Research on Distance Education

By Watkins, Ryan | Distance Learning, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Research on Distance Education


Watkins, Ryan, Distance Learning


The development of technologies in distance education continues to grow at accelerating rates. From discussion boards and instant messengers to iPods and PDAs, new technologies offer a number of new conveniences and options for students and instructors alike. These innovations are, nonetheless, accompanied by a growing requirement for valid research findings to guide their selection, design, development, and implementation in distance education programs. Empirical research in the field of distance education seems to, however, continually lag behind advances in technology. As soon as reliable evidence is available supporting the application of either electronic technologies (e.g., Blackboard, podcasts, wikis, virtual learning environments) or conceptual technologies (e.g., theories, procedures, frameworks, models), new technologies change the landscape and send researchers back to the basics. As a result of this dynamic horizon, research is often outdated before results of scientific studies can be calculated, let alone published.

Continually chasing after the newest technologies has, for some time, left research in distance education on a merry-go-round of sorts, with researchers always reaching for a golden ring, but continually going around in circles. This has not only slowed the progress of research in distance education, but also put the discipline in a position of always following technological advances rather than providing research findings that can guide the development of new technologies. Blackboard, WebCT, and other learning management systems are valuable examples of how research in distance education has missed significant opportunities. Instead of providing research to lead the development of these systems, most research in distance education is limited to application studies when these products have already been put into service (and then they will often be updated to a new version before any research is concluded).

This cycle must stop. Distance education researchers must find a way to get off the merry-go-round and start leading the field of distance education with grounded research. Research that is focused on development and assessment of foundational theories, principles, and models has the opportunity to guide advances in distance education rather than merely testing new products.

The scope of distance education research is broad (and continually expanding), drawing on fields including psychology, education, information technology, communications, and business, as well as a diverse host of specific curriculum areas. As a consequence, research questions related to distance education are often a corollary to primary research interest in sister-disciplines or focused on discipline-specific impacts alone. For example, a student in economics who is conducting research for a dissertation may include online courses as a variable in his or her study, but the focus remains on the research questions of economics. Likewise, a science educator may conduct research comparing specific online and on-campus science courses, leaving few generalizations available to researchers in other disciplines.

While these challenges are neither new to distance education nor unique to this discipline, they do present significant difficulties to a field of study that has recently seen tremendous growth in its applications in both education and training. …

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