagna, 2014).
Open Network Tools.
Blogs. Blogs are cited as an online tool for the application of multiple learning theories–
including social constructivism, constructionism, and connectivism. Due to their flexibility and
ability to be easily networked, blogs have the potential to meet the needs of the 21st century
learner generation, who seek both greater autonomy and an interactive learning style (Monteiro,

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2012). Blogs are natural social constructivist environments as they stimulate “critique,
collaboration, and user generated content” (Cochrane, 2007). The notion of the collective
potential blogs brings has led blogs to be characterized by Shirky (2003)as a social software,
software that augments or extends group interactions.
Downes, an early researcher on connective knowledge, first examined the roots that blogs
laid within education. Downes (2004) observed multiple elementary school uses cases where
blogs were utilize for student reflection and communication.
Platt’s case study (2010) of an undergraduate course on communication technologies
speaks to the market need for blogging experience arguing that the integration of blogs into
curriculum help students develop the digital literacy skills needed in a twenty-first century
workplace. Blogs allow students to hone an “authoritative voice” while also teaching the
practical skills of producing meaningful multi-media content.
Portfolios. Helen C. Barrett (2012) argues that the use of the blog as a critical component
of electronic portfolios, or e-portfolios, as a means for a chronologically documenting one’s
learning and sub sequential growth. Barrett also explains a tension between two types of eportfolios: one focused on learning and reflection and the other as a documentation of
achievements, or “workspace” and “showcase” (2010). Additionally, Barrett articulates three
levels of e-portfolio frameworks: Level 1- Portfolio as storage for digital artifacts, Level 2 –
Portfolio as a workspace to reflect on digital artifacts, and Level 3 – Portfolio as a showcase for
student-led curation of highlighted artifacts. Research has also married these distinct frameworks,
showing the potential for e-portfolios to simultaneously serve multiple aims (Cambridge, 2010).

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Integrating New Media in Public Relations and Communication Courses
In its 2012 report, the Commission of Public Relations Education recommended that
public relations curriculum address strategic public relations best practices in a digital
environment, familiarizing students with how digital and social media are transforming the
practice of public relations (Commision on Public Relations Education, 2012). Research in
public relations education has recently identified the need for applied education to complement a
theoretical approach. Barry’s study (2005) noted that students deemed gaining computer skills
necessary for a successful public relations career in the information age.
The emergence of social media, in particular, has begun to challenge higher education in
multiple respects. It’s influence goes beyond personal communication and use in private business,
but has also altered the method in which courses are delivered and how student interaction
occurs (Adi, 2013). While it is clear that this impact has occurred beyond the walls of the
institution, it has also been perceived by students that public education educators are slow to
utilize and integrate new and social media into the method of course delivery or the coursework
(Hemmi, Bayne, & Land, 2009). Adi (2013) analyzed the introduction of social media audit and
analytics exercises into coursework as a way to introduce technology into the classroom that isn’t
simply for enhanced interaction and collaboration, but gives students relevant, problem-based,
applied learning environment. This exercise requires educators to constantly update and present
students with industry trends, and only through this practice will student preparation meet the
need of the workforce. Adi strongly emphasized the necessity for educators to be experimental,
realistic, and up to date.
Sebastião (2013) explored the integration of web-based social media as a teaching
strategy for public relations courses in a Portuguese public university. The study aimed to follow

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a commonly accepted notion characterized by Bosch which states that educational use of social
media is doubted due to its “informality” and “publicness” (2009). Sebastião also references
Seymour Papert, who Boss (2011) argues was the first to recognize the potential of technology in
the learning process. Sebastião was influenced by Papert’s development of the Logo
programming language allowed children to acquire a deeper understanding of geometry concepts,
programming expertise, as well as show a level of engagement rarely seen in a traditional
classroom environment. Sebastio’s students, through an empirical approach of self-completion
questionnaires, anonymously revealed an insecurity with production techniques: design and
layout and new technologies use and understanding. Similar to Adi, Sebastião’s efforts show a
commitment to a coherent and motivating pedagogy of active learning, promoted dialogue
between students and practitioners, and use of technology to improve coursework and
communication.

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Chapter 3: Methodology
Understanding Action Research
This study utilizes action research, a method where the aim is to learn through action to
lead to personal and professional development (Koshy, 2010). It has also been described as
participatory research method (Kemmis & McTaggart, 2001) used for improving educational
practices. Action research is usually broken up into self-contained cycles which consist of
planning, collecting data, observing and reflecting on an action. The consequences of that action
then directly influence a revision of the next cycle of action.
Figure 2: Action research spiral of change. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0
(https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)

Kurt Lewin, a behavioral scientist, is often cited for coining the term “Action Research”
and described the method of inquiry as a spiral “of which is composed of a circle of planning,
action and fact-finding about the result of the action” (Lewin, 1946). Smith (1996; 2001, 2007)
notes that this situated problem-solving approach to research parallels Dewey’s conception of
experience and education. According to Zeichner (2001) much of the action research that has
taken place in the United States has involved a rejection standards-based curriculum, in favor of

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a pedagogical approach driven on the instructor’s capacity for reflection. The strand of action
research that will be utilized for this particular study is one promoted by Jack Whitehead
(McNiff & Whitehead, 2010), whereas an individual researches their own practices and offers
their own reflections and analysis.
My Philosophical Stance on Education
Before addressing the methodology of my study in great detail, it’s important that I
acknowledge the ontological and epistemological issues that affect my actions. The first two
chapters lay out a problem that could be interpreted as students addressing a deficiency of skillsbased learning needed for a competitive workforce. While that argument has merit, my research
goal was not to simply teach technology skills. Conversely, my desire is that by leveraging
technology, students foster an appreciation for the medium, the inherent skill required for one to
express themselves through it, and come to better understand themselves as a learner and a
creative.
Historically, students have viewed this course as a diversion from the traditional
undergraduate course: a small set of high stakes multiple choice assessments and formal writing
activities. The face-to-face version of this course is process-driven and project-based, consisting
of five individual projects completed over a period of time—often weeks. Much of the structure
of this course already existed and I did not see the move to fully online learning as the most
significant change to the course since my face-to-face course as never relied heavily on lectures
and direct instruction. Therefore, I acknowledge that I already believed to a degree that this
course had the chemical makeup to be successful because its format already lends its to the
Connected Learning framework.

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The method is which I received feedback on the student’s learning experience was the
main alteration of the course’s format. Students were asked to complete weekly reflection blog
posts on a personally-owned and maintained web domain (e.g. adamcroom.com). I have
previously acknowledged a personal long term connection with the open web dating back to
childhood. In the context of education, I see the domain, a web address that you personally own,
as a broader metaphor for one’s ownership of learning. I believe that learning is not something
we do to students. Rather, it is something done to one’s self, as knowledge encounters, processes,
and negotiates new information.
I have great enthusiasm knowing that part of what makes this process special is that the
student’s work goes towards the building and shaping of the student’s digital identity, as opposed
to happening within the confines of a learning management system, where student’s receive an
audience of one (myself) and lose access to their work as soon as the course has been completed.
Having students work within the open web promotes connectedness; a connectedness to each
other through the public visibility of a peer work and a connectedness to a wealth of networked
information across the web. Like Dewey (1916) who believed that schools need laboratories,
gardens, plays, and games to reproduce real-life situations, I believe that online learning needs to
take advantage of the abundance of the web rather than taking place in a walled garden
disconnected from the rest of the web.
Advantages of Action Research
Action research lent itself well to my study. Action research allows research to have a
specific context and situation which fits well with my personal and professional goals of this
project. While I always have well-intended goals of ultimately wanting student success, this
research took place in a point in time that was pivotal for how the college began to define and

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approach online learning. Action research also leaves room of theories to emerge within the
research as opposed to sticking with a previously formulated theory. Although I used Connected
Learning as a framework, it’s safe to say the infancy of the framework lent itself well to
reinterpretation and expansion. Further, action research lends itself to evaluation, modification,
and open-end outcomes. I liken my thought on education to Cormier (2008) who argued for
embracing a “rhizomatic” model where curriculum is constructed and negotiated in real time
with the students.
Designing the PR Publications Course Site
I alluded briefly to the face-to-face class takes place in active learning environment and is
focused around five design projects that collectively take place over a 16-week period. Much of
the in class time is concentrated around working on these design projects and receiving direct
instructor feedback throughout the process. An early step was to construct an online environment
from which course material already exists. I decided to build the course on my web domain,
prpubs.us, utilizing Wordpress, a content management system. This is a technique which
companies such as Microsoft call “eating your own dog food” or “dogfooding” (Harrison, 2006)
where one decides to go through the process themselves to test a product out. It is important that
if you are going to ask my students to deeply embed themselves within these applications, that
you must also test and model the approach yourself.
Figure 3: PRPubs.us: The PR Publications Course Site Homepage

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Being that the initial version of this course was active learning centric, I conceptualized
prpubs.us to not revolve around course content but rather the learner. “Content” would simply
exist to enable students to explore pre-existing web resources and create new resources. Some
examples of prompts are:
•! “To reinforce your understanding of design concepts, I want you to undertake a
‘Design Blitz.’ Carry your camera with you this unit and take photos of objects,
ads, signs, etc. that illustrate one of these concepts.”
•! “Typography is a critical part of how we tell stories. To practice some of our
typography skills we are going to play some typography games. For this
assignment, you are to choose three of these font games and play them.”
•! “For this part of the lesson, we want to conduct a visual strategy competitor
analysis on an organization similar to our own by creating a Pinterest board of
some of our competitor’s recent work.”
•! “For this lesson, we will be exploring a new, web-based design application called
Canva. Throughout this lesson, I want you to consider: What are some of the
affordances that an app like Canva brings? What limitations does an app like
Canva have? How can a public relation practitioner leverage tools like Canva?”
Figure 4: A Lesson View on the PR Pubs Course Site. Assignments are prompts for students to do work that takes place beyond
the course platform.

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I explored other techniques that could focus on the students work to help maintain a
student-centric theme to the course site. Since responses and reactions to these prompts would
take place on the student’s domain utilizing Wordpress’ blogging feature, I felt it would be
beneficial to the students to be able to easily access each others blogs. I researched a course titled
DS106: Digital Storytelling, taught mainly by Jim Groom at the University of Mary Washington.
DS106’s course site, also built on Wordpress, has a syndicated network architecture that mimics
the design of the Internet itself (Levine, 2014). The site aggregates student work via a free
Wordpress plugin (Feed WordPress http://feedwordpress.radgeek.com/) which crawls the student
website’s RSS feed. Similarly, I utilized Feed WordPress to create a single blog roll within the
course site, thus the largest portion of the content is student-generated.
Figure 5: Aggregated Student Posts on PRPubs.us. (http://prpubs.us/student-posts/)

A Systematic Approach to Examining Connected Learning in Cycles
Since this study focused around integrating Connected Learning principles into a new
online course, I decided to focus each cycle on a different principle. The length of a “cycle”
would be predetermined by the existing design project structure. As students completes a design
project—in some respects, their own cycles—I would take the time to analyze data and reflect.
As a result, this gave me me the flexibility to adjust the course based on previous cycle outcomes
and allowed me to focus on specific principles in smaller increments.

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Table 1: Actions Cycles Plan as Defined by Project and Connected Learning Principle

Action Cycle
1
2
3
4
5

Design Project
Business Card / Letterhead
Direct Mailer
Social Media
Newsletter
Summary of Learning / Final Portfolio

Connected Learning Principle
Peer-Supported
Production-Centered
Openly Networked
Interest-Powered
Shared Purpose

While there are six Connected Learning principles within the framework, there were only
five projects matches within the semester. I elected to not focus on the principle, “Academically
Oriented.” I assumed that the opportunity for academic advancement is already well recognized
by the students since his course takes place within an academic institution and the students are
well into their student career.
Data Collection Methods
In efforts to gather evidence of the outcomes of the action cycles, I used a mixed methods
approach. The following methods were employed:
Surveys. The course was bookended with a pre- and post-survey. This gave me a broad
perspective to how student’s self assessed their learning outcomes, evaluated the Connected
Learning principles within the course, and how their perspectives on how technology were
influenced by the educational experience. Additionally, I employed surveys throughout the
semester to gather feedback on the student reaction to newly implemented actions.
Reflection Blog Posts. Students were asked to write a weekly blog post reflecting on
their learning experience. Students were given this following, or a very similar, prompt:
•! What were you asked to do?
•! How did you respond to what you were asked to do?
•! How did react to what you actually did?

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•! Now go one level deeper: Why do you think your reaction was what it was?
With this approach, I was able to gather a rich data set of metacognitive analysis by the
students of their experience. To analyze the data, I took two approaches:
Qualitative Analysis. Within each blog post, I coded when a student had reflected on a
specific Connected Learning principle. Since each cycle focuses on a different principle, this
gave me the opportunity to see if that specific principle was more or less activated than the
previous cycle and analyze potential correlations between principles. I used a content analysis
tool called HyperRESEARCH that allowed me to batch multiple text files, one per blog post,
into a cases. Each week constituted a case and each cycle constituted a study so that I could
analyze the data over a body of time.
Computer Aided Content Analysis. While the qualitative approach required me to read
carefully each blog post, I used a second approach that uses a computer aided transparent text
analysis method. With a computer program tool called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count
(LIWC) one can process text where each word in that text is compared with a dictionary file.
These dictionary files are broken up by category (e.g. pronouns, social words, cognitive
mechanisms, positive/negative emotion) and can show attentional focus, emotionality, social
relationships, thinking styles, and individual differences (Tausczik & Pennebaker, 2010). This
method gave me metrics by which to quantify progress amongst or regression amongst the class
cohort. For instance, prepositions (e.g., to, with, above), words longer than six letters, and words
that Tausczik and Pennebaker (2010) have categorized as cognitive mechanisms (e.g., cause,
know, ought), are all indicative of more complex language. I mainly looked at pronouns usage as
well as social, affective, and cognitive processes. It’s important to note that even though this
method gives me a quantified output, I did not use this method as a form of assessment. To

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minimize the risk of letting this affect a student’s grade, this research method was only
performed to the aggregated class output rather than any individual student. Additionally, it was
only administered after the grade has been submitted and the deeper qualitative analysis has
already taken place. Figure 2 illustrates what LIWC data looks like.
Table 2: Example of Student Blog Data Processed by Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC)

Week
3
4
5
6

Pronoun
15.71
17.86
19.19
16.07

Social
3.44
4.68
5.85
5.16

Affective
6.25
5.69
6.14
5.26

Cognitive
20.4
18.59
19.95
18.93

The$variables$above$reflect$
percentage$
of$
total
 words.$For$example,$in$Week$3,$3.4%$of$the$
class’$aggregate$blog$content$is$comprised$of$social$processes$(e.g. mate, talk, they, child)
compared with 5.9% in Week 5.
Study and Methodology Limitations
One obvious limitation to this study is the lack of time. This research went from its initial
conception and through five action cycle in approximately six months. It’s plausible that the
planning was a bit haphazard and that my synthesis of the information and conclusion has been
ultimately rushed. Further, I expect that student reflection blog posts will make up the bulk of the
data in which I collect. As someone who is the biggest cheerleader of a student’s success in the
course, I acknowledge the limitations of 1.) reporting what the students say in blog posts that
contribute to a final grade which I have observed to be an overly positive perspective of one’s
work and 2.) my ability to neutrally interpret their words. Though my resources for this project
are limited, I believe that the implementation of some creative problem solving measures to add
efficacy to my data, such as the LIWC data, contributed positively to triangulating my
hypotheses.

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Chapter 4: Analysis of data and results
Cycle 1: Peer-Supported
Background Information. Each cycle is broken up by the length of the design project.
Cycle 1, the longest cycle spanning six weeks, is unique in that included a couple extra weeks in
which students are oriented to the course. The course is also scaffolded at the beginning allowing
students longer periods at the beginning of the semester to complete their project. In the first
design project, the students were asked to design a business card and letterhead for a company or
organization of their choice.
Cycle Research Question. In Cycle 1, I focused on the Connected Learning design
principle, peer-supported, and explored what structures I could put in place to emphasize
feedback and support. I chose this as my first principle to investigate knowing that I wanted to
establish a supportive learning environment early. It was important to me that students
understand that they had been given permission to leverage their peers for assistance. Broadly,
this cycle also implementations around feedback from peers as well as myself. Through surveys,
reflection blog posts, and a number of implementations related to feedback, my hope was that
connection to each other and myself would release any early anxiety from the students.
Pre-Course Survey. A pre-course survey was administered so that I could holistically
evaluate to what degree students can identify if connected learning principles were implemented
in previous. The survey also asks questions related to the courses learning objectives and gave
me some baseline data on students’ attitudes towards technology. In writing this survey, I
utilized the Educause ECAR Study of Students and Information Technology survey (Educause,
2014) to help identity the students’ attitudes toward digital learning environments. Because this

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data is much more valuable within the context of the post-course survey, I have elected to speak
more thoroughly on the collective results of the survey later in Cycle 5.
Implemented Actions.
Synchronous Meeting. The first action that took place once the course began was a
synchronous meeting of the online class. I was inspired by my own experiences in the
Pepperdine Masters of Arts in Learning Technologies program where we met regularly using
Google Hangouts, a web-based video conferencing tool. Though the course is not content
focused, and thus lectures and direction instruction are not a pedagogical priority, I still felt a
desire to recreate what usually happens on the first day of class where one explains the course
structure and sets student expectations. More importantly, I wanted students to be able to put
faces to names and see that this course would not be completed in isolation. Since students were
going to be giving feedback to another, I want them to have the opportunity to feel a more
personal connection. Five students, roughly one-third of the class, attended the session and it
lasted nearly 40 minutes. This ended up being the only Google Hangout that I did during the
course, but an anonymous student in my evaluation said that “mandatory Google Hangouts”
would be an improvement, adding, “It would be nice to put faces with names and personalize my
education.” Because of this feedback, the next iteration of this course included a scheduled
synchronous meeting that corresponded with every design project.
Open Lab Office Hours. In addition to creating the synchronous meeting as a method for
the online students to meet, I also held open office hours in the college’s computer lab. I wanted
to give students the opportunity to meet in person and work on their projects in a neutral
environment. The computer lab is a place several of them were already attending to work on
course work, so in some respects I was coming to them. I had three students show and two

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completed a survey that was used to gather data about the effectiveness of the course. I have not
included the survey data as its value is negligible due to the low sample size. In reflecting on this
week, one student noted that before attending the office hours, she felt “overwhelmed,” but noted
that while meeting with me I reminder her that the goal was not to “be a perfectionist” but to
merely get familiarized with the design applications. The student felt like this was a goal that she
was indeed able to accomplish1. The student went on to add, later “Meeting with my professor
not only gave me more confidence with my InDesign skills, but it also gave me comfort knowing
he was there to help us if we needed anything throughout the project.”2 While I feel this
opportunity was underutilized by the students the first time, I decided the option to meet in
person was valuable to enough students that I would continue to do it in future cycles.
Peer Feedback. After students posted their first design draft, they were asked to give
feedback to their peers with two methods. The class was divided into what I called “Learning
Circles” of four students and gave feedback through public comments as well as a private
Google Form. I gave the students sample prompts with how to give constructive feedback on the
work. The Google Form was a slightly more rubric-based approach where I asked the students to
grade how the other student was doing in leveraging fundamental design principles. After they
were completed, I circulated the anonymous, private feedback back to student. In keeping with
idea of the instructor as a fellow peer, I, too, gave feedback by creating screencast videos for the
students where I would look over their initial draft and go over some recommendations for the
next draft. I did this by recording directly to YouTube and sending them a private link to the
video. Students noted in their reflection posts that the feedback, along with feedback they

1

“Reflection.” https://alexandranwalsh1.wordpress.com/2015/02/03/reflection/. Accessed on July 8, 2015.

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received from their peers improved their work and gave them a method to evaluate whether or
not their work was on track. This method of feedback appeared to be very well received by the
students, so this was utilized in multiple future cycles.
Student Design Pitches. Students were asked to record a video of them pitching their
design in 90 or seconds or less. This video was uploaded to YouTube and put on the student’s
blog. Like several other cycle implementations, I wanted to give students an opportunity to see
and hear each other. While I feel the exercise was good for the students, both in having to
synthesize their design approach and having to learn a valuable technology, I did not receive a
strong response from the student’s beyond the initial recording. One student noted that watching
themselves on video was an awkward experience3. Since I didn’t get the sense that students were
getting value from this portion of the project, it was eliminated as a possibility in future cycles.
Instructor Reflection Journal. Each week I kept a journal through my blog of the actions
that were being taken that week as well reflections. This was my main method for curating and
reflecting on my cycles. This was very helpful in helping me synthesize all the actions that had
taken place and give an early reaction to the data. This cycle I wrote four reflection blog posts
that averaged approximately 850 words in length.

2

2015.

“Reflection.” https://alexandranwalsh1.wordpress.com/2015/02/25/reflection-4/. Accessed on July 8,

3

“Awkward Video Pitches.” http://taylormarieredmond.com/uncategorized/awkward-video-pitches/.
Accessed on July 8, 2015.

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Student Blogs Post Reflections. Students began to write reflection posts in the third week
of the course around that week’s assignments. These posts are evaluated with two different
methods. The first is through a qualitative analysis using HyperRESEARCH. Through this
method, I coded the students blog posts with the six Connected Learning design principles to see
how often student were identifying that the implementation did take place.
Figure 6: Cycle 1 Student Mentions of Connected Learning Principle Ideas in Reflection Blog Posts (n=13)

Thirteen students posted a total of 48 reflection style blog posts from the third to sixth
weeks of the cycle. Students were asked to reflect over what they had been asked to do that
week, how they reacted, and why they believe they reacted that way. That data was then coded
by the six Connected Learning principles: peer-supported, production-centered, openly
networked, interest-powered, academically oriented, or shared purpose. Figure 6 shows that
mentions activities that involved peer-support significantly rose in the third week of the cycle
(labeled Week 5), which is the week that the peer feedback action took place. This growth
continued into the following week.
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Figure 7: Growth in Connected Learning Principle Mentions Over Cycle 1

Though peer-supported is the third most referred to principle, behind productioncentered and academically oriented, Figure 7 shows that peer-supported had the largest slope
(m=4.7) and grew 64% more through Cycle 1 than the next highest growing principle.
Figure 8: Cycle 1 - Analyzing How Students Refer to Peer Support in Student Blog Posts

Additionally, I looked deeper into how students were referring to peer support. As shown
in Figure 8, students largely referenced feedback that had received earlier in the week from a
student and the second highest reference was instructor feedback. Other references were towards
how drafts were impacted because of feedback or requesting peer feedback.
The second analysis was done a content analysis method using Linguistic Inquiry and
Word Count and quantified students use of social words as well as measure the percentage of
words that signify positive and negative emotion.

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Figure 9: Percentage of Social Words in Student Blog Posts During Cycle 1

The percentage of social words (Figure 9) nearly doubled by the end of Cycle 1. The
largest week-to-week gain, an increase from 2.5% to 4.7%, took place after the first peer support
actions were implemented. Curious to see if this would impact student attitudes, I also looked at
positive and negative emotion.
Figure 10: Positive and Negative Emotion in Cycle 1 Blog Posts

While positive emotion was only a marginal gain, there was a significant decrease in
negative emotion of the cycle (Figure 10). In the third week of the cycle there was a semester
high of 1.6%, which was expected and likely due to the large amount of self directed learning of

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new content which has no peer involvement. This changed once the peers started to support one
another in Week 4. Students use of negative emotion words dropped by 45% to .8% and would
not rise above 1% for the remainder of the semester.
Reflection. After analyzing the data, I felt that the implementations of activities that gave
student the permission to interact with and give feedback to each other were very helpful.
Student reflections on this process were considerably positive and the evidence of how the
actions assisted in decreasing the presence of negative emotion in blog posts was gratifying.
From the instructor perspective, it was beneficial to see when students were particularly grateful
for the assistance they received either from a peer or from me. In online environments, its easy to
think that the hard part for the learner is that they have to teach themselves, when, in reality, the
hard part is learning in isolation.
While the face-to-face open office lab hours were helpful for some, the feedback from the
blog posts suggests that the feedback they receive via YouTube was just as if not more helpful. I
felt that it was imperative that I repeat in future cycles. I’ve come to consider that in some
instances I may have been overly trying to bring unnecessary false comforts to the students by
creating face-to-face opportunities such as this that the student’s don’t necessarily need. This
cycle helped me realize that students have elected to take the online version of a course for a
number of reasons, some of which may involve large time commitments such as internships and
part-time jobs. This had led me to focus on the online feedback opportunities for future cycles.
There were other activities that similarly didn’t have the impact I was hoping for. The
student design pitch was an activity that I designed originally for my face-to-face course. While I
believed that students being able to see each other would help humanize the course, the
asynchronous format was unnatural for most students and did not have the same impact as the

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synchronous activities. This reiterates a previous point that not all face-to-face activities neither
will nor need to translate to the online version. It is possible that for future iterations of this
activity, I can consider a synchronous version of this same activity since students have asked for
more opportunities to meet on a Google Hangout.
Cycle 2: Production-Centered
Background Information. Cycle 2 focused around the Connected Learning principle,
production-centered. This cycle is built around a three-week long, project-based assignment
where students are required to produce two recruitment direct mailers to be receiving by
potential future OU student. Because the initial success of the peer support mechanisms that
were built into place during Cycle 1, I will continue to do peer feedback, instructor feedback, and
video design pitches. The major implementation of this cycle will focus around a constraint
where students will only be allowed to use Photoshop, a design program that they have
completed tutorials for but have had little interaction with in any other fashion.
Cycle Research Questions. The course that I teach is already very production centric.
Thus I want to take a look at production by focusing on giving students the constraint of using a
design program that they’ve only just been made aware of. My hope exiting this cycle was to
understand how students reflect on this constraint, what solutions (if any) do students turn to
complete the project, and what are the differences between students who reflected on this project
positively and negatively?
Actions Implemented.
Constraints and Triggering Events. According to Seeling, constraints play an important
role in creativity (2012). Implementing the Photoshop constant felt like a leap for me in this
course as I have traditionally tried to keep to only teaching them one large design program. Yet

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past student surveys have included students saying they want more Adobe Photoshop integrated
into the course. In efforts to playfully diverge into this application, I decided to create a scenario
where it appeared like the course site, prpubs.us, had been hacked and was now pspubs.us
(Photoshop publications) acting like this was freeing to move away from InDesign for a brief
period that included a famous picture of John Lennon and Yoko Ono holding a Photoshopped
sign that says “INDESIGN IS OVER!”
Figure 11: Creating a Triggering Event: Redesigning—or hacking?—the course website

This is a technique is what Garrison refers to as a “triggering event” (2003), an event
creates an issue or dilemma for students to consider or explore. Once the triggering event creates
an awareness that requires the student to begin sense-making the dilemma and has shown to
influence critical thinking (Perkins & Murphy, 2006).
This was certainly a more difficult action to measure, but a faculty member told me that
this had caused a group of students to begin to question out loud in his class if the site had indeed
been hacked or if I was playing a joke. This was enough for me to conclude that it caught
students’ attention, if even mildly.
Student Reflection Blog Posts. Students wrote reflection blog posts during all three
weeks of Cycle 2. Similar to Cycle 1, these posts were evaluated using a qualitative analysis of
mentions of Connected Learning principles and a quantitative analysis using LIWC.

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Figure 12: Cycle 2 Student Mentions of Connected Learning Principle Ideas in Reflection Blog Posts (n=13)

In Cycle 1, I learned that production-centered was the most describe principle, making up
29% of the coded references in the student blog posts. This makes sense as the course is heavy
on design and takes up the majority of the student’s time. As shown in Figure 12, Cycle 2 saw an
increase in production-centered mentions to 50%. Interest-driven also increased two fold from
11.7% to 24.7%. Interestingly, mentions of all other principles decreased.
Figure 13: Cycle 2 - Analyzing How Students Refer to Production Centered in Student Blog Posts (n=13)

I also examined how students reflected differently on production-centered activities. The
data, shown above in Figure 13, suggests that the design activities were a struggle this week for
the several students. I followed these mentions of struggle throughout the weeks. These mentions
did indeed decrease in the last week and mentions increased of overcoming struggle. While the
students should be commended for overcoming the struggle, it is hard to decipher if this can be
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40
interpreted as such or if it is possible that students are being slightly overly positive about their
final draft. This struggle was mildly anticipated due to design program constraint, but I also
attribute part of this to the fact that during this cycle there were three snow days which took
away essentially a week’s worth of time the students could spend in the computer labs.
Figure 14: Percentage of Positive and Negative Words in Student Blog Posts During Cycle 2

Figure 14 shows how positive and negative emotion were expressed in this cycle and how
it compares to the rest of the study. While negative emotion was only slightly lower than normal,
positive emotion was 3.5%, compared to a study average of 4.3%. The lowest week of the cycle
was concurrent with the week that included snow days. Additionally, you see positive emotion
rise during the last week of the cycle, similar to how students began to take pride in overcoming
early struggles.
Further, some students felt that a bigger constraint on them wasn’t necessarily the
application, but the fact that they didn’t have access to the type of or quality of photo that they
wanted. Multiple students noted that they wished they knew photography because they would
have preferred to just simply take the photo themselves. This speaks to what I see a lot with
creative projects. Students have a vision for what they hope to create and production-centered

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activities breed a desire to want to construct that vision. It was good to see how students saw that
their work could be improved and they actually had possible solutions to it.
Figure 15: Percentage of Social Words in Student Reflection Blog Posts

Figure 15 indicates that the percentage of social words in student blog posts has increases
from the end of Cycle 1 to Cycle 2. This figure is actually counter to the qualitative data which
suggested that there were very few mentions of peer support.
Reflection. As I moved into analyzing the second principle, I became interested in how
the principles are interconnected. This cycles design program constraint led students to utilize
openly networked tools. Students turned to Lynda.com, Pinterest, and other websites. These
provided either inspiration or a tutorial on how to complete a project. Similar to wanting better
photographs, production increases a desire to want to know more and students can leverage a
plethora of available online resources to enhance production.
Additionally, I believe that interest in the project drove excitement and pride in the
student’s reflection. Students were allowed to choose who the recipient of the direct mailer was
and were required to be very specific in describing them. Often I found that students chose
recipients who deeply reflected themselves. One student mentioned that he wanted to design the
direct mailer he wishes he would have received in high school. The other interest that drove the

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project was the student’s interest in learning more about Adobe Photoshop because they either
felt it would be valuable to them professionally or it was something they genuinely have been
wanting to learn, which is referred to in Connected Learning framework as academically oriented.
Cycle 2 led me to begin reframing my perception of Connected Learning. My first
interpretation was that the principles were mainly independent. This cycle has led me to consider
production-centered as a catalytic principle which draws out interest, open network usage, peer
support, and academic orientation. This idea is heavily aligned with Papert’s constructionism and
other similar project-based learning theories.
Cycle 3: Openly Networked
Background Information. Cycle 3 came off the heals of the difficult Cycle 2 design
project where I started to notice the interconnectedness of Connected Learning principles with
production-centered as a catalyst. This influenced how I approached Cycle 3 which was focused
around the openly networked principle. Because students had difficulty with the Photoshop
project, I wanted to look out how an open, web based tool could build confidence in student
design. While Cycle 1 and Cycle 2 were multiple weeks long, I decided to only allow students
one week to complete it. This constraint would focus students to consider an agile-design
mentality which requires you to consider templated approaches towards your work. I had
originally planned a lengthier infographic assignment for Cycle 3, but based on the student
response to Cycle 2, I felt that it would be better to shift to something that was less research and
design intensive.

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Cycle Research Questions. This cycle I was interested in if (and how) students would
learn the tool differently. Would it involve tutorials or just playing around with the platform?
Continuing my hypothesis from Cycle 2, what other Connected Learning principles would be
activated by this tool? Last, would students react positively or negatively to this diversion to the
web-based design tool?
Actions Implemented.
Web-Based Design Tool. In the spirit of openly networked, students leveraged an entirely
web-based design application called Canva to design multiple social media pieces. Canva gives
users templates in which they can design off of. It makes is simple to quickly design a product
yet the lack of options can also feel constraining to some. A main concern for me going into this
project was how students would react to the addition of a third design program which removes
students from the familiar Adobe product line.
Student Blog Post Reflections. Because Cycle 3 is only one week, data from the cycle is
not as dense as previous cycles. For instance, previous cycles have shown growth/decline over
time, and I was not able to do that this cycle. Even so, I was able to identify a strong presence of
openly networked (Figure 16).
Figure 16: Cycle 3 Student Mentions of Connected Learning Principle Ideas in Reflection Blog Posts (n=12 students)

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It was difficult in this cycle to decipher between openly networked and productioncentered as the two are closely connected this in this specific cycle. For example, one student
wrote, “For the Facebook post, I decided to use a textured grass background. I figured that it
could remind the customers of the feeling of grass between their toes.” This has been coded as
“production-centered” since it refers to the process or act of producing. I coded “openly
networked” into categories specifically referencing the Canva tool and the broader web as a
general resource for learning how to use the tool. The figure also shows that the one-week
constraint had a significant effect on peer support which was not observed.
Figure 17: Cycle 3 - Analyzing How Students Refer to Openly Networked in Student Blog Posts (n=12 students)

Figure 17 shows that openly networked has been categorized as affordance of the open
tool, limitation of tool, desire to use tool again, reference to its “openness,” leveraging the web to
do background research, and utilization of online tutorials. Half of the students mentioned the
use of tutorials that were on Canva.com, which demonstrates how students leveraged the web, in
this case this product itself, to learn the tool. While students appreciated that the tool was free to
use and easy to learn, some students also referenced the limitations of the free version.
William A. Croom. Pepperdine University. MALT Cadre 17. July 2015.

45
Figure 18: Percentage of Causal Words in Student Reflection Blog Posts

While the qualitative data showed that students were generally very positive about the
experience with Canva, the LIWC data did not support an increase in positive emotion. The only
significant change in student writing was the increased use of causal words (e.g. because, effect,
hence) shown in Figure 18. Boals and Klein (2005) argue that causal words are used in
the extreme situations to create causal explanations and to organize the participant’s thoughts. As
an instructor, I appreciate that students are not explaining only what happened but why it
happened as well.
Reflection. I saw multiple students remark that they wanted to come back and use Canva
again in future. Though this may be a result of giving students limited time on the tool, this is not
a comment I heard with Adobe Photoshop or InDesign early on. I also observed less “fogginess”
from learning the new tool this time around. This is a consequence of the straightforwardness of
the tool paired with focused tutorials that students utilized. Further, a benefit of using a webbased tool is that many of them have built in mechanisms for learning about the tool, which is
rare to find on a native desktop application. Since this was the second risk I took in introducing a
new tool, I was pleased that this one went well and students were enthusiastic about it.

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Cycle 4: Interest-Powered
Background Information. Cycle 4 focused around an assignment in which students
design a newsletter for a Fortune 500 client of their choice. In previous three cycles, I have
hypothesized a correlation between students designing for a company they are passionate about
and the quality of their final product. With this assumption, I wanted to dig further into how
interest motivates students and where it exists. Additionally, as students have become more
comfortable with design over the semester, I have given students less time to complete a project.
This design decision assumes that students need less scaffolding via drafts and will be
completing more internal iterations.
Cycle Research Questions. How do students who are strongly interested in the
assignment reflect differently than those who are not? What is it that they are specifically
interested in about the assignment?
Actions Implemented.
Student Reflection Blog Posts. Twelve students wrote blog posts this cycle over two
weeks reflecting on the assignment. Like previous cycles, these blog posts were categorized by
the mentioned Connected Learning principles.
Figure 19: Cycle 4 Student Mentions of Connected Learning Principle Ideas in Reflection Blog Posts (n=12 students)

William A. Croom. Pepperdine University. MALT Cadre 17. July 2015.

47
This was the cycle in which I observed the strongest presence of interest-powered
learning. Students had not used Adobe InDesign since four weeks prior during Cycle 2.
Interestingly, I observed interest not only in choice of client but in the design platform. This is
something I began to notice during Cycle 3 with Canva and was surprised to see continue into
Cycle 4.
Figure 20: Cycle 4 - How Students Refer to Interest-Powered in Blog Posts (n=12 students)

Figure 20 shows interest was observed in the blog posts. This is the first cycle in which I
have established levels of the principle. In Cycle 4, I categorized client interest as “chose
company” and “chose company (strong interest).” Strong interest was either observed as
attention to the client or newsletter recipient such as the internal company or an external interest
group.
Table 3: Percentage of Words Referring to Humans, Positive Emotion, Negative Emotion, and Discrepancy from Week 3 to Week
12

Week
Cycle 1.3
Cycle 1.4
Cycle 1.5
Cycle 1.6
Cycle 2.1
Cycle 2.2
Cycle 2.3
Cycle 3.1
Cycle 4.1
Cycle 4.2

Humans
.078
.11
0.1
0.14
0.28
0.26
0.24
0
0.15
0.37

Positive Emotion
4.303
4.65
5.32
4.47
4.09
2.66
4.02
4.57
4.5
4.72

Negative Emotion
1.64
0.88
0.73
0.76
0.93
0.52
0.59
0.42
0.6
0.47

William A. Croom. Pepperdine University. MALT Cadre 17. July 2015.

Discrepancy
.823
1.63
1.22
1.63
0.78
1.79
2.14
1.77
1.16
2.24

48

Table 3 displays data from LIWC which I found compelling from Cycle 4. First, I saw
the highest output so far of human words (e.g. adults, men, women, children, etc.). My
hypothesis is this has to do with students describing who their reader is which was a part of their
reflection assignment. Next I saw the highest positive emotion output that I’ve seen since Cycle
2. That’s a good sign because Week 5 was one of the early weeks that was infused with peer
support. Conversely, I saw negative emotion drop to one of its lowest outputs. Last, I saw the
highest output of discrepancy words. “Discrepancy” refers to words like “could,” “hope,”
“needed,” “should,” “wanted,” “wish,” etc. Wedeking (2009) argues that higher scores along the
discrepancy dimension correspond with higher levels of cognitive thinking.
To look closer at interest, I did an analysis of my two groups “chose company” and
“chose company (strong interest)” to see if there were any noticeable differences in their
language use.
Table 4: Function Words Percentages in Student Blog Posts During Cycle 4

Group
Low
High

Wrd. Count Pronoun
336.2
18.28
225.75
16.15

PPron
12.41
10.22

I
10.17
8.14

We
1.52
0.94

They
0.66
1.03

Table 5: Social Processes Percentages in Student Blog Posts During Cycle 4

Group
Low
High

Social
5.04
5.47

Family
0.00
0.15

Human
0.11
0.53

Neg. Emo.
0.84
0.24

Anxiety
0.27
0.14

Inhibition
0.07
0.52

Inclusion
5.05
6.61

Table 6: Cognitive Processes Percentages in Student Blog Posts During Cycle 4

Group
Low
High

Cog. Mech.
17.27
20.20

Discrepancy
2.54
2.06

Certainty
0.77
1.93

William A. Croom. Pepperdine University. MALT Cadre 17. July 2015.

49
Students who expressed a lower amount interest in the project tended to write more
(Table 4) averaging a word count of 336 compared to 259 words and leveraged more first person
pronouns. Students who expressed a higher amount of interest used more social and third person
words had a significantly lower negative emotion percentage (Table 5), and showed, on average,
higher cognitive processes (Table 6). The two groups were fairly similar with positive emotion,
causal words, and insight.
Reflection. Students with higher interest are going to connect more of there work to their
surroundings and are more likely engage deeper in the open networks researching how to better
the project. They were also more likely to have a very specific reader in mind. Lower interest
students tended to be more self-reliant on this project and have a higher negative emotion
towards the outcome.
More than any prior cycle, curiosity led me to dive deep into the data for answers to my
cycle research question. I found myself looking for trends and how to interpret them and I ended
this cycle more interested in how to do activate interest in work. My current conclusion is that it
helps to give them choice but I’m still searching for ways to not only activate interest in an
assignment but in learning.
While I analyzed the data deeply this cycle and searched for correlations, I also felt
myself pull back from the process of analyzing data concurrently with the course offering. Until
this cycle, I would analyze the data as the cycle was taking place. This cycle I distanced myself
from this process and did not analyze the data for quite some time. I began to question this
analysis process and whether or not it was impeding on my ability to objectively assess student
work. I did not want it to be influenced by computer generated numbers based on packaged
dictionaries. This is a concern I have about leveraging the action fesearch method concurrently in

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50
a course. While I believe in the research process, I wanted to reorient to student learning and not
approach my students as research participants in fear that the process would negatively influence
the classroom or that the class would influence the objectivity of the research. It was a relief to
neglect the quantitative process for a few weeks and to revisit it after the projects had already
been completed.
Cycle 5: Shared Purpose
Background Information. This cycle is the concluding cycle of the study, lasting two
weeks and focuses on how students reflect on their learning over the semester and plan for the
future. Students are asked to view the work they have created throughout the course’s entirety
and create a personal design portfolio which can be shared with potential employers. As students
were asked to holistically think about their course experience, I also took advantage of the cycle
to analyze the course by administering a post course survey.
Cycle Research Questions. For this cycle, I aimed to better understand if students
learned the courses objectives and if the course had influence their view of the Gaylord College’s
role in preparing them for the workforce through teaching them technology.
Actions Implemented.
Post Course Survey.
Table 7: A Pre and Post Course Evaluation of Learning Objectives

Question

Pre (n=9)

I have strong at thinking critically, creatively, and
independently.
I understand how public relations publications
differ from other publications in purpose, publics,
funding and design.
I understand graphic design concepts and can apply
them effectively.

5.67

Post Percent Change
(n=6)
5.83 2.82%

4.89

5.67

15.95%

3.11

5.33

71.38%

William A. Croom. Pepperdine University. MALT Cadre 17. July 2015.

51
I understand web design concepts and can apply
them effectively.

3.00

5.33

77.67%

I can effectively design for a target audience.

3.56

5.50

54.49%

I can conduct research, evaluate information and
use that knowledge to select appropriate
communication channels for these diverse
audiences.

5.00

5.67

0.67%

The learning objectives section of the course survey (Table 7) shows that the largest growth was
in the student’s effectiveness to apply graphic and web design concepts. The smallest growth
was in the ability to thinking critically and independently at to effectively research. Although this
was somewhat surprising, I am aware that junior and senior-level university students have
already undergone several critical thinking courses and most have completed a PR Research
course. I am pleased to see large gains in student’s confidence towards design as well as
designing towards target audiences.
Table 8: A Pre and Post Course Evaluation of Learning Outcomes in PR Publications

Question

Pre (n=9)

Percent Change

5.33
2.67
2.44
5.56

Post
(n=6)
5.33
5.20
5.17
5.50

I would label myself as "creative."
I am proficient with Adobe Photoshop.
I am proficient with Adobe InDesign.
I feel comfortable writing in a public space such as
a blog.
I have a professional presence on the web.
I feel like I excel at brainstorming and ideation.
I have a keen eye and strong understanding of
design and layout.
For my future career, it would be beneficial for me
to have an online professional portfolio of my
work.

5.33
4.89
3.56

5.83
5.67
5.83

9.38%
15.95%
63.76%

5.78

5.83

0.87%

William A. Croom. Pepperdine University. MALT Cadre 17. July 2015.

0.00%
94.76%
111.89%
-1.08%

52
Similar to the gain in technical skills shown in learning objectives, students
overwhelming expressed a growth in their knowledge of Adobe Photoshop an Adobe InDesign
(Table 8). Similarly, students acknowledged that they had grown in their ability to understand
design and layout. One conclusion drawn from this set of questions, coupled with the original set,
that students already label themselves as creative and are career-oriented, seeing portfolios as a
high importance.
Table 9: Changes in Student Attitudes Towards Technology as a Result of an Online Course

Question

Pre (n=9)

I get more actively involved in courses that use
technology.
When I entered college, I was adequately prepared
to use technology needed in my courses.
Technology makes me feel connected to other
students.
Technology makes me feel connected to instructors.
I wish I had been better prepared to use basic
software programs and applications (e.g., MS
Office, Adobe Creative Suite, Google Apps, etc.)
when I first started college.

5.00

Post Percent Change
(n=6)
5.50 10.00%

5.22

4.50

-13.79%

4.67

4.83

3.43%

4.33
4.89

4.83
4.00

11.5%
-18.20%

The questions displayed in Table 9, originally written for the Educause ECAR Study of
Students and Information Technology survey (Educause, 2014), allowed me to look at
information which was beneficial to both myself and the college’s administration. The survey
data shows that students have a more positive attitude towards being involved in technologyenhanced courses, feel like they were less prepared for technology prior to college than they
originally thought, but expressed less concerned about this lack of preparedness.

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Table 10: Students Evaluation of Connected Learning Principles

Question

Pre (n=9)

My learning in college has been peer-supported.
The course subjects are personally interesting and
relevant.
My interests and social engagements often connect
to my academic studies.
My courses integrate digital tools and provide
opportunities to produce and create a wide variety
of media, knowledge, and cultural content in
experimental and active ways.
My previous course online platforms and digital
tools have made learning resources abundant, easily
accessible, and visible.
My courses include learning experiences that invite
participation and provide many different ways for
individuals and groups to contribute.

4.56
5.22

Post Percent Change
(n=6)
5.17 13.38%
5.83 11.69%

4.56

6.00

31.58%

5.00

5.83

16.60%

4.00

5.83

45.75%

4.78

6.00

25.52%

Overall, the students expressed that this course was more peer-supported, interestpowered, academically oriented, production-centered, openly networked, and had a higher shared
purpose than previous courses. The biggest difference between this course and previous courses
was the presence of an easily accessible online platform, which should not be surprising for the
college’s first online course though its compelling given that production was such a significant
theme throughout the student’s blog posts. It was gratifying to see the high student evaluations in
the course’s ability to evoke group contribution and be valuable to their academic ambitions.
Student Reflection Blog Posts. While Cycle 1 through 4 have been self contained
analyses, I leveraged Cycle 5 as opportunity to comprehensively examine student writing and
word choice. While most of the LIWC categories did not reflect a significant change, I observed
change in the length of blog posts, percentage of social words, and percentage of negative words.

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54
Figure 21: Growth in Blog Post Word Count

Figure 22: Percentage of Social Words in Blog Posts

Over the semester, students wrote on average longer blog posts. Additionally, there was
positive growth in the percentage of social words used each week.
Figure 23: Percentage of Negative Emotion Words in Blog Posts

I observed a significant decline in negative emotion over the semester with the highest
percentage being in the early weeks of the semester.

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Figure 24: A Positive Correlation Between Social Words and Anxiety in Blog Posts

The data shows a significant correlation between the percentage of social words and
anxiety (r= .63) as anxiety decreased during weeks where there was a higher percentage of social
words. Interestingly, as social words rose cognitive mechanisms (e.g. cause, know, ought)
declined (r=.80). Alternatively, I did not observe a significant correlation between social words
and positive or negative emotion.
Reflection. As students took the semester to reflect on their learning, it was helpful to
also get the long view of the study. I was deeply encouraged by the feedback I received from the
students about the learning objectives, attitudes towards technology, and the presence of the
Connected Learning principles. Moreover, as a college in uncharted territory online, it was
gratifying to see that it had an impact on how comfortable students felt in the course. Inevitably,
that was a significantly large goal of mine that I am not certain that I have properly
acknowledged its significance until this larger reflection. After combing through the LIWC data,
you hope to discover several strong correlations within the linguistic categories but my findings
were limited. However, I was pleasantly surprised to see that more social words meant less
anxiety and that finding feels like the most important research discovery of this study.

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Chapter 5: Conclusion.
Chapter 4 provided a comprehensive examination of the five action cycles undergone in
this study as well as my observations and interpretations. This chapter will bring articulate the
various themes that have emerged and provide my final reflections from the study.
The role of the instructor is to create an environment for learning to flourish. Everything
else can take care of itself. The classroom gives instructors a false sense of security that your
presence controls all of the variables. I firmly believe that the instructor’s role is not to present
material to be consumed but to create a space that supports curiosity, experimentation, and
discovery. For my course, I see the activities as an invitation for the student to engage—or not—
in discovering their own creative abilities through learning.
Reflection is significantly more insightful to me than surveys or traditional forms of
assessment. This was the first semester in which students were required to write weekly.
Students collectively wrote 803 blog posts and more than 180,000 words over the semester and it
provide what felt like seemingly endless opportunities to get to know my students in a manner in
which I don’t feel I would have been able to in discussion board, surveys, essays, or even the
classroom. I consider myself to be a learner-focused instructor and reflection writing, particularly
on one’s own domain, put the learner in charge of, as well as at the center of, the learning
experience. It forces them to not see learning as content, but learning as a process in which they
are included. And, almost like an unexpected gift, students receive a comprehensive narrative of
the learning through their blogs at the end of the semester, which they can be proud and take
with them. As an instructor, it’s also given me a new vantage point in which to better understand
how well an assignment is going as students are not afraid to give you honest feedback when
they feel confused or stressed.

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Data cannot replace assessment or feedback. With 803 blog posts and 180,000 words of
blog posts comes an opportunity to play with a large data set. While using LIWC gave me a new
way to approach the blog posts, it did not and cannot provide a way in which I could comfortably
assess what the student was doing. I purposely made an effort to not look at data from
individuals but rather always as a collective course. In this regard, I was able to gather a broad
view of how the course was going without letting it impact my grading. I have a deep concern
about education technology being perceived as a method for grading work at scale rather than a
methodology to get better insight into your students. While I’m interested to see what the future
holds in grading large forms of texts, I’m doubtful that it can be as rewarding to the student as
good human-to-human feedback.
With this in mind, I believe there are limitations to my analysis of data as an aggregate
rather than on an individual level. For the sake of research, I believe there is much to be learned
from following individual learners. As an instructor, this was not an approach I was willing to
pursue with my own class, but I do believe that the methodologies used with both the course
structure and reflection writing are replicable and should be further researcher at the learner level.
Further, in its current state, I would recommendation this method as a way to triangulate your
conclusions but not as a central method for approaching the research. Content analysis was
wonderful for giving me ways in which to support my hypotheses.
Production-Centered is at the heart of my Connected Learning. Computers have made it
accessible for anyone to express themselves through writing, design, music, and countless art
forms. I believe it is when students are producing something that’s meaningful to them, whether
that is a project or a paper, and it’s supported by caring people, learning takes place. Time and
time again, I was proud of the work that student’s produced, particularly when they were

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58
incredibly passionate about the activity. Because this does not require the formal classroom, I
believe creation, tinkering, and production has not been widely adopted enough in education. As
efforts such as the Maker Movement continues to grow and these technologies become more
wildly adopted, I believe you will see a stronger shift towards progressive educational tactics that
will focus heavily production and project-based learning and a shift away from assessment
driven behavioral forms of education. There is also bound to be an evolution in online learning
away from replicating classroom practices and towards collaborative production. As tools such
as Google Hangouts, Google Drive, and others become more widely adopted at the institution
level, educators will take more advantage of the ability to collaborate seamlessly across disparate
locations.
I’m not convinced I built a connected learning course. While I used the Connected
Learning framework as a model to build and analyze my course, I feel strong in acknowledging
that I’ve fallen short in created a Connected Learning course in many respects. The Connected
Learning framework does not focus on the formal education system and sees itself more as a
complement. I believe this has a lot to do with formal educations commitment towards grouping
students by age and ability, whereas Connected Learning focuses on intergenerational
opportunities for learning; something this course desperately lacks. Further, Connected Learning
sees itself as a mechanism for “building more diverse entry points and pathways to opportunity
as an avenue to (a) broader reform and equity agenda by leveraging the affordances of new
media” (Ito, et al., 2013). As much as I want to believe that putting my course even in an open,
networkable fashion means anybody can learn on it, the course was still heavily designed with a
biasness towards a very specific, affluent educated person. While I believe there are ways in
which the course can become closer to a Connected Learning course, I believe most courses that

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59
have been designed for higher learning fail to meet the question of equity and are not effectively
designed for any learner. My course is only marginally applicable to anybody outside of the
public relations discipline and could be rewritten to include broader goals. However, Connected
Learning has been a fantastic framework in which to approach designing an online course. It’s
given me justifications to explore territories, such as a web-based design tool, which I never
would have assigned otherwise. It also forced me to consider social—the whole—first rather
than one learner. Most importantly, it has given me a common language in which to articulate
my ideal approach to online learning.
Rather, I am convinced that it is closer to networked learning. I do believe I’ve built a
strong and robust networked learning course which allows students to utilize their own digital
spaces and identities and connects them through technology to the larger learning network. In
some ways, the course mimics what some of the early connectivism courses such as CCK08 and
DS106 pioneered with idea that online learning, particularly within the context of higher
education, doesn’t have to take place inside one closed system. Rather, you can use the tools of
the web, blogs, social media, and RSS, to empower the learner into choosing their learning
environment.
Action research has given me the opportunity to systemically approach my own
professional development. As someone who is early on in their academic career, the chance to
teach the first online course for the Gaylord College was an opportunity of a lifetime. Action
research gave me an approach to properly prepare, implement, revise, and evaluate an important
moment for my community. As an educator, I’ve grown ten fold in my ability to intelligently
articulate how I believe learning best occurs online. Though I’m admittedly still a novice
researcher, I’ve also came to find a passion in making meaning of data in efforts to explore large

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60
questions. I’m excited to begin the next iterations of this course and how its evolves over time as
I begin to explore new ways for students to learn such as giving students more autonomy in
choice of assignments and in the order of completion. As a professional, I’m excited to be a
resource for other faculty members in my community who wish to explore a similar networked
model to online learning. Further, I welcome any and all questions, comments, and critiques on
the study that has been presented before you and invite you to see the latest iteration of PR Pubs
and experience in real time the student’s learning as it unfolds at http://prpubs.us.

William A. Croom. Pepperdine University. MALT Cadre 17. July 2015.

61
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