EDENRW8 By Tony Bates - Continuing to map research in online learning

November 14, 2014 by Antonio Moreira Teixeira   Comments (0)

Today I publish the third of a series of four guest posts by Tony Bates reporting on the EDENRW8 held in Oxford in 26th-28th October. In today's post, he concludes his detailed analysis of the very high quality research papers presented.


A Report on the State of Art of European Research into Open and Distance Learning - Part III - by Tony Bates


As I've referred in my previous blog post, my reports on the EDENRW8 papers/presentations in the parallel sessions were organised under a list of common themes. In this third blog post I present the second group of themes.


Whether you like it or not (and I don't) MOOCs currently continue to dominate research into online and open learning.

From the papers, it seems that a 'European' style of MOOC is slowly evolving, somewhere between xMOOCs and cMOOCs. For instance, Hernandez et al. discussed MOOCs developed by the Open University of Portugal (UAb) that built in more structure through organized discussion forums and collaborative learning (more social constructivist than connectivist, it was argued), but interestingly, while student engagement held up well for the first five weeks, participation dropped rapidly when the first assignment was due. UAb also offered badges and certificates for successful completion.

The Université Roma Tré developed a tool for assessing the development of 21st century skills in MOOCs, such as critical thinking. While this worked for the pilot with 50 on-campus students, it remains to be seen whether this can be scaled up for much larger numbers.

There were several other papers on open educational resources (OERs). Law and Perryman's paper was really about action research: research leading to immediate changes in policy. They found that making Open University learning materials more openly available actually increased enrollments in formal courses, especially when OERs were integrated into open teaching modules.

There were also several papers that focused on learning object repositories (LORs). Batouche has developed algorithms to improve searching within LORs, Broums et al. described a European Commission project that has collected access to about a dozen different LORs into one web portal. Okada et al. described a very large project that has developed a collaborative multi-authored open textbook.

Main lessons (or, to be fair, more questions):

  • what does awarding badges of certificates for MOOCs or other OER actually mean? For instance will institutions give course exemption or credits for the awards, or accept such awards for admission purposes? Or will the focus be on employer recognition? How will participants who are awarded badges know what their 'currency' is worth?
  • can MOOCs be designed to go beyond comprehension or networking to develop other critical 21st century skills such as critical thinking, analysis and evaluation? Can they lead to 'transformational learning' as identified by Kumar and Arnold (see Quality and Assessment below)
  • are there better design models for open courses than MOOCs as currently structured? If so what would they look like?
  • is there a future for learning object repositories when nearly all academic content becomes open and online?


Kumar and Arnold were able to demonstrate in both a bachelor's and a Ed.D program 'transformative learning', defined as students passing through 'learning thresholds' leading to changed professional behaviour as a result of the programs.

Algers and Lund compared professional peer review with participants responses to Farmland, an EU OER project on farming. Farmland met professional peer review quality assessment but the resources represented an industry perspective, while participants/users felt that the OER did not adequately reflect an animal welfare perspective.

There was also several papers from UK Open University tutors, evaluating the quality of learner support for OU students. One indicated a confusion among both students and instructors regarding the OU's continuous assessment policies, another examined the quality of tutor written feedback with recommendations for best practice, another looked at the use of oral assignments compared with written assignments, another compared the use of Facebook to LMS-based discussion forums, and another study tried to identify what makes a good group in terms of online discussion. Several of these OU studies indicated difficulties in getting students to participate in online discussion.

Main lessons:

  • research may inform but won't resolve policy issues
  • quality is never 'objective' but is value-driven
  • the level of intervention must be long and significant enough to result in significant learning gains
  • there's lots of research already that indicates the necessary conditions for successful use of online discussion forums but if these conditions are not present then learning will not take place
  • the OU's traditional model of course design constrains the development of successful collaborative online learning.


There were surprisingly few papers on the use of social media in ODL. Katz found no significant difference between the use of SMS and Facebook in terms of student learning although SMS was better for psycho-social activities.

The most interesting paper though on this topic was Perryman and Coughlin's study on the ethics of using research on student use of Facebook. They found that there was value in integrating Facebook with study, and that although there are clear ethical issues in monitoring non-institutional spaces, the issues are manageable with good policies.

Main lesson:

the use of social media needs to be driven by sound pedagogical theory that takes into account the affordances of social media (as in Sorensen's study described earlier under course design)


As well as the keynotes there were some interesting papers on the use of data analytics/big data in open and distance learning.

Minguillon et al. described how the Open University of Catalonia is setting up its learning analytics system, based on three levels of analysis: the user experience; course outcomes; and program outcomes. This requires establishing well defined and agreed 'descriptors' of learner behaviour for the data routinely collected by the university.

The paper by Leece also discussed the University of New England's approach in Australia to identify early at risk students and steps taken to develop active engagement and self-confidence in studying at a distance.


As one would expect, there were some papers that focused on research methodology, and the papers themselves raised a number of methodological issues. Karaman and Kursum from Ataturk Open University claimed that research in online learning has had no impact on practice, because results are either unhelpful or flawed.

Similarly, Kirkwood and Price reported on their review of research on educational technology carried out for the UK Higher Education Authority, which was unable to draw clear generalizations because too often educational goals were not clear and therefore impact could not be adequately measured, the context varied so much and so many conditions other than the use of technology influenced results.



Tony Bates is an EDEN Senior Fellow and the President and CEO of Tony Bates Associates Ltd., Canada, a private company specializing in strategic consultancy and training in the planning and management of e-learning and distance education. Having been a founding member of the British Open University, he has developed an intense international career in the last two decades. Tony is acknowledged across the world as one of the best known, respected and influential personalities in the international open, distance and e-learning field. As one critic once noted, he has earned the right to have his books placed on every distance educators’ bookshelf. Read more here.



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