May 24, 2016

The dissemination of research in online learning: a lesson from the EDEN Research Workshop

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The Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford

The Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford

The EDEN Research Workshop

I’m afraid I have sadly neglected my blog over the last two weeks, as I was heavily engaged as the rapporteur for the EDEN 8th Research Workshop on challenges for research on open and distance learning, which took place in Oxford, England last week, with the UK Open University as the host and sponsor. I was also there to receive a Senior Fellowship from EDEN, awarded at the Sheldonian Theatre, the official ceremonial hall of the University of Oxford.

There were at the workshop almost 150 participants from more than 30 countries, in the main part European, with over 40 selected research papers/presentations. The workshop was highly interactive, with lots of opportunity for discussion and dialogue, and formal presentations were kept to a minimum. Together with some very stimulating keynotes, the workshop provided a good overview of the current state of online, open and distance learning in Europe. From my perspective it was a very successful workshop.

My full, factual report on the workshop will be published next week as a series of three blog posts by Antonio Moreira Texeira, the President of EDEN, and I will provide a link when these are available, but in the meantime I would like to reflect more personally on one of the issues that came out of the workshop, as this issue is more broadly applicable.

Houston, we have a problem: no-one reads our research

Well, not no-one, but no-one outside the close group of those doing research in the area. Indeed, although in general the papers for the workshop were of high quality, there were still far too many papers that suggested the authors were unaware of key prior research in the area.

But the real problem is that most practitioners – instructors and teachers – are blissfully unaware of the major research findings about teaching and learning online and at a distance. The same applies to the many computer scientists who are now moving into online learning with new products, new software and new designs. MOOCs are the most obvious example. Andrew Ng, Sebastian Thrun and Daphne Koller – all computer scientists – designed their MOOCs without any consideration about what was already known about online learning – or indeed teaching or learning in general, other than their experience as lecturers at Stanford University. The same applies to MIT’s and Harvards’s courses on edX, although MIT/Harvard are at least  starting to do their own research, but again ignoring or pretending that nothing else has been done before. This results in mistakes being made (unmonitored student discussion), the re-invention of the wheel hyped as innovation or major breakthroughs (online courses for the masses), and surprised delight at discovering what has already been known for many years (e.g. students like immediate feedback).

Perhaps of more concern though is that as more and more instructors move into blended and hybrid learning, they too are unaware of best practices based on research and evaluation of online learning, and knowledge about online learners and their behaviour. This applies not only to online course design in general, but also particularly to the management of online discussions.

It will of course be argued that MOOCs and hybrid learning are somehow different from previous online and distance courses and therefore the research does not apply. These are revolutionary innovations and therefore the rules of the game have changed. What was known before is therefore no longer relevant. This kind of thinking though misunderstands the nature of sustainable innovation, which usually builds on past knowledge – in other words, successful innovation is more cumulative than a leap into the dark. Indeed, it is hard to imagine any field other than education where innovators would blithely ignore previous knowledge. (‘I don’t know anything about civil engineering, but I have a great idea for a bridge.’ Let’s see how far that will get you.)

Who’s to blame?

Well, no-one really. There are several reasons why research in online learning is not better disseminated:

  • research into any kind of learning is not easy; there are just so many different variables or conditions that affect learning in any context. This has several consequences:
    • it is difficult to generalize, because learning contexts vary so much
    • clearly significant results are difficult to find when so many other variables are likely to affect learning outcomes
    • thus results are usually hedged with so many reservations that any clear message gets lost
  • because research into online learning is out of the mainstream of educational research it has been poorly funded by the research councils. Thus most studies are small scale, qualitative and practitioner-driven. This means interventions are small scale and therefore do not identify major changes in learning, and the results are mainly of use to the practitioner who did the research, so don’t get more widely disseminated
  • most research in online learning is published in journals that are not read by either practitioners or computer scientists (who publish in their own journals that no-one else reads). Furthermore, there are a large number of journals in the field, so integration of research findings is difficult, although Anderson and Zawacki-Richter (2104) have done a good job in bringing a lot of the research together in one publication – but which unfortunately is nearly 500 pages long, and hence unlikely to reach many practitioners, at least in a digestible form
  • online learning is still a relatively new field, less than 20 years old, so it is taking time to build a solid foundation of verifiable research in which people can have confidence
  • most instructors at a post-secondary level have no formal training in any form of teaching and learning, so there are difficulties in bringing research and best practices to their attention.

What can be done?

First let me state clearly that I believe there is a growing and significant body of evidence about best practices in online learning that is evidence-based and research-driven. These best practices are general enough to be applied in a wide variety of contexts. In fact I will shortly write a post called ‘Ten things we know from research in online learning’ that will set out some of the most important results and their implications for teaching and learning online. However, we need more attempts to pull together the scattered research into more generalizable conclusions and more widely distributed forms of communication.

At the same time, we need also to get out the message about the complexity of teaching and learning, without which it will be difficult to evaluate or appreciate fully the findings from research in online learning. It is understanding that:

  • learning is a process, not a product,
  • there are different epistemological positions about what constitutes knowledge and how to teach it,
  • above all, identifying desirable learning outcomes is a value-driven decision; and acceptance of a diversity of values about what constitutes knowledge is to be welcomed, not restricted, in education, so long as there is genuine choice for teachers and learners.
  • however, if we want to develop the skills needed in a digital age, the traditional lecture-based model, whether offered face-to-face or online, is inadequate
  • academic knowledge is different from everyday knowledge; academic knowledge means transforming understanding of the world through evidence, theory and rational argument/dialogue, and effective teachers/instructors are essential for this
  • learning is heavily influenced by the context in which it takes place: one critical variable is the quality of course design; another is the role of an expert instructor. These variables are likely to be more important than any choice of technology or delivery mode.

There are therefore multiple audiences for the dissemination of research in online learning:

  • practitioners: teachers and instructors
  • senior managers and administrators in educational institutions
  • computer scientists and entrepreneurs interested in educational services or products
  • government and other funding agencies.

I can suggest a number of ways in which research dissemination can be done, but what is needed is a conversation about

(a) how best to identify the key research findings on online learning around which most experienced practitioners and researchers can agree

(b) the best means to get these messages out to the various stakeholders.

I believe that this is an important role for organizations such as EDEN, EDUCAUSE, ICDE, but it is also a responsibility for every one of us who works in the field and believes passionately about the value of online learning.

Getting ready for the EDEN Research workshop

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Oxford: City of Dreaming Spires (Matthew Arnold)

Oxford: City of Dreaming Spires (Matthew Arnold)

I’m now in England, about to attend the EDEN Research Workshop on research into online learning that starts tomorrow (Sunday) in Oxford, with the event being hosted by the UK Open University, one of the main sources of systematic research in online learning. (EDEN is the European Distance and e-Learning Network)

This is one of my favourite events, because the aim is to bring together all those in Europe doing research in online learning to discuss their work, the issues and research methods. It’s a great chance for young or new players in the field to make themselves known and connect with other, more experienced, researchers. Altogether there will be about 120 participants, just the right size to get to know everyone over three days. I organised one such EDEN research workshop myself several years ago in Barcelona, when I was working at the Open University of Catalonia, and it was great fun.

The format is very interesting. All the papers are published a week ahead of the workshop, and each author gets just a few minutes in parallel sessions to briefly summarise, with plenty of time for discussion afterwards (what EDEN calls ‘research speed dating’). There are also several research workshops, such as ‘Linking Learning Design with Learning Analytics,’ as well as several keynotes (but not too many!) I’m particularly looking forward to Sian Bayne’s ‘Teaching, Research and the More-than-human in Digital Education.’ There are also poster sessions, 14 in all.

I am the Chair of the jury for the EDEN award for the best research paper, and also the workshop rapporteur. As a result I have been carefully reading all the papers over the last week, 44 in all, and I’m still trying to work out how to be in several places at the same time so I can cover all the sessions.

As a result I’ve had to put my book, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age‘, on hold for the last few days. However, the EDEN papers have already been so useful, bringing me the latest reviews and updates on research in this area that it is well worth taking a few more days before getting back to the strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs. I will be much better informed as a result as there are quite a few research papers on European MOOCs. I will also do a blog post after the conference, summing up what I heard during the three days.

So it looks like that I won’t have much time for dreaming in the city of dreaming spires.

 

 

Conference: 8th EDEN Research Workshop on research in online learning and distance education

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Oxford Spires Four Pillars Hotel

Oxford Spires Four Pillars Hotel

What: Challenges for research into Open & Distance Learning: Doing Things Better: Doing Better Things

The focus of the event is on quality research discussed in unusual workshop setting with informal and intimate surroundings. The session formats will promote collaboration opportunities, including: parallel ‘research-speed-dating’ papers, team symposia sessions, workshops and demonstrations.

When: 26-28 October, 2014

Where: Oxford Spires Four Pillars Hotel, Oxford, England

Who: The Open University (UK) is the host institution in collaboration with the European Distance and E-Learning Network. Main speakers include:

  • Sian Bayne, Digital Education, University of Edinburgh, UK
  • Cristobal Cobo, Research Fellow, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, UK
  • Pierre Dillenbourg, CHILI Lab, EPFL Center for Digital Education, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne, Switzerland
  • Allison Littlejohn, Director, Caledonian Academy, Glasgow Caledonian University, Chair in Learning Technology, UK
  • Philipp Schmidt, Executive Director, Peer 2 Peer University / MIT Media Lab fellow, USA
  • Willem van Valkenburg, Coordinator Delft Open Education Team, Delft University of Technology,
    The Netherlands

How: Submission of papers, workshop themes, posters and demonstrations are due by September 1: see: http://www.eden-online.org/2014_oxford/call.html

 

EDEN research workshop on open and distance learning

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Oxford Spires Four Pillars Hotel

Oxford Spires Four Pillars Hotel

What: Challenges for research into Open & Distance Learning: Doing Things Better: Doing Better Things

EDENRW8 is very focussed on you the researcher and what you can learn from and with your peers.  It takes place in an intimate setting where researchers including postgraduate students can share research, connect with peers and have adequate time to discuss the challenges of their work. EDENRW8 is suitable for researchers and postgraduate students and particularly those wishing to actively connect with peers and debate

When: 27-28 October, 2014

Who: Organized by EDEN (the European Distance and e-Learning Network) and hosted by the Open University (U.K.)

Where: The Oxford Spires Four Pillars Hotel, Oxford, U.K.

Format: This is not your usual conference program and definitely a workshop format! ….The networking occurs as an essential aspect of your experience. Featuring small groups for deep dialogues, feedback on your research, team symposia, ‘research-speed-dating’ papers, demonstrations, poster sessions, a connect lounge, informal sessions for meet the professor for early career and postgraduate researchers, world café style facilitation and presentations along with our resident keynotes.

How:

Call for contributions: Submissions that relate to the Workshop Scope and one or more of the Workshop Themes are welcome in the following categories by the deadline: 1 September. You are encouraged to submit your proposal earlier to support a speedy evaluation of the proposals and enhance your possibility to register early in time. Proposals submitted before summer will be evaluated within two weeks.

Online submission: Click here

Registration does not open until 1 September 2014

Comment

I really like the EDEN research workshops. They are usually relatively small (around 100 or so participants), informal and great for networking. If you have any interest in research into online learning, open or distance education, this is a must.

EDEN Annual Conference 2014, Zagreb, Croatia

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 Zagreb

What: E-learning at work and the workplace. This is the 2014 annual conference of The European Distance and E-Learning Network

When: June 10 – 14, 2014

Where: The  Hypo Centre, Zagreb, Croatia

Who: Keynote speakers include:

  • Alan Tait Professor of Distance Education and Development, The Open University, United Kingdom
  • Jeff Haywood Vice-principal, Knowledge Management at University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom
  • Blaženka Divjak Vice Rector for Students and Studies at the University of Zagreb, Croatia
  • Ana Carla Pereira (via video link) Head of Unit at European Commission, Directorate-General Education and Culture
  • Terry Anderson Director, Canadian Institute Distance Education Research (CIDER), Athabasca University, Canada
  • Olaf Zawacki-Richter Professor of Educational Technology, Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg, Germany
  • Jim Devine DEVINE Policy | Projects | Innovation, Ireland
  • Fabrizio Cardinali (Invited) SVP Global Business Development, sedApta Group,LACE Project, Workplace Learning

How: You may just have time to submit a paper, but otherwise registration is not yet open but should be at any time from now. Go to the conference web site for more details

Comment

The EDEN conference is one of my favourite conferences on open, distance and online learning. And Zagreb is one of my favourite European cities. This year’s theme though brings it directly into competition with the much larger and more commercial Online Educa Berlin, which takes place each year in December. However, as well as the theme and keynotes, it’s a great networking opportunity and a chance to meet the university movers and shakers in European online, open and distance learning.