Canada Research Chair in Innovative Learning and Technology & Associate Professor at Royal Roads University

Category: emerging technologies

MOOCs, automation, artificial intelligence seminar

I will be visiting my colleagues at the University of Edinburgh in mid-June to give a seminar on MOOCs, automation, artificial intelligence and pedagogical agents. This is a free event organized by the Moray House School of Education at the U of Edinburgh and supported by the Digital Cultures and Education research group and DigitalHSS. Please feel free to join us face-to-face or online (Date: 18 June 2014; Time: 1-3pm) by registering here.

This seminar will bring together some of my current and past research. A lot of my work in the past examined learners’ experiences with conversational and (semi)intelligent agents. In that research, we discovered that the experience of interacting with intelligent technologies was engrossing (pdf). Yet, learners often verbally abused the pedagogical agents (pdf). We also discovered that appearance (pdf) may be a significant mediating factor in learning. Importanly, this research indicated that “learners both humanized the agents and expected them to abide by social norms, but also identified the agents as programmed tools, resisting and rejecting their lifelike behaviors.”

A lot of my current work examines experiences with open online courses and online social networks, but what exactly does pedagogical agents and MOOCs have to do with each other? Ideas associated with Artificial Intelligence are present in both the emergence of xMOOCs (EdX, Udacity, and Coursera emanated from AI labs) and certain practices associated with them – e.g., see Balfour (2013) on automated essay scoring. Audrey Watters highlighted these issues in the past. While I haven’t yet seen discussions on the integration of lifelike characters and pedagogical agents in MOOCs, the use of lifelike robots for education and the role of the faculty member in MOOCs are areas of  debate and investigation in both the popular press and the scholarly literature.  The quest to automate instruction has a long history, and lives within the sociocultural context of particular time periods. For example, the Second World War found US soldiers and cilvilians unprepared for the war effort, and audiovisual devices were extensively used to efficiently train individuals at a massive scale. Nowadays, similar efforts at achieving scale and efficiencies reflect problems, issues, and cultural beliefs of our time.

I’m working on my presentation, but if you have any questions or thoughts to share, I’d love to hear them!


MITx and HarvardX make some of their MOOC data publicly available

Posted on May 28th, by George Veletsianos in emerging technologies, moocs, online learning, open, scholarship. 23 comments

MITx and HarvardX deserve huge congratulations for making data associated with a number of their MOOCs publicly available. Four months ago, I wrote that the “community would benefit from access to the data that HarvardX and MITx have, as other individuals/groups could run additional analyses. Granted, I imagine this might require quite a lot of effort, not least in the development of procedures for data sharing.” It seems that the researchers at MITx and HarvardX have tackled the issues involved to make the data available, and have developed thoughtful procedures to ensure de-identification. While some of the steps taken may limit analyses (e.g., the de-identification process document notes that “rows with 60 or more forum posts were deleted,” thus eliminating highly active users), this is a big step in the right direction and it should be celebrated.

Now… can we have some qualitative data? If any institutions are interested in making those available, I’d love talk to you, give you input, and work with you toward that goal.


Sessions of interest at #et4online

Posted on April 14th, by George Veletsianos in emerging technologies, Ideas, online learning, open. 2 comments

I spent part of last week in Dallas at the annual Emerging Technologies for Online Learning conference, organized by SLOAN-C. I describe my presentation at the conference in this post, but the sessions below were all relevant to my work:

Jim Groom’s keynote. Jim’s Domain of one’s own work resonates with me. Providing students with digital tools that will enable them to learn the ways of the web is significant, but the idea also resonates with me in the context of digital scholarship, which is one of my research strands. In particular, I see Jim’s project being applicable for PhD students who should be equipped with the tools, skills, and experiences to understand networked, open, and digital scholarship. I’ve met Jim briefly in the past, but we never had a chance to chat much, so it was great to be able to spend some more time together.

Amy Collier’s and Jen Ross’ plenary. The session focused on giving insightful descriptions of the messy and compromised realities of learning in contrast to the narratives of efficiency and ease suggested by numerous educational technology providers.

Andy Saltarelli’s study of belongingness and synchronicity in cooperative learning settings. What’s not to like about rigorous, theory-driven, large-scale evaluations of the socio-psychological constructs that make a difference in online learning contexts?

The session on distributed flips, or re-using MOOC resources in face-to-face/blended courses. MJ Bishop, Mike Caulfield, and Amy Collier came together to share their research on the topic. Mike was unable to join unfortunately, but he shared his thoughts here.

Rolin Moe organized a number of fantastic panels on issues pertaining to the field and I was excited to participate in the one focused on academics in educational technology, along with Jen Ross, Amy Collier, Jill Leafstedt, Jesse Stommel, and Sean Michael Morris. We had a wonderful conversation, but 50 minutes are never enough to cover this topic. The Sloan-C organizing committee should consider making this session a longer (free-to-attend) workshop.

Scholarly networks of care and vulnerability

Posted on April 14th, by George Veletsianos in emerging technologies, my research, NPS, online learning, scholarship, sharing. 10 comments

I gave a presentation at the annual Emerging Technologies for Online Learning conference last week focusing on aspects of networked participatory scholarship. I kept track of other sessions of interest here.

The concept of networked scholarship is expressed in different ways in the literature, ranging from digital scholarship to social scholarship to open scholarship. In my presentation, I discussed two themes that have arisen from my 3+ years of qualitative and ethnographic studies into the practices of higher education scholars.

Both of these themes help us make better sense of scholars’ digital participation and networked scholarship. They also help us better describe online scholarly networks and the lives and practices of digital scholars.

The first theme refers to the notion of scholars using networks to enact digital/open scholarship and circumvent restrictions to the sharing of knowledge. I have a recent publication on this that you can read here.

The second theme is one that I am still developing. Specifically, in my research I found that social media and online social networks function as places where some academics express and experience care. While debates about the use of digital scholarship and social media use in education have so far largely focused on the professional experiences of scholars, with frequent suggestions to limit personal sharing, professional and personal identity are difficult to separate, and academics frequently collapse the boundaries between personal and professional sharing. Academics demonstrate vulnerability and express care online in many forms. In my presentation, I showed and discussed examples of what these very personal and intimate instances of sharing look like. A version of my slides appear below:

Notes on #AERA14 Rigor and Realism: Doing Educational Science in the Real World

Posted on April 4th, by George Veletsianos in emerging technologies, NPS, open, scholarship, sharing. 15 comments

Below are my notes from the AERA 2014 session Rigor and Realism: Doing Educational Science in the Real World. The ideas are significant for learning technologies researchers focused on impacting practice and developing real-world innovations/interventions. While I share many of these values and discussed a number of them in past work (e.g, here and here), what appears below are Catherine Snow’s ideas.

Rigor and Realism: Doing Educational Science in the Real World
The Wallace Foundation Distinguished Lecture: Catherine Snow, Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Education, Harvard University
Some educational researchers are adopting new models for doing educational research, models that start from problems of practice, prioritize the challenge of utility to educators, and presuppose partnership relationships between researchers and practitioners. In attempting to implement such approaches, we often find that attention to the conditions of real-world practice may compete with attention to the constraints of rigorous design. That familiar problem can be exacerbated by the conflicting epistemologies of real-world decision-making vs. rigorous scientific knowledge-building. This conflict, in its multiple forms only some of which will be discussed, is a dilemma rather than a problem; it demands careful consideration of approaches to balancing the desirable features of rigor and of realism when they conflict.

Notes from the presentation and twitter feed

A conflict exists between rigorous research and the demands of educational systems. Educators and researcher must work together as partners.

Researchers have to acknowledge the realities of practice.

Researchers should start with urgent problems of practice – not simply gaps that exist in the literature

Education research/science can be highly rigorous, but it needs to be relevant. If it’s not impacting students in schools, it doesn’t matter. Focus of ed research is often quality, but we have to make the case for utility. It should be about utility and relevance.

Education research should move from questions of “whether” to questions of “how” ( GV side note: especially relevant to learning technologies, as noted by past research – e.g., don’t ask whether online learning works, but ask how does it work, how do we make it better, under what conditions, for whom, etc).

Recruiting the next generation of scholars into this work may endanger their potential to publish and get grants

We need to modify practitioner preparation to provide guidance about the challenges of collaboration with researchers (e.g., teach value/limitations of research)

Numerous colleagues are invested in this model (e.g., WT Grant, iterative design work, design-based implementation)

Progress is slow. Are there really exciting initiatives that would make a huge difference that might change both edu research and practice?

  1. Build the partnership model into the preparation of doctoral students by institutionalizing and acknowledging relationships and acknowledging relationships. Schools of education need to embrace this approach and faculty members need to be supported even if it doesn’t have immediate payoff in journal articles. A way for schools of education to become relevant and keeping us from the constant danger of becoming second rate departments of Arts and Sciences rather than 1st grade institutions of social change
  2. Promote accountability by developing reliable and feasible measures of classroom practice that might eventually take the place of student outcome measures
  3. Take the wisdom of practice seriously and develop a mechanism for systematizing and curating it. Journal review process is elegant and effective in maintaining standards for a certain kind of knowledge, but why do we dismiss anecdotes that teachers tell us? Because there is no epistemological structure for evaluating and curating that knowledge. What does that structure look like? Even though practitioners generate knowledge, it disappears. Developing a mechanism to capture and curate knowledge would be a hugely powerful mechanism. We acknowledge wisdom of practice but don’t take it seriously. We need to raise the level of the wisdom of practice to a more respectable level, by making it indeed more respectable. Urgent agenda because of internet sharing of uncurated practices. There currently isn’t a way to curate teacher knowledge ( GV side note: Curation of internet resources is prevalent, and a number of individuals are arguing for a system of publish then filter – lots of connections to openness, digital participation, and digital/media literacies re: curation)

As a field we need an exciting agenda of research that is cumulative, rigorous and realistic

Open Practices and Identity: Evidence from Researchers and Educators’ Social Media Participation

Posted on March 19th, by George Veletsianos in emerging technologies, NPS, open, scholarship. 22 comments

I recently wrote a paper which examined the activities and practices arise when researchers and educators use social media and online networks. This is part of my ongoing work to understand open scholarship, networked participatory scholarship, and scholars’ practices online. In this paper, I used ethnographic data and my own experiences to try to make sense of scholars’ online participation. Some of the interesting findings are the following:

  • numerous scholarly practices are occurring in the open (e.g., sharing drafts of manuscripts, sharing syllabi, supporting doctoral students)
  • participation in online social networks is not limited professional endeavors; For example, they share “their vulnerabilities and struggles (e.g, with a divorce) and [seek] help with personal issues and causes that they are passionate about (e.g., equal rights legislation).” Importantly, engagement with and and sharing about issues unrelated to the profession is a value that is celebrated by this community. It is not uncommon, for example, to encounter blog entries discussing the positive outcomes of social sharing and Twitter profiles proudly declaring that updates are composed of a mix of personal and professional tweets.
  • scholars have appropriated social technologies and utilized peer-to-peer networks to access and share research papers that they do not have access to (e.g.,,, the Scholar subreddit, the #ICanHazPdf hashtag)

The last point is particularly significant. In the paper, I argue that the use of social networks and peer-networks to share knowledge that is often behind journal paywalls suggests that individuals are willing and able to circumvent and defy restrictions to the sharing of knowledge and research. In fact, open scholarship is a value that is close to the hearts and minds of numerous scholars who use the Internet for professional purposes. Kroll (2011) described the sharing of copyrighted manuscripts as “an act civil disobedience toward the scientific publishing enterprise” and since I published this paper, Elsevier has started taking action against this activity by sending takedown notices to How does one respond to actions that are in direct conflict to strongly-held values and ideals? That is a question that every academic needs to consider.

A copy of the paper, along with its citation and abstract appear below:

Veletsianos, G. (2013). Open Practices and Identity: Evidence from Researchers and Educators’ Social Media Participation. British Journal of Educational Technology, 44(3), 639-651.

The ways that emerging technologies and social media are used and experienced by researchers and educators are poorly understood and inadequately researched. The goal of this study is to examine the online practices of individual scholars in order to explore and understand the activities and practices that they enact when they use social media for scholarship. Using ethnographic data collection methods and basic interpretive analysis techniques, I describe two emergent phenomena evident in scholars’ social
media participation: scholarly practices enacted openly in digital spaces and the self that is disentangled from academic matters. These phenomena raise issues related to “sharing,” scholar identity, participation and social media as a place of gathering.

Note: As with any qualitative and ethnographic work, the results should be seen in context and shouldn’t be generalized to “all scholars participating online do X.”

ELI 2014, learner experiences, MOOC research, and the MOOC phenomenon

I was at the Educause Learning Initiative conference last week (#ELI2014), where I had some interesting conversations and discussions around online learning, MOOCs, research methods, and the future of higher education.

Amy Collier and I presented early results from our qualitative studies looking at learners’ MOOC experiences (if you have not yet responded to our call to share your lived experiences with us, please consider this invitation). Our talk was entitled “Messy Realities: Investigating Learners’ Experiences in MOOCs.” Our thinking is guided by the notion that even though surveys and big data yield insights into general behavioral patterns,  these  methods are detached and can distance us rather than help us understand the human condition. As a result, the phenomenon of “learning in a MOOC” is understudied and undiscovered. During the session, we shared what we have been finding in our studies, highlighting the messiness of learning and teaching in the open.

Karen Vignare and Amy Collier were also very kind to extend an invitation to a number of us to share our work with individuals participating in the leadership seminar they organized. It was fantastic to hear  Katie Vale (Harvard), Matt Meyer (The Pennsylvania State University), Rebecca Petersen (edX, MIT), and D. Christopher Brooks (EDUCAUSE) discuss their work, and once again, I felt grateful that we are having these conversations more openly, more frequently, and with greater intent.

Below are my rough notes from my 5-7 minute presentation. I appreciate parsimony (who doesn’t?), and in the words of D. Christopher Brooks, this is the litany of things I think:

I am a designer and researcher of education and learning. I study emerging technologies and emerging learning environments. I’m also a faculty member , and I have been teaching in higher education settings both face-to-face and online since 2005.

To contextualize my comments on MOOCs, first I want to describe my experiences with them:

- I have facilitated one week of the #change11 MOOC was organized by George Siemens and Stephen Downes in 2011. This MOOC had a distinctively connectivist flavor with each week being facilitated by 1 person.
- I have enrolled in a number of MOOCs, and have even completed a small number of them.
- I have repurposed MOOCs in my own courses. For example, I have asked students to enroll in MOOCs and write about them.
- I have published an e-book with my students, sharing stories of student experiences with MOOCs.
- Finally, I am actively involved in studying learners’ experiences in MOOCs in order to understand the human element in these emerging learning environments.

I have recently come to the realization that I have an ambivalent relationship with MOOCs. My relationship with MOOCs is one of the most ambivalent relationships I have had with anyone or anything. This relationship is more ambivalent than the love-ignore-hate relationship that my cat has with me!

On the one hand, I appreciate the opportunities for open learning that MOOCs provide. I also appreciate how MOOCs have brought us together to discuss issues around technology, teaching, and learning. At the same time, I cringe at the narratives around big data, I cringe at the hype, at the ignorance around what education is and should be about.

I want to talk about two topics today: MOOC research and the MOOC phenomenon.

On MOOC Research

- We don’t know much about MOOCs
- The things that we know about MOOCs are mostly the result of surveys, learning analytics, and big data research
- The existing research and the existing methods that we use are informative, BUT they simply paint an incomplete picture of MOOCs. We should be asking more in-depth questions about learner and instructor experiences in MOOCs
- Qualitative and interpretive research methods can and will help us better understand MOOCs, open learning, and open scholarship
- Descriptions of learner behaviors are helpful, but these descriptions only provide a glimpse and superficial summary of what students experience and what they do in digital learning environments. To give you an example, emerging research suggests that students may be “sampling” courses; a behavior that we don’t frequently see in traditional online courses or traditional face-to-face courses. Nonetheless, “sampling” is not how participants would describe their experiences or the ways they participate MOOCs. To illustrate, consider family-style Mediterranean meals that consist of numerous dishes, where participants sample a wide array of food. If you ask a person to describe this meal, to explain it to someone else, or to simply tell you about the meal, they will likely describe the meal as a feast, they might describe the tahini as lemony, the variety of flavors as intriguing, the whole meal as satisfying. Different people will also describe the meal differently: Tourists might describe the meal as fulfilling, heavy, or even extravagant; locals might describe the same meal as appropriate, or better than or worst than meals that they have had at other restaurants. “Sampling” may be an appropriate descriptor of the act of eating a family-style meal, or exploring a MOOC, but the descriptor does not fully capture the experience of sampling.


On the MOOC as a Phenomenon

MOOCs. The acronym stands for massive, open, online courses. That is not what MOOCs are though. MOOCs are a phenomenon. They represent something larger than a course and should be seen in conjunction to the rebirth and revival of educational technology. They represent symptoms, responses, and failures facing Higher Education. For instance,  MOOCs are a response to the increasing costs of Higher Education; represent the belief that the purpose of education is to prepare students for the workforce; represent the belief that technology is the solution to the problems that education is facing; are indicative of scholarly failures; seem to represent the belief that education is a product that can be packaged, automated, and delivered; and, are a response to failures by researchers, designers, administrators, and institutions to develop effective and inspiring solutions to the problems of education (alternatively, they might also represent the failure of existing systems to support creative individuals in enacting change)*.

The  MOOC is an acronym that elicits strong feelings: excitement, fear, defiance, uncertainty, hope, contempt…. To address these feelings we have to address the failures of higher education and the underlying causes that have given rise to MOOCs. For this reason, instead of talking about MOOCs at my own institution, I discuss innovations and approaches that I value, including networked scholarship, openness, flexibility, social learning, and the design and development of new technologies.


* NOTE: Rolin Moe and I are working on a paper refining and delineating these. If you have thoughts, concerns, or input on any of these issues, we’d love to hear form you!

On Noam Chomsky and technology’s neutrality

Posted on January 23rd, by George Veletsianos in E-learning, emerging technologies, my research, online learning, scholarship. 21 comments

In a recent interview, Noam Chomsky commented on the relationship between technology and education and one of his thoughts was the following:

As far as technology itself and education is concerned, technology is basically neutral. It’s like a hammer. The hammer doesn’t care whether you use it to build a house or whether on torture, using it to crush somebody’s skull, the hammer can do either.

Hammer – CC Photo by Birmingham Museum and Arts Gallery

I admire Noam Chomsky and his brilliance. I agree with this perspective, but this perspective does not paint the whole picture of what happens when we use technology in education. I’d like to unpack this just a little bit because there is a more accurate picture of technology use in education available to us. The broader picture I describe below helps us understand how technologies are used, why they succeed/fail, and how we can design better learning environments. From my observations of technology use in education, my research, my colleagues’ research, and my reading of the field’s research, here’s what I understand:

  • Technologies can be as neutral as described above. For example, Twitter can be used as a broadcasting medium, a conversational medium, or even a 1-1 support tool. YouTube can replace the VCR used in class. Or, it can bring together people from different locations to discuss topics of common interest. In this sense, technologies are neutral in that they can serve various needs and can be used in different ways.
  • Technologies themselves are rarely neutral. How can that be, you ask, when the bullet point above stated the opposite? Technology is not created in a vacuum. When technology is created, it is built with the developers’ worldviews, values, beliefs, and assumptions embedded into the technology and revealed through the activities supported and encouraged when individuals use the technology. For example, social networking sites (SNS) structure relationships in specific ways (e.g., followers, friends) and perceive privacy in different ways. Technologies hold particular views of the world, and in this way, they are not neutral. This is true for technologies that we repurpose for educational means (e.g., Twitter, YouTube, Ning, Elgg, Facebook, Flickr, and so on) as well as for technologies created specifically for educational purposes. For example, Learning Management Systems (LMS) espouse certain beliefs about the educational process and their default settings and suggestions may shape how they are used. Whn introduced in educational settings, said technologies tend to introduce tensions and conundrums (e.g., The way the LMS or SNS structured instructor-learner relationships vs. the way faculty envisioned instructor-learner relationships may be in conflict, leading to low uptake, rejection of the tool, etc).
  • Technologies can be put to different uses, but not all uses are productive or effective. A hammer doesn’t care whether you use it to “build a house… or crush somebody’s skull,” but it will do a poor job if you try to use it in lieu of a screwdriver. The problem arises when entrepreneurs, designers, instructors, etc treating the hammer as a tool that can help them address all needs. A recent example of this is Udacity treating its product as a solution in search of a problem.

The ways that technology is used on the ground are complex and negotiated. In preparing instructors to use technology in education and designers to envision ways that technology can support/enhance education, we need to expose them to skills and mindsets that allow them to use tools in creative and inspirational ways. We also need to help them understand the assumptions and beliefs that technologies espouse and remain cognizant of the pressures and tensions that these may introduce.


* References pertaining to technology being not-neutral:

Whitworth, A., & Benson, A. (2010). Learning, Design, and Emergence: Two case studies of Moodle in distance education. In G. Veletsianos (Ed.), Emerging Technologies in Distance Education (pp. 195-213). Edmonton, AB: Athabasca University Press.

Hall, R. (2011). Revealing the transformatory moment of learning technology: the place of critical social theory. Research in Learning Technology, 19(3), 273-284.

Lane, L. (2009). Insidious pedagogy: How course management systems impact teaching. First Monday, 14(10).

Crook, C. (2012). The “ digital native ” in context: tensions associated with importing Web 2.0 practices into the school setting. Oxford Review of Education, 38(1), 63-80.