What is the metaverse? A definition

I’ve recently published an article on The Conversation about the metaverse and what it means. I wanted to follow that up with a short and more accessible piece explaining “what is the metaverse?”

The metaverse is best understood through the idea of extended reality.

We all live in the physical world which we experience through our different senses. Humans have for years been able to design new experiences for humans through technologies that add things to our senses.

These designed experiences over the top of the physical world constitute extended reality and most notably includes augmented reality and virtual reality.

We can augment reality by overlaying something on top of it, and the game Pokemon Go or some fun video filters to add facial features or age you are great example of this. This is already used for purposes in the construction industry and in education.

We can also create virtual worlds of many kinds, where sci-fi visions of completely immersive virtual reality are at one end of the scale but many popular games like Fortnite or Roblox give an idea today of just how popular virtual worlds can be. There are many niche uses currently around, like in education, training, and entertainment.

The metaverse then is a vision of what our world might look like if all of these different extensions to reality were to come together into a single online world. For example:

  • Facebook gives us a model of a single persistent persona which goes into different groups and has different interactions. What might this look like if Facebook became spatial?
  • Games like Fortnite or Roblox give us an idea of how people might choose to spend large chunks of time online, to interact within virtual worlds, to overlay the virtual on the physical
  • We’re used to cryptocurrency through things like blockchain, what happens when we start having virtual markets of space, as is happening in Upland and Decentraland (and in Second Life before them)
  • We all know what it’s like to have work meetings through Zoom, what would happen if that was more like a persistent 3D virtual world? That’s what Facebook is trying to do with their Horizons project
  • Augmented reality is already creeping into our lives through things like real-time translation or augmented wayfinding.

To be clear, I’m super critical of the vision of the metaverse being promoted on the basis that:

  1. It’s a continuation of our current trend of the virtual world eating the physical world. The internet and its infrastructure are already estimated at 4% of global GHG emissions. How much would this go up if we embraced the metaverse? That’s not including the estimated 1% of worldwide GHG emissions that are created through cryptocurrency.
  2. Where we put our attention matters. There is no good end to this path of trying to make our lives more full of dopamine and convenience. An alternative path tries to think about ways that we could use these technologies to create better societies–as a part of design for social innovation
  3. It’s ontologically monotheistic (to use Andrew Pickering’s term). The metaverse is a thoroughly colonial project of creating a reality that can then be enclosed and entirely dominated. It posits a single reality within which we can live our lives–what John Law calls the One-World World. And that’s fundamentally wrong.

What is the metaverse? A high-tech plan to Facebookify the world

Original article here

Wacomka / Shutterstock

Nick Kelly, Queensland University of Technology

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg recently announced the tech giant will shift from being a social media company to becoming “a metaverse company”, functioning in an “embodied internet” that blends real and virtual worlds more than ever before.

So what is “the metaverse”? It sounds like the kind of thing billionaires talk about to earn headlines, like Tesla chief Elon Musk spruiking “pizza joints” on Mars. Yet given almost three billion people use Facebook each month, Zuckerberg’s suggestion of a change of direction is worth some attention.

Read more: Mark Zuckerberg wants to turn Facebook into a ‘metaverse company’ – what does that mean?

The term “metaverse” isn’t new, but it has recently seen a surge in popularity and speculation about what this all might mean in practice.

The idea of the metaverse is useful and it’s likely to be with us for some time. It’s a concept worth understanding even if, like me, you are critical of the future its proponents suggest.

The metaverse: a name whose time has come?

Humans have developed many technologies to trick our senses, from audio speakers and televisions to interactive video games and virtual reality, and in future we may develop tools to trick our other senses such as touch and smell. We have many words for these technologies, but as yet no popular word that refers to the totality of the mash-up of old-fashioned reality (the physical world) and our fabricated extensions to reality (the virtual world).

Words like “the internet” and “cyberspace” have come to be associated with places we access through screens. They don’t quite capture the steady interweaving of the internet with virtual realities (such as 3D game worlds or virtual cities) and augmented reality (such as navigation overlays or Pokémon GO).

Just as important, the old names don’t capture the new social relationships, sensory experiences and economic behaviours that are emerging along with these extensions to the virtual. For example, Upland mashes together a virtual reflection of our world with non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and property markets.

Upland is a kind of ‘metaverse’ property-trading game based on real-world addresses. Upland

Facebook’s announcement speaks to its attempts to envision what social media within the metaverse might look like.

It also helps that “metaverse” is a poetic term. Academics have been writing about a similar idea under the name of “extended reality” for years, but it’s a rather dull name.

“Metaverse”, coined by science fiction writer Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel Snow Crash, has a lot more romantic appeal. Writers have a habit of recognising trends in need of naming: “cyberspace” comes from a 1982 book by William Gibson; “robot” is from a 1920 play by Karel Čapek.

Read more: Do we want an augmented reality or a transformed reality?

Recent neologisms such as “the cloud” or the “Internet of Things” have stuck with us precisely because they are handy ways to refer to technologies that were becoming increasingly important. The metaverse sits in this same category.

Who benefits from the metaverse?

If you spend too long reading about big tech companies like Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft, you might end up feeling advances in technology (like the rise of the metaverse) are inevitable. It’s hard not to then start thinking about how these new technologies will shape our society, politics and culture, and how we might fit into that future.

This idea is called “technological determinism”: the sense that advances in technology shape our social relations, power relations, and culture, with us as mere passengers. It leaves out the fact that in a democratic society we have a say in how all of this plays out.

For Facebook and other large corporations, determined to embrace the “next big thing” before their competitors, the metaverse is exciting because it presents an opportunity for new markets, new kinds of social network, new consumer electronics and new patents.

What’s not so clear is why you or I would be excited by all this.

A familiar story

In the mundane world, most of us are grappling with things like a pandemic, a climate emergency, and mass human-induced species extinction. We are struggling to understand what a good life looks like with technology we’ve already adopted (mobile devices, social media and global connectivity are linked to many unwanted effects such as anxiety and stress).

So why would we get excited about tech companies investing untold billions in new ways to distract us from the everyday world that gives us air to breathe, food to eat and water to drink?

Metaverse-style ideas might help us organise our societies more productively. Shared standards and protocols that bring disparate virtual worlds and augmented realities into a single, open metaverse could help people work together and cut down on duplication of effort.

In South Korea, for example, a “metaverse alliance” is working to persuade companies and government to work together to develop an open national VR platform. A big part of this is finding ways to blend smartphones, 5G networks, augmented reality, virtual currencies and social networks to solve problems for society (and, more cynically, make profits).

Similar claims for sharing and collaboration were made in the early days of the internet. But over time the early promise was swept aside by the dominance of large platforms and surveillance capitalism.

The internet has been wildly successful in connecting people all around the world to one another and functioning as a kind of modern Library of Alexandria to house vast stores of knowledge. Yet it has also increased the privatisation of public spaces, invited advertising into every corner of our lives, tethered us to a handful of giant companies more powerful than many countries, and led to the virtual world consuming the physical world via environmental damage.

Beyond the one-world world

The deeper problems with the metaverse are about the kind of worldview it would represent.

In one worldview, we we can think of ourselves as passengers inside a singular reality that is like a container for our lives. This view is probably familiar to most readers, and it also describes what you see on something like Facebook: a “platform” that exists independently of any of its users.

In another worldview, which sociologists suggest is common in Indigenous cultures, each of us creates the reality that we live in through what we do. Practices such as work and rituals connect people, land, life and spirituality, and together create reality.

A key problem with the former view is that it leads to a “one-world world”: a reality that does not permit other realities. This is what we see already on existing platforms.

The current version of Facebook may increase your ability to connect to other people and communities. But at the same time it limits how you connect to them: features such as six preset “reactions” to posts and content chosen by invisible algorithms shape the entire experience. Similarly, a game like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (with more than 100 million active users) allows limitless possibilities for how a game might play out – but defines the rules by which the game can be played.

The idea of a metaverse, by shifting even more of our lives onto a universal platform, extends this problem to a deeper level. It offers us limitless possibility to overcome the constraints of the physical world; yet in doing so, only replaces them with constraints imposed by what the metaverse will allow.

Nick Kelly, Senior Lecturer in Interaction Design, Queensland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


My teaching philosophy

I was recently asked to write my teaching philosophy in under 500 words. This is what I came up with and I wanted to share it as a part of the general conversation here around education and design:

My teaching philosophy is grounded in three understandings, that: (1) learning is sociocultural and relational in nature; (2) active, experiential, and authentic learning produces intrinsic motivation; and (3) a skilled educator can only produce the conditions for learning, not the learning itself.

  1. Humans develop their cognitive abilities within a social and cultural context and through interactions with other beings (Vygotsky, 1978). While we can learn directly from experience (constructing cognitive connections in the Paigetian sense), it is through our relationships with other beings within a cultural context that we learn how to learn and what we care about learning. Knowledge is thus constructed by learners who are socioculturally individuated. By the time I teach a student they are already complex, empathic beings who will construct new knowledge from within this socioculturally constructed understanding of the world—and when they learn from me or their peers it will be filtered throughthe qualities of the relationships between us/them.
  2. Humans feel intrinsically motivated to learn when their basic psychological needs are met (Deci & Ryan (2000). This involves feeling competent for learning (we are motivated if we have the necessary abilities or prerequisite knowledge), relationality (we are motivated if we feel that learning will connect us to other humans); and autonomy (we are motivated when we feel we can learn in a way that is in harmony with our beliefs about the world). This leads me to use active, collaborative, authentic learning tasks in my teaching that respect students’ existing knowledge, that give them opportunities to collaborate, and that are experiential. Intrinsic motivation improves student engagement, enjoyment, and learning outcomes.
  3. As an educator, I conceive of myself as being able to influence learning in two ways (Goodyear & Dimitriadis, 2013): (a) through my design for learning; and (b) through my behaviour at learntime when interacting with learners in a learning environment. In my design for learning I am able to design the setting for learning (set design), the social relationships that are fostered (social design), the knowledge objects used and epistemic approaches supported (epistemic design), and for student autonomy (design for co-configuration).

Further, I side with Paulo Freire in his suggestion that pedagogy is never neutral: it is either politically conscious (i.e., aware of power relations within society) or else it implicitly supports the status quo (Freire, 1970/2013).

In summary:

The students that I teach come to my units as complex humans with their own knowledge, culture, ways of socialising, and ways of learning. I want to create the conditions that support each student in their learning. Active, authentic, experiential, and collaborative learning will support student engagement, motivate them, respect their knowledge, and help them to achieve learning outcomes. Doing that requires diligent design for learning, and care in the way that I relate to students in my class. This form of pedagogy supports my belief in a just and democratic society, as does the content that I choose to engage with in teaching the necessary skills, mindsets, and methods.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The” what” and” why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological inquiry, 11(4), 227-268.

Freire, P. (2013). Pedagogy of the oppressed (pp. 131-139). Routledge.

Goodyear, P., & Dimitriadis, Y. (2013). In medias res: reframing design for learning. Research in learning technology, 21.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Creativity Design Research

An artwork that changes the meaning of text

I have recently published an artwork that changes the meaning of any text that you put into it. Please read the associated conversation article for further information.

The artwork was featured in the Kyogle Writers’ Festival, in the Roxy Gallery.


How do you design and facilitate an online community of teachers?

Teaching is a relational profession. Online networks and online communities make good sense: helping teachers to help one another. Yet history shows that good intentions in creating such communities often lead to poor outcomes.

There are just so many variables involved:

  • Having a focus for the community
  • Involving existing communities
  • Taking the right approach to facilitation
  • Understanding the need for long-term thinking and for sustainable approaches
  • Choosing the right technology for the community
  • Fitting in with teachers’ expectations

And that’s just naming a few of them!

In an academic paper, me and some colleagues use TeachConnect as an example to talk about some design principles that are useful for anyone trying to develop their own online community of teachers. It speaks to the big questions that anybody trying to get a new community off the group is likely to face.

The original article is posted on the Australasian Journal of Educational Technology website. You can also just download the whole PDF of the paper from my website, as the AJET journal is fantastic in that they use a creative commons license.

A summary of design principles (from the literature) is:

  • Start small with a core group (e.g., 10 – 100 users) and make it a strong community that embodies the values that are desired for the network. This serves two purposes. Firstly, it is a useful barometer, as if the community relies on being big to function then it is unlikely that it will ever grow to the desired size. Secondly, as the community grows in membership, the values held by this core group are the values that are likely to be perpetuated, so it pays to give close attention to details within a smaller group (Shirky, 2010).
  • Understand what motivates the members and make sure that the learning network provides for this motivation (Kraut et al., 2012). Both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation ought to be considered as ways to encourage users to engage with the community. Intrinsic motivation can be addressed by ensuring that users have autonomy (freedom to act in a way that they find harmonious), connectedness (a human connection), and competence (no need to learn new skills to participate) (Ryan & Deci, 2000).
  • Any platform has a set of default options in set design, social design, and epistemic design, for example, default alerts, privacy settings, and display options. These defaults ought to be used wisely to promote social connectivity and the types of knowledge that it is desired to be shared (rather than defaulting all settings to being closed) (Kraut et al., 2012; Shirky, 2010).
  • Recognise that there will be many types of engagement within the platform and cater to these different types of engagement—there will be lurkers (Woo, 2015) as well as active participants and champions (Shirky, 2010).
  • Have as low a threshold for active participation as is possible. Require a bare minimum of activity from users for them to have contributed something to the platform. This contributes to their engagement and presence within the platform and makes future contributions more likely (Kraut et al., 2012; Shirky, 2010).
  • Be prepared to make changes as the network grows and to be responsive to what the community is asking for (Shirky, 2010). Changes need to be made quickly in response to the needs of teachers. This is in keeping with the principles of DBR (Barab & Squire, 2004).
  • The epistemic design of the community should focus on supporting authentic context and activity. The knowledge held in the community should pertain to real problems and issues that teachers actually face in schools (Herrington & Herrington, 2004).
  • Avoid ambiguity about roles within the community. Aim for clarity about who within a group holds the domain expertise and whose words should be attended to (Lin et al., 2008).
  • A barrier to co-creation of knowledge can be present through overly diversified foci, with members having different interests or disagreeing on the characterisation of a problem (Lin et al., 2008).
  • Members can fear criticism from other members of the community, preventing them from sharing knowledge (Lin et al., 2008). Anonymity can mitigate this. Hur and Brush (2009) similarly found that anonymity and lack of physical accountability is one of the reasons why teachers were looking online for support, noting: “the analysis of interviews and observational notes suggested that online environments provided places where teachers could safely share issues that they could not share with local school teachers” (p. 293).

And then, building on those, and using TeachConnect as an example we arrive at three crucial design principles that cannot be ignored:

  1. It is critical to understand the social norms within the teaching profession (and allow this to influence UI (user interface) and UX (user experience) design).
  2. Teaching is a highly context dependent profession and the social design needs to reflect this.
  3. The platform needs to have an inherent simplicity; speed and reliability should mirror user experiences with best-of-breed platforms.

There’s much that can be said about each of these, but I recommend reading the whole article to find out! It uses Goodyear and Carvalho’s ACAD framework for talking piece by piece about the considerations for social design, set design, epistemic design, and design for co-configuration. I really recommend this approach as a way of making sense of something that is really quite complex.

Key References

Goodyear, P. & Carvalho, L. (2013) The analysis of complex learning environments. In H. Beetham, & R. Sharpe (Eds.), Rethinking pedagogy for a digital age: Designing and delivering e-learning. Abingdon: Routledge.

Kelly, N., & Antonio, A. (2016). Teacher peer support in social network sites. Teaching and Teacher Education, 56, 138-149.

Kelly, N., Russell, N., Kickbusch, S., Barros, A., Dawes, L., & Rasmussen, R. (2018). Online communities of teachers to support situational knowledge: A design-based study. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology34(5).

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Why do teachers leave the profession? Factors affecting early career career teacher attrition and retention in Australia.

I recently published a paper, along with co-authors Marcela Cespedes, Marc Clarà and Patrick Danaher, that does some important research to help address this overarching question of why Australian early career teachers leave the profession. It focuses on the complex relationships among preservice education, early career support, and job satisfaction, and how these impact upon intention to leave the profession. You can cheat and jump to the whole paper here [open access] which should be relevant for anyone interested in early career teacher attrition and retention.

The paper is asking four key questions:

  • How (if at all) does the kind of preservice education a teacher receives relate to early career teachers’ intentions to leave the profession?
  • How (if at all) does the early career support received relate to early career teachers’ intentions to leave the profession?
  • How (if at all) does job satisfaction relate to early career teachers’ intention to leave the profession?
  • The sub-questions of: are any kinds of preservice education or early career support associated with increased job satisfaction for early career teachers?

The abstract of the paper sums it up, and then I’ll unpack some of the key findings from the paper:

This paper investigates the complex factors that lead to early career teachers (ECTs) deciding to leave the profession. It extends prior studies to show the associations that different elements of preservice education (PSE), early career support, and on-the-job satisfaction have with the intention to leave the profession. The study uses data from 2,144 Australian ECTs to explore these relationships. Results highlight the importance of teachers’ collegial relationships with their peers, and replicate prior findings showing the significance of mentoring and induction programs. Results show that elements of job satisfaction are strongly associated with intention to leave the profession, leading to a number of implications for achieving the twin goals of higher teacher retention and job satisfaction.

Key definitions and notes on data sources and analysis

I should add that we define early career teachers as those in their first five years. The data come from the Staff in Australia’s Schools Dataset and I am grateful for the Australian Data Archive for making this dataset available to me (see the paper for the exact data item).

In all that follows note that we had an excellent sample size thanks to the SiAS (2,144 early career teachers), but note also that our data come from 2010. All of the findings below follow use of regression to account for the possible influence of demographics, such as rural/provincial/metro, primary/secondary divide, and catholic/independent/state school systems.

What we found

There were a real mix of findings in response to these questions. I’ll just highlight the key ones here:

  • How (if at all) does the kind of preservice education a teacher receives relate to early career teachers’ intentions to leave the profession?

We found that there were two factors in preservice education that were significant in that they were associated with teachers who did not want to leave the profession: feeling prepared for working with other teachers, and feeling prepared for teaching diverse learners.

It follow that perhaps (although I note that the research is only preliminary evidence to support this idea) one way to improve teacher retention is to focus on these two areas in teacher education: working well with other teachers, and teaching diverse learners. It is interesting on this note that Diane Mayer and her team in the Studying Effective Teaching project found that collaboration and collegiality were not well taught in teacher education programs.

  • How (if at all) does the early career support received relate to early career teachers’ intentions to leave the profession?

In keeping with the literature we found that having a helpful mentor (not just any old mentor!) and enabling structured discussions significantly predicted ECTs’ retention. We were also able to look at the statistical relationship between having these kinds of support and the likelihood that a teacher intended to leave the profession. As it says in the paper:

…for those with helpful (rather than unhelpful) designated mentors, the odds of staying in the profession were between 35% and 122% higher. There was a smaller effect, of between 11% to 96% increase in the odds of ECT responding “no” to intention to leave, when designated mentors were helpful when compared with not received mentoring

Once again, this suggests that schools and school systems should focus upon providing these areas of support. This is not a new findings, but it provides strong empirical evidence to support something that was already demonstrated by people like DeAngelis and Ingersoll, and shows that it holds true in the Australian context.

  • How (if at all) does job satisfaction relate to early career teachers’ intention to leave the profession?

It is fairly a obvious proposition that teachers who are satisfied with their jobs are less likely to want to leave the profession, and that’s exactly what we found. What makes this interesting is that we looked at which areas of job satisfaction mattered the most, as well as looking at how they impacted the odds that a teacher wanted to leave the profession.

Firstly, we found that those who were overall satisfied with their job were between 4 and 9 times as likely to not be intending to leave the profession (i.e., we infer that they were more likely to stay).

Secondly, we found that the areas of job satisfaction that mattered most (see the paper for the full list of areas of job satisfaction considered) were:

  • the amount of teaching required
  • the amount of clerical/administrative work required
  • what teachers were accomplishing with students
  • the value that society places on teachers’ work
  • the relationships with parents/guardians

This is interesting, because it supports existing research into which areas of the job matter most for retention, and contributes to the solid empirical foundation. It supports the idea that trying to improve teacher retention cannot be achieved by extrinsic rewards like salary alone.

Rather, it speaks to the notion that teachers need support for intrinsic motivation. I hope in future work to analyse these findings through the lens of Self-Determination Theory (Ryan and Deci, 2000) as I believe that this finding is all about teachers needing to have their basic psychological needs supported, namely:

  • Support for teacher competence (having enough time and training to achieve everything that needs to be done)
  • Support for teacher relationality (structures that support relationships between teachers and with parents as a key part of the job)
  • Support for autonomy (having enough time and freedom to do the job in a way that is true to teachers’ beliefs)


DeAngelis, K. J., Wall, A. F., & Che, J. (2013). The impact of preservice preparation and early career support on novice teachers’ career intentions and decisions. Journal of Teacher Education, 64(4), 338-355.

Ingersoll, R. M., & Strong, M. (2011). The impact of induction and mentoring programs for beginning teachers: A critical review of the research. Review of Educational Research, 81(2), 201-233.

Kelly, N., Cespedes, M., Clarà, M., & Danaher, P. A. (2019). Early career teachers’ intentions to leave the profession: The complex relationships among preservice education, early career support, and job satisfaction. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 44(3).

Kelly, N., Sim, C., & Ireland, M. (2018). Slipping through the cracks: teachers who miss out on early career support. Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 1-25.

Mayer, D., Dixon, M., Kline, J., Kostogriz, A., Moss, J., Rowan, L., . . . White, S. (2017). Studying the effectiveness of teacher education. In D. Mayer, M. Dixon, J. Kline, A. Kostogriz, J. Moss, L. Rowan, B. Walker-Gibbs, & S. White (Eds.), Studying the effectiveness of teacher education: Early career teachers in diverse settings (pp. 13- 26). Singapore: Springer Singapore.

Education Presentation

UAB Guest Lecture: Teacher education and globalisation

Slides from my guest lecture with the Masters of Education Policy students at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB) in 2018.

A lecture about what teacher education is, what teacher education policy looks like, and some lenses for analysing teacher education policy. With a focus upon globalisation and new public management. Five case studies of teacher education policy make up the heart of the talk.

Slides can be found here:

Teacher Education and Globalisation from nickkelly
Education Research

We need to take teachers’ basic psychological needs seriously: Examples of research supporting teachers’ self determination

This post is based on a seminar presented to the Globalisation and Education and Sociology Policy (GEPS) group at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

The need to take teachers’ basic psychological needs seriously.

“In my talk today I am arguing that we need to take teachers’ basic psychological needs seriously. The talk has three parts. First, I will talk about why it is so important that we create an environment in which teachers can flourish. Then, I will talk about what I mean by basic psychological needs. Finally, I will give some examples from my work that highlight what this kind of work might look like…”

This post is placeholder for the article that looks likely to be published elsewhere resulting from this seminar.

The slides for the presentation can be found on slideshare:

Educational policy and teachers basic psychological needs: Creating the space for teachers to collaborate from nickkelly
Design Education Research

How to design online courses for student engagement

I had the great pleasure of working with Neil Martin over a number of years, during his project investigating the way that the principles of Self-Determination Theory (SDT) can be applied for designing engaging online courses.

I’m forever grateful to Neil for getting me to read deeply about positive psychology–the branch of psychology trying to understand the conditions under which humans flourish.

In particular, I find the work of Richard Ryan and Edward Deci to be extremely elegant, putting this research into human flourishing (or, as it’s referred to, eudaimonia) on solid scientific ground. I thoroughly recommend this paper for anyone wanting a scholarly introduction to the idea of why not all kinds of motivation are equal, regardless of behavioural outcomes.

This post aims to give a brief overview of a paper that Neil led–and very kindly invited me to be a part of–describing the work from his PhD thesis  in developing a MOOC in which every part of the design was informed by thinking about intrinsic motivation from the perspective of SDT.

I feel like the resulting paper (Martin, Kelly, & Terry, 2018) really has a lot in it, and may well be of help to anyone who is doing work designing an online course and wants students to be more engaged.

(It is also worth mentioning that I quite  enjoyed the fact that all three authors have last names that are also first names. It makes me feel like I have at least one thing in common with Elton John,  George Michael and Buddy Holly)

Principles for designing engaging online courses

Some principles for designing engaging online courses can be distilled.

The essential principle of self-determination theory, when applied to motivating people to doing a task, is that human intrinsic motivation has three elements:

  1. Competence. People tend to feel intrinsically motivated for a task if they feel like they have the ability needed to successfully complete the task. In other words, people like the feeling of being good at something.
  2. Relatedness. People tend to feel more intrinsically motivated for a task if they feel that completing the task will, in some way (either direct or indirect), help to connect them with other human beings. In short, people like feeling as though they are developing a relationship with other people.
  3. Autonomy. Autonomy is about giving people the freedom to complete a task in a way that is in harmony with their beliefs about the world, to do things in a way that makes sense to them and fits in with their life.

This is, of course, a gross oversimplification of what is a deep theory with decades of research  behind it (see for a nicely curated website about SDT).

Neil’s work (his PhD is available here and well worth a read for anyone wanting to go much deeper) demonstrated that these principles–of achieving intrinsic motivation of students through support for relatedness, autonomy, and competence–can be applied directly to learning design for online courses.

He found fairly convincing evidence in his work that the students were more engaged with the course, and more likely to complete the course, once it had been redesigned based upon these principles–and as anyone who has tried to make a MOOC knows, getting students to begin the course is one thing, but getting them to complete it is much more challenging!

The figure below is from Martin et al. (2018) and is a summary of what I would call a model for designing engaging online courses. The premise is that if students have their basic psychological needs met, then they will be more engaged with the learning.

designing for engaging online learning

The paper (freely available thanks to the excellent online journal AJET) goes into detail about what all of these things mean and describes this model in detail. It makes a bridge between these three basic psychological needs and what this means in practice when designing for online learning. Some examples:


  • Not having deadlines and reducing pressure
  • Letting participants set their own pace
  • Giving participants meaningful choices wherever possible


  • Making sure that challenges are optimal (i.e., are within the zone of proximal development)
  • Giving clear rationale for any task
  • Providing constructive feedback on tasks


  • Making sure that the text and interface design of the online course is warm and friendly
  • Making sure that participants have an opportunity to connect with each other
  • This can be done by learning designers by making use of personas (refer to Martin 2017 for more details on this)

I’m writing this post now because I’m finding this to be a big help in some course redesign work that I am doing with La Trobe university, in their MTEACH course.

Hopefully the result will be lots of engaged students!


Martin, Neil; Kelly, Nick; Terry, Peter.  (2018).  A framework for self-determination in massive open online courses: Design for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, v. 34, n. 2. Available at:
Date accessed: 02 nov. 2018.



Education Research

Studying teachers in social network sites: Thinking about methodology

There is an entire genre of journal articles about how teachers in social network sites are behaving, what they’re doing, and what benefits they’re getting. This refers to sites like Facebook, Twitter, Ning and EdModo.

Recent review papers by Macia & Garcia (2017) and Lantz-Andersson et al. (2018) gives some indication of quite how many articles are out there about teachers using these sites. I’m doing work at the moment with Bernadette Mercieca and Paul Mercieca to conduct a wide, integrative review, that looks at the methodology of studies of teachers in SNSs.

Teachers in social network sites

The rationale for studying what teachers in social network sites are doing is compelling:

  • We know for sure that lots of teachers are using them
  • They are getting all kinds of benefits, such as social/emotional support, exchange of resources, a place to get new ideas, and even occasionally a place to have serious conversations reflecting on practice (Kelly & Antonio, 2016)
  • We want to know how to use social network sites better: How should they be used by individuals? How should policy around them be framed? How should they be a part of teacher education and school operations?

These are all great questions, but I feel like there is a growing need for more maturity in the methodology of studies of teachers in social network sites. Consider the “classic case” of many studies (some of my own included!) of teachers in social network sites:

  1. A sample is being studied that is chosen for convenience: an existing group in a social network site, a cohort of preservice teachers, a group of teachers within a single school, etc.
  2. Often teachers from that sample will self-select to be a part of a study
  3. Traces from the social network site are typically analysed in some way (coding and counting, social network analysis)
  4. Often a survey is conducted (again, often self-selected from participants in the social network site) for self-reported data relating to use of the social network site

In case it isn’t obvious, this is not a great recipe for any kind of generalisability from results. The volume of studies that have been conducted could potentially have led to meta-analysis for some kind of convergent validity–except that often there isn’t enough information included in many studies to know such basic information as:

  • The size of a group (for groups are the unit of study)
  • It’s focus (e.g., subject/region/theme/identity)
  • How it was convened and if it is facilitated

A way to categorise groups productively is discussed by Kelly & Antonio (2016). The key issue is that without this kind of information, there will be no movement towards convergent validity of theories.

Towards theory

We have well and truly past the point of needing studies that point to the potential of social network sites for teachers; or that collect exploratory data from a one-off study. There are many such studies and on their own they are not contributing to a collective whole.

The ideal situation would be to work towards an understanding of how different types of group serve teachers in different ways and how approaches to designing/facilitating/convening groups in social network sites can better lead to desired outcomes (see for example Clarà et al., 2015;  Kelly et al., 2015; Kelly et al., 2016; Mercieca et al, 2017).

The analogy is that of a chemical engineer trying to understand how to create a reaction of some sort–let’s say that she’s trying to create an explosion.  She could work for years randomly combining elements to see what happens, in the hope of coming across something that works.

Far more fruitful would be to develop a theoretical understanding (say, the table of the elements) that allows her to predict what will happen when elements are combined.

In short, what we need is the kind of research that allows us to make theoretical propositions (about teachers in social network sites) that are generally applicable–or where the limits of generality are at least understood. The work of Kraut & Resnick (2012) gives us a glimpse of what such work might look like. We need methodological rigor else our whole domain risks failing to reach maturity.

Thanks to Professor Peter Reimann for the chemistry analogy, it comes from a conversation with him.


Clarà, M., Kelly, N., Mauri, T., & Danaher, P. (2015). Can massive communities of teachers facilitate collaborative reflection? Fractal design as a possible answer. Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 1-13.

Kelly, N., & Antonio, A. (2016). Teacher peer support in social network sites. Teaching and Teacher Education, 56, 138-149. doi:

Kelly, N., Clará, M., & Kickbusch, S. (2015). How to develop an online community for pre-service and early career teachers. Paper presented at the ASCILITE 2015, Perth, Western Australia.

Kelly, N., Clarà, M., Kehrwald, B., & Danaher, P. (2016). Online Learning Networks for Pre-service and Early Career Teachers. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan/Palgrave Pivot.

Kraut, R. E., & Resnick, P. (2012). Building successful online communities: Evidence-based social design. Mit Press.

Lantz-Andersson, A., Lundin, M., & Selwyn, N. (2018). Twenty years of online teacher communities: A systematic review of formally-organized and informally-developed professional learning groups. Teaching and Teacher Education, 75, 302-315.

Macià, M., & García, I. (2016). Informal online communities and networks as a source of teacher professional development: A review. Teaching and Teacher Education, 55, 291-307.

Mercieca, B., & Kelly, N. (2017). Early career teacher peer support through private groups in social media. Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 1-17.