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.

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.


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.


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.


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.