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.

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.

IST. Motivation. Informal learning. Is there a connection?

Q. How does your work in IST inform your thinking about motivation? Informal learning? What’s the connection?

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.  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

Just-in-time information, for example is very important in informal learning. The ability for each learner to get the right information as they need it may help to maintain the levels of motivation that we see in Keller’s ARCS instructional model of motivation.

While the approach and the structure would be different, these Instructional Design techniques and models can be used to inform informal learning environments. In part, I think this is an area where I can have meaningful impact in the area of informal learning.  By having an understanding of ISD models such as the 4C-ID model and ARCS’s model, and others, I can help others use sound methods of Instructional Design while balancing the self-directed, autonomous, innovative, flexible, and exciting aspects of informal learning that draws so many. Even the ADDIE model, though problematic in informal learning because of the linear nature of the model, can guide a designer to conduct needs analysis and follow the other stages of the model, though perhaps in a more iterative way. All of these can help form connections with motivation and learning in informal ways, that may not have been fully explored previously.

What’s the deal with massive drop-out rates in MOOCs?

Q. You say that MOOCs represent a blurring of the lines between formal and informal education. How do you view the possible relationship between self-determination theory and the massive drop-out rates we see in MOOCs? How would you anticipate this aspect of MOOCs to guide instructional designers who are working to incorporate motivational aspects of informal learning into formal learning situations?

As has been pointed out, one major concern with MOOCs is high drop-out rates. A greater understanding of self-determination theory and how to maximize intrinsic motivation could certainly be applied with MOOCs.  However, there is evidence that people don’t enroll in MOOCs for the same reasons they would as part of a traditional course. According to a recent study based on Duke’s first MOOC on bioelectricity, when asked about motivation for enrolling, 87% expressed general interest in the course, 53% wanted to extend their general knowledge about the subject, 44% were interested in professional development. 26% reported that they were taking the course as a supplement another college/university class.  In other words, they may not have the same objectives of completing the course as you would find in traditional university courses. The role of MOOCs is still very much being debated and researched in higher education.

Dr. Dan Hickey, program director of IU’s learning sciences, is currently offering a MOOC on educational assessment. Actually he calls is a BOOC or Big Open Online Course, because his course is limited to about 400 students and some of them paying a fee and are enrolling for actual course credit, while others or enrolling just to participate and learn from the course. His course is a bit different then some of the other more massive courses.  And that flexibility is what is intriguing. His course may be available for credit, while many others may be simply used as an extra resource, in the same way that a good textbook or instructional video would be.  Just last month, Campus Technology (http://campustechnology.com/articles/2013/08/21/blended-moocs-the-best-of-both-worlds.aspx), ran an article about having blended MOOCs and using MOOCs to supplement regular classes.

So getting back to your initial question about drop out rates of MOOCs, viewing the relationship between SDT and focusing on meeting the intrinsic motivational needs of the learners could well have an effect on maintaining higher levels of engagement clear to the end of the course. Trying to figure out the best way to use MOOCs and the pitfalls of how to not use MOOCs clearly requires further investigation.