Talking Research: Exciting Plans for the Year Ahead

On Friday the NIDL Research Group met for the first time this year to reflect on our accomplishments over 2017, including more than 100 scholarly outputs, and to share ideas, discuss progress and plan research and development opportunities available to us over 2018, and beyond.

To begin with the Group briefly discussed some of the lessons from the exercise of identifying the top 10 open access journal articles published over 2017, as described in a previous blog post on this topic. The final selection of our 2017 top 10 articles proved useful in promoting internal debate amongst the team over the so-called “best reads” of the year, and the list of open access publications was widely shared globally through a number of communication channels. Given the positive feedback from various sources the Research Group decided to repeat this activity adopting a similar methodology over the course of 2018.

Displayed on IRRODL Homepage

On the theme of supporting research dissemination an update was provided on advance planning for the 2019 ICDE World Conference on Online Learning. A delegation from ICDE will be visiting Dublin in the middle of February 2018 for an extended meeting with our conference team and site visit of the Convention Centre Dublin. Also during this visit we hope the Minister of State for Higher Education will be able to meet with the Organising Committee to hear more about this high-profile conference, especially given the Government’s recent announcements to provide more support for online, flexible life-long learners.

WCOL Promo 2

On the topic of conferences, the NIDL is a strategic sponsor of this year’s OER18 conference in Bristol, as DCU is fully committed to promoting access, equity and social justice through open educational practices. OER18Indeed, this week DCU will be making an important annoucement about a major new open learning initiative, and related programme of research through the NIDL, which is anchored in our mission of transforming lives and societies. More information to follow about this initiative.

The NIDL has another strategic partnership with the Association of Advanced Computing in Education (AACE) in the United States (US) and the Education Studies Association Ireland (ESAI) to select three Irish research papers for showcasing at this year’s Ed Media and Innovate Learning conference in Amsterdam. If successful, we anticipate this “Country showcase” initiative will become a feature at the annual Ed Media conference, which returns to Amsterdam in 2019.


Although our strong engagement with relevant professional associations is something we highly value, the NIDL team also understands the importance of disseminating research and contributing to new knowledge through more conventional forms of scholarship. Accordingly an update was provided to research group members on the edited book we are hoping to publish through Springer and some of the journal articles already accepted, under review or at various stages of preparation.

2358_037During the meeting we also discussed the importance of supporting the next generation of researchers in the context of plans for new postgraduate qualification pathways in the general area of Digital Education, including the development of a specialist doctoral track. We believe this initiative through our Institute of Education will help to build a stronger culture of local research in this important and rapidly evolving area.

However, the NIDL also values our strong links to international bodies and we were delighted to hear the news that one of our doctoral students, Elaine Beirne, located in the Ideas Lab has been awarded a prestigious US research fellowship. More information to come once this award is formally announced by the major professional body.

Lastly, the NIDL Research Group discussed the importance of sharing our collective expertise across the team and investing in our own professional development. Therefore, we agreed to establish a series of workshops over the year on research topics of interest. A small working group was formed with a member from each unit of the NIDL to help plan, design and co-opt people to facilitate these workshops.

We look forward to another productive year of research as we will be shortly recruiting for two new Research Assistant positions to help us continue our work on a number of internal and externally funded projects.

The Top 10 for 2017: Full List of Articles and Additional Reflections

Over the past three weeks we have been sharing via Twitter our top 10 open access journal articles for 2017. The methodology and selection criteria we used to identify these 10 articles were described in a previous blog post earlier in the month. For convenience and for those who missed the individual Twitter posts this follow up blog post provides relevant links and descriptions for all 10 articles.

Top 10

However, before we list and briefly comment on each article some additional observations arising from this exercise may be of wider interest. Previously we reported three wider lessons or standout points from our experience of identifying, reviewing and selecting the original long-list of articles:

  • the blurring of boundaries between open and closed publications;
  • the increasing number of systematic literature reviews; and,
  • the question of whether the “best” articles remain in closed journals.

On another level, it is interesting to note that two journals each provide three of the top 10 articles—namely, the Online Learning Journal (Nos. 4, 5, & 8) published in the United States by the Online Learning Consortium (OLC) and the International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning (Nos. 2, 3, & 7) published by Athabasca University. Notably, our No. 1 article once again comes from the Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, which has two articles in the top 10, published by the Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education (ASCILITE).


The two remaining articles come from (i) the traditionally closed “tier 1” journal Distance Education published by the Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia (ODLAA), and (ii) the relatively new or at least relaunched Open Springer International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education edited by a team from Spain, Colombia and Australia.


Most of the articles are co-authored (n=7) with a total of 22 authors. Two authors appear twice in the list. A reasonable geographical spread of authors appears across developed and developing countries but women author less than 40% of the papers. Importantly, six of the top 10 articles are published through the aforementioned professional associations which actively promote an open access publication outlet for members. Although independent from a professional body or association the International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning continues to standout as the leading international open access publication in the area.


While the final list of top 10 articles cover a wide range of topics and would arguably provide a solid foundation for any student undertaking postgraduate study in the area of blended, online and digital (BOLD) education there are some notable gaps. For example, learning analytics, mobile learning, personalised learning, professional development, quality enhancement, micro-credentalising and the unbundling movement, to name a few, are important areas missing from the top 10. Similarly, there are some important open access journals from major professional bodies missing from this year’s list, including Open Praxis, Research in Learning Technology, European Journal of Open, Distance and eLearning, which should not be overlooked when catching up on your reading in the New Year. pageHeaderTitleImage_en_US.pngFinally, an unanticipated observation arising from this exercise was the relatively low number of authors who had no or limited presence through Twitter. Wherever possible when tweeting news of the top 10 we tried to include the author’s Twitter handle to alert them to their inclusion in this list. Based on our best efforts to locate the relevant Twitter handles, as notably none of the journals include this information in the contact details for authors, just over half of the 22 contributors appear to have Twitter accounts. More to the point, most of these authors are not particularly active Twitter users, which is a little surprising given (i) the nature of their work in the area, (ii) decision to disseminate their research findings through open access publications, and (iii) what we know about potential for increased citations when academics tweet their work. This apparent disconnection may be worthy of further investigation.

The Top 10 Articles

No. 1: Blended Learning Citation Patterns And Publication Networks Across Seven Worldwide Regions

Authors: Kristian Spring & Charles Graham

Journal: Australasian Journal of Educational Technology

The intention of this article was to report where the most impactful conversations about blended learning worldwide are occurring and how, if at all, are they connected to one another in terms of citations and publications. This line of research is particuarlly relevant to the European funded EMBED project which the NIDL is currently undertaking with a handful of partner universities. The geographical anaylsis and depiction of citations illustrates the predominance of North American publications. Notably, a high proportion of the most cited articles were found to cite Garrison and Kanuka’s (2004) seminal work focusing on the transformative potential of blended learning, although the influence of this publication has not spread as widely to the international community. Overall the authors found a large disparity in citation patterns of bended learning research around the world and discuss the opportunities for more global collaboration.

It should also be noted that some of the results of this study were published in the middle of December in the Journal of Online Learning supported by the Online Learning Consortium. See…

Thematic Patterns in International Blended Learning Literature Research, Practices, and Terminology

No. 2 Review and Content Analysis of International Review of Research in Open and Distance/Distributed Learning (2000–2015)

Authors: Olaf Zawacki-Richte, Uthman Alturki & Ahmed Aldraiweesh

Journal: International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning

This paper offers a review of the literature published in the International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning (IRRODL) over a 15-year period. Notably, over this timeframe based on the location of the first author only two Irish publications have appeared in the Journal, which is widely regarded as the top open access publication in the field. Moreover, IRRODL usually appears in the list of the top five publications overall (open and closed) with the highest impact factor. It follows that the high status of IRRODL was an important factor in selecting this article. In terms of the review findings it is interesting to note that the content and citation analysis revealed many of the most highly cited articles were theoretical in nature. Importantly, the authors conclude that the Journal’s name tells the story as the publication is very international with 580 articles from over 60 countries. For this reason IRRODL continues to be excellent outlet for open scholars to share their research findings internationally in a high impact journal.

No. 3 Trends and Patterns in Massive Open Online Courses: Review and Content Analysis of Research on MOOCs (2008-2015)

Authors: Aras Bozkurt, Ela Akgün-Özbek, & Olaf Zawacki-Richter

Journal: International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning

This article reviews 362 empirical articles published from 2008 to 2015 and finds amongst other things that MOOC research generally does not benefit from being viewed through theoretical or conceptual lenses. Notably, the trend line showing the number of articles published per year suggests that the extent of research on MOOCs is likely to continue to increase in the coming years. Put another way the so-called MOOC bubble has not burst which is one reason why we selected this important review article. Not surprisingly the literature appears to be dominated by research on xMOOCs and using a macro, meso and micro-level framework for analysis the three most studied research areas were found to be “theories and models”, “learner characteristics” and “instructional design”. While the review coded each paper according to whether MOOC discourse was presented in positive, negative, neutral, or critical terms it would have been interesting to see an analysis of the published research by geographical region over the 8-year time period. Nevertheless, this is a valuable article which points to the touchstones of MOOC research from 2008 to 2015 for current and future researchers, policy-makers, and institutional leaders.

No. 4 Theories and Frameworks for Online Education: Seeking an Integrated Model

Author: Anthony G Picciano

Journal: Online Learning Journal

This article provides a very readable synthesis of theoretical frameworks and models that focus on the pedagogical aspects of online education. It builds on a seminal book chapter by Terry Anderson first published by Athabasca Press in 2008 and presents the case for an integrated multimodal model for online education. A very readable overview of the evolution of thinking about learning is offered and the question is then asked, “can we build a common integrated theory of online education?” The ensuing discussion picks up the challenge of developing a unified theory but in our opinion might have benefited from drawing on the seminal work of Anne Sfard (1998) on the dangers of single metaphor solutions. The major takeaway lesson, especially for disciples of one or more variations of Constructivism, is that learning theory remains a contested scientific field and no single theory has emerged for instruction in general, let alone for online educators. This key point helped in our scoring of the article and is visually illustrated in the Hotel project which offers a comprehensive “learning theories map” of the contested theoretical terrain.

No. 5 A Critical Review of the Use of Wenger’s Community of Practice (CoP) Theoretical Framework in Online and Blended Learning Research, 2000-2014

Authors: Sedef Uzuner Smith, Suzanne Hayes & Peter Shea

Journal: Online Learning Journal

This article provides a breif overview of the key elements that underpin Etienne Wenger’s communities of practice (CoP) theoretical framework and then critically reviews extant empirical work grounded in this framework. While the COP Framework is widely cited and has been particularly influential over the past decade the review found more than half the studies in the sample were questionable. Although verification of the various elements of Wenger’s CoP Framework has provided many important insights into online and blended learning processes, the authors conclude there is need to develop a more problematizing approach towards research in this area. Given the theory dependence of our observations the major takeaway is that we need to go beyond verification and offer more complex and nuanced understandings of blended and online learning environments. In this respect the article was chosen in our top 10 for the year as it helps us think more critically about a widely accepted theoretical construct.

No. 6 Refining Success and Dropout in Massive Open Online Courses Based on the Intention–behavior Gap

Authors: Maartje A. Henderikx, Karel Kreijns & Marco Kalz

Journal: Distance Education

This paper presents an alternative typology for determining success and dropout in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). The typology gives important insights and offers valuable lessons for our understanding of student completion and success both in and beyond the MOOC environment. More specifically, the findings demonstrate that simply looking at course completion as a measure for success does not suffice in the context of MOOCs, although as already mentioned this point has wider implications. We need to acknowledge that our selection of this article from a highly regarded “tier 1” normally closed journal was also influenced by the authors’ decision to openly publish the work.

No. 7 Special Report on the Role of Open Educational Resources in Supporting the Sustainable Development Goal 4: Quality Education Challenges and Opportunities

Author: Rory McGreal

Journal: International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning

This special report discusses the potential of Open Educational Resources (OER) and their offspring, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), as enablers for achieving the Sustainable Development Goal 4: Quality Education (SDG4). A focus on SDG4, that is, “Ensure Inclusive and Equitable Quality Education and Promote Lifelong Learning Opportunities for All”, particularly in the context of developing countries and support for promoting Indigenous knowledge, strongly influenced our selection of this article. The author, a UNESCO/COL/ICDE Chair in OER, presents a valuable case study of the leadership shown in Canada and goes on to discuss some of the opportunities and challenges in the wider context of promoting life-long learning and opportunities for all. Perhaps the most valuable lesson to take from the paper, especially for small countries like Ireland, is that ‘Success builds on success’ (p.301).

No. 8 A National Study of Online Learning Leaders in US Higher Education

 Author: Eric Fredericksen

Journal: Online Learning Journal

This article reports the findings of a national survey, a first of its kind, which sheds light on the leadership in the US that is guiding new and emerging online teaching and learning environments. The focus on the important issue of transformative leadership, widely acknowledged as a major challenge in higher education in such uncertain times, helped in our scoring of this article. Although the findings would be enhanced by a number of follow up interviews with a smaller purposive sample to help triangulate some of the emergent themes, and the response rate (31%) is always a limitation of this type of survey research, the study provides a useful benchmark for future researchers—both within and outside of the US. More specifically, the three research questions provide a solid basis for further studies in this area, which coupled with the stories and lived experiences of participants may also help us to better understand how to support more distributed and transformative models of leadership.

No. 9 Bot-teachers in Hybrid Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs): A post-Humanist Experience

Authors: Aras Bozkurt, Whitney Kilgore & Matt Crosslin

Journal: Australasian Journal of Educational Technology

This article builds on the work of Sian Bayne (2015) in reporting on the use of bot-teachers in promoting interaction in a MOOC environment. The three pillars of MOOCs, Artifical Intelligence (AI) and strong theoretical lenses of a combination of a post-humanist perspective, with teaching presence from the Community of Inquiry (CoI) Framework, coupled with Actor Network Theory (ANT), make this article a thought-provoking read. The findings also serve to illustrate the opportunties MOOCs continue to provide for innovations in learning and the potential of mass pedagogy. In this respect the authors conclude with some useful pointers for future research directions in what remains a field in its relatiuve infancy.

No. 10 Gamifying Education: What is Known, What is Believed and What Remains Uncertain: A Critical Review

Authors: Christo Dichev and Darina Dicheva

Journal: International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education

 This article probably takes the prize for the best title. It treats the gamifying of education as problematic and in our language attempts to go beyond reliance on small case studies, self-referential literature and the risk of potential Hawthorn Effects. Notably, the review reveals that insufficient evidence exists to support the long-term benefits of gamification in educational contexts. However, it also notes that the practice of gamifying learning has outpaced researchers’ understanding of its mechanisms and methods which raise a number of practical and methodological challenges. Ultimately the paper concludes that knowledge of how to effectively gamify an educational activity in accordance with the requirements of the specific context remains limited.