Origin Story: Online@BSE

Even before smartphones and MySpace, YouTube and TikTok, Professor Glynda A. Hull was thinking about using cutting-edge digital technologies for teaching and learning. When the global pandemic hit and work, school, and even personal lives (i.e. those awkward pandemic family Zoom meetings with extended family members) went online, Hull was already at the forefront of innovation. 

In the mid-1990s, she was first introduced to this world through working with Joe Lambert at the Center for Digital Storytelling, a nonprofit organization based in Berkeley, Calif. Through multi-day workshops in the days before smartphones and even iMovie, Lambert was giving people the tools to tell their stories — personal and political — with digital technology. 

Hull took one of the workshops. She came in thinking that she would make a digital story about spectacular horseback spills in Mississippi where she grew up. Lambert pressed her to think more deeply about the story she wanted to tell: perhaps, he said, it was more about her connection to family and the way she felt when her dad brought out the horses during her visits home from her urban academic life in California. 

“I saw the kind of wonder and pleasure of learning in the process of storytelling that you didn’t sometimes see in most classrooms,” said Hull of the experience. “I wanted to find a way to grab this wonderful power of digital storytelling and spread it.” 

And that she did. She took this work to the Prescott Joseph Center (a community center in West Oakland), public high schools and other schools that serve communities of color throughout Oakland. Hull’s team, which included an intergenerational and interdisciplinary team of graduate and undergraduate students as well as dedicated staff members, worked with youth to tell digital stories and connect to technology in transformative ways. 

When YouTube appeared in 2008, they were able to share these stories beyond national boundaries and connect kids around the world. The team even created its own private social media platform between 2007 and 2017, which provided a safe space for young people to connect, share digital creations, and build community across vast distances. Through the decade-long effort, students in west Oakland, Richmond, Calif., and New York City connected in meaningful ways with students in South Africa, Norway, and later (under the leadership of Lizárraga as a PhD student) in Colombia and Mexico. 

Hull and her team’s vision across the years has always been to think deeply about online teaching and learning that doesn’t just transfer a regular lecture or classroom setting to a virtual world in static ways. She was never a fan of the MOOCs — Massive Open Online Courses — model that was perceived to be the next big thing in online education. 

Universities around the world, including Berkeley,  were “agog about MOOCs” and that “MOOCs were going to take over the world,” she said. When her research team analyzed the content and structure of the MOOCs, their hearts fell. 

“We didn’t see deep engagement among the students. We saw talking head videos. We saw asynchronous instruction. We saw canned materials. We didn’t see anyone taking advantage of the affordances of social media platforms that had taken the world by storm,” Hull explained. 

“We said, we can do better than this. Let us put our energies toward imagining what online instruction can be. Let us take the things we learned about the power of storytelling, take the affordances of social media and embed those in learning management systems, let us think about what we know about teaching and learning for heaven’s sakes, let us think about what we know from the learning sciences about how students can engage in consequential learning and let us apply that to higher education and online instruction.” 

As a precursor to O@BSE, Hull’s team created the “Suite-C tools” to facilitate this kind of consequential online education. The tools, now used in online classrooms throughout the UC system, were used and developed for Berkeley undergraduate students and incorporate best pedagogical practices for online education. For example, an “asset library” that is populated by individually and collaboratively-created multimedia assignments give students opportunities to engage with each other through a modality they use in their everyday digital lives. 

Another tool called the “Impact Studio” provides student-facing data analytics that allows class participants to monitor how often they connect with other individuals in a class, and build new connections. These are only examples of the many innovations Hull’s team continues to develop. 

eight members of the o at b s e team in front of a wall of computer monitors

Members of the O@BSE team. Photo by Jim Block.

I saw the kind of wonder and pleasure of learning in the process of storytelling that you didn’t sometimes see in most classrooms. I wanted to find a way to grab this wonderful power of digital storytelling and spread it.
Professor Glynda A. Hull