The wisdom of the ancients: A new book on research in online distance education

Browse the current ICDE website and your eye will likely focus on the the word MOOC. Yes, like everyone else, the ICDE is entranced by the notion and all that it entails, and in doing so has provided helpful summaries of reports and articles that have emerged in the past year. I urge you to ignore it and follow the link under ‘More new items’ to New book from Athabasca University on Online Distance Education.

coverThe news item provides brief details of this new publication, highlighting the contributions of ICDE members. At the bottom of the piece you’ll find a link to the AU Press and book itself: Online Distance Education: Towards a Research Agenda. If you’re going to click on any link in this post, then this is the one to choose! As with other recent volumes, AU Press obligingly offers both a purchasable print version and a free downloadable electronic version.

No prizes for guessing who at least one of the editors is: yes, our old friend Terry Anderson from Athabasca University, along with Olaf Zawacki-Richter from the University of Oldenburg. They’ve done a first-rate job in assembling this collection of gems: chosen great authors, provided a coherent structure, and written a terrific introduction and conclusion.

The 500 or so pages of this book are to be savoured, even the Preface. Written by the legendary Otto Peters, it not just whets your appetite but provides sound reasons why you should read it, along with insightful personal reflections.

As hinted above, don’t ignore the Introduction. Terry and Olaf don’t just summarise the contributions, they provide a history of how the structure of the book has emerged from previous studies and deliberations. You’ll gain a brilliant oversight of the state of research in open and distance learning, along with helpful charts that reveal which areas have been under- or over-researched in recent years.

The three broad categories determined for the structure of the book are:

  • macro-level: distance education systems and theories;
  • meso-level: management, organization, and technology; and
  • micro-level: teaching and learning in distance education.

This works well, with the 17 chapters grouped under these three research themes. No doubt some topics will be of more interest and relevance than others, but if you have the chance please dabble in one or two that might not be your usual thing. I won’t try to outline them all, but the book starts well with the contribution from Alan Tait and Jennifer O’Rourke: ‘Internationalization and Concepts of Social Justice: What Is to Be Done?’ Especially helpful in this chapter is the appendix, comprising an extensive list of questions for an institutional social justice audit.

I haven’t read every chapter and, to be honest, I found the chapter on instructional design to be a little disappointing. It is a major area of interest and research of my own, and in general found Katy Campbell and Richard Schwier’s contribution (‘Major movements in instructional design’) lacked focus on research, preferring a lengthy discussion of history, focussing on the inadequacies of the traditional US approaches to instructional design. Nothing too much to argue with, but it largely ignores the more interesting work that went on in Europe and Australia from the 1970s to 1990s. And at the end there’s really not much to inform and inspire a researcher in instructional design.

Enough of my grumbling, let’s skip to the final chapter, an engaging piece (‘Student dropout: The elephant in the room’) comprising a sparkling conversation between two old hands, Alan Woodley and Ormond Simpson. The dialogue is great and, in addition, includes some arresting figures and tables. That’s not the end, though, as Terry and Olaf bring it all together in ‘Conclusion: Towards a research agenda’. There’s not much wit but plenty of wisdom, and I fully agree with their contention that “online learning has much more in common with older forms of distance education than many of the recent e-learning zealots and evangelists give credit.”

You’ll have noticed that I titled this post with a veiled reference to the age of the contributors (the ‘ancients’). I personally know many of them, and am an admirer of their expertise and writing: one was even my doctoral supervisor (thanks again, Terry – Evans, not Anderson)! A significant number are even older than I am. No problem with that, and it is of course a strength of the book – there is significant wisdom found therein. But there’s a niggling worry that there doesn’t appear to be a strong horde of new and emerging (young!) researchers following in their wake. I hope I’m wrong.

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