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

Category: online learning

On Noam Chomsky and technology’s neutrality

Posted on January 23rd, by George Veletsianos in E-learning, emerging technologies, my research, online learning, scholarship. 22 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.

HarvardX and MITx open course reports

Posted on January 22nd, by George Veletsianos in emerging technologies, moocs, online learning, open. 8 comments

HarvardX and MITx released a number of reports describing their open courses. The overarching paper describing these initiatives, entitled HarvardX and MITx: The first year of open online courses is really helpful in gaining a holistic understanding of HarvardX and MITx learned about their initiatives.

My (preliminary) thoughts:

  • It’s exciting to see more data
  • It’s exciting to see education researchers involved in the analysis of the data
  • The researchers should be congratulated for making these reports available in an expeditious manner via SSRN
  • We need more interpretive/qualitative research to understand participants’ and practitioners’ experiences on the ground
  • I am wondering whether 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.

The course reports appear below, and these are quite helpful in helping the community understand the particulars of each course:

Help us understand learner experiences in Open Online Courses and MOOCs?

Posted on January 17th, by George Veletsianos in my research, online learning, open, scholarship. 10 comments

An invitation from George Veletsianos (Royal Roads University) and Amy Collier (Stanford University):

We are conducting a study to understand students’ experiences in Open Online Courses and MOOCs. We are interested in talking with individuals who enrolled and participated in open courses for at least 3 weeks.

Participation to this study is completely voluntary and optional, and involves:

  • answering 10 multiple-choice and short-answer questions about your studies
  • participating in an individual audio-recorded interview about your experiences taking MOOCs.

If you are interested in participating or learning more about this study, you can do so by visiting this link:

Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any questions.

George & Amy

George Veletsianos

Amy Collier

Udacity, MOOCs, hammers, and the problems of education

Posted on November 18th, by George Veletsianos in online learning, scholarship. 33 comments

Last week’s big news was that Udacity intends to switch its focus from higher education to corporate training. A number of colleagues have provided thoughtful responses to these news, including Michael Caulfield, Audrey Watters, Rolin Moe, George Siemens, and Bonnie Stewart.

Here’s my take on this development: Maslow once said: “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” It seems that Udacity has discovered a solution and after realizing that it’s not a solution for the perils facing higher education, that solution is taken elsewhere. Reflecting on the xMOOC phenomenon it appears that this is a consistent approach. If MOOCs don’t work for X, they must work for Y, and if they don’t work for Y, they must work for Z.

I have drummed this tambourine in the past. This is educational technology history repeating itself. During the mid-90’s the instructional media/design field was engaging in The Great Media debate. In short, on the one side of the debate were individuals who argued that media do not influence learning outcomes. On the other side of the debate were individuals who noted that media provide affordances for learning. In the midst of the debate Tennyson (1994) noted the following:

I refer to this transition from scientist to advocate as the big-wrench approach to complex problem solution: The advocate, with the big wrench in hand, sets out to solve, suddenly, a relatively restricted number of problems. That is, all of the formerly many diverse problems, now seem to be soluble with the new big wrench (or panacea).

If educational technology companies (and Centers for Teaching and Learning) are eager to improve education, rather than searching for problems to apply their solutions, they should focus on identifying problems and designing solutions to those problems. Higher education may lack a lot of things, but what it does not lack are problems in need of solutions. Talk to any faculty member and ask: What problem are you facing in your teaching? Observe classrooms and see what things appear commonplace but hinder practice. For example, one of the projects that I had the good fortune to work on emanated from the observation that instructors asked students to borrow video cameras, record assignments, and return tapes to the instructor to watch and return feedback. This process usually took 6 weeks. We automated a lot of this process by developing an online assessment environment through which students recorded their assignments on webcam, instructors were notified of the availability of the video, and were then quickly able to student feedback. By eliminating the need for video cameras and tapes, and introducing an environment that addressed needs and problems, we were able to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the process and drastically reduce the amount of time by which students received their feedback.


Tennyson, R. D. (1994). The big wrench vs. integrated approaches: The great media debate. Educational Technology Research & Development, 42(3), 15–28.

COHERE 2013. Small is beautiful and MOOCs as symptoms

Posted on October 27th, by George Veletsianos in emerging technologies, my research, online learning, open, scholarship, sharing. 19 comments

I am sitting at a coffee shop in Vancouver, BC reflecting on my time at COHERE 2013. This was my first Canadian conference since moving to Victoria, and it was a great opportunity to meet and spend time with colleagues (many of them Canadians) including Tony Bates, Rory McGreal, Martha-Cleveland Innes, David Porter, Diane Janes, Diane Salter, Jenni Hayman, Richard Pinet, Robert Clougherty, and Cindy Ives. It was also great to see Ron Owston, Frank Bulk, and Kathleen Matheos again – and my colleagues Vivian Forssman and BJ Eib were there too! The conference was relatively small and the sessions were 40 minutes long, allowing ample time and space for conversations, networking, and debates. I really appreciated the intimate atmosphere that we were afforded for spending time with each other. The organizers (Kathleen Matheos and Stacey Woods) did a fantastic job!

Cable Green from Creative Commons delivered the first keynote and David Porter from BC Campus delivered the second. I sat on a respondent panel for Cable’s keynote and argued three points: (a) we need to build on and go beyond open educational resources, and think about open practices, (b) each of us needs to take action in supporting openness (e.g., by teaching sharing as a value and literacy), and (c) by recognizing that “open” is under threat of being subverted. It was fascinating to sit on a panel with four others and see how our responses to the keynote differed, but how they all coalesced around similar messages as well.

I also gave a presentation discussing early findings from my research into learners experiences in MOOCs, open courses, and other open learning environments, and you might be interested in Tony Bates’ take on this research:

These findings are not fully refined and analyzed, yet. However, in thinking about these results, reading the literature and claims around MOOCs, and thinking about recent developments in educational technology, I am beginning to see MOOCs more and more as a symptom of chronic failures of the educational system to tackle significant issues. On the one hand, I and others have argued that MOOC creators have ignored research into how people learn and how people learn with technology. Tony Bates  in particular (see the last link), is very clear when he says “Why is MIT ignoring 25 years of research into online learning and 100 years research into how students learn in its design of online courses?”

On the other hand however, the rise of MOOCs seems to be a symptom of a series of failures and pressures. I like the argument that George Siemens makes in relation to inadequate university approaches to educational needs, “Universities have failed to recognize the pent-up demand for learning as the economy has diversified and society has become more complex and interconnected. As a consequence, the internet has contributed by creating a shadow education system where learners learn on their own and through social networks. MOOCs reflect society’s transition to a knowledge economy and reveal the inadequacy of existing university models to meet learner’s needs.” I’d like to take this argument further. As a field, we could do more to have greater impact on the design and development of educational technology solutions, including MOOCs. Steps to do that would include sharing our research more broadly and in different ways (e.g., publishing in open access venues and putting theory-to-practice), engaging in what Tom Reeves calls socially-responsible research that solves real problems, working across disciplines, reconsidering the ways that we understand, evaluate, and reward impact at our institutions, and so on. More on these issues, soon!


Learner experiences with open online learning and MOOCs e-book

Posted on September 24th, by George Veletsianos in emerging technologies, online learning, open, scholarship, sharing. 23 comments

I’m excited to announce the publication of an open access e-book on learners’ experiences with open learning and MOOCs. The book consists of ten chapters by student authors and one introductory chapter by me. Part pedagogical experiment, part an exploratory investigation into learners’ experiences with emerging forms of learning, the aim of the book is to capture and share student stories of open online learning.


This publication is necessary for a number of reasons.

First, from a pedagogical perspective, whenever possible, we should be asking students to do a discipline, not just read about it. In this occasion, students were asked to do open online learning and reflect/write about their experience, instead of just reading about the field and the experience of others.

Second, in the frenzy surrounding the rise of “edtech” and MOOCs, it seems that student voices and experiences are rarely considered. This e-book is an attempt to remind designers and developers that the learning experience should be a central tenet of attempts to reform education. Let’s all remind ourselves that what we should be designing is learning experiences – not products for efficient consumption.

Third, the examination of learning experiences with open learning and MOOCs in the literature is scant. Further, recent literature tends to gravitate towards big data and analytics, and while those research endeavors are worthwhile, they tend to generate abstract descriptions of learner behaviors. A holistic understanding of learner experiences should include both investigations of patterns of how learners behave as well as in-depth qualitative descriptions of what learning in open environments is like. To illustrate, learning analytics research suggests that there are a number of ways learners typically engage with a course (e.g., completing, auditing, disengaging, sampling). Complementary to this, our book generates nuanced descriptions of some of these categories. For example, even though one of the authors would be considered as completing a MOOC he “was left with a partial sense of accomplishment and feelings of hollowness and incompleteness.”

The scholarly contributions from this book are two. They can be summarized as follows, but for in-depth descriptions, please read my full chapter, which is simultaneously published on Hybrid Pedagogy:

  • The realities of open online learning are different from the hopes of open online learning.
  • We only have small pieces of an incomplete mosaic of students’ learning experiences with open online learning.

As with the emerging technologies in distance education book that I edited in 2010 (also available as open access), please don’t hesitate to send me an email to let me know what you think about this book. I’d love your thoughts! If you are teaching a class on emerging learning environments, open education, online learning, and other related topics, and you find this book helpful as reading material, I’d love to hear about how you are using it!

P.S The book is published on Github, which means that you can effortlessly improve and expand on this work. If you want to learn more about this, Kris Shaffer, who was instrumental in making our github project happen, wrote an excellent article on Github and publishing.


Interested in a post-doc studying emerging forms of online participation?

Posted on September 12th, by George Veletsianos in emerging technologies, my research, NPS, online learning, open, work. 19 comments

Are you interested in a post-doctoral fellowship in any of the following topics?

  • open online learning
  • emerging forms of online participation
  • digital and open scholarship
  • online social networks
  • learner, instructor, and scholar experiences in any of the above

If so, I would love to see an application from you to our call for Banting post-doctoral fellows! The call is open to Canadians and non-Canadians alike.

On the call listed above, you will see that we are seeking applicants for multiple positions. The section relevant to my interests is the following:

Working with Dr. George Veletsianos, Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Innovative Learning and Technology, the post-doc will focus on emerging technologies and innovations in online education, and in particular open education, open/digital scholarship, and social media/networks. The experiences and practices of learners, instructors, and scholars with emerging forms of online participation (e.g., MOOCs, social media) are ill-understood and ill-researched. The objective of a Banting post-doc within this research program will be to make sense of participants’ experiences and practices with open online education and social media/networks in higher education and to understand why individuals use these emerging innovations in the ways that they do. Research questions may include, but are not limited to: What is the nature of open online learning, teaching, and participation? What does the experience of open online learning/teaching and/or social network learning consist of? What is the lived experience of open scholars? How is technology changing scholarship? How do scholars perceive and construct their identity using social media/networks? How do individuals use social media/networks to cope with the expectations of their academic roles (e.g., being a doctoral student, being a newly-hired faculty member, etc)?

Take a look at the call, explore my research on these topics, and if you have any questions please don’t hesitate to contact me. Applications are due by September 27, 2013.

Forthcoming ebook and twitter chat on MOOC and open learning experiences

Posted on September 4th, by George Veletsianos in emerging technologies, online learning, open, scholarship. 18 comments

I’m very excited to share the news that Hybrid Pedagogy will be publishing an open access e-book that I edited on learner experiences with Open Online Learning and MOOCs.

The e-book, entitled Learner Experiences with MOOCs and Open Online Learning, is a project in which student authors describe and reflect upon their open online learning experiences. While this book aims at improving our understanding of student experiences with open online learning, it is also an attempt to give voice to learners, as current conversations around educational innovations in general, and MOOCs in particular, lack student voices.

In setting the stage for the book, Hybrid pedagogy is holding a a Twitter discussion under the hashtag #digped on Friday, September 6 from 1:00 – 2:00pm Eastern (10:00 – 11:00am Pacific). We’d love for you to join us! You can read more details about the discussion here!