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

Category: sharing

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.


A synthesis of the pedagogical agent literature

Posted on September 4th, by George Veletsianos in sharing. 12 comments

The 4th edition of the Handbook of Research on Educational Communications and Technology recently arrived at my office.

Handbook or research on educational communications and technology

My graduate student and I have a chapter in this 1000-page volume (!) that attempts to summarize the 2005-2011 literature focusing on pedagogical agents and virtual characters. We believe that this chapter can help orient individuals to the field and its research literature. The approach that we followed was simple: We first analyzed the claims made about pedagogical agents in the literature. Then, we presented the empirical evidence surrounding those claims.

The abstract summarizes our findings:

In this chapter we synthesize the pedagogical agent literature published during 2005–2011. During these years, researchers have claimed that pedagogical agents serve a variety of educational purposes such as being adaptable and versatile; engendering realistic simulations; addressing learners’ sociocultural needs; fostering engagement, motivation, and responsibility; and improving learning and performance. Empirical results supporting these claims are mixed, and results are often contradictory. Our investigation of prior literature also reveals that current research focuses on the examination of cognitive issues through the use of experimental and quasi-experimental methods. Nevertheless, sociocultural investigations are becoming increasingly popular, while mixed methods approaches, and to a lesser extent interpretive research, are garnering some attention in the literature. Suggestions for future research include the deployment of agents in naturalistic contexts and open-ended environments, and investigation of agent outcomes and implications in long-term interventions.

As always, a pdf of the paper is available below.

Veletsianos, G. & Russell, G. (2014). Pedagogical Agents. In Spector, M., Merrill, D., Elen, J., & Bishop, MJ  (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Educational Communications and Technology, 4th Edition (pp. 759-769). Springer Academic.

The research that MOOCs need

Posted on June 5th, by George Veletsianos in sharing. 62 comments

Even though the concept of the Massive Open Online Course has become wildly popular during the last year, empirical research on these initiatives is largely absent.

On the one hand, this is not surprising. The fact that the research that exists in the literature falls under the case study approach is not surprising either. Historically, the research that characterizes emerging practices has been formative and focused on specific case studies (Dede, 1996). Research on connectivist MOOCs is available (e.g., see Fournier’s and Kop’s work), but research on other types of open courses is just slowly starting to emerge (e.g., see the work of the Lytics Lab and the research pertaining to P2PU). I hope and expect that a forthcoming special issue from JOLT focusing on MOOCs will add much needed insight.

The important questions that I believe we should be asking at this point are: What education-specific research will be beneficial to the field? What do we need to know? And how should we go about investigating what we need to know about? Systematic empirical research can (a) generate a deeper understanding of this phenomenon, (b) provide evidence to support or refute the claims surrounding MOOCs, and (c) help universities and MOOC providers enhance course offerings.

What follows is a set of research questions that, if answered, will generate insights into learner/instructor experiences, outcomes, practices, and interaction in massive open online learning courses:

  • What are the learning outcomes of MOOCs?
  • Who successfully completes MOOCs? What are the shared characteristics of the individuals who successfully complete MOOCs? For instance, past research shows that there’s a strong positive relationship between prior knowledge and learning (Dochy, Segers, & Buehl, 1999). It would not be a stretch to expect this to transfer to MOOCs.
  • Why do learners sign-up for MOOCs? Note that this is an empirical question. We can surmise why they do, but asking them may yield different answers… or may bolster what we already think we are seeing.
  • What factors cause learners to persist or cease participation in MOOCs? The concepts of “dropping out” and “retention” are not new (e.g., The Chronicle of Higher Education wrote a story in 2000 that was entitled “As Distance Education Comes of Age, the Challenge Is Keeping the Students“),  have already been examined in the broader online learning literature (e.g., Park & Choi, 2009), and a number of models exists to explain dropout (e.g.,Bean & Metzner, 1985). Recent evidence highlights that academic locus of control and self-regulation are factors that mediate persistence in online learning (Lee, Choi, & Kim, 2013). However, the concept of “drop out” has historically been associated with for-credit endeavors. With  large numbers of individuals seemingly enrolling in MOOCs out of sheer interest and curiosity, and perhaps merely exploring their options, what new knowledge can we gain about this issue? Koller, Ng, Do, and Chen (2013) add nuance to this discussion by adding the idea that “student intent” is important in this discussion, which I think is worthwhile. However, even with this variable in mind, we should still ask: What factors cause learners to persist or cease participation? Intent can be defined ex post facto by looking at the coursera data, but intent changes over time. For example, one may sign up for a course intending to complete it, but for various reasons (e.g., unrealistic expectations, lack of time, bad course design) may cease participation. Conversely, one may sign up for a course to simply explore a topic but may stay (e.g., a supportive community encourages ongoing participation).
  • What is the learning experience like in a MOOC? How does this experience differ across designs and pedagogical models?
  • How do learning communities and groups develop, grow, and dissipate in MOOCs, in both online spaces (e.g., Facebook groups) and face-to-face spaces (e.g., mediated by Meetups)?
  • What factors are critical in sustaining learner interest, motivation, and participation in a MOOC?

A number of initiatives are in place at present to examine MOOCs. For example, HarvardX has established a research committee headed by Andrew Ho, a professor of education, to conduct research on EdX; Justin Reich is joining the HarvardX team as a Research Fellow; George Siemens, Valerie Irvine, and Jillianne Code are editing a special issue focused on MOOCs for the Journal of Online Learning and Teaching (pdf); and the Journal of Universal Computer Science is also hosting a special issue focused on Interaction in MOOCs (pdf). Such initiatives will go a long way in providing much needed empirical results on the topic.


Dede, C. (1996). Emerging technologies and distributed learning. American Journal of Distance Education, 10(2), 4-36.

Dochy, F., Segers, M., & Buehl, M. (1999). The relation between assessment practices and outcomes of studies: The case of research on prior knowledge. Review of Educational Research, 69, (2), 145-186.

Lee, Y., Choi, J. and Kim, T. (2013), Discriminating factors between completers of and dropouts from online learning courses. British Journal of Educational Technology, 44(2), 328–337.
Park, J.-H., & Choi, H. J. (2009). Factors Influencing Adult Learners’ Decision to Drop Out or Persist in Online Learning. Educational Technology & Society, 12 (4), 207–217.


Posted on May 30th, by George Veletsianos in sharing. 3 comments

In reading the Higher Ed story about the new institutions joining Coursera, I am reminded of one of my favorite texts: Davies’ (1993) Shards of Glass. This wonderful book is a story of binaries describing how texts influence the way children think about their gender, themselves, and others. Davies notes that texts inscribe children’s reality. Children, influenced by the texts that permeate their world, adopt storylines that shape the ways they view the world and act within it. If we take this stance as one possibility of how perceptions of gendered identity are formed, one question to ask is: Do children abide by dominant storylines that keep their gender in place? Davies would argue that they do – hence her attempt to empower children with alternative discourses. Such discourses go beyond the male-female binary and the conceptions that “male” ought to represent masculinity and “female” ought to represent femininity.

Female – Male.
Real – Virtual.


. . .

The Higher Ed story notes:
“The partnerships announced this week also represent a break from Coursera’s plans to work only with elite institutions.”

“To partner with so many institutions, however, Coursera will sidestep a contractual obligation to primarily offer courses from members of the Association of American Universities or “top five” universities in countries outside of North America. It will do so by creating a new section of its website to house material from the less-than-elite state universities. This different section will offer MOOCs but will be branded in a different way.”

Elite – Non-elite

Another binary.
How does this lens, this perception of educational institutions affect the way we view and act in the world as students, faculty members, administrators, and educational technology designers/developers?

. . .

Davies, B. (1993). Shards of glass. Sydney: Southwood Press.

Dim sum Courses – aka MOOCs

Posted on May 28th, by George Veletsianos in sharing. 5 comments


Photo by isaachsieh (CC-licensed)

Martin Weller asks, “What’s your MOOC metaphor?

I like the Dim sum (or Greek mezedes) metaphor to describe course exploration. Dim sum is described by Wikipedia as “a style of Cantonese food prepared as small bite-sized or individual portions of food traditionally served in small steamer baskets or on small plates. Dim sum is also well known for the unique way it is served in some restaurants, wherein fully cooked and ready-to-serve dim sum dishes are carted around the restaurant for customers to choose their orders while seated at their tables.” Food metaphors aren’t new to education. For example, Hartley wrote about the McDonaldization of education as early as 1995 – two years after Ritzer published The McDonaldization of Society.

Back to Dim sum/mezedes. In considering MOOC completion rates (better term, anyone?), individuals who sign up for MOOCs may not necessarily intent to complete the course. Rather, they might be curious about the course, professor, or institution, exploring/investigating the topic and their desire to dedicate further time to it. This exploration is similar to a meal where one tries out small portions of various dishes. One could try the vegetable dumplings, and quickly move to the next dish if the dumplings aren’t tasty or are satisfying the need/desire.

This metaphor isn’t without problems. Dim sums/mezedes are inherently social events, while in MOOCs the experience comes to an abrupt end once an individual decides to end his/her exploration. Further, this metaphor breaks down when considering individuals who complete courses because in such a meal monopolizing a dish would be bad form.

What I do hope breaks down in this metaphor is the notion of standardized, one-size-fits-all, “ready-to-serve” courses.



I have some news to share

Posted on May 6th, by George Veletsianos in my research, open, scholarship, sharing, work. 55 comments

Sherrilyn Kenyon wrote that “Life is a tapestry woven by the decisions we make” and to that, I would add, “and the experiences we create.”

I am taking the next step in my life and career. One that I expect will add many more experiences to my life.

I have decided to accept a position with the School of Education and Technology at Royal Roads University in Victoria, British Columbia. I have been appointed as Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair in Innovative Learning and Technology by the Canadian federal government and my post will begin on September 1st. As in the past, my position will be research-focused, and I will continue my research on understanding  learners’ and scholars’ practices and experiences in emerging online settings (e.g., online social networks, open courses, etc).

Royal Roads is a public university with a successful university-wide teaching model that combines short-term f2f residencies with online learning. I’m excited about being at a university that has had a blended learning model since 1995 and has a reputation of innovation that it embraces. I’m excited that my research is a natural fit with the institution and that the synergies exist for applying a lot of the work that I have been doing regarding online education, openness, and digital scholarship. I’m also excited about being in British Columbia, which will soon “become the first province in Canada to offer students free online, open textbooks.” On a more personal note, I’m excited to be able to live and work by the ocean.

It probably goes without saying, but I will miss the University of Texas at Austin, my colleagues, and my students at the College of Education. UT-Austin is an amazing university and I am very fortunate and grateful to have been able to spend a few years of my life there.

Leaving a university often leads individuals to ask why. And, I’ve experienced that already: Why leave a research-1 university that is recognized worldwide, especially when your tenure and promotion case would be easy to make? I have asked myself that same question. Why am I working long hours? Why do I spend time away from my family visiting back-to-back conferences? Why do I take pride in my students’ work and do all I can to help them succeed? I engage in these activities because I care, not because of tenure (though, admittedly, that is a positive by-product). I personally chose my field of study and research because I care about education and individual’s learning experiences. I care about societal well-being and growth, about social justice, and see education as a way to eradicate inequities and injustices. These values run across my work (which is partly why I make all of my publications available online).

…and since this post is getting long, a final thought: I don’t like moving. But… I AM looking forward to the road trip to Victoria.

Critical perspectives on educational technology literature

Posted on March 17th, by George Veletsianos in sharing. 8 comments

My colleague Joss Winn has created a  Zotero group to collect work that relates to critical studies/critiques of open education: If you have anything to add, head over there.

At the same time, if you are interested in broader critical perspectives to educational technology*, you might also look at the critical perspectives on educational technology Mendeley group that we’ve been curating:

Critical perspectives on Educational Technology is a group in Education, Social Sciences on Mendeley.

* As an aside, the collection of these papers is intended to assist individuals in making informed perspectives on the design and implementation of technology in education. The goal is *not* to label educational technology as problematic or  worse than the alternative. Rather, the goal is to encourage individuals to make informed and socially just decisions.

Upcoming research. In search of collaborators

Posted on March 15th, by George Veletsianos in sharing. 7 comments

Social media and open online learning have been extolled and decried in the popular press. Yet, as researchers, we still need to understand the experiences and practices of students, educators, and researchers with emerging practices and social media. We also need to understand why learners, educators, and researchers use social media and engage in open online education in the ways that they do. danah boyd (2012, ¶48) argues that “we need people engaging critically with the dynamics that unfold as a result of a new structure of connecting people.”

My research agenda centers around these issues, and seeks to answer the following questions:

  1. What does learning “look like” in open online courses?
  2. How do learners use social media for learning?
  3. What are learners’ experiences with open online learning?
  4. What does the experience of effective social media use for learning consist of?
  5. What is the lived experience of researchers/educators using social media for scholarly activities?
  6. How do scholars perceive and construct their identity using social media/networks?
  7. How do users 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)?

These questions form the core of my work. I am posting them here because I know that others are interested in finding answers to these questions as well. If you are like me, you enjoy collaborative work and qualitative research. If so, get in touch and let’s figure out how we can collaborate on (a) empirical work that answers the questions above, and (b) design and development work that integrates pedagogical knowledge and social technologies to create innovative learning environments.