Does using technology in classrooms make students engaged?

July 18, 2014

In one of the worst ed tech articles I’ve read in years, Morris and Parker, attempt to find a link between technology use in a new, home grown social network and “engagement” in the classroom. On the face of it this seems reasonable. Students use a social network ergo they get engaged in the course. However this ignores  the fundamental rule about educational technology – it is not the tool but the way it is used that matters.

The article initially got me feeling uncomfortable when it attempted to make the case that there is such a thing as a “technological pedagogy”. We’ve long argued that technologies (from clay stylus, to blackboards to Second Life) can and are being used to support  and enhance many types of pedagogical instruction and interactions (see  Jon Dron and my Learning technology through three generations of technology enhanced distance education pedagogy).  Morrie and Parker go on to present a straw dog, later torn down, arguing that “the rhetoric and packaging accompanying many of these new technological teaching tools suggests that usage alone will increase student engagement and learning.” Who has ever argued that?  Technology can afford new ways of thinking and acting, but it doesn’t by itself change engagement or learning. This is of course an old argument see (Clark and Kozma) from the 1990′s. But I think we have learned that doing the exact same activity with a different tool, is not likely to change outcomes.

We learn that a rather large (187 person) American undergrad Political Science class was surveyed (33% return) after one-term use of a social network tool. Nowhere in the article do the authors say how the tool was used, if use was rewarded with marks or associated with learning objectives, what pedagogical principals were implicitly or explicitly used to design the learning activities, what training or experience the students or teacher had etc. etc?

The survey instrument too was home grown. I am unsure why a standardized tool of measure engagement was not used – there are a number readily available. But in any case the authors choose to focus the article on the underlying constructs of their instrument and its psychometric properties, these students perceptions were then tested for relationship with amount of activity on the social network

The validity of the survey is questionable. Multivariate analysis shows that the survey items were associated with  three constructs: 1 – Learning Community (LC), 2 – Constructivist Pedagogy (CP), and 3 – Equity (EQ). The amazingly bad part of this experiment was that the first two constructs (Learning Community and Constructivist Pedgaogy), were derived from Likert scales  which asked students their  perception of what the teacher did!!! How would one expect correlation between student engagement  and social technology use by asking questions about what the teacher did or how constructivist was their pedagogical interventions!  What were those interventions? The final Equity Construct assessed  the balance between teacher and student input, but again does the technology alone determine that?

The authors conclude “that usage of an award winning engagement tool is not enough to create a greater sense of engagement under the conditions adopted in this course.”  Exactly!! and why would they expect differently unless they actually modified “the conditions adopted in this course”.

I continue to believe that use of high powered social networks can and will be associated with increased engagement, but to do so, these tools must be skillfully woven into the objectives, assessments and activities of the course.  Finally, ways to assess engagement that are pedagogically compatible, relevant to the learning activities and outcomes of the course and the students and finally that reflect real learning are critically important.  The authors of this article are more concerned with psychometric properties of a home grown survey instrument, than in the effective use or the valid assessment of networking learning technologies integrated with effective  pedagogy!


Anderson, T., & Dron, J. (2012). Learning technology through three generations of technology enhanced distance education pedagogy. European Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning, 2012/2.  Retrieved from

Morris, R. C., & Parker, L. (2014). Examining the connection between classroom technology and student engagement. Journal of Teaching and Learning with Technology, 3(1), 1-15 doi:10.14434.jotlt.v3n1.4720

Virtual Barn Raising for OERs

July 2, 2014

The email below resonated with on a number of levels. I spent 15 years in Northern Alberta on a homestead as part of “back to the land ” movement. During that time the group of urban ex-pats in the area held a number of work bees, barn railings or general “help each other out days” – all of which ended in home grown music, wine and smoke!

Thus the idea of real time (F2F or online) work together to  accomplish a specify and time limited task is appealing. I’ll be joint just to see how it goes and to add a word or two on OERs.

If it looks productive and fun, I’ll try to organize a similar event this fall to focus on the lack of quality and in-depth articles in Wikipedia on Distance Education (e-learning, online learning) or whatever popular term is.  I think many of our masters and EdD. students at Athabasca  have much that could be contributed and this format might have the right ingredients for a significant contribution.

Here is the invite letter sent to a Paul Basich, a colleague with the Poerup research project and  UK friend:

Let’s get this done!

You are cordially invited to join us for a free “Wikipedia Barnraising” event on Saturday July 19th, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Pacific Time, at the Oakland Impact Hub, 2323 Broadway, Oakland, California – or join us online! Lunch and refreshments will be provided for those joining us in person.Since 2012, we’ve been working — with substantial help from many of you — to strengthen Wikipedia’s coverage of Open Educational Resources and related topics. We’ve worked to build a community around this goal — at conferences in the field, through our online “Writing Wikipedia Articles” (WIKISOO) course, and through the formation of WikiProject Open.

At the Barn Raising, we will focus on high priority Wikipedia articles: articles that are widely read, but that — despite ongoing efforts — remain poorly sourced, incomplete, or out of date. (In the wiki world, we often borrow the term “Barn Raising” to evoke the idea of a community coming together to build something substantial in a short time. It’s been described as a way to “make the impossible possible.”)

We welcome online participants from around the world — and we have a few tricks up our sleeves to help everyone work together smoothly.

Please register, whether you are attending virtually or in person:

Barn Raising registration form

This event is open to all. Our goal is to make significant improvements to OER-related articles; so if you are brand new to Wikipedia and/or open education, you might want to take a little time to prepare. We will send out helpful resources for beginners as the date gets closer.

We look forward to seeing you, online or in person, and to raising a wiki barn with you!

Pete & Sara

Online Distance Education – Towards a Research Agenda

June 19, 2014

Last week my colleague Olaf Zawacki-Richter and I did the closing keynote at the European Distance Education Network Annual meeting in Zagreb Croatia.  The conference was great and it was my first visit to Croatia- but hopefully not my last.

Our keynote celebrated the recent launch of our new open access book from Athabasca University Press (available at  Our slide show presented the  methods by which we identified the most published topics in the major distance education journals. Olaf has updated this list covering 5 major journal’s from 2000-2011. I was pleased to see that Canadian researchers were the most prolific!

Once we identified the 17 most researched issues, we contacted the scholar(s) who we believed was the most qualified to write a chapter on that topic. We asked them to highlight the issues, the major unresolved questions and their suggestions for a research agenda that would advance our knowledge and practice related to this issue. I’m pleased to say that we had a very good response and I think the book will be very useful for students and scholars for some years to come.

The Table of Contents is:

Foreword  Otto Peters
Introduction Research Areas in Online Distance Education  Olaf Zawacki-Richter and Terry Anderson

Part I Macro-level Research: Distance Education Systems and Theories

  • 1 Internationalization and Concepts of Social Justice: What Is to Be Done? Alan Tait and Jennifer O’Rourke
  • 2 Globalization, Culture, and Online Distance Learning  Charlotte N. Gunawardena 
  • 3 Distance Education Systems and Institutions in the Online Era: An  Identity Crisis  Sarah Guri-Rosenblit
  • 4 Online Distance Education Models and Research Implications Terry D. Evans and Margaret Haughey
  • 5 Methods of Study in Distance Education: A Critical Review of Selected Recent Literature
  • Farhad Saba

part II Meso-level research: Management, Organization, and Technology

  • 6 Organization and Management of Online and Distance Learning Ross Paul
  • 7 The Costs and Economics of Online Distance Education Greville Rumble
  • 8 The Use of Technology in Distance Education Gráinne Conole
  • 9 Innovation and Change: Changing How we Change Jon Dron
  • 10 Professional Development and Faculty Support Margaret Hicks
  • 11 Learner Support in Online Distance Education: Essential and EvolvingJane E. Brindley
  • 12 Quality Assurance in Online Distance Education Colin Latchem


part III Micro-level Research: Learning and Teaching in Distance

  • 13 Major Movements in Instructional Design - Katy Campbell and Richard. A. Schwier
  • 14 Interaction and Communication in Online Learning Communities: Toward an Engaged and Flexible Future - Dianne Conrad
  • 15 Quantitative Analysis of Interaction Patterns in Online Distance Education - Allan Jeong
  • 16 From the Back Door into the Mainstream: The Characteristics of Lifelong Learners - Joachim Stöter, Mark Bullen, Olaf Zawacki-Richter, and Christine von Prümmer
  • 17 Student Dropout: The Elephant in the Room - Alan Woodley and Ormond Simpson
  • Conclusion Towards a Research Agenda - Terry Anderson and Olaf Zawacki-Richter

The complete book and individual chapters are available for free download, but of course we love paper purchasers ($39.95 for a 500 page text!) Thanks to all authors and to EDEN hosts!

African Council for Distance Education 2014

June 8, 2014

Zambezi Valley

Zambezi Valley

I was honoured to be invited to do a keynote talk at the 4th conference of ACDE in Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. After sitting up for 2 nights on a plane (42 hour journey) I was very glad to reach the Elephant Hills hotel and a soft bed. The hotel overlooks the Zambezi River and the constant myst of the Victoria Falls can be seen about 3 km away.

Mist rising from Victoria Falls

Mist rising from Victoria Falls

The next day I took a tour of the Falls, and they did not disappoint. They reminded me a lot of Niagara – maybe not so tall, but wider and the same deafening roar as millions of gallons of water churn over the cliff. Victoria Falls Victoria Falls

I did my talk the next day entitled ” Using Open Scholarship to Leapfrog Traditional Educational Barriers And it went OK, but the elaborate formal greetings and pomp of the opening ceremonies, meant that my time was really constrained- though I did manage to squeeze in a joke and give away a copy of one of our open access, Athabasca University Press, Issues in Dist. Educ. series books. The afternoon was spent at a very interesting workshop present by UNESCO and Fred Muller in which he challenged the Open Universities of Africa to embrace and develop MOOC applications- rather than fear them as we seem to do.  I was very impressed with over 200 MOOCs put together by 13 European OpenUpEd collaborators as a service- not profit see

Generally the African Open Universities are focussed on quality production of print packages and support (tutorials, testing etc) in local learning Centres. They suffer from the same prejudice from educated elites, and the faculties of traditional universities, but of course their costs are much lower. It is clear to all that sufficient campus universities will never be built to accommodate the large and growing demand for higher education in Africa.  Many of  the presenters presented compelling cases for more support, but also presented evidence of the changes that their programs are making in the lives of disadvantaged students.  All the participants seem to have a sense that they should be using more net based technologies, but judging from the general absence of laptops by all but a few of the conference delegates, I think that net access and literacy is an issue not only for students but for faculty as well. This has been a very short trip, but the kindness of new friends and of the Zimbabwe people I have met here at the hotel is long!

3 Bears Story

June 5, 2014

I had the pleasure of driving from my home in Edmonton through the Rocky Mountains and back en route to the Canadian Network for Innovation in Education in Kamloops BC.  It was a great trip partly because I got to show this spectaual scenery to two friends – Albert Sangra form the Open University of Catalonia and Stefan Stenbom from  KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm.

I’ve been going to the Rockies since I was a kid and my parents served as house parents in a number of Canadian Youth Hostels on the road from Banff to Jasper.  Arguably this Ice Fields Parkway is one of, if not the most scienic paved highway in the world. Despite the many trips I’ve made to the mountains, I have never seen a live grizzly bear (though many black bears).  Perhpas just to impress my European friends on this trip we saw not one, but two grizzlies and a black bear thrown in for good measure – a regular mountain safari!

Grizzly #1

Grizzly #1

Grizzly #2

Black Bear













The second grizzly was a bit further away, but showed off his height a couple of times by standing up on his hind paws to scratch his back on a tree.

Of course we had to take the giant snow machine ride up onto Athabasca Glacier (sadly in retreat these years) and ventured out on to the new GlacierSkywalk- a glass floored walkway cantilevered  918 feet above the valley floor.


On the Athabasca Glacier

Glacier Skywalk

Glacier Skywalk

All in all a great spring trip, with good friends – one of whom, Stefan, is a great photographer!

Study-Buddy Study

May 8, 2014

I was delighted to get an alert from Google Scholar that some open publication had cited my work. I didn’t really plan on then spending an hour by reading through a  thesis, writing the author a quick note and now this blog post. But learning opportunity strikes!

The publication was the MEd. thesis by Colin Madland, a grad student in our online  MEd program specializing in online education and in this case the sample was drawn from MEd students. So lots of relevancy for me.  Finally, the examination of a different model of student-student interaction always interests me.

I recommend this thesis as a fine example of clear writing, nice tie to practical and theoretical work, good  clear questions (but do we really need formal hypothesis in Mixed method research?). The sample size was relatively small (<50) using an online, mostly author created, questionnaire. Thus the quest for significant differences wasn’t achieved for some questions (like the deep and surface learning measurement) but some powerful numbers and quotes about percie3ved value of the intervention.

The study context was the very common, paced, 100% online, graduate course with 20-30 students, using an LMS and occasional synchronous webconf. The innovative feature of the course was the focus on problem based learning activity wherein students were required to develop a detailed learning design for a known training or educational problem. For 5% “bonus mark” students could agreed to participate in a  form of study-buddy pre-submission assessment and feedback on the final product(s) from the buddy and to create a 1-2 page reflection on the experience.

The results were generally positive about the study-buddy intervention, a claim Madland supported with descriptive survey means from Likert scale questions of value and use. Of course not everyone liked working with study buddies, so Madland tried on a learning style type designation of learners as bunnies (quick to get work done and handed in) and bears (plodding along to last second turn in.)  As expected, bear/bunnies relationships had more problems, but the results were inconclusive, some bunnies got along with bears. I’m not big on learning style labelling, but my wife is convinced that Meyers Briggs, Enneagram and other ways to ‘know thyself” are invaluable, so what do I know…

The work concludes with has some very nice and practical recommendations for online teaching and course design. The study finds that study-buddy interventions is relatively cost effective, needs marks for incentives and generally “works”. However, it should NOT be made compulsory as some expect or demand more independence in online learning. Perhaps what is most important for  administrators and teachers is that study buddies were reported to reduce marking/proof reading that consumes too much of the teacher’s time. This is an example of  substituting student-student interaction for student-teacher interaction. Study-buddies seems to have both pedagogical and economic advantages. The research on peer teaching as long shown evidence of learning value, but most of this work has been done face-to-face. I would be interested in examining the tools used by the pairs (Google docs? social networks? LMS???) to support this type of 2 person work group.

For researchers, the data confirms the results of the meta analysis comparing learning effectiveness after various dimensions of increased student-teacher, student-content and student-student interactions (Bernard et al. 2014). Further it can be used to support my  “Interaction Equivalency Theorum“.  This form of structured student-student interaction substitutes for student-teacher interaction with roughly “equivalent” results.  A group (even one with only 2 members) needs comfort and competence to function effectively in a performing a challenging task at a distance. Thus, the study-buddy experience is also a great learning activity for an increasingly distributed work force. Unlike student-teacher interaction, student-student interaction is scalable – though does require good tools and network efficacy to be used effectively by  distributed students. Thus, one could also imagine these being added as optional learning activity for MOOCs.

So, well done Colin! I look forward to reading an article summarizing this work and for a blossoming of study-buddies online.



Bernard, R., Abrami, P., Borokhovski, E., Wade, A., Tamim, R., Surkes, M., & Bethel, E. (2009). A meta-analysis of three types of interaction treatments in distance education. Review of Educational Research, 79(3), 1243-1289.

Madland, C. (2014). Structured Student Interactions in Online Distance Learning: Exploring the Study Buddy Activity. (MEd.), Athabasca University, Athabasca Ab. Retrieved from

MOOCs Unfairly Maligned

May 2, 2014

The Chronicle of Higher Education continues to amaze me how badly they can cover a story. This morning’s edition contains an article with a jarring headline reading “Passive MOOC Students Don’t Retain New Knowledge, Study Finds.  The study by Littlejohn and Milligan and is under review for IRRODL and thus no one – neither the Chronicle authors nor the Scottish news article authors (the second hand information upon which the Chronicle article was based) have had a chance to review the final copy. Nonetheless, the study found that indeed many professionals did not appear to apply their new knowledge to professional practice in substantive ways and showed  little  reflection on learning- despite the overall favourable impression of the content and the MOOC course in general.

There was no mention of students retaining new knowledge – or not as implied by the heading.  But more fundamentally, the students learning experience was not optimal compared to what?   I doubt there is a professional alive who has not attended a professional development event in ANY format to which these same criticism could not be levelled- and for some of the ones I have attended the content itself has been terrible and I’ve paid real money for the privilege of attending.

MOOCs are not a “perfect” way to learn, and only starry eyed proponents or venture capitalists would (or at least have) argued they are.  The popular press and the “experts” at the Chronicle have spent the first 2 years of the MOOC gushing about how terrific they are and now they provide equally bad commentary denigrating them.  I’d likely cancel my subscription to the Chronicle, if like MOOCs, the mini electronic email edition I get each work day wasn’t free!


Another research article on audio feedback

April 30, 2014

I’m a big fan of using audio feedback for marking of papers and proposals with my Education grad students.  I use Adobe Acrobat to embed usually short audio comments (maybe 20-40 per paper) and a summary comment. I do it because it saves me time and generally my students report really liking it. It allows me to project more positive “teaching presence” and I think I am much better able to express complicated as well as short mechanical issues – QUICKLY!  Too may educational technology based innovations or more general educational innovations  actually cost teachers’ time -even after an almost inevitable time lost surmounting a sometimes steep learning curve.

Thus, I was pleased to see:

Cavanaugh, A., & Song, L. (2014). Audio Feedback versus Written Feedback: Instructors’ and Students’ Perspectives Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 9(2).

This small scale study looked at postsecondary English teachers using audio (I think monologues using MP3) and not embedded (and IMHO much better Adobe Connect annotations).  One teacher reported taking MORE time- but only because she wrote the comments by hand and then read them into the recorder (sigh…).  Generally students liked the feedback assessed by interviews and a short survey.

This study helps us uncover the different (likely discipline centric) ways in which essays are marked. Teachers reported using and liking the audio for general, global comments, but text feedback for small mechanical issues that are common in English assessment (noting or correcting grammar issues as example).  There are likely other differences amongst style of teaching, learning and assessment across disciplines and perhaps across different educational level and ages.

The article has no earth shattering surprises, but does confirm my earlier thoughts on audio feedback- so I like it.  It also has one of the most extensive lit reviews (for a short paper) that does a good job of reviewing our last decade of use of audio feedback.

The biggest question though, is if audio is faster, is preferred by students and teachers, is very cheap to implement- why aren’t all teachers using.



Book Review – The Architecture of Productive Learning Networks

April 29, 2014

This review was published in IRRODL (15(2) and I reprint it here, for greater exposure to a very useful book.


The Architecture of Productive Learning Networks (2014), ISBN: 978-0-415-81656-4 

Authors: Lucila Carvalho and Peter Goodyear 

Reviewer: Terry Anderson, Athabasca University, Canada 

As I grow older, I come to realize that I shouldn’t let principles always stand in the way of good ideas. Thus, though I’ve made a commitment to no longer contribute to closed scholarly works, I can’t help but at least contribute a review of The Architecture of Productive Learning Networks by Lucila Carvalho and Peter Goodyear. A personal disclosure is that I count Goodyear as a friend and I was present when the book was being planned after the Networking Learning Conference in Maastricht in 2012.


Carvallo and Goodyear have been involved for some years in the interesting intersection between architecture and learning, positing that both the physical and networked spaces that we create have very important (but often unrecognized) effects on teaching and learning or as Winston Churchill aptly put it, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us”. I was initially attracted to their earlier work on patterns and pattern languages modelled in part on the architectural pattern work of Christopher Alexander, and have thereafter been trying to discern and better utilize both the created and emergent social patterns of effective formal and informal learning.

In this volume the authors set forth an initial set of architectural entities that describe and define a network of individuals associated together in order to collectively achieve some goal. As the title implies, these associations are focused on learning but in a very broad sense that includes formal education, informal and professional learning, and social action. The structures that we devise and sustain to support this learning are referred to as networks – aggregations based upon connections of people and resources, that in this context are focused on learning – and of course doing so productively. Networks imply a more defined aggregation than the nebulous “community” and a less structured form than a group where “everyone knows everyone”. A network is emergent, bursty and defined more by connections and activities than by rules, memberships, or authority.

The book is structured around Goodyear and Carvalho’s theoretical and architectural framing of an analysis structure by which subsequent chapters describe real life (and judged effective by the editors) learning networks. The architecture they proscribe is focused on “what it is that people are actually doing and the tools, and resources and interactions that become bound up in that activity”. The analysis begins by identifying the structures and epistemic elements of each network. I had to look this one up as they define epistemic elements “as those most closely associated with learning tasks, and those that seem to reflect epistemic structuring” (p. 61), which is far too tautological a definition for me. In any case I understand epistemic as the structure and the activities of the network specifically designed to create and support productive learning. They then ask the authors of the case studies to describe the place and the set structure of the network – how the connections and resources are linked, stored, organized, and made available for use and the processes for creation and support of new connections, unlike the way that Jon Dron and I use the term set, as a non group and non network aggregation of learners. The authors attempt to extract the important lessons, patterns, and structures that they find most compelling from the case.

The bulk of the 294 page text is made up of these 14 case studies. The cases range from formal learning activities (both higher and elementary education), professional development (teachers leading curriculum change), social action (One Laptop per Child), school enrichment (iSpot sharing nature) to my favorite – a network focused on artistic creation (the Virtual Choir). The final case study chapter is not really a case study following the model of the others but is an interesting contribution as it describes an open source tool set that can be used for network analysis by researchers and more importantly by network participants to visualize and gain a meta overview of their own emergent networks.

In architectural parallel with the case studies, Carvalho and Goodyear end the book with a synthesis chapter of their own. They begin by reflecting on the relationships amongst the elements in their analytic design of effective networks. Pragmatically, they first instruct us to look to the users’ perceptions of value and efficacy and ease of use as the most important measurements of effectiveness. The editors then dive into principles of knowledge construction using legitimation code theory which (fortunately) soon leads to discussion of six practical design principles – which I found to be (as likely designed) the more generalizable contribution of the text.

Despite the cost (US $44.95 in paper, $155.00 in hardback from Routledge), I found much of value in this text. I hope that at least parts of the work become available openly, as there is much for us to learn as educators, social activists, and human connectors from this timely tome!

Book Review : The Architecture of Productive Learning Networks Anderson Vol 15 | No 2 April/14 284

Greewich Connect connects with us on a number of levels

April 23, 2014

I was pleasantly surprised to see a recent conference paper (reference below) by folks at the University of Greenwich who are reporting their first year results from a project (Greenwich Connect) that is designed to induce a variety of open and social programs to the university teaching and learning communities.  The surprise was pleasant because we have been attempting a similar project here at Athabasca University- known as the Athabasca Landing. However, it was unpleasant to read that the challenges they are facing are very similar to our own and some days they seem intractable.

The contrast between contexts is as striking as the similarities in challenges. Greenwich is a 2-campus University in the UK, while Athabasca is a 100% online and distance education institution in Canada. However we both share a passion “to enhance the connectedness of learners at a curricula and teaching and learning level” .

Greenwich Connect is a 2 year, $750,000 initiative funded and championed by their Vice Chancellor (President). (see project description) Read the rest of this entry »