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
- 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
- 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.
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.