Design-based research and theory

Yippee!! Some actual thinking and writing about thesis related material.


My PhD thesis is titled “An information systems design theory for e-learning” (PDF of recent paper) and positions itself as an example design research within the information systems discipline. It seeks to generate a design theory for aiding universities with how they should implement e-learning at an organisational level.

For the longest time it was a struggle to see how this work would become a PhD. I’m not worthy. Imagine my surprise when in the last ten years or so there’s been an explosion of interest in design research both in information systems and in education. Visions of academic respectability became more likely.

The problem

Of course, being the contrarian that I am, I didn’t like much of what I read. Actually, that’s an overstatement. I had a vague sense of unease which I, at first, attributed to my lack of knowledge of the literature, and just my general lack of knowledge. I’m not so sure. Let’s start with design-based research, the term widely used in the educational field.

I’ve often seen in the DBR literature quotes similar to the following from Bell (2004)

Scholars came to engage in design-based research to better understand how to orchestrate innovative learning experiences among children in their everyday educational contexts as well as to simultaneously develop new theoretical insights about the nature of learning.

What gets me about this quote, or at least my interpretation of this quote is the apparent lack of importance or legitimacy given to the “how” knowledge and the on-going primacy given to learning theory.

Scholars engage in DBR to understand “how” – but the aim is to develop learning theory.

Can’t the “how” knowledge be theory in its own right? What do the DBR/educationalists define as theory? What is “learning theory”?

Is this simply a bit of nit picking or am I simply showing my ignorance?

Some light?

One of the “what is DBR” pages mentions a paper by Edelson (2002) which seems to engage in this a little more.

But, the problem is that it appears to define what I understand as design theory as either a design framework or a design methodology.

Another of the “what is DBR” pages mentions a talk by Sandoval which identifies the following types of knowledge that DBR can produce

  • Design knowledge (Edelson, 2002)
  • Ontological innovation (DiSessa & Cobb, 2004)
  • Local instructional theories (Cobb)

Another “what is DBR” page has a link to a DBR lit review that draws on Barab & Squire (2004) to identify the major tenents of DBR

  • results in the production of theories on learning and teaching
  • employs an interventionist approach
  • takes place in a naturalistic context
  • is iterative

The same literature review includes the following paragraph

What is interesting about Edelson’s discussion of the types of theory generation possible with DBR is his rather liberal use of the term “theory”. He hence allows design frameworks and design methodologies to fall into this category. Kelly (2004) reacts against the liberal use of this term, quoting the National Academy of Sciences definition of theory, which states that a theory is “a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypothesis” (p. 123). Articulating that the use of theory requires hard-fought consensus among scientists, he argues for the use of “working words” which are less strong, such as “framework” or “hypothesis”.

So it would appear that Edelson may provide some support for my thoughts/beliefs.


Bell, P. (2004). On the theoretical breadth of design-based research in education. Educational Pyschologist. 39(4): 243-253

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