August 31, 2016

EDEN Research Workshop, October, 2016

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The city of Olenburg Image: © Marcus Thielen, 2015

The city of Oldenburg
Image: © Marcus Thielen, 2015

What: Forging New Pathways of research and innovation in open and distance learning: reaching from the roots

The Ninth EDEN Research Workshop in Oldenburg, Germany, will bring together researchers from all walks of life and provide a platform for engaging in discussion and debate, exchanging research ideas, and presenting new developments in ODL, with the goal of creating dialogues and forming opportunities for research collaboration.

Workshop Themes:

  • emerging distance education systems and theories
  • management and organizational models and approaches
  • evolving practices in technology-enhanced learning and teaching


  • Olaf Zawacki-Richter, Carl von Ossietzki University, Oldenburg
  • Inge de Waard, The Open University, UK
  • Adnan Qayyum, Penn State university, USA
  • Som Naidu, Monash University, Australia
  • Paul Prinsloo, University of South Africa
  • George Veletsianos, Royal Roads University, Canada
  • Isa Jahnke, University of Missouri, USA

Types of sessions:

  • paper presentations
  • hands-on workshops
  • posters
  • demonstrations
  • ‘synergy’ sessions (to share and discuss EU projects)
  • training sessions

Where: Carl von Ossietzki University, Oldenburg, Germany. Oldenburg is a charming city in north east Germany between Bremen and Groningen.

When: 4-7 October, 2016

Who: The European Distance and e-Learning Network and the Centre for Distance Education, Carl von Ossietzki University. The university is a partner with the University of Maryland University College in offering a fully online Master in Distance Education and e-Learning, which has been running for many years. The Centre for Distance Education has published 15 books on distance education and e-learning in its ASF series.

How: Registration opens mid-August. For more details on registration, fees and accommodation go to the conference web site

Comment: EDEN Research Workshops are one of my favourite professional development activities. They bring together online learning researchers from all over Europe, and it is a remarkably efficient way to keep up to date not only with the latest research but also the technology trends in open and distance education that are getting serious attention. The conference is usually small (about 100-200 participants) and very well focused on practical aspects of research and practice in online learning and distance education.


Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics: WCET’s analysis of distance education enrolments in the USA

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Out-of-state students 2

Russell Poulin and Terri Straut have done an invaluable analysis of recent data on distance education enrolments in the USA in the following three blog posts:

Straut, T. and Poulin, R. (2015) IPEDS Fall 2013: Higher Ed Sectors Vary Greatly in Distance Ed Enrollments Boulder CO: Western Co-operative for Educational Technologies

Straut, T. and Poulin, R. (2015) IPEDS Fall 2013: Distance Education Data Reveals More Than Overall Flat Growth Boulder CO: Western Co-operative for Educational Technologies

Straut, T. and Poulin, R. (2015) IPEDS Fall 2013: Less than Half of Fully Distant Students Come from Other States Boulder CO: Western Co-operative for Educational Technologies

These reports should be read in conjunction with these equally valuable posts:

Hill, P. and Poulin, R. (2014) Investigation of IPEDS Distance Education Data: System Not Ready for Modern Trends Boulder CO: Western Co-operative for Educational Technologies/e-Literate

Allen, I.E. and Seaman, J. (2013) Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States  Wellesley MA: Babson College/Quahog Research Group

I am pulling this together in this one post for convenience, but I strongly recommend that you read carefully the original reports.

There are serious methodological issues in the USA data

Over the last ten years or so, the most consistent analyses of enrolments in online learning have been the annual Babson College surveys conducted by Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman, with support from the Sloan Foundation. However, this was a voluntary survey, based on a carefully drawn sample of chief academic officers across the USA. The Babson Surveys showed consistent growth of online course enrolments in the order of 10-20 per cent per annum over a the last 10 years, compared with around 2-3 per cent growth in on-campus enrolments, with in 2013 approximately one third of all higher education students in the USA taking at least one fully online course.

However, since the Babson surveys were voluntary, sample-based and dependent on the good will of participating institutions, there was always a concern about the reliability of the data, and especially that the returns might be somewhat biased towards enrolments from institutions actively engaged in online learning, thus suggesting more online enrolments than in reality. Despite these possible limitations the Babson Surveys were invaluable because they provided a comparable set of national data across several years. So while the actual numbers may be a little shaky, the trends were consistent.

Then in 2012 the U.S. Federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) survey, conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, a division of the U.S. Federal Department of Education, for the first time included distance education in its compulsory annual survey of enrolments in higher education. (One might ask why it took until 2012 to ask for data on distance education, but hey, it’s a start.) Since this is a census rather than a survey, and since it is obligatory, one would expect that the IPEDS data would be more reliable than the Babson surveys.

However, it turns out that there are also major problems with the IPEDS survey. Phil Hill (of the blog e-Literate) and Russell Poulin have indicated the following limitations with IPEDS:

  • problems of definition: Babson focused only on students enrolled in fully online courses; IPEDS asks for enrolments in distance education. Although many institutions have moved their print-based courses online, there are still many print-based distance education courses still out there. How many? We don’t know. Also the IPEDS definition rules out reporting on blended or hybrid courses, and is not precise enough to ensure that different institutions don’t interpret who to include and who to exclude on a consistent basis
  • under-reporting: IPEDS collected data on the assumption that all students enrolled through continuing education departments were taking non-credit distance education courses, and therefore these enrolments were to be excluded. However, in many institutions, continuing education departments have continued to administer for-credit online courses, which institutions have seen as just another form of distance education. (In other institutions, distance education departments have been integrated with central learning technology units, and are thus included in enrolment counts.)
  • the IPEDS survey does not work for innovative programs such as those with continuous enrolments, competency-based learning, or hybrid courses.

Hill and Poulin come to the following conclusions about the 2012 survey:

  • we don’t know the numbers – there are too many flaws in the the data collection methods
  • thus the 2012 numbers are not a credible baseline for future comparisons
  • there are hundreds of thousands of students who have never been reported on any IPEDS survey that has ever been conducted.

It is against this background that we should now examine the recent analyses by Straut and Poulin on the IPEDS data for  2013. However, note their caveat:

Given the errors that we found in colleges reporting to IPEDS, the Fall 2012 distance education reported enrollments create a very unstable base for comparisons.

Main results for 2013

1. Most DE enrolments are in public universities

For those outside the USA, there are quite different types of HE institution, dependent on whether they are publicly funded or privately funded, and whether they operate for profit or not for profit. Distance education is often associated in the USA with diploma mills, or offered by for-profit private institutions, such as the University of Phoenix or Kaplan. As it turns out, this is a fundamental mis-conception. Nearly three-quarters of all DE enrolments are in publicly funded universities. Less than 10% of all DE enrolments are in for-profit private institutions.

2. Students studying exclusively at a distance

Students studying exclusively at a distance constitute about 13% of all enrolments. However, non-profits rely much more on distance students, who make up half their enrolments. Less than 10% of students in public universities are studying exclusively at a distance. The significance of this is that for most students in public universities, DE is a relatively small part of their studies, an option that they exercise occasionally and as needed, and is not seen as a replacement for campus-based studies. On the other hand, there is a substantial if small minority for whom DE is the only option, and for many of these, the for-profits are their the only option if their local public universities do not offer such programs in the discipline they want.

3. DE enrolments were down slightly in 2013

IPEDS shows an overall decrease in DE enrolments of 4% from 2012 to 2013. The biggest area was the for-profits, which declined by 17%. The drop in public universities for those taking fully online courses was a marginal 2%. However, this is a major difference from the trends identified by the Babson Surveys.

This is probably the most contentious of the conclusions, because the differences are relatively small and probably within the margin of error, given the unreliability of the data. The for-profit sector has been particularly badly hit by changes to federal financial aid for students.

However, I have been predicting that the rate of students taking fully online courses in the USA (and Canada) is likely to slow in the future for two reasons:

  • there is a limit to the market for fully online studies and after 10 years of fairly large gains, it is not surprising that the rate now appears to be slowing down
  • as more and more courses are offered in a hybrid mode, students have another option besides fully online for flexible study.

The counter trend is that public universities still have much more scope for increasing enrolments in fully online professional masters programs, as well as for certificates, diplomas and badges.

4. Students studying fully online are still more likely to opt for a local university

Just over half of all students enrolled exclusively in DE courses take their courses from within state. This figure jumps to between 75-90% for those enrolled in a public university. On the other hand, 70% of students enrolled in a DE course in a for-profit take their courses from out-of-state. This is not surprising, since although non-profits have to have their headquarters somewhere, they operate on a national basis.

The proportion of institutions reporting that they serve students who are outside the U.S. remains small, no more than 2% in any sector. This again may be a reporting anomaly, as 21% of institutions reported that they have students located outside the U.S. Probably of more concern is that many institutions did not report data on the location of their DE students. This may have something to do with the need for authorization for institutions to operate outside the home state, and this is a uniquely American can of worms that I don’t intend to open.

Not good, but it’s better than nothing

I have an uncomfortable feeling about the IPEDS data. It needs to be better, and it’s hard to draw any conclusions or make policy decisions on what we have seen so far.

However, it’s easy for someone outside the USA to criticise the IPEDS data, but at least it’s an attempt to measure what is an increasingly significant – and highly complex – area of higher education. We have nothing similar in Canada. At least the IPEDS data is likely to improve over time, as institutions press for clearer definitions, and are forced to collect better and more consistent data.

Also, I can’t praise too highly first of all Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman for their pioneering efforts to collect data in this area, and Phil Hill, Russell Poulin and Terri Straut for guiding us through the minefield of IPEDS data.

For a nice infographic on this topic from WCET, click on the image below:

WCET infographic 2

Challenging the supremacy of face-to-face teaching

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What makes classroom teaching pedagogically unique?

What makes classroom teaching pedagogically unique?

This is the second of five posts on choosing appropriate modes of delivery, part of Chapter 10 of my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age. The first looked at the wide range of options now available to instructors, from face-to-face teaching to blended to fully online. This post looks at what we know both from best practices and research about the pedagogical differences, and suggests that no one mode of delivery is inherently better than another. What we need to know are the conditions or circumstances that are needed for the mode to succeed.

Many surveys have found that a majority of faculty still believe that online learning or distance education is inevitably inferior in quality to classroom teaching. In fact, there is no scientifically-based evidence to support this opinion. At the same time, although the technology keeps changing, we can learn a great deal from earlier developments in distance education. Fully online learning is, after all, just another version of distance education.

The influence of distance education on online learning

A great deal has been written about distance education (see, for instance, Wedemeyer, 1981; Keegan, 1990; Holmberg, 1995; Moore and Kearsley, 1996; Peters, 2002; Bates, 2005; Evans et al., 2008) but in concept, the idea is quite simple: students study in their own time, at the place of their choice (home, work or learning centre), and without face-to-face contact with a teacher. However, students are usually ‘connected’, usually today through the Internet, with an instructor, adjunct faculty or tutor who provides learner support and student assessment. (For another definition of distance education – especially relevant to economically developing countries – see Commonwealth of Learning.)

Distance education has been around a very long time. It could be argued that in the Christian religion, St. Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians was an early form of distance education (53-57 AD). The first distance education degree was offered by correspondence by the University of London (UK) in 1858. Students were mailed a list of readings, and took the same examination as the regular on-campus students. If students could afford it, they hired a private tutor, but the Victorian novelist Charles Dickens called it the People’s University, because it provided access to higher education to students from less affluent backgrounds. The program still continues to this day, but is now called the University of London International Programmes, with more than 50,000 students worldwide. (As an aside, the University of London was primarily established in 1838 to set a common examination system between its different colleges, thus separating teaching and assessment – perhaps the earliest example of ‘disaggregation’ in education.)

In North America, historically many of the initial land-grant universities, such as Penn State University, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of New Mexico in the USA, and Memorial University, University of Saskatchewan and the University of British Columbia in Canada, had state- or province-wide responsibilities, As a result these institutions have a long history of offering distance education programs, mainly as continuing education for farmers, teachers, and health professionals scattered across the whole state or province. These programs have now been expanded to cover undergraduate and professional masters students. Australia is another country with an extensive history of both k-12 and post-secondary distance education.

Qualifications received from most of these universities carry the same recognition as degrees taken on campus. For instance, the University of British Columbia, which has been offering distance education programs since 1936, makes no distinction on student transcripts between courses taken at a distance and those taken on campus, as both kinds of students take the same examinations.

Another feature of distance education, pioneered by the British Open University in the 1970s, but later adopted and adapted by North American  universities that offered distance programs, is a course design process, based on the ADDIE model, but specially adapted to serve students learning at a distance. This places a heavy emphasis on defined learning outcomes, production of high quality multimedia learning materials, planned student activities and engagement, and strong learner support, even at a distance. As a result, universities that offered distance education programs were well placed for the move into online learning in the 1990s. These universities have found that in general, students taking the online programs do almost as well as the on-campus students (course completion rates are usually within 5-10 per cent of the on-campus students – see Ontario, 2011), which is a little surprising as the distance students often have full-time jobs and families.

It is important to acknowledge the long and distinguished pedigree of distance education from internationally recognised, high quality institutions, because commercial diploma mills, especially in the USA, have given distance education an unjustified reputation of being of lower quality. As with all teaching, distance education can be done well or badly. However, where distance education has been professionally designed and delivered by high quality public institutions, it has proved to be very successful, meeting the needs of many working adults, students in remote areas who would otherwise be unable to access education on a full-time basis, or on-campus students wanting to fit in an extra course or with part-time jobs whose schedule clashes with their lecture schedule. However, universities, colleges and even schools have been able to do this only by meeting high quality design standards.

At the same time, there has also been a small but very influential number of campus-based teachers and instructors who quite independently of distance education have been developing best practices in online or computer-supported learning. These include Roxanne Hiltz and Murray Turoff who were experimenting with online or blended learning as early as the late 1970s at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Marlene Scardamalia and Paul Bereiter at the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education, and Linda Harasim at Simon Fraser University, who all focused particularly on online collaborative learning and knowledge construction within a campus or school environment.

There is also plenty of evidence that teachers and instructors in many schools, colleges and universities new to online learning have not adopted these best practices, instead merely transferring lecture-based classroom practice to blended and online learning, often with poor or even disastrous results.

 What the research tells us

There have been thousands of studies comparing face-to-face teaching to teaching with a wide range of different technologies, such as televised lectures, computer-based learning, and online learning, or comparing face-to-face teaching with distance education. With regard to online learning there have been several meta-studies, that is, studies that have combined the results of many ‘well-conducted scientific’ studies, i.e. studies that used the matched comparisons or quasi-experimental method (Means et al., 2011; Barnard et al., 2014). Nearly all such ‘well-conducted’ meta-studies find no or little significant difference in the teaching methods, in terms of the effect on student learning or performance. For instance, Means et al. (2011), in a major meta-analysis of research on blended and online learning for the U.S. Department of Education, reported:

In recent experimental and quasi-experimental studies contrasting blends of online and face-to-face instruction with conventional face-to-face classes, blended instruction has been more effective, providing a rationale for the effort required to design and implement blended approaches. When used by itself, online learning appears to be as effective as conventional classroom instruction, but not more so.

Means et al. attributed the slightly better performance of blended learning to students spending more time on task. This highlights a common finding, that where differences have been found, they are often attributed to factors other than the mode of delivery. Tamim et al. (2011) identified ‘well-conducted’ comparative studies covering 40 years of research. Tamim et al. found there is a slight tendency for students who study with technology to do better than students who study without technology. However, the measured difference was quite weak, and the authors state:

it is arguable that it is aspects of the goals of instruction, pedagogy, teacher effectiveness, subject matter, age level, fidelity of technology implementation, and possibly other factors that may represent more powerful influences on effect sizes than the nature of the technology intervention.’

Research into any kind of learning is not easy; there are just so many different variables or conditions that affect learning in any context. Indeed, it is the variables we should be examining, not just the technological delivery. In other words, we should asking a question first posed by Wilbur Schramm as long ago as 1977:

What kinds of learning can different media best facilitate, and under what conditions?

In terms of making decisions then about mode of delivery, we should be asking, not which is the best method overall, but:

What are the most appropriate conditions for using face-to-face, blended or fully online learning respectively? 

Fortunately, there is a great deal of research and best practice that provides guidance on that question, at least with respect to blended and online learning (see, for instance, Anderson, 2008; Picciano et al., 2013; Halverson et al., 2013; Zawacki-Richter and Anderson, 2014.) Ironically, we shall see that what we lack is good research on the unique potential of face-to-face teaching in a digital age when so much can also be done just as well online.

Challenging the supremacy of face-to-face teaching

Although there has been a great deal of mainly inconclusive research comparing online learning with face-to-face teaching in terms of student learning, there is very little evidence or even theory to guide decisions about what is best done online and what is best done face-to-face in a blended learning context, and or about the circumstances when fully online learning is in fact a better option than classroom teaching. Generally the assumption appears to have been that face-to-face teaching is the default option by virtue of its superiority, and online learning is used only when circumstances prevent the use of face-to-face teaching, such as when students cannot get to the campus, or when classes are so large that interaction with students is at a minimum.

However, online learning has now become so prevalent and effective in so many contexts that it is time to ask:

what are the unique characteristics of face-to-face teaching that make it pedagogically different from online learning?

It is possible of course that there is nothing pedagogically unique about face-to-face teaching, but given the rhetoric around ‘the magic of the campus’ (Sharma, 2013) and the hugely expensive fees associated with elite campus-based teaching, or indeed the high cost of publicly funded campus-based education, it is about time that we had some evidence-based theory about what makes face-to-face teaching so special.

As someone who has devoted a great deal of his working life in distance education and online learning, I am probably not the best person to make this particular argument, and indeed the following is based mainly on the known limitations of online learning rather than the strengths of face-to-face teaching. I therefore throw open the challenge to all those who are passionate about the benefits of face-to-face teaching to help me out with the following sections.


For once, I am going to ask you to hold your comments (unless you are particularly incensed about something in the post) until you see the following posts.

Up next

The next post in the series is the first of three in which I propose a method of deciding between modes of delivery, based on student needs, pedagogical differences and the resources available. In the next post I will argue that student characteristics are the most important criterion for deciding on mode of delivery.


Anderson, A. (ed.) (2008) The Theory and Practice of Online Learning Athabasca AB: Athabasca University Press

Bates, A.W. (2005) Technology, e-Learning and Distance Education London/New York: Routledge

Evans, T., Haughey, M. and Murphy, D. (2008) International Handbook of Distance Education Bingley UK: Emerald Publishing

Halverson, L. R., Graham, C. R., Spring, K. J., & Drysdale, J. S. (2012). ‘An analysis of high impact scholarship and publication trends in blended learning’ Distance Education, Vol. 33, No. 3

Keegan, D. (ed.)  (1990) Theoretical Principles of Distance Education London/New York: Routledge

Means, B. et al. (2009) Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies Washington, DC: US Department of Education

Moore, M. and Kearsley, G. (1996) Distance Education: A Systems View Belmont CA: Wadsworth

Ontario (2011) Fact Sheet Summary of Ontario eLearning Surveys of Publicly Assisted PSE Institutions Toronto: Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities

Peters, O. (2002) Distance Education in Transition: New Trends and Challenges Oldenberg FGR: Biblothecks und Informationssystemder Carl von Ossietzky Universität Oldenberg

Picciano, A., Dziuban, C. and & Graham, C. (eds.), Blended Learning: Research Perspectives, Volume 2. New York: Routledge, 2013

Schramm, W. (1977) Big Media, Little Media Beverley Hills CA/London: Sage

Sharma, S. (2013) The Magic of the Campus Boston MA: LINC 2013 conference (recorded presentation)

Tamim, R. et al. (2011) ‘What Forty Years of Research Says About the Impact of Technology on Learning: A Second-Order Meta-Analysis and Validation Study’ Review of Educational Research, Vol. 81, No. 1

Wedemeyer, C. (1981) Learning at the Back Door: Reflections on Non-traditional Learning in the Lifespan Madison: University of Wisconsin Press

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

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.


Special edition on research on MOOCs in the journal ‘Distance Education’

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The University of Toronto is one of a number of institutions conducting research on MOOCs

The University of Toronto is one of a number of institutions conducting research on MOOCs; their results are still to come

The August 2014 edition of the Australian-based journal, Distance Education (Vol.35, No. 2.), is devoted to new research on MOOCs. There is a guest editor, Kemi Jona, from Northwestern University, Illinois, as well as the regular editor, Som Naidu.

The six articles in this edition are fascinating, both in terms of their content, but even more so in their diversity. There are also three commentaries, by Jon Baggaley, Gerhard Fischer and myself.

My commentary provides my personal analysis of the six articles.

MOOCs are a changing concept

In most of the literature and discussion about MOOCs, there is a tendency to talk about ‘instructionist’ MOOCs (i.e. Coursera, edX, Udacity, xMOOCs) or ‘connectivist’ MOOCs (i.e. Downes, Siemens, Cormier, cMOOCs). Although this is still a useful distinction, representing very different pedagogies and approaches, the articles in this edition show that MOOCs come in all sizes and varieties.

Indeed, it is clear that the design of MOOCs is undergoing rapid development, partly as a result of more players coming in to the market, partly because of the kinds of research now being conducted on MOOCs themselves, and, sadly much more slowly, a recognition by some of the newer players that much is already known about open and online education that needs to be applied to the design of MOOCs, while accepting that there are certain aspects, in particular the scale, that make MOOCs unique.

The diversity of MOOC designs

These articles illustrate clearly such developments. The MOOCs covered by the articles range from

  • MOOC video recorded lectures watched in isolation by learners (Adams et al.)
  • MOOC video lectures watched in co-located groups in a flipped classroom mode without instructor or tutorial support (Nan Li et al.)
  • MOOCs integrated into regular campus-based programs with some learner support (Firmin et al.)
  • MOOCs using participatory and/or connectivist pedagogy (Anderson, Knox)

Also the size of the different MOOC populations studied here differed enormously, from 54 students per course to 42,000.

It is also clear that MOOC material is being increasingly extracted from the ‘massive’, open context and used in very specific ‘closed’ contexts, such as flipped classrooms, at which point one questions the difference between such use of MOOCs and regular for-credit online programming, which in many cases also use recorded video lectures or online discussion and increasingly other sources of open educational materials. I would expect in such campus-based contexts the same quality standards to apply to the MOOC+ course designs as are already applied to credit-based online learning. Some of the research findings in these articles indirectly support the need for this.

The diversity of research questions on MOOCs

Almost as interesting is the range of questions covered by these articles, which include:

  • capturing the lived experience of being in a MOOC (Adams et al.; Knox)
  • the extent to which learners can/should create their own content, and the challenges around that (Knox; Andersen)
  • how watching video lectures in a group affects learner satisfaction (Nan Li et al.)
  • what ‘massive’ means in terms of a unique pedagogy (Knox)
  • the ethical implications of MOOCs (Marshall)
  • reasons for academic success and failure in ‘flipped’ MOOCs (Firmin et al.; Knox)

What is clear from the articles is that MOOCs raise some fundamental questions about the nature of learning in digital environments. In particular, the question of the extent to which learners need guidance and support in MOOCs, and how this can best be provided, were common themes across several of the papers, with no definitive answers.

The diversity of methodology in MOOC research

Not surprisingly, given the range of research questions, there is also a very wide range of methodologies used in the articles in this edition, ranging from

  • phenomenology (Adams),
  • heuristics (Marshall)
  • virtual ethnography (Knox; Andersen)
  • quasi-experimental comparisons (Nan Li et al.)
  • data and learning analytics (Firmin et al.)

The massiveness of MOOCs, their accessibility, and the wide range of questions they raise make the topic a very fertile area for research, and this is likely to generate new methods of research and analysis in the educational field.

Lessons learned

Readers are likely to draw a variety of conclusions from these studies. Here are mine:

  • the social aspect of learning is extremely important, and MOOCs offer great potential for exploiting this kind of learning, but organizing and managing social learning on a massive scale, without losing the potential advantages of collaboration at scale, is a major challenge that still remains to be adequately addressed. The Knox article in particular describes in graphic detail the sense of being overwhelmed by information in open connectivist MOOCs. We still lack methods or designs that properly support participants in such environments. This is a critical area for further research and development.
  • a lecture on video is still a lecture, whether watched in isolation or in groups. The more we attempt to support this transmissive model through organized group work, ‘facilitators’, or ‘advisors’ the closer we move towards conventional (and traditional) education and the further away from the core concept of a MOOC.
  • MOOCs have a unique place in the educational ecology. MOOCs are primarily instruments for non-formal learning. Trying to adapt MOOCs to the campus not only undermines their primary purpose, but risks moving institutions in the wrong direction. We would be better re-designing our large lecture classes from scratch, using criteria, methods and standards appropriate to the goals of formal higher education. My view is that in the long run, we will learn more from MOOCs about handling social learning at scale than about transmitting information at scale. We already know about that. It’s called broadcasting.
  • lastly, there was surprisingly little in the articles about what actual learning took place. In some cases, it was a deliberate research strategy not to enquire into this, relying more on student or instructor feelings and perceptions. While other potential benefits, such as institutional branding, stimulating interest, providing a network of connections, and so on, are important, the question remains: what are participants actually learning from MOOCs, and does this justify the hype and investment (both institutionally and in participants’ time) that surrounds them?

Cultural and ethical issues

The Marshall paper provides an excellent overview of ethical issues, but there is almost no representation of perspectives on MOOCs from outside Western contexts. I would have liked to have seen more on cultural and ethical issues arising from the globalization of MOOCs, based on actual cases or examples. Given the global implications of MOOCs, other perspectives are needed. Perhaps this is a topic for another issue.

Happy reading

I am sure you will be as fascinated and stimulated by these articles as I am. I am also sure you will come away with different conclusions from mine. I am sure we will see a flood of other articles soon on this topic. Nevertheless, these articles are important in setting the research agenda, and should be essential reading for MOOC designers as well as future researchers on this topic.

How to get the articles

To obtain access to these articles, go to: