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.


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 (, 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.

Is motivation different in informal and formal learning?

Q. You seem to expect that motivation will operate differently in formal and informal learning situations. Do you? And in what ways do you expect motivation to differ because of the setting? Who are you drawing from to inform this understanding?

In many ways, this question gets to the heart of my research interests. While I believe that the same principles of motivational theories can be used in both situations, I think the emphasis and details are different.

In informal environments, learners tend to have much higher autonomy.  They are engaged in the activities by choice, not as part of a school curriculum. For example getting back to John Keller’s ARCS model of instructional motivation, this can be applied in both settings.  Designers and instructors in both formal and informal environments need to gain the attention of the learners, show relevance to the content, help the learner build confidence, and finally gain satisfaction from the process.  However, the way that this occurs may be different.

In many ways, there can be a lot more autonomy in informal environments.  Gaining the students attention may require providing enough novel and unique resources to that environment to keep participants there.  In the case of the virtual choir, many of the participants cited that they simply love Eric Whitacre’s music and they wanted to be a part of this.  The ‘celebrity factor’ of singing his music might be enough to get their attention.  But if they struggle with learning the music or have technical problems, this would cause problems in gaining confidence and they might lose motivation.

Satisfaction in the case of the virtual choir may come from sharing the finished video project on Facebook.  In my own experience of participating, there is a certain level of satisfaction sharing the finished project, especially when my mom, who is something of a music critic, even said that she likes it!  That gave me satisfaction. (

I definitely draw on Keller’s ARCS model and on Edward Deci and Richard Ryan’s Self Determination Theory, which focuses heavily on the importance of intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation.  In their early work, Deci and Ryan conducted psychological experiments and invariably found results that external rewards such as paying money can be detrimental to an individual’s intrinsic motivation to solve a task or problem.  As I mentioned earlier, I think that this theory of motivation could be applied in many areas of IST.  It has even recently been popularized by Dan Pink’s bestselling book, Drive and in TED talks about motivation.

I also draw on, and have not mentioned enough, the work on motivation in online settings done by Dr. Bonk.  His TEC-VARIETY framework is a very practical model specifically for encouraging motivation and retention in online courses and is a great framework to consider for designers and instructors.

  • Tone/Climate: Psych Safety, Comfort, Belonging
  • Encouragement: Feedback, Responsive, Supports
  • Curiosity: Fun, Fantasy, Control
  • Variety: Novelty, Intrigue, Unknowns
  • Autonomy: Choice, Flexibility, Opportunities
  • Relevance: Meaningful, Authentic, Interesting
  • Interactive: Collaborative, Team-Based, Community
  • Engagement: Effort, Involvement, Excitement
  • Tension: Challenge, Dissonance, Controversy
  • Yields: Goal Driven, Products, Success, Ownership

I have recently been reading draft versions of some chapters in his forthcoming book, that gives examples and activity based on his decades of work on online learning and motivation. The MOOC that I assisted him with last summer also focused a lot on online motivation for instructors.

The lens of informal learning & motivation may be a good way to incorporate other motivational models that may not be typical to IST.  This may be an area where I can contribute to the field.