A place to log ideas and thoughts

George Veletsianos, PhD

Category: future education

Face-to-face learning is inferior to online learning. Maybe. Sometimes. In some cases. If you ignore the nuance. 2/4

This is the second of four posts in a series that explores comparisons between in-person and online education. The first post noted how the binary we use when we discuss the two modalities is problematic. In this post, I examine the following question: What do we mean when we say that student experiences/learning are better in in-person contexts than online contexts? What criteria do we use to determine whether one kind of learning experience is better than another?

Researchers in the field of instructional design and technology typically use three criteria to evaluate learning. Was the experience effective? Was it engaging? Was it efficient? Dr. Dave Merrill summarizes this as “e to the third power”, or e3: effectiveness, efficiency, engagement (pdf).

Dr. Merrill misses a 4th and important e: equity. Unfortunately, this is an area that the field hasn’t paid as much attention to as it needs to, though (thankfully) there’s more and more of this work in the field recently, and it is gaining some momentum. To bluntly put the importance of equity in context one can ask: What is the value of a learning experience that is effective or efficient but positions some people in stereotypical roles, or presents them in dehumanizing ways, or completely ignores their lived experience? What is the value of an engaging learning experience that is at the same time sexist or racist?

To recap. Criteria to evaluate learning experiences: effectiveness, engagement, equity, and efficiency. [As an aside, educational technology companies typically sell their products on efficiency claims. And when they make effectiveness claims, if you’re in a decision-maker, I recommend asking for the third-party research supporting those claims.]

Let’s take a step back. I asked: What do people mean mean when we say that student experiences/learning are better in in-person contexts than online contexts? I asked this question in response to Hannah’s original question (see post #1) around the presumed inferiority of online learning compared to face-to-face learning. Let’s apply these same criteria to face-to-face contexts. That way, we can begin to illuminate the assumption that face-to-face is the best that we can do. Because this debate shouldn’t be about whether one modality is better than the other. It should be about how we can do the best we can do for all learners, staff, and faculty. That might lead us to ask the following questions:

  • Is face-to-face education equitable?
  • Who has access to it and who doesn’t?
  • Who does it privilege?

We know that online learning faces equity and access issues – of course it does – but let’s ask those same questions of in-person education.

That is where today’s post was going to end. But, it can’t. Because the President of Brown University wrote an op-ed in the NY Times arguing that college campuses must reopen in the Fall. Much was written about it already, such as this thread by Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom. My post can’t end here because in the context that we find ourselves in today, we now also need to ask: Who does face-to-face education put at risk? Which populations are more at risk than others? The questions about equity need to be asked not just about online learning, but also about face-to-face education and institutional plans for the Fall.

New book: Learning Online and The Student Experience (now available for free)

Short version: My new book Learning Online: The Student Experience has been published ahead of schedule by Johns Hopkins University Press. The Press has made the book available online for free as part of its efforts to support COVID-19 responses. Download it here or support the press by purchasing a copy here. Disclaimer: I receive a % of the sales in royalties, but I’ll be donating them to a non-profit in my community.

Long version:The book was scheduled to be published in April/May. In the meantime, COVID-19 happened, and in early March I reached out to Johns Hopkins University Press to ask whether they would be willing to make it – or at least a portion of it – available online for free. My reasoning was that it could be of immediate benefit to faculty, administrators, and higher education leaders aiming to transition their courses from in-person to alternative formats. The press expedited the final steps of the process and I just learned that it is now available for free here. I hope you find it useful, both in these turbulent times that we find ourselves in and in future online learning efforts!

Johns Hopkins University Press must have been thinking about this much earlier than I was, as they have made thousands of their books and papers available for free in the meantime. You can support the press by purchasing a copy of my book here or by purchasing a copy of any of the books that they publish. As standard book authoring goes, I receive a percentage of book sales in royalties. I will be donating those to a non-profit in my community.

I hope people read and enjoy the book, and I will gladly talk to anyone about it. Whether you’re teaching a class on the topic or are a higher education leader trying to make decisions about online learning at your institution, I’m happy to talk with you.

Flexible learning as a value

The quote below argues that flexible learning is not a modality, as is often suggested in the literature. Rather, it is a value – a guiding principle. others have argued the same way about openness – that it is an ethos. This is a helpful way to think about flexibility. Inevitably though, it raises questions about its assumptions and outcomes: Is flexibility always “good?” For whom is it “good?” Arguing for making education “less flexible” is of course nonsensical, but the point isn’t to argue for something to be less than. It’s to ask how to think about and mobilize flexibility for education to be more equitable.

Flexible learning is a state of being in which learning and teaching is increasingly freed from the limitations of the time, place and pace of study. But this kind of flexibility does not end there. For learners, flexibility in learning may include choices in relation to entry and exit points, selection of learning activities, assessment tasks and educational resources in return for different kinds of credit and costs. And for the teachers it can involve choices in relation to the allocation of their time and the mode and methods of communication with learners as well as the educational institution. As such flexible learning, in itself, is not a mode of study. It is a value principle, like diversity or equality are in education and society more broadly. Flexibility in learning and teaching is relevant in any mode of study including campus-based face-to-face education.

Naidu, S. (2017) How flexible is flexible learning, who is to decide and what are its implications? Distance Education 38(3), 269–272. https://doi.org/10.1080/01587919.2017.1371831

Speculative fiction in edtech and digital learning research

Speculative fiction

I am increasingly drawn to the writing of speculative fiction as a way to study, imagine, and critique the future of education. Jen Ross (who, incidentally and fortuitously, is developing an Education Futures pathway, and would love your feedback) recently argued for engaging speculative methods in digital education research, and that work has been very helpful.

While some may discount these approaches and view them as a far-cry from “serious” scholarship and “real science,” Plowman argues that “narrative isn’t just a shaping device: it helps us think, remember, communicate, and make sense of ourselves and the world…The role of narrative is not therefore simply aesthetic, it is central to our cognition from earliest childhood.” Importantly, many fields already engage storytelling and narrative for both pedagogical and knowledge-discovery purposes. For instance,

  • one of the most popular books in instructional design is the ID CaseBook which presents numerous case studies of individuals engaging with typical instructional design problems and issues
  • here’s a bit of work done on using story completion methods in qualitative research
  • and some work in sociological fiction, including some speculative fiction

But, what would speculative fiction concerned with the future of education or some aspect of digital learning look like? Here’s just a few examples:

What are your thoughts the use of fiction for scholarship? Have you read any other fiction set in the near-future that deals with education?

Strategies for addressing the Canadian post-secondary sector crisis

I was on a flight from Toronto to Vancouver on Saturday morning, and spent some of my time thinking about the strategies that Tony Bates believes may be helpful in addressing the coming crisis in Canadian post-secondary education.

I share Tony’s qualms concerning the future of higher education in Canada. In this post, I am going to share some thoughts in response to one question that he raised: What other suggestions would you have for making our institutions more relevant for a digital age?

People sitting on grass having a conversation
People sitting – by Ben Duchac on Unsplash

Before I go further, I should clarify two points:

I agree with Tony that we need radical curricular reform and compulsory training for every faculty member on how to teach. I also agree that we need new digital universities, which incidentally says nothing about the appetite for and/or challenges of such an endeavour. I imagine that Tony calls for new digital universities because a blank canvas offers space room for new/different ideas than revisiting henceforth established practices. While the BC government is exploring such a feat with the expansion of post-secondary opportunities on Vancouver Island’s West shore, these opportunities aren’t bountiful. So, within the existing system, what may be some strategies for current universities beyond the ones that Tony proposes?

1. A team-based approach to every course. A team-based approach invites the knowledge and expertise of multiple groups of people to the design and development of a course. For instance, this might involve every single course employing the services of an instructional designer in a meaningful way. To truly involve an instructional designer, as opposed to merely asking for input that may or may not be taken up, we need to restructure course design, development, and evaluation practices. At a fundamental level, this requires involving faculty, instructional designers, learning scientists, evaluation consultants, and media professionals in what is typically a solo approach.

What problem does this address? Improving teaching and learning. This proposal works in conjunction with Tony’s recommendation to provide compulsory training in digital learning. Such training will be invaluable in the act of teaching and facilitation, and will be helpful in having conversations with a team of professionals about course design, but we need to do more.

2. An education that is flexible to the needs of society. Our institutions are often grounded on structures that invite students to fit neatly within a template that we’ve created (e.g., courses start in September) or make drastic changes to their lives in order to fit that template (e.g., moving to a different city).

How much flexibility is there in typical degree programs? How many courses are electives? In how many courses do students select from a menu of assignments, assessments, or outcomes? This is not to satisfy mere preferences but to provide education that is responsive to needs and and realities that people face – people who have multiple and competing responsibilities.

I’ll use the practice of flexible admissions here to illustrate. Imagine someone who ended their undergraduate studies ten years ago in order to care for a family member. Or someone who holds a diploma and has been working in their chosen profession for the last 15 years. Or, someone who holds multiple diplomas and has 3 years of work experience. Now imagine these three individuals desiring further learning through an undergraduate or graduate degree. Institutions that are relevant to the needs of society should be able to offer paths to credentials that not only recognize prior coursework, but value prior experiences, learning, and knowledge. We know that universities do not have a monopoly on learning and knowledge and that a classroom of people from diverse backgrounds may provide an enriching learning experience for all. Why then exclude learners who may not have followed a typical path to learning? Flexible admissions policies address this issue by providing alternative paths to education. While some universities in Canada do this (including Royal Roads University, UOIT, and Athabasca University), flexible admissions that recognize prior learning, competence, effort, and accomplishments are not the norm.

What problem does this address? Life is complicated and many people follow non-linear paths to education either by choice or due to forces outside of their control. A relevant higher education institution is inclusionary, and flexibility is one approach to eradicating exclusionary and limiting practices.

This area requires caution: There might be a tendency here to eliminate student barriers without concomitantly providing supports that will enable students to succeed. One form of flexibility for example may be a self-designed, self-paced, and self-guided program of study that imagines students as individualistic and autonomous individuals who succeed without institutional and societal support.

3. Rapid engagement. Imagine that your institution wishes to launch a new program, perhaps an MA degree on Indigenous Knowledge or Educational Entrepreneurship or Critical Animal Studies or FinTech or Climate Emergency or any sort of programming that is new to your institution. Is it possible to go from concept to launch in matter of a few months? Probably not at present, but that’s what we should be striving for. To do so we need to eliminate bureaucracies that impede innovation both at the institutional level, but also at the provincial level (where programs are approved). This is not to say that institutions should strive to chase the next high-enrolling program or to abandon the deep critical work that universities do, but to say that innovation is a staple – a characteristic even – of universities, and we should strive to reduce the barriers facing it. Removing such barriers may also do something else: it might enable academia to set the stage for discussion rather than respond to a discussion.

What problem does this address? Slow responsiveness to changing societal needs and barriers to innovation.

There’s little in the notes above regarding research, commitment to research, affordability, social justice, and so on, which are issues that I believe are also at the core of this conversation. Over to you: What are your thoughts, recommendations, and suggestions on this topic?

In education, what can be made more flexible?

Even though flexibility and flexible learning most usually focus on enabling learners some degree of control and freedom over the location, time, and pace of their online studies (hence the terms “anytime anyplace” learning), flexibility may be applied to a wide range of pedagogical and institutional practices. Here’s some examples:

  • Flexible assessments (e.g., providing learners with “a menu” of assessment options to select from. Dr. Joan Hughes for instance allows students to complete a proportion of pre-determined set of badges in her course. This could also apply to assignment deliverables, wherein some students, for example, may produce essays while others may create videos)
  • Flexible admissions (e.g., providing multiple admission paths. For instance, at Royal Roads University students who do not hold an undergraduate degree may apply for admission under a flexible path that asks them to demonstrate how prior coursework and experience has prepared them for graduate study)
  • Flexible “attendance” (e.g., providing learners to attend class based on their emerging needs. Dr. Valerie Irvine for instance calls this multi-access learning; a situation where a face-to-face classroom is set up in a way that allows learners to choose whether they can attend in f2f or online mode, and to make that decision as needs arise/change).
  • Flexible pacing, not only with respect to activities pertaining to a course, but also with respect to program pacing (e.g., start-end dates).
  • Flexible exit pathways. While flexible admissions refers to an entry pathway, exit pathways refer to how learners choose to finalize their program (e.g., thesis vs. coursework vs. work-integrated learning project options).
  • Flexible coursework options. This is the option where students have some control about the courses they enroll in. Imagining this on a continuum, on the one end students have no option of electives and at the other end students create their own unique interdisciplinary degrees. Typically, students have electives that they select, though that option could be made more flexible through, for example, allowing learners to choose electives from institutions/organizations other than their own.
  • Flexible course duration and flexible course credits. At the typical institution, courses last for X weeks and are worth Y credits (e.g., semester-long and 3-credits, or some variation of the 3-credit system including 1-credit, 6-credits and so on). Flexibility could be applied to this form of structure as well, with course duration and credit dependent on learning needs vis-a-vis a predetermined calendar/schedule. One could imagine for example a 2-credit course, or a 1.5-credit course within a university that typically offers 3-credit courses.

While there’s benefits to flexibility, such as empowering learners through greater agency, I am not arguing for flexibility to embedded in all of these forms. There’s philosophical questions to explore. And practical concerns that need to be overcome: Student information systems for example, might prevent the creation of fractional-credit courses, as I’m certain many of of you know.

What are some other ways that institutions, courses, learning design practices, and education more broadly can be made more flexible?


So you want to publish your #edtech or digital learning book in an open access format?

Every now and then someone asks me whether I know of any non-commercial publishers that don’t charge thousands of dollars in OA fees to publish open access books in the field. In this post, I’ll share two such efforts that I support:

  1. A new venue for your open access book publishing in our area is EdTechBooks.org Not only is this project ingenious, I believe it will quickly scale and grow into something extraordinary. I have a long personal and professional connection to the people running this project, so take that prediction with a grain of salt. If you’re interested in publishing with them, contact them at admin@edtechbooks.org
  2. Athabasca University Press publishes the award-winning Issues in Distance Education book series. Partly because AU Press is one of the few university presses that publish books in open access formats in our field and partly because I’d like to help expand the conversations that we are having in our field I recently agreed to co-edit this series with Dr. Terry Anderson. If you’re interested in publishing with AU Press feel free to contact me. As far as my personal interests go, I am keen to support and see more books from:
  • Under-represented authors, such as women and people of color, whose perspectives and research on topics pertaining to digital education challenge the dominant ways of thinking.
  • Authors who are interrogating various aspects of the history of the field.
  • Authors who are conducting rich ethnographic work (e.g., What’s life like as an instructional designer? What’s it like at an online program management company?)
  • Authors who are conducting critical investigations of various aspects of the field, such as for example, interrogating discourses pertaining to online learning, or interrogating issues relating to power and privilege.
  • Authors whose work provides practical recommendations for addressing the significant challenges and tensions that our community is facing.


Are there any other non-commercial open access publishers in the area that you would recommend?

Royal Roads joins MITx MicroMasters pathway

I’ve been doing some work on higher education futures, which is where this post fits in. One would be remiss to explore what the future may or may not hold for higher education without first exploring their local contexts — a point that the Unbundled University project drives home through investigating unbundling in the UK and South African context.

The alarmist narratives around the disruption and transformation of higher education relied on the idea of imminent change. And even though sometimes things do change rapidly (e.g., see recent small university/college closures in the US, rise of public not-for profit online offerings/enrollments), more often than not, such change is gradual.

Royal Roads University has joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s MITx Micromasters pathway. Under the pathway agreement, graduates will be able to apply 9 credits of their credentials in Supply Chain Management, Principles of Manufacturing or Data, Economics, and Development Policy towards completion of Royal Roads’ Master of Business Administration in Executive Management. “I’m very pleased to see Royal Roads University become the first Canadian university to offer pathways for students from MITx MicroMasters programs to master’s degrees,” said Krishna Rajagopal, MIT’s Dean for Digital Learning.

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