EDENRW8 By Tony Bates - Lessons Learned and the Challenges Ahead

November 18, 2014 by Antonio Moreira Teixeira   Comments (0)

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In his final, fourth guest blog post, the EDENRW8 rapporteur Tony Bates gives us a synthesis of the event's main discussion trends and conclusions. As he states in the latest post in his own personal blog, one of the most important roles for the largest global organizations in the field, such as EDEN, is to disseminate research in online learning. We do agree with him and intend to carry on EDEN's legacy of supporting the promotion, dissemination and recognition of quality research in open and digital learning.

I hope you enjoyed this excellent and detailed account of the event's content provided by one of the absolute bests in our field of research. Please, don't forget also to mark on your agendas the next EDENRW9. It will be held in Germany at the University of Oldenburg in October 2016.



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


This report does not fully capture the extent and depth of the discussions about research into open and distance learning that the workshop engendered. Many issues were discussed, and each participant will have taken away something different, but here are my main conclusions following the conference.


Academic learning is a developmental activity that is based on developing deep understanding and the development of intellectual skills, rather than just acquiring lots of information. The learning process is complex and not open to simple solutions or strategies, but it is an intensely personal and social process where teachers play an important role.


Humans are not machines or even just a mix of bio-chemistry, but have important features such as consciousness, free will, emotion, and an ability to learn from other humans that makes them significantly different from machines. Thus although there are some analogies between humans and machines, it is extremely dangerous to assume that what works for machines will work for humans. Reducing an understanding of human behaviour to an analysis of aggregate data is not only inappropriate, but demeaning.



What works in one context may well not work in a different context. This leads to problems of generalization in research into human learning, because the conditions of learning can vary enormously. Also, because effective learning depends on a wide range of variables that are not easily separated in real-life contexts, the value of quasi-experimental research designs is limited. However, this does not mean that research cannot be useful, so long as the context is clearly described and defined, and the richness of context is accommodated within the research design. Cumulative and consistent results across a wide range of learning contexts can be used to develop more generalized findings about teaching and learning.


Because learning is a human activity, what it is important to learn, and how that learning should be developed and encouraged, is very much value-laden. This needs to be recognized when assessing the quality of learning, as well as in designing courses.


Despite all the difficulties of research in this area, a great deal is now known about successful practice in online, open and distance learning, but most practitioners are blissfully ignorant of this knowledge base. This is a growing problem as more and more instructors move into online, open and distance learning.

This is particularly true of computer scientists, who have been the driving force behind MOOCs and increasingly learning analytics and the use of social media (particularly the design of learning apps). Not surprisingly computer scientists also tend to have a very behaviourist or mechanical view of human learning.

Effective use of technology in teaching and learning requires pedagogical knowledge/learning theory to be combined with expertise in technology. I fear that in recent years the technology side has been gaining dominance at the expense of pedagogy, especially in the area of MOOCs.

Researchers in ODL then need to ensure that the knowledge base already developed is more widely disseminated beyond the 'internal' world of ODL. Online learning is too important to be left to computer scientists alone, and instructors need all the help they can get when moving into what for many is an uncertain and intimidating area of practice.

This means disseminating best practices and research findings though not only to instructors, but also to senior university and college officials, Boards of Governors, governments and funding agencies, computer scientists and online learning entrepreneurs. This is surely an important role for EDEN in the future.


Lastly, the workshop was tremendously stimulating and informative, giving a good overview of much of the research in online learning in Europe and elsewhere, while the keynotes focused on the future and where online learning appears to be heading. I think everyone who attended will have left feeling invigorated and better informed. Well done, EDEN and the Open University.


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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