April 24, 2014

Distance Education journal: November 2012 edition

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Volume 33, No. 3 of Distance Education does not have a particular theme. But all the articles in one way or another discuss critical factors for student success in online or distance learning:

  • the design of the student learning experience
  • the role of tutors (student learning facilitators)
  • students perception of their inter-connectedness with other students and their teachers
  • the organization of learning.

I am not covering all the papers here but just the ones that were of interest to me (e.g. focused on post-secondary education) and seemed to have significant results, roughly in my order of interest, with the most interesting first.

Halverson, L. et al. (2012) An analysis of high impact scholarship and publication trends in blended learning Distance Education, Vol. 33, No. 3, pp. 381-413

This was by far the most significant article for me in this edition, because the authors recognize that while blended learning is ‘likely to emerge as the pre-dominant model of the future‘, ‘the research on blended learning lacks a centre point.’ This is basically another meta-study, looking at where the conversations about blended learning are occurring. What this article does is to identify the 10 most cited research articles, book chapters, books and authors on blended learning. (No, I’m not on the list).

Furthermore the authors analyze what kind of studies they are: ‘most of the seminal work in blended learning to this point has not been empirical in nature, but rather has focused on definitions, models, and [its] potential.’

This is a really useful article, directing us to the most significant literature on the topic – and also indicating its current severe shortcomings.

Latchem, C. (2012) Reflection on the new dynamics of distance education: an interview with Sir John Daniel Distance Education, Vol. 33, No. 3, pp. 42-428

This interview is at a completely different level of analysis than most of the other articles in this edition. Sir John takes an eagle’s eye view of international developments in open and distance learning, drawing on his vast experience of working in international agencies such as the Commonwealth of Learning and UNESCO – as well as having run the odd open university.

His views on the need for more focus on open schooling in developing countries, the need for institutions to make fundamental changes to their organization and the role of faculty if they are to fully exploit online and blended learning, and the futility and frustration that comes from new practitioners ignoring all previous research on open and distance learning are just some of the themes of the interview. Well worth a read.

Borokhovski, E. et al. (2012) Are contextual and designed student-student interaction treatments equally effective in distance education? Distance Education Vol. 33, No. 3, pp.311-329.

The authors provide a concise but comprehensive overview of the literature comparing online, blended and classroom learning (overall conclusion: little difference in learning effectiveness although there is wide variation within each condition). They argue (and I agree) that it is more important to focus on ‘how different instructional interventions in DE compare to one another‘ than how DE compares to other forms of learning. The latter topic has been studied to exhaustion. In this article the authors ask: ‘Are inter-action treatments that intentionally promote collaborative and co-operative learning superior to other forms of interaction treatments in terms of student achievement outcomes?’

In more normal language, they looked at just putting students into a context where the interaction was left open to the students to those where the instructor  purposefully designed collaborative learning opportunities. This is in fact a meta-analysis of 36 studies on this topic, which found – surprise, surprise – that students had significantly better learning outcomes (as measured by grades) when collaboration and/or co-operation were organized by an instructor or course designer. Just hoping for collaboration or student discussion is not enough; it has to be organized. The paper, drawing on other research, also suggests a number of ways in which collaboration/cooperation can be facilitated. If you can wade through the technical jargon, this is a worthwhile paper to read.

Forster, A. (2012) Book Review: Burge, E. et al. (eds.) (2011) Flexible pedagogy, flexible practice: notes from the trenches of distance education, Edmonton: Athabasca University press, 348 pp.

A thorough and thoughtful review of a book written by a large collection of golden oldies of distance education. Valuable to me because the review helped me to decide whether to get the book (I won’t, but this shouldn’t discourage you, particularly if you are new to the game of online learning – at least read the review first.)

Slagter van Tryon, P. and Bishop, M. (2012) Evaluating social connectedness online: the design and development of the Social Perceptions in Learning Contexts Instrument, Distance Education, Vol. 33, No. 3, pp. 347-364

This study looks at the use of a research tool for measuring students’ perception of their social connectedness in an online course. They found that the tool was relatively reliable and valid in measuring student perceptions of social connectedness, but still needs further work (of course.) Unfortunately there was no evidence in the article as to the how this tool can help identify factors leading to social connectedness, but just the extent to which it exists – hopefully this will come from further studies.

Xiao, J. (2012) Tutors’ influence on distance language students learning motivation: voices from learners and tutors. Distance Education, Vol. 33, No. 3, pp. 365-380

This paper from China looks at the role and influence of tutors on the motivation of students learning at a distance in China. The study found that teacher competence, personal characteristics, subject matter expertise and the relationship between student and teacher all influenced the motivation of distance learners.

Kozar, O. (2012) Use of synchronous online tools in private English language teaching in Russia Distance Education, Vol. 33, No. 3, pp. 415-420

The title says it all. An interesting paper for those of you interested in one way in which the Internet is being used for teaching in Russia.


It is good that research is being conducted on these issues, because too often now people launch into online learning without any consideration of what is already known and hence continue to make unnecessary mistakes that reduce the effectiveness of the learning experience. (No, I’m NOT going to mention MOOCs).

However, despite the valuable research published in this journal, you have to either subscribe or have access to a university library to get it. And too often researchers write in a way that seems to deliberately obscure the value or the main outcomes of their research. This journal in other words has good stuff but should be much more accessible.

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