Top 5 Challenges in Conducting DETA Research

The DETA 2016 meeting was an effort to ensure the grant deliverable to collect data by testing and replicating research models. Moreover, the DETA Center looked to engage a community of individuals interested in conducting research on distance education. The objective of the DETA 2016 Summit was to hear from the subgrant awardees and research fellows who are exploring these research questions at their respective institutions. During this meeting, each researcher briefly described their studies in a lightning round format. Next, small group discussions focused on identifying current challenges they faced in conducting these studies and generating potential solutions.

After presenting their studies, the meeting participants gathered in three small groups to discuss the top challenges they experienced when conducting their research.  After compiling a list of challenges, each small group came to a consensus and identified the top five challenges from the list. Once identified, all meeting participants voted on the challenges they perceived to be the most pressing concerns for distance education research to prioritize their importance. Those challenges are listed below.

  1. Lack of standardization in the research process for distance education research. There are logistical issues surrounding the research process that need to be addressed. Oftentimes what seems like a streamlined process on paper does not necessarily pan out as such in actual implementation. DETA researchers expressed a top challenge for distance education research is translating the research plan into actual implementation at the designing stage, data collection stage, and analysis stage for distance education studies.
  2. Incentivizing participation. Many distance education researchers face the obstacle of finding enough faculty and student participants to warrant a sound, evidence-based research project. Given the economic climate influencing many institutional resources, monetary incentives are unlikely, or the incentivization results in minimal participation. Thus, researchers face the difficulty of finding creative strategies for encouraging participation with limited resources.
  3. Reliance on self-reported data. As with any research endeavor involving opinions and behaviors of humans, reliance on self-reported data means our data is ‘as good as the responses we ask for.’ The accuracy of self-reported data, without the availability of data for cross-checking, is unknown, which is a challenge in research conducted on student populations.
  4. Research is team-based, but there is an absence of culture. That is, research within the area of distance education often requires a group effort to be conducted effectively. Yet many institutions do not encourage team-based projects, which is often evident in the lack of resources that would enable disparate individuals to communicate and work together on one project.
  5. Accessing individual level data. With sensitive and confidential information, institutions prefer to provide aggregate level data. Though aggregate level can be a great resource to get a ‘broad stroke’ picture of the students at a particular institution, individual level data is often imperative for conducting rigorous empirical research. Individual level data, meaning information and data at the level of the student, is more difficult to access, yet necessary when examining certain populations and student outcomes.


Other Top Challenges (in no particular order, as identified by the groups):

  • Navigating IRB. Distance education researchers indicate that successfully and accurately completing an IRB is an area of difficulty in the research design process. This challenge is exacerbated by the obstacle of identifying and communicating with others who have effectively completed an IRB for distance education research.
  • Absence of resources to support research. Many researchers indicate the difficulty of completing quality research without the necessary resources. These resources include monetary compensation, faculty and student participants, knowledge of effective research design, and an absence of a communicative space where researchers can assist one another as well as collaborate on similar projects.
  • Students facing survey fatigue. Researchers indicate that students often complain about the length of surveys. Also, because many of the distance education research projects include surveys as a way of gathering data, students exhibit frustration as they are constantly asked to participate in this form of data collection. As a result, students are less likely to participate in surveys without proper incentivization or their quality of participation is questionable.
  • Enhancing our understanding of how external learning or outside of the classroom learning fits into the research model, such as tutoring, academic support, student-driven information learning.
  • Pressure for disciplinary research versus research on pedagogical practices. A challenge is the need to produce research that focuses within a specific academic discipline rather than focus on the overall pedagogical practices that can inform quality teaching and education. That is, it is common for distance education research to be less concerned about effective instructional practices within online modalities than to identify various ways in which online modalities can inform certain subject areas. More generalizable and universal research is needed in regard to distance education and instructional practices.
  • Aligning survey questions with research questions. This challenge comes from the process of transforming conceptualizations into operationalizations.  Translating the ideas in a research question into a tangible, measurable, and/or quantifiable element is no easy task that often requires a fine balance between incorporating previously established operationalization in the field and asserting new ones. Furthermore, the DETA survey toolkit offers an array of survey questions and measures that may peak a researcher’s interest, yet aligning or developing a research question that fits the survey or measure may be difficult. Moreover, narrowing the number of measures used or focusing on particular measures may require theoretical knowledge.
  • Misalignment of institution’s priorities and researcher’s priorities. Many times institutions are focused on identifying practical contributions of what is being studied. Researchers are focused on finding outcomes, whereas institutions are looking to identify practices that can be diffused. Researchers’ findings may not naturally translate into recommendations for practice, and a bridge may need to be developed.

Following the identification of top challenges, each small group discussed potential solutions for these challenges. While time prevented this discussion from being completed in its entirety, the meeting participants were able to identify some beginning strategies to assist in addressing the challenges mentioned.

One of the primary solutions was the development of an online space in which researchers in distance education and technological advancements can collaborate and assist one another in navigating the challenges and complexities that may characterize research in this area. For instance, one group discussed how it would be helpful if researchers would share their IRB request materials in this online space so that effective and ineffective examples could be used as templates about what to do and what to avoid. This online space would also serve as a portal in which different institutions could share their study ideas and receive feedback from people who have conducted similar studies or experts within that particular area of specialization. The majority of strategies seemed to focus on practical and tangible deliverables that would assist researchers in negotiating and overcoming the challenges that are common to distance education research. The DETA Center will look to create such a space for the community.

Joosten, T., Harness, L., and Cusatis, R. (May, 2016).