Category: learner experience Page 1 of 4

New paper: A synthesis of surveys examining the impacts of COVID-19 and emergency remote learning on students in Canada

Around the first year of the pandemic, we gathered all the student surveys we could find that examined emergency remote learning in Canada and its impacts on students. We made this work available immediately as a pre-print because we knew it would take a while to actually be published, and in many talks and conversations since then. The paper is now available in the Journal of Computing in Higher Education. The abstract and citation are below.

During the COVID-19 pandemic numerous institutions around the world have surveyed students to gain an understanding of their experiences. While these surveys are valuable at a local institutional level, it is unclear as to which findings from individual
surveys reflect the broader higher education environment, and which patterns may be consistent across student surveys. It is worthwhile to synthesize survey findings in order to explore patterns and potentially new understandings that may arise
from such analysis. In this paper, we reviewed and synthesized 21 surveys examining the impacts of COVID-19 and emergency remote learning on approximately 155,000 student respondents in Canada. Findings reveal that the impacts of COVID-
19 and emergency remote learning on students centered around (1) educational experiences, (2) mental health and wellbeing, (3) financial concerns, (4) impact on future plans, and (5) recommendations for future practice.

Houlden, S., & Veletsianos, G. (in press). A synthesis of surveys examining the impacts of COVID-19 and emergency remote learning on students in Canada. Journal of Computing in Higher Education. Preprint (pdf) or

New paper: Focusing on the ecological aspects of online and distance learning

As part of a special issue on Systemic Implications for Online Education, colleagues and I wrote a commentary highlighting the ways in which online teaching and learning are more than individual and social practices. They’re situated in environments with particular people, in particular contexts, with particular technologies, within particular institutions. To make this more concrete, we described a near-future speculative scenario of a student’s experience, as a way to help individuals – both at our institution and elsewhere – consider technology use in higher education beyond the pedagogical level.  You can download a preprint (pdf) or the final version (which isn’t that different than the preprint) from

Person in environment: Focusing on the ecological aspects of online and distance learning

Online and distance learning is a practice situated in environments—places, spaces, and times, with particular people, in particular contexts, with particular technologies, within particular institutions. In other words, the practice of online and distance learning is not wholly individual: it is situated within broader environments. In this reflective article, we argue that to understand learning in online contexts, it is important for researchers to understand the broader environments in which learners are located. We illustrate this argument by presenting a narrative of a fictitious learner pursuing a degree in decentralized finance.

Veletsianos, G., Childs, E., Cox, R., Cordua-von Specht , I., Grundy, S., Hughes, J., Karleen, D., & Wilson, A. (2022). Person in environment: Ecological aspects of online and distance learning. Distance Education, 43(2), 318-324.

Surveys of Canadian students during the pandemic?

We are working on a project that is informed by surveys of Canadian post-secondary students during the pandemic. We have identified a number of surveys/reports and are making them available in this spreadsheet.

I’m certain we’re missing a few. Have you seen any other surveys or reports informed by student responses that we may be able to look at? Please leave us a comment below, and we’ll add new items to the spreadsheet.

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.

The premise of my upcoming book

I just finished reviewing the initial copy edit of of the book that I’ve been working on since before I want to admit, and I feel that it is time to let it go. There will always be the tendency to rewrite, restate, polish, add another idea, expand on an element that seems just a tad off. But, I’m ready to let it free. It’s time. And with that, here’s its premise:

In multiple conversations at multiple institutions over the years, I have heard educated, passionate, and good-willed people talk with excitement about the number of students participating in online and distance courses. More than a million students in Canada. More than 100,000 in the early massive open online courses (MOOCs), more than 20,000 in recent ones. More than 200 enrolled in a for-credit foundations course at a local university. Nearly two million online learners at one of the world’s well-known open and mega university. While such figures are impressive, an enthusiastic and all-consuming focus on the numbers can lead us to lose sight of Irma, Magda, Hassan, James, and Asma, or of the reasons that Anna failed to complete her degree, or Nick and Cassandra who were compelled to enroll in higher education while raising a family. Nor is it just our fascination with scale and numbers that leads us astray. A variety of common discourses, practices, and pressures operate in similar ways to alienate us from students and their realities—such as the adoption of business-like language to refer to students as “prospects” or financial constraints that move us to prioritize goals like “competitiveness” and “growth” over more community-oriented or people-centered goals.

Invisible learning, untrackable learning, and hidden learning environments

One of the chapters in my forthcoming book on online learners’ experiences is called The Learner Who “Listened.” It shares the story of an individual who participated in a course in a sort of solitary way, participating in the course without posting on any of the discussion boards, without being visible to the mechanisms developed to encourage participation. Let me paraphrase. She participated – by reading, thinking, watching – but this kind of participation is not typically deemed participatory. The pejorative label typically used to describe this kind of participation is “lurking.”

And even though some learning analytics companies and researchers want you to believe that “we can see everything the students do,” we can’t. In past work (pre-print here), we showed that learners engage with courses in ways that are invisible to instructors and researchers. Even if we could “see everything the students do,” that idea, and the practices that emanate from it, are dangerous and insidious.

I was reminded of this chapter this morning, while reading Clint’s post on untrackable learning in connection to conversations at ALT-C around “invisible learning environments” (Donna’s post here, Anne-Marie’s post here). There are activities that students engage in that should remain invisible – invisible to the instructor, invisible to the platforms that track them, invisible to the institution.

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