October 27, 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.


Online learning for beginners: 2. Isn’t online learning worse than face-to-face teaching?

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Distance education: anyone sitting more than 10 rows from the front

Distance learning: anyone sitting more than 10 rows from the front

The short answer to this question is: no, online learning is neither inherently worse – nor better – than face-to-face teaching; it all depends on the circumstances.

The research evidence

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. A meta-study combines the results of many ‘well-conducted scientific’ studies, usually studies that use 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 modes of delivery, 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.

However, the ‘no significant difference’ finding is often misinterpreted. If there is no difference, then why do online learning? I’m comfortable teaching face-to-face, so why should I change?

This is a misinterpretation of the findings, because there may indeed within any particular study be large differences between conditions (face-to-face vs online), but they cancel each other out over a wide range of studies, or because with matched comparisons you are looking at only very specific, strictly comparable conditions, that never exist in a real teaching context.

For instance the ‘base’ variable chosen is nearly always the traditional classroom. In order to make a ‘scientific’ comparison, the same learning objectives and same treatment (teaching) is applied to the comparative condition (online learning). This means using exactly the same kind of students, for instance, in both conditions. But what if (as is the case) online learning better suits non-traditional students, or will achieve better learning outcomes if the teaching is designed differently to suit the context of online learning?

Asking the right questions

Indeed, it is the variables or conditions for success that we should be examining, not just the technological delivery. In other words, we should be 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? 

So what are the conditions that best suit online learning?

There are a number of possible answers:

  • learners:
    • fully online learning best suits more mature, adult, lifelong learners who already have good independent learning skills and for work and family reasons don’t want to come on campus
    • blended learning or a mix of classroom and fully online courses best suits full time undergraduate students who are also working part-time to keep their debt down, and need the flexibility to do part of their studies online
    • ‘dependent’ learners who lack self-discipline or who don’t know how to manage their own learning probably will do better with face-to-face teaching; however independent learning is a skill that can be taught, so blended learning is a safe way to gradually introduce such students to more independent study methods
  • learning outcomes:
    • embedding technology within the teaching may better enable the development of certain ’21st century skills’, such as independent learning, confidence in using information technologies within a specific subject domain, and knowledge management
    • online learning may provide more time on task to enable more practice of skills, such as problem-solving in math
    • redesign of very large lecture classes, so that lectures are recorded and students come to class for discussion and questions, making the classes more interactive and hence improving learning outcomes

Even this is really putting the question round the wrong way. A better question is:

What are the challenges I am facing as an instructor (or my learners are facing as students) that could be better addressed through online learning? And what form of online learning will work best for my students?


However, the most important condition influencing the effectiveness of both face-to-face and online teaching is how well it is done. A badly designed and delivered face-to-face class will have worse learning outcomes than a well designed online course – and vice versa. Ensuring quality in online learning will be the topic of the last few blogs in this series.


  1. Don’t worry about the effectiveness of online learning. Under the right conditions, it works well.
  2. Start with the challenges you face. Keep an open mind when thinking about whether online learning might be a better solution than continuing in the same old way.
  3. If you think it might be a solution for some of your problems, start thinking about the necessary conditions for success. The next few blog posts should help you with this.

Follow up

Here is some suggested further reading on the effectiveness of online learning:

Up next

‘Aren’t MOOCs online learning?’ (to be posted later in the week July 18-22, 2016)

Comparing modes: horses for courses

Comparing modes: horses for courses

MIT aims to expand its research into learning

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Diffusion tension imaging Satrajit Ghosh, MIT

Diffusion tension imaging Satrajit Ghosh, MIT

Chandler, D. (2016) New initiatives accelerate learning research and its applications MIT News, February 2

The President of MIT has announced a significant expansion of the Institute’s programs in learning research and online and digital education, through the creation of the MIT Integrated Learning Initiative (MITili).

The integrated science of learning — now emerging as a significant field of research — will be the core of MITili (to be pronounced “mightily”), a cross-disciplinary, Institute-wide initiative to foster rigorous quantitative and qualitative research on how people learn.

MITili will combine research in cognitive psychology, neuroscience, economics, engineering, public policy, and other fields to investigate what methods and approaches to education work best for different people and subjects. The effort will also examine how to improve the educational experience within MIT and in the world at large, at all levels of teaching.

The findings that spin out of MITili will then be applied to improve teaching on campus and online.


First, I very much welcome this initiative by a prestigious research university seriously to research what MIT calls the ‘science of learning’. Research into learning has generally been relatively poorly funded compared with research into science, engineering and computing.

However, I hope that MIT will approach this in the right way and avoid the hubris they displayed when moving into MOOCs, where they ignored all previous research into online learning.

It is critical that those working in MITili do not assume that there is nothing already known about learning. Although exploring the contribution that the physical sciences, such as biological research into the relationship between brain functionality and learning, can make to our understanding of learning is welcome, as much attention needs to be paid to the environmental conditions that support or inhibit learning, to what kind of teaching approaches encourage different kinds of learning, and to the previous, well-grounded research into the psychology of learning.

In other words, not only a multi-disciplinary, but also a multi-epistemological approach will be needed, drawing as much from educational research and the social sciences as from the natural sciences. Is MIT willing and able to do this? After all, learning is a human, not a mechanical activity, when all is said and done.

Lessons about researching technology-enhanced instruction

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Meiori, Amalfi Coast

Meiori, Amalfi Coast – when it’s not raining

Lopes, V. and Dion, N. (2105) Pitfalls and Potential: Lessons from HEQCO-Funded Research on Technology-Enhanced Instruction Toronto ON: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario

Since it’s raining heavily here on the Amalfi Coast today for the first time in months, I might as well do another blog post.

What this report is about

HEQCO (the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario) is an independent advisory agency funded by the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities to provide recommendations for improving quality, accessibility, inter-institutional transfer, system planning, and effectiveness in higher education in Ontario. In 2011, HEQCO:

issued a call for research projects related to technology-enhanced instruction…. Now that the technology studies have concluded and that most have been published, this report draws some broader conclusions from their methods and findings.

What are the main conclusions?

1. There is no clear definition of what ‘technology’ means or what it refers to in many studies that investigate its impact on learning:

One assumes that the nature of the tools under investigation would have an impact on research design and on the metrics being measured. Yet little attention is paid to this problem, which in turns creates challenges when interpreting study findings.

2. There is no clear definition of blended or hybrid learning:

The proportion of online to face-to-face time, as well as the nature of the resources presented online, can both differ considerably. In a policy context, where we may wish to discuss issues across institutions or at a system level, the lack of consensus definitions can be particularly disruptive. In this respect, a universal definition of blended learning, applied consistently to guide practice across all colleges and universities, would be helpful.

3. Students need orientation to/training in the use of the technologies used in their teaching: they are not digital natives in the sense of being intuitively able to use technology for study purposes.

4. Instructors and teaching assistants should also be trained on the use and implementation of technology.

5. The simple presence of technology will rarely enhance a classroom. Instead, some thought has to go into integrating it effectively.

6. New technologies should be implemented not for their own sake but with a specific goal or learning outcome in mind.

7. Many of the HEQCO-funded studies, including several of those with complex study designs and rigorous methodologies, concluded that the technology being assessed had no significant effect on student learning.

8. Researchers in the HEQCO-funded studies faced challenges encouraging student participation, which often led to small sample sizes in situations where classroom-based interventions already limited the potential pool of participants.

9. The integration of technology in postsecondary education has progressed to such a point that we no longer need to ask whether we should use technology in the classroom, but rather which tool to use and how.

10. There is no single, unified, universally accepted model or theory that could be applied to ensure optimal learning in all educational settings.


I need to be careful in my comments, not because I’m ticked off with the weather here (hey, I live in Vancouver – we know all about rain), but because I’ve spent most of my working life researching technology-enhanced instruction, so what appears blindingly obvious to me is not necessarily obvious to others. So I don’t really know where to start in commenting on this report, except to say I found it immensely depressing.

Let me start by saying that there is really nothing in this report that was not known before the research was done (in other words, if they had asked me, I could have told HEQCO what to expect). I am a great supporter of action or participant research, because the person doing the research learns a great deal. But it is almost impossible to generalise such results, because they are so context-specific, and because the instructor is not usually trained in educational research, there are often – as with these studies – serious methodological flaws.

Second, trying to define technology is like trying to catch a moonbeam. The whole concept of defining a fixed state so that generalisations can be made to the same fixed state is entirely the wrong kind of framework for researching technology influences, because the technology is constantly changing. (This is just another version of the objectivist vs constructivist debate.)

So one major problem with this research is HEQCO’s expectations that the studies would lead to generalisations that could be applied across the system. If HEQCO wants that, it needs to use independent researchers and fund the interventions on a large enough scale – which of course means putting much more money into educational research than most governments are willing to risk. It also means sophisticated design that moves away from matched, controlled comparisons to in-depth case studies, using though rigorous qualitative research methodology.

This illustrates a basic problem with most educational research. It is done on such a small scale that the interventions are unlikely to lead to significant results. If you tweak just a little bit of a complex environment, any change is likely to be swamped by changes in other variables.

The second problem in most of the studies appears to be the failure to link technology-based interventions to changes in learning outcomes. In other words, did the use of technology lead to a different kind of learning? For instance, did the application of the technology lead students to think more critically or manage information well rather than reproduce or memorize what was being taught before? So another lesson is that you have to ask the right kind of research questions that focus on different kinds of learning outcomes.

Thus it is pointless to ask whether technology-based interventions lead to better learning outcomes than classroom teaching. There are too many other variables than technology to provide a definitive answer. The question to ask instead is: what are the required conditions for successful blended or hybrid learning, and what counts as success? The last part of the question means being clear on what different learning outcomes are being sought.

Indeed, there is a case to be made that it may be better not to set firm outcomes before the intervention, but to provide enough flexibility in the teaching context to see what happens when instructors and students have choices to make about technology use. This might mean looking backwards rather than forwards by identifying what most would deem highly successful technology interventions, then working back to see what conditions enabled this success.

But fiddling with the research methods won’t produce much if the intervention is too small scale. Nineteen little, independent studies are great for the instructors, but if we are to learn things than can be generalized, we need fewer but larger, more sophisticated, and more integrated studies. In the meantime, we are no further in being able to improve the design of blended or hybrid learning than before these research studies were done, which is why I am depressed.

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