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

Category: online learning

MOOCs can, and should, learn from past research in education

Posted on July 17th, by George Veletsianos in moocs, online learning, open, scholarship. 7 comments

This entry is part of a reflective series of posts/questions relating to online learning, MOOCs, and openness. See the first one here.

Coursera announced today that it is adding a dozen or so universities as partners. In an article in the New York Times, Sebastian Thrun notes that MOOC courses are still experimental and argues: “I think we are rushing this a little bit,” he said. “I haven’t seen a single study showing that online learning is as good as other learning.”

This perception of online education as “better than” or “as good as” other forms of education (I imagine that Sebastian Thrun is referring to face-to-face education here), is rampant. I believe it is rampant because our field has not done a good job disseminating what we know and what we don’t know about online education. At the same time, individuals do not tend to go back to the foundations of the field to investigate what others have discovered.

The result: A lack of understanding that there’s a whole field out there (here?) that has developed important insights on how we can design online education effectively. The list of references at the end of this post are merely a few of the resources one can use to get started on what we know and what we don’t know about comparison studies (i.e. studies that compare learning between delivery modes).

The point of this entry is to argue that there’s no point to reinvent the wheel. There’s no point to make the same mistakes. And above all, past research has shown that there’s no point to study whether online education is as good as (or as bad as) other forms of education because what one will discover is that:


  1. There are no significant differences in learning outcomes between face-to-face education and online education.
  2. When differences are found between the two, the differences can be attributed to (a) pedagogy, or (b) and a lack of controls in the experimental design.


It is important to point out that the effectiveness of an educational approach is influenced greatly by other variables, such as instructor support or pedagogical approach. Therefore, it is very difficult (if not impossible) to compare face-to-face and online education because when one is not a replication of the other, they are vastly different, are based on different learner-instructor interactions, and offer different affordances. While researchers have tried to minimize differences and compare face-to-face learning and online learning in experimental ways, the interventions end up being meaningless for the types of powerful online/face-to-face teaching we might envision. Comparing delivery mechanisms therefore, blinds us to the important variables that truly impact how people learn.

The important and informative questions to ask are not comparative. Rather they focus squarely on understanding online education:

  1. How can we design effective and engaging online education (e.g., MOOCs)?
  2. What is the nature of learning in a MOOC?
  3. What is the learning experience in a MOOC like?

These questions are difficult. They won’t be answered by comparing survey responses and they won’t generate one simple answer. They will however generate answers that will be different depending on context. And that’s what’s exciting about doing research on online education.


The purpose of a MOOC? Google and societal well-being

Posted on July 11th, by George Veletsianos in emerging technologies, moocs, online learning, open. 2 comments

This entry is part of a reflective series of posts/questions relating to online learning, MOOCs, and openness.

MOOCS are everywhere nowadays. Coursera, Udacity, EdX, the connectivist MOOCs (e.g., #ds106, Change11), etc, depending on what lens one is using to examine them, are generating hope, excitement, uneasiness, and frustration. An important question that one needs to ask is: What is the purpose of a MOOC?

MOOCS have different purposes. For example, some MOOCs are built on the idea of democratizing education and enhancing societal well being. See Curt Bonk’s MOOC types, targets, and intents for additional MOOC purposes.

Other MOOCs are built on the idea of improving a specific skills. Today’s EdSurge newsletter included the following note:

GOOGLE’S FIRST MOOC comes in the form of a “Power Searching with Google” course consisting of six 50-minute classes on how to search “beyond the ten blue links.” Classes just started and at last count, over 100,000 people have already registered. Google promises to go way beyond the 101 stuff and dive into advanced features. We’re ready: we’ve been a little stumped at finding a query “to search exclusively in the Harvard University website to find pages that mention clowns.”

Let’s unpack this a bit. What is the purpose of this MOOC? This MOOC will help users make better use of google’s search capabilities. It will also help Google experiment with offering MOOC-type courses and reinforce consumer loyalty.

How does the Google MOOC fare with regards to enhancing societal well-being? Rather than offering courses to teach users how to search better, I would have rather seen Google develop online courses specifically aimed at reducing societal inequalities and enhancing well-being. I would have rather seen a course on “using our tools for speaking out against oppressive regimes” or “using our tools to facilitate the development of community in your neighborhood” or “using our tools to design and develop your own online class.”

I hope that this course is not the last that we see from Google, and that rather than focusing on teaching users a specific skill set, future courses focus on supporting the development of societal well-being.

Technology, Education, and Learning Institutions in 2025

Posted on June 18th, by George Veletsianos in courses, online learning, scholarship. 4 comments

“Technology, Education, and Learning Institutions in 2025” is a signature course that I will be teaching for the School of Undergraduate Studies at UT Austin in Fall 2012. Thus, I was excited to learn the other day that George Siemens and colleagues will be teaching an open course entitled The Current/Future State of Higher Education. While the audiences and purposes of these two course may differ, it’s exciting to know that other groups are thinking that it’s important to lead a course that asks participants to think critically about the potential futures and alternative narratives of education. Anyone can make predictions about the future of education (e.g., predictions about the demise of higher education institutions are a dime a dozen). Yet, it’s hard for newcomers to differentiate between wishful thinking, “real” change, incremental change, and potential change. Thus, a well-rounded understanding of educational systems, and the multiple purposes they serve, is important.

Signature courses at UT are interdisciplinary seminar courses for incoming students emphasizing “discussion, critical thinking, short research projects, student presentations, and writing on interdisciplinary topics of contemporary importance.” Importantly, all UT signature courses carry the Writing Flag, meaning that they must meet certain writing requirements in order to ensure that students hone in on their writing skills. To this end, students in this course will write papers describing potential and alternative educational futures and institutions. To instill a sense of commitment, responsibility, encouragement, and hope , I approached the editor of Educational Technology and asked if he was willing to work with me on dedicating a special issue on student’s informed perspectives on the future of education. While we discuss the future of education, I think it’ important to hear from students and learn from what they have to say. Since Educational Technology magazine goes to about 2,000 readers in more than 100 countries around the world, I think that this is a great way to get some of these voices in the mainstream. Our guiding prompt will be the following: If you were going to design an educational system of the future today, what would it look like? This is a question that others have asked as well (e.g., Levin, 2002)

This is how I described the course to potential students:

What will education look like in 2025? What role will technology play in future learning institutions? What will schools and universities look like? Will we invent new forms of education that reside outside of schools and universities? What is the purpose of education and how will it change in the next 10-15 years? Will we still use lectures halls? Will online education be the norm? Are we reaching a point where “anyone can learn anything from anyone else at any time?” Or, are Google, Facebook, and Twitter “infantilizing our minds,” distracting us from meaningful learning and purposeful living? Together, we will answer these questions. Just as societies, governments, and other social groups adapt and change over time, so do institutions of learning, the work that they do, and how they do that work. We live at a transient time for education, at a time where entrepreneurs, politicians, philanthropists, college professors, and university presidents are defining what education may look like in 2025. Together, we will investigate major trends influencing education, and understand how education and learning institutions are changing with the emergence of certain technologies, social behaviors, and cultural expectations.

I’ll be posting my syllabus, readings, videos, and additional learning resources here in due course.

Critical perspectives on Educational Technology

Posted on April 22nd, by George Veletsianos in online learning, scholarship. 4 comments

I was in Vancouver at AERA 2012 last week, where I had the opportunity to present some of my recent work and catch up with colleagues. A few of the conversations I had centered around the increasing interest our field is receiving. This is a great time to be involved with educational technology, though there’s a lot of discussion about what higher education may look like a few years down the road. At the same time however, contemporary discourse on how technology can “transform” education concerns me because it is largely guided by techno-enthusiasm, techno-determinism, and a desire to improve “efficiency,” on models grounded on marginal costs and revenues. This is not a new concern – I wrote about it in the past as well. However, George Siemens does a great job  describing what current thinking in the edtech corporate world looks like. My perspective is that, if we want to improve education for all, we have to engage with educational technology critically, involve educators in designing innovations, and use the research that a lot of us have done on learning, education, and technology.

To this end, I decided to share a a list of papers from my research library that offer a critical perspective on the use of technology in education. This is not a rant against the field. Rather, this is an attempt to highlight alternative ways of thinking. Alternative perspectives are important, because they help us question our assumptions and worldview. I thought it was about time for this, as the last entry that I wrote on this issue was about two years ago. If you have any additional work that might fit into this category, please share it in the comments section, and I will update the blog entry with those. Alternatively, you can add papers to this group on mendeley (feel free to join as well).

Amory, A. (2010). Education Technology and Hidden Ideological Contradictions. Educational Technology & Society, 13(1), 69- 79.

Bayne, S. (2010). Academetron, automaton, phantom: uncanny digital pedagogies. London Review of Education, 8(1), 5-13.

Friesen, Norm. (2010). Education and the social Web: Connective learning and the commerical imperative. First Monday, 15(12).

Friesen, Norm. (2011). Critical Theory: Ideology Critique and the Myths of E‐Learning, (February), 1-20.

Kahn, R., & Kellner, D. (2007). Paulo Freire and Ivan Illich: technology, politics and the reconstruction of education. Policy Futures in Education, 5(4), 431-448.

Njenga, J. K., & Fourie, L. C. H. (2010). The myths about e-learning in higher education. British Journal of Educational Technology, 41(2), 199-212.

Oliver, M. (2011). Technological determinism in educational technology research: some alternative ways of thinking about the relationship between learning and technology. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, (November 2010), no-no. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2729.2011.00406.x

Peck, C., Cuban, L., & Kirkpatrick, H. (2007). Techno-Promoter Dreams,Student Realities. Phi Delta Kappan, 83(6), 472-480.

Piña, A. A. (2010). Online diploma mills : implications for legitimate distance education. Distance Education, 31(1), 121-126. doi:10.1080/01587911003725063

Ravenscroft, A. (2001). Designing E-learning Interactions in the 21st Century: revisiting and rethinking the role of theory. European Journal of Education, 36(2), 133-156. doi:10.1111/1467-3435.00056

Sahay, S. (2007). Beyond Utopian and Nostalgic Views of Information Technology and Education: Implications for Research and Practice. Information Systems, 5(7), 282-313.

Selwyn, N. (2010). Looking beyond learning: notes towards the critical study of educational technology. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 26(1), 65-73. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2729.2009.00338.x

Selwyn, Neil. (2011). Editorial: In praise of pessimism—the need for negativity in educational technology. British Journal of Educational Technology, 42(5), 713-718.

Selwyn, Neil, & Gorard, S. (2004). Exploring the role of ICT in facilitating adult informal learning. Education, Communication & Information, 4(2-3), 293-310. doi:10.1080/14636310412331304726

Warschauer, M. (2007). The paradoxical future of digital learning. Learning Inquiry, 1(1), 41-49. doi:10.1007/s11519-007-0001-5

Weston, M. E., & Bain, A. (2010). The End of Techno-Critique : The Naked Truth about 1 : 1 Laptop Initiatives and Educational Change. The Journal of Technology, Learning, and Assessment, 9(6).

Kickstarting educational innovations (or, the case of #ds106)

Posted on March 30th, by George Veletsianos in my research, NPS, online learning, open, scholarship. 4 comments

If you are trying to explain to colleagues why networks are important, why an understanding of participatory cultures is important, and why education should concern itself with social media and network literacies, then look no further than the success that the good people over at #ds106 had in raising funds through Kickstarter to support their project. Within a day they reached their goal and raised more than $4,500. Huge congratulations to everyone involved!

At the same time this is an opportunity to discuss notions of power and social capital. Can everyone do this? How many projects don’t reach their goal every day? This is not a shot at #ds106 or the people involved: #ds106 is an amazing project with a creative and passionate team of people and they deserve all the accolades they can get! Put in other words, will people read and comment on your blog just because you have one? Will people support your kickstarter project, just because you have one? What do educators, researchers, scholars and students need to know about social media and networks so that their tweets, facebook updates, and linkein profiles are not lost in a desert of digital sand?

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).

Online Social Networks as Formal Learning Environments

Posted on February 5th, by George Veletsianos in my research, NPS, online learning, papers, scholarship. 7 comments

I’m always excited to participate in dialogue regarding my work. In this post, I will respond to a couple of questions/comments posed to me as a result of a recent paper I published in IRRODL with Cesar Navarrete, who is a doctoral student at the Learning Technologies program at UT Austin.

The paper is: Veletsianos, G. & Navarrete, C. (2012). Online Social Networks as Formal Learning Environments: Learner Experiences and Activities. The International Review Of Research In Open And Distance Learning, 13(1), 144-166. [PDF]

In this paper we try to make sense of student experiences and practices in an online social network using within an online course. The abstract reads: While the potential of social networking sites to contribute to educational endeavors is highlighted by researchers and practitioners alike, empirical evidence on the use of such sites for formal online learning is scant. To fill this gap in the literature, we present a case study of learners’ perspectives and experiences in an online course taught using the Elgg online social network. Findings from this study indicate that learners enjoyed and appreciated both the social learning experience afforded by the online social network and supported one another in their learning, enhancing their own and other students’ experiences. Conversely, results also indicate that students limited their participation to course-related and graded activities, exhibiting little use of social networking and sharing. Additionally, learners needed support in managing the expanded amount of information available to them and devised strategies and “workarounds” to manage their time and participation.

The first question/comment is from Jenny Mackness who says: “I was surprised by the finding ‘students did not appear to mix social and educational participation’. In my experience, students have always mixed social and educational participation, e.g. in the coffee bar – or in my own work, wiki discussions will sometimes veer off into more personal, social discussions. Do you think your students did not mix social and educational participation in your Elgg environment because of the constraints of tutor presence/control, assessment and so on. I’m wondering where else they might have mixed social and educational participation. Did you ask them whether there were any ‘back channels’?”

Thanks for the question, Jenny! I agree with you that students tend to mix social and educational participation. We did not observe this on occurring in this study though. I believe both of these tendencies can be true, and sometimes even co-exist. One or two students sought social, non-educational interactions, but their attempts were not reciprocated. The majority of them just didn’t mix the two. Following up from this, it is interesting to ask why. We did not ask students about it but I can say that (a) just because we didn’t see it on the social network, it doesn’t mean that it did not happen (i.e., it might have happened on email), and (b) a lot of reasons might explain why: the fast pacing of the course might have been a factor; students might have been focusing on completing the course and its requirements; or students might not have felt that Elgg was the appropriate place for them to do that. It’s highly likely that it’s a combination of all of these. What’s important, I believe, is the implication that just because students are on an online social network, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they will engage with each other in the types of social interactions that we see occurring elsewhere (e.g., twitter, facebook, etc).

The second comment is from Stephen Downes who says: “We haven’t heard a lot about Elgg recently but it remains an important model for online learning. One weakness of the case study is that it takes place in a traditional institution.” Results also indicate that students limited their participation to course-related and graded activities, exhibiting little use of social networking and sharing.” Then again, this might just be a feature of the (very) small group studied. I think the discussion of Elgg is valuable, but would place the case study as just one out of (we would hope) many data points.”

Again, thank you, Stephen, for the comment! I may be misunderstanding part of the comment, but I wouldn’t say that the fact that this study took place at a traditional institution is a “weakness.” That was actually part of the reason why we did the study, as the majority of the work that we have seen focuses on the use of these technologies outside of the institution, and individuals tend to think that findings will easily transfer to institutional settings. If you mean that the results were influenced by the fact that the course occurred in a traditional institution or that the institutional setting influenced how the technology was used, you are absolutely correct, and that’s an implication of the study. Finally, I agree with you in that this is just one case study of the use of Elgg and online social networks in an institutional setting. A collection of case studies can help us make sense of this phenomenon, and these are slowly appearing (e.g., in our paper we cite Arnold & Paulus (2010), Brady et al. (2010), Dron & Anderson (2009b)).

Improving Computer Science Education through Project Engage

Posted on January 18th, by George Veletsianos in emerging technologies, engagement, my research, online learning, open, sharing. 3 comments

Part of my research demands that I develop technology-enhanced interventions in order to study them. I enjoy this part of my work partly because I get to create solutions to tackle education problems and partly because it has allowed me to explore technology-enhanced learning across different disciplines (e.g. I was involved with developing online learning environments for American Sign Language, environmental stewardship, and sociological concepts).

Now comes another excitement and challenge: Last August, Dr. Calvin Lin and I were awarded a National Science Foundation grant (award #1138506) to develop a hybrid “Introduction to Computer Science” course to be taught at Texas high schools and institutions of higher education. The project is a collaboration between the department of Computer Science (Dr. Lin) and Curriculum and Instruction – Instructional Technology (me). I’ll be posting more about the project (probably on a different blog), but the overarching goal here is to enhance how CS is taught using emerging technologies and pedagogies (mostly PBL) while valuing local contexts and practices. Mark Guzdial, in a recent paper, notes that “We need more education research that is informed by understanding CS—how it’s taught, what the current practices are, and what’s important to keep as we change practice. We need more computing education researchers to help meet the workforce needs in our technology-based society.”

I look forward to sharing more about this project with everyone soon!