First impressions

Last week, I published a ‘quick and dirty’ review of the recently published Handbook of Open, Distance, and Digital Education, edited by Olaf Zawacki-Richter and Insung Jung, mainly because I wanted to draw attention to this massive work. The great feature of this book is its free, online access, so you can just go and dip in to it whenever you have the time.

However, for a single blog post, I could do only a superficial review of a book that’s over 1,400 pages long, a sort of first impression. Even this involved over five hours’ reading, before I could even begin writing the post. Nevertheless, I confess to having read less than 10 per cent of the chapters for the review.

This really isn’t fair to all the over 80 contributors and the editors who put in so much work for this book. For instance, Stephen Downes complained that I didn’t read even his chapter, which is a bit the like the Pope personally admonishing you for missing mass (mea culpa, Stephen).

A reviewing strategy

In my preliminary review, I noted that each of the six sections is worth its own separate book, so what I plan to do is review each of the six sections in more detail so that my readers will have a better idea of what’s in the book, with perhaps a seventh post that looks at the book as a whole. 

I plan to give a brief account of what’s in each chapter in each section, with a review of the whole section, using the following criteria:

  1. What is new in this section? What is now covered well that wasn’t covered in previous works of this kind?
  2. What is missing? What should have been included under this topic? In particular, does this section address the issues we are currently facing in ODDE? Does it focus just on one country or region, or does it apply globally?
  3. Is it accurate or fair? Is it sufficiently scholarly/based in theory, research or practice? Does it take into account a range of relevant facts and approaches or is it too pedantic/narrowly focused?
  4. Are there practical lessons that a reader (instructor, administrator or scholar) can take away from this section?

If there are other criteria you think I should use, do let me know, using the comment box at the end of this post. I probably won’t be able to do a review of each article in detail – there are 8-10 in each section – but I hope you can learn enough from the review as to whether to follow up further by reading the articles themselves.

I also hope the reviews will stimulate discussion about the issues raised by the chapters in this book – again, please use the comment box at the end of the posts. I hope to get a least one section reviewed each week.


  1. Indeed, I applaud your deference and utmost professionalism Professor Bates to our colleagues around the world for your devotion and receptivity to ensuring a ‘fair and balanced’ assessment of the book. Unsurprisingly, there will be authors who feel their unique contributions to the Cosmos will be lost without a detailed review whilst others may hope you remain under the radar with a cursory review because the old adage ‘be careful what you wish for’ applies here. Handbooks are by their very nature a mixed bag – we all know it, most of us have contributed to one – sometimes our work was top-notch and other times perhaps more an expedient opportunity for a quick CV addition. I have read eight chapters in detail in this handbook – two were terrific, two were good, and four would not make the grade for any reputable journal. Last year I did a review on a very good leadership book on online and distance learning – 333 pages, 14 chapters, and my main take-away from the book was a mismatch between my available time and the realities of a modern, fast paced job in the university. My review was 3000 words for 14 chapters and I tried to be perhaps more detailed that most of us give book reviews. This means a formal review of a 1400 page book could approach 15,000 words – well just shoot me, I surrender. I am quasi-retired with a lot of time to devote to my guitar, golf, and Netflix so I could delve in to over-written books but I choose not to do this. As you noted in your first cursory review that a detailed review a book of 1400 pages one might have already passed into online heaven one could finish the book. I used to think the only reason we enjoyed the pleasure of a 007 film minimally every three years was because of market demand and the uniqueness of the 007 persona. This is partially true. It’s equally true that whomever is playing James Bond, 007 at a given time must weave their way through Ian Fleming’s MI-6 1450 page Handbook of Spying which takes them at least three years (that’s a touch of humour). Perhaps in the final analysis, the issue here is strategy versus tactics. The deceptive size matters debate comes to mind but the fact is that more is not synonymous with better, usually quite the opposite. And whether we acknowledge it or not, when anything is free and of mixed quality it can have adverse impacts The practical issue here is handbooks are simply not worth the investment of time to create or to use effectively (albeit except for editors) and the modern professional in 2023 does not have the time nor interest to weave through 1400 pages in their spare time. Developing a handbook, despite the deceptively sexy illusion of all this knowledge in one place, is poor strategy. The editors intent in the current endeavour is admirable but misplaced in today’s world. We may be at a crossroads for the profession for rethinking the entire publishing continuum for optimising a value proposition that bridges theory and practice with manageable length and foci that provides useful tools for the 21st century professional. We may even be able to ask ‘Q’ at MI-6 about any new digital devices that could help us in this process.


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