Seminar: A critical review of online learning theories and research methods

UOC organised a research seminar on Theories for learning with emerging technologies on 15 September 2016, presented by Dr Terry Anderson. These are my notes from the seminar:

Part A: Theories to Guide Online Research

Need for theories: necessary for scholarship, extend past learning, project to future research and practice

Traditional theories of educational technology

  • Presentational view – present content using quality presentation – xMOOCs, YouTube, Khan Academy
  • Performance-tutoring – present contest but also test and reinforce – cognitive behavioural theories, instructional systems design
  • Epistemic-Engagement view – social learning – social constructivism, peer learning
    • Online Social Constructivism – active engagement, net presence (building trust), multiple perspectives and sustained dialogue, scaffolding, authentic tasks (relevance), problems are ill-structured and open-ended.
    • Challenges of social constructivism: group-based, pace and time limited, teacher-controlled?, little room for introverted, individual learners.

Distance Education Theories

  • Transactional Distance Theory (Moore) – structure and dialogue and learner autonomy
  • Theory of Instructional Dialogue (Caspi & Gorski)
  • Community of Inquiry (Garrison et al) – Social presence, teaching presence, cognititve presence

Business and Organisational Theories

  • Systems theory – components of distance education, beyond teaching and learning
  • Complexity theory – parts of systems affect each other, emergence and unanticipated events, importance of context

Newer Theories

  • Heutagogy (Hase & Kenyon)– self determined learning
  • Connectivism (Downes & Siemens) – knowledge distributed across a network of connections.
    • Connectivist learning requires network effects, persistence and accessibility (extends beyond the course)
    • Challenges – requires net literacy, openness can be scary, new roles for students and teachers, can be manic.
    • Social aggregation makes a difference – individuals  (behaviourism, cognitivism) > groups  (social constructivism) > networks/sets (share an interest, but not necessarily a social connection) (connectivism)

Part B: Paradigms & Online Learning Research

Research Paradigm

  • Philosophical/theoretical framework of a discipline or common set of beliefs about how problems can be understood and addressed, a worldview
  • Informs questions, literature and methodology
  • Paradigm: Ontology + Epistemology + Methodology
    • Ontology: view of reality and what exists e.g. realist, critical realist, relativist
    • Epistemology: our relationship with the knowledge we are discovering/uncovering – knowledge governed by laws of nature (objective) or interpreted by individuals (subjective)
    • Methodology: how you go about finding knowledge (quantitative, qualitative)
  • Types: Positivism, Constructivist, Critical, Pragmatist

Research Paradigms – Positivist

  • Ontogoloy: There is an objective reality, we can understand it through the laws by which it is governed
  • Epistemology: Scientific discourse derived from positivism and realism
  • Method: Experimental, deduction, randomised control trials, only measures what you can with scientific accuracy, based on hypotheses
  • Research questions: what? How much? Relationship between? Causes?
  • Evaluation: validity and reliability
  • Examples: Community of Inquiry content analysis, Meta-analysis


Research Paradigms – Constructivist / Interpretivist

  • Ontogoloy: World and knowledge created by social and contextual understanding
  • Epistemology: Understand a unique person’s view
  • Method: Qualitative (narratives, interviews, observations, ethnography, case study)
  • Research questions: why? Lived experience? Meaning have?
  • Most common type of DE research but more difficult with distance between researchers and participipants
  • Evaluation: Credibility, transferability, dependability, engagement
  • Example: participants views of delivering online courses

Research Paradigms – Critical / Postmodern

  • Ontogoloy:  Society rife with inadequacies and injustice
  • Epistemology:  Uncover injustice and empower citizens
  • Method:  Ideological review, civil actions
  • Research questions:  who has power? Vested interest? Who is excluded? How can I change this?

Research Paradigms – Pragmatism

  • Ontogoloy:  Truth is what is useful
  • Epistemology:  Best method is one that solves problems
  • Method:  Design-based research, mixed methods
  • Research questions: will this intervention improve learning?
  • Features: intervention, natural context, iterative, development of theory

Academic Writing Workshop: Part I

I recently participated in the first part of an academic writing workshop on planning to write a (scientific) qualitative article, presented by Dr Susan Frekko. The second part of the workshop will take place in March next year. This workshop covered a) defining the research, b) working with your data, c) selecting a journal and d) drafting the article.

Defining your research

An important starting point for creating an article is to clear define your research. For example, what kind of new information do you provide? does it offer a solution to a practical problem? does it answer a conceptual problem? I liked the way Booth et al (2008) provided an alternative way to define your research, through considering the topic, question and problem. Topic-question-problem statement:

  • I’m working on X…
  • because I want to find out Y…,
  • in order to help my reader understand the bigger and important question of Z..

Working with your data

The type of data that you have determines what you do with it, whether its primary or secondary. Very often, qualitative data will contain recordings and field notes. Field notes are very important for capturing process data (about the methodology/design), descriptive data (observations) and analytical data (“Aha” moments). Coding is another important component for generating categories (descriptive and theoretical) and patterns.

Selecting a journal

It is important to select a journal that aligns with your contribution (article). Some tips for journal selection: look at where your key sources are publishing, as well as their citations; consider the journal index ranking, the scope of the journal, the manuscript “turnaround” time, etc. When writing your article, also consider the style used by authors in the journal.

Drafting your article

Matthew Wolf-Meyer provides a useful set of six steps to write a journal article.

Final takeway: A very useful suggestion from the workshop was to form a writing group with your peers, where each member commits to a weekly exchange of a piece of writing for review. This encourages you to keep writing and enables you to get regular feedback.


Booth, Wayne C., Colomb, Gregory G. & Williams, Joseph M. (2008). The Craft of Research. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press.

Wolf-Meyer, Matthew. (2014). How to Write a Journal Article (in 6 steps). N = 1. Available:

Qualitative Analysis using Nvivo

We just completed a 1 day introduction to Nvivo seminar at the university. Nvivo 10 is a software tool created by QRS International that is used to analyse unstructured data. Some of the main features of Nvivo:

  • Organise your research data including text, video, audio, pictures, social media and webpages
  • Record your thoughts as your research progresses
  • Code your data into themes, connect data and make annotations
  • Analyse your data using word clusters, keywords, comparisons and queries
  • Visualise your data using word clouds, maps, charts and models

Some of the features that really interested me during the seminar:

  • Incorporating your bibliographic data (references) and creating links between sources
  • Capturing of data from the web to analyse (e.g. Facebook, Twitter)
  • Ability to autocode responses from surveys
  • Exporting files to share your results with others

Nvivo can be used for individual researchers or research groups working collaboratively. Although the software licenses are expensive, 1 year student licences are available. Once I determine the design of my research I look forward to exploring this tool more to see how it can be useful for qualitative data analysis.