Selecting our Top 10 Articles: What was Worth Reading in 2017?

Over 2017 we have been keeping a record of particularly interesting articles in the general areas of Blended, Online and Digital (BOLD) Education. More specifically, since March we have maintained a folder of articles published in open access journals that might qualify later in the year for our 2017 list of “top 10” widely accessible reads. Our list of top reads will be shared progressively via Twitter over the next three weeks as we countdown to our No. 1 article.

Interesting Questions

It follows that this exercise, which builds on last year’s experience, raises some interesting questions:

  • What selection criteria do you adopt to help identify a really good (open access) journal article?
  • What selection methodology do you use to help identify the top 10 open access journal articles for the year?
  • Who do you involve in the selection process to help enhance the validity of the list of top 10 (open access) journal articles?

With these questions in mind the following comments are intended to help explain and frame this year’s selection.

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Our Selection Criteria

When we first began this task we didn’t have any clearly defined selection criteria. This was partly in the interests of promoting inclusion and recognition of the fact that we all have different interests and perspectives. However, as we began the wider nomination process and refined the short-listed articles we recognised the need to more explicitly anchor our selection in some guiding criteria. Accordingly, the final selection of the top 10 open access journal articles for 2017 were loosely guided or informed by the following criteria:

• Published in open access journals listed on NIDL website

• Restricted to Higher Education (inclusive of teacher education)

• Strong preference to journal articles with international focus or relevance

• Minor preference to journal articles published by professional associations

• Strong preference to journal articles offering major literature reviews

• Strong preference to journal articles addressing major gaps in the literature

• Minor preference to journal articles exploring new and emerging topics

• Strong preference to journal articles which challenge conventional thinking

• Minor preference to journal articles relevant to current NIDL’s projects

• Overall selection of top 10 journal articles reflects a mix of gender, cultural and geographical diversity

Our Selection Methodology

The formal methodology initially involved a nomination process open to 20 members of the NIDL team. A related internal objective of the task was to raise awareness and encourage team members to more deeply engage with the published literature. While a shared folder for the collection of top journal articles was available from the beginning of March 2017, the wider open nomination process didn’t begin until the start of November.

In addition to this open nomination methodology and the collection of interesting journal articles in a shared folder over the course of the year, the NIDL Director systematically went through the full list of open access journals available on our website to help identify specific journal articles published in 2017 which might qualify for inclusion in the short-list. Notably, although extensive, this list of journals does not include all of the 270 publications identified last year by Perkins and Lowenthal (2016) in their comprehensive analysis of open access journals. From this more selective list taken from our website a draft collection of top articles for the year was created using a shared folder in Google Drive, which contained copies of the original articles.

transparency-1938335_960_720Towards the end of November this list was refined to a draft list of 10 articles, which the aforementioned NIDL team members were then invited to rank in order of merit and wider readership value. During this time the draft top 10 list was relatively dynamic as the ranking process threw up additional articles and a handful of new journal issues were published during the month (e.g., AJET, IRRODL & EDUCAUSE Review). As a consequence, a handful of articles on the original list were replaced with late additions, which posed some challenges in the ranking process but we believe is evidence of the inclusive nature of our overall methodology.

Lessons from the Selection Process

Before we share (initially via Twitter) our final selection of top 10 open access journal articles for 2017 it is useful to reflect on several lessons arising from the process.

1. Blurring of boundaries

Firstly, there is an increasing blurring of boundaries between open and closed publications. During the selection process the question arose what constitutes an open access article?

One of our top 10 articles, for example, appears in a highly ranked closed journal published by Taylor & Francis which is managed by a professional association. The publisher now provides an open select service where the author(s) have the option of paying a fee to ensure downloads of their article are freely available. In this case we decided to include such publications for consideration in our list of top 10 as we wanted to recognise the authors commitment to openness and more widely disseminating their work.

Publications

The question of what constitutes an open access publication also arose with pre-print uploads of articles by authors to institutional repositories and websites such as Research Gate, especially when the published article also appears in a closed journal.

More specifically, this issue came up when we considered publications such as George Veletsianos’ article on who participates on MOOC hashtags and in what ways in trying to develop a generalizable understanding of Twitter and social media use. Although a pre-print version of the article is openly available from ResearchGate and George’s personal blog, it is formally published in the Journal of Computing in Higher Education which is a closed publication.

Similarly, on the theme of MOOCs, we had to consider how to handle a useful publication on designing Massive Open Online Courses to take account of participant motivations and expectations, which is available as a pre-print version on Gilly Salmon’s personal blog, when the final version of this article appears in the British Journal of Educational Technology.

In the end, after carefully reflecting on this issue, we decided to exclude such articles from our list; but the wider lesson is the way that some authors are strategically navigating and intentionally managing both open and closed spaces to help more widely disseminate their work.

2. Growth of review articles

Secondly, there appears to be a growing trend and increasing popularity towards the publication of review articles on topical issues following a systematic review methodology. For example, amongst the list of nominations we considered Krull and Duart’s (2017) article reporting a systematic review of research on mobile learning in higher education. Similarly, we also considered Liyanagunawardena and colleagues’ article reporting a systematic review of literature on open badges published in the European Journal of Open and Distance Learning. In addition, Mnkandla and Minnaar’s (2017) metasynthesis of the literature on the use of social media in e-learning was considered for inclusion given our preference for major review articles.

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Also, with an interesting focus on how authors collaborate in written publications in the area of e-learning, we reviewed Mohammadi, Asadzandi and Malgard’s paper in the International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning analyzing articles in the Web of Science over the 10-year period.

While all of the above publications explore important topics and our final selection of top 10 articles for 2017 include a number of major literature reviews, the standout observation from evaluating this type of work is that not all review articles are created equally. Polanin, Maynard and Dell (2017) support this observation in their critical analysis of this line of research recently published in the Review of Educational Research where they report:

Despite their popularity, few guidelines exist and the state of the field in education is unclear (p. 172).

They go on to observe that such ‘overviews are a relatively nascent and undeveloped synthesis method that pose unique methodological challenges and may be problematic’ (Polanin, Maynard & Dell, 2017, p. 173). Building on this concern the literature is never neutral and the challenge is to critically interpret the body of published work and methodologies adopted based on explicit theoretical frameworks, which go beyond closet positivist methods simply describing what has been published. Not all of the review articles we include in our top 10 list fully address this point and we encourage readers to be critical of such publications.

3. Value of closed publications

Thirdly, despite the focus of this exercise being on open access publications, which is both philosophical and pragmatic as we want as many people as possible to read the articles we select, many of the so-called best articles (depending on your personal selection criteria) continue to feature in more traditional closed journals. Put another way, our list of top 10 reads for the year would be very different if we adopted an hybrid sample of both open and closed publications. This point begs the question, what might we have included or at least considered in our selection from a wider sample of more traditional closed or restricted journals?

This is a difficult question to answer without repeating a systematic selection methodology; however, for your interest we have listed below another 10 publications that we may have considered for this list, although it needs to be stressed that there are many other journal articles worthy of consideration and further evaluation depending on your specific interests:

Final Comment

Our final list of top 10 open access articles for 2017 come from just five well known journals. Partly by design, professional associations, with one notable exception, manage the majority of the journals. This exception is the International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning which continues to be ranked as one of the top journals in the field. After we have announced the full list of top 10 publications we intend to post to our NIDL blog a brief explanation for our selection of each article and further remarks on the publications missing from this list. Importantly, in the end the final selection is not intended to be a definitive list of the “top 10 reads” for 2017, as this very much depends on the eyes and interests of the reader. What we hope is that our list is helpful in confirming your own selections, challenges you to reflect on what is missing and/or alerts you to something valuable that you may have missed in your professional reading over the year.

Developing a European Maturity Model for Blended Education – The EMBED Project Gets Underway

Earlier this week the first face-to–face meeting of the new European funded EMBED Project took place in Brussels. This project aims at offering higher education institutions expertise and guidance by developing a conceptual framework and a European maturity model on blended education.EMBED_Logo_Defi_RGB_300dpiThe EMDED Project involves a strategic partnership between the European Association of Distance Teaching Universities (EADTU), Delft University, University of Edinburgh, KU-Leuven, Aarhus University, Tampere University of Applied Sciences, and the NIDL at Dublin City University. It brings together recognised specialists in blended education to build a multi-level maturity model and framework for pedagogical and institutional change based on progress markers related to stakeholder-focused outcomes. Importantly, the project adopts a multi-level conception of blended education, including micro-level teaching and learning processes, meso-level institutional innovation and enabling strategies, and macro-level governmental policy and support structures.

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One of the challenges for the project team, particularly during the establishment phase, is to develop a shared conception of blended education, which goes beyond many of the narrow and instrumentalist definitions in the literature. In this regard, the adoption of the term “blended education”, as distinct from “blended learning”, is not insignificant, especially if the project aims to encapsulate a more dynamic, transformative and future-focused understanding of the concept.

The current reality is that there are many definitions of blended learning in the literature and even leading proponents of the concept do not always agree on what they mean by the term. While Garrison and Kanuka’s (2004) definition that ‘At its simplest, blended learning is the integration of classroom face-to-face learning experiences with online learning experiences’ (p.96) is frequently cited, and this conception is reiterated in the original Handbook of Blended Learning (Graham, 2006), there is still no singularly accepted definition in the literature.

This point begs the question, what is unique about the EMBED Project and the focus on blended education?

After all, the idea of blending is not new and there have been many efforts over the past decade to describe the different affordances of pedagogically rich blended learning experiences. For example, the “COFA videos” produced by Simon McIntyre and colleagues at the University of New South Wales in Australia as part of the multi-award winning “Learning to Teach Online” project, which first began in 2009, and later evolved into a high profile MOOC offered on the Coursera platform, continue to be used for professional learning purposes.

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One of the important lessons from this innovative project, and the literature more generally over the past decade (see for example, Daniel, 2016; Oliver & Trigwell, 2005; Siemens, Gasevuc & Dawson, 2015), is that popular conceptions of blended learning often fail to encapsulate a sense of pedagogical disruption. According to Norm Vaughan (2007), a valued member of the NIDL’s International Advisory Board, blended learning should be seen as an opportunity to fundamentally redesign or transform how we approach teaching and learning so that higher education institutions may benefit from increased effectiveness, convenience and efficiency.

In this sense, the concept of blended learning (or education) goes beyond the mere integration of face-to-face learning with online activities at the micro-level. As Garrison and Vaughan (2008) argue in their seminal book on the topic, ‘Blended learning is not an addition that simply builds another expensive educational layer’ (p.5). On the contrary, it should challenge us to do things differently and serve as a catalyst for helping educators to reimagine the nature of teaching and learning in the digital-era.

Put another way, blended education should be seen as an opportunity to rethink, redesign and where appropriate fundamentally transform the traditional model, structure and delivery methods of higher education. Borrowing the words of Moskal, Dziuban and Hartman (2013), blended learning [education] is a dangerous idea as it questions the status quo and has the potential to seriously challenge many traditional sacred cows of what constitutes good pedagogy.

What does this line of thinking mean for the EMBED project?

In simple terms the concept of blended learning means different things to different people. The key point is that there is an inherent tension between traditional conceptions of blended learning, which attempt to merely “tame” the potential of digital technology based on relatively conventional pedagogies, as opposed to more transformative efforts to fully “exploit” the affordances of new digital technologies as part of a wider strategy to modernise the higher education system.

IMG_5046The challenge for the project team is to recognise, carefully navigate and strike a balance between these competing and co-existing perspectives. A related challenge is that the concept of a maturity model is potentially an oxymoron in an era of such rapid and dynamic change. As the project evolves, therefore, we will need to grapple with and develop creative solutions to how we frame the idea of maturity at the different levels (micro, meso and macro) in ways that recognise the fluid and rapidly evolving nature of the field. In other words, we have set ourselves a challenge of focusing greater attention, rather than narrowly the focus, on blended education in the context of the wider changing higher education landscape.

Footnote: We hope to launch the EMBED Project website in the next few weeks.

References

Daniel, J. (2016). Making sense of blended learning: Treasuring an older tradition or finding a better future? Contact North, Canada.

Garrison, D. R., & Kanuka, H. (2004). Blended learning: Uncovering its transformative potential in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 7(2), pp. 95105.

Garrison, R., & Vaughan, N. (2008) Blended learning in higher education: Framework, principles, and guidelines. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Graham, C. (2006). Blended learning systems: Definition, current trends, and future directions (pp. 3–21). In C. Bonk & C. Graham (eds.) The handbook of blended learning: Global perspectives, local designs. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Moskal, P., Dziuban, C., & Hartman, J. (2013). Blended learning: A dangerous idea? Internet and Higher Education 18: pp. 15–23.

Oliver, M., & Trigwell, K. (2005). Can blended learning be redeemed? E-learning 2(1). pp. 17–26.

Siemens, G., Gasevuc, D., & Dawson, S. (2015). Preparing for the digital university: A review of the history and current state of distance, blended, and online learning. Athabasca University.

Vaughan, N. (2007). Perspectives on blended learning in higher education. International Journal on E-Learning, 6(1), pp. 81-94.