Lessons learned from the 30th annual conference on Distance Teaching & Learning

Recently, I attended and presented a part of my work at the 30th annual conference on Distance Teaching & Learning in Madison, Wisconsin. IMG_3494I had a great time at the conference, met some great new colleagues, and heard some excellent talks. One of my favorite quick talks was a very brief (about 15 minute) remote Skype talk from Elliot Masie. Masie is very popular in the world of online learning, in particular corporate learning, and it is easy to see why. He is energetic, and brings lots of great ideas to his talks.

Quick aside, my first interaction with Masie and his consortium occurred while I was working as a summer intern for Humana back in 2009.  On a webinar, Masie spoke about how the elearning world had done themselves a huge disfavor by having a lot of early online learning work focus solely on things like Sarbanes-Oxley training or other certifications that simply needed a check box to show to management that a satisfactory completion rate had been achieved. Because of this, so much early online training was dull, boring, unimaginative, and lacking in engagement for employees.  He issued a call to designers of the consortium to think of ways to bring back learning that was innovative and engaging for corporate learners. To demonstrate his points, he paralleled video game designers. He was not calling for ‘gamification,’ ‘serious gaming,’ any of the other trendy words used to describe video game research, rather he used some principles of games and why they are fun, such as difficulty (no one wants to play a game that is super easy), failure (the ability to fail frequently and restart), and other concepts that I thought were very insightful and potentially very useful for instructional designers. He suggested that if instructional designers were to design learning materials that were difficult, engaging, and had the option to not be afraid of failure, that these trainings could be very useful.IMG_3495

Now back to Masie’s recent talk. His key point that he spoke about (and later blogged about here was a notion that he calls Learning Interruptus. His view of current learning is that as opposed to a prior view of Learning Completus, where the assumption is that a learner completes an assignment, class or project from start to finish. Yet now learning has become much more interrupted, or interruptus. People may join a class or MOOC just to glean bits of information without intending to finish the course.  Learners will get distracted by other online resources while working on projects. Learners can often hit pause on their learning and them come back to it later. Learners have many choices and if we can accommodate and encourage constant learning, we can achieve greater success in keeping the learners active. In Masie’s words, “the learner of the future is not a prisoner.”

Another session that provided some good insight, was Chris Dede’s session about developing massive technology-based models for use in education. In this session, Dede spoke about the highlights of a recent project/simulation that has been developed at Harvard. The simulation is a pond ecosystem that can be used by students to learn about pond ecosystems and can also be ramped up to be used by advanced college students with the right development. While I am not very familiar with existing research about simulations, the point that I thought was most interesting occurred during the question and answer. One skeptic in the audience raised the issue that this was just a single simulation environment, in this case a pond, and it may not be feasible for many universities to have the ability to develop such an environment only to be used for that project. Dede’s response was clear, that yes, you need some initial funding to build the environment, in the same way a movie company has to spend money to build a western town set for films. However, the thing that was exciting to Dede is that this environment can be scaled, modified and used in myriad ways for learning, not just a single study that was going on now, with minimal requirement of maintenance and resources. Continuing with the Western town set metaphor, he said, “Once you build a western town set, you can film 30 different movies. We are building sets to use for a variety of purposes in the future.” This idea touches on open access learning and other concepts that I find very intriguing.

Finally, I learned that Madison, Wisconsin is as beautiful in the summer as everyone said it was. I actually camped at a small campground just outside of town on Mendota Lake, and the conference center, Menona Terrace, had spectacular view of Menona Lake. Taqueria Guadalajara had some of the best Mexican food I have had in years (try the sopes!) and overall the weather was great. It is easy to see why so many people love Madison.

Thanks UW Madison for putting on an excellent conference and I look forward to coming back next year.


Theoretical Frameworks

Mom, you don’t need to read this blog post.  But for anyone who is interested in motivational theory, read on!

I am currently researching the Virtual Choir project.  There are many things that I find fascinating about the project, but primarily I am interested in motivation.  The primary theoretical framework of motivation that I am drawing on is Deci and Ryan’s, Self-Determination Theory (SDT) (Ryan & Deci, 2000). 

SDT is defined as, “an approach to human motivation and personality that uses traditional empirical methods while employing an organismic metatheory that highlights the importance of humans’ evolved inner resources for personality development and behavioral self-regulation” (as cited in Ryan & Deci, 2000, p. 68). This theory allows and encourages educational research to use traditional empirical methods, but also paying careful attention to intrinsic desires.

In other words, it is very important to consider intrinsic motivation factors when you desire completion of a task.  According to this research, adding external rewards (attaching a grade to a project, paying someone for work they are already interested in, etc.) , can actually decrease the motivation of a learner. In a participatory environment where each person is there for their own reasons, the intrinsic motivation factors become very important.


Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American psychologist, 55(1), 68.

So What?(s the big deal with informal learning)

A phrase we get asked a lot in higher education with regards to our research is, “so what?”  I think it is a good a fair question. It causes us to think and reflect.  Is what I am interested in, interesting to anyone else?  Is there a need to research ___________ (insert favorite research topic here)?  If I were to teach a class on this, would anyone want to take it?  These are the kinds of questions that come to mind when I hear the “so what” question.

Let me focus my answers on my specific research interests of informal online learning environments.  Informal learning certainly has its own answers as well as I think there are many benefits to informal learning in general (think museums, libraries, etc), but specifically when you add in the connections that the Internet affords, the possibilities are seemingly limitless of what you can create/share/do. My primary research is around Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir project (http://ericwhitacre.com/the-virtual-choir). If you are not familiar with this project, take a few minutes and go to YouTube and search for Virtual Choir.  There are four total project from Whitacre, each unique and beautiful in its own way.

Back to why I believe this is important.  Are people learning anything as part of this project?  Well, I think the answer is yes, but perhaps more importantly, these kind of project is highly motivating to individuals.  If we consider actually recording, and submitting a finished video as evidence of motivation to participate, the growth of the project has gone from about 270 participants in the first project, to over 6,000 in the fourth one just three years later.  I am interested in understanding what motivates participation in this project.  The participants come from all over the world (over 100 countries with the VC4), different backgrounds, with varying degrees of musical experiences, ages, and many other factors that we may analyze. The single common thing is that they want to participate in this project.  They are voluntarily participating and many spending dozens of hours of their own personal time learning and uploading their videos.

I want to know what it is about this project that makes them want to participate and why are they doing it. Findings from this and other similar online learning scenarios could be used to identify motivating factors of participation.  Possibly with application and transfer to other learning environments (after further research). Bottom line, technology is allowing people to connect and create things that were not possible in the past.  I believe it is very important to understand how motivation is the same or different in these online informal spaces.

I would love to hear your thoughts…

Reframing a research study

So for the past month or so, I have been struggling with knowing how to reframe a research study I am currently working on.  Initially I had planned to do a mixed methods study involving a simple survey followed by semi-structured interviews. However, after collecting data, it became apparent that there were some flaws in my survey design and I may not have enough rich data for a decent qualitative research study.  I had been struggling with trying to figure out how to adapt and change this, when I had the opportunity to present my research as part of a doctoral seminar class last week.

The feedback that I received was VERY helpful!  Honestly, I have been in this seminar class for several years now, and this was by far the most targeted and valuable feedback I have received. 

The main take-away, is that I need to really focus on the qualitative side of this research and tell the story of what is going on.  Focus on why people are participating in this project and what are the motivating factors to them participating.  Obviously, being in a school of education, I am very concerned with what participants are learning, but I have been trying to force the issue of learning into what is becoming a motivation and participation research study.  If I want to report and measure learning, I need to change the design of my study, so that I can have methods that match the research questions.  I am again reminded of the importance of matching your research methods to your objectives and research questions.  I think that this is something that graduate students struggle with so much, simply because we aren’t familiar with enough methods.  Personally, I am one that has a hard time learning methods from a class.  It is in the application of the class knowledge where this becomes meaningful, and I think it just takes time.

Again, thanks to all of my classmates and the instructor as they gave me some very good feedback and direction with how to proceed with this study so that I can incorporate the things that I have already done and make this a meaningful and interesting study going forward.

Create a terrific informal learning experience. Ready, set, go.

Q. If you were going to help an instructional designer create a terrific informal learning experience today, what would you advise that designer to differently than for a formal learning experience?

My first piece of advice for anyone designing formal or informal experiences is to simply be aware of the potential for informal learning.  Not all learning occurs during the structured portions of the experience.  But more specifically for designers of informal environments, I would encourage a high focus on learner autonomy and meeting intrinsic motivation. Recognizing and reinforcing individual interests by providing opportunities to share and connect with others would also be key.  Some of the recent changes within the Virtual Choir were largely regarded as positive by most participants. They enjoyed having guide tracks to assist them with learning the voice part.  However, some participants lamented the fact that more guidance was given about wearing a dark shirt with a plain background in the final video.  One participant spoke of really enjoying seeing the backgrounds of the individual videos on the first projects almost as if it let you into their homes.  On this recent one, he felt that he had lost that connection with others and it became a bit sterile, therefore not as exciting.

It is a difficult balancing act of having enough structure and support to encourage learning, yet still allows each individual to feel as though they are contributing something significant.  Even simple instructional design techniques such as rapid prototyping can be employed as they encourage iteration and flexibility, which would be appropriate in an informal learning environment. Other instructional design models such as van Merrienboer’s 4C-ID model for complex learning would also be useful as it draws attention to four components of Instructional Design:

  • Learning tasks
  • Supportive Information
  • JIT Information
  • Part-task Practice

While the approach and the structure would be different, these Instructional Design techniques and models can be used to inform informal learning environments.

How did you validate your study?

Q. How were the categories used in your survey developed? Validated? Analyzed? How do you carry out thematic analysis?

The categories in my survey were developed and built in part, based on a larger survey developed in our larger research group with Dr. Bonk that has been with a variety of populations.  We had 159 participants respond to the larger survey after Dr. Bonk’s MOOC last summer and we had over 1,400 survey responses to users of MIT OpenCourseWare. My study questions and categories, however, were meant to be a simpler version of the larger survey. We established face validity, which is a qualitative measure of validity, through multiple rounds of review within the research group, as well as expert review from Dr. Bonk.  To be clear, the survey was simply meant to guide participants and inform the participant interviews, which would go deeper into investigating the research questions. The survey responses were analyzed primarily using descriptive statistics only as this was a limited sample size and face validity is not quantified with statistical methods. This is a clear limitation of the first part of this study that I want to improve on in future research.

The thematic analysis that is ongoing follows Braun and Clarke’s, 2006 paper that outlines a 6 phase guide to performing thematic analysis. This is also a recursive process that involves constantly moving back and forth through the phases, and as I am finding out, may take longer than initially expected.  (The six phases are 1. Familiarizing yourself with the data. 2. Generating initial codes. 3. Searching for themes. 4. Reviewing themes. 5. Defining and naming themes. 6. Producing the report.) I am currently in the coding phase and moving into the themes phase.  Some of my initial codes relate to elements of the survey such as “global nature of the project,” or “I love Whitacre’s music,” but other emergent codes have emerged more directly related to specific singing techniques such as “improved breath control,” or “learning about American styles of choral singing compared to classical European styles.”

Sampling in your study

Q. What were the gender representations in your study?

Overall, there were 77 respondents that completed the survey. However, 9 of the respondents indicated that they did not participate, but were fans of the project only and for the purposes of this study, they were excluded from the results leaving n=68.  Of the participants, 49 identify as female (~70%) and 18 identify as male (~30%). 1 participant did not report gender.

For the participant interviews, I interviewed 14 participants and 7 were male and 7 were female.  Since a large portion of the survey results suggested that participation in a global project was a high motivation factor so I selected individuals from various regions.  I interviewed 6 individuals from North America (including Hawaii), 5 from Europe, and 3 from Asia.

Transformation of knowledge vs transfer of knowledge. Are they the same?

Q. What does transformation of knowledge mean to you? Is it equivalent to “transfer of knowledge”? How does Virtual Choir participation require the transformation of knowledge? Do you see participation in the project as automatically resulting in some kind of learning?

I don’t see transformation of knowledge and transfer of knowledge as the same thing.  Transfer deals with issues of how can learning from one context be applied to another context.  My future research studies seek to investigate this as I become more familiar with other examples of online informal learning and the complexities that go along with transfer of knowledge.  I am not very familiar with the term transformation of knowledge, but to me it would mean gaining knowledge that alters or transforms your existing schema.  Kind of a constructivist or sociocultural way of learning, where knowledge is not just some object to be gained, but is constructed.  The virtual choir was not designed to be an ‘instructional’ or ‘learning’ environment.  But learning is occurring. I don’t think that everyone would claim that they learned something by participating, but examples from my study have shown themes like, “I learned a new piece of music,” while other mentioned that they learned video recording techniques.  The learning was personal for each participant because of the flexibility of the environment, but certainly not automatic.

Is there structure in the Virtual Choir project?

Q. Part of the Virtual Choir experience seems, as you describe it, very structured — in what ways do you see the project as being an example of informal learning?

As with many informal learning experiences, some structure is necessary and is a good thing.  Perhaps the single most important aspect of choral singing is following the cues of an instructor.  In this case, having a recorded instructor track with an accompaniment helped to keep singers together and singing in the same key.  There were also good guidelines of how to record and upload the video.  Maintaining correct file formats for the videos and a logical submission process is critical when dealing with thousands of people from around the world.

The informal learning that was unstructured occurs first as this is outside of an educational curriculum, as defined by Livingstone. Also the methods of learning the music were very unstructured.  You could use the guide tracks that were provided, but based on my study, many people learned the songs by watching other postings and following along.  Some printed the music and practiced at a piano.  The setting is also informal and unstructured, which would put this down in the bottom of Sefton-Green’s quadrant. One participant from the most recent project is a deaf & mute singer that participated in the project by submitting a video of herself signing along with the music.  Even though she didn’t fit the original mold, she created her own learning and changed the structure.  Her contribution touched many people that participated in the project.

So while there was some initial structure to the project, both the setting and the curriculum would be considered informal.

walking-around-lived-experience-that-results-in-new-knowledge. Is this informal learning?

Q. If informal learning can be characterized as all the learning that doesn’t take place in school, what is the difference between informal learning and the walking-around-lived-experience-that-results-in-new-knowledge? Who are the populations of interest within informal learning research?

In some definitions they could be one and the same. I would agree that walking-around-lived experience is absolutely a part of informal learning and should be considered as learning.  That is one of the Sefton-Greens arguments as well. He argues that, “learning in out-of school settings needs to be accorded status and understanding as we seek to enhance the education system more generally” (p. 6, 2004). But this is too broad of a scope for me.  That is why I am focusing on online informal environments.

The populations of interest in informal learning vary greatly.  Sefton-Green and others focus on children in out-of-school contexts. My minor advisor in the Learning Sciences, Dr. Kylie Peppler, has focused much of her research on children and the intersection of the arts and new media in informal spaces. Other researchers from the Learning Sciences such as Dr. Kevin Crowley, from Pittsburgh, study museum learning and its connection to STEM. Business consultants and researchers, such as Jay Cross, focus on encouraging informal learning in the workplace. Our own recent work with Dr. Bonk on MOOCs and self-directed learning environments has shown examples from all ages.  There is high emerging interest in these populations.  The virtual choir had participants ranging from under 10 (with the help of a parent), to a woman in her 80’s from over 100 countries.

If I can go back to Sefton-Green’s criteria notice that he focuses on both structure and intentions. “the distinction between informal and formal learning…, can more clearly be made around the intentions and structure of the learning experience” (p. 6, emphasis added). Perhaps having the intention to learn could distinguish informal learning as an academic field from every-day lived experience. However, I would still consider those everyday experiences as informal learning, even though trying to investigate and research that would be very difficult.