Informal Professional Learning

Parenting, teaching, and learning

I’m taking a Massive Online Open Course (MOOC). I try to take a couple of MOOCs each year. It keeps my mind exploring and it’s interesting to see what people are doing out there. I have started more than I have completed and have explored on two of the major MOOC platforms; I seem to have better luck on edX than I do on Coursera, but I have no good reason for this. Both have topics of interest to me and both are pedagogically similar, with videos, readings, quizzes, and discussion boards. They may have a course project that takes a different shape, and there may be some assignments that are a little different, which is one of the reasons I continue to explore them as much as I do. There are different University players, but that does not seem to be a factor for me; I just looked at the courses I’ve completed over the last two years and all six are from different Universities. But I digress. The point of this post is to talk about how a project idea for the course I am currently taking came about and the connections between learning, teaching, and life are being made.

The MOOC I am currently enrolled in, Body101x, is on the edX platform. It’s full name is “The Body Matters: Why Exercise Makes You Healthy and How to Stay Uninjured.” I figure that title is enough of a description for you. An eclectic mix in my family of activity levels and eating habits combined with my training as a pharmacist and interest in complementary and integrative health science make this topic rather relevant both personally and professionally. The stated goal of the project is “to plan and implement a physical activity promotion program.” The scope is left wide open. It could be a personal plan for oneself or it could be a program developed for a small or large targeted group of people. After seeing the form provided for student use in designing their programs, the teacher in me sees more than the stated goal of the project. I see: 1) to increase activity in someone, somewhere, 2) to increase awareness of the importance of physical activity to people beyond the course participants, 3) to gain knowledge of and loosely apply the scientific method at the level of thinking about program development in a systematic way.

I still have not managed to talk about my project idea, have I?

So there I was, sitting on my couch, watching one of the videos for the course. As often happens when there is a video being watched online, the children come from everywhere, much like cats who have heard the can opener. “What are you watching, Mama?” I explain that it’s a video in a course I’m taking. “What’s the course about?” I talk about physical activity and exercise and how much we are supposed to get, etc., and I say that I have a project to do for the course and I’m trying to decide what to do. “OH, Mama! Can we help you?” Kayleigh and McKenna asked this almost in unison. Before the girls had entered this picture, the scientist in me had already gone down paths of a pre-test post-test control group design in some target group of people with outcome measures and statistics. I took a step back at that moment and considered for a minute how I could use this project to educate the girls at a level they could understand while also meeting the project requirements.

Ready to go with her new Fitbit Flex

Ready to go with her new Fitbit Flex

Long story short (too late)…Pi got a Fitbit Flex for her birthday on March 14th. As I mentioned before, my core family of 5 people all have rather varied eating habits and activity levels, and it has been the topic of discussion in my household lately. Pi is, hands down, the best eater in the family. She has the greatest variety in what she will eat and likes to try new things. But she may be TOO good. Having always been praised for being a “good eater,” she has felt encouraged to go back for seconds and thirds. In conjunction with the fact that she would rather sit and play quietly with her kinetic sand, or modeling clay, or coloring books, rather than ride her bike and run around outside, you can see where this could become problematic. Her desire for a Fitbit, recent conversations about eating and activity in my household, and the timing of her birthday and the project were the perfect storm. My project, then, is more of a personal improvement program than a research study, but for program assessment in “researchy” terms, it will be handled as an n=1 pre-test post-test design. Baseline measurements for activity level are being measured from March 15-26. Activity level is being measured in three ways: number of steps, number of active minutes, and distance (miles). Once we get a baseline average, we will talk about how much we should increase it, and how we might do it, and set a plan that incorporates new daily goals. We will collect data for another 12-14 days after implementation, and compare.

Pi is incredibly excited about this! Informed consent. Check. “I fear that her initial enthusiasm may well skew my baseline data,” I tell my husband with a smirk on my face. But you know what? Her excitement about increasing her activity levels and measuring things and seeing progress is far more important in this context. This is not a giant NIH-funded grant. It’s a crossroads of parenting, teaching, and learning, and I for one am enjoying standing in the intersection.

Reinventing the self. Not really. Maybe just the site. This site, in fact.

This is a long overdue blog post, so I’ll just go with “better late than never.”


Back in January (did I mention this is long overdue?), I attended part of a workshop in our School of Nursing about e-portfolios. It got me thinking about this website and my general lack of what I would consider to be a formal e-portfolio of any kind. Deciding that perhaps I need some semblance of one, if I am to model these things, I suppose my next project will be a re-imagination of this website. So be on the lookout for changes, additions, and some reorganization in the near future. And thank you in advance for your patience if it looks a mess while it’s all going on. Your comments and suggestions are most welcome as I go through this process. First on my list is to get a CV up. Some people upload or embed a PDF file into their websites, some use the website itself and have pages reminiscent of a resume or CV. Others link to or embed a Google doc. I have not yet decided exactly what I will do but I have had a conversation or two with colleagues and poked around on their sites to see what they do. I’m leaning towards a combination of using the site itself and embedding a Google document.


I was asked about how I tend to use Twitter. Realizing that the spectrum of use is as wide as the great blue ocean, I will consider myself a fairly new tweeter. That being said, I can think of at least six ways that I have used Twitter over the last 16 months since I have started collaborating with the VCUALTLab team:

  1. Lurk and learn
  2. Tweet out blog posts
  3. Narrate (“live tweet”) from an event
  4. Engage in a specific synchronous chat
  5. Remember something someone says
  6. Ask for opinions
Kayleigh Mae sees the Atlantic Ocean for the first time.

Kayleigh Mae sees the Atlantic Ocean for the first time.

The fun thing is, when you use it for a different thing, and that thing clicks, that childlike feeling of excitement happens.

If I were to think about the continuing evolution of my exploration of Twitter, I’d say that I started out with the first thing on my list – the “lurk and learn.” I started using Twitter at work, so I followed all of my colleagues. Some of them have been on Twitter for a while, so I looked to see who else they were following and who followed them, to expand my network to people outside VCU. I found a public figure or two, like the Dalai Lama. I found journals like JAMA and The Lancet. I discovered the FDA and the CDC on Twitter too. My interest in integrative health and complementary/alternative medicine led me to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and its Center for Complementary & Integrative Health (NCCIH). I searched a few hashtags for personal interests too, like #Disney. I follow Walt Disney World, and my favorite Disney-related podcast, WDW Today. Through my favorite of the podcasters, Len Testa, I started to find more Disney Tweeps  (Twitter+people=Tweeps). I started out lurking. It’s like being at a party and listening to conversations, getting a feel for what people do and how. At some point, I started joining in. I also started tweeting out links to my website when I would post something new.

Of course, there is always live tweeting from an event, whether that event is a conference or a personal journey or trip. Most recently, I have tweeted with #VCUALTfest, which everyone should plan on coming to next May. That is all I will say about that, because that is a separate post waiting to happen. I have found Twitter useful during events like this not only for participating in back-channel conversations and seeing what is happening in other sessions, but also if I hear or see something I want to remember while at these events. It’s like I’m  journaling.  I also often tweet to Jonah Holland (@lewisginter) as I walk through Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens. She retweets my pictures, often identifying plants, flowers, and critters for me and those who follow her. I had a really fun experience as I was tweeting from Disney World last fall. I had just received a new Magic Band from my husband, and went to Guest Relations to get it activated, and the Cast Member who helped me (Kyle) commented on my e-mail address, and when I told him that Professor Figment was who I was everywhere, he said “OH! I follow you on Twitter!” Of course I followed him back right that second and had a few conversations with him over the rest of my visit.

 During one of my lurk and learn sessions (ok, I was maybe chatting a little bit too), I saw that NCCIH was about to have a live chat. They tweeted out to join them using the hashtag #SupplementChat. I did some lurking, some retweeting, and participated a bit in a discussion about safety and herb-medication interactions. I picked up several new followers during the chat hour and started following a few new people too.

 At some point, I realized that one Twitter stream was not enough for me to keep up with all of this at once. I have found Tweetdeck a useful tool for helping me organize the many conversations at once. I always have a column for the #VCUALTLab tweets, which come not only from my colleagues, but also anyone else in the Twitterverse who uses that hashtag in a tweet. I also have a column for #FOAMed (Free Open Access Meducation). There are a couple of groups that I follow as well. During a live chat like the one mentioned above, I make a new column for use during that chat. I look forward to continuing to expand and refine my network of Tweeps as I continue to engage with the Twitterverse and beyond. I hope you do too! Follow me @ProfFigment. I’ll see you there!


Community of Sparks?

Sometimes you just feel like doing something nice.

In my former position, I used to send “good luck” e-mails full of “pharmacovibes” to my students before big tests and during exam week, or congratulate them on big events and countdown to clerkships or graduation with them. I would post messages or Bitstrips on Facebook. It let them know I knew they had things going on other than just my course. It let them know I care.

In my current position, I no longer have a particular captive audience. I don’t have some number of students assigned to me in any fashion. Still, I felt the need to reach out. I had an idea. I would get my colleagues to help me. We would all write positive messages on post-it notes and put them all over the building for the students to read and find as they went through exam week. They could keep ones they liked. I had a vision of walls with hundreds of messages.

Well, that didn’t work out the way I had hoped.

I did get a few notes from several colleagues…not the volume I was hoping for, but they were supportive of my effort, for the most part. The fire code, on the other hand, was not so supportive. Policy indicated that one could not hang things without permission. It would be a fire hazard of epic proportion, to be letting anyone who wanted to hang stuff everywhere. This is not unreasonable, and makes perfect sense, but I had not considered it when I had my brilliant idea.

I would not be daunted – I would spread some positivity – somehow.

I could decorate my door, as long as I didn’t cover more than 40% of it. Here was the result:

The door

The note, entitled “SPARKS,” says “Please help yourself to a spark. Take one for a friend. Leave a new one if you’d like.” There were around 40 different quotes and sayings. Some had instructions: “Take a deep breath. Smile. Take one more. EXCELLENT!” Some had questions: “What are you thankful for today?” Some had messages from characters: “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than  you think. ~A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh.”  Some were song quotes: “One little spark, of inspiration, is at the heart, of all creation… ~The Sherman Brothers.”

I don’t get much traffic on the hall where my office is, but the students who came down the hall would stop and read, sometimes take one, sometimes discuss them with each other, sometimes talk to me, which I loved. I heard that it was a great idea, “Thank you for this; I really needed it,” that it was such a sweet thing to do, and other positive comments. It felt wonderful. I have been leaving them on the door overnight. Each morning, more are missing, and I replace them. This morning, someone left a new one! This is particularly exciting to me since I had not left any mechanism to make leaving one an easy task (I have since fixed that), and these students don’t know me at all.

New spark!

Yes, the scientist in me wants to study the phenomenon. I want data. I want to know how they felt before they read it. How they felt right after it. How they felt about the exam they took after getting one. Whether or not they took one for a friend. Perhaps I will ponder this more, but for now, I will just continue to let the sparks fly.

A leap forward

As I begin this exciting dive into educational cyberspace, I am finding myself a bit conflicted. I love this new job. I love the journey I am taking into building an online identity. I love the ideas that are sparked as I experience the process. I have also had moments of feeling lost. Yesterday, for the first time since 1995, I did not spend the first day of the semester amongst my students. Whether I was in the classroom with them or preparing to be at some point that week, I have always been with students – sitting in the lobby of the building with them, greeting them, or having lunch or a cup of tea with those who walk by my open office door if I actually decide to be in there for any length of time. I would reach out to this experience in subconscious ways I was not aware of until this past weekend and particularly yesterday, where those tentacles reaching for that connection seemed to be flailing. Sure, I saw their posts on Facebook about being back, and I am on a campus where there are students, but something in me felt somehow disconnected. I would reach for the computer to pull up the syllabus for the upcoming topics, look for the e-mail with the classroom schedule to put it on my calendar…I don’t have a syllabus or a schedule to check, because I’m not coordinating or teaching a class. I felt a huge void, and it was painful. Reconciling that deep feeling of loss with that of the excitement of my new role in the University proved to be exhausting.

Then today I realized….

I can teach, anyone, wherever I am, whatever I’m doing. I can make that as formal or informal as I’d like. I can develop a formal course for credit with measurable objectives for a specific audience and go through the process of curriculum committee approval. OR…I can start a thread on Reddit. I can create a MOOC. I can post things I am learning about in my new job on Facebook or Tweet about them, and some will learn, and some will teach me, as my students always have.

This likely seems like an obvious thing to many people, and those who know me might be thinking that I have always been one seeking innovative ideas for teaching and wanting to try them out, but the sudden realization of the mental constraints I was wrapped in and the bursting from those shackles into educational freedom was exhilarating!

Education is everywhere, in everything. Every interaction can teach something. The online world has given us endless possibilities for learning from and teaching each other. And I love that.

Am I ready for take off?

I really have no idea where this site will go, and honestly, I’m not thinking about what I’m writing right now. I’ve been told, by several different people, at several different times, that I should blog…about several different things. My two daughters (6 and 7 years old right now) and step-son (currently 8 years old) are a constant source of hilarity, frustration, new perspective, and love. My husband often writes quotes on my teacups, and it has been quite the source of conversation at times. I am a Disney fanatic and could write about Disney World all day long. I love tea. Between home and work, I likely have more varieties of tea than a Teavana store. I have started a journey into martial arts with Taekwondo and Tai Chi, long past my prime, whenever that was. I am a teacher. Some have told me I am a teacher with a capital “T.” I’m not so sure I’ve earned that yet, but I do know that I strive for it. My students often hear about my kids, Disney World, whatever tea I’m drinking that day, martial arts, and of course, it leads into whatever subject we are discussing in class that day. All that being said, I still don’t know where this is going.

“I don’t see any reason why I wouldn’t just stick with Professor Figment.”

That’s what I said when I was asked what my domain name would be if I had one. I’m a professor, and Figment, a little purple dragon who lives in Epcot, is my personal mascot. He is housed in an attraction called “Journey into Imagination.” He is, clearly, a figment thereof. His theme song (by Robert and Richard Sherman) says:

“One little spark of inspiration, is at the heart of all creation; right at the start of everything that’s new, one little spark lights up for you.”

And so it begins – the flight of Professor Figment.