The dissemination of research in online learning: a lesson from the EDEN Research Workshop

November 5, 2014 Tony Bates
The Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford

The Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford

The EDEN Research Workshop

I’m afraid I have sadly neglected my blog over the last two weeks, as I was heavily engaged as the rapporteur for the EDEN 8th Research Workshop on challenges for research on open and distance learning, which took place in Oxford, England last week, with the UK Open University as the host and sponsor. I was also there to receive a Senior Fellowship from EDEN, awarded at the Sheldonian Theatre, the official ceremonial hall of the University of Oxford.

There were at the workshop almost 150 participants from more than 30 countries, in the main part European, with over 40 selected research papers/presentations. The workshop was highly interactive, with lots of opportunity for discussion and dialogue, and formal presentations were kept to a minimum. Together with some very stimulating keynotes, the workshop provided a good overview of the current state of online, open and distance learning in Europe. From my perspective it was a very successful workshop.

My full, factual report on the workshop will be published next week as a series of three blog posts by Antonio Moreira Texeira, the President of EDEN, and I will provide a link when these are available, but in the meantime I would like to reflect more personally on one of the issues that came out of the workshop, as this issue is more broadly applicable.

Houston, we have a problem: no-one reads our research

Well, not no-one, but no-one outside the close group of those doing research in the area. Indeed, although in general the papers for the workshop were of high quality, there were still far too many papers that suggested the authors were unaware of key prior research in the area.

But the real problem is that most practitioners – instructors and teachers – are blissfully unaware of the major research findings about teaching and learning online and at a distance. The same applies to the many computer scientists who are now moving into online learning with new products, new software and new designs. MOOCs are the most obvious example. Andrew Ng, Sebastian Thrun and Daphne Koller – all computer scientists – designed their MOOCs without any consideration about what was already known about online learning – or indeed teaching or learning in general, other than their experience as lecturers at Stanford University. The same applies to MIT’s and Harvards’s courses on edX, although MIT/Harvard are at least  starting to do their own research, but again ignoring or pretending that nothing else has been done before. This results in mistakes being made (unmonitored student discussion), the re-invention of the wheel hyped as innovation or major breakthroughs (online courses for the masses), and surprised delight at discovering what has already been known for many years (e.g. students like immediate feedback).

Perhaps of more concern though is that as more and more instructors move into blended and hybrid learning, they too are unaware of best practices based on research and evaluation of online learning, and knowledge about online learners and their behaviour. This applies not only to online course design in general, but also particularly to the management of online discussions.

It will of course be argued that MOOCs and hybrid learning are somehow different from previous online and distance courses and therefore the research does not apply. These are revolutionary innovations and therefore the rules of the game have changed. What was known before is therefore no longer relevant. This kind of thinking though misunderstands the nature of sustainable innovation, which usually builds on past knowledge – in other words, successful innovation is more cumulative than a leap into the dark. Indeed, it is hard to imagine any field other than education where innovators would blithely ignore previous knowledge. (‘I don’t know anything about mechanical engineering, but I have a great idea for a bridge.’ Let’s see how far that will get you.)

Who’s to blame?

Well, no-one really. There are several reasons why research in online learning is not better disseminated:

  • research into any kind of learning is not easy; there are just so many different variables or conditions that affect learning in any context. This has several consequences:
    • it is difficult to generalize, because learning contexts vary so much
    • clearly significant results are difficult to find when so many other variables are likely to affect learning outcomes
    • thus results are usually hedged with so many reservations that any clear message gets lost
  • because research into online learning is out of the mainstream of educational research it has been poorly funded by the research councils. Thus most studies are small scale, qualitative and practitioner-driven. This means interventions are small scale and therefore do not identify major changes in learning, and the results are mainly of use to the practitioner who did the research, so don’t get more widely disseminated
  • most research in online learning is published in journals that are not read by either practitioners or computer scientists (who publish in their own journals that no-one else reads). Furthermore, there are a large number of journals in the field, so integration of research findings is difficult, although Anderson and Zawacki-Richter (2104) have done a good job in bringing a lot of the research together in one publication – but which unfortunately is nearly 500 pages long, and hence unlikely to reach many practitioners, at least in a digestible form
  • online learning is still a relatively new field, less than 20 years old, so it is taking time to build a solid foundation of verifiable research in which people can have confidence
  • most instructors at a post-secondary level have no formal training in any form of teaching and learning, so there are difficulties in bringing research and best practices to their attention.

What can be done?

First let me state clearly that I believe there is a growing and significant body of evidence about best practices in online learning that is evidence-based and research-driven. These best practices are general enough to be applied in a wide variety of contexts. In fact I will shortly write a post called ‘Ten things we know from research in online learning’ that will set out some of the most important results and their implications for teaching and learning online. However, we need more attempts to pull together the scattered research into more generalizable conclusions and more widely distributed forms of communication.

At the same time, we need also to get out the message about the complexity of teaching and learning, without which it will be difficult to evaluate or appreciate fully the findings from research in online learning. It is understanding that:

  • learning is a process, not a product,
  • there are different epistemological positions about what constitutes knowledge and how to teach it,
  • above all, identifying desirable learning outcomes is a value-driven decision; and acceptance of a diversity of values about what constitutes knowledge is to be welcomed, not restricted, in education, so long as there is genuine choice for teachers and learners.
  • however, if we want to develop the skills needed in a digital age, the traditional lecture-based model, whether offered face-to-face or online, is inadequate
  • academic knowledge is different from everyday knowledge; academic knowledge means transforming understanding of the world through evidence, theory and rational argument/dialogue, and effective teachers/instructors are essential for this
  • learning is heavily influenced by the context in which it takes place: one critical variable is the quality of course design; another is the role of an expert instructor. These variables are likely to be more important than any choice of technology or delivery mode.

There are therefore multiple audiences for the dissemination of research in online learning:

  • practitioners: teachers and instructors
  • senior managers and administrators in educational institutions
  • computer scientists and entrepreneurs interested in educational services or products
  • government and other funding agencies.

I can suggest a number of ways in which research dissemination can be done, but what is needed is a conversation about

(a) how best to identify the key research findings on online learning around which most experienced practitioners and researchers can agree

(b) the best means to get these messages out to the various stakeholders.

I believe that this is an important role for organizations such as EDEN, EDUCAUSE, ICDE, but it is also a responsibility for every one of us who works in the field and believes passionately about the value of online learning.

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