August 14, 2018

Review of ‘Online Distance Education: Towards a Research Agenda.’

Drop-out: the elephant in the DE room that no-one wants to talk about

Drop-out: the elephant in the DE room that no-one wants to talk about

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
  • silence
  • 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
  • accreditation
  • 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.

In summary

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.


Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 8: Communicate, communicate, communicate

© Care2, 2012

In this post I stress the importance of ongoing, continuing communication between instructor and students in an online environment, and in particular for this to be carefully managed in order to control the instructor’s workload.

This is the ninth in a series of 10 posts on designing quality online courses. The nine steps are aimed mainly at instructors who are new to online learning, or have tried online learning without much help or success. The first eight posts (which should be read before this post) are:

Nine steps to quality online learning: Introduction

Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 1: Decide how you want to teach online

Nine steps to quality online-learning: Step 2: Decide on what kind of online course

Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 3: Work in a Team

Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 4: Build on existing resources

Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 5: Master the technology

Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 6: Set appropriate learning goals

Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 7: Design course structure and learning activities

A condensed version covering all the main posts in this series can be found on the Contact North web site: What you need to know about teaching online: nine key steps. (French version: Ce que le personnel enseignant doit savoir sur l’enseignment en ligne: neuf étapes clés‘)

The ten posts are also being translated into Portuguese by Professor Luis Roberto Brudna Holzle, Federal University, Brazil, available at Science Blogs: Nove passos para uma aprendizagem on-line de qualidade

Instructor presence and the loneliness of the long distance learner

Research has clearly indicated that ‘perceived instructor presence’ is a critical factor for online student success and satisfaction. Students need to know that the instructor is following the online study activities of students and is actively participating during the delivery of the course.

The reasons for this are obvious. Online students often study from home, and if they are fully online may never meet another student on the same course. They do not get the important non-verbal cues from the instructor or other students, such as the stare at a stupid question, the intensity in presentation that shows the passion of the instructor for the topic, the ‘throwaway’ comment that indicates the instructor doesn’t have much time for a particular idea, or the nodding of other students’ heads when another student makes a good point or asks a pertinent question. An online student does not have the opportunity for a spontaneous discussion by bumping into the instructor in the corridor.

However, a skilled instructor can create just as compelling a learning environment online, but it needs to be deliberately planned and designed. It also has to be done in such a way that the instructor’s workload can be controlled.

Setting students’ expectations

It is essential right at the start of a course for the instructor to  make it clear to students what is expected of them during the delivery of the online course. Most institutions have a code of behaviour for the use of computers and the Internet, but these are often lengthy documents written in a bureaucratic language, and are more concerned with spam, general online behaviour such as ‘flaming’ or bullying, or hacking. Consequently I tend to  develop a set of specific requirements for student behaviour that is related to the needs of the particular course, and deals in particular with the academic requirements of studying online. I give some examples below:

  • all students on the course are expected to read and contribute comments in the instructor-set online discussion topics within the specified timescale for each discussion
  • discussion topics are related to marked assignments; thus students who fully participate in the online discussions are more likely to be better prepared for the assignments
  • always respect other students’ contributions. If you think that someone else’s comment is dumb, politely provide an alternative view
  • when commenting, always add something new to the discussion, rather than merely agreeing or disagreeing
  • keep on topic; if you want to discuss something else, establish a new discussion topic or thread, or establish a blog or wiki. If you want to discuss topics outside the course, use Facebook or the student online ‘cafe’ that goes with the course.
  • if you have a question, post it in the appropriate discussion forum, so that other students as well as the instructor can contribute to the answer.
  • if you want to discuss something privately, send the instructor an e-mail
  • use quotations from other sources to support your point where appropriate, but always fully reference material taken from another source (with examples of how to do that, including web-based material and quoting other students’ comments). Lay out the consequences of plagiarism in terms of institutional policy and show how easy it is to detect plagiarism.
  • before posting a question, check that the answer is not already there within the course materials – you may have missed it on the first reading (and direct the student to it if they still can’t find it rather than answer the question yourself.)
  • the instructor will respond to questions and e-mails within 24 hours, except over weekends and public holidays.

I usually set a small task in the first week of a course that enables students to immediately apply these guidelines. For instance I may ask them to post their bio and respond to other students bio posts, or ask them to comment on a topic related to the course and their views on this before the course really begins, using the discussion forum facility in the LMS. I pay particular attention to this activity, because research indicates that students who do not respond to set activities in the first week are at high risk of non-completion. I always follow up with a phone call or e-mail to non-respondents in this first week, and ensure that each student is following the guidelines. I find it useful to do this, no matter how experienced students are in studying online. What I’m doing is making my presence felt. Students know that I am following what they do from the outset.

Different courses may require different guidelines. For instance a math or science course may not put so much emphasis on discussion forums, but more on self-assessed computer-marked multiple choice questions. It should be made clear whether students must do these or if they are optional, or how much time should be spent as a minimum on doing such non-graded activities, and their relationship to activities that are graded or assessed. They should get such an activity within the first week of a course, and the instructor should follow up with those that avoid the activity or have difficulties with it.

Lastly, instructors should follow their own guidelines. Your comments should be helpful and constructive, rather than negative. You should actively encourage discussion by being ‘present’ and stepping in on a discussion where necessary – for instance if the comments are getting off topic.

Teaching philosophy and online communication

Instructors who have a more objectivist approach to teaching are more likely to focus on whether students are not only covering the necessary content but are also understanding it. This often requires students going back over content, providing misunderstood or difficult content in an alternative manner (e.g. a video as well as text), and instructor or automated (computer-based) feedback. Most LMSs will provide summaries of student activities, and it is important to track each individual student’s progress. Instructors with a more constructivist approach are more likely to emphasize online discussion and argument.

Whatever your approach, students want to know where you stand on some of the topics. Thus while it is necessary often to present content objectively with an ‘on the one hand… on the other…’ approach, students usually feel more committed to a course where the instructor’s own views or approach to a topic are made clear. This can be done in a variety of ways, such as a podcast on a topic, or an intervention in a discussion, or a short video of how you would go about solving an equation. These personal interventions have to be carefully judged, but can make a big difference to student commitment and participation.

Choice of medium

There is now a wide variety of media by which instructors can communicate with online students, or students can communicate with each other. Basically, though, they fall into two categories: synchronous or asynchronous communication media. Asynchronous media would include e-mail, text or voice messages on mobile phones, podcasts or recorded video clips, online discussion forums within an LMS, Twitter, and Facebook. Synchronous media would include voice phone calls, text and audio conferencing over the web (e.g. Blackboard Collaborate), or even video-conferencing.

I much prefer asynchronous communication for two reasons. Students are often working and have busy lives; asynchronous messages are more convenient for them. They are permanent and can be accessed at any time. Also, they are much more convenient for me as an instructor. For instance I can go to a conference even in another country yet still log on to my course when I have some free time.

However, asynchronous communication can be frustrating when complex decisions need to be made within a tight timescale, such as deciding the roles and responsibilities for group work, the final draft of a group assignment, or a student’s lack of understanding that is blocking any further progress on the topic. Then synchronous communication is better. I also sometimes use Blackboard Collaborate to bring all the students together once or twice during a semester, to get a feeling of community at the start of a course, to establish my ‘presence’ as a real person with a face or voice at the start of a course, or to wrap up a course at the end, and I try to provide plenty of opportunity for questions and discussion by the students themselves. However, these synchronous ‘lectures’ are always optional as there will always be some students who cannot be present (although they can be made available in recorded format).

Managing online discussion

Whole books have been written on this topic (see the end of this post for a list of references). However, there are some basic guidelines to follow.

  • Use the threaded discussion forum facility in the LMS (in some LMSs the instructor has to choose to switch this on). I like to use the LMS forum discussion tool because I can organize the discussion by separate topics (a forum for each topic). In a threaded discussion, a student comment on someone else’s post on a topic is posted next to the post, allowing either the student making the original post or other students to respond to the comment. This way a ‘thread’ of comments linked to a specific topic can be followed. The alternative, comments posted in time order, makes it difficult to follow a thread of an argument. A well chosen topic or sub-topic will often have 10 or more threaded comments, and the instructor can tell at a glance which topics have gained ‘traction’. Also I like to keep a least some of the discussion ‘private’., i.e. just between the students on the course, as I am using the discussion forum to identify areas of misunderstanding and to develop skills such as critical thinking and clear communication.

Example of a threaded discussion topic

  • have clear goals for discussion forums. This will vary from subject to subject, but I use discussion forums to identify misunderstandings, to encourage active participation of students, to raise topical issues related to the course, to develop student communication skills, and above all to enable students to increase deep understanding or ‘knowledge construction’ through the testing of ideas and the questioning of the content, the instructor and other students. Even in numerical or science-based courses, there is often scope for discussion of experimental results, theory, or the relationship of the course topics to real events (e.g. discussions around recent research on the Higgs boson, the collapse of a mall roof in engineering).
  • choose topics that lend themselves to discussion, or which avoid a ‘yes/no’ or ‘I agree or disagree’ response. The topic should require students to draw on the course content, but also to go outside the course content and relate the topic to external events, either in their own lives or in the news. The topic should allow students to draw from their own experience as well.
  • the topic should directly relate to assignment or assessment questions for which students get a grade. I don’t assess the discussion contributions themselves; I prefer the students to see the intrinsic value to them of participating. However, many instructors do give a grade for discussion contributions.
  • don’t hog the conversation. It is a mistake for the instructor to respond immediately to every comment. This prevents other students from making their own contribution; they will wait until they see your reaction. Also it increases the workload. Encourage other students to respond and build a ‘culture’ of the students being in control, while knowing that you are there, watching and stepping in where necessary.
  • give students clear roles. For instance ask them to take it in turns to summarize a discussion. You may ask some students to moderate a discussion, but keep an eye on it in case it gets out of hand.
  • ensure that all students contribute to discussions in some way. I keep a spreadsheet of all students and when they contribute to a discussion. Some LMSs will now do this for you automatically. I use phone calls or private e-mails sometimes to prompt students or to check if there is a problem. The discussion forums are an excellent way to track whether students are ‘missing’ or not keeping up with the course.
  • I try to be ‘present’ in each discussion topic at least once a week, more often if possible. I allow at least one hour a day to track discussions.
  • you need a minimum of 20 students at graduate level to get good discussions going, and 30 at undergraduate level. Over 50 students in a group is probably too many.

Take a look particularly at Gilly Salmon’s book ‘e-Moderating’ and the Paloff and Pratt books for more guidance on handling online communication.

Cultural and other student differences

The most interesting and exciting courses that I have taught have included a wide range of international students from different countries. However, even if all the students are within one hour’s commute of the institution, they will have different learning styles and approaches to studying online. This is why it is important to be clear about the desired learning outcomes, and the goals for discussion forums. Students learn in different ways. If one of the desired learning outcomes is critical thinking, students can achieve that in different ways. Some may do a lot of reading, seeking out different viewpoints. Others may prefer to work mainly in the forums. I don’t really care how they achieve the learning outcomes so long as they do. Some students learn a lot by lurking but never contribute directly. Now if you are trying to improve international students’ language skills, then you may require them to participate in the online discussions, and will assess them on their contributions. However, I try not force students to participate. I see it as my challenge to make the topic interesting enough to draw them in.

Having said that, much can be done to facilitate or encourage students to participate. I taught one graduate course where I had about 20 of the 30 students in my class with Chinese surnames. From the student records and the short bios they posted I noted that a few students were from the Chinese mainland, several more were living in Hong Kong, and the rest had Canadian addresses. However even the latter consisted of two quite different groups: recent immigrants to Canada, and at least one student whose great grandfather had been one of the first immigrants to Canada in the 19th century. Although it is dangerous to rely on stereotypes, I noticed that the further away ‘psychologically’ or geographically the student was, the less they were inclined to participate online. This was partly a language issue but also a cultural issue. The mainland Chinese in particular were very reluctant to post comments. Fortunately we had a visiting Chinese scholar with us and she advised us to get the three mainland Chinese women on the course to develop a collective contribution to the discussion and then ask them to send it to me to check that it was ‘appropriate’ before they posted. I made a few comments then sent it back and they then posted it. Gradually by the end of the course they each had the confidence to post individually their own comments. But it was a difficult process for them. (On the other hand, I had Mexican students who commented on everything, especially the World Cup soccer tournament that was on at the time).


This is a big topic and difficult to cover adequately in one blog post. However, I cannot overemphasize the importance of instructor online presence in getting students to successfully complete an online course. (Incidentally I suspect that the lack of instructor online presence in the MIT and Stanford MOOCs is one reason so few students complete the certificates. It is probably not unconnected that Udemy, one of the platforms used to support MOOCs, has recently completely redesigned its web interface to allow for more interaction between the instructor and students).

There is an unlimited number of ways in which you, as an instructor, can communicate now with online students, but it is also essential at the same time to control your workload. You cannot be available 24×7, and this means designing the online delivery in such a way that your ‘presence’ is used to best effect. At the same time, I find communication with online students the most interesting and satisfying part of teaching online – but then that is a result of my philosophy of teaching.

Further reading (this is just a small sample of many publications on this topic)

Anderson, T., Rourke, L., Garrison, R., & Archer, W. (2001). Assessing teaching presence in a computer conferencing context. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, Vol. 5, No.2.

Baker, C. (2010) The Impact of Instructor Immediacy and Presence for Online Student Affective Learning, Cognition, and Motivation The Journal of Educators Online Vol. 7, No. 1

Garrison, D. R. & Cleveland-Innes, M. (2005). Facilitating cognitive presence in online learning: Interaction is not enough. American Journal of Distance Education, Vol. 19, No. 3

Harasim, L. (2012) Learning Theory and Online Technologies New York/London: Routledge

Jonassen, D., Davidson, M., Collins, M., Campbell, J. and Haag, B. (1995) ‘Constructivism and Computer-mediated Communication in Distance Education’, American Journal of Distance Education, Vol. 9, No. 2, pp 7-26.

Paloff, R. and Pratt, K. (2007) Building Online Learning Communities San Francisco: John Wiley and Co.

Salmon, G. (2000) E-moderating London/New York: Routledge

Sheridan, K. and Kelly, M.  (2010) The Indicators of Instructor Presence that are Important to Students in Online Courses MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, Vol. 6, No. 4

JET&S: Special journal issue on technology supported cognition and exploratory learning

The Journal of Educational Technology and Society, Vol. 15, No.1, has a special edition on technology supported cognition and exploratory learning.

From the editorial:

The IADIS CELDA 2010 conference aims to address the main issues concerned with evolving learning processes and supporting pedagogies and applications in the digital age. There have been advances in both cognitive psychology and computing that have affected the educational arena. The convergence of these two disciplines is increasing at a fast pace and affecting academia and professional practice in many ways. Paradigms such as just-in-time learning, constructivism, student-centered learning and collaborative approaches have emerged and are being supported by technological advancements such as simulations, virtual reality and multi-agents systems. These developments have created both opportunities and areas of serious concerns.  

Editors of this special issue selected a number of papers presented at IADIS CELDA 2010 conference that were very highly rated by reviewers, well received at the conference, and nicely complementary in terms of research, theory, and implications for learning and instruction. These papers have been edited and revised based on feedback from conference participants and subsequent review by the editors of this special issue and reviewers recruited to assist in this process. The organizing committee of IADIS CELDA 2010 proposed a special issue of Educational Technology & Society Journal based on selected papers from IADIS CELDA 2010. The result is the five papers included in this special issue. 

As well as the five special papers, there are another 26 papers in this issue covering a diverse range of topics, including (at the post-secondary level):

  • Effects of Different Levels of Online User Identity Revelation
  • Student Satisfaction, Performance, and Knowledge Construction in Online Collaborative Learning: a cross-cultural perspective
  • A Context-Aware Mobile Learning System for Supporting Cognitive Apprenticeships in Nursing Skills Training
  • Exploring Non-traditional Learning Methods in Virtual and Real-world Environments
  • Providing Adaptivity in Moodle LMS Courses
  • Agent Prompts: Scaffolding for Productive Reflection in an Intelligent Learning Environment

Although the papers are in English, most of the authors are from either Eastern Europe or East Asia.

Posts from a foreign land: Online Educa 2011, No. 2: Corporate Learning ( #oeb11 )


I realise that there’s only one thing more ‘dead’ than yesterday’s newspaper and that’s yesterday’s conference, so I apologise for the gap of two days between the end of the Online Educa Berlin conference and this report, but it’s a long way from Berlin to Vancouver, and like many other things in life, jet lag and travel fatigue get worse as you get older. Anyway, enough excuses. (For my first post on the conference, see Posts from a foreign land: Online Educa 2011, No.2)

There was a whole strand of sessions at the conference focused on online learning in the business sector. One of my main goals was to see what the public post-secondary education sector can learn from the use of  online learning in the corporate training sector. I managed to get to four of the 14 sessions in Business Educa (including the two plenaries for the Business strand), but I also wanted to attend some other sessions that were highly relevant from outside the Business Educa strand, so I had to make some compromises. Here’s what I picked up from the Business sessions. I will focus here on straight reporting, and I won’t report on every speaker, just those that were of specific interest to me (hey, it’s my blog). Nevertheless apologies to those that I have omitted.

Plenary session: Preparing for the Future

The topic of the session was: “What will learning and development look like in the future and how do we prepare for success in these new worlds?” Good questions, and so relevant to the public sector as well.

Laura Overton, Towards Maturity, UK.

Laura Overton reported on a benchmarking study of issues in corporate learning from leading companies across Europe. Here are the main points that I took from this presentation:

  • the use of learning technologies for corporate training and learning is broadening, both in the extent to which they are used, and in the range of tools being used
  • the focus is more on staff sharing knowledge and reaching out beyond departmental boundaries
  • part of this is a focus on identifying and disseminating new ways of doing things to respond to rapid change in the business environment
  • improving efficiency – but this was NOT the main priority (a significant change from several years ago)

In particular, European businesses face the following challenges:

  • uncertainty in the environment (this applies to the non-profit as well as profit sector) and the need to innovate
  • can the workforce change fast enough for companies to survive?

In other words, the focus is on learning to better prepare the organization for change.

Norman Kamikow, MediaTech Publishing, USA

MediaTech is a large US publishing house. Kamikow reported on another benchmarking study of Chief Learning Officers in ‘successful’ companies in the USA which focused on:

  • learning strategy
  • leadership commitment to training
  • learning execution
  • learning impact
  • business performance results

The main challenges identified by CLOs were:

  • understanding the business they were in
  • better integration of training with work activities
  • being agile enough to deliver new training quickly
  • scaling training across the organization
  • delivering training to virtual/global workforces
  • using business intelligence to identify training needs and identifying appropriate metrics to measure success in training.

Main strategies for meeting these challenges

  • improved governance/management of learning across the organization
  • hybrid roles: trainers embedded within the organization
  • long term goals for learning combined with short-term capabilities to deliver

Willem Manders and Hans de Zwart, Shell Petroleum, Netherlands

Learning Scenarios: ‘A scenario is basically a story that describes a possible future. Building and using scenarios can help people explore what the future might look like. Decision makers can use scenarios to think about critical risks and opportunities in the future and to explore ways in which these might unfold. Scenarios are a vehicle to highlight the critical uncertainties ahead that might affect learning.’

I was particularly interested in this presentation, as I have been using scenario building to help faculty to ‘imagine’ the future and how they could use new technologies for teaching. Manders and de Zwart described their process, which requires ‘evidence-based brainstorming’ about the future, using four key concepts:

  • an analysis of the external and internal factors that influence the environment of corporate learning
  • identifying the underlying forces driving change
  • use a broad set of key drivers to build mini scenarios
  • combine and consolidate the mini scenarios.

They have created an excellent web site on learning scenarios.

Altogether this was an excellent session, although the attempt to build a conversation in a ballroom with over 100 participants was a brave failure.

Building performance at the heart of the workplace

This session was about how to enhance directly learner productivity and performance. Richard Straub, the chair, introduced the session by pointing out that the economic recession has forced companies to find new ways to provide corporate learning.

Lance Dublin, Dublin Consulting, USA

Yet another benchmarking study of corporate training strategies in leading multinationals. Dublin’s main point was the need to collapse the time of training – in the new environment, time, not money, is the key factor, because of the need to respond to rapid change. This means delivering learning at the point of need, before, during and after the ‘event’, combining training, salespeople and customers. To do that requires the following:

  • ‘off-the-shelf’ tools (no LMS) and be agnostic in the choice of tools: whatever does the job best
  • continuous learning
  • respect workers’ time: just in time and just enough
  • using social networking for the multiplier effect and leverage in-company knowledge
  • build learning environments, not learning events (no courses)
  • a focus on job performance, not measurement of learning

Boyd Glover, Dixons retail, UK

Boyd Glover’s session was entitled: Can learning be fun? Fusing formal and informal learning to build performance in the workplace. The presentation was certainly fun, and, just as significantly, discussed the issue of what is best done through formal learning and what is best done through informal learning. He divided learning as follows:

  • formal: first time learning; wanting more
  • informal learning: trying to remember earlier learning; dealing with change; dealing with things that go wrong in the workplace.

The company has made its learning material available to employees at any time, from anywhere. The big struggle was to get the training (delivered mainly through an LMS and short videos) outside the company’s IT firewall. Once that was done, 20% of the staff were using informal learning in their own time, without any requirement or company incentives.

This was another excellent session, with good presentations and solid content.

Crossing boundaries and cultures

Presentations in this session aimed at demonstrating practical ways to overcome the challenges of diverse languages and cultures in successfully implementing learning across cultural borders.

David Mallon, Bersin and Associates, USA

This session was entitled: ‘Corporate Learning Goes Borderless’. It was yet another study based on benchmarking successful multinationals and their training practices. I picked up the following from this session:

  • build capabilities, i.e. teach how to learn, rather than competency, because the environment changes too quickly and the contexts in different countries are so different
  • build learning environments, rather than courses
  • decentralize the learning, to bring it closer to the local work context
  • use learning technologies for speed and reach
  • use these methods to instill the company’s organizational culture across all world locations.

Virpi Slotte, AAC Global, Finland

This was a fascinating presentation about teaching children in 40 different countries about Internet safety, through the use of online digital stories. This meant delivering similar messages in 40 different languages. The stories were in cartoon form (drawings and simple animation), with no spoken narration, but balloon bubbles for written speech. Not only was the language changed for each country, but also images and context to represent cultural diversity (for instance, a Chinese village was used for the Chinese version, whereas an Austrian village was used for the German version). The project was sponsored by Microsoft, which enabled the development of different versions of the materials, but Microsoft had no direct editorial influence on the project. There was no information on the learning effectiveness of the project.

This session provided starkly different approaches to crossing cultural boundaries. This is an area where there are many challenges and much more research is needed on the effects of the globalization of learning.


Altogether these were very interesting sessions. There are of course major differences between the corporate sector and the public sector, but my impression is that there is much to learn from the corporate sector about online learning. I need to reflect more on this, but in the meantime, here are some preliminary conclusions from these sessions:

  • benchmarking of practice from ‘successful’ organizations was heavily used in these sessions; however, how well does that work when many of these successful organizations themselves are under threat from new competitors who by definition are not yet considered successful but are competing because they do things differently?
  • change management is becoming a central focus of corporate learning
  • innovation and new ways of doing things are becoming more important than doing the same things even better, with implications for training methods and choice of technology
  • building learning environments that deliver training at the time and place where it is needed is more important that formal courses away from the work context
  • the corporate sectors focuses more on measuring performance resulting from learning than measuring learning itself.

I am very grateful to the excellent presenters in these sessions.

I will do one more post on this conference, which will cover the sessions I went to from the public sector, and some brief comments on the exhibition.


IRRODL June 2011

For the very few readers of this site who are not already subscribers, the latest edition of the International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning is now available.

First of all, congratulations to Terry Anderson and his team at Athabasca University for gaining recognition of IRRODL by its being indexed in Thomson’s Social Science Citation Index (SSCI), apparently essential for authors if they are to be recognized for their publications by tenure and promotion panels. It shouldn’t really be necessary, because it is the outstanding journal in its field, in terms of the quality and frequency of its publications.

There is no single theme in this edition so I will plagiarize (sorry: reference) Terry Anderson’s own editorial to summarize what’s in it:

Research articles in this issue cover

We also include a research note on the value of start-of-class surveys and a book review that looks at the impact of e-learning on globalization of higher education.

As always, issue 12.5 features contributions from many countries. There are three articles from the USA, two from Sweden, and one each from Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom, Ghana, and Spain.