The Silver Lining of Research in ODE - Interview with Olaf Zawacki-Richter

May 12, 2014 by EDEN Secretariat   Comments (0)

, , , , , , , , , ,

Interview by Eva Suba


He has been embedded in the open, distance and e-learning research world from early on in his career. Prof. Dr. Olaf Zawacki-Richter is a multitasking talent at one of the most important German research hubs for open, distance, and flexible learning:  Carl von Ossietzky Universität Oldenburg. While juggling his tasks as the Head of Research and Development section of the Center for Lifelong Learning of the Oldenburg University (C3L), which is a leading innovative German center for working adults who require highly flexible modes of studying and has lectures in various institutes on knowledge transfer and learning with new technologies as well as internetsupported learning, he is also reviewing articles for IRRODL as an editorial team member and is deeply involved in German and international research. His close ties to research into open, distance, and e-learning (ODE) date back to his studies. He was the last PhD student of the legendary Otto Peters and continues to pursue his ODE interests including international comparative studies on the field of Continuing Education (international comparison of education systems, study for working professionals) and Human Resources Development (e-learning in continuing vocational training and competence management). Prof Zawacki-Richter found time to answer some of our questions ahead of his keynote speech at the 2014 Annual Conference in Zagreb.


ES: What is the main factor that has drawn you towards media-supported learning early in your academic career?

Olaf Z-R:  I received my appointment at the Center for Distance Education (University of Oldenburg, Germany) in 1998. This was my first position at a university after my studies. At this time we developed the Master of Distance Education program (MDE) together with the University of Maryland University College (UMUC) in the US. My  director in Germany was Uli Bernath, and the program was directed and managed by Eugene Rubin from the American side.

From the beginning, this program was delivered entirely online and I had the opportunity to support experts, pioneers of our field of distance education, like Otto Peters, Börje Holmberg, Jane Brindley and Tony Bates, building their courses and teaching online. This was an extremely exciting time and it was an incredible experience to work in this new and emerging field of online distance education.

I remember very well a faculty meeting that we held in Frankfurt in 2000 where I had a very good discussion with Otto Peters from the FernUniversity in Hagen about the development of online programs. After that I had the honor to have Otto Peters as the supervisor for my Ph.D. thesis. I was his last doctorate student. He gave me a solid understanding and background of the history and development of distance education which is the basis of online/e-learning. I think it is very important to build upon previous research and the practical experiences of the last 50 (or even 150?) years so that we do not re-invent the wheel when we design and implement "new" e-learning formats.

ES: Why did you decide that a research agenda is needed in the field of online learning?

Olaf Z-R: Distance or online distance education is a relatively new field that emerged from the practice of distance teaching institutions. Scholarly journals have only been available for only about 30 years now (like Distance Education, Open Learning or the American Journal of DE). Research on DE has been subject to constant and sometimes harsh critique and was characterized as unsystematic, badly designed, atheoretical and predominantly descriptive. To carry out research in a systematic way, it is necessary to identify research gaps and priority areas that are based on a holistic structure of a research discipline. A research agenda is also important to communicate a clear-cut profile of a professional research discipline that might convince funding agencies to support research projects.

ES: This decision then led you to carry out the Delphi Study on the most important and most neglected research areas in distance education, culminating in the 'Online Distance Education - Towards a Research Agenda' book (under preparation. What do you find the most relevant research questions in 2014 based on this publication?

Olaf Z-R: This question is difficult to answer, since the research questions or priorities always depend on the national, institutional, or individual context. From my perspective I think, it is very interesting to explore aspects that are related to international distance education programs as an "export good" on the global education market. Many institutions use online distance education as a mode of delivery to reach new target groups. Here we see a lack of studies that investigate why international co-operations succeed or fail (macro- and meso-level research) and how we design learning opportunities for an international group of students with diverse cultural backgrounds (micro-level).

ES: Would you say the trend continues and the contemporary educator is deeply involved in the micro-level research areas (interaction and communication in learning communities; instructional design and learner characteristics)? What do you think the impact of this finding is in the educational landscape?

Olaf Z-R: Yes, I would agree with that. We are currently working on an update of our literature review study for the time between 2009 and 2013 in which we counted the frequency of articles in each research area and the first results reveal more or less the same proportion of research papers under each research level (macro, meso, micro) as in the time period between 2000 and 2008 in our previous study. So still, the majority of research projects is carried out on the micro level. Although it is of course important to understand how people learn and teach we should not neglect issues on the institutional level of educational management (e.g. quality assurance, financial management, HR development etc.) in order to support the professional development and implementation of ODE in educational institutions.

ES: This year's EDEN Annual Conference is focusing on e-learning at work. Competence-based ICT-enhanced learning is more and more applied in various fields. Where do you see the meeting places for academic research results and Workplace-based training?

Olaf Z-R: Interesting that you mention competence-based learning, which is a buzzword in many places. In Germany, we have had controversial discussions about the concept of competence and the development of competencies through education and training. Corporate training should build upon research into competence assessment and development in the sense of "constructive alignment" where intended learning outcomes (competencies), teaching and learning activities, and assessment formats should form a coherent picture. Many workplace-based training programs are labeled as competence-based but are in fact simple knowledge transmission and not capable of complex competence development.

ES: How would you reflect on Terry Anderson's view on the future of education:

"I think that education, as a separate and formal activity that takes place in dedicated buildings will be only one small component of embedded learning that is both used for formal and informal education.
In a few years we will likely smile when we think of terms like ‘e-learning’ or ‘online learning’ as being as antiquated as talking about ‘blackboard or ball point pen enhanced learning’."

Olaf Z-R: I agree that e-learning or online learning has arrived in the mainstream of education. E-learning is just learning and a way to design flexible learning opportunities throughout the lifespan.

ES: Thank you for your time!

The EDEN Annual Conference will take place between 10-13 June in Zagreb, Croatia. Register now and meet Prof. Zawacki-Richter at the #EDEN14 Annual Conference in Zagreb!   Read more keynote interviews here.


About EDEN | #EDEN14 Conference Group | Facebook Event | Twitter