Open Online Education

In 2015 Tim started as a PhD candidate at Leiden University Graduate School of Teaching (ICLON). Earlier he obtained a Masters in Psychology of Human Learning and Performance. He studies how people learn from educational videos in open online education, such as MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), and focusses specifically on increasing the instructional design quality and educational value of these videos.

Open online education has become increasingly popular. In Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) videos are generally the most used method of teaching and are central to the student learning experience. In his research, Tim is focused on questions such as: How can we increase the educational value of videos? For example, do students learn more if you ask them to summarize the videos they watch, or should we just give them summaries? What are other effective strategies? Given that many students of open online courses do not have English as their first language, how can we ensure that educational videos are not only available, but also accessible to students around the world?

In addition to his research on improving the educational quality of online videos, he is a vocal advocate of pre-registration, open science, and other efforts aimed at improving the quality of the scientific literature. You can follow him on Twitter at @Research_Tim and read his blog at

An interview with PhD researcher Tim van der Zee

Tim van der Zee is a PhD candidate in the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Centre for Education and Learning. He and two other PhD researchers are trying to identify the success factors for open online education.

Tim works for the Leiden University Graduate School of Teaching (ICLON), where he is studying the quality and accessibility of videos in open online education such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

Visiting Scholar in the USA

It is the dream of many a PhD candidate to spend time carrying out research at one of America's top universities. Tim is currently living this dream. He is even a visiting scholar at two top universities. He spends half the week at the MIT Teaching Systems Lab and the other half in the Department of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Lowell (UMass Lowell). Tim hopes that his research will help to make online education better and more accessible to people throughout the world. Although online education is available to anyone with an internet connection, it is not always accessible due to problems such as language barriers.

Not one, but two American top universities. Are they queueing up?

(He laughs) ‘Not exactly. I was keen to do some of my research in the United States. When I started looking into it seriously, I came into contact with two people. I already knew Yana Weinstein of UMass Lowell from Twitter. Like myself, she has a background in cognitive psychology and an interest in education. I then got in touch with Justin Reich from MIT. He's in charge of the Teaching Systems Lab. I first met Justin a year ago at a conference and we've stayed in touch ever since.

The combination of cognitive psychology expertise at UMass and research into open online education at MIT has worked out well for my own research project focusing on videos in online education.’

Can you tell me something about your own research?

‘Of course I can. A paper I published recently reports on a study about the learning effect of online education videos. I analysed the impact of subtitles and visual complexity on the learning process. To understand the term visual complexity, perhaps you should watch these two videos about the central nervous system. You'll spot the difference straight away.

[video low visual complexity]

[video high visual complexity]

My test group consisted of non-native English speakers. Half of the group watched the video with subtitles, the other half without. The conclusion is that the language level of the students has a huge impact on how they learn from a video, but that subtitles don't help to break down the language barrier. This was a striking finding. Previous research had shown that subtitles can have both a positive and a negative effect on the learning process.

My study was the first to include the visual complexity factor. Visual complexity affects the amount of knowledge students gain from a video. Higher complexity has a negative effect on the learning process.’

What are you working on at the moment?

‘At present, I'm conducting follow-up research into visual complexity. Visual complexity may well influence something that we call mind wandering. In layman's terms: daydreaming. The extent to which you are distracted when doing an activity. I'm trying to establish whether we could redesign the video to reduce mind wandering.’

Cool! And relevant! How do you conduct research among MOOC students?

‘I needed a controlled environment for my research. A laboratory. You can arrange this online via Prolific. People from all around the world can sign up as test subjects. People taking MOOCs also come from all around the world, so the group was definitely appropriate. I then split the group into two, and each sub-group was given something different to watch. Either a video with subtitles or a video without. We call this A/B testing.’

It sounds like a standard psychological test. Do you use any other techniques?

‘Absolutely. In cognitive psychology, the groups are smaller and you have much more control of the environment in which the test is being carried out, so you can eliminate disturbing elements. In online education, you have much less control of your research environment. You have to take this into account when you’re making statistical analyses. So I’m learning a lot about statistics. In addition, online education involves millions of students. This generates big data, which can be a problem to work with.’

How do you solve the problem of big data?

‘I work closely with the Centre for Innovation at Leiden University. They have their own big data experts. I also work with Dan Davis, a CEL PhD researcher who has ties with the Web Information Systems Group at TU Delft. He can work in several programming languages, which helps me to structure my data.’

Do you work much with people from CEL?

‘I spend a lot of time working with Daniel on big data. Daniel and I also worked with Jacqueline Wong, a CEL PhD researcher at Erasmus University, on a literature review about supporting ‘Self-Regulated Learning in Online Learning Environments’. All three of us are researching ways of improving online education, but from different perspectives. Our interdisciplinary methods are generating great results. Speaking for myself, I've published three papers. Thanks to CEL I had found these contacts on day 1. That's exactly what you need when you start out as a PhD researcher.’