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

Category: scholarship

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.

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

The Fragmented Educator

Posted on January 13th, by George Veletsianos in my research, NPS, open, papers, scholarship, sharing, work. 6 comments

We have a new paper available that continues our research on networked participation/learning and networked participatory scholarship. This one arises out of Royce Kimmons’  dissertation, which I had the joy, honor, and good fortune of chairing.

The media is filled with stories pertaining to educators’ and researchers’ participation in online social networks. For example, a debate erupted in Kansas in December 2013 regarding faculty members’ use of social media and teachers have found themselves in trouble for their social media updates. Yet, little research has been done to understand the relationship between educator identity and participation in Social Networking Sites (SNS) or to examine the implications that institutional regulation of such media may have upon educator identity.

In our latest research study, we developed a framework to understand how a group of teacher education students viewed their developing identities within social networking sites as they began the life transition to becoming educators. We found that educator identity consists of a constellation of interconnected acceptable identity fragments (AIF)*. These acceptable identity fragments are  intentional, authentic, transitional, necessarily incomplete, and socially-constructed and socially-responsive.


Fragments by Maria McMahon. Unchanged. CC -BY 2.0 license.

We arrived at the term “acceptable identity fragment,” because study participants:

  • shaped their participation in social networking sites in a manner that they believed to be “acceptable” to their audiences,
  • viewed this participation to be a direct expression of “identity” or their sense of self, and
  • felt this expression to only represent a small “fragment” of their complete identities.

The AIF suggests that participants in a given social context may limit their participation or expression of identity in a way that is appropriate to that specific context or is acceptable to the specific relationships they have with others in that context. The existence of the AIF means that educator identities within SNS are contextual and intentionally limited and structured. Participants believe that, when participating in SNS, they are expressing their identities in a limited, though authentic, manner. In their view, such expression represents a genuine fragment of their identities.

This view of educator identity contrasts sharply with previous views of identity by highlighting the complicated, negotiated, and recursive relationship that exists between educator participation in SNS and educator identity.

First, existing literature assumes that individuals have an authentic identity and suggests that they attempt to express these identities in varying degrees via social media. Our research finds that human beings may not ever find themselves in social contexts wherein they will choose to (or are even able to) express their full authentic identities and, instead, express a different AIF depending upon the situation.

Second, in Goffman’s view (1959), identity is adaptable and constantly emergent as we “act” in contexts. In the AIF view, there is no “acting” occurring, but rather we see a guarded revelation of fragments of the self. Thus, identity was not an emergent phenomenon of the scene; it was controlled and revealed partially.

Finally, Turkle (1995) suggests that the online self lacks coherence and is fluid. However, participants in our study were operating from what they believed to be a coherent sense of self and judged their SNS participation based upon alignment with that sense. Participation did not lack coherence  – it was merely a partial manifestation.

What does this mean for educators, educational administrators, and educational researchers?

First, if the AIF is intentional and authentic, then it seems important for educators to retain control of their SNS participation. If institutions seek to prescribe appropriate and inappropriate uses of the medium, then it seems that this will prevent educators from being able to make meaningful choices regarding authentic self-expression and self-representation

Second, if the AIF is transitional, social media technologies must accommodate individuals’ transition into new life phases. At present, social media spaces do not support this (e.g., Facebook’s Timeline and the difficulty of deleting participation history en masse). If technologies doe not support the transition into new life phases, they risk being abandoned.

Third, educators should seek to recognize the assumptions that SNS platform developers are making about human nature, meaningful social participation, relationships, and so forth and consider the impact that such assumptions may have on their participation and identity.

Fourth, judgments made about educators based upon their participation in SNS should consider life transitions, time-based contexts (e.g., behavior as a college freshman vs. behavior as a student teacher), and the embedded values of the media.

Finally, if the AIF is a necessarily incomplete component of a larger identity constellation, any judgments of educators based on SNS participation must recognize that the relationship of the AIF to overall identity is subject to interpretation and may not reflect an individual’s perception of how the AIF represents authentic identity. Fragmentation of identity, then, should be seen as a valuable response to complex social situations. SNS platforms should account for this, and as we make judgments about others based upon their fragmented identities, we should be cognizant of the complex relationship existing between the AIF and one’s larger identity and dispel the myth of a simple authentic vs. inauthentic binary.

You can download a pre-print copy of the study from the link below:

Kimmons, R., & Veletsianos, G. (2014). The Fragmented Educator 2.0: Social Networking Sites. Acceptable Identity Fragments, and the Identity Constellation. Computers & Education, 72, 292-301. Journal link.

* The usual grounded theory and interpretive research caveats apply.

Journal of academic freedom CFP

Posted on December 12th, by George Veletsianos in emerging technologies, scholarship. 6 comments

The burgeoning interest in education and educational technology is the result of a multitude of forces, pressures, and failures: demographic, political, social, technological, and economic just to mention a few. And the outcomes aren’t just technology-enhanced or better courses. Educational institutions, academic roles, academic life itself, the student experience, and so on are changing. A recent call for proposals from The American Association of University Professors’ Journal of Academic Freedom (due: January 31, 2014) calls for authors to explore the relationship between academic freedom and some of these issues:

Electronic communications and academic freedom

  • How has the growth of electronic communications facilitated and impinged on academic freedom?
  • What are the implications for academic freedom of the proliferation of open access publications?
  • Are commercial entities contributing to the commodification of knowledge through various electronic gatekeeping mechanisms?
  • How can institutions cope with hacking and other forms of electronic piracy while maintaining accessibility?
  • To what extent are social media such as Twitter and Facebook changing forms of scholarly communication and knowledge dissemination, and what is the upshot for issues of academic freedom?
  • How are the increasingly elastic and intangible walls of the electronic classroom challenging existing definitions of academic freedom, shared governance, and intellectual property?
  • In what ways can we promote faculty participation in the shared governance of various forms of electronic communications?
  • Are faculty e-mails considered the property of the institution? Can administrators read faculty e-mails without notice or permission?

The abridgement of academic freedom in instruction

  • The case of former Indiana governor Mitchell Daniels’ efforts to purge scholars’ writings from the classroom has drawn attention to renewed attacks on academic freedom in instruction. Where are such attacks coming from and how have they been resolved?
  • The Gates Foundation has devoted millions of dollars to supporting MOOCs and other experiments in online teaching. To what extent are such experiments curtailing or facilitating faculty input into course design?
  • The suspension of University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan in 2012 drew attention to the increasingly tense relationship between university boards of trustees and university faculty and executives. In what ways, if any, are such institutional dynamics transforming academic freedom in instruction?
  • Federal and state assessment protocols are putting pressure on curricula in many fields. We are interested in both case studies and overviews that detail the impact of these pressures on academic freedom.

The increased use of suspensions

  • In September 2013, a professor at the University of Kansas tweeted a comment about gun control that led to a barrage of hate messages. The university suspended this faculty member in order to “avoid disruption.” To what extent are such misused suspensions proliferating, and how might faculty members be made more aware of their rights?
  • As university work has become more complex and extensive, the number of duties from which professors can be suspended has proliferated. Examples include relationships of researchers to outside funding agencies, access to email and computing services, and workplace provisions against sexual misconduct, just to name a few of the complex domains in which professors often operate today. What kinds of problems of academic freedom do partial suspensions in these and other areas represent?
  • University administrators often seek to cloak suspension in duplicitous language. Does reassignment to duties other than teaching constitute a form of suspension, for example?  What is the distinction between such a sanctioning of faculty rights and total suspension?




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.

Archived talk: Academics’ and Educators’ practices and experiences with social media/networks

Posted on November 16th, by George Veletsianos in emerging technologies, my research, scholarship. 7 comments

On Wednesday, I gave a talk to the Canadian Institute of Distance Education Research focused on scholars’ (researchers and instructors’) practices and experiences with social media/networks on the open web. The feedback from the organizers was positive: “We had about 40 attendees, which is at the high end of our usual crowd, and their activity in the chat was much greater than usual – a very good sign. It was a great session, I’m pleased, and hopefully you enjoyed it as well.”

I had a great time, though I wish we had more time for questions and answers. If you are interested in the topic, the session was recorded and it’s now available for your use/viewing.  The slides I used appear below:

November 13 CIDER Presentation: What Do Academics and Educators Do on Social Media and Networks?

Posted on November 11th, by George Veletsianos in my research, open, scholarship. 35 comments

November 16, 2013 update: This presentation was recorded and archived.

Title: What Do Academics and Educators Do on Social Media and Networks, and What Do Their Experiences Tell Us About Identity and the Web?
Facilitator:   George Veletsianos
Institution:   Royal Roads University
Date and time:   Nov 13, 2013 10:00am PST (click here to convert to local time)
Where: Adobe Connect:

I am giving an open presentation to the Canadian Institute of Distance Education Research. Don’t hesitate to join us if you have time and are interested on the topic! In this talk I will draw on empirical studies conducted by a number of researchers (including work by myself and Royce Kimmons) to examine academics’ and educators’ participation in networked spaces. These studies point to three significant findings: (a) increasingly open practices that question the traditions of academia, (b) personal-professional tensions in academic work, and (c) a framework of identity that contrasts sharply with our existing understanding of online identity.



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!