Fresh Ideas Need Arguments to Be Grounded by Research

An interview with Dr. Ulrich Bernath, Chair of the Board of Directors and Trustees of the Ulrich Bernath Foundation for Research in Open and Distance Learning by Helga Dorner is now available on the NAP Area.

Ulrich Bernath is a distinguished expert in the field of online learning and distance education who serves as Chair of the Board of Directors and Trustees of the Ulrich Bernath Foundation for Research in Open and Distance Learning (UB Foundation), an internationally recognized foundation that supports high-quality research on and development of open and distance learning.  The UB Foundation is co-operating with distinguished researchers and experts and is involved in granting the Best Research Paper Awards at the EDEN Conferences.

Can you tell us about your career path? How did you walk and define the career trails of your own that finally led to the UB Foundation?

Graduated in Economy, I started my first big career step in 1974 as junior professor at Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg.  In 1978, I made a radical career change in Oldenburg, when I became the director of the newly established Center for Distance Education and then stuck to it during the following 28 years. I was fortunate to step into the distance education arena at times when teaching and learning at a distance was print-based and supported by tutors in regional study centers. Equipped with varied experiences in this area, I pioneered web-based teaching and learning and met the online challenge for organisational and professional development as well as for the entire operations of the center. Of the many new course developments, the fully online Master of Distance Education programme offered in partnership with the University of Maryland University College became the most internationally known.
The Center, embedded in a research university, was continuously ambitious in reflecting on its everyday practice and developments, underlying concepts, theories, visions, structures proven by extensive publications. 
When I retired in 2006 it was my heartfelt wish to particularly leave my mark on strengthening the capacity for research in open and distance learning. Consequently I endowed the capital stock for the establishment of the UB Foundation.

What are the research projects and professional activities the UB Foundation is currently involved in?

The main and continuous activities of the UB Foundation are (a) EDEN’s Best Research Paper Awards at the Annual Conferences and the bi-annual Research Workshops, and (b) the blue-hardcover and open-source book series on distance education, published by Oldenburg University. Currently main contributions of the Foundation are non-monetary. As soon as returns from the capital stock are significant the Foundation will grant a young researcher award to be defined in more detail in due time.

The year 2008 marks the beginning of continuously granting the EDEN Best Research Paper Award at EDEN?s Annual Conferences as well as at EDEN?s bi-annual Research Workshops. A high quality standard selection process in collaboration with the UB Foundation guarantees the branding of a reputable award for scholarly conference papers in the field of open, distance and e-learning. 
What is your analysis of Best Research Paper Award?s impact on the EDEN community so far? How do you see its role in fostering original research in the field of open, distance and e-learning?

To date, we are able to look back into a relatively short history with six awards being granted. Of the many different aspects here a few hard facts: Chairs of the Jury have been Michael Graham Moore, Torstein Rekkedal, Otto Peters, Michael Kerres, Gilly Salmon, and Alan Tait, who all lend their world wide reputation to EDEN’s Best Research Paper Award. A total of 29 Jury members from 13 different countries have ? so far ? unanimously made their respective decisions including a list of five to seven finalists and the nomination of the winner, which in three cases were two winners at the same time.
The winners? countries of origin are Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Norway, Portugal, and USA. With the finalists, who have submitted papers that all had a fair chance to also become a winner, Brazil, Greece, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Spain, Sweden need to be added.
All this indicates that EDEN continuously attracts excellent research-based conference papers from many different countries in Europe and beyond.
I regard your very good question about the impact of the award on the EDEN community and on fostering research in the field as a friendly request for doing some more research into this direction. So far, as I know, has your question only been analysed with respect to the importance of EDEN’s Research Workshops for MDE faculty and their professional development. (Hülsmann, T. & Bernath, U. (2011). Knowledge Management as Professional Development: The Case of the MDE. In Liebowitz, J. & Frank, M. (eds.) Knowledge Management and E-Learning, Boca Raton, FL: Auerbach Publications Taylor & Francis Group, pp. 253 – 271)

Talking of pioneering research and fresh ideas, the numerous newly emerged theories of learning, such as the concept of connectivism (Siemens, 2004) or generativism (Carneiro, 2010) have been ?labeled? as innovative approaches to (online) learning.
Do you also see a solid theoretical foundation evolving out of such concepts for open educational practices and for the field of e-learning?

When you are rightly making a difference between ?pioneering research? and ?fresh ideas? I would dare to say that ?connectivism? and ?generativism? are interesting and thought-provoking approaches more of the latter kind. More research seems to be needed for granting these ?fresh ideas? a status of ?pioneering research? and to constitute a ?theory?. Compare the situation with Tinto’s drop-out/retention/attrition analysis in 1993, which led to a strong and widely accepted critique of distance education. It took many years until research has made clear that Tinto’s theory works best in campus-based conventional undergraduate-study environments, however very limited only in distance-education settings with adult learners. Or take the ?Community of Inquiry? framework: In this particular case the Canadian Journal of Distance Education provides an excellent example how peer-reviewed and critical research feeds an ongoing discussion towards a new theory. Regarding the above mentioned and many other ?fresh ideas? I would like to see more arguments to be grounded by research. This takes time.

The EDEN Annual conference will address key questions of learning methodology and technology focusing on open learning across generations. What is your understanding of this topic, do you see it as a policy-socio-economic phenomenon or would you even consider it an approach with scientific relevance?

Sure, there is a lot of scientific relevance with a wide spectrum of questions and concerns that all ask for in-depth studies and good research. This will become apparent at the Conference in Porto, when again excellent topic-related research papers will be presented. The best will be listed as finalists in the conference programme and one or two will be granted the winner(s) of the EDEN Best Research Paper Award. 


Helga Dorner is instructor and junior researcher at the Central European University, Center for Teaching and Learning. Her academic interests include: ICT supported education, collaborative knowledge creation, community of inquiry, online mentoring and facilitating