Open, Distance and e-Learning (ODeL) RESEARCH FRAMEWORK

Open, Distance and e-Learning (ODeL) RESEARCH FRAMEWORK

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A number of attempts have been made in the past to organize research in open and distance learning. Some of these studies are cited in Zawacki-Ritcher (2009) in a follow-up investigation to help organize research in open and distance learning. In his investigation, Zawacki sought to: (i) develop a categorization of research areas in distance education; (ii) identify the most important research areas in distance education; and (iii) identify the most neglected research areas in distance education. Based on an extensive literature review and a Delphi study, three broad research levels—macro, meso and micro—with 15 research areas were derived to organize the body of knowledge in distance education.

Zawacki-Ritcher offers this framework to prospective researchers as a tool that can be used to help identify gaps and priority areas and to explore potential research directions. Zawacki-Richter & Anderson (2014) note that the Delphi study has initiated fruitful discussions about the structure of research areas in distance education and subsequent literature reviews have referred to and built upon this framework. They highlight the example of a research consortium of some universities in Australia and New Zealand established and funded by the Australian government which developed a research program for 2011–2021 with research themes categorized by the main research levels—macro, meso, micro—and by the 15 research areas identified in the Delphi study.

The African Virtual University (AVU) is pleased to adopt and adapt this framework for the benefit of its research community. While the framework is considerably comprehensive, we have added an additional research area (infrastructure) at the meso level of the framework (see table 3). Infrastructure is a particularly important area when it comes to supporting the design, development and delivery of ODeL programs, especially for institutions in countries with underdeveloped infrastructure such as the ones found in rural areas. A recent proposal (Paul & Ubwa 2013) for instance explored how solar energy can be used to power distance learning centers in the rural areas of Tanzania.

The term open, distance and eLearning (ODeL) has been adopted and is used to capture the philosophical, foundational and the increasingly technological aspects of the field. It indicates continuity with the past, while also engaging with emergent developments. We hope that this framework will serve as a useful tool for the research community. The framework is particularly helpful for a number of reasons including:


•    identify gaps, priority areas and explore potential research directions;
•    inform call for papers for journal articles including themes for special issues;
•    help highlight relationship and draw connections across levels, research areas and issues;
•    can be engaged with and further developed and refined by the research community; and
•    provide opportunities for collaboration.

Table 1 is an overview of the research areas, sixteen in total organized into the 3 levels macro-, meso- and micro-. These research areas are further expanded to show the issues for consideration under each area. 


Table 1     Research Areas by Level
Macro-level: ODeL Systems & Theories Meso-level: Management, Organization & Technology Micro-level: Teaching & Learning
1. Access, equity, and ethics 6. Management and organization 14. Instructional or learning design
2. Globalization of education and cross cultural aspects 7. Costs and benefits 15. Interaction and communication in learning communities
3. Open, distance and eLearning systems and institutions 8. Infrastructure 16. Learner characteristics
4. Theories and models 9. Educational technology
5. Research methods in ODeL and knowledge transfer 10. Innovation and change
11. Professional development & faculty support
12. Learner support services
13. Quality assurance

Macro-level: ODeL Systems & Theories

1. Access, equity, and ethics

  • The democratization of access to education through open, distance and elearning as afforded by new media and technologies
  • Finding ways to deliver high quality education to those who have limited resources and poor infrastructure.
  • The (sustainable) provision of education using ODeL in developing nations. For example, what is the impact of distance education (e.g., via mobile learning) on narrowing (or broadening) the digital divide?
  • What is the role of ICT (information and communication technologies) and/or OER (open educational resources) or MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) in terms of access to education?
  • Should distance education have an inherent and explicit goal to reduce inequality and promote both high quality and affordable educational opportunity?

2. Globalization of education and cross-cultural aspects

  • aspects that refer to the global external environment and drivers;
  • the development of the global distance education market;
  • teaching and learning in mediated and multicultural environments; and the implications for professional development and curriculum development.
  • Policy implications for various aspects of cross border education such as accreditation, internalization
  • Implications for access and opportunity such as presented by MOOCs and OERS?

3. Open, distance and eLearning systems and institutions

  • ODeL delivery systems, the role of institutional partnerships in developing transnational programs and the impact of ICT on the convergence of conventional education and distance education institutions (hybrid or mixed-mode).

4. Theories and models

  • Theoretical frameworks for and foundations of ODeL e.g., the theoretical basis of instructional models, knowledge construction, interaction between learners, and
  • the impact of social constructivism, connectivism, and new learning theories on current practice.

5. Research methods in ODeL and knowledge transfer

  • Methodological considerations,
  • the impact of ODeL research and publication on practice, and
  • the role of professional associations and higher education institutions in improving practice.
  • Literature reviews and works on the history of distance education as well as new and emerging models and concepts are also subsumed within this area.

 Meso-level: Management, Organization & Technology


6. Management and organization

  • strategies, administration, and organizational infrastructures and frameworks for the development, implementation, and sustainable delivery of ODeL programs.
  • What is required for successful leadership in ODeL?
  • Policies relating to continuing education, lifelong learning, and the impact of ODeL on institutional policies, as well as legal issues (copyright and intellectual property).

7. Costs and benefits

  • to financial management, costing, pricing, and business models in ODeL
  • Efficiency: What is the return on investment or impact of ODeL programs?
  • What is the impact of ICT on the costing models and the scalability of ODeL delivery?
  • How can cost-effective but meaningful learner support be provided?

8. Infrastructure

  • physical infrastructure and access points to ODeL programs ( e.g. learning centers, ODeL design & development centers)
  • power availability (electricity, solar)
  • technical infrastructure, and equipment for ODeL learning environments including computers, mobile devices, virtual labs)
  • ICT capacity and internet infrastructure

9. Educational technology

  • new trends in educational technology for ODeL (e.g., social media or mobile learning) and their affordances for teaching and learning.
  • the benefits and challenges of using OERs, media selection (e.g., synchronous versus asynchronous media),
  • skills and competencies to use and support technology integration

10. Innovation and change

  • issues that refer to educational innovation with new media and measures to support and facilitate change in institutions (e.g., incentive systems for faculty, aspects referring to staff workloads, promotion and tenure).
  • emerging innovations and their implications for ODeL e.g. learning management systems, OERs, MOOCs, online data analytics, online examination systems, certification and tags
  • Keeping abreast with research and innovation with implications for ODeL
  • Issues that refer to educational innovation with new media (e.g. mobile learning)
  • measures to support and facilitate change and innovation in institutions (e.g., research, incentive systems for faculty, aspects referring to staff workloads, promotion, and tenure).

11. Professional development and faculty support

  • Professional development and faculty support services as a prerequisite for innovation and change.
  • What are the competencies for teaching online and in various ODeL contexts (blended, hybrid),
  • What are the competencies needed for counselors and support service staff, and how can they be developed?

12. Learner support services

  • the infrastructure for and organization of learner support systems (from information and counseling for prospective students to library services and technical support, to career services and alumni networks).

13. Quality assurance

  • accreditation and quality standards in ODeL
  • the implications of quality assurance and high quality learner support on enrolments and drop-out/retention
  • the reputation and acceptance of ODeL as a valid form of educational provision.


 Micro-level: Teaching and Learning

14. Instructional or learning design

  • issues that refer to the stages of the instructional design process for curriculum and course development.
  • pedagogical approaches for tutoring online (scaffolding), the design of (culturally appropriate) study material, opportunities provided by new developments in ICTs for teaching and learning (e.g., social media applications and mobile devices),
  • assessment opportunities and practices in ODeL.

15. Interaction and communication in learning communities

  • closely related to instructional design considerations is course design that fosters (online) articulation, interaction, reflection, and collaboration throughout the learning and teaching process.
  • Special areas include the development of online communities, gender differences, and cross-cultural aspects in online communication.

16. Learner characteristics

  • the aims and goals of adult and younger students studying in ODeL
  • the socio-economic background of ODeL learners, their different approaches to learning, critical thinking dispositions, media literacies, and special needs.
  • How do learners learn online (behaviour patterns, learning styles) and what competencies are needed for learning (e.g., digital literacy)?
  • Gender differences?
  • A Note about Research Areas that Cut Across the Three Levels

It is important to note that the separation of research areas into categories is not easy and clear-cut in all cases. Some areas cross the different levels such as issues of quality assurance and evaluation, educational technologies, infrastructure, gender and cross-cultural issues.

Quality assurance and evaluation

•    the issues classified at the meso level: management, organization, and technology would focus on the evaluation or accreditation of whole institutions or programs or, research about the development of a general, institution-wide instrument to measure learner satisfaction.

•    at the micro level: teaching and learning, the emphasis would be on the evaluation of single courses, learning groups, or courseware. Evaluation here would be a step in the instructional design process.


Cross-cultural issues

•    at the macro level the focus is for example on issues of international partnerships in the global education market.
•     at the meso level, issues to be considered include the planning, implementation, and management of transnational programs to address the needs of globally dispersed learners.
•    At the micro level, intercultural communication plays an important role in classes with mixed cohorts of learners from all over the world, how learners learn online etc. These do have implications for competencies required by teachers on the meso level (in terms of professional development and faculty support).


Educational technology has issues across all three levels:

•    Issues that refer to access to educational technologies and infrastructure have to be considered on the global macro level.
•    The introduction of new media for learning and teaching in institutions has a strong impact on educational management on the meso level, e.g., issues that refer to the organizational support and infrastructure for educational technologies, their costs, quality assurance, implications for organizational change, and the resulting need for professional development.
•    Research that emphasizes the pedagogical opportunities that new media afford for teaching and learning falls into categories on the micro level (e.g., instructional design and mediated interaction and communication).
•    Infrastructure for ODeL institutions goes beyond teaching and learning activities, hence the necessity to tackle them separately.



•    One area not shown explicitly in the tables above is gender. Issues of gender will cut across the three levels depending on whether the focus is on social or institutional policies to increase participation or the focus is on the experience of different genders in ODeL learning environments.



Paul, D.P. & Fatma Ubwa, F. The role of photovoltaic powered ICT centers on ODL
programs in rural areas in Tanzania. Paper presented at the 2013 1st International Conference of the AVU, Nairobi Kenya under the session on Infrastructure & Capacity.

Zawacki-Richter Olaf & Anderson, T. (2014). Introduction: Research Areas in Online
Distance Education.  In Zawacki-Richter Olaf &  Anderson, T. Eds. Online distance education: Towards a research agenda edited by  Olaf Zawacki-Richter and Terry Anderson. Pp 1-35.  AU Press, Athabasca University, Edmonton, AB.

Zawacki-Richter, O. (2009). Research areas in distance education: A Delphi study.
International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10 (3).


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