November 23, 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.

Conclusion

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.

 

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

Conclusion

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

 

 

Education across space and time: Distance Education, Vol. 34, No.2

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Distance education in Australia

Distance education in Australia

This special edition of the Australian-based Distance Education journal presents a selection of papers originally submitted to the Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia’s 2013 summit meeting. The themes that the issue attempts to address are as follows:

  • How can we foster engaging and interactive learning with a dispersed and diverse population of students? 
  • How can we shift towards a learner-centred paradigm when institutional practices and physical infrastructures are geared towards teacher-centred delivery modes?
  • How can we enable the social and connected features of technology, when LMSs can be restrictive and clumsy…?

Sims, R. and Kigotho, M. (2013) Education across space and time: meeting the diverse needs of the distance learner:

This editorial sets the context and provides a brief description of each of the papers in the edition.

Hockridge, D. (2013) Challenges for educators using distance and online education to prepare students for relational professions

Relational professions are those which require ‘personal skills and a level of maturity.‘ This paper describes research that investigated educators’ concerns about distance and online education in Australian theological institutions. The paper in particular looks at ‘formation’, or character development, so the findings are more widely relevant than just theology. Her conclusion is well worth summarizing:

…it is overly simplistic to conclude that formational learning cannot occur in distance and online modes. Formational learning is complex and not easy to achieve regardless of the mode of study….a more productive way forward…is to be more intentional about the ways in which formation is addressed whether on campus, distance or online.

Earl, K. (2013) Student views on short-text assignment formats in fully online courses.

Short-text assignments restrict the word counts to 800 words or less. (Bit like a blog.) The study addressed two questions: how do students rate short-text assignments? How do students rate feedback provided by short text assignments? Conclusions:

assessment is more than a summative check of student knowledge and skills; it is an experience and part of the communication, and therefore relationship, between teachers and students. Short-text assignments are rated highly by students not because of a shorter word count but because students appreciated the variety and creativity aspects to these assignments. 

Note that the study was on one class of 21 students taught by the researcher.

Watson, S. (2013) Tentatively exploring the learning potentialities of postgraduate distance learners’ interactions with other people in their life contexts

Little consideration seems to have been given to the possibility that distance learners may be interacting with other people in their life contexts about their studies in a way that is making a positive contribution to their studies. The study involved semi-structured interviews of 15 Australian post-graduate students studying at a distance. Although the findings suggest that students vary widely in the extent to which they interact with others outside their course for study purposes, when they do interact, they produce identifiable learning benefits. Watson identified five types of life context interactions:

  • gathering information for assignments
  • getting help with difficult content
  • discussing the application of content to real-world contexts
  • sharing knowledge with others
  • getting feedback on assignment drafts

Watson suggests two course design implications from her studies so far:

  • encourage learners to talk to appropriate colleagues, friends or family about the application of particular theories in practice
  • encourage the establishment of mentoring relationships between learners and appropriate industry personnel

Higgins, K. and Harreveld, R. (2013) Professional development and the university casual academic: integration and support strategies for distance education

Casual academics are university instructors who are not entitled to either paid holiday leave or sick leave (such as, presumably, adjuncts and contract instructors in North America). In this study, twelve casual academics who taught distance education courses discussed their work through an in-depth semi-structured interview. The interviews revealed that these instructors managed their own professional development informally, and were sometimes unaware of the formal professional development activities available to them from the university.

Murphy, A. (2103) Open educational practices in higher education: institutional adoption and challenges

In this study, 110 individuals from higher education institutions in 29 countries participated in a survey aimed at identifying the extent to which HE institutions are currently implementing OERs and practices. The sample was focused on people with an interest in OERs; half the participants were from UK.

Main findings:

  • 23% were in organizations actively involved in the OERu network – 
  • 88% ‘knowledgeable’ about OERs
  • 29% were in institutions that were actively publishing OERs
  • the adoption of OERs and practices is still in its infancy
  • additional support such as funding and dedicated human resources are needed

Yasmin (2013) Application of the classification tree model in predicting learner dropout behaviour in open and distance learning

This study compares pre-enrollment student data with student attrition/drop-out for 12,000 post-graduate distance education students admitted to the University of North Bengal, India. The study indicated that married, employed, older, or remotely located students were more likely to drop out.

Note that the study used mainly demographic data, rather than data based on previous academic performance or the influence of factors during courses.

The paper’s main value is that it provides an analysis of drop-out factors for distance education students in a developing country, complementing the vast array of similar studies in developed countries.

Todhunter, B. (2013) LOL – limitations of online learning – are we selling the open and distance education message short?

This article questions the terminology being used to promote an institution’s programs. The author is particularly concerned that focusing on the term ‘online learning’ does a disservice to the special aspects of open and distance education. He argues it is necessary to pay close attention to the different needs of off-campus or distance learners, which can be lost in a discussion of the merits of online versus campus education. But above all, Todhunter is concerned that a focus on ‘online learning’ will put off many who are potential learners, whereas the terms ‘open’ and ‘distance’ will not only be be more appealing to some students, but may require different policies and strategies than a focus on ‘online’ learning.

Students embarking on graduate theses involving online learning, e-learning, distance education or open learning will benefit from reading this article when it comes to clearly defining what they are researching.

Comments

First, an explanation of why I have taken the time to ‘abstract’ these papers. This is not an ‘open access’ journal; you require a subscription from Taylor and Francis Group publications at nearly $40 an article. So pray that you have access to a good library, or you need to be sure that the article will be worth it to you. I have complained several times to Distance Education about a journal on open and distance education not being open access, but this is the policy of ODLAA (the Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia).

Second, some of the individual articles are well worth reading, depending on your interest. From reading the journal I picked up the following points (these are my interpretations, not necessarily the author’s):

  • good pedagogy is more important than mode of delivery (Hockridge) – further evidence for my law of equal substitution (i.e. most of what applies to good teaching in classrooms also applies to online education, and vice versa. Most things that can be taught in class can also be taught online, so we need to focus on the exceptions, not the rule.)
  • we need to do far more research and development on online assessment methods (Earl)
  • we are underusing learners’ life experiences in the design of distance courses (especially important for adult learners) (Watson)
  • institutions need better policies for casual/adjunct/contract instructors, and need to pay particular attention to professional development for this increasingly important human resource in higher education (Higgins and Harreveld)
  • even amongst the supporters of OERs, actual use, and especially secondary use, of OERs is still minimal (Murphy) – how long does maturation have to take?
  • studies of drop-out that focus on the demographics of incoming students are pretty useless. These are your students: find ways to help them succeed – don’t screen them out just because they are a higher risk, especially if you are an open institution (Yasmin)
  • open and distance learning are not necessarily the same as online learning; institutions need to be clear about markets and values as well as about mode of delivery. (Todhunter)

However, I do feel for journal editors who have to try to pick the best papers and at the same time try to find a common theme. The theme and the questions set out for this edition are only partly addressed in these papers, but nevertheless the articles are well worth reading. It’s just a pity they are so inaccessible.

Full report on the Open University of Catalonia now available

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The Tibidabo headquarters of the Open University of Catalonia

Contact North (2012) The Open University of Catalonia: Fully Online Multi-lingual Innovation-focused Accredited Sudbury ON: Contact North

In an earlier post I wrote about current research and innovation at the Open University of Catalonia (UOC). Contact North now has produced a full report on UOC in its ‘game-changers’ series that looks at the seven key enabling factors that make this institution a game-changer.

Contact North will publish its next report in this series, on the U.K. Open University, some time in January.

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.

Conclusion

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.