Zawacki-Richter, O. and Jung, I (2023) Handbook of Open, Distance and Digital Education Singapore: Springer Hard copy: US$59.99 + tax, pdf download: free
Why this book?
This is another in the series of handbooks on open and distance learning, but including this time digital learning as well. It is a massive tome (over 1,400 pages). Fortunately the book is open access because it has been supported by:
- German Federal Ministry of Education and Research
- The University of Oldenburg
- Brigham Young University
- Japan Society for the Promotion of Science
- The International Christian University
and presumably by all the 100 or so contributors who offered their chapters without payment. (Declaration of interest: I was one of the contributors).
What is the book about?
In all, there are 80 chapters (too many to list in a blog) organised into seven sections, each with its own sub-editor:
- Introduction (by the main editors, Olaf Zawacki-Richter and Insung Jung)
- History, theory, and research (sub-editor Junhong Xiao)
- Global perspectives and internationalization (sub-editor Svenja Bedenlier)
- Organisation, leadership and change (sub-editor Ross Paul)
- Infrastructure, Quality Assurance and Support Systems (sub-editor Tian Belawati)
- Learners, Teachers, Media and Technology (sub-editor Vanessa P. Dennen)
- Design, Delivery and Assessment (sub-editor Richard E. West)
I will be honest: I haven’t read the whole book in detail (there’s not enough years of my life left for that). It’s not a book where you start at the beginning and work your way through. I have though looked at the book overall, and selected some chapters in those areas that were of particular interest to me. Thus this is very much a first impression. I will do a more thorough review of the whole book in later posts.
The two main editors (and presumably the Stringer team) have done a very good job at wrestling together a huge enterprise of this kind. Similarly, the sub-editors have done a good job at keeping their sections focused and coherent. The contributors include many of the well-established names in the area, as well as a good mix of new names from a wide range of countries, including the Global South. As the main editors wrote:
We believe that the notable strength of this handbook is in the diversity of
perspectives presented by our international authors who have created a comprehen-
sive knowledge base to examine the effects and issues of ODDE. With a broad range
of authors and editors coming from over 20 different countries in all parts of the
world, this handbook offers truly international perspectives on ODDE.
With this kind of book, though, you have to wonder who the intended audience is. The value of the book will be largely determined by the answer to this question. Here’s my take on this:
- for graduate students taking courses or programs about open, distance and digital learning the book will be a valuable resource, especially in pdf, where there are links to the chapters and references;
- however, it’s not a book I would recommend to instructors wanting to engage in or improve their online, open or distance learning. It is not pragmatic enough, although it might provide useful background reading, enabling them to locate their practices in a wider theoretical and historical framework;
- as the main editors say in their introduction (p.4): Informed by the historical roots of ODDE, the editors and authors of this handbook are shaping the field of ODDE scholarship, theory, and practice. In other words, it is primarily a book for scholars of open, distance and digital learning.
I have no problems with that, but at a time when there is a huge shift taking place in digital learning, with many teachers and instructors struggling to learn how to do things differently, the book will miss a huge and important constituency.
On the other hand there are useful contributions aimed at what the editors call the macro- and meso-levels: governments and senior managers. However, whether such potential readers are likely to have the time to wade through this tome is another matter.
Nevertheless, like the curate’s egg, the book is good in parts. Of course, that depends on your interests. I will focus on several chapters where I do have a specific interest, although there are others I could have chosen.
Part II: Chapter 6: Martin Weller: The Rise and Development of Digital Education
This is an excellent introduction that ‘highlights the intersection of digital and open education’. This includes a quick analysis of the strengths and limitations of
- the Web
- social media
This is a useful ‘framework’ for enabling instructors to understand the importance and relevance of digital education.
Part II: Chapter 7: Benedict du Boulay: Artificial Intelligence in Education and Ethics
This was the only chapter in the book specifically about AI. Because the ethical issues around AI are really important, I read this chapter with great expectations. It looks at the ways in which AI is used in three areas of activity:
- administrator facing
and the potential ethical issues arising, such as what kinds of data are collected and how they are used. du Boulay provides reference to some general ethical frameworks or guidelines and standards for the use of AI (for instance the European Union’s 2020 White Paper on Artificial Intelligence) and to similar ethical frameworks for teachers, but there seems to be a long way to go to bring these ethical standards for AI specifically into education.
I interpreted the chapter as a useful warning shot across the bows about the dangers ahead, but it didn’t provide me with a map to get around the dangers. I left with the feeling (especially in the light of developments such as ChatGPT) that the technology is racing ahead of our ability to control it. I really would have liked some solid guidance for teachers and administrators on this issue, but it wasn’t there in this chapter.
Part IV Organization, Leadership and Change
There are twelve chapters in this section, including my contribution to the book. My chapter focuses on five strategies to support innovation in teaching in ODDE, and the need for ODDE institutions in particular to be at the leading edge of innovation in teaching if they are to survive, as almost all post-secondary institutions are now moving into digital learning.
Ross Paul, the sub-editor of this section, takes a careful look at the impact of Covid-19 and emergency remote teaching on both conventional and ODDE institutions. He also notes that an increasingly polarized political environment in many countries threatens to undermine public trust in government and, by extension, all public institutional leaders.
I found Jennie Glennie and Ross Paul’s article about strategic repositioning of South African universities in the post-Covid era to be fascinating and a good discussion of the merits and drawbacks of strategic planning.
I also enjoyed Thomas Hülsmann’s chapter which looks at the costs of Distance Education and basically argues that under Modern Monetary Theory (distance) education should be free for learners. I’m not buying his argument (forgive the pun) although I approve of the sentiment but it is a provocative read.
I found this section the most interesting (not just because I had a chapter in it). The topic of leadership and management in ODDE does not always get the attention it deserves, and there were several chapters that provided strategies and guidelines for institutional leaders and managers based on relevant actual cases of change and leadership in ODDE.
I could go on. However, these are just my particular interests. Yours will be different. The good thing is that you don’t have to have a 25 pound pre-industrial technological artifact delivered to your office. You can download the whole book for free and then use the contents page (p.ix) to go directly to the chapters that might interest you.
This book will be valuable for many. The effort involved in just taking a look is not much, and may prove worthwhile depending on your interests. It will be particularly valuable if you are a scholar or critic of ODDE.
Indeed, many of the articles are now relevant to any post-secondary institution or system. Digital learning is removing the boundaries between open, distance and conventional education. But most humans cannot handle easily the breadth and scope of a book like this. (I’m going to let ChatGPT try a review).
I guess my point here is that these handbooks are too wide-ranging and not detailed enough to justify the huge amount of work done by everyone involved. Indeed, it would have been better to have had seven more focused and detailed books, on each of the main sections.
Indeed, I question the whole ROI of this effort. It has been a huge amount of work. If that same time and energy had been invested in a 21st century technology – say a cMOOC – where all these subject experts – and those doing interesting work in this area who are not yet recognised or in the ODDE family – could participate and share ideas, the impact could be much wider and justify the effort. It is more than time to rethink how we advance knowledge in a digital era.