Sunday, July 12, 2015

The state and future of distance education research

Note, I admit that I wrote this in late March and wasn't sure if it was going in an Inside Higher Ed blog post or where, but since I stumbled upon it, I was just share it here.  Even in the last few months, my views may have changed a bit.  Anyway, it is awesome to discuss and share these things.

“50 million reasons to do this right” says Eden Dahlstrom talking about research in higher education at SXSWedu in Austin this month.  With all of the current proposed budget cuts in my state, it almost brought me to tears.  There are a lot of students throughout the country that deserve access to a quality education who otherwise would not have access due to financial, physical, or social constraints.  With the increase in access provided to underrepresented students (adult learners, socioeconomic disadvantages, minorities, disabled, and more) through today’s blended and online programs, it is important that we ensure success in these programs for all students.  New efforts in research are doing just that.   

Research on distance education and that has informed the field as been around for a while.

Correspondence courses were offered in the 1800s.  Yeap, the 1800’s.  I was surprised as well.  I remember my mom taking snail mail correspondence courses in the 1980’s to help her earn a certificate in bookkeeping and accounting.  They were great for a single mom without a college education and a kid, me, looking to advance her career.  Specifically, I remember her taking the exams without using her notes or referring to the course materials.  She upheld the honor system.  Can you tell 30 years later I am still impressed?  I would say this was my first exposure to distance education and the opportunities it could provide one.      

Many times I hear people talk about research in blended and online learning as if it just got here in the past decade or so, but that is not entirely true.  As a communication scholar myself, I am quite familiar with a good body of research on human behavior and technology that has informed my own practices from decades ago.  Research on technology mediated processes started to appear in the 1960s when researchers started examining how telephone communications systems impacted the way people interact and communicate.  Media comparison studies and the development of studies of computer-mediated communication (CMC) in the 70’s and beyond is where most of my research finds itself informed.  Surprisingly, there is actually some information that points to closed-circuit televisions for 1-on-1 communication systems being developed as early as 1927 (Ives, 1927).  

In the 1970’s we started to see more research on telecommunications with the development of group audio systems, videotelephones, conference television systems, and computer mediated conference systems (Short, Williams, & Christie, 1976).  Networked Nation by Hiltz and Turoff (1978) discusses the future of higher education using technology to mediate instruction.  The authors actually highlight that pilots were already taking place in Europe at the time.  Also, word is that the first distance education classes were being taught in the 1970s right here in Wisconsin (Moore & Kearsley, 2011).  I was just being born, so I can’t necessarily attest to that fully. 

While a foundation was being formed through the examining of telecommunications and human computer interaction which would inform the field, I feel the actual study of distance education itself was taking place more in schools of education or in programs of continuing or correspondence education.  However, I am no expert there.    

In the 1980’s we start to see research being produced and disseminated that examines technology in teaching and learning (Hiltz, 1988; Hiltz & Meinke, 1989).  Since there was already scholarship that focused on human communication and technology, computer-mediated communication, and human computer interaction, it was natural for these researchers to investigate the impact of technology on an array of social processes.  However, I don’t see a lot of evidence that we were necessarily seeing programs offered fully blended or online.  The research conducted by these folks addressed questions focusing more on the ways technology can effectively facilitate certain activities in a course (e.g., group processes).  These studies were presented and published in more discipline-specific venues. 

We did start to see the launching of journals that focused on distance education.  For example, Distance Education started in 1980, International Journal of E-Learning & Distance Education started in 1986, and the American Journal of Distance Education in 1987.  Also, you can see in the 1980’s we started seeing eLearning used to describe technology-enhanced learning.

In the 1990’s websites and email became easier to use for instruction, which led to advancement in fully online and blended courses delivered.  I took one of the first online courses offered at UW-Milwaukee in human communication and technology, what else.  Teaching myself HTML gave me a leg up on understanding how to design web-based course content.  Later in the decade with the help of course management systems (which we now call learning management systems), we saw institutions put technological infrastructure into place for the support of blended and online courses and eventually programs.  UW-Milwaukee conducted their first pilot of course management systems around 1999.  I was lucky to be a graduate student in that pilot and get to use these systems in developing online course sites for UW-Milwaukee faculty.  These technological systems allowed instructors to deliver content even if text based, gather documentation for assessment, and provided the ability for students to interact via communication technologies.

On the other hand, we saw instructors who wanted to replicate and broadcast the face-to-face environment.  We saw videos being recorded on CDs or we saw instructors using high tech systems to broadcast themselves live to remote location.  I helped make some of those CDs in grad school, which I never quite understood the argument for video on CD.  Some can argue, the model had its shortcomings.  “The sage on the stage model was simply brought to the virtual stage,” according to my colleague Rachel Cusatis.  We were not seeing opportunities for engaged and active learning.

So, as I was saying, research on distance education, eLearning, blended instruction and learning, and online instruction and learning (or whatever you want to call it) is not new.  I am not going to dive into the research of the past decade, but what we can see is that much of the current research is rooted in media studies of decades ago informed by those in communication or studying computer-mediated communication.  

However, it is interesting that every few years we see individuals reinventing the wheel by conducting research that has already been done.  For example, the research comparing face-to-face (f2f) and online has been produced way too many times even though we have several meta-analyses that illustrate there is no real differences.  Yes, someone somewhere is working on a study right now comparing f2f to online courses.  What we know is that instruction delivered online can be just as effective as f2f instruction, so let’s move on.  

Many key scholars have discussed this problem.  Dziuban and Picciano (2015) describe this as the no significant difference phenomenon and describe this research as a kind of collective amnesia.  Researchers and practitioners new to online instruction dismiss previous research.  Moore and Kersley (2011) describe this as a threat to good practice and scholarship.  They discuss that newcomers to the field fail to understand the depth of knowledge already discovered.

For me, the problem in the research people are doing on distance education, eLearning, and blended and online learning is that it is amazingly heterogeneous.  We have folks from almost every discipline who are conducting research in these areas.  They are using theoretical and methodological approaches that are appropriate for their disciplines.  At the same time, this diversity in can provide our higher education communities a greater understanding of the complexity of human interaction in blended and online courses.  Therefore, the problem becomes we don’t all speak the same language.  Moreover, they don’t trust research done outside of their field, which might be to what Dziuban and Picciano were referring in discussing collective amnesia.   How do we create a language that all can understand?

Luckily, we are seeing a more concerted and organized movement towards research that is moving beyond the mode comparisons of f2f, blended, and online.  It seems that we have learned that it is not about the technology, per se.  It is about the course design, pedagogy, and instruction.  A course can be bad despite the mode.  There are bad f2f courses, bad blended courses, and bad online courses.  So, let’s work together to figure out what works best for all audiences in teaching and learning.         

This brings me to the work of the National Research Center for Distance Education and Technological Advancements (DETA).  The United States Department of Education (USDoE), FIPSE, awarded the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) a 1.47 million grant to launch the DETA Research Center this past fall.  This grant looks to create a language we can all understand, engage distance education stakeholders from across the country to create an interdisciplinary lens on which to examine mediated learning, and conduct cross-institutional research to ensure quality in teaching and learning for all students.  

This creation of a common language to facilitate future research will be accomplished through a few activities.  First, the DETA Research Center is developing what we are calling “research toolkits” that can be used by researchers and scholars across the country to conduct research.  These research toolkits are being developed through a series of activities including a national summit held at the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative last month.  The activities include developing and prioritizing research questions.  Also, other activities include creating a framework of inquiry to guide current and future research by identifying key variables to be built into models.  This framework moves far beyond the mode comparison to examine the full path model of higher education from a systems approach placing particular emphasis on understanding instructional effectiveness in course design, the impact on student behaviors, and ability to positively influence learning effectiveness and satisfaction for all.  Furthermore, the toolkits will have very specific guides, including measures, surveys and instrumentation, data mining and analyses techniques, and more.     

Second, the common language will be accomplished through research conducted across institutions and disciplines.  The DETA Research Center will disseminate a call for proposals in the grant’s second year.  We are looking to find folks across the country who are interested in using the research toolkits to gather data to better understand the key factors in distance education courses and programs that are impacting student success.  Additionally, we will look for these sub-grant awardees to share their data with us and the country through a cloud-based data warehouse to propel research in the coming years.        
Want to be involved?  The DETA Research Center is looking for folks to be involved in the grant process.  Please engage on the DETA Research Center virtual community at  Also, come do research with us!  The RFP will be launched in fall 2015 and we look forward to providing well needed and deserved resources to assist in conducting this research.  However, anyone is more than welcome to utilize the toolkits in conducting research and sharing their data and findings with us.  We are really excited about rolling up our sleeves and making this research happen.