Revisiting my PhD thesis

I recently reread my PhD thesis (titled “Instructional interactions and online course effectiveness at a large Mexican organisation”), which I completed in 2014. I learned so much, much more than what I could write in an academic way. And I wanted to share it… So I added a prologue and an epilogue. I don’t know if that is common practice; I don’t really think it is. I did it anyway. I used the space as an opportunity to express myself as a person, with passion, dreams and hopes, to move past the formalities of scientific language and to describe the fantastic learning journey of my PhD work.

Anyway, here they are…


My interest in designing effective online courses to help organisations provide accessible and efficient training to their staff has been present since the beginning of my professional career. I focus on Mexico because it is my home country and I am aware of our limitations, compared to more developed countries. I acknowledge the potential of technology to facilitate learning. I believe that employees who have suitable development opportunities and feel well-prepared to do their jobs are happier and more productive. Contributing to this area is my way of creating a better world. I am passionate about education and learning technologies.

While the value of online learning is widely accepted, in corporate settings, especially in developing countries such as Mexico, doubts remain. Some of these lingering questions relate to bad practices. I have personally experienced some awful, page-turner online courses. I decided to make it my mission to find engaging ways of fostering online learning.

Since 2006 I have worked in the field of corporate e-learning. I started in a large Mexican company. I was in charge of managing an online training system in the e-learning platform Moodle. I used to help managers develop the courses and support online students. I had no freedom to change the learning design. I was given a template, which had to be completed. Courses were text-based. There were no embedded interactions with other people. Every tool that fostered collaboration was blocked, due to security concerns. Communications with the teachers were infrequent, via email. I found the courses static, uninspiring and boring.

In 2009 I began working on my own as a learning consultant and realised that many organisations excluded social interactions from their online courses (e.g., Padilla Rodriguez & Armellini, 2013a; Padilla Rodriguez & Fernandez Cardenas, 2012). I found that most employees took for a fact that online courses were isolating experiences. I have had conversations with Human Resources staff in which learning designers share their beliefs that virtual courses are mostly online reading materials available for self-study that require no human support. Participants’ expectations of online courses seem to be tainted by these preconceptions.

On the other hand, I have also come across reports of online students stating that they learn more from other people and that sometimes online content cannot answer their specific questions. At organisations, usually, only one or two people require any particular training at a time. It does not make sense to have a group of students. It is unfeasible. I can understand that. Yet, I am intrigued. Are content-based online courses in organisations really effective? The organisations I worked with claimed they are. However, evaluations are often limited to satisfaction surveys and exam performance without an agreed baseline.

I am a psychologist and my master is in education and cognition. I am familiar with learning theories such as constructivism, which emphasises the role of peers and experienced others in learning. In the academic contexts I have been acquainted with, I have constantly heard of the value of team work and sharing of experiences. Animated discussions with people can make any topic exciting. Are online courses that foster social interactions effective, then? The universities I worked with claim they are. However, as in organisations, evaluations often lack a pre-post systematic approach.

The contrast between companies and academic institutions suddenly made sense when I found Anderson’s (2003a) interaction equivalency theorem and its thesis about how learning can be supported if one of three types of interactions is present at a high level. If it was supported by empirical evidence, it would explain why organisations and universities claim that their online courses are effective in spite of their differences. It could also lead the way for effective online learning designs. I decided to test this thesis. This research was conducted in a large Mexican organisation and aimed to explore the relationship between online interactions and course effectiveness.



When I started conversations with the participating organisation, I was focused on answering my research questions: creating groups of students, delivering different versions of the same course, evaluating interactions and effectiveness… I soon realised that if I wanted to be successful, I needed to do much more than what I had originally planned.

Helping the organisation acquire the necessary conditions to implement interactive online learning was a hard, exhausting job. The Moodle Features course, which I moderated, had over 150 students. Since it was the first online course delivered to sales supervisors at the organisation, I tried to reply to all messages. I wanted to challenge the misconception of online courses as isolating spaces. I wanted participants to know that they were not alone, that someone was reading their contributions. I had many 14-hour days.

My original plan was to redesign, develop and evaluate four online courses. I ended up assessing employees’ perceptions on e-learning, installing and configuring Moodle in the organisation’s server, negotiating expectations, training different stakeholders, creating seven courses and moderating three of them, evaluating interactions and effectiveness, presenting results to senior managers, and establishing the foundations for the project to continue beyond the completion of my thesis.

In this sense, my PhD work was a unique opportunity to systematically document the process of implementing online learning at a large Mexican organisation. While other academics have studied different topics in the area of corporate e-learning (e.g., Vaughan & MacVicar, 2004, studied employees’ pre-implementation attitudes towards e-learning; Gunawardena et al., 2010, defined predictors of learner satisfaction and transfer of learning in a corporate online education programme), few researchers have had the opportunity to work with so many different stakeholders at different stages of the implementation process. I did. Throughout the project, I worked with HR managers, HR staff, learning designers, IT staff, retailers, sales supervisors, and sales managers and directors.

My friendships within the organisation helped a lot in terms of access and support. I am grateful. I would not have been successful without their help. It was not easy. Yet, the experience I acquired, plus random expressions of enthusiasm, make it all worth it.

Lots of things have changed at the organisation. They now have a more interactive approach towards learning. They now have experience with different designs for online courses. They now know how to conduct thorough evaluations of course effectiveness, taking advantage of their existing resources and practices. They are now an example to follow for the parent corporation. They were pioneers in innovating, moving beyond the possibilities of face-to-face courses and online courses-in-a-box.

This project is only a beginning for the organisation. Learning designers are taking the lessons learned forward to improve their educational offer. It will take them a while to create an efficient learning culture and to truly empower employees to be in charge of their own development. It is a process, which will be full of challenges, but the first step is taken. I am happy to have been part of this.

While much remains to be researched, I have moved forward in my mission of helping employees feel better prepared to do their jobs and thus, creating a better world. I have also satisfied my personal curiosity and answered questions I have had since long ago. Are content-based online courses in organisations effective? Yes! Are online courses that foster social interactions effective? Yes! Anderson’s (2003a) interaction equivalency theorem seems to hold true if expanded to include course delivery. Both kinds of courses can be effective. The key is not in the type of interactions embedded in the course but rather on how these interactions take place.

I have learned more than what I can document in a formal, systematic way. I now feel confident enough to help organisations in the implementation of e-learning, from scratch. I can now foresee potential problems that may arise at different stages. I have enough experience to make decisions on the spot. I have a better understanding of how to design, implement and evaluate effective online courses. I know how different stakeholders can be crucial in the success or failure of corporate e-learning. I have evidence to justify the value of online courses to managers and other practitioners. I appreciate how online courses can change people’s attitudes towards learning and how technologies can empower employees.

It was a rewarding journey.


Are MOOCs pedagogically innovative?

While claims about pedagogic innovation in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are common (eg, Grainger, 2013; MOOCs@Edinburgh Group, 2013; Sharples et al, 2014; University of British Columbia, 2014), most reports provide no evidence to justify those claims. I recently published a paper with my colleague (and former supervisor) Alejandro Armellini on this topic. We report on a survey aimed at exploring how different stakeholders describe MOOCs, focusing on whether they would consider them pedagogically innovative, and if so, why. Respondents (n = 106) described MOOCs primarily as free, openly accessible online courses that attract large numbers of participants. Views on pedagogic innovation fell into three categories:

1) MOOCs are pedagogically innovative (15.1%). Explanations referred to massiveness, openness and connectivism. None of the participants offered a clear definition of or criteria for pedagogic innovation.

2) MOOCs are not pedagogically innovative (84.9%). More than half of the respondents added an unsolicited opinion, including strong criticisms of MOOCs.

3) MOOCs may or may not be pedagogically innovative. Umbrella terms (such as “pedagogically innovative”) were seen as unhelpful to describe all types of MOOCs.

The evidence suggests that caution should be exercised when characterising MOOCs as pedagogically innovative. Concrete practices within specific MOOCs may constitute pedagogic innovations in the areas of course design and delivery, such as the student-created assignment bank and the radio station of the cMOOC DS106. However, these practices are not exclusive to MOOCs: they can (and do) occur in any course, across different modes of study. The MOOC environment did not prompt them.

MOOCs provide good examples of technological innovation but also of highly debatable approaches to pedagogy. They may be deemed valuable as massive open online resources (MOORs), but far less so in terms of being pedagogically innovative courses. We should be cautious about applying blanket terms to describe different types of MOOCs. However, based on the evidence currently available and contrary to what many reports claim, MOOCs cannot be described as inherently pedagogically innovative.

The full paper is available at:


Grainger, B. (2013). Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) Report. London, UK: University of London. Retrieved from 2013.pdf

MOOCs@Edinburgh Group. (2013). MOOCs @ Edinburgh 2013: Report #1. Retrieved from 1.pdf

Sharples, M., Adams, A., Ferguson, R., Gaved, M., McAndrew, P., Rienties, B., … Whitelock, D. (2014). Innovating Pedagogy 2014: Open University Innovation Report 3. Milton Keynes, UK: The Open University.

University of British Columbia. (2014). UBC MOOC Pilot: Design and delivery overview. Retrieved from nce=1

MOOCs behind the scenes

Since Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) emerged in 2008, they’ve made a lot of noise. They have intrigued, challenged and fascinated (some of) us. However, the literature on them is still limited and is mostly focused on the learners, with a significant minor focus on the institutional perspective (see Liyanagunawardena, Adams, & Williams, 2013).

Today I presented a paper -coauthored with Alejandro Armellini & Viviana Caceres– at Global Learn 2016 on how MOOCs are conceptualised, designed, developed, implemented and evaluated: MOOCs behind the scenes. The discussion that followed was enriching. There are many questions: Where is the institutional, overarching pedagogical strategy that guides MOOC-related decisions? Why are MOOCs failing to benefit from OERs? How can we assess the effectiveness of a MOOC when MOOC participants have all sorts of reasons to join a MOOC?

My presentation is available in Slideshare with a CC-licence. Feel free to share and to contact me if you have any questions or comments.



Liyanagunawardena, T., Adams, A., & Williams, S. (2013). MOOCs: A systematic study of the published literature 2008-2012. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 14(3), 202-227. Retrieved from

Study Skills MOOC

oew2016-badge-small.pngAs part of my post-doc research at UANL, I am studying a Study Skills MOOC, inspired by and developed in partnership with the University of Northampton. The aim is help students improve their self-efficacy beliefs and develop key study skills:

  1. Managing time
  2. Taking effective notes
  3. Finding reliable information
  4. Citing using APA format
  5. Understanding academic texts
  6. Academic writing

This course is available on Open Education Blackboard, or via the direct link:  It will be delivered in Spanish.

On Twitter we are using the hashtag #hemooc (add @BrendaPadilla to obtain a direct response).

Joining is free! We are starting on May 2, 2016. We look forward to this experience.


MOOCs on Learning and Course Design

Along with Prof Gráinne Conole and Dr Paul Rudman, on the 29th Feb 2016 I will deliver two massive open online courses (MOOCs) in the European platform EMMA:

  • Designing Online Courses with the 7Cs Framework. The 7Cs represent a powerful seven-stage process that helps educators and designers create effective courses using digital technologies. In this course, students will learn collaboratively with other students and from experts in the field. Throughout 6 weeks, they will work on the design (or redesign!) of a technologically enhanced course.
  • 21st Century Learning . Online technologies, social media and open education have made learning ubiquitous.  This course provides an introduction to 21st century learning practices. Students will have a chance to evaluate their digital literacies, create their own personal learning environment, find open educational resources, explore virtual worlds and more!

These courses have no cost. They are aimed at academics, teachers and people interested in education, in general. Please feel free to join!

Free online course on Storyboarding for Learning Design

Join our Open Online Course (OOC) on Storyboarding for Learning Design from 12 January to 20 February 2015. Start the year developing your skills! This OOC is free and open to all who design or teach courses in higher education/ professional training. Storyboards are at the heart of good learning design. Using online tools, you will develop a storyboard showing the alignment between your learning outcomes, assessment, learning activities and content. Gabi Witthaus and Brenda Padilla will be actively facilitating and giving feedback.

Click here to enrol.

Twitter hashtag: #sldooc (Include @twitthaus and @BrendaPadilla for a reply)

Why do people drop out of MOOCs?

A couple of months ago I participated in a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) for the first time. I was intrigued about the MOOC movement. I only had a general idea: free courses, prestigious universities, thousands of students, access to anyone with an Internet connection… I wanted to know more about the learning design, the interactions between participants, the assessment processes, the challenges …

I signed up in Coursera and enrolled in a course on information and communication technologies in education. I had 18,000 fellow course mates. The course consisted on activities based on independent study and self-evaluation surveys. There were some synchronous sessions, which in practice were mere videos of the teachers. Interactions were fostered through a Twitter hashtag and a number of discussion forums.

My first impression was: Chaos. Instructions were not clear for everyone. Different resources had inconsistent information. There were lots of questions. Some people seemed to have no experience with communicating online. A thread about a technical problem could have a random post of someone introducing themselves (?!). This is not an issue with a small group of participants… but when you have a group of 18k… It is overwhelming…

I dropped out after a couple of days. I am not proud of it. I am part of the statistics, of those who failed to complete the course. However, I also think it was the best decision for me at the time. I had four main reasons to stop:

  1. I felt lost in a sea of chaos. The large number of students with different skill levels derived in an overwhelming amount of messages being sent without following a coherent structure. I could not keep up with that.
  2. Course content was not completely self-explanatory. Some instructions were confusing. Different resources had inconsistent information. The teachers could not answer all the questions. Again, I felt lost.
  3. It was a free course. Dropping out had no significant consequence.
  4. The time and effort needed to make sense of the MOOC seemed to exceed the expected benefits. For me, it was not worth it.

Are all MOOCs the same? Is it only a matter of enduring the beginning?  Maybe after a while it improves? I do not know, but I will soon start another MOOC. Hopefully I will obtain some answers.


Why do people drop out of MOOCs?

  • Overwhelming chaos
  • Unclear guidance
  • No losses or significant consequences
  • Efforts to succeed exceed expected benefits