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George Veletsianos, PhD

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The 7 elements of a good online course

In June, I wrote the article below for The Conversation. Today I start teaching my Fall 2020 (online) course on the foundations, histories, myths, and futures surrounding learning technologies, and I thought it was a good time to republish this piece here under its original Creative Commons license as a reminder for myself and others. The original article is here.

The 7 elements of a good online course

It’s likely that most universities will be conducting classes online in the fall. That doesn’t mean learning will suffer. (Shutterstock)

With very few exceptions, online teaching and learning will be the primary mode of education for the majority of higher education students in many jurisdictions this fall as concerns about COVID-19 extend into the new school year.

As an education researcher who has been studying online education and a professor who has been teaching in both face-to-face and online environments for more than a decade, I am often asked whether online learning at universities and colleges can ever be as effective as face-to-face learning.

To be clear: this isn’t a new question or a new debate. I’ve been asked this question in various forms since the mid-2000s and researchers have been exploring this topic since at least the 1950s.

The answer isn’t as unequivocal as some would like it to be. Individual cherry-picked studies can support any result. But systematic analyses of the evidence generally show there are no significant differences in students’ academic outcomes between online and face-to-face education.

Researchers also find that some students perform worse online than others — and that some of those differences can be explained by socioeconomic inequities.

Advice for students and parents

The problems with media comparison studies — that is, those that compare outcomes between one medium, such as face-to-face, to another medium, such as online — are such that many researchers advocate against them. How can students who enrol in online courses in the fall know they are receiving a good educational experience? What are some of the qualities of a good online course?

Good online courses can be more personal and rewarding for students than the traditional learning in large lecture halls. (Shutterstock)

Here’s some advice for students (and their parents) about what to look for as learning remains online.

  1. A good online course is informed by issues of equity and justice. It takes into account social, political and cultural issues — including students’ backgrounds and socioeconomic circumstances — to craft a learning experience that is just. This may take many forms. In practice, it may mean a diverse and intersectional reading list. It means audiovisual materials that don’t stereotype, shame or degrade people. It may mean that open educational resources are prioritized over expensive textbooks.
  2. A good online course is interactive. Courses are much more than placeholders for students to access information. A good online course provides information such as readings or lecture videos, but also involves interactions between professor and students and between students and students. Interactions between professor and students may involve students receiving personalized feedback, support and guidance. Interactions among students may include such things as debating various issues or collaborating with peers to solve a problem. A good online course often becomes a social learning environment and provides opportunities for the development of a vibrant learning community.
  3. A good online course is engaging and challenging. It invites students to participate, motivates them to contribute and captures their interest and attention. It capitalizes on the joy of learning and challenges students to enhance their skills, abilities and knowledge. A good online course is cognitively challenging.
  4. A good online course involves practice. Good courses involve students in “doing” — not just watching and reading — “doing again” and in applying what they learned. In a creative writing class, students may write a short story, receive feedback, revise it and then write a different story. In a computer programming class, they may write a block of code, test it and then use it in a larger program that they wrote. In an econometrics class, they might examine relationships between different variables, explain the meaning of their findings and then be asked to apply those methods in novel situations.
  5. A good online course is effective. Such a course identifies the skills, abilities and knowledge that students will gain by the end of it, provides activities developed to acquire them and assesses whether students were successful.
  6. A good online course includes an instructor who is visible and active, and who exhibits care, empathy and trust for students. This individual understands that their students may have a life beyond their course. Not only do many students take other courses, but they may be primary caretakers, have a job or be struggling to make ends meet. Good online courses often include instructors who are approachable and responsive, and who work with students to address problems and concerns as they arise.
  7. A good online course promotes student agency. It gives students autonomy to enable opportunities for relevant and meaningful learning. Such a course redistributes power – to the extent that is possible – in the classroom. Again, this may take many forms in the online classroom. In the culinary arts, it may mean making baking choices relevant to students’ professional aspirations. In an accounting course, students could analyze the financial statements of a company they’re interested in rather than one selected by the instructor. Such flexibility not only accommodates students’ backgrounds and interests, it provides space for students to make the course their own. In some cases it might even mean that you – the student – co-designs the course with your instructor. This is the kind of flexibility higher education systems need.

These qualities aren’t qualities of good online courses. They are qualities of good courses, period.

Physical proximity isn’t a precondition for good education. Comparing one form of education to another distracts us from the fact that all forms of education can — and should — be made better.

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.

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?

Women scholars’ experiences with online harassment and abuse

For the last year or so, my colleagues and I have been working on a SSHRC-funded project examining the experiences of harassment that women academics face online. “We” refers to my colleagues Jaigris Hodson, and our two amazing research assistants Chandell Gosse and Shandell Houlden. We’re now at a point where we will start sharing artifacts from this work more and more broadly, including a wesbsite, scenario-based simulations, webinars, and, in due course, cc-licensed pedagogical materials to lead workshops on understanding and responding to online harassment.

Our first two papers sought to understand the experience of online harassment: what does it do? how do women cope with it? what supports do they use to respond to it?

These two papers are available below.

Veletsianos, G., Houlden, S., Hodson, J., Gosse, C. (2018). Women Scholars’ Experiences with Online Harassment and Abuse: Self-protection, Resistance, Acceptance, and Self-Blame. New Media & Society, 20(12), 4689-4708. [PDF Preprint]

Abstract: Although scholars increasingly use online platforms for public, digital, and networked scholarship, the research examining their experiences of harassment and abuse online is scant. In this study, we interviewed 14 women scholars who experienced online harassment in order to understand how they coped with this phenomenon. We found that scholars engaged in reactive, anticipatory, preventive, and proactive coping strategies. In particular, scholars engaged in strategies aimed at self-protection and resistance, while often responding to harassment by acceptance and self-blame. These findings have important implications for practice and research, including practical recommendations for personal, institutional, and platform responses to harassment, as well as scholarly recommendations for future research into scholars’ experiences of harassment.

Hodson, J., Gosse, C., Veletsianos, G., Houlden, S. (2018). I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends: The Ecological Model and Support for Women Scholars Experiencing Online Harassment. First Monday, 23(8). doi: https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v23i8.9136

Abstract: This article contributes to understanding the phenomenon of online abuse and harassment toward women scholars. We draw on data collected from 14 interviews with women scholars from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, and report on the types of supports they sought during and after their experience with online abuse and harassment. We found that women scholars rely on three levels of support: the first level includes personal and social support (such as encouragement from friends and family and outsourcing comment reading to others); the second includes organizational (such as university or institutional policy), technological (such as reporting tools on Twitter or Facebook), and sectoral (such as law enforcement) support; and, the third includes larger cultural and social attitudes and discourses (such as attitudes around gendered harassment and perceptions of the online/offline divide). While participants relied on social and personal support most frequently, they commonly reported relying on multiple supports across all three levels. We use an ecological model as our framework to demonstrate how different types of support are interconnected, and recommend that support for targets of online abuse must integrate aspects of all three levels.

The seduction of the digital

Josh Kim wrote a very kind post today over at Inside Higher Ed, highlighting what he sees as three indictments of the role of technology in higher education. There’s good food for thought there, and I’d like to focus on Josh’s third indictment which states that digital technologies distract.

The crux of the matter (for me) is here: “Nor are students the only people on campuses likely to use technologies in a way that inhibits, rather than promotes, learning.”

This point gets lost in the broader conversation around technology distracting from learning. The broader conversation focuses on learners being distracted by… all sorts of things… laptops, social media algorithmically perfected to demand never-ending attention, and so on.

Yet, we talk little about the seductive appeal of technology that positions it as an easy solution to all sort of problems. That seductive property is what is distracting faculty, administrators, instructional designers, and other higher education professionals, not the technology itself, not technology as an object. Problem-solving – dare I say innovation – can exist without the latest gizmo or platform, and I’ve said that so many times, and heard it so many times, that I feel like we should be past this point. We *need* to be past this point. But, in a practice characterized by historical amnesia as Martin Weller aptly reminds us, we need reminders.

Four years ago I gave a talk at the University of Edinburgh. It was a wonderful event, with many amazing people, but I’ll always remember one comment that Jen Ross made. I’m paraphrasing, but she essentially said: We can be frustrated that we have to remind people of the history of the field, of the role that technology plays in education, of its potential and shortcomings. Or, we can be excited that more and more people are joining the field, and more and more people need to learn that “technology” isn’t the one and easy solution.

She was, and is, right. The needle is slow to move, but, at this moment, I choose to be excited.


Comment sentiment expressed in YouTube TED talk comments

The top definition of YouTube comments in the urban dictionary is the following: “the only place where a polite discussion about kittens can lead to a flame war about government conspiracies.”

Inquisitive readers might ask: Is that flame war the same for all videos? Or is it more likely for some videos than others?

Our latest paper (and when I write our, I am referring to Royce k=Kimmons, Tonia Dousay, Patrick Lowenthal, and Ross Larsen) explores whether the sentiment expressed toward scholars who go online varies according to variables of interest. Put differently, scholars are encouraged to be present online, to establish a digital identity, and expand their reach and impact. But, what is the public’s reaction? Does the public react more positively/negatively to some people? There’s many ways to go about exploring this question. We sought to answer this question by examining YouTube comments, but one could investigate tweets, blog comments, self-reported data, and so on. Below is our abstract, summarizing our findings, and link to our paper. Note the impact of gender, animations, and moderation on expressed sentiment:


Veletsianos, G., Kimmons, R., Larsen, R., Dousay, T., & Lowenthal, P. (2018). Public Comment Sentiment on Educational Videos: Understanding the Effects of Presenter Gender, Video Format, Threading, and Moderation on YouTube TED Talk Comments. PLOS ONE 13(6): e0197331. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0197331


Scholars, educators, and students are increasingly encouraged to participate in online spaces. While the current literature highlights the potential positive outcomes of such participation, little research exists on the sentiment that these individuals may face online and on the factors that may lead some people to face different types of sentiment than others. To investigate these issues, we examined the strength of positive and negative sentiment expressed in response to TEDx and TED-Ed talks posted on YouTube (n = 655), the effect of several variables on comment and reply sentiment (n = 774,939), and the projected effects that sentiment-based moderation would have had on posted content. We found that most comments and replies were neutral in nature and some topics were more likely than others to elicit positive or negative sentiment. Videos of male presenters showed greater neutrality, while videos of female presenters saw significantly greater positive and negative polarity in replies. Animations neutralized both the negativity and positivity of replies at a very high rate. Gender and video format influenced the sentiment of replies and not just the initial comments that were directed toward the video. Finally, we found that using sentiment as a way to moderate offensive content would have a significant effect on non-offensive content. These findings have far-reaching implications for social media platforms and for those who encourage or prepare students and scholars to participate online.

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