Four Distance Education Research Topics to Avoid

More and more, university faculty and students are going online… There. That’s the last time I will consciously write that phrase. And when Brad Mehlenbacher reads it, he will likely say, “thank heavens.”

Mehlenbacher is an associate professor in the training and development program at North Carolina State University. His recent research has centered on examining the existing research in the distance education field. With at least three decades worth of studies and papers to examine, Mehlenbacher found that existing distance learning research falls into several main areas. Some lend themselves to future research to expand the knowledge base, but others do not need to be revisited.

Here are the distance education research topics to avoid:

1. The use of technology as its own justification.
Even as recently as ten to fifteen year ago, stating that technology was becoming more important in universities was justification enough for research into the current state of affairs.

The majority of courses at universities have some form of an online presence. Therefore, Mehlenbacher says, the existence of technology in education is no longer justification for investing time in research. It’s time to move on.

2. More discussions of learning styles.
Many research studies involve examinations of the role student learning styles play in the distance learning environment. “It is a smart rhetorical thing,” Mehlenbacher says. But he has read enough about learning styles, and he thinks it is time to tackle the harder questions, such as how do you provide for people with different visual, auditory, and physical abilities.

3. Rehashing the “digital divide.” Along the same lines is research on the “digital divide,” the much-used term that describes a difference between the access to technology that one group has compared to the expectation or norm. Mehlenbacher asserts that it is time to move into discussions of what differences in technological access really mean, both in and out of the virtual classroom.

Another “divide” that lends itself to examination is how teaching in a virtual space impacts the role of the instructor. “I was always uneasy standing in front of the class in an authority role,” says Mehlenbacher. Teaching online, however, changed that.

“I found myself wanting authority in distance education,” he says, noting that his “voice was no different” from that of the other participants in an online forum, and the lack of authority was a different experience. It raises questions about “the previous notion of what it means to be the teacher.”

4. Anywhere, any time.
Many articles and papers laud the “anywhere, any time” aspect of online learning, imagining classes consistently populated by students across time zones, lifestyles, and scheduling challenges. But one of the most interesting directions for further study is the blended learning movement, which allows local students to study partly or predominantly online, with the ability to come to campus for occasional class meetings. Working with this group brings its own benefits and challenges.

Excerpted from Four Distance Education Research Topics to Avoid (And a Few to Pursue), Distance Education Report, October 1, 2007.