FourBlock Online: An Interview With Columbia University’s Michael Cennamo

How Cennamo’s vast experience developing MOOCs is making FourBlock’s vision of accessible career readiness education a reality.

Michael Cennamo is the Associate Director of Educational Technology at Columbia University’s Center for Veteran Transition and Integration and a member of the FourBlock Online development team. To provide the FourBlock community with a better understanding of our online program (launching November 8), we recently sat down for an interview with Cennamo, during which we discussed his background in developing massive open online courses (MOOCs) and how that expertise is driving the FourBlock Online team to create a world-class career readiness program for the digital age.

FourBlock: What drove you to become involved with the foundation?

Cennamo: Working with FourBlock Foundation allowed me to simultaneously seize upon two wonderful opportunities: the opportunity to design courses for a different audience and the opportunity to help the veteran community.

I’ve been working at Columbia University since 2008, as an educational technologist and instructional designer. My main objective had always been to work closely with Columbia teachers, helping them use technology effectively in their classroom. When I was asked to help FourBlock founder Mike Abrams rethink the foundation’s curriculum and put it online, I jumped at the chance; it was a fantastic way for me to use my design experience. And the thought of being able to help transitioning veterans — again, I jumped at the chance!

What’s your role in developing FourBlock Online?

I am the instructional designer for the online course, or MOOC. I have had the opportunity to build ten MOOCs here at Columbia, so I am excited to be able to take that experience and apply it to the development of this edX course.

The last few months I have been helping to develop the course content (along with Mike Abrams and our media specialist Glen Steinmacher), as well as designing assessments, discussion threads, and surveys. Our team of expert instructors is just spectacular: Sebastian Junger, Lindsey Pollak, William Deresiewicz, Sheena Iyengar, Robin Stern, Mike Locke, Mike Abrams. They all bring so much to the course — I am moved every time I watch the videos we are creating. I believe that our audience will find them moving, interesting, and thought provoking also.

What’s unique about this specific MOOC?

First, we have captured on video world-renowned experts, focusing their messages to transitioning veterans. There is a ton of great content to watch, discuss, and learn from.

Second, we have developed an “Interactive Workbook” — a pdf that can be downloaded and used as a reflective journal and organizer of ideas.

Third, our assessments are “scenario-based.” Learners will be able to listen or read about a particular situation, or scenario, and think through the best ways to maneuver through, with feedback delivered along the way.

And finally, the non-linear structure of the course makes it easily accessible — you can enter your journey through any of the sections, and proceed to whatever section you like afterwards. The content of each section revolves around a character strength, or “virtue,” that veterans need to exhibit in order to make a successful transition. The non-linear course design mirrors the way in which character strengths are integrated within the individual, with no hierarchical structure. You can choose your own path through the course.

We found that as we were looking at current research around character strengths, the more we were learning, the more it was pulling us back in time. People have always been grappling with themselves, looking for ways in which to improve. Our research brought us back to Marcus Aurlieus’ “Meditations” and his ideas concerning a “virtuous life.” Our choice of using Latin words for our section titles (Pietas, Humanitas, Veritas, etc.) emanated from that.

FourBlock Online is scheduled to launch on November 8. Interested veterans can now sign up directly via the edX course link.

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