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Online and Distance Education Demands Researchers Pick a Topic and Get to Work
Book Review: 'Online Distance Education Towards a Research Agenda,' edited by Olaf Zawacki-Richter and Terry Anderson

By Nakita Dolet / July 2014

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Though many scholars in the field of distance education can trace the origins of the discipline back to correspondence courses in the mid-19th century, many of these same scholars would agree the study of distance education is still fragmented. Despite the effort of researchers from around the world, many issues central to advancing distance education as a distinct and important area of scholarship remain uncharted. The phenomenon of online distance education—characterized by rapidly evolving technology and the rise of a global society—brings a renewed exigency to the need for a comprehensive survey that addresses gaps in the current body of research. Online Distance Education: Towards a Research Agenda edited by Olaf Zawacki-Richter and Terry Anderson brings a number of scholars in online and distance education together in attempt to produce a text that is not only far-reaching, but also reflective of the just-in-time research agenda common of distance education.

Zawacki-Richter and Anderson base their own treatment of online distance education (ODEL) on a 2009 Delphi study conducted by Zawacki-Richter himself. In the original study, Zawacki-Richter set out to systematically review five well-respected distance education journals in order to identify common areas of research in distance education and create a foundation for future areas of inquiry. During the course of his study, Zawacki-Richter classified distance education articles into three broad categories (macro, meso, and micro) and 15 sub-categories:The macro category focuses on issues related to education systems and theories; the meso centers on management, organization, and technology; and at the micro level is teaching and learning in distance education. Though, readers will naturally rely on the macro, meso and micro-level headings used to group Online Distance Education into three sections, the decisions to group the 17 articles that comprise this text reveal a number of themes that permeate throughout. Discussions about access, culture, and research practices and theory help readers in developing an understanding of the field as a whole.

Despite providing an overview of the field, Online Distance Education may disappoint readers who are searching for a text that focuses on controversial issues such as the rise of MOOCs or the use of social media in the classroom. While contributors mention both topics in a few areas throughout the text, the book does not masquerade as popular media. Instead, Zawacki-Richter and Anderson openly admit their goal is to create a text that can serve as a "primary reference and guide to distance educators, researchers, and policy makers." From the start, it is clear the primary goal of Online Distance Education is encourage researchers to explore under investigated areas of ODEL. As a result, this book becomes a tool for students, faculty, and other online and distance education professionals to focus their research in areas of key importance.

Online Distance Education approaches topics such as the impact of globalization in online and blended contexts from a fresh perspective. Conversations about pedagogical norms in countries around the world highlight how complex the transition from face-to-face to online learning can be. The book describes how a factor like silence can impact different cultures interacting in an educational environment: "Silence, while frustrating for American and Western Europeans, is quite comfortable for Asian and Pacific Island cultures." Here online education is not discussed in comparison to face-to-face, but instead as a distinct field where "one can come to terms with the complexity of culture in online courses by defining it from the perspective of the Internet as a culture in its own right, blurring the boundaries between the real and virtual worlds."

Zawacki-Richter and Anderson's decision to draw attention to neglected areas of ODEL, like professional development or the economic structure of online education, provides readers with a reference for a broad range of topics. Furthermore, the text's treatment of distance education history and theory provides a foundation for future research. Almost every chapter begins with a review of the topic in question from a historical view because Zawacki-Richter and Anderson understand in order to explore "those aspects of distance education that are susceptible to forces of change and that are distinctive in distance education…it seems logical to look at the history of distance education and what kinds of change have occurred." The book also examines relevant educational theories in the context of online and blended environments. Readers will encounter well-recognized names like Wedemeyer and Moore in historical discussions of ODEL, alongside the cast of researchers who contributed directly to this text. Each chapter also addresses specific questions for future research; many chapters go as far as devoting a full section to this pursuit. As a result, this book also can serve as a great tool to educators interested in driving informed discussions in the classroom, and encouraging students to research novel areas of ODEL.

Online Distance Education serves a testament to the type of forward-thinking approaches to research that Zawacki-Richter and Anderson clearly encourage within ODEL. Along with inviting experts from a number of discipline and cultures, Zawacki-Richter and Anderson treat this book as their own personal case study in online and distance education. It is easy to argue that, "A volume like this one could only become possible in an era of advanced digitalization…using social network analysis techniques, the editors were quickly able to identify research experts in the field of distance education all across the globe and invite them to participate in this project." The use of social networks to facilitate effective academic collaboration is still outside the scope of many online and blended learning educational environments, but Zawacki-Richter and Anderson latest contribution can serve as a model for this type of collaborative work.

The range of topics discussed in this book provides readers with a breadth of areas to explore, but more importantly, this text serves as an invitation for readers to pick a topic and get to work.

About the Author

Nakita Dolet is a Ph.D. student in the field of adult education with a focus in online and distance education at Penn State University. Her research interests include online services and utilizing online tools within higher education in order to serve non-traditional students.

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