A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Distance Learning Research Forum

By Olcott, Don, Jr. | Distance Learning, July 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Distance Learning Research Forum


Olcott, Don, Jr., Distance Learning


The Canadian Association for Distance Education (CADE) held its annual conference this year in Vancouver, British Columbia, in early May. I was invited to serve on a panel for the Canadian Institute for Distance Education Research preconference seminar on research in distance education as part of the CADE meeting.

The panel topic was titled "Research Views from Over There" and was designed to provide participants with an international flavor of the challenges facing distance learning researchers and practitioners. The other invited panelists were internationally known in the field and included Christine von Prummer, Fernuniversitat, Germany; Morten Paulsen, NKI, Norway; and Asha Kanwar, Commonwealth of Learning (COL), Vancouver (Canada).

The general charge to the panel was to provide a status report on distance learning research in our respective countries and to discuss challenges for future research. I was not sure how to approach the topic and presumed (incorrectly) that the diversity of the panel members from their respective countries would result in a panel discussion that accentuated the differences more than the similarities for distance learning researchers. So my first task was readily apparent ... I needed to talk to some U.S. researchers and experts and find out just what challenges were facing researchers.

I called a number of my colleagues from across the United States and just took notes on their insights about research in the field. I next talked extensively with Dr. Michael Moore, director of The American Center for the Study of Distance Education and editor of The American Journal of Distance Education. The center and AJDE are housed at Penn State University, a leader in distance education nationally and internationally. There were many similarities among this group and the issues they identified around research in distance education. Finally, in my preparation, I had just finishing reviewing Reflections on Research, Faculty and Leadership in Distance Education by Dr. Michael F. Beaudoin for the International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning (IRRODL).

I had done my homework, infused my own observations, gathered up my resources and headed for Vancouver to engage in this unique discussion of distance learning research with my international colleagues fully expecting that the similarities that emerged from my U.S. colleagues would give way to diverse and varied differences the day of the panel. The only thing I forgot was to heed my own advice, expect the unexpected.

The following is an annotated summary of the keys issues that I discussed in my presentation. Moreover, although there was some variance among panelists, the data I had gathered from my U.S. colleagues, and from Michael Beaudoin's book, the common similarities from all three sources was illuminating.

WHERE HAVE ALL THE LITERATURE REVIEWS GONE?

Today's researchers in the field need to seriously get back to basics. More fundamentally, they need to review the literature. There appears to be a growing indifference to connecting research with previous knowledge in the field derived from empirical inquiry. Beaudoin suggests in his book that today's researchers view any research over five years old as obsolete. Paradoxically, the online revolution has also created a void in this process. There seems to be a predisposition by today's researchers with "we get to redefine and start all over" because we are the Web generation which, in effect, is doing a disservice to our colleagues across the globe who have contributed to the theory, practice, research, and assessment of distance education. The current generation of researchers has a simplistic and irreverent view of previous work and research conducted in the field.

THE LEADERSHIP ENIGMA

Visionary leadership is absent from the field. And, there is minimal research on leadership in the literature. There's not just a void in the leadership continuum, but the field has failed to draw on the exponential research and practice on leadership in general to formulate guiding assumptions for leadership in distance education. …

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