This study examined (1) research areas in distance education, trends, priority areas, and gaps in distance education research; (2) research methods in distance education; and (3) authorship patterns. The results of this review convey certain implications for future research in distance education.
Major findings of this study may be summarized as follows:
- Research in distance education is dominated by studies that focus on interaction and communication patterns in computer-mediated communication, instructional design issues, learner characteristics, and educational technology.
- In terms of research methods, the only discernible trend was found for qualitative research methods, with a modest upward trend on a low percentage level. Maybe researchers in the field have taken note of those who advocate more qualitative studies to capture a deeper and richer range of data (cf. Minnes, 1985; Saba 2000).
- The AJDE clearly prefers to publish quantitative studies; whereas, DE accepted the highest number of qualitative studies, and JDE published the highest number of papers that followed a mixed method design.
- More than 80% of all articles were contributed by authors from only five countries: USA, Canada, UK, Australia, and China. The first authors of the 695 articles under review came from 54 different countries. Interestingly, the journals publish more from their own country of origin. The most international journal is IRRODL with only 18.9% of authors coming from Canada; whereas, AJDE has a strong North American bias with over 80% of authors from the USA and Canada.
- A significant trend was found towards more collaboration among researchers in distance education. In the period between 2000 and 2008, the proportion of single-author papers was 44.2% compared to 61.5% of 361 articles published between 1991 and 1996 that were reviewed by Mishra (1997).
So Quo Vadis?
According to the experts’ opinion in the Delphi study (Zawacki-Richter, 2009), there is a great need for more research on the role of culture and cultural differences in global distance learning programmes. Furthermore, co-operation among institutions should receive much more attention, including the impact of cultural differences on leadership and culturally complex student support systems, and there is a need for comparative research on distance learning systems (macro level). A lot of work still needs to be done on the meso level: In particular, experts on the panel highlighted aspects referring to leadership in distance education and strategy, management of change and innovation, costs, organizational development and infrastructure for online student and faculty support, professional development, and quality assurance. The experts claimed that empirical evidence is lacking on the pedagogical opportunities that Web 2.0 applications, mobile devices, and synchronous tools afford for teaching, learning, and assessment.
This review of 695 articles published in five leading distance education research journals confirms the results of the pre-study. It reveals a strong imbalance between the three research levels. Distance education research is highly dominated by issues that refer to the micro perspective (teaching and learning in distance education), with over 50% of all articles focusing on interaction and communication in learning communities, instructional design, and learner characteristics. As anticipated according to the results of the pre-study, those areas that were said to require much more attention take the last three places (globalisation of education and cross-cultural aspects, innovation and change, and costs and benefits) in the ranking of research areas with regard to the frequency of articles (Table 3).
A possible interpretation for this imbalance is that the selection of research themes might follow practical considerations, especially with regard to the availability of data. Of course, the analysis of interaction patterns in computer-mediated communication is a very interesting topic and the text-based data of synchronous communication in online conferences is saved in databases of learning management systems and is therefore readily available. In contrast, it is not surprising that educational institutions, as competitors in the global education market, are unwilling to freely share business models and data on their budgets and costs.
However, the dearth of articles dealing with issues especially on the meso level (management, organization, and technology) is disappointing. In order to guide practice, practitioners in the field should not rely on under-informed trial and error, but on sound research and empirical investigation on the effectiveness of managerial interventions for education innovation, diversity management, student and faculty support, quality assurance, course design, and intercultural communication.