Doctoral Research Ideas

Haotian Yang

Research Idea

My research interest came from my own learning experience: Why is it so hard to promote motivation for learning, especially in the online learning context? Based on the history and theories in the Learning, Design, and Technology (LDT) field, I think providing meaningful interaction would be the key to successful learning technology application. Therefore, I want to investigate the effective implementation of technology tools to promote interaction, engagement, and motivation for learners with different needs.

According to the history of LDT, many movements in this field have failed, such as visual instruction movement, audiovisual instruction movement, and instructional television (Reiser & Dempsey, 2012). In my opinion, a fundamental reason for these failures is that the learning environment lacks meaningful interactions. Compared to other media such as radio or television, computer is a successful instructional media because computers can provide meaningful and complex interaction for learners. My inquiry yielded an assumption: motivation comes from learners’ engagement, and engagement comes from meaningful interaction.

With the help of my major advisor, Dr. Nancy Knapp, I was able to narrow down my research question by identifying that communication is an essential component of meaningful interaction. Therefore, I am focusing on the following questions:

  • • How does communication influence learning?

  • • What are the advantages and limitations of communication in the online learning context?

  • • How to foster communication in the online learning environment?

I am developing a research proposal to investigate the characteristic of communication in online learning and how it affects the learners’ motivational accessibility in EDIT 8100.

Accessibility is about providing equal opportunities based on the needs of resources. It impacts all learners, not only those with physical or cognitive disabilities. There are at least four levels of accessibility in the learning context, which are social, physical, intellectual, and motivational (Rieber & Estes, 2017). Online learning is one of the best learning forms to lower the physical barrier, reduce the cost of contents distribution, and promote learning resources equality. However, studies indicated that fully online courses resulted in larger achievement gaps among learners (Protopsaltis & Baum, 2019). Lack of motivation is one of the primary reasons for such dissatisfaction in online courses (Kim & Frick, 2011).

Engagement is a critical component of motivation. Learners’ engagement is established by meaningful interaction (Anderson, 2003), and effective communication is necessary to foster interaction in the online learning environment. However, learners are easier to lose engagement in an online environment than in a face-to-face setting because learners have fewer opportunities to communicate with instructors, peers, and content (Martin & Bolliger, 2018).

Massive worldwide events often become a breakpoint of technology innovations. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, educational institutions are forced to migrate to the online learning environment abruptly. Although the unexpected move to online learning may result in a poor user experience, online learning’s mass application provided valuable data for research in this field. The pandemic accelerated the movement to the digital-based learning platforms from traditional environments. The benefits of online learning that teachers and learners experience during the pandemic could be the catalyst to create a more accessible online learning environment and allow it to become an integral component of school education. Therefore, finding the solution to mitigate the gap between online and in-person learning will allow online learning to achieve its full potential. This event is a great opportunity to collect data and conduct comprehensive research to review the implementation, stakeholders’ perspectives, advantages, and limitations of online learning.

For this study, I will develop a survey to collect data regarding students’ and teachers’ perspectives of communication in the online learning context and identify the advantages and limitations of communication. I will also create a semi-structured interview to explore what communication learners have from their online learning experience and how they perceive the communication. My intended participants will be college students and faculty members. Both of them have sufficient online learning experience during the pandemic.

A Design Project

In the course EDIT 8190, I have started a project to help adult learners learn HTML, CSS, and JavaScript more intuitively. The project plans to use embodied learning theory to create an interactive learning environment and help learners relate programming skills to their previous knowledge or experience. Eventually, it helps learners understand the basics of programming more easily and keeping them engaged and motivated in the learning process.

Based on embodied theory, the brain, body, and sensory all play a constitutive role in the cognition process, that cognition takes place through an intimate coupling of the brain, body, and environment (Chemero, 2009; Gibson, 1977, 1979/1986; Goodwin, 2007; Merleau-Ponty, 1962/1965; Thelen & Smith, 1994). It has been demonstrated that the cognition system is interaction-dominant in some cases (Van Orden, Holden, & Turvey, 2003). Therefore, interaction is the essence of the cognition process, and designing a learning environment from the embodiment perspective could promote learning outcomes.

This project will provide various interactions to learners when they learn programming language. For example, when a learner clicks on a piece of code, a short animation will pop up and illustrate the code’s actions. The detail of the project is here.

I am taking EDIT 8400 Games and Learning this semester. I was greatly inspired by game designing. In the online learning environment, lack of interaction with peers often leads to learner isolation and high dropout rates (Banna, Lin, Stewart, & Fialkowsk 2015). Therefore, I want to promote learner-to-learner interaction in this project as well.

For instance, online game players usually assemble a team with other players who have similar goals with them or attempt to complete the same mission. In this project, learners will be able to view their peers’ work and their solutions to the assignment when they work on their coding task. Meanwhile, they can also discuss and cooperate with their coding task. Learners can follow those peers who share similar objectives and learning progress with them. They can also follow instructors and the high-skilled learner¬s to learn from them. It is a common feature in online games and social media but rarely seen in online learning settings. I believe this function can promote the interaction between learners, facilitate their engagement with learning contents, and improve overall motivation.


  • Anderson, T. (2003). Modes of interaction in distance education: Recent developments and research questions. Handbook of distance education, 129-144.
  • Banna, J., Lin, M. F. G., Stewart, M., & Fialkowski, M. K. (2015). Interaction matters: Strategies to promote engaged learning in an online introductory nutrition course. Journal of online learning and teaching/MERLOT, 11(2), 249.
  • Chemero, A. (2009). Radical embodied cognition. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
  • Gibson, J. J. (1977). The theory of affordances. In R. E. Shaw & J. Bransford (Eds.), Perceiving, Acting, and Knowing. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Gibson, J. J. (1986). The ecological approach to visual perception. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis Group. (Original work published in 1979).
  • Goodwin, M. H. (2007). Participation and embodied action in preadolescent girls' assessment activity. Research on Language and Social interaction, 40(4), 353-375.
  • Kim, K. J., & Frick, T. W. (2011). Changes in student motivation during online learning. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 44(1), 1-23.
  • Martin, F., & Bolliger, D. U. (2018). Engagement matters: Student perceptions on the importance of engagement strategies in the online learning environment. Online Learning, 22(1), 205-222.
  • Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962). Phenomenology of Perception. Trans. by C. Smith. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  • Protopsaltis, S., & Baum, S. (2019). Does online education live up to its promise? A look at the evidence and implications for federal policy. Center for Educational Policy Evaluation.
  • Reiser, R. A., & Dempsey, J. V. (Eds.). (2012). Trends and issues in instructional design and technology. Boston: Pearson.
  • Rieber, L. P., & Estes, M. D. (2017). Accessibility and instructional technology: Reframing the discussion. Journal of Applied Instructional Design, 6(1), 9-19.
  • Thelen, E., & Smith, L. B. (1994). A dynamic systems approach to the development of perception and action. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Van Orden, G. C., Holden, J. G., & Turvey, M. T. (2003). Self-organization of cognitive performance. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 132(3), 331.
  • Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Interaction between learning and development. In Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. (pp. 79-91). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.