Introduction to Distance Education: Growth and Development of Research

April 27, 2014

Dr. Fred Saba

Dr. Fred Saba

By Farhad Saba, Ph. D.
Founder and Editor,

In a previous article, I concentrated on early research in distance eduction from the inception of scholarship in  this field to the contemporary era.  Earlier researchers focused on:

Descriptive studies of how distance education is practiced in a certain institution,
Comparative studies of a medium of communication, such as, television or the Web with a teacher or another medium to see which one is more effective, and
Surveying student satisfaction of  particular courses or programs. They have expanded their field of investigation to studying constructs that are more complex and do not lend themselves to simplistic descriptions or analyses.  

In recent years, researchers in distance education have moved beyond the methods and subjects that characterized its early period.To be sure they have not entirely abandoned these lines of research, but they have become more precise in framing research questions and methods that they employ. For example in a comparative study of online learning and classroom learning,  Benton, Gross, Pallett,  and Webster (2013) took comparative studies in a new direction. They employed  the theory of transactional distance to inform their research strategy. As such, they revealed  fundamental differences between how instructors teach online and in a classroom. Without a theoretical base, their study would have resulted in the all too familiar no statistically significant difference of such studies. Also, Harrison, Gemmell and Reed (2014) studied the level of student satisfaction in a dissertation course. While they showed general high satisfaction among students their comparative analysis of full time and part time students resulted in the expected no statistically significant difference of such studies, as the study lacked a theoretical foundation.

Researchers are still exploring and experimenting with a mix of new qualitative and quantitative methods to find appropriate methodological approaches for scientific investigation in a field that is growing rapidly. for example In the last few years massively online open courses (MOOCs) have suddenly captured the attention of practitioners and researchers in the field. Liyanagunawardena, Adamas, and Williams (2012) conducted a systematic study of published articles on the subject between 2008 and 2012 and observed:

“The majority of case studies have used multiple methods for data collection in line with the general practice of case study research (Yin, 2003). In most case studies online surveys were used to collect data from participants in the MOOC(s). SurveyMonkey ( and LimeSurvey ( were popular tools used in survey data collection. Four studies considering PLENK2010 as a case used multiple surveys (active participant survey, lurker survey, and end course survey). Researchers also reported collecting data via email interviews, focus groups, Moodle log data, discussion forum data, blogs, and observations. Three articles reported the use of techniques based on virtual ethnography and another used narrative inquiry as their research approach.”

The Role of Qualitative Studies- Researcher have used qualitative methods of inquiry to identify new constructs n distance education . Phenomenological  studies have expanded the theoretical base of distance education, and have identified and described phenomena that have not been recognized and described as measurable constructs before. However, in many cases the results of such exploratory studies have not been subjected to tests of validity and reliability. Therefore, it is not known if their outcomes are generalizable. Much work remains to be done in this area. In other words, an important source for formulating hypotheses for empirical quantitative studies is the outcome of qualitative and analytical exploratory inquiry. Ideally, qualitative explorations of this kind would lead to formulating new hypotheses that can be tested in experimental studies using methods other than the traditional comparative statistical analysis. Fahy (2013) presented several issues about the quality of research in distance education. One of the major problems that he identified was that researchers do not pay attention to studies done by the others in the field. As, such studies remain unnoticed, and in many cases they are not followed up by new investigators or replicated by them. This leaves major holes in the theory of distance education and casts doubt among practitioners the valid and usefulness of research results for implementation in their practice. 

Lak of interest in prior art in literature of the field, also, has resulted in researchers naming the same phenomenon with different terms or not clarifying the differences among terms sufficiently. For example, does e-Learning include learning from radio and television? Is e-Learning limited to the use of the Internet in education? If that is the case, why it is not i-Learning? Do electrons involved in learner from radian and television differ from those involved in learning in the Internet?

Improving Quantitative Methods- For conducting more refined and complex research projects, scholars have published data-based studies to improve research methods that are essential to the field. In addition to MOOCs, mobile learning or m-Learning has been the subject of inquiry and practitioner development in recent years. Abu-Al-Aish, and Love (2013) conducted a thorough study of factors influencing students’ acceptance of m-Leanring in higher education. They used quantitative methods of data collection and analysis to assess their measurement model and “examine if the model is a good fit with the data collected.” Then they proceeded to testing the hypothesis of their study. Testing the validity of the research model itself may not be a necessity in well developed disciplines in conducting research, such as those in hard sciences, but it is an important process in the field of distance education as its metrologies of inquiry are still  evolving and maturing.


Benton, S. L., Li, D., Gross, A., Pallett, W. H.,  and Webster, J. W.  (2013). Transactional distance and students ratings in online courses. The American Journal of Distance Education. The American Journal of Distance Education (27), 4. 207-2017

Fahy, P. J. (2013). Use of published research: An exploratory study. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Education. Retrieved from review of research in open and distance education.

Harrison, R., Gemmell, I., and Reed, K. (2014). Student satisfaction with a web-based dissertation course: Findings from an international distance learning master’s programme in public health.  International Review of Research in Open and Online Learning. Retrieved from

Liyanagunawardena, T. R., Adams, A. A., and Williams, S A. (2012). MOOCs: A systematic study of published literature 2008 – 2012. International Review of Research in Open and Online Learning. Retrieved from