The Way Ahead for Open, Distance and Digital Education - Guest post by Terry Anderson

May 11, 2015 by Antonio Moreira Teixeira   Comments (0)

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In a time of such a rapid expansion of the learning scenarios as the one we're experiencing, educational research is quite often an exercise of anticipation. However, given this is also a time of scarce recourses we cannot afford to lose focus and need to be strategic in our goals. What are the priorities for research then? What are the main challenges ahead? What are the topics and issues we should target? Last April 23rd, upon the invitation from my colleague Professor Anja Oskamp, I had the privilege of delivering the opening keynote address at the EADTU-EU Summit 2015 - Innovating Higher Education by New Modes of Teaching, which was held in Brussels. My topic was exactly «the challenges for research in ODeL». Drawing from the output of EDEN's RW8 in Oxford I've presented a possible charter for the way ahead. You can find my presentation here.

Throughout the years EDEN has in fact established itself as a world leading organization in the support to quality research in open, distance and digital education. In my view, this results from having adopted such a comprehensive approach to the field and established a multidimensional connection with the community. In fact, we help researchers and institutions to network, to find partners and start new projects. But, we also assist them in their collaboration, encourage them to share openly knowledge and best practices, and assure the international dissemination of their projects results and outcomes. Last but not least, we also recognize their scientific and professional merit.

Best Paper Award ceremony at the #EDEN14, in Zagreb


This holistic approach implies we both contribute to the preservation of the community's legacy and at the same time support and encourage the emergence of new researchers, thus contributing to the consolidation and development of the field. Although not being the sole focus of our many activities, this strong connection of EDEN with the research community is widely known and acknowledge not just in Europe but across the globe as I've been able to verify.

As we approach the upcoming #EDEN15, our annual conference to be held in Barcelona, dedicated to the theme of the expanding learning scenarios, the discussion on the current challenges for research in our field should deserve our close attention.

As such, in today's guest post I've invited my dear friend and colleague Terry Anderson, from the Athabasca University, EDEN's oldest institutional member in Canada. There's no need to introduce Terry, as he is one of the most influential and well known researchers in our field and someone who has contributed substantially to its advancement.

Given evidence once again to his great generosity, Terry has written a great and inspiring post in which he discusses both the major recent trends in research and also projects how the field will evolve in the future. This includes the topics, methods and tools to be used. I hope will enjoy reading this excellent reflection which I share with you as an aperitif for our upcoming discussions at the EDEN conference in Barcelona.




Antonio invited me to contribute a post to his EDEN’s President’s blog on developments in distance education research. Given my years teaching research methods to Athabasca University Masters and Doctoral students, my decade as editor of IRRODL and my own practice, I could hardly refuse.

In this post I’ll present new research tools and methodologies that I find of most promise as distance education moves from the peripheral to mainstream application as online and blended education practice. For those interested in topical summaries of research in the major research areas relevant to online education, please refer to our recent open access book, Online Distance Education research: Towards a Research Agenda from Athabasca University Press, edited by Olaf Zawakie-Richter and myself.


Terry and Olaf speaking at the #EDEN14 in Zagreb


First generation distance education pedagogy is based upon cognitive-behavioural pedagogies with a focus on quality content and individual learning (see Anderson & Dron, 2012 for an overview of the generations of distance education pedagogy). The affordances of the Net to greatly reduce costs for the production, the distribution and access to content, has resulted in a proliferation of content that educators can easily use or convert to learning objects for use in their courses. These range from general purpose content such as Wikipedia, journal articles, museum websites and current affairs magazines to dedicated learning content such as MOOOCs, and Khan Academy videos. Many important research opportunities arise from the digital traces that students leave as they progress through these learning resources. Web blogs, quiz results, user ratings and recommendations and more can now be harvested using a variety of learning analytics tools to finally make visible, the formally invisible activities of distance learners. However, researchers must as always remain cognizant of the validity of such traces- often we mistake the easily measured for the educationally meaningful!

Second generation, social constructivist pedagogy focuses on collaboration and group support of learning. New awareness and project management tools increase the efficiency of group process, while social network analysis tools allow the research to measure the participation, centrality, teacher dominance and many other indicators of effect social interaction.  Much research on social constructivist learning is based upon interpretative paradigms and focuses on interviews and observations that generate massive amounts of text, which in turn consume massive amounts of research time in analysis. Thus I am always interested in tools to enhance the efficiency of this type of research. Recently I have been impressed with an Australian research tool Leximancer that instantaneously generates a variety of concept maps from even massive amounts of text materials (see for example our use of this tool in Social Interaction in Self-paced Distance Education.) We are also beginning to see qualitative analysis tools move to the cloud (enhancing research team effectiveness) and see them augmented with quantitative tools (answering questions such as which codes are identified significantly more often than other codes?) by tools like Dedoose.

Third generation connectivist pedagogies focus on artifact and network construction. Researchers are challenged when trying to observe or measure connectivist activities as they normally not confined to an LMS but take place across the wider net in the personal learning environments constructed by students. Nonetheless, site based monitoring tools and tools that monitor individual learners application and time use promise to again help researchers, teachers and students to benefit from analysis of the digital traces we leave. These of course present privacy and ethical issues to researchers, but the proliferation of activity and sleep monitoring smart phone apps and wristbands makes user acceptance more likely.

In sum, a host of new research tools, most of which were not designed specifically for educational research use, can and will improve both the quality and the ease of research of teaching and learning at a distance.

Finally, I want to promote what I believe is  a most welcomed new methodology for distance education researchers- that being Design Based Research (DBR). DBR is based upon a pragmatic paradigm that rejects the ontological idea of either a single measurable reality (positivism) and multiple realties based upon individual interpretation (constructivist) and that reality is politically constructed (critical paradigm). By contrast, for pragmatists like John Dewey or William James reality is constructed from knowing  "what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone's actual life?” To answer these pressing pragmatic demands, DBR is focused on research in real world contexts of functioning distance education systems. Secondly, DBR researchers are not content with merely measuring, interpreting or surveying students, teachers or  their activities, but always focus on the development of an intervention that “makes a difference”.

In the first phase of a DBR project researchers study both the local context and the current literature to design an intervention that is most likely to make a significant and positive effect of learning or teaching effectiveness. The second phase calls for detailed and mindful construction of the interaction with an eye on documenting and measuring costs, so that it can subsequently (if successful) be recreated and improved upon. The third phase consists of implementation and evaluation usually using mixed methods approaches that gathers both qualitative and quantitative data. In the fourth and final phase the researcher distils design principles that can be applied and tested in additional iterations within the same context – or more importantly applied to new learning contexts.

Globally, online and distance education is growing rapidly. As ethical educators and researchers we have both a responsibility and great opportunity to contribute research based improvements and cost efficiencies to this popularity.



Prof. Terry Anderson is the Director and well-known researcher of the Canadian Institute Distance Education Research (CIDER) at the Athabasca University in Canada.

Your can read his interview  " The Challenges of a Contemporary Educator" by Steve Wheeler for 2014 Annual Conference in Zagreb.