Thoughts on DEHub research themes

My current institution is currently a member of the DEHub – “A community for learning and teaching, research and Innovation in Distance Education”. The exact connection with my current institution and more importantly the folk doing work in distance education/learning and teaching remains somewhat vague. However, it is probably time for me to actively see what connections exist with my work and interests, there should probably be a lot.

DEHub – Research themes

It would seem the folk at DEHub have done a fair bit of work generating a collection of research themes. It seems 15 were identified, with 7 prioritised for action in 2010. Those 7 are:

  1. Theories and models – trying to examine various theoretical frameworks that underpin distance education and what these might imply for future directions of distance education.
  2. Globalisation of education and cross-cultural aspects – i.e. global environment, need to consider different cultures etc.
  3. Access, equity, social inclusion and ethics – how can “e-learning” & high quality education be made available to those with limited resources.
  4. Professional development and faculty support – prof development seen as a pre-requisite to innovation and change (big assumption) and primary importance placed on identifying competencies of online teachers and how to develop them.
  5. Learner support and development approaches – how to support learners from marketing through alumni relations
  6. Curriculum design – focus on issues of educational design process for learning and course development. – emphasis on pedagocial approaches, how learning is achieved and assessed, design of culturally appropriate learning materials and opportunities for development of new educational technologies
  7. Interaction and communication in learning communities – connected with the curriculum design stage, this seeks to examine design that fosters engagement with an empahsis on online communities, gender differences and cross-cultural aspects of online communication.

Some immediate reactions

The following are some knee-jerk reactions to these research themes.

What about frameworks and models from further afield?

In trying to answer the question what distance teaching theories and models are required to meet future needs the range of identified research questions seem somewhat limited. There are a few questions around OERs (a recent fad), a couple about government, some connection with work integrated and lifelong learning but nothing really “out” there. I get the impression of a group stuck in a paradigm.

What about the impacts of different theories of learning (e.g. connectivism) on the assumptions of distance education? There is perhaps a bit of this in the question about models of education related to life-long learning. Rather than simply focus on OERs – an end product – what about the implications of openness on the processes associated with learning and distance education? What barrier/benefits exist from a truly open course or open curriculum design?

What about the very different insights that arise from complexity for the practice of distance education? A lot of the distance education literature (and a lot of the literature around L&T in higher education) strikes me as being based on assumptions of order, rationality and predictability that I simply don’t see as existing in organisations. In fact, I’d argue that the focus on order, massification and industralisation of print-based distance education was a direct contributor to its inability to adapt to the online world. It’s also a flaw in what I see around current practices of university e-learning with LMSes.

And that’s just drawing on a couple of my interest areas. There’s a lot more that I’m not all that familiar with.

Perhaps I’m just being a bit hard, or not seeing past the less confronting language used to phrase the questions.

The on-going separation of curriculum design and staff development

Through personal experience I’ve observed the silliness of making curriculum design separate from academic staff development/support. Based on that experience and some theory from complex systems and ateleological design I believe this is a fundamental flaw in much of higher education.

Curriculum design should not be separate from professional development nor from the support structures that enable academic to do the teaching. Instead, the network of people, knowledge, processes and systems that enable and support an academic to learn and teach needs to include significant capability within curriculum design. The processes involved in an academic actually doing the learning and teaching needs to include activities and events the encourage and enable the on-going evaluation and re-design of teaching.

More on this below, perhaps.

Effectiveness and efficiency of design methodologies

The guiding question for the curriculum design theme is

What design methodologies are effective and efficient for the design, development, implementation and evaluation of effective teaching and learning for social media-enabled environments?

In the subsequent discussion what I was interested in was exactly how would you measure the effectiveness and efficiency of instructional design methodologies? One of my bug bears is that most existing approaches to instructional design require quite significant involvement of an instructional designer. This is in part due to the academics not having expertise in instructional design but also largely because most instructional design methodologies require a fair bit of expertise.

<p At one stage, we had 2 and a bit curriculum designers responsible for helping in the improvement/re-design of a thousand or so courses. Heavy-weight instructional design processes simply could not scale in such an environment. The artificial separation of professional development and curriculum design at the organisational level also significantly hindered this work.

To some extent this is a symptom of the overly mechanical/techno-rational approach taken to curriculum design. The JISC project, Transforming curriculum design and curriculum delivery through technology, seems to promise something different in some of its blurb. But on further reading it’s heading down what might be an even more techno-rational approach that adopts an almost obsessive compulsive approach to tidiness and neatness.

Further work

There’s obviously connections between what I’m meant to be doing and DEHub. I’ll need to look further into how and what form this connection can make, what connection can be formed with other members of the unit I work with, and how some of the disagreements may be discussed, researched and harnessed.

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