Online Distance Education – Towards a Research Agenda

Last week my colleague Olaf Zawacki-Richter and I did the closing keynote at the European Distance Education Network Annual meeting in Zagreb Croatia.  The conference was great and it was my first visit to Croatia- but hopefully not my last.

Our keynote celebrated the recent launch of our new open access book from Athabasca University Press (available at  Our slide show presented the  methods by which we identified the most published topics in the major distance education journals. Olaf has updated this list covering 5 major journal’s from 2000-2011. I was pleased to see that Canadian researchers were the most prolific!

Once we identified the 17 most researched issues, we contacted the scholar(s) who we believed was the most qualified to write a chapter on that topic. We asked them to highlight the issues, the major unresolved questions and their suggestions for a research agenda that would advance our knowledge and practice related to this issue. I’m pleased to say that we had a very good response and I think the book will be very useful for students and scholars for some years to come.

The Table of Contents is:

Foreword  Otto Peters
Introduction Research Areas in Online Distance Education  Olaf Zawacki-Richter and Terry Anderson

Part I Macro-level Research: Distance Education Systems and Theories

  • 1 Internationalization and Concepts of Social Justice: What Is to Be Done? Alan Tait and Jennifer O’Rourke
  • 2 Globalization, Culture, and Online Distance Learning  Charlotte N. Gunawardena 
  • 3 Distance Education Systems and Institutions in the Online Era: An  Identity Crisis  Sarah Guri-Rosenblit
  • 4 Online Distance Education Models and Research Implications Terry D. Evans and Margaret Haughey
  • 5 Methods of Study in Distance Education: A Critical Review of Selected Recent Literature
  • Farhad Saba

part II Meso-level research: Management, Organization, and Technology

  • 6 Organization and Management of Online and Distance Learning Ross Paul
  • 7 The Costs and Economics of Online Distance Education Greville Rumble
  • 8 The Use of Technology in Distance Education Gráinne Conole
  • 9 Innovation and Change: Changing How we Change Jon Dron
  • 10 Professional Development and Faculty Support Margaret Hicks
  • 11 Learner Support in Online Distance Education: Essential and EvolvingJane E. Brindley
  • 12 Quality Assurance in Online Distance Education Colin Latchem


part III Micro-level Research: Learning and Teaching in Distance

  • 13 Major Movements in Instructional Design – Katy Campbell and Richard. A. Schwier
  • 14 Interaction and Communication in Online Learning Communities: Toward an Engaged and Flexible Future – Dianne Conrad
  • 15 Quantitative Analysis of Interaction Patterns in Online Distance Education – Allan Jeong
  • 16 From the Back Door into the Mainstream: The Characteristics of Lifelong Learners - Joachim Stöter, Mark Bullen, Olaf Zawacki-Richter, and Christine von Prümmer
  • 17 Student Dropout: The Elephant in the Room – Alan Woodley and Ormond Simpson
  • Conclusion Towards a Research Agenda – Terry Anderson and Olaf Zawacki-Richter

The complete book and individual chapters are available for free download, but of course we love paper purchasers ($39.95 for a 500 page text!) Thanks to all authors and to EDEN hosts!

African Council for Distance Education 2014

Zambezi Valley
Zambezi Valley

I was honoured to be invited to do a keynote talk at the 4th conference of ACDE in Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. After sitting up for 2 nights on a plane (42 hour journey) I was very glad to reach the Elephant Hills hotel and a soft bed. The hotel overlooks the Zambezi River and the constant myst of the Victoria Falls can be seen about 3 km away.

Mist rising from Victoria Falls
Mist rising from Victoria Falls

The next day I took a tour of the Falls, and they did not disappoint. They reminded me a lot of Niagara – maybe not so tall, but wider and the same deafening roar as millions of gallons of water churn over the cliff. Victoria Falls Victoria Falls

I did my talk the next day entitled ” Using Open Scholarship to Leapfrog Traditional Educational Barriers And it went OK, but the elaborate formal greetings and pomp of the opening ceremonies, meant that my time was really constrained- though I did manage to squeeze in a joke and give away a copy of one of our open access, Athabasca University Press, Issues in Dist. Educ. series books. The afternoon was spent at a very interesting workshop present by UNESCO and Fred Muller in which he challenged the Open Universities of Africa to embrace and develop MOOC applications- rather than fear them as we seem to do.  I was very impressed with over 200 MOOCs put together by 13 European OpenUpEd collaborators as a service- not profit see

Generally the African Open Universities are focussed on quality production of print packages and support (tutorials, testing etc) in local learning Centres. They suffer from the same prejudice from educated elites, and the faculties of traditional universities, but of course their costs are much lower. It is clear to all that sufficient campus universities will never be built to accommodate the large and growing demand for higher education in Africa.  Many of  the presenters presented compelling cases for more support, but also presented evidence of the changes that their programs are making in the lives of disadvantaged students.  All the participants seem to have a sense that they should be using more net based technologies, but judging from the general absence of laptops by all but a few of the conference delegates, I think that net access and literacy is an issue not only for students but for faculty as well. This has been a very short trip, but the kindness of new friends and of the Zimbabwe people I have met here at the hotel is long!

Another research article on audio feedback

I’m a big fan of using audio feedback for marking of papers and proposals with my Education grad students.  I use Adobe Acrobat to embed usually short audio comments (maybe 20-40 per paper) and a summary comment. I do it because it saves me time and generally my students report really liking it. It allows me to project more positive “teaching presence” and I think I am much better able to express complicated as well as short mechanical issues – QUICKLY!  Too may educational technology based innovations or more general educational innovations  actually cost teachers’ time -even after an almost inevitable time lost surmounting a sometimes steep learning curve.

Thus, I was pleased to see:

Cavanaugh, A., & Song, L. (2014). Audio Feedback versus Written Feedback: Instructors’ and Students’ Perspectives Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 9(2).

This small scale study looked at postsecondary English teachers using audio (I think monologues using MP3) and not embedded (and IMHO much better Adobe Connect annotations).  One teacher reported taking MORE time- but only because she wrote the comments by hand and then read them into the recorder (sigh…).  Generally students liked the feedback assessed by interviews and a short survey.

This study helps us uncover the different (likely discipline centric) ways in which essays are marked. Teachers reported using and liking the audio for general, global comments, but text feedback for small mechanical issues that are common in English assessment (noting or correcting grammar issues as example).  There are likely other differences amongst style of teaching, learning and assessment across disciplines and perhaps across different educational level and ages.

The article has no earth shattering surprises, but does confirm my earlier thoughts on audio feedback- so I like it.  It also has one of the most extensive lit reviews (for a short paper) that does a good job of reviewing our last decade of use of audio feedback.

The biggest question though, is if audio is faster, is preferred by students and teachers, is very cheap to implement- why aren’t all teachers using.



Where is Higher Education’s Digital Dividend?

One doesn’t need to devour political or economic analysis, listen to experts or even chat with one’s friends to realize that the Internet has changed the way we produce and consume information and the myriad ways in which we communicate. Blogs, wikis and Facebook walls have granted to each of us –a multimedia printing press with global delivery capacity – at VERY low cost. Similarly we can engage in audio, video or text conversations with politicians, relatives, co-workers or “followers” at VERY low cost.

Given that education works by nurturing interactions and communication among and between teachers, students and content, it would seem logical that the costs of education, like its component interactions would also have drastically reduced in cost. However, this is not the case. Despite the possibility of a digital dividend students, in every country, are being met with heavy increases in the cost of education. Continue reading

Reflection on world’s first Online 3 Minute Thesis Contest

Being a huge fan of succinct communications and plain language, I was drawn to the ideas behind the 3 Minute Thesis contests, developed originally (and trademarked??) at the University of Queensland in Australia and now supported international from  Since their development in 2008 the idea has spread globally with 3 minute thesis contests happening in many countries including Canada.

However, the origional model doesn’t really fit Athabasca University – or other online institutions, as these contests have all taken place on campus and face-to-face. Our students are located mostly in Canada, but we have students enrolled in many locations around the world as well. Thus, last fall I organized a small Online 3 minute Thesis contest using web conferencing for students in our own Master and Doctorate Program at Athabasca.  With that positive experience, I wanted to expand and take advantage of the international scope of the Net, to invite colleagues and students from other online universities to participate (and of course help organize the event).

I recruited colleagues from Open University of Catalonia, Open University United Kingdom and DaVinci University of Mexico.  We established a web site for the event, where we provided links to the rules, details of participation, a WIKI for organizing contestants names and titles of their presentations and provided links from YouTube recordings of other 3MT contests (not online) to serve as models.

Traditionally 3 Minute Thesis contest run at a single university and benefit from a wide variety of interdisciplinary contestants – the English student up against the Physics student. However, we decided to change the format slightly by focusing only on students researching in Education and given the specialized nature of these institutions, this is primarily focused on online learning, educational technology and other issues related to distance education.  We wanted to create possibilities for collaboration and networking among our students, that likely would not have developed in a fully interdisciplinary contest.

How did it go?  Well you might want to check it out yourself by listening to the recording at

Highlights and recommendations: Continue reading

All MOOCs don’t work for all students. Are you surprised?

Both the commercial and the unpaid online blog pundits have been having an armchair quarterback’s field day over MOOC poster boy Sebastin Thrun’s confession that his Udacity MOOC platform doesn’t work.  None of this outcry from the “I told you so” critics is more biting (nor more witty) then the critique by Slate columnist Rebecca Shuman.

Shuman aptly blames Thrun, for blaming the students – they have personal problems, they don’t have access to multiple tablets and they are not Ivy League rich kids – suggesting that the MOOC depends on students who don’t really need them and who can learn under any conditions – as evidenced by their succeeding in crowded lecture halls their whole post secondary career.

But I don’t equate Udacity’s supposed failure with “ordinary” struggling students is evidence for the failure of online learning and Shuman’s contention  that MOOCs can now be dismissed as “neoliberal wet dreams”.  Shuman goes on to claim that distance education (at least in the form of correspondence courses) tells only a sorry tale of failure and that it has “never worked”. She may have trouble convincing the million plus students at the Open University of ChinaAnadola University in Turkey or Indira Gandhi National Open University in India that their education (largely print based ‘correspondence’) doesn’t and has never worked. Truman seems to argue that it is only elite students who can succeed at MOOCs, – discounting the 50+ years of research showing that distance education (including its latest instantiation in online formats) does work for many students- including the second chance, and poverty stricken.  No form of education works for all students -including the ‘tiny, for-credit, in-person seminar”. Doesn’t everyone know of students from campus based schools that have failed to complete their program? Haven’t you ever dropped a course – I certainly have!

But perhaps most appalling is the staggering debt load, the wasted time and energy of both students and teachers and the coddling and cover up of poor teaching that marks much of campus based education today.  That model is as badly broken and just as expensive as MOOCs driverless car ! Continue reading

Accreditation – for Learning Accomplishment or for Presence and Persistence?

Offering degrees and certificates is the currency of higher education. Degree and certificates are very highly valued by students, parents, employers and postsecondary institutions. Despite occasional challenges to the authenticity of this form of learning recognition, attaining this final parchment is seen by both institutions and students as the culminating and arguably the only important manifestation of accomplishment, after years of study in higher education.  The problem is that learning itself, much less wisdom, is not measured very well by these large scale certificates of generalized accomplishment.

One concern is that the degree as a unit of accreditation is much too large- does a four year BA in economics reflect the same amount of learning as a three year BA in classics? Does a BA obtained at a distance equate to the same learning as a BA delivered on a campus? These are very challenging questions to answer. Institutions are clear to set the number of courses required, the degree of specialization and the minimal grade scores for a degree, but these are, at best, very rough indicators of learning.

Efforts by the Mozilla Foundation to support institutional awarding of much smaller credentials (known as badges) certainly addresses part of the problem. The creation of a badge-full portfolio that details a student’s individual skills and knowledge accomplishments potentially provides a much more articulate and public record of accomplishment than a degree. However, these have (to date) been only sporadically adopted by higher education institutions despite student interest (see Santos, C., Almeida, S., Pedro, L., Aresta, M., & Koch-Grunberg, T. (2013).

The credential crisis has been exacerbated by the arrival of vast numbers of open educational resources (OERs) and more recently by Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) which provide a host of opportunities for learning- but to date only very limited opportunity for credentialing and public acknowledgement of that learning.  MOOCs and OERs allow learners to participate in learning, either alone or in groups, from teachers and institutions around the globe.  After watching an excellent Ted Talk, brushing up on your statistics skills by reviewing a Khan Academy video or enrolling in a 10 week MOOC, there is little doubt that learning can occur. But measuring and accrediting that learning is today, all but impossible. A few pioneering institutions are developing “challenge for credit” or credentialing examinations, but for most institutions this alternate (and potentially competitive) form of accreditation strikes too near to the heart of the current business model for comfortable adoption.

The OERu (, a non profit collaboration of over 35 public universities, colleges and networks from around the globe is attempting to develop a better or at least an alternative model for teaching and credentialing.  Each of the collaborating partners commits to providing a small number of courses, for free and independent study on the open net. Students are free to select and study any of these courses and if they choose to do so, they may apply to the delivering institution to write an examination or to do other work demonstrating accomplishment and in return they receive full course credit for that accomplishment. The content is available free of charge and efforts are made to allow for and encourage students to work cooperatively to locate and help each learn.  The credential process requires examiner time and institutional effort to assess and to register this learning- thus the OERu partners can charge whatever fee for this service that they require. To date, the Open University of Catalonia is the only Spanish institution to join the OERu.

It is yet too early to measure how well this free learning opportunity, but paid for accreditation will be accepted- by students and employers and likely the most challenging, by postsecondary institutions themselves. But it is clear that we need credentials that are meaningful, that reflect real learning accomplishments, and that can be obtained at affordable cost by all students and life-long learners on our globe.

Online 3 Minute Thesis Contest at Athabasca

I’m intrigued by this “speed dating” approach for disseminating and promoting thesis research. A thesis is a LOT of work, and results are usually buried in 150+ page tomes – thus the need for new scholars to be able to present their work succinctly and efficiently.  The 3 minute thesis (originally developed at University of Queensland Australia) seemed like an ideal format for developing communications skills and confidence and be fun for both contestants and the audience.  Other 3 minute thesis contests have been held F2F, however, Athabasca graduate students are located around the globe (literally) and so we needed to use a distributed platform to host the event. Of course, the organization of the event also had to be easy and inexpensive so as to fit into my busy schedule and budget as well.

In this post I detail how this, to my knowledge, world’s first online 3 minute thesis contest worked, with a hope that it inspires similar contests. Continue reading