October 26, 2014

Review of ‘Online Distance Education: Towards a Research Agenda.’

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Drop-out: the elephant in the DE room that no-one wants to talk about

Drop-out: the elephant in the DE room that no-one wants to talk about

Zawacki-Richter, O. and Anderson, T. (eds.) (2014) Online Distance Education: Towards a Research Agenda Athabasca AB: AU Press, pp. 508

It is somewhat daunting to review a book of over 500 pages of research on any topic. I doubt if few other than the editors are likely to read this book from cover to cover. It is more likely to be kept on one’s bookshelf (if these still exist in a digital age) for reference whenever needed. Nevertheless, this is an important work that anyone working in online learning needs to be aware of, so I will do my best to cover it as comprehensively as I can.

Structure of the book

The book is a collection of about 20 chapters by a variety of different authors (more on the choice of authors later). Based on a Delphi study and analysis of ‘key research journals’ in the field, the editors have organized the topic into three sections, with a set of chapters on each sub-section, as follows:

1. Macro-level research: distance education systems and theories

  • access, equity and ethics
  • globalization and cross-cultural issues
  • distance teaching systems and institutions
  • theories and models
  • research methods and knowledge transfer

2. Meso-level research: management, organization and technology

  • management and organization
  • costs and benefits
  • educational technology
  • innovation and change
  • professional development and faculty support
  • learner support services
  • quality assurance

3. Micro-level: teaching and learning in distance education

  • instructional/learning design
  • interaction and communication
  • learner characteristics.

In addition, there is a very useful preface from Otto Peters, an introductory chapter by the editors where they justify their structural organization of research, and a short conclusion that calls for a systematic research agenda in online distance education research.

More importantly, perhaps, Terry Anderson and Olaf Zawacki-Richter demonstrate empirically that research in this field has been skewed towards micro-level research (about half of all publications).  Interestingly, and somewhat surprisingly given its importance, costs and benefits of online distance education is the least researched area.

What I liked

It is somewhat invidious to pick out particular chapters, because different people will have different interests from such a wide-ranging list of topics. I have tended to choose those that I found were new and/or particularly enlightening for me, but other readers’ choices will be different. However, by selecting a few excellent chapters, I hope to give some idea of the quality of the book.

1. The structuring/organization of research

Anderson and Zawacki-Richter have done an excellent job in providing a structural framework for research in this field. This will be useful both for those teaching about online and distance education but in particular for potential Ph.D. students wondering what to study. This book will provide an essential starting point.

2. Summary of the issues in each area of research

Again, the editors have done an excellent job in their introductory chapter in summarizing the content of each of the chapters that follows, and in so doing pulling out the key themes and issues within each area of research. This alone makes the book worthwhile.

3. Globalization, Culture and Online Distance Education

Charlotte (Lani) Gunawardena of the University of New Mexico has written the most comprehensive and deep analysis of this issue that I have seen, and it is an area in which I have a great deal of interest, since most of the online teaching I have done has been with students from around the world and sometimes multi-lingual.

After a general discussion of the issue of globalization and education, she reviews research in the following areas:

  • diverse educational expectations
  • learners and preferred ways of learning
  • socio-cultural environment and online interaction
  • help-seeking behaviours
  • silence
  • language learning
  • researching culture and online distance learning

This chapter should be required reading for anyone contemplating teaching online.

4. Quality assurance in Online Distance Education

I picked this chapter by Colin Latchem because he is so deeply expert in this field that he is able to make what can be a numbingly boring but immensely important topic a fun read, while at the same time ending with some critical questions about quality assurance. In particular Latchem looks at QA from the following perspectives:

  • definitions of quality
  • accreditation
  • online distance education vs campus-based teaching
  • quality standards
  • transnational online distance education
  • open educational resources
  • costs of QA
  • is online distance education yet good enough?
  • an outcomes approach to QA.

This chapter definitely showcases a master at the top of his game.

5. The elephant in the room: student drop-out

This is a wonderfully funny but ultimately serious argument between Ormond Simpson and Alan Woodley about the elephant in the distance education room that no-one wants to mention. Here they start poking the elephant with some sticks (which they note is not likely to be a career-enhancing move.) The basic argument is that institutions should and could do more to reduce drop-out/increase course completion. This chapter also stunned me with providing hard data about really low completion rates for most open university students. I couldn’t help comparing these with the high completion rates for online credit courses at dual-mode (campus-based) institutions, at least in Canada (which of course are not ‘open’ institutions in that students must have good high school qualifications.)

Woodley’s solution to reducing drop-out is quite interesting (and later well argued):

  • make it harder to get in
  • make it harder to get out

In both cases, really practical and not too costly solutions are offered that nevertheless are consistent with open access and high quality teaching.

In summary

The book contains a number of really good chapters that lay out the issues in researching online distance education.

What I disliked

I have to say that I groaned when I first saw the list of contributors. The same old, same old list of distance education experts with a heavy bias towards open universities. Sure, they are nearly all well-seasoned experts, and there’s nothing wrong with that per se (after all, I see myself as one of them.)

But where are the young researchers here, and especially the researchers in open educational resources, MOOCs, social media applications in online learning, and above all researchers from the many campus-based universities now mainstreaming online learning? There is almost nothing in the book about research into blended learning, and flipped classrooms are not even mentioned. OK, the book is about online distance learning but the barriers or distinctions are coming down with a vengeance. This book will never reach those who most need it, the many campus-based instructors now venturing for the first time into online learning in one way or another. They don’t see themselves as primarily distance educators.

And a few of the articles were more like lessons in history than an up-to-date review of research in the field. Readers of this blog will know that I strongly value the history of educational technology and distance learning. But these lessons need to be embedded in the here and now. In particular, the lessons need to be spelled out. It is not enough to know that Stanford University researchers as long ago as 1974 were researching the costs and benefits of educational broadcasting in developing countries, but what lessons does this have for some of the outrageous claims being made about MOOCs? A great deal in fact, but this needs explaining in the context of MOOCs today.

Also the book is solely focused on post-secondary university education. Where is the research on online distance education in the k-12/school sector or the two-year college/vocational sector? Maybe they are topics for other books, but this is where the real gap exists in research publications in online learning.

Lastly, although the book is reasonably priced for its size (C$40), and is available as an e-text as well as the fully printed version, what a pity it is not an open textbook that could then be up-dated and crowd-sourced over time.


This is essential reading for anyone who wants to take a professional, evidence-based approach to online learning (distance or otherwise). It will be particularly valuable for students wanting to do research in this area. The editors have done an incredibly good job of presenting a hugely diverse and scattered area in a clear and structured manner. Many of the chapters are gems of insight and knowledge in the field.

However, we have a huge challenge of knowledge transfer in this field. Repeatedly authors in the book lamented that many of the new entrants to online learning are woefully ignorant of the research previously done in this field. We need a better way to disseminate this research than a 500 page printed text that only those already expert in the field are likely to access. On the other hand, the book does provide a strong foundation from which to find better ways to disseminate this knowledge. Knowledge dissemination in a digital world then is where the research agenda for online learning needs to focus.


‘The Economist’ on online learning

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© The Economist, 2014

© The Economist, 2014

Insight (2014) The democratisation of learning The Economist, September 26

This is a well-balanced and well-researched article on online learning in post-secondary education, even if it is very U.S.-focused. Doesn’t say anything new, but it covers the right ground.

What I liked is that it places MOOCs within the broader context of what is happening in online learning. A nice article to give to faculty skeptical about online learning (especially if they are economists).

Instructional design, the academy and industry: a ‘blended’ event

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image © eLearning Industry Companies, 2013

image © eLearning Industry Companies, 2013

What: The Academy and Industry: Exploring Instructional Design Roles

In a professional discipline, sometimes there can be uneasy tensions between those in the Academy (i.e. professors and researchers) and those in industry. This collaborative event will attempt to highlight some of the tensions that exist in instructional design. How do I.D. practices and conditions differ in the Academy vs in the corporate sector? How important is it to keep up with current research? What value is placed on formal credentials, or practical experience? Join us in our discussion online, and attend the culminating panel session.

Who: CNIE (Canadian Network for Innovation) + CAID (Canadian Association of Instructional Designers – ACCP en français)

When and how:

Leadership in open and distance education universities

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Tram in Lisbon

Tram in Lisbon

 The conference

For 20 years, the Standing Committee of Presidents (SCOP) of the members of the International Council of Distance Education (ICDE) has provided a unique forum for rectors, presidents and senior policy makers in open and distance education to exchange views and experiences and to discuss the latest developments and trends.

This year’s conference (like the first) was organized by Universidade Aberta do Portugal (UAb) in Lisbon, Portugal. Since the inaugural SCOP meeting in 1993, the world of open and distance education has undergone dramatic changes. The number of players in ODL has increased exponentially as  online learning has become mainstream practice in higher education. In the last decade, also, new electronic forms of open educational practice have developed, creating a set of new challenges and opportunities for university top leadership in open and distance education institutions.

The 2013 SCOP meeting therefore focused on change and how leadership has a pivotal role in promoting it. It was also partly a celebration because 2013 is a special anniversary year for the Open University of Portugal, since UAb was also celebrating its own 25 year anniversary. Lastly I have a special connection to UAb, as I received an honorary degree (doctor honoris causa) from UAb in 1995 for my research in distance education teaching.

The European Commission’s strategy for open education

The conference opened with the obligatory speaker from the European Commission, but this time the speaker, Pierre Mairesse, the director responsible in the European Commission for issues related to the European strategy for education and lifelong learning, was both well informed about open and distance education, and very informative about the European Commission’s strategies towards open and online learning.

He talked particularly about the EC’s Opening Up Education initiative, details of which can be found at the Open Education Europa web site. The aim of the initiative is to bring the digital revolution to education with a range of actions in three areas: open learning environments, open educational resources, and connectivity and innovation. The Open Education Europa portal provides convenient access to a wide range of resources, events and papers about open and online education in Europe. As the press release in September stated:

More than 60% of nine year olds in the EU are in schools which are still not digitally equipped. The European Commission’s … action plan [aims to] to tackle this and other digital problems which are hampering schools and universities from delivering high quality education and the digital skills which 90% of jobs will require by 2020. 

For instance, on the Open Education Europa web site you can access OER4Adults, an overview and analysis of practices with Open Educational Resources in adult education in Europe. This has such important implications for the utilization of OERs that I will do a separate post in a few days time on this topic.

Another interesting page on the Open Education Europa web site is the MOOC European scorecard (see below – date loaded: 2 December 2013):

MOOCs Europe 2013

This means that roughly one third of MOOCs are now European, and even more surprisingly, over one third of the European MOOCs are Spanish (probably due to the potential markets in Latin America).

The rationale and the actions proposed by the European Commission through its Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020 programs can be found in the following document: Opening up Education: Innovative teaching and learning for all through new Technologies and Open Educational Resources 

Leadership for change in a time of openness

I was the second keynote speaker and I focused on what has changed in 20 years and how institutional leadership has evolved in the world of open and distance learning. Now I need to point out that I have never been a university president, nor am I likely to be one, and there are very good reasons for that, but I have been a close observer and researcher into leadership in open and distance learning.

My key points were as follows:

the key drivers of change in post-secondary education have changed:

  • there is in fact increased access now in many OECD countries, with participation rates in several countries exceeding 50% of a cohort going on to some form of post-secondary educational experience. The issue now in some countries is more about cost than access. The massification of conventional higher education also raises questions about quality.Thus access is no longer a unique selling point for open institutions, although access still remains a critical issue for many developing countries and for marginalized groups in more developed countries. 
  • for economic development reasons there has been a shift of focus towards developing high level skills geared towards the needs of knowledge workers, including digital literacy (in its broadest sense); the mainly ‘broadcast’ pedagogical models adopted by large open universities therefore also need to change for these skills to be developed

increased competition in the ‘open’ and ‘distance’ spaces

  • many conventional universities have moved into online learning, a trend that has rapidly increased with the development of MOOCs; open educational resources also provide another form of open-ness, so ‘open’ or ‘distance’ or ‘online’ are now no longer unique defining features for ODL institutions

leadership for change means challenging prevailing institutional cultures

  • this is as true – if not more true – for established open and distance learning institutions as it is for conventional universities. A particular challenge is to develop nimble and quick models of quality course design that can be applied on a massive scale, and moving away from old technologies such as print and broadcasting while still managing very large numbers of students
  • to implement change successfully, leadership needs to
    • set clear and measurable goals for the institution that differentiate it from other providers
    • involve faculty, instructional designers and media designers in developing new course designs built around new web 2.0 technologies
    • devolve decision-making about technologies to those in the front line (faculty and students), but ensuring they are properly prepared for such decision-making through pedagogical training
    • develop activity-based business models that track the true costs of changing course design and delivery models

one vision for teaching in the future

To conclude, I offered a few pointers to what unique contributions open and distance learning institutions could bring to the higher education market place. In particular:

  • an emphasis on pedagogies built around 21st century digital technologies,
  • open admission policies,
  • reduced cost per student through economies of scale and scope, and
  • quality online learner support

will still provide unique competitive advantages for open and distance learning organizations.

If you want a copy of my slides, please send an e-mail to: tony.bates@ubc.ca

A case-study of institutional change: Universidade Aberta, Portugal

António Moreira Texeira, of the Open University of Portugal, described how between 2006-2009 UAb moved all its courses from print-based to online, resulting in a 40% increase in enrollments and the addition of many new students from Brazil. This change process included introducing a new pedagogical model based on collaborative and interactive learning, and the training of all its instructors/faculty in online teaching.

I was involved in a minor way in helping the university set up its Masters in e-Learning Pedagogy (MPEL – Mestrado em Pedagogia do Elearning), and I had a wonderful 90 minutes after the conference with about 30 students and staff from the program who were attending a one-day workshop. They asked some great questions. The program is in Portuguese: to enrol click here

Talking with MPED students

Talking with MPEL students and staff after the session

The African Virtual University

Bakary Diallo, the Rector of the African Virtual University, gave a very interesting presentation on the development of the African Virtual University, which to date is a meta-organization providing online and distance education services to many existing universities across Africa.

The AVU has more than 50 academic partner institutions in more than 27 countries in Africa. It helps partner institutions set up local study centres in different countries, where programs from numerous partner institutions, learner support and guidance, and access to e-learning technologies are made available. To date there are 10 such centres, in 10 different countries.

The main focus at the moment is on teacher education, with four bachelor programs for teachers of math, physics, chemistry and biology, offered through a consortium of 12 universities in 10 African countries. Delivery is mixed mode, through online learning and attendance at local centres.

AVU though also offers or facilitates a wide range of webinars, self-learning programs, workshops, and certificate/diploma programs, in collaboration with the partner institutions. AVU also offers student scholarships.

Leadership and policy forums

The rest of the conference was given over to participative forums/workshops/buzz groups that discussed ICDE research projects, various innovative projects from member institutions, government relations, co-operation and collaboration with and between other similar organizations, such as EDEN, OECD, UNESCO, SEAMO, EADTU, EFQUEL, Sloan, and the African Council for Distance Education


Not being a university president, this was the first time I had attended a SCOP ICDE conference. I was impressed at how pragmatic and focused the discussions were. The conference also provided a unique opportunity for networking at a leadership level.

Nevertheless, the ICDE membership faces some significant challenges. This is nothing new. For many years, its members have struggled for academic recognition (and in some countries still do, such as Nigeria). However, over time open, distance and online learning have become more accepted and MOOCs have propelled this acceptance even further.

At the same time, the ICDE institutions now have major challenges from conventional and Ivy League universities, particularly for the open and online space. However, open and distance learning institutions still have much to offer, particularly in terms of cost-effectiveness, flexibility and quality. What they lack at the moment is a clear communications strategy that focuses on their unique contributions, and ensures that this message gets across, particularly at the political and governmental level. This conference will have helped moved that agenda forward.

Lastly, Lisbon is one of my very favourite cities: beautiful, unique, with very friendly people, and wonderful wine and food, especially if you like fish. Worth the jet-lag any day.

A view of Lisbon from the Alfama area

A view of Lisbon from the Alfama area



“Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated”: a retrospective of my work

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Still alive on Saturday

Still alive on Sunday

Brindley. J. and Paul, R. (2013) Understanding the building blocks of online learning: Through the writings and research of pre-eminent online learning expert, Dr. Tony Bates Sudbury ON: Contact North, October 2

It was Mark Twain who complained in this way about a premature obituary in the New York Journal. While not quite an obituary, the Contact North post is the first in a series of eight that looks at my perspectives and advice on key issues in online learning, based, as each post unkindly points out, on my nearly 50 years of working for change and reform in post-secondary education.  This series was researched and developed by Contact North | Contact Nord Research Associates, Dr. Jane Brindley and Dr. Ross Paul.

This first post discusses my views on the drivers of change in the way we teach and learn, and on the role of online learning.

It also summarizes the posts that are to follow under the heading of the Seven Key Building Blocks of Online Learning:

  • planning for effective teaching with technology
  • how emerging pedagogies map onto the new technologies
  • how faculty can support learner success
  • how faculty can ensure quality in an online learning environment
  • guidelines for faculty from educational technology research
  • costing considerations for hybrid and online courses
  • institutional and faculty roles in strategic planning.

Contact North will be publishing one post every two weeks in this series.


Although I agreed to this project, and indeed have seen and commented on all the drafts for the series, you can perhaps tell that I am slightly embarrassed by the whole thing. Jane and Ross have done an amazing job pulling together an amorphous set of resources scattered through many blog posts, journal articles and books into a series of coherent posts that are directed clearly at the interests of faculty and instructors. I think the series will be particularly useful for those poor post-graduate students who have been given my books as set readings to wade through, and for instructors dipping their toes into online learning for the first time. I am immensely grateful to and honoured by Contact North for developing and promoting this series.

The main reason for my embarrassment is that most of the stuff in the posts is not my original work. Like everyone in academia, I stand on the shoulders of giants. (Interesting to note that this quotation was used by Isaac Newton in his introduction to Principia Mathematica – and he plagiarized the quote from someone else!) So all I have done in most of my writing is to pull together other people’s research and writings, and I am still concerned that this does not come across strongly enough in the series. You will also not find any critique or criticism of my work in this series, so please use the comment section after each post. Nevertheless, I respect Contact North’s desire for simplicity and clarity.

So I hope you will follow the series and more importantly (since regular readers of this blog are more than likely to be familiar with the material), direct colleagues, instructors new to online learning, and post-graduate students studying online learning, to this series of posts.

In the meantime THIS IS NOT THE END!

What’s next?

I will continue my blog as best I can while travelling, including the series on productivity and online learning (the next will look at the issues around scaling learner-instructor interactions).

I’m also working on a new book called provisionally ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’ which is due out next year.

So yes, I’m still alive.