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you-x-ventures-m2TU2gfqSeE-unsplashHello everyone! Hope you are doing well. A friend of mine and I recently completed a book chapter on anxiety and vulnerability in online students and how, as online instructors, it is part and parcel of our job to help ease (vs. exacerbate or contribute to) this anxiety. Digging into the current distance education research for this project yielded some fascinating insights and it got me thinking – where have distance education researchers focused their efforts over the years? What stones are left unturned for future social scientists to explore?

I found some of the answers to these questions in a 2020 article by Martin et al. titled A Systematic Review of Research on Online Teaching and Learning from 2009 to 2018. In it, these authors uncovered the top two main themes of online learning research, which include several consistent sub-themes:


  • Engagement: These studies include examinations of student presence, interaction, the sense of community in the classroom, participation, and communication.
  • Learning Characteristics: Studies of learner characteristics focused on self-regulation, motivations, and academic, affective, cognitive, and demographic characteristics of students.
  • Learner Outcome: These investigations tended to emphasize distance student enrollment, retention (dropout vs. completion), and learner success in the course.

Course and Instructor

  • Evaluation: These studies look into how success is measured in the online classroom and what throughout-course and end-of-course surveys suggest.
  • Course Technologies: Investigators looking into course technologies ask questions regarding the use and effectiveness of and response to a school’s chosen LMS, online textbooks, audiovisual aides, collaborative learning tools, and social networking platforms.
  • Assessment/Facilitation: This category represents studies that explore online exams, peer feedback, proctoring, and the use of other less-traditional assignments. They also look at the myriad ways instructors deliver information in the distance learning environment.
  • Design & Development: These investigations home in on how online courses are created, including the instructional design process and what design elements are considered the most important to the success of an online class.
  • Instructor Characteristics: “Some of the studies in this theme were on motivation and experiences of online instructors, ability to perform online teaching duties, roles of online instructors, and adjunct versus full-time online instructors” (para. 53).

Martin et al. (2020) report that the results of their systemic review largely echo others in previous decades, suggesting that – to some extent – we are continuing to measure, assess, and research the same things. And this is certainly not a “bad thing” as trends in the above themes can change over time and this would be important to know. However, it also suggests that there are some areas that have yet to be fully investigated. They identified organizational themes as an area that requires more scientific investigation. According to the authors,

There is a need for organizational level topics such as Access, Culture, Equity, Inclusion and Ethics, and Leadership, Policy and Management to be researched on within the context of online learning. Examination of access, culture, equity, inclusion and ethics is very important to support diverse online learners, particularly with the rapid expansion of online learning across all educational levels (para. 62).

It will be exciting to see what 2021 brings the distance education research community, especially as we begin to focus more on organization- (or school-) related topics, and how those recommendations trickle down to the online students who most benefit from them.



Martin, F., Sun, T., & Westine, C. (2020). A systematic review of research on online teaching and learning from 2009 to 2018. Computers & Education, 159.

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