Good Reads from 2020: Our NIDL Top 10 Journal Articles

This is the 5th year that our NIDL team has produced a list of top 10 “good reads” from open access journal articles published over the course of the year. While many of us would like to forget the crisis and ongoing challenges we faced over 2020 due to the global Covid-19 health pandemic, there are valuable and potentially enduring lessons for the future of digital learning from our experience. 

Two Separate Lists

Accordingly, in this 5th edition we have chosen to offer two separate lists arising from open access journal articles published in 2020. The first list recognises that research and scholarship in the general area of digital learning continued despite Covid-19 and in many cases articles and manuscripts were already submitted and undergoing peer review prior to the crisis. The second list that we will publish in a separate blog post relate to Covid-19 specific publications. Although the response and wider implications of the pandemic on Education, and digital learning more specifically, have yet to fully play out, a number of Covid-19 related articles and special journal issues has already been published.  Hence this second list is intended to help us critically reflect on the experience and inform both future publications and ongoing responses and educational practices. 

It follows that we hope you find our selections both useful and valuable for your professional reading and critically reflective learning as we begin 2021. In the words of Dr. Seuss, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go”.

(I Can Read With My Eyes Shut, 1978)

Some Background

As we have reported previously, this exercise originally began with an internal focus as we wanted to more widely share our personal reading gems and best article discoveries amongst members of the NIDL team. The exercise also involved an aspect of professional mentoring as we sought to foster a culture of academic reading and raise greater awareness and critical understanding of the type and diverse range of publications reflecting different viewpoints and perspectives. The original decision to limit article selections to open access journal publications was primarily a reflection of our commitment to openness and more specifically Open Science. There is also a copyright issue around sharing PDF copies of restricted publications that was another factor in this decision. 

Although after the first year we decided that other educators might find our list of top reads useful (see previous lists for 201620172018 & 2019), one of the major benefits of this exercise remains the internal nomination process. This process continues to generate a long list of potential articles, which, in turn, leads to internal debates, discussions and even disagreements over the selections. Once again, it is important to note that not everyone’s best read makes the final cut and our selection criteria are biased towards major literature reviews, articles reporting new and emerging areas and perspectives, and/or papers addressing important gaps in the literature. What really counts as a good [open access] journal article is contestable and remains a fertile area for wider discussion.

For this reason, we do not claim that the following articles are the “best” digital learning publications from 2020, but rather they reflect our recommendations of what we think people might benefit from reading—irrespective of whether you have a research, professional and/or practitioner interest in the area.  

The Selection Process

Before we share our top reads for 2020, it is important to note a couple of methodological points and report a few wider observations about this year’s sample of articles and related journal publications.

Firstly, we try to adopt an inclusive approach in identifying the sample. The abovementioned criteria can be interpreted in a number of ways and nothing is rejected until the article has been more thoroughly read and reviewed by a member of the core selection panel. We are always looking for something new or that offers a different perspective which challenges conventional thinking. 

Secondly, all NIDL team members are invited to nominate articles throughout the year. After several reminders and the final cut-off date for nominations in early December, the list of journals appearing on the NIDL website is systematically reviewed by the core selection panel to ensure that nothing has been missed from the initial long-list of publications. This process helps to ensure that issues released late in the year and sometimes close to the end of year holiday break are included in the sample. Also, other well-known education journals outside of the area are also scanned to check whether they contained any relevant open access publications related to digital learning. 

Thirdly, we adopt a broad definition of openness. It just so happens that unlike last year all of our final selections were formally published during 2020. In other words, none of the top 10 this year are early release copies, although such articles were not intentionally excluded from the sample. There continues to be a growing trend for traditionally closed (restricted) journals to publish a small number number of open access articles in each issue. Often accepted pre-publication articles are openly available either through the journal web portal or via the author’s own web presence, which adds another challenge to sourcing and identifying the sample. In some cases, authors pay a fee for the privilege of open access publication and on other occasions a special freely available issue of a journal is published to promote a particular topic and/or to mark a significant milestone. Regardless of the “openness” status of the journal, if the article was freely and fully available at the time of publication, and can still be downloaded by educators, then it was deemed open for nomination. 

Overall more than 100 articles were identified for inclusion in the wider sample, which was then reduced to a long-list of around 50, and, in turn, after closer reading and analysis to a short-list of 30 from which the final 10 was selected. 

This Year’s Sample

In terms of the final selection, for the first time in 4-years the No 1 article does not come from the Australasian Journal of Educational TechnologyThis place is taken by an article appearing in Educational Technology Research and Development which asks the question: Is the research we have the research we need? However, AJET still appears in the list of top 10 with a special editor’s article on the trajectory of research and scholarship related to the TPACK Framework. This year two journals contribute more than one article to the list of top 10 with two papers from TechTrends and three from the Online Learning Journal.  Notably, neither of these two journals, nor indeed the source of the No 1 ranked article, appeared in last year’s list of top reads. 

Source of the No 1 article

In total, 7 journals contribute to the final list of our top reads, with 4 appearing for the first-time. Two of these journals can be described as hybrid publications as open access articles do not feature in every issue or are limited to only a handful of papers. There are some notable omissions from the final list of journals, including EDUCAUSE, Review,International Review of Research in Open and Distributed LearningOpen Praxis and Research in Learning Technology. However, all of these journals, and others, were represented in the short list of very good reads and some appear at the end of this post under a list of highly recommended articles. 

3 articles come from this journal

Lastly, only 2 articles are single authored, which continues the pattern towards jointly authored publications in our final sections. In other words, 80% of the selected articles were produced by more than one author. Five of the articles originate from authors all based in North America, with one article split between a European and Canadian author. Three articles have UK or European-based authors only, with a single selection from Australia. Of the 28 authors in total, 17 are women and 11 are men. 

Top 10 Reads from 2020…

While the specific rank order of each article is one of the most contentious aspects of the selection exercise, we decided to continue this practice in 2020 to maintain consistency with previous years. However, we do not individually rank the list of top Covid-19 related articles to come in a separate blog post, as we do not feel this is appropriate. As already mentioned above, this year we also share a handful of highly recommended articles that only just missed the final selection as they make useful reading, especially if you have not already come across them. Along with the list of our top 10 reads in rank order, below we include some brief notes on each article to describe the work’s focus and help explain why the paper was selected. 

No 1 – Reeves, T., & Lin, L. (2020). The research we have is not the research we need. Educational Technology Research and Development, 68, 1991-2001.

This article is the concluding piece in an important special issue assembling a noteworthy collection of systematic review articles on research on emerging learning environments and technologies.  It addresses some of the exaggerated claims made about education technology innovations and then makes the case for conducting educational research to address serious problems related to teaching, learning and assessment, and for collaborating more closely with teachers, administrators, and other practitioners in tackling these problems. More specifically, in examining the other reviews published in this special issue, the authors give particular attention to the advice for practitioners that might be found in them. In challenging the research community to give more focus to the impact of their work on practice, it asks the question what else can be done to move from the research we have to the research we need? In this respect, the article attempts to shift the focus away from isolated studies of the next “killer app” or technical innovation that few actually read in scholarly journals, to research that addresses the real problems educators face.   

No 2 – Park, H., & Shea, P. (2020). A review of ten-year research through co-citation analysis: Online learning, distance learning and blended learning. Online Learning, 24 (2), 225-244.

This article reviews evolving research trends in online, distance, and blended learning over the past 10 years through co-citation analysis. The basic assumption of co-citation analysis is the number of citations a publication receives is one of the indicators to evaluate the value and importance of research. Moreover, that investigation of citations patterns between research publications can reveal hidden features and evolving trends in research topics. Hence a valuable contribution of this line of analysis is recognition that the field is not static and research continues to evolve, which has an important bearing on interpreting the relevance and trustworthiness of previously published work, as well as the focus and direction of future research. In the context of our own article ranking exercise, the study illustrates from citation data the continued dominance of traditionally restricted journals, although there is some evidence of the increasing significance of open access publications, albeit primarily through the emergence of a single journal, The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, which notably does not feature this year in our list of top reads. Overall, this article provides an insightful analysis of features and changes in research trends over-time, providing a unique contribution to our understanding of publications and evolving research themes in these fields. The article is essential reading for anyone undertaking a literature review as it provides a valuable map of the literature based on a distinctive methodology. 

No 3 – Kimmons, R. (2020). Current trends (and missing links) in educational technology research and practice. TechTrends, 64, 803–809.

This article is an expanded editorial which responds to underlying deterministic metaphors and the problem of the highly technocentric and technophilic nature of research in the field. The author argues for more situated and socially aware research in reporting the findings of two studies. The first provides an analysis of the titles and abstracts of over 7500 research articles from prominent journals over the past 5 years. The second study investigates trending links from over 50,000 K-12 school and university websites in the U.S. in 2019. The intention is to help reveal and illustrate common topics and potential disconnects between research and practice, with a view to how we might realign our current emphases to better address pertinent real-world problems. In this respect, the article conveys a similar message to our No 1 ranked paper by Reeves and Lin (2020). Albeit US focused, the article offers baseline metrics for other researchers and practitioners to draw upon when situating their work and provides evidence of the lack of emphasis on important societal issues, and the need to better understand digital learning as part of a wider social practice. 

No 4 – Arnesen, K., Walters, S., Barbour, M.K., & Borup, J. (2020). Irrelevant, overlooked, or lost? Trends in 20 years of uncited and low-cited K-12 online learning articles. Online Learning, 24(2), 187-206.

This article reports an analysis of a subset of uncited or low-cited articles from a previous study which explored trends in K-12 online learning publications from 1994 to 2016. It was chosen because this unique line of analysis looks for new knowledge and valuable lessons in places that for whatever reason may have been previously overlooked, and thus offers an interesting methodological contrast to the underlying assumptions of the co-citation analysis reported by Park and Shea (2020) in our No 2 ranked article. More to the point, it flips the assumption that if a publication mattered, then it should have been mentioned by other researchers. The article reminds us that less well-known journals which may not attract the same number of citations should not be dismissed as valuable sources of new knowledge, particularly as the authors report they did not find ‘articles that were uninteresting, poorly researched, or irrelevant’ (p.187). While the sample relates to only K-12 articles the study uncovers some interesting questions and suggests that US-based educators in particular might benefit by expanding their level of familiarity with lessor known journals published outside of North America. 

No 5 – Anderson, T., & Rivera-Vargas, P. (2020). A critical look at educational technology from a distance education perspective. Digital Education Review, 37, 208-229.

This article was primarily selected for two reasons. Firstly, it very much reflects the sentiment and one of the major takeaway messages from our No 4 ranked article as the work appears in a less known journal published outside of the United States. In profiling this work we are also intentionally wanting to illustrate that “good reads” can be found outside of the mainstream or better known open access publications. Secondly, the article recognises that digitalization in the context of online distance education has its own unique challenges. More specifically, the article is framed around two useful questions: (i) What aspects have not been completely satisfactory in the transit and transformation that education has undergone? And (ii) What are the future challenges that distance education must deal with to support sustainability of this teaching model? Based on a review of relevant articles and publications the authors provide a very readable overview of some of the critical elements and dimensions related to the use of digital technologies in distance education, including broken promises and shortcomings, and current and future challenges. In this respect, the article provides a useful synthesis of the literature for policy-makers, educational leaders, researchers and practitioners who are relatively new to the field of distance education.

No 6 – Lee, K. (2020). Michel Foucault in technology-enhanced learning: An analytic review of 10 Foucauldian studies on online education. Studies in Technology Enhanced Learning, 1(1), 27-45. 10.21428/8c225f6e.6ff53517

This article draws on the theoretical ideas of Michel Foucault in the context of Technology-Enhanced Learning (TEL) and is particularly good reading for those who have not been introduced previously to this critical line of thinking. Adopting a conversational autobiographical style to what is often portrayed as a theoretically dense or impenetrable perspective, the article begins with the view that while Foucault’s work has had a major influence on the broader field of educational research, this has not extended to scholarship in the area of online education. This claim is evidenced in the 11 publications reviewed in the paper, the only ones citing Foucault which appear in Scopus. The author explains the key concepts of discourse, knowledge, power, and subjectification and their relevance in terms of revealing and challenging many taken-for-granted assumptions about the role and impact of TEL. More specifically, the article helps to peel away some of the competing and co-existing discourses woven throughout the MOOC and the Open Educational Resource (OER) movements. In so doing, the author makes a strong case for using Foucault’s ideas to help us to (i) be more critical; (ii) see the big picture and complex power relations entangled in both our policies and practices; and (iii) establish a historical and developmental perspective on the present in pursuit of better futures. Importantly, the paper does not seek to popularise or oversimply the depth of Foucault’s ideas, but rather offers this as a powerful theoretical lens to more critically understand new TEL innovations when the theory clearly has something to contribute.

No 7 – Wasson, B., & Kirschner, P.A. (2020). Learning design: European approaches. TechTrends 64,815–827.

This article stood out right from the opening sentence where it claims that ‘research on instructional and learning design is ‘booming’ in Europe’ (p. 815). As our NIDL team has a strong interest in this area, the discussion about differences between Europe and the United States in both terminology and philosophy is something that resonates with us. Moreover, the increasing shift away from a focus on the language of instruction to learning design and more recently to learning experience is another valuable contribution of this paper. In discussing this shift drawing on their own experience, along with a number of different learning design models and frameworks, the authors argue that the changing language we use is not simply ‘a switch from an instructivist to a constructivist view nor from a teacher-centred to a student-centred perspective. Instead, it reflects a different mind-set where the emphasis is on the end goal of learning, as opposed to the instructional approach. While the article does not refer explicitly to the ABC Learning Design Framework which has become increasingly popular in the last couple of years, it acknowledges the seminal contribution of Diana Laurillard’s work and traces the development and use of many different models and frameworks across Europe. Importantly, the authors note how new technologies open up new possibilities, but also create new challenges and they discuss the potential of learning analytics to help better inform future designs. Also they identify an important shift at least in Europe to empower teachers (and students) as designers of learning, where the focus on design is part of a wider commitment to critical reflection and continuous professional learning. This article is an excellent read irrespective of your background as many of the ideas and design concepts can be applied to different education levels and contexts. 

No 8 – Bond , M, Buntins, K., Bedenlier, S., Zawacki-Richter, O., & Kerres, M. (2020). Mapping research in student engagement and educational technology in higher education: a systematic evidence map. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education, 17 (2),

The challenge of student engagement existed long before the Covid-19 crisis and is part of the above discussion about the importance of learning design. This article maps research in the area of student engagement within the context of educational technology. It provides a systematic review of 243 studies published between 2007 and 2016. While student engagement is understood by the authors as a multifaceted and complex construct, notably few of the reviewed studies provided a clear definition of the concept. Indeed, less than half were found to be guided by an explicit theoretical framework. This is a serious flaw in the literature and is one of the most valuable takeaways from this mapping exercise. As argued in the paper, this under-theorising and conceptual gap provides the grounds for further research and exploration into discipline-specific use of technology to foster student engagement. It underscores the importance of disciplinary alignment in digital learning research and that future efforts to promote student engagement are not siloed from the mainstream literature. A recent variation of this literature review published in AJET on facilitating student engagement in the field of Arts and Humanities may be of interest to educators (Benenlier, et al., 2020). This is a topic of particular interest to some members of our NIDL team, as evidenced by a recently published study on the experience of undergraduate online students in a Humanities programme (Farrell & Bruton, 2020). In a similar vein, 

No 9 – Zimmerman, W., Altman, B., Simunich, B., Shattuck, K., & Burch, B. (2020). Evaluating online course quality: A study on implementation of course quality standards. Online Learning, 24(4), 147-163.

This article was selected as it focuses on the issue of quality in the design of online and blended learning courses. There is an obvious link between this paper and our No 7 and No 8 ranked articles as learning design and student engagement are important quality dimensions. More specifically, the paper investigates the relationship of intentional faculty professional development, intentional online course design, and informal course reviews to the results of official interinstitutional peer review within a large sample of courses across many higher education institutions. Data were extracted from a larger statistical project conducted regularly by Quality Matters (QM), which included the results of over 5,000 online course reviews completed between September 2014 and May 2020 at 360 US-based institutions. These courses were assessed for meeting quality standards in structured, interinstitutional, reviews, conducted by three faculty peer reviewers. While QM provided the setting and data for this study, importantly the article is not about QM per se. Instead, it explores the relationships of variables within an institution’s control in the quest for benchmarking and improving the quality of online learning. A key finding is that merely having and disseminating online course quality standards does not ensure implementation of those standards and quality assurance processes. The article offers useful insights and raises fertile questions about factors which influence the implementation of those standards and quality assurance processes, including the role and impact of professional development. The quality focus is particularly timely for higher education institutions as they seek to evaluate, enhance and promote of quality their online offerings to prospective students.

No 10 – Saubern, R., Henderson, M., Heinrich, E., & Redmond, P. (2020). TPACK – time to reboot? Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 36 (3), 1-9.

The selection of this article resulted in some debate as irrespective of the claim to publishing the first ever special TPACK-themed journal in 2017, there is a wealth of research on this Framework, including major critical reviews. Moreover, this special extended editorial is essentially limited to just 25 articles published in the Australasian Journal of Educational Technology over the last 5 years. Arguably, the editorial does not adequately acknowledge other TPACK literature as well as competing and/or more contemporary frameworks (e.g., DigCompEd in the European context). There is little attempt to engage with other systematic reviews (e.g., Fernández-Batanero, et al, 2020) and/or new work even in Australia on the concept of digital competence for teachers—see for example, Falloon’s (2020) Teacher Digital Competency (TDC) Framework which encapsulates an important move away from a focus on digital literacy to digital competence. Ultimately, our decision to include the paper in the final list of top reads was influenced as we believed it was important to acknowledge the crucial need for professional development. Despite its flaws, TPACK does place a strong focus on pedagogy and the two guiding research questions remain highly relevant—that is: (i) What do teachers need to know in order to integrate technology effectively in the classroom? (ii) How can they best develop that knowledge? We also valued the critical perspective evident in this work as the authors argue that there is a need for a fundamental shift in the trajectory of TPACK research. More specifically, they make a call for greater attention to be paid to understanding the knowledge that teachers need to use technology effectively for teaching and learning, which strongly resonates with our own focus on cultivating new pedagogical mindsets. However, like most other competency frameworks in this area, TPACK continues to ignore the type of critical knowledge about the role and influence of new technology on education—for better and worse—drawing on deeper theoretical perspectives such as that offered by Foucault in our No 6 ranked article. This type of knowledge goes beyond narrow instrumentalist conceptions of pedagogy and values the teacher’s role as a public intellectual. Hopefully this important and longstanding gap in TPACK will be addressed in the trajectory of research over the next 5-years. 

Highly Recommended Articles

This year we decided to list five additional highly recommended articles that for various reasons only just failed to make the final cut. As previously indicated, although we are guided by explicit criteria, the final selection of our top 10 good reads is influenced by our own biases and research and professional interests. We hope the following highly recommended articles add further value to this exercise. 

Bates, T., Cobo, C., Mariño, O., & Wheeler, S. (2020). Can artificial intelligence transform higher education?International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education, 17 (42), 2-12. Available at

Dziuban, C., Shea, P., & Moskal, P. (2020). A question of blended learning: Treatment effect or boundary object? EDUCAUSE Review. Available at

Hussein, M., Yusuf, J., Sandhya Deb, A., Fong, L., & Naidu, S. (2020). An evaluation of online proctoring tools. Open Praxis, 12 (4), 509-525. Available at

Morris, N., Ivancheva, M., Coop, T., Mogliacci, R., & Swinnerton, B. (2020). Negotiating growth of online education in higher education. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education, 17 (48), 1-6. Available at

VanLeeuwen, C., Veletsianos, G., Belikov, O., & Johnson, N. (2020). Institutional perspectives on faculty development for digital education in Canada. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, 46 (2). Available at