using ‘personas’ in the design of the English Online’s summer course

In my previous post I shared the Summer Course highlights video. Today I would like to discuss how the English Online’s MOOC-style ESL summer course came about and how a learning design strategy was placed in the learners’ hands.

Between January and March 2013 the Open Learning Design Studio offered a MOOC, abbreviated as OLDSMOOC. Following 9 weekly themes we put into practice the proposed learning design process by identifying a design challenge, exploring its context and driving forces, generating possible solutions and implementing the best ones, and last but not least evaluating the whole design method and its outcomes.


It was OLDSMOOC that inspired English Online’s development of an open course for EAL learners this summer of 2013. We wanted to curate OERs, organize them into themes and share them via our wiki. The course, offered from July 1 to August 31, was divided into 9 weeks, each of which saw a different theme and a set of self-study resources with one synchronous Weekly Language Rendezvous, modeled after the Oldsmooc converge hangouts, to review what was learned. I think it was MOOC-style course, or perhaps a LOOC (L=Local) following a term recently used by the  University of British Columbia:

–       Massive (in our context): 82 learners registered; the intake was ongoing

–       Open: free of charge, any English Online learner could register or follow the open content in our Wiki and Twitter

–       Online, this goes without saying although one of the weekly activities was to attend an in-real-world community event, take photos and share stories with other participants; asynchronous and synchronous activities incorporated.

–       Course: time-framed with weekly themes; ‘course’ determined by learner’s goals -> self-paced, learner picked and chose activities to work on based on their learning objectives; e-Facilitators were available to provide support and feedback


One of the methods employed in the OLDSMOOC design process was an analysis of personas, fictitious participants in a program. The purpose of such step was to predict who might participate in a course and what they might expect from it in terms of scheduling, activities, etc. Although it is impossible to foresee all learners’ needs and wants, the persona method is an excellent planning tool in envisioning the possible users. Those users become actors playing specific roles in our design challenge, and as such they need faces, names and a whole scenario build around them to provide as vivid picture as possible of their goals.

Inspired by the method, the very first activity in our Summer Course was a Persona Activity. Having used it for planning purposes during the course development stage, we also placed it in the learners’ hands and asked them to delve into their learning environment to create a personalized learning plan for the summer. By doing so, the learner became a learning designer. In the initial part of the activity, the learner pondered some questions about where they were, how much time they could devote to learning on a daily, weekly, monthly basis, how they learned and their learning goals.

  1.  Where will you be this summer, at home or working?
  2.  Are you planning to go away for some of the time?
  3. Will you have access to the Internet?
  4. If you are home this summer, how much time each week can you devote to learning?
  5. What do you want to learn; anything and everything, or something specific?

In the next stage of the activity, a couple of invented characters and their learning plans, based on their imaginary availability and goals, were presented.

  • Angie enthusiastic to dive into the course and available to do everything
  • Vijay wanting to focus on a specific goal of improving his understanding of various accents

Both characters were brought to life with the Voki animated-avatar tool.


In step 3 of the activity, the participants were invited to critically analyze the characters’ situations and compare them with their own. Following the analysis the participants made their own learning plan using a prepared template to guide their thoughts. The template and the whole activity can be found here

The Summer Course ended August 31. Wanting to know more about how this thinking and planning exercise had impacted their learning, I requested some feedback from those learners who had completed the Persona Activity . Here’s what I received:

“Regarding the Learning Plan – at the beginning of the course I couldn’t figure out where to start, but the preparing of the Learning Plan helped me to gather my thoughts. I didn’t change it and I still follow it: I read the weekly local newspapers Morden Times and Voice; I listen to the radio during the way to and from the job; also I repeat the studied themes, do the different tests from the links you post in the lessons and many other things. And most important for me – my speaking skill began more clear, and I began to understand more words and long sentences, especially when I listen the TV-news (you know it sounds too fast). It’s great! It makes me feel more confidently during the conversation with unfamiliar people. I think it began to able because of the fluency activity of this Summer course, too.”

It was a fun, reflective activity and I am glad how it turned out for some of my learners. I believe the Persona Activity sends a very important message to the learner, that of the learning responsibility and ownership, which lies with them, not with the teacher.

A note about English Online Inc.

eo logo English Online is a self-directed learning opportunity for EAL learners, newcomers to Manitoba. Funded by the Citizenship and Immigration Canada, English Online’s mission is to foster autonomous language learning online needed for successful settlement and integration into the Canadian society. English Online provides support to adult learners in identifying their learning goals and guiding them towards achieving the goals. For more information about the context of English Online, check here.

The context of English Online Inc.


  • adults (19+)
  • stay-at-home  moms, shift workers, limited or no access to f2f classes
  • located in the city of Winnipeg, in the regions of Manitoba and pre-arrival immigrants headed to the province (different timezones)
  • permanent residents, provincial nominees, Canadian citizens, refugee claimants living in Manitoba
  • varied digital skills from very basic to high users
  • varied language skills from basic to intermediate
  • varied educational and cultural backgrounds
  • approximately 1600 learners registered, 300-400 active every month (unique logins to LMS)
  • pick and choose the content and activities they want to engage in


  • non-profit organization
  • funded 100% by the province of Manitoba
  • not funded to develop content
  • e-learning content developed by 3rd party
  • 2.5 FTE  e-facilitators
  • continuous intake
  • synchronous learning options: drop-in virtual classes offered weekly
  • asynchronous learning options: self-study courses based on interactive modules, weekly tips, discussion board, Twitter, Wiki with self-directed learning strategies
  • blended learning options: 4-week courses (1 synchronous class per week plus a # of self-study activities)
  • e-facilitators respond to queries, guide to resources, deliver synchronous classes, weekly tips, moderate discussion board and feedback on journal reflections
  • custom-built LMS with limited social functionalities; L not able to contact another learner through the LMS