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

Category: learner experience

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!

Invited talk at ICEM 2012

Posted on September 23rd, by George Veletsianos in emerging technologies, learner experience, moocs, my research, NPS, online learning, open, scholarship. 9 comments

I am in Cyprus to meet with a number of colleagues and give an invited talk at ICEM 2012.

Talk title: What does the future of design for online learning look like? Emerging technologies, Openness, MOOCs, and Digital Scholarship

Abstract:  What will we observe if we take a long pause and examine the practice of online education today? What do emerging technologies, openness, Massive Open Online Courses, and digital scholarship tell us about the future that we are creating for learners, faculty members, and learning institutions? And what does entrepreneurial activity worldwide surrounding online education mean for the future of education and design? In this talk, I will discuss a number of emerging practices relating to online learning and online participation in a rapidly changing world and explain their implications for design practice. Emerging practices (e.g., open courses, researchers who blog, students who use social media to self-organize) can shape our teaching/learning practice and teaching/learning practice can shape these innovations. By examining, critiquing, and understanding these practices we will be able to understand potential futures for online learning and be better informed on how we can design effective and engaging online learning experiences. This talk will draw from my experiences and research on online learning, openness, and digital scholarship, and will present recent evidence detailing how researchers, learners, educators are creating, sharing, and negotiating knowledge and education online.

Digital Scholarship: Visualizing a Twitter hashtag

Posted on March 30th, by George Veletsianos in emerging technologies, learner experience, scholarship. 9 comments

As part of my research on digital scholarship and the experiences/practices of scholars in online networks, I am working with the Texas Advanced Computing Center and the newly-established Visualization Lab at the College of Education to understand learner and scholar participation patterns on the social web. Below is our first visualization, which shows interactions between three types of users who are contributing to a hashtag (red, blue, green). It’s a directed graph, with nodes representing users, and edges representing interactions between users. The thickness of the edge represents # of interactions (thick = more interactions). When nodes of a different color interact with each other, the edges take the color of the two node (e.g., when a blue node interacts with a red node, the edge is purple). What does this visualization tell us?

We are still trying to make sense of this, and we are slowly learning from the tutorials that Tony Hirst has created. This is what (i think) this says: First of all, we know that the majority of the people contributing to this hashtag are not having a conversation with each other (#nodes making up the dataset are 3 times the group shown above – this is not shown  on the graph). Second, it looks likes there’s a few “central” folk through which conversations occur. Finally, even though interactions happen between red and blue nodes, it looks like the majority of the interaction is happening within those two groups. And that’s important in this situation because one of our hypothesis was that the red group was joining this community to interact with the blue group (if that was the case, we would be seeing more purple in the image above). We definitely need additional ways to evaluate some of these statements, but that’s what it “looks like” from the image above. And here’s where I think data visualizations start becoming really valuable: You can quickly see patterns and ask questions, and continue from there. We have some ideas and hypotheses, but we also want to let the data bring up phenomena that we haven’t thought about. I don’t yet feel confident that I fully understand what I am seeing here, but I am quickly learning a lot! So my question to you is: how would you interpret this? What questions do you have of what you are seeing here?

EdTech Startups: Exceptional Courses or Exceptional Students?

Posted on February 29th, by George Veletsianos in emerging technologies, learner experience, my research, online learning, scholarship. No Comments

This blog entry was supposed to go out next week, but I am sharing it today because it is relevant to the entry that George Siemens wrote today.

I gave a talk to Curt Bonk’s class a couple of weeks ago and the central premise of that talk was that we should be designing experiences, not products. This is not a new idea. It goes back to the beginning of my career and it’s a passion that I share with a lot of folks, most notably Aaron Doering and Charles Miller at the University of Minnesota (who incidentally just landed in Sydney for their most recent Adventure Learning project). For example, see  Raising the bar for instructional outcomes: Towards transformative learning experiences (2008) and Designing Opportunities for Transformation with Emerging Technologies (2011). A central tenet of the 2008 paper is the following:

There exist “strong pressures to produce mediocre instructional products based on templates and preexisting content.”

That was in 2008. Now consider 2011/2012: Interest in open courses and in large online classes has exploded. The edtech entrepreneur is eager to leverage online education and capitalize on efficiency, by focusing on the delivery of pre-packaged content. Scale and efficiency are key in that if one is able to efficiently deliver content (read: low cost) to large numbers of people, s/he can charge a small fee that will yield high profit. This isn’t a new idea either. David Noble talks about the commodification of education, the attempt to market and sell education as a commodity.

Sebastian Thrun, who was one of the faculty members teaching the Stanford AI class last Fall recently “showed emails from a student who took the AI class, when he could get Internet access, amidst mortar and rocket attacks in Afganistan; and another, a single working mother, who refused to quit the class because it gave her a sense of accomplishment.” Are these statements describing exceptional courses? Are they describing experiences that pull students and engage them to their core? Or are they describing exceptional people? When you provide access to exceptional people (like the two individuals above), they will amaze you, because, well, they are exceptional! How do you design courses that are exceptional, that adapt to all learners, and provide support structures for individuals who are not exceptional? You provide opportunities for personally relevant and meaningful transformation. How do you do that, you ask? Here’s my (free) advice to any hopeful edtech startup: Designing Opportunities for Transformation with Emerging Technologies (pdf).

Restaurant Menus, Typography, and Design for Learning

Posted on October 13th, by George Veletsianos in E-learning, Ideas, learner experience. 6 comments

I took the following two pictures in two recent trips of mine. Similarities and differences abound, but one difference (other than the language) stands out for me. And that difference reminds me of an unfortunate state of affairs in the learning technologies field.

Look at the photo below. It’s from a  menu that I came across in Dublin.


And the next one: It’s from a  menu that I came across in Stockholm.


Other than the differences in the language, do you notice anything else? (Hint: Look at the typography.) Wouldn’t it be amazing if instructional/learning designers paid that much attention to the details as well? Yes, beauty and aesthetics are probably the least of our problems (so say the critics), but they count, and they count more and more in a world where beauty (constructed as it may be) surrounds us.

(High resolution images are available on my flickr page)

BJET Special Issue CFP: Learning and Teaching in Virtual Worlds

Posted on August 18th, by George Veletsianos in cfp, E-learning, learner experience, work. No Comments

Click here to access a PDF document of this call

Crossing boundaries:

Learning and teaching in virtual worlds

While the concept of multi-user virtual worlds is not a new one, the rising popularity of virtual world applications has been rapid over the last five years. Although much attention around such immersive environments has centred upon Second Life, there are currently 80 virtual world applications available and another 100 planned for 2009, with some targeting specific populations (e.g., young girls with BarbieGirls) and others catering for broader audiences (e.g., training applications in The appeal of virtual worlds is that they allow users to cross over into new spaces that can be used to support a range of social interactions. In this way, they have proven to be quite versatile, embracing varied activities and purposes, including business, cultural activities as well as having educational capabilities.

With its focus upon the educational uses of virtual world applications, this special issue of the British Journal of Educational Technology (Volume 40, Issue 6) aims to provide a definitive profile of the current status of virtual worlds for education and training. Specifically, we invite contributions from the research community to advance our understanding of this field of study and research. In order to build upon existing research, and to support the development of the field as a unique academic discipline, in this unique issue the editors are interested in hosting a forum for rigorous and leading edge contributions to the nascent field that:

  • explore new frameworks, approaches and pedagogical models,
  • present case studies of practice where innovative techniques are pioneered,
  • investigate new methods of teaching, learning and research in the area,
  • evaluate the experiences of teachers, learners and institutions using immersive worlds.

The aim of the special issue is to bring together the most leading edge research and development in the field and allow practitioners and researchers to benefit from these valuable contributions. Towards this aim, recommended topics of interest for this special issue include, but are not limited to, the following research questions:

  • What value can virtual world applications add to conventional methods of education and what evidence exists to support such propositions?
  • What are the institutional changes needed to accommodate learning approaches centred on virtual worlds?
  • What pedagogies and approaches are needed to make the use of virtual world applications most effective and engaging, and what evidence exists to support such approaches?
  • Are particular learner groups engaged more with virtual world applications than others?
  • What are the main challenges for tutors and trainers using virtual world technologies?
  • What are the main technological challenges associated with using virtual world applications?
  • What frameworks and approaches can be developed to support effective, engaging and transformative usage of virtual worlds?
  • Does the use of virtual worlds necessitate more learner-centred approaches? What evidence exists to support claims for or against such approaches?
  • Will using these applications change how people learn? If so, what evidence exists to support such a claim?
  • Do virtual world applications offer greater support than alternative technologies for building and supporting distributed learning communities?
  • How do learners experience virtual worlds? How do they experience their interactions with others?
  • How do learners choose to represent themselves in virtual worlds?

The issue also envisages contributions that relate to a wider range of virtual world applications particularly where learning and training issues are highlighted. Studies focusing upon massively multiplayer role-playing games (e.g. World of Warcraft), mirror worlds (e.g. Google earth) and hybrid worlds (e.g. mixed reality experiences) will also be considered for the issue where they make sure that the focus is upon learning activities and practices and where lessons learnt may be applied to virtual worlds for learning.

The issue will also be twinned with the First International IEEE Conference on Serious Games and Virtual Worlds which will be held in March 2009 at the University of Coventry, UK.

Submission Process

April 1, 2009: Full length papers due (see for guidelines). Please send an email to the editors with the title of your submission and submit your paper online using Manuscript Central. To make a submission, go to If this is the first time you have used the system you will be asked to register by clicking on ‘create an account.’ Full instructions on making your submission are provided.  You should receive an acknowledgement within a few minutes.  Thereafter, you will be kept in touch with the progress of your submission through refereeing, any revisions that are required, and – hopefully – to final acceptance.

Please advise Sara de Freitas that you have made a submission for the special issue.  If you do not then it will be treated as an ordinary submission for a subsequent general issue

June 1, 2009:  Notification of acceptance

July 1, 2009: Final papers with revisions due

November, 2009: Publication date

Note: Submissions to the Crossing boundaries Serious Games and Virtual Worlds conference to be held at Coventry University in March 2009 that fit the purpose of this call may be recommended for co-submission to the special issue. Authors will be contacted directly where this is the case so that they can revisit the paper for the BJET special issue review process. Successfully reviewed papers will be processed by BJET in the normal way and according to the normal peer-review procedures. For those wishing to submit papers to the conference, details can be found at:

Special Issue Editors

Dr. Sara de Freitas B.A. (Hons), M.A., PhD

Sara de Freitas is Director of Research at the hub for research and development in serious games and virtual worlds at the Serious Games Institute at the University of Coventry, UK. Her research interests include evaluating the efficacy of serious games and virtual world applications, pedagogic modelling and policy and strategic development of e-learning. Sara chairs the Lab Group, speaks internationally and has a significant publications list in the field of e-learning, game-based learning and lifelong learning. Sara also holds a visiting fellowship at the University of London where she continues to build on leading edge research in the field at the London Knowledge Lab. She currently has four books in publication and is setting up an interdisciplinary research group focusing upon artificial intelligence, evaluation and validation for immersive forms and developing links between physical and virtual spaces through smart buildings. (Address: Sara de Freitas, PhD, Serious Games Institute, University of Coventry, Cheetah Road, Coventry, CV1 2TL, United Kingdom; s.defreitas|at|

Dr. George Veletsianos B.A., M.A., Ph.D

George Veletsianos is Lecturer of Digital Technologies, Communication & Education at the University of Manchester, UK. His research interests involve the design, development, and evaluation of electronic learning environments, adventure learning, emerging technologies in distance and hybrid education, virtual characters, and the learner experience. His research and development work has been published in excess of 30 times in articles and manuscripts in academic journals, books, and conference proceedings, while his work has been presented at over 40 national and international conferences. (Address:  George Veletsianos, PhD, LTA, School of Education, Ellen Wilkinson Building, University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester, M13 9PL, United Kingdom; veletsianos|at|

How do we design for learning engagement

Posted on March 28th, by George Veletsianos in E-learning, engagement, Ideas, learner experience. 1 Comment

How do we design for engagement? This is a question that has hovered over my shoulders for a while. Although not explicitly verbalized it is part of my work with avatars, pedagogical agents, and virtual characters. For example, see this paper in the British journal of Educational Technology. In addition, in my dissertation, I also argue that pedagogical agents/virtual characters may incite such deep and engaging experiences so as to distract learners from the task they are engaged with (I am of course talking about the conversational type agents and NOT the passive pedagogical agents that prominently appear in instructional design research – yes, I am being sarcastic). Outside of my tiny little contributions, others have thought about this issue. Pat Parrish, drawing on the work of Dewey and others, has written extensively on learner engagement. Charlie Miller, coming for an interaction design perspective, has also talked about engagement. And, the other day, a blog by Joseph from BYU, noting sister issues of engagement, emotion, and narrative. Granted, the ID field has for long (and long overdue) been focusing on information delivery and wow-look-at-what-this-can-do, but I think there are enough people thinking and writing about learner engagement, that the topic may gain prominence – as it should.


Back to the original question: How do we design for engagement? Honestly, if I knew how to verbalize this, I would probably write it up. But, I have a few ideas. First, I think that this question spurs multiple other questions. For example, how do K-12 teachers engage children? What are the characteristics of engaging lessons? What are the characteristics of engaging learners? Note that I am writing about characteristics in qualitative (and possibly interpretive, and further, possibly phenomenological) terms. What are the characteristics of boring lessons? What are the characteristics of engaging electronic learning environments/experiences? What is the process of engagement? How do we measure engagement? Again, I think that “measuring” engagement should be done in qualitative terms – this is a poor way of measuring something as malleable and inherent to our existential being, but it’s at least a start. Could we provide some sort of guidelines for the design of engaging electronic learning experiences? What does social psychology say about this? More on the last question in an upcoming post…


A set of preliminary ideas that I have is that “fun” has a lot to do with it. The HCI field discussed funology for a while, but I haven’t seen anything recently. Additionally, I think that a sense of achievement, contribution, belongingness, ability to change things, and purpose, matter. That’s an initial list, and it is very rough. There are numerous other ideas that need to be covered, including aesthetics, transformational learning, and, alas, the learner. But, I’ll leave that for a different time because I need to do some dissertation work.