Research in perspective

I would like to open up through this blog a discussion of what should be EDEN’s ambitions for the support of research. This follows the 2008 EDEN Research Workshop which was held last week from October 20-22 in Paris, in partnership with the Centre Nationale d’Education a Distance (CNED), and based in UNESCO. We had some 180 participants from 36 countries, 14 of which were outside Europe. So in terms of the issue of research in our field we clearly continue to demonstrate from our earlier Research Workshops a strong commitment from Europe, and an increasing interest from colleagues outside Europe in what we are doing here.

The 2 EDEN Vice Presidents Martine Vidal and Uli Bernath did the preparatory work along with the EDEN Secretariat, and our thanks are due to them all. Martine and Uli put special emphasis on a scientific approach to the refereeing of conference papers, and to ensuring a focus that would clearly differentiate this meeting from our annual large scale conference.

The origins of the conference lay in the work of Martine in bringing together 6 journals, led from Distances et Savoirs of which she is Editor in Chief, on the theme of Human Rights and Education and the particular contribution that Distance and E-Learning can make. This remarkable initiative, a first of its kind as far as I know, meant that the different communities of the journals all made their own commitment to examining this issue. Of course it lends itself to the agendas of the UN, and of UNESCO in particular, which made the Place de Fontenoy UNESCO HQ a particularly appropriate place for the meeting. Our own EDEN journal EURODL made its contribution to the special issue.

It was also a great pleasure to be able to congratulate the joint winners of the Best Research Paper, presented by Professor Torstein Rekkedal of NKI, Norway, on behalf of the Ulrich Bernath Foundation. The joint winners were Kay McKeogh and Seamus Fox, of Dublin City University, for their paper ‘Opening Access to Higher Education to all? What motivates academic staff in traditional universities to adopt e-learning?’, and Fanny Salane, a research student in France, for her paper ‘L’enseignement à distance en milieu carceral: droit a l’education ou privilège?’

Kay MacKeogh and Seamus Fox Fanny Salane

What is clear straightaway is that there is a strong commitment from practitioners to develop a research, development and evaluation dimension to their work. This comes through in a large number of papers and presentations. What is less clear is the extent to which Europe has an academic focus on research, based on empirical methodologies, building theory, supported by research students etc, in the ways in which have been better developed in North America. Indeed we were lucky to have as visitors and presenters to the conference two of the best examples of such practice in Professors Terry Anderson of Athabasca University, Canada, and Michael G. Moore of Pennsylvania State University, USA. I referred to this tradition in my own remarks to the conference as the Humboldtian model, which has taken such effective root in the USA in particular over the last 150 years (the conference plenary address can be seen here due to the help of the University of Strasbourg).

There were suggestions on several occasions that the enormous contribution that is made to research and development by the European Commission with the range of funding programmes for research and development may at the same time divert focus from this Humboldtian tradition.

All this leads me to ask some questions for and on behalf of EDEN that we need readers’ contributions to explore further. These are:

  • What is the contribution to supporting research that EDEN should make?
  • What are the priorities in terms of activities and events?
  • Is there a synergy that we can build from practitioner originated research and empirical and theory building research?
  • What are the research issues that need to be prioritised and privileged?
  • Who needs support and how should we assist?

I would like to hear from readers of this blog on these or other questions for the support of research in our field.

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