This chapter offers a framework for prosecuting research in distance education. The proposed framework is based on widely acknowledged practices in research design and topics of interest in distance education. The two critical components of this framework are key topics or areas of investigation in distance education (which is not an exhaustive list), and methods of research. A key contribution of this framework is that it has the potential to ensure that the most appropriate research method is selected for the topic or question that is to be investigated. The framework itself does not provide directions on how a piece of research ought to be carried out. Instead, it serves as a planning tool for matching research method with the research question or topic. This discussion is an extended version of an earlier discussion on the topic that was published in EduComm Asia (Volume 8, Number 4, June 2003, pages, 16-19), which is non-refereed quarterly newsletter of the Commonwealth Educational Media Center for Asia: New Delhi, India.
Background: Problems With Distance Education Research
An overview of distance education (DE) literature from the past few decades shows a great deal of attention being focused on descriptive type of research, which is work that aims to describe the distance education phenomenon. This focus led to some interesting and groundbreaking work on first, defining the nature of distance education activity and then theorizing about learning and teaching at a distance (see Holmberg, 2001; Keegan, 1996; Moore, 2007; Perraton, 1987; Peters, 2002). With more experience, both in the practice of DE and its study, there has been growing interest on evaluating the quality of learning and teaching at a distance, and on the influences of various forms of technology in this regard (see Naidu, 2002, 2005). This research draws from what we know about human cognition, learning, and teaching, and about the effects of educational technology including how to go about ascertaining their effects validly and reliably.
Despite these positive developments in describing, defining, and theorizing distance education activity, research and scholarship in this broad field is still very weak in many ways. Part of the reason for this lies in the multidisciplinary nature of the field, which restricts the emergence of one or more clearly defined and widely accepted research methodologies (see Bernard, Abrami, Lou, & Borokhovski, 2004). Researchers in this field tend to adopt methods and tools from areas such as education, humanities and the social sciences, and sometimes applied less rigorously than in those disciplines (Berge, & Mrozowski, 2001; Bernard, & Naidu, 1990; Conrad, 2007).
Some studies prepared by the United States Institute for Higher Education Policy, for example, have observed serious limitations with existing research practices in DE (see Phipps & Merisotis, April, 1999). The report by Phipps and Merisotis is based on material that was published during the 1990s, and it pays particular attention to DE technologies that are currently being used by the majority of institutions. This report concentrates on an evaluation of all original work — including experimental, descriptive, correlation, and case study research. It also summarizes key information and findings of other policy papers, articles, and essays that dominated the literature (see also Naidu, 2003).
The authors of this report concede that their review of research does not encompass every study published since 1990, even though it does capture the most important and salient of these works. They also suggest that it might not be prudent to accept the findings of these studies at face value because of problems with the methods that were used to reach these findings. The most significant problem had to do with the overall quality of the research, which pretty much rendered many of the findings inconclusive.