COVA and CSLE through the DLL Program

As I near the end of my journey in the Digital Learning & Leading (DLL) program, it’s helpful to reflect on some of the overarching themes throughout the program. The two most common acronyms that have come up are COVA (Choice, Ownership, and Voice in Authentic learning opportunities)  and CSLE (Creating Significant Learning Environments) . These themes, both in practice and in course content, are woven into the very fabric of the DLL program.

This can of course be an adjustment when one is accustomed to–for lack of a better word–traditional educational environments. I remember struggling in the first course or two in the program, not because the assignments were too hard, but because they didn’t seem like much of a challenge. I’d skated through high school and college (a disturbingly long time ago) on doing what I needed to do to get by. When I got to these courses, I immediately dropped back into those patterns. What I quickly learned was that the assignments weren’t going to challenge me, but that they were going to make it apparent whether I was challenging myself.

By the time I felt like I was hitting my stride in the program, I discovered that there was often not a lot of direct relation between the assignments themselves and what I was actually learning. Rather, they gave me enough structure to force me to work on it (instead of watching Netflix reruns again) but enough freedom to dig in deep where it was most meaningful to my circumstances.

My innovation project, the central point of the DLL program, changed a lot throughout the program too. At first, I was focused on using makerspaces and the maker mindset  to create learning environments. This would have been a fun, exciting project to work on, but as I looked more at my college, it was clear that this type of project wasn’t solving a problem pertinent to my role and institution. I finally settled on a project to help with developmental education, a perennial problem in higher education in general and community colleges in specific. Even after settling on that as a focus, though, the research and the various courses took the project in very different direction. In one particular course, the assignments just didn’t seem to fit with the direction I had been heading, so I focused on the academic advising aspect and things started to fall into place a little better. This was the biggest single shift to my innovation project, but each of the courses allowed me to change direction a little bit at a time.

What I’ve described above is the COVA model at work. By giving me real choice, I was able to take ownership of my learning. The authentic assignments gave me more choices and allowed me to develop and use my voice in my own real-world environment. What has really been exciting about the COVA approach is how cyclical it is. Each choice I make, each authentic assignment I complete, causes greater ownership and more opportunities to make choices and develop deeper authenticity and voice.

Even though I am not a classroom teacher, I do not see that as an impediment to implementing COVA in my day-to-day work. As a leader in my institution, I have begun looking for more opportunities to give up a measure of control and let others develop ownership in their areas by giving them choice. While my management mantra has long been to “hire good people and then get out of their way” (I don’t know where I got this, but some variation has been attributed to Steve Jobs, Lee Iacocca, Ronald Reagan, and many others), this program has helped me to be more intentional about giving choices and thinking through how to influence others in my organization—whether I’m in a position of leadership or not .

Another way I will be able to promote COVA and CSLE in my organization is by making sure the college has the infrastructure for CSLE both in online and face-to-face environments. We have a good environment (Instructure’s Canvas) for online classes, and as part of the Online Learning Committee at SVCC, I am able to help set up the structure and policies to ensure quality online learning environments. I also am able to make sure that classrooms and instructors have the technology they need to reinforce COVA and CSLE in our classes.


Harapnuik, D. (2010, May 10). CSLE [Blog]. It’s About Learning.
Grenny, J., Patterson, K., Maxfield, D., McMillan, R., & Switzler, A. (2013). Influencer: The new science of leading change (2nd ed.). McGraw-Hill Education.
Harapnuik, D., Cummings, C., & Thibodeaux, T. (2016, September 30). COVA model. It’s About Learning.
Dougherty, D. (2013). The maker mindset. In Design, make, play growing the next generation of STEM innovators (pp. 7–16). Routledge.

A Change of Focus for My Innovation Plan

In recent months, it has become clear to me that I need to shift focus for my innovation plan, so I wanted to take a moment here to explain that shift and how it came about.

What’s Not Changing

I became interested in developmental education because it’s one of the most clear, well-documented problems affecting higher education, and community colleges in particular. However, as clearly understood a problem as it is, the solutions are anything but clear. To my mind, this is a perfect place to perform research and try experiments. Everyone is hungry for a solution and actually willing to try things (even if that means failing miserably).

After I started digging into it, I became passionate about developmental education. There is so much squandered potential there, and, most importantly, I could see myself and my kids in those students being slowly rejected by a higher education system that’s trying desperately to help them (and I believe they REALLY ARE trying their best to help).

What is Changing

I have slowly come to the realization that my plan to develop these online, self-directed bridge courses was just not going to work. The main reason it wouldn’t work is that I simply wouldn’t be able to make it happen. I’m not a teacher. I’m not developing courses. I don’t have connections into the high schools to get buy-in from that side. Another reason is that, as I started paying closer attention to these issues, I started noticing that a lot more people are working on similar things. Unlike me, they are in the trenches and able to make things happen.

As I was developing a professional development plan, though, I focused on one section of my plan—academic advising—and things started to get easier and ideas started to flow. COVA: Choice, Ownership, and Voice through Authentic Learning This, once again, is the COVA model in action. Because I had a choice, I developed increased ownership in the learning process, so I was able to find my voice and my learning was more authentic.

The “Discussion” section of my literature review strongly hints at the direction I’ll be heading. I’ve decided to focus on the academic advising process, making sure that advisors have the data they need to be able to identify students who will need extra assistance but giving them the ability to apply COVA in their own area of expertise–helping students. It’s exciting and more importantly, it’s something I can actually accomplish.

Scratch-ing the Itch to Program

scratch programming blocks photo
Photo by andresmh

I’m late to the party, I realize. I’ve seen the user- and kid-friendly programming blocks before. In fact, I’ve even used a version of them when learning to develop mobile apps. But what spurred me to introduce my kids to the Scratch platform was when I learned about the user community and that all projects are open-source and remixable.

My kids have–like most kids–been developing in Minecraft, so I was looking for a next step for them to extend those skills. Scratch is the perfect fit. They have complete creative freedom. My oldest’s first project is a lab building game, my younger son’s has growing and shrinking dragons and robots, and my daughter’s is a “beautiful ballerina.”

As I begin a class on significant learning environments, it’s helpful to see such a great example of one in action. It’s also a perfect encapsulation of the COVA model. Since they have complete creative control, they eagerly take ownership of learning the platform, use and develop their own voice, and create projects that are authentic to them.

COVA and Maker Mindset at Google

Brian Basgen of Emerson College sparked a great discussion on of one of my learning networks (Educause CIO Constituent Listserv) about what people are reading , and Luke Fernandez’s response really got me thinking. He recommended The History of Google from the Internet History Podcast , which is a terrific exploration of the origins and history of the internet behemoth Google. As I read it, I picked up on a lot of themes related to the maker mindset  and the COVA (choice, ownership, voice, authenticity) model .

Because Larry and Sergey were given choice in their authentic learning experiences, they took ownership of their ideas and created a company imbued with their unique voice. They are icons of the maker mindset and as a result were able to make an impact by building arguably the most influential internet company of all time.

Following are a few selected quotations from the article, but it’s well worth a full read (or listen):


Larry and Sergey both grew up to respect research, academic study, mathematics and, especially, computers. And it turned out they both had inquisitive minds that believed in the power of knowledge to overcome any obstacle, intellectual or practical. Each had been inculcated into this spirit of intellectual fearlessness at a young age.


“You can’t understand Google,” early Google employee Marissa Mayer has insisted, “unless you know that both Larry and Sergey were Montessori kids. It’s really ingrained in their personalities. To ask their own questions, do their own things. Do something because it makes sense, not because some authority figure told you. In a Montessori school, you go paint because you have something to express or you just want to do it that afternoon, not because the teacher said so. This is baked into how Larry and Sergey approach problems. They’re always asking, why should it be like that? It’s the way their brains were programmed early on.”


“It wasn’t that they [Page and Brin] sat down and said, ‘Let’s build the next great search engine,’” said Rajeev Motwani, who was Brin’s academic advisor. “They were trying to solve interesting problems and stumbled upon some neat ideas.”


Part of this was simple frugality, a habit that would serve them well when the dotcom bubble burst in a few short years. But a lot of it was Page and Brin’s ingrained Montessori philosophy: they never met an engineering problem they couldn’t solve themselves. Google didn’t take pages from the established Silicon Valley playbook because, in a way, they had never bought into it. They didn’t try to Get Big Fast. Instead, Page and Brin were almost manically focused on endlessly iterating and improving upon their Big Idea, making sure it was the most comprehensive, reliable and—most importantly—speedy search engine in the world. 



Based on the amount of growth I have observed in myself thus far in the Digital Learning & Leading (DLL) program, I am very excited to see what is coming in the rest of the program.

Teaching and learning must start with an attitude conducive to learning. Studying the growth mindset and developing a growth mindset plan serves as a persistent reminder to focus on the learning process and making sure it it meaningful. Developing this plan also led me to see the connection between the growth mindset and the maker movement . I intend to use making as a basis for my innovation project, so its focus on the process and allowing failure to be a catalyst for learning.

Making also values creative problem-solving, teamwork, and other “soft skills” which are increasingly important, yet undervalued in our society . Creating a learning manifesto helped me to focus on the issues that are important to me in education both broadly and in my own context that and what I can do about them. This has been, and will continue to be, tremendously valuable for me, as I had to formulate and articulate my “why,” the guiding principles for my learning and my impact going forward .

Finally, collaboration–another core value of the maker community–is vital to fostering creativity and valuing diversity. Researching and joining new learning networks will help me to connect with peers who have different perspectives on some of the same problems my institution faces and open me up to new solutions.

Underlying all this is the COVA learning  approach . The choice I have been afforded in this course has allowed me to take ownership of the learning process in a way I had not before. Having taken ownership, I am beginning to develop a voice–my unique perspective on the topics we are discussing in the program–that will carry forward as I develop my ePortfolio. Since the ePortfolio will be authentic to my specific context and in my own voice, it will be useful outside and beyond the DLL program.