Building Connectivity in Suburbia

Building Connectivity in Suburbia

Sunnyvale, Calif., wants to reinvent a 60's-era industrial office park as an innovation district. It's making progress but suburban sprawl is not an easy habit to break.

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The Great U.S. 460 Swamp

The Great U.S. 460 Swamp

VDOT had loads of warning that wetlands could kill the U.S. 460 project but the state charged ahead with a design-build contract that everyone knew could explode.

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Coming up: Car-Lite Burbs

Coming up: Car-Lite Burbs

A California developer is teaming with Daimler AG to bring buses, shuttles and ride sharing to an Orange County community -- with no government subsidies.

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Putting the “Garden” in Rain Garden

Putting the Garden in Rain Garden

Soon Virginians will start spending billions to meet tough storm-water regs. Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden wants to show how we can save the bay – and look really good doing it.

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Tech Insurrection

Tech Insurrection

Smart cities, says Anthony Townsend, will be forged by geeks, activists and civic hackers through bottom-up technological innovation.

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“The Icy Elegance of Arthur Ashe”

Arthur-Ashe-2 By Peter Galuszka

 Arthur Ashe is one of the finest athletes Virginia ever produced and is well known for his work in social and social justice. There have been been many books written about him, including his autobiography, but here’s one of the latest, written by a professor at Georgia Southern University. Here’s a book review I did for Style Weekly:

The Life magazine cover photo from Sept. 20, 1968, nails it.

In traditional tennis whites contrasting against his dark skin stands a lean, intense, Richmond-born athlete at the net clutching a tennis racket. The headline reads: “He topped the tennis world. The Icy Elegance of Arthur Ashe.”

Ashe was all that and more. He spent his childhood hitting the ball about segregated Brook Field Park in Richmond’s North Side and endured decades of racism at home and abroad. By 1968, he was using his vicious backhand and killer serve — 26 aces in one match — to become the first black player to win the U.S. Open. It was just one rung on a marvelous tennis career in a sport that had been almost completely closed to members of his race.

Ashe was anything but conventional. His father, Arthur Sr., was a strict disciplinarian who taught him courtesy and responsibility. As a gentlemanly young player in the 1950s, he quietly endured insults from the likes of the Country Club of Virginia, where he was unwelcome to play in city tournaments. He ended up working the all-black American Tennis Association circuit before finally escaping Richmond’s racism to St. Louis and then the University of California at Los Angeles, where he emerged as a top U.S. Davis Cup team member.

Along the way, he slowly developed a sense of social justice that burned in him until his death in 1993 from AIDS, which he acquired in a blood transfusion during heart surgery. Ashe’s rise as an activist against racism is well documented in Eric Allen Hall’s new book, “Arthur Ashe: Tennis and Justice in the Civil Rights Era,” (Johns Hopkins University Press). It should be of special interest locally, with Ashe’s statue standing in marked contrast just down Monument Avenue from the Confederate generals.

To read more, click here:

Burbs Beware: Office Jobs Moving Back to D.C.

dc_office_spaceNot only are Millennials migrating to the Washington metropolitan region’s urban core, it seems that businesses are, too, in a reversal of the decades-long trend of businesses moving out of the central city to outlying counties.

Vacancy rates have risen in Washington, D.C., due to the contraction of legal services and government contracting tied to federal government spending. But according to commercial real estate firm JLL, private-sector tenants from Maryland and Washington accounted for 300,000 square feet of new leasing activity in the District. Reports Virginia Business magazine:

Doug Mueller, a senior vice president at JLL, noted that the migration is heavily populated by associations, technology companies and professional services firms. “The quality and location of office space with easy access to mass transit, abundant amenities and housing options also has a visible and tangible impact on attracting and retaining top talent,” he said in a statement.

According to JLL’s Office Insight report for the third quarter, since the start of 2014, a total of 21,200 private-sector office jobs have been added to the metro D.C. economy.

In an office market with tens of millions of square feet of space, 300,000 square feet is a rounding error. What’s significant is not the volume of space being occupied — although 21,200 office jobs is nothing to sneeze at — but the trend: jobs migrating back to the urban core. For decades, Virginia enjoyed a huge competitive advantage over the District with its dysfunctional government, poverty, crime and decaying neighborhoods. Now, despite bad schools, high taxes and expensive real estate, D.C. has something that educated Millennials and the businesses that employ them are looking for — walkable urbanism.

Next question: Is this trend unique in Virginia to the Washington metropolitan region or is it occurring in Hampton Roads, Richmond and the smaller metros as well?

– JAB

How to Revive a Lagging Regional Economy

Graphic credit: James V. Koch and Gary W. Wagner. Click to enlarge image.

Graphic credit: James V. Koch and Gary W. Wagner. Click to enlarge image.

by James A. Bacon

Dr. James V. Koch’s “The State of the Region: Hampton Roads 2014” report probably won’t get much attention outside of Hampton Roads, but it should. Not only is Hampton Roads the state’s second largest metropolitan economy, which means that its fortunes and misfortunes send large economic ripples across the state, but Koch’s observations about the region’s antiquated approach to economic development apply to many places in Virginia.

The message delivered by Koch and co-author Gary A. Wagner to an audience of more than 1,000 at the Norfolk Waterside Hotel was none too encouraging. After getting clobbered during the recession of 2007-2008, the Hampton Roads economy has been slow to bounce back. Employment growth has trailed state and national averages by a wide margin, as shown in the graph above. The stagnation in job growth can be explained in large measure by the impact of defense cutbacks on the region’s largest industry, the military. Comparing Department of Defense procurement awards 16 months pre- and post-sequestration (March 2013), Hampton Roads was down 24.4%. Moreover, sequestration will continue to squeeze as the military downshift continues and the Pentagon shifts its strategic focus to Asia.

“I think the Hampton Roads region is just starting to feel the effects of sequestration,” Wagner said in his presentation, according to an ODU recap.  “And as bad as things are (because of forecast freezes in DOD spending for the next two years) it could get worse. It’s a bumpy couple of years ahead for Hampton Roads.”

The Port of Virginia is a bright spot. After losing market share following the recession, the port reversed course and regained market share for three years running and now commands 17.2% of the East Coast market, a new peak. The expansion of the Panama Canal, which will encourage the use of more big ships, will confer a competitive advantage to the deep-channeled Virginia ports for a few years at least. But another traditional industry, tourism, remains stuck below its 2007 apex, as measured by hotel revenue. And housing prices have recovered less than a third of the value lost during the housing bust; the number of distressed homes, while improved,  remains historically high.

There are no “quick fixes” for what ails the Hampton Roads economy, Koch said. The region needs to adopt a long-term perspective.  “The bottom line is that economic development is a long-term process.” The region needs to invest more in projects with a long-term payoff like K-12 education, infrastructure and research and less in high-visibility projects like convention centers, hotels, arenas and entertainment centers. “We delude ourselves if we think we can short-cut [the economic-development] process by constructing flashy facilities that primarily redistribute income within our own region.”

The conventional wisdom on economic development “is no more,” he declared.  For decades, “economic development” in Hampton Roads, as across Virginia,  focused on attracting new firms and to do what it took — offering land, tax incentives, etc. — to attract them. But abundant research indicates that 80% to 85% of locational decisions are not influenced by such give-aways. “Incentives” amount to a wealth transfer to businesses that would have made the same decision anyway.

The hot idea in economic development today is growing businesses locally — economic “gardening,” to use a term coined by David Birch in the 1980s. Make life easier for small businesses by giving them access to high-speed Internet connections, providing cheap or temporary space, and connecting them to academic, financing, engineering and marketing resources. While most small businesses stay small, some become growth stars that account for immense investment and job creation.

Hampton Roads, always a laggard, recorded the lowest level of business start-ups among nine Virginia regions from 2010 to 2012. Rather than subsidizing selected businesses, Koch advocates an approach of identifying impediments to growth and helping firms overcome those impediments. “What would it take for one of our new, small microbreweries to grow and access new markets? For Liebherr to develop and implement a new cost-saving technology? For BAE Systems to become a major player in off-shore wind generation? Let’s find out! Let’s garden our regional economy.”

Among other ideas Koch explored: creating “innovation districts,” where knowledge-based start-ups are clustered geographically, often in proximity to a research university, where easy interaction stimulates innovation;  promoting university Research & Development at ODU, Eastern Virginia Medical College and the College of William & Mary; and supporting job and skill development programs and apprenticeships.

Bacon’s bottom line: Koch is spot-on about the need to think differently about economic development in Virginia. At the top of the list of bad public investments — let’s call a spade a spade… of stupid public investments — are glitzy convention centers, arenas and sports centers. For the most part, all they do is redistribute entertainment dollars within a region at great public cost. If a region is prosperous and a market exists, the private sector will build those facilities on its own. Second on the list of bad public investments are “incentives” for attracting new businesses. Most of that money is wasted. Better to invest in helping citizens gain the education and skills they need to compete in a knowledge-based economy.

Now, if only we could persuade Koch to apply his keen analytical insights to understanding the pervasive effect of human settlement patterns on a region’s economic competitiveness. Then we’d really be getting somewhere.

Virginia Students Achieve SAT Gains

SAT_scores

Table credit: Virginia Department of Education

Some good news about College Board SAT scores in Virginia to balance out the dismal news about Standard of Learning (SOL) pass rates: Public school students eked out gains in average SAT scores in 2014, continuing to outperform their counterparts nationally. Average public school reading scores improved by three points on the 200- to 800-point scale, while math scores gained a point and writing lost a point.

Virginia public school juniors and seniors ranked fourth nationally for the percentage (19.2%) earning a qualifying score (at least 3 out of 5) in one or more exams.

While Asians and whites continue to earn higher SAT scores on average, Virginia’s solid performance comes after years of steady expansion in the number of black, Hispanic and low-income students taking the exam. According to the College Board, 69% of Virginia public school graduates took the SAT in 2014.

SAT_participation

Image credit: College Board 10th Annual Report to the Nation

Also, black and Hispanic students out-performed their peers nationally. Indeed, Virginia Hispanics out-performed Hispanics nationally by a wide margin, possibly reflecting the large concentration of Hispanic students in Northern Virginia, a region of that sets higher educational expectations and has one of the best educated populations of the entire country.

Forty-five percent of Virginia’s 2014 public school SAT takers achieved the College Board’s benchmark for college readiness, according to a Virginia Department of Education press release. The benchmark score of 1550 ( reading, mathematics and writing sections combined) indicates a 65% likelihood of achieving a B-minus grade-point average or higher during the first year of college. Nationwide, 42.6% of SAT takers met the readiness standard.

Bacon’s bottom line: Virginia’s population is bifurcating along educational lines. On the one hand, an increasing percentage of high school students are achieving college-ready standards. On the other, a large and intractable percentage are failing to meet basic standards of proficiency. To a large extent, K-12 educational achievement is economic destiny. As the economy increasingly rewards cognitive skills over manual skills, that divide will become more and more pronounced. Scary prospect.

– JAB

Good Ruling on Congressional Redistricting

The 3rd Congressional District

The 3rd Congressional District

 By Peter Galuszka

A panel of federal judges in Richmond has scrambled the carefully laid plans of legislators, most of them Republicans, to pack African-American voters into one congressional district to give the GOP an advantage in some of the  state’s 10 other districts.

The panel of U.S. District Court judges decreed that the General Assembly’s 2012 decision to draw new boundaries in the 3rd Congressional District stretching from Richmond east to several Tidewater cities was in error.

The state has until next April to redraw the 3rd District, now represented by U.S. Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, a Democrat who is the state’s only African American congressman.

That will undoubtedly impact other districts represented by white Republicans including U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes of the 4th District, U.S. Rep. Scott Ringell of the 2nd District and Robert J. Whitman of the 1st District.

This is indeed an interesting start to what could end up being a messy line of dominoes falling. And it shows just how wrongheaded politicians are when they tinker with voters by race by packing people of color in one district so races in other ones will be decidedly less competitive.

It also raises other questions about ways the GOP is doing its best to minimize the influence of young and non-white voters through the use of voter identification cards and other means.

To get an idea of how nuts the 3rd District is, look at a map. Moving west to east, it goes through eastern Richmond and Henrico County, swoops down the James River peninsula, and hop-scotches parts of the 1st District to include heavily African-American parts of Newport News and Hampton. Then, the District crosses Hampton Roads to include heavily black parts of Norfolk and Portsmouth and then heads west again to take also-black parts of counties on the south shore of the James River.

Scott is Virginia's only African-American Congressman

Scott is Virginia’s only African-American Congressman

This scheme packs African-Americans into one unit while mostly-white parts of Virginia Beach, Norfolk and Chesapeake and Williamsburg are covered in the 1st, 2nd and 4th Districts, all represented by white Republicans. Mostly-black Petersburg, a city of 32,000, was taken out of the 4th District and put in Scott’s 3rd District, giving white Republican Forbes of the 4th District an advantage.

Democrats such as State Sen. Mamie Locke have long complained about schemes that hop-scotch geography to give white candidates an advantage. They want tighter, more contiguous districts.

One can tell just how serious this is when Del. William Howell, the Republican House Speaker, had nothing to say about the court’s decision. He will have to somehow help navigate drawing up new district plans.

He’s really under the gun. He can’t just set up a road block as he did with Medicaid expansion and tell Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe where to stick it. If Howell shuns a bipartisan effort, then McAuliffe would likely veto whatever he and his colleagues come up with. Then it would go back to the judges to decide.

It is in Virginia’s interest to make sure all of its districts and not just ones for Congress are shaped to allow for more competitive races. Very few elections for state positions are contested. This, in turn, ruins bipartisan consensus and makes the primaries, usually for Republicans, more consequential than the races themselves. The results are either legislative gridlock or laws that have little to do with the wishes of many voters.

Another issue that needs to be addressed is what Mother Jones magazine has identified as a large-scale, national effort, mostly by Republicans, to make it harder for minorities and young people to vote. They tend to vote Democratic and helped Barack Obama win the presidency in 2008 and in 2012.

Since 2012, 22 states have passed new voting restriction laws that shorten voting hours or require a government-issued identification card or proof of citizenship. North Carolina has perhaps the worst of such measures. There are shorter hours and no more same-day registration to vote. It even gives the nod to “poll watchers” who can stand around outside polling places and hassle voters about their eligibility to vote. I guess that means if you look black or Hispanic or youthful, you get rousted by vigilantes. The odd part is that states, including Virginia, went for more restriction when there wasn’t much evidence of voter fraud.

To be sure, Virginia’s redistricting efforts were begun by federal initiatives such as the Voting Rights Act which gave Bobby Scott an opportunity to win as an African-American in the early 1990s. The Voting Rights Act was meant to ensure that minorities were represented but that concept has been cynically morphed into a Frankenstein that keeps minorities “packed” in a district or districts so whites maintain their hold on most of the other districts in a state.

The court’s decision is most welcome. Let’s hope it grows into a movement to return democratic competition and ends undemocratic restrictions like demanding extra and unnecessary pieces of identification for qualified voters.

 

Virginia: The Energy Guzzler Capital of the East Coast

WalletHub

by James A. Bacon

Virginia is the 43rd most energy efficient state in the country, which is another way of saying that it is the 6th most energy inefficient among the 48 states included in a national ranking by the number crunchers at WalletHub. The finding is based on the publication’s energy efficiency rankings in homes and automobiles, two of the largest categories of energy consumption. The methodology has lots of limitations but it does provide an interesting place to start thinking about measuring energy efficiency.

WalletHub calculates home-related energy efficiency by tabulating the total amount of energy consumed per capita by residential homes and adjusting for degree days. (Degree days are a measure of how much temperatures vary from a base of 65° Fahrenheit.) Houses in a state like Virginia, with a relatively mild climate, might require less energy for heating and cooling than, say, a state like Arizona, which is subject to scorching heat, but that doesn’t mean Virginia houses are more energy efficient. Adjusting for degree days gets closer to an apples-to-apples comparison. By this measure, Virginia ranked 35th among the 48 states.

The calculation for automobile energy efficiency measures what is essentially the average miles per gallon of the state’s automotive fleet — annual vehicle miles driven adjusted by the gallons of gasoline consumed. By this measure, Virginia also ranked 35th in the country.

The most obvious limitation to this data is that miles per gallon measures the energy efficiency of cars, not transportation systems. You could put every Virginia driver in a Toyota Prius (50 miles per gallon), but if every worker drove solo to their job and racked up 20,000 miles per year, you’d still have an energy-guzzling state. Human settlement patterns that enable people to walk, ride bicycles, carpool, take transit and drive shorter distances to their destinations are more energy efficient, all other things being equal, than human settlement patterns that put everyone in a car and requires driving long distances between destinations. Accordingly, gasoline consumption per capita might be a better measure. (And even that is a rough measure that does not take into account the use of electricity and natural gas as transportation fuels.)

WalletHub’s calculation for housing energy-efficiency is more defensible, although it does not tell us everything that would be useful to know. To what extent does energy consumption in Virginia’s residential housing sector simply reflect a stock of bigger houses? Maybe Virginia has more McMansions than other states! I’ll bet a lot of McMansions have state-of-the-art heat pumps, zone heating and Nest thermostats. But no matter how much insulation and no matter how many Energy Star appliances,  McMansion won’t be as energy efficient as a Manhattan apartment building, even adjusted for square footage, which limits reduces exposure to the fluctuating temperatures of the outdoors. And that gets us back to human settlement patterns. Some patterns are more energy-efficient than others. Virginia’s housing sector may be energy intensive not because of a failure to adopt Energy Star standards but because people are more likely to abide in single family dwellings, which are inherently less energy efficient.

Bacon’s bottom line: Measuring and ranking energy efficiency is a worthwhile exercise. WalletHub at least prompts people to start thinking about these issues. Its methodology is far too primitive to give us much useful information, much less to suggest meaningful public policy solutions. The experts consulted by WalletHub focused mainly on technology solutions — solar photo-voltaic electricity, LED lights and the like — and what kind of government incentives it might take to get people to adopt them. None of them touched upon the role of human settlement patterns. But that’s where the big savings will come from.

– JAB

Health Insurance as Driver of Income Inequality

Road to serfdom

If you want to address increasing income inequality in the United States, a good place to start would be to bring runaway health insurance costs under control. Health care costs — not globalization, automation or corporate greed — are the biggest driver in income inequality today, argue Mark J. Warshawsky and Andrew G. Biggs in the Wall Street Journal today. Warshawsky is a visiting scholar at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center.

Here’s what the usual media analysis doesn’t tell you about the growing income gap. If you compare total compensation — wages/salaries plus benefits — low-income workers actually fared better than high-income workers between 1999 and 2006. Citing Bureau of Labor Statistics data, Warshawsky and Biggs note:

For low-income workers, total pay and benefits rose by 41% from 1999 through 2006. But those workers’ wages increased only by 28%, barely outpacing inflation.  The reason: Employer costs for those workers health costs nearly doubled. …

Total compensation for [those earning $250,000 or more a year] rose by 36% from 1999 through 2006. That’s actually less than for low-income workers. But the one-percenters’ health costs rose from just 4% of compensation in 1999 to only 4.3% in 2006.

The authors do not explain why they cite data only through 2006 when data is available through June 2014. Whatever the reason, it appears that the cost of benefits continues to outpace wages/salaries. According to the BLS, for the quarter ending June 2014, “wages and salaries (which make up about 70 percent of compensation costs) increased 0.6%, and benefits (which make up the remaining 30 percent of compensation) increased 1.0 percent.

In other words, much if not most of the perceived increase in income inequality in recent years is an artifact of the tax code. Employer-paid health insurance is not taxable, thus not reported as income, while wages/salaries are taxable and reported as income. Eliminate the tax break for employer insurance and the growth in the wage gap disappears.

If we are sincere about wanting to reduce income inequality, the first place we should be looking is at inflation in health care costs. Here’s a real irony that Warshawsky and Biggs do not explore: Insofar as Obamacare shifts the cost of health care to employer-sponsored health insurance plans — I have a friend, a small business owner, whose health insurance is scheduled to go up 35% next year — it doesn’t just destroy job creation, it shifts compensation from taxable income to non-taxable health insurance, thus aggravating the reported income gap.

Meanwhile, the low interest rate policy of the Federal Reserve Board rewards the Top 1% by pushing up the price of stocks and bonds and punishes small savers by depressing interest rates. It is no accident that income inequality is worse under Obama than Bush. Perhaps Obama acolytes can cite the Warshawsky-Biggs research as evidence that the administration’s policies haven’t been as unfair to the poor as they seem to be.

– JAB

Petersburg’s Renaissance

PetersburgBy Peter Galuszka

Petersburg has been a special place for me.

Years ago, when I’d pass through, I always felt I were driving onto the set of a 1950s or 1960s movie set in the South such as “Cape Fear” starring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum. A somnambulant ease pervades the place as does the down-home friendliness you don’t get in pretentious Richmond 30 miles to the north up Interstate 95.

I got to know Petersburg a lot better when my two daughters went going to high school there at the Appomattox Regional Governors School for the Arts and Technology. Drawing from localities from Richmond to Isle of Wight and Franklin, the school body was bright, diverse and creative.

Driving my children if they missed the bus from Chesterfield was a pain but the effort was worth it since they had some fine teachers and avoided the White Toast trap of entitlement one gets into in more affluent suburban schools.

That’s when I was introduced to Petersburg’s nascent arts community. I went to plenty of “Fridays for the Arts” celebration and hung out at Sycamore Street with the kids.

Returning again recently, I found that the arts scene is really taking off. They  seem to be at a sustainable critical mass.

It is due primarily to the city’s policy of remaking itself by setting up an arts district that is nationally recognized as historic and offering tax credits and abatements for newcomers to renovate properties they buy from the city. The big expansion at the Fort Lee military base in 2005 really helped (although it’s due for a cut).

I wrote about it in a cover story in Style Weekly. The heroes and heroines are far-sighted city officials, arts willing to risk a lot remaking some truly historic buildings and the next wave, restaurants that aren’t owned by franchises, coming in.

Not everything is wonderful. Petersburg still has a weak public school system and a poverty rate of 28 percent, a point higher than Richmond’s. But it also doesn’t have the in-fighting among powerful interest groups that far bigger Richmond does. There’s no endless debate over building a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom (to line pockets of developers) or keeping it at the Boulevard.

There’s no high level brinksmanship about where to put a Children’s Hospital.

In Richmond, you see, ball fans and sick children are the last ones to be worried about. What matters is Mayor Dwight Jones, Bill Goodwin, Michael Rao, the Timmons Group and the editors of the Richmond Times Dispatch. They are important and you are not.

You don’t get that in Petersburg. The little city (population 32,000) that has a historical richness than rivals Richmond’s doesn’t think it is better than anyone else.

Et Tu, McAuliffe?

mcauliffeBy Peter Galuszka

Sure, parents want to help their children but in the case of former State Sen. Phillip Puckett, it is getting ridiculous.

And the latest disclosure in this morning’s Washington Post makes the Terry McAuliffe administration look just as sleazy as their Republican counterparts.

Puckett, of course was a Democratic senator who held a key vote when McAuliffe, also a Democrat, was desperately trying to get past a GOP road block in the General Assembly to somehow expand Medicaid health coverage to some of the 40,000 low income people who might be eligible.

GOPers knew that Puckett’s daughter, Martha Puckett Ketron, wanted a job as a District Court judge but could not be appointed as long as she had a relative in the Senate. So, they pitched a deal where Puckett would resign on the eve of the key Medicaid vote, throwing the decision the Republican way.

In exchange, Puckett might get a six figure job with the infamous Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission, thanks, in part to the influence of the powerful Terry and Jerry Kilgore brothers. That would clear the way for Puckett’s daughter’s judgeship.

It all came out and the FBI is probing.

Now, it turns out that, Paul Reagan, McAuliffe’s chief of staff, left a curious voice mail on Puckett’s phone on the eve of the vote. It suggested that Puckett’s daughter could get some kind of high profile state job if he stayed in the Senate and voted McAuliffe’s way.

So much for McAuliffe taking the high ground on ethics reform following the spectacular corruption conviction of former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell.

Here Come the OOCs

Gardner Campbell (left) and Christina Engelbart.

Gardner Campbell (left) and Christina Engelbart.

Is there such thing as an OOC? We’ve all heard of MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses). But what do you call it when the enrollment in an online course that’s open to the public but only 100 students sign up? An Open Online Course?

Whatever you call it, Virginia Commonwealth University taught such a course over the summer entitled, “Living the Dreams: Digital Investigation and Unfettered Minds.” The Richmond Times-Dispatch profiled the course today.

VCU officials refer to the course, properly speaking, as a “connectivist” MOOC. “It’s not about content delivery. It’s about being able to act as individual learners in a shared conceptual space,” explained course designer Gardner Campbell, vice provost for learning innovation and student success. The idea, as the T-D paraphrases him, was to teach students how to use digital media to to think more deeply about problems and share solutions on a global scale.

A second course this fall connects VCU students with local non-profit organizations to develop social media strategies for The World Pediatric Project and the Preemptive Love Coalition, both of which provide medical services to children overseas. What makes the courses different — and potentially valuable — is that they are open to non-students, including professionals working for the non-profits.

“Technology was just a steppingstone for the real vision, which was to help the world become a better place by figuring out better ways that we can all come together, work together, think together to solve big problems,” said Christina Engelbart, daughter of the man who invested the computer mouse and graphical user interface among other things, who provided $10,000 in scholarships to support the VCU program.

I’ll admit, that sounds a little too idealistic and kumbaya for my taste. But that’s OK. It doesn’t matter what I think. What’s important is that VCU is joining other universities in experimenting with what online courses can accomplish. I’m particularly intrigued by the idea of linking students with non-profits to accomplish real-world goals. My hunch is that MOOCs (or OOCs) will morph into hundreds of different forms, customized for the specific task at hand. For mastering some bodies of knowledge, OOCs and MOOCs will never replace traditional classroom learning. But for others, they will. Education will be richer as a result.

Now, if we can just find a way for OOCs to make education less expensive.

– JAB