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  • Published: 25 January 2021

Online education in the post-COVID era

  • Barbara B. Lockee 1  

Nature Electronics volume  4 ,  pages 5–6 ( 2021 ) Cite this article

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The coronavirus pandemic has forced students and educators across all levels of education to rapidly adapt to online learning. The impact of this — and the developments required to make it work — could permanently change how education is delivered.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the world to engage in the ubiquitous use of virtual learning. And while online and distance learning has been used before to maintain continuity in education, such as in the aftermath of earthquakes 1 , the scale of the current crisis is unprecedented. Speculation has now also begun about what the lasting effects of this will be and what education may look like in the post-COVID era. For some, an immediate retreat to the traditions of the physical classroom is required. But for others, the forced shift to online education is a moment of change and a time to reimagine how education could be delivered 2 .

research paper distance education

Looking back

Online education has traditionally been viewed as an alternative pathway, one that is particularly well suited to adult learners seeking higher education opportunities. However, the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic has required educators and students across all levels of education to adapt quickly to virtual courses. (The term ‘emergency remote teaching’ was coined in the early stages of the pandemic to describe the temporary nature of this transition 3 .) In some cases, instruction shifted online, then returned to the physical classroom, and then shifted back online due to further surges in the rate of infection. In other cases, instruction was offered using a combination of remote delivery and face-to-face: that is, students can attend online or in person (referred to as the HyFlex model 4 ). In either case, instructors just had to figure out how to make it work, considering the affordances and constraints of the specific learning environment to create learning experiences that were feasible and effective.

The use of varied delivery modes does, in fact, have a long history in education. Mechanical (and then later electronic) teaching machines have provided individualized learning programmes since the 1950s and the work of B. F. Skinner 5 , who proposed using technology to walk individual learners through carefully designed sequences of instruction with immediate feedback indicating the accuracy of their response. Skinner’s notions formed the first formalized representations of programmed learning, or ‘designed’ learning experiences. Then, in the 1960s, Fred Keller developed a personalized system of instruction 6 , in which students first read assigned course materials on their own, followed by one-on-one assessment sessions with a tutor, gaining permission to move ahead only after demonstrating mastery of the instructional material. Occasional class meetings were held to discuss concepts, answer questions and provide opportunities for social interaction. A personalized system of instruction was designed on the premise that initial engagement with content could be done independently, then discussed and applied in the social context of a classroom.

These predecessors to contemporary online education leveraged key principles of instructional design — the systematic process of applying psychological principles of human learning to the creation of effective instructional solutions — to consider which methods (and their corresponding learning environments) would effectively engage students to attain the targeted learning outcomes. In other words, they considered what choices about the planning and implementation of the learning experience can lead to student success. Such early educational innovations laid the groundwork for contemporary virtual learning, which itself incorporates a variety of instructional approaches and combinations of delivery modes.

Online learning and the pandemic

Fast forward to 2020, and various further educational innovations have occurred to make the universal adoption of remote learning a possibility. One key challenge is access. Here, extensive problems remain, including the lack of Internet connectivity in some locations, especially rural ones, and the competing needs among family members for the use of home technology. However, creative solutions have emerged to provide students and families with the facilities and resources needed to engage in and successfully complete coursework 7 . For example, school buses have been used to provide mobile hotspots, and class packets have been sent by mail and instructional presentations aired on local public broadcasting stations. The year 2020 has also seen increased availability and adoption of electronic resources and activities that can now be integrated into online learning experiences. Synchronous online conferencing systems, such as Zoom and Google Meet, have allowed experts from anywhere in the world to join online classrooms 8 and have allowed presentations to be recorded for individual learners to watch at a time most convenient for them. Furthermore, the importance of hands-on, experiential learning has led to innovations such as virtual field trips and virtual labs 9 . A capacity to serve learners of all ages has thus now been effectively established, and the next generation of online education can move from an enterprise that largely serves adult learners and higher education to one that increasingly serves younger learners, in primary and secondary education and from ages 5 to 18.

The COVID-19 pandemic is also likely to have a lasting effect on lesson design. The constraints of the pandemic provided an opportunity for educators to consider new strategies to teach targeted concepts. Though rethinking of instructional approaches was forced and hurried, the experience has served as a rare chance to reconsider strategies that best facilitate learning within the affordances and constraints of the online context. In particular, greater variance in teaching and learning activities will continue to question the importance of ‘seat time’ as the standard on which educational credits are based 10 — lengthy Zoom sessions are seldom instructionally necessary and are not aligned with the psychological principles of how humans learn. Interaction is important for learning but forced interactions among students for the sake of interaction is neither motivating nor beneficial.

While the blurring of the lines between traditional and distance education has been noted for several decades 11 , the pandemic has quickly advanced the erasure of these boundaries. Less single mode, more multi-mode (and thus more educator choices) is becoming the norm due to enhanced infrastructure and developed skill sets that allow people to move across different delivery systems 12 . The well-established best practices of hybrid or blended teaching and learning 13 have served as a guide for new combinations of instructional delivery that have developed in response to the shift to virtual learning. The use of multiple delivery modes is likely to remain, and will be a feature employed with learners of all ages 14 , 15 . Future iterations of online education will no longer be bound to the traditions of single teaching modes, as educators can support pedagogical approaches from a menu of instructional delivery options, a mix that has been supported by previous generations of online educators 16 .

Also significant are the changes to how learning outcomes are determined in online settings. Many educators have altered the ways in which student achievement is measured, eliminating assignments and changing assessment strategies altogether 17 . Such alterations include determining learning through strategies that leverage the online delivery mode, such as interactive discussions, student-led teaching and the use of games to increase motivation and attention. Specific changes that are likely to continue include flexible or extended deadlines for assignment completion 18 , more student choice regarding measures of learning, and more authentic experiences that involve the meaningful application of newly learned skills and knowledge 19 , for example, team-based projects that involve multiple creative and social media tools in support of collaborative problem solving.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, technological and administrative systems for implementing online learning, and the infrastructure that supports its access and delivery, had to adapt quickly. While access remains a significant issue for many, extensive resources have been allocated and processes developed to connect learners with course activities and materials, to facilitate communication between instructors and students, and to manage the administration of online learning. Paths for greater access and opportunities to online education have now been forged, and there is a clear route for the next generation of adopters of online education.

Before the pandemic, the primary purpose of distance and online education was providing access to instruction for those otherwise unable to participate in a traditional, place-based academic programme. As its purpose has shifted to supporting continuity of instruction, its audience, as well as the wider learning ecosystem, has changed. It will be interesting to see which aspects of emergency remote teaching remain in the next generation of education, when the threat of COVID-19 is no longer a factor. But online education will undoubtedly find new audiences. And the flexibility and learning possibilities that have emerged from necessity are likely to shift the expectations of students and educators, diminishing further the line between classroom-based instruction and virtual learning.

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A rapid transition from campus to emergent distant education; effects on students’ study strategies in higher education.

research paper distance education

1. Introduction

3. previous research, 3.1. distance education, 3.2. study strategies, 4.1. identification.

  • “COVID-19” or “corona (SARS)” and “higher education”,
  • “COVID-19” and “learning strategies” or “study strategies” and “higher education”, and
  • “COVID-19” and “higher education” or “university” and “students”.
  • A focus on higher education students’ distance learning;
  • Higher education students’ study and learning strategies in distance learning.

4.2. Eligibility

  • Were about the attitudes of students other than those in higher education;
  • Focused on teachers’ attitudes towards distance education;
  • Did not focus on study or learning strategies.

4.3. Data Analysis

4.4. validity and reliability, 5.1. contextual level of analysis, 5.2. distribution of themes, 5.3. students’ study strategies, 5.4. specific strategies during the pandemic, 6. discussion, 6.1. study strategies, 6.2. changing conditions, 6.3. implications, author contributions, conflicts of interest, appendix a. reviewed articles.

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Meaning UnitCondensed UnitSubcategoryCategoryObjective
Deep and strategic learning approaches positively predicted GPAs, and a mediation analysis showed that the strategic learning approach also partly mediated the effect between a deep learning approach and GPA.A strategic learning approach positively predicts GPA.Learning approachesLearning strategies…identify and classify patterns and trends in the research concerning a holistic perspective of students’ study and learning strategies from 1990 to 2021 in distance education
N = 46
N = 46
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N = 46
Qualitative approach1634.8
Mixed method design613.0
Quantitative approach2452.2
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Boström, L.; Collén, C.; Damber, U.; Gidlund, U. A Rapid Transition from Campus to Emergent Distant Education; Effects on Students’ Study Strategies in Higher Education. Educ. Sci. 2021 , 11 , 721.

Boström L, Collén C, Damber U, Gidlund U. A Rapid Transition from Campus to Emergent Distant Education; Effects on Students’ Study Strategies in Higher Education. Education Sciences . 2021; 11(11):721.

Boström, Lena, Charlotta Collén, Ulla Damber, and Ulrika Gidlund. 2021. "A Rapid Transition from Campus to Emergent Distant Education; Effects on Students’ Study Strategies in Higher Education" Education Sciences 11, no. 11: 721.

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Capturing the benefits of remote learning

How education experts are applying lessons learned in the pandemic to promote positive outcomes for all students

Vol. 52 No. 6 Print version: page 46

  • Schools and Classrooms

boy sitting in front of a laptop in his bedroom

With schools open again after more than a year of teaching students outside the classroom, the pandemic sometimes feels like a distant memory. The return to classrooms this fall brings major relief for many families and educators. Factors such as a lack of reliable technology and family support, along with an absence of school resources, resulted in significant academic setbacks, not to mention stress for everyone involved.

But for all the downsides of distance learning, educators, psychologists, and parents have seen some benefits as well. For example, certain populations of students found new ways to be more engaged in learning, without the distractions and difficulties they faced in the classroom, and the general challenges of remote learning and the pandemic brought mental health to the forefront of the classroom experience.

Peter Faustino, PsyD, a school psychologist in Scarsdale, New York, said the pandemic also prompted educators and school psychologists to find creative new ways of ensuring students’ emotional and academic well-being. “So many students were impacted by the pandemic, so we couldn’t just assume they would find resources on their own,” said Faustino. “We had to work hard at figuring out new ways to connect with them.”

Here are some of the benefits of distance learning that school psychologists and educators have observed and the ways in which they’re implementing those lessons post-pandemic, with the goal of creating a more equitable, productive environment for all students.

Prioritizing mental health

Faustino said that during the pandemic, he had more mental health conversations with students, families, and teachers than ever. “Because COVID-19 affected everyone, we’re now having mental health discussions as school leaders on a daily and weekly basis,” he said.

This renewed focus on mental health has the potential to improve students’ well-being in profound ways—starting with helping them recover from the pandemic’s effects. In New York City, for example, schools are hiring more than 600 new clinicians, including psychologists , to screen students’ mental health and help them process pandemic-related trauma and adjust to the “new normal” of attending school in person.

Educators and families are also realizing the importance of protecting students’ mental health more generally—not only for their health and safety but for their learning. “We’ve been seeing a broader appreciation for the fact that mental health is a prerequisite for learning rather than an extracurricular pursuit,” said Eric Rossen, PhD, director of professional development and standards at the National Association of School Psychologists.

As a result, Rossen hopes educators will embed social and emotional learning components into daily instruction. For example, teachers could teach mindfulness techniques in the classroom and take in-the-moment opportunities to help kids resolve conflicts or manage stress.

Improved access to mental health resources in schools is another positive effect. Because of physical distancing guidelines, school leaders had to find ways to deliver mental health services remotely, including via online referrals and teletherapy with school psychologists and counselors.

Early in the pandemic, Faustino said he was hesitant about teletherapy’s effectiveness; now, he hopes to continue offering a virtual option. Online scheduling and remote appointments make it easier for students to access mental health resources, and some students even enjoy virtual appointments more, as they can attend therapy in their own spaces rather than showing up in the counselor’s office. For older students, Faustino said that level of comfort often leads to more productive, open conversations.

Autonomy as a key to motivation

Research suggests that when students have more choices about their materials and activities, they’re more motivated—which may translate to increased learning and academic success. In a 2016 paper, psychology researcher Allan Wigfield, PhD, and colleagues make the case that control and autonomy in reading activities can improve both motivation and comprehension ( Child Development Perspectives , Vol. 10, No. 3 ).

During the period of online teaching, some students had opportunities to learn at their own pace, which educators say improved their learning outcomes—especially in older students. In a 2020 survey of more than 600 parents, researchers found the second-most-valued benefit of distance learning was flexibility—not only in schedule but in method of learning.

In a recent study, researchers found that 18% of parents pointed to greater flexibility in a child’s schedule or way of learning as the biggest benefit or positive outcome related to remote learning ( School Psychology , Roy, A., et al., in press).

This individualized learning helps students find more free time for interests and also allows them to conduct their learning at a time they’re most likely to succeed. During the pandemic, Mark Gardner, an English teacher at Hayes Freedom High School in Camas, Washington, said he realized how important student-centered learning is and that whether learning happens should take precedence over how and when it occurs.

For example, one of his students thrived when he had the choice to do work later at night because he took care of his siblings during the day. Now, Gardner posts homework online on Sundays so students can work at their own pace during the week. “Going forward, we want to create as many access points as we can for kids to engage with learning,” he said.

Rosanna Breaux , PhD, an assistant professor of psychology and assistant director of the Child Study Center at Virginia Tech, agrees. “I’d like to see this flexibility continue in some way, where—similar to college—students can guide their own learning based on their interests or when they’re most productive,” she said.

During the pandemic, many educators were forced to rethink how to keep students engaged. Rossen said because many school districts shared virtual curricula during the period of remote learning, older students could take more challenging or interesting courses than they could in person. The same is true for younger students: Megan Hibbard, a teacher in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, said many of her fifth graders enjoyed distance learning more than in-person because they could work on projects that aligned with their interests.

“So much of motivation is discovering the unique things the student finds interesting,” said Hunter Gehlbach, PhD, a professor and vice dean at the Johns Hopkins School of Education. “The more you can facilitate students spending more time on the things they’re really interested in, the better.”

Going forward, Rossen hopes virtual curricula will allow students greater opportunities to pursue their interests, such as by taking AP classes, foreign languages, or vocational electives not available at their own schools.

Conversely, Hibbard’s goal is to increase opportunities for students to pursue their interests in the in-person setting. For example, she plans to increase what she calls “Genius Hours,” a time at the end of the school day when students can focus on high-interest projects they’ll eventually share with the class.

Better understanding of children's needs

One of the most important predictors of a child’s success in school is parental involvement in their education. For example, in a meta-analysis of studies, researchers linked parental engagement in their middle schoolers’ education with greater measures of success (Hill, N. E., & Tyson, D. F., Developmental Psychology , Vol. 45, No. 3, 2009).

During the pandemic, parents had new opportunities to learn about their kids and, as a result, help them learn. According to a study by Breaux and colleagues, many parents reported that the pandemic allowed them a better understanding of their child’s learning style, needs, or curriculum.

James C. Kaufman , PhD, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Connecticut and the father of an elementary schooler and a high schooler, said he’s had a front-row seat for his sons’ learning for the first time. “Watching my kids learn and engage with classmates has given me some insight in how to parent them,” he said.

Stephen Becker , PhD, a pediatric psychologist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, said some parents have observed their children’s behavior or learning needs for the first time, which could prompt them to consider assessment and Individualized Education Program (IEP) services. Across the board, Gehlbach said parents are realizing how they can better partner with schools to ensure their kids’ well-being and academic success.

For example, Samantha Marks , PsyD, a Florida-based clinical psychologist, said she realized how much help her middle school daughter, a gifted and talented student with a 504 plan (a plan for how the school will offer support for a student’s disability) for anxiety, needed with independence. “Bringing the learning home made it crystal clear what we needed to teach our daughter to be independent and improve executive functioning” she said. “My takeaway from this is that more parents need to be involved in their children’s education in a healthy, helpful way.”

Marks also gained a deeper understanding of her daughter’s mental health needs. Through her 504 plan, she received help managing her anxiety at school—at home, though, Marks wasn’t always available to help, which taught her the importance of helping her daughter manage her anxiety independently.

Along with parents gaining a deeper understanding of their kids’ needs, the pandemic also prompted greater parent participation in school. For example, Rossen said his kids’ school had virtual school board meetings; he hopes virtual options continue for events like back-to-school information sessions and parenting workshops. “These meetings are often in the evening, and if you’re a single parent or sole caregiver, you may not want to pay a babysitter in order to attend,” he said.

Brittany Greiert, PhD, a school psychologist in Aurora, Colorado, says culturally and linguistically diverse families at her schools benefited from streamlined opportunities to communicate with administrators and teachers. Her district used an app that translates parent communication into 150 languages. Parents can also remotely participate in meetings with school psychologists or teachers, which Greiert says she plans to continue post-pandemic.

Decreased bullying

During stay-at-home orders, kids with neurodevelopmental disorders experienced less bullying than pre-pandemic (McFayden, T. C., et al., Journal of Rural Mental Health , No. 45, Vol. 2, 2021). According to 2019 research, children with emotional, behavioral, and physical health needs experience increased rates of bullying victimization ( Lebrun-Harris, L. A., et al., ), and from the U.S. Department of Education suggests the majority of bullying takes place in person and in unsupervised areas (PDF) .

Scott Graves , PhD, an associate professor of educational studies at The Ohio State University and a member of APA’s Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education (CPSE), said the supervision by parents and teachers in remote learning likely played a part in reducing bullying. As a result, he’s less worried his Black sons will be victims of microaggressions and racist behavior during online learning.

Some Asian American families also report that remote learning offered protection against racism students may have experienced in person. Shereen Naser, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Cleveland State University and a member of CPSE, and colleagues found that students are more comfortable saying discriminatory things in school when their teachers are also doing so; Naser suspects this trickle-down effect is less likely to happen when students learn from home ( School Psychology International , 2019).

Reductions in bullying and microaggressions aren’t just beneficial for students’ long-term mental health. Breaux said less bullying at school results in less stress, which can improve students’ self-esteem and mood—both of which impact their ability to learn.

Patricia Perez, PhD, an associate professor of international psychology at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology and a member of CPSE, said it’s important for schools to be proactive in providing spaces for support and cultural expression for students from vulnerable backgrounds, whether in culture-specific clubs, all-school assemblies that address racism and other diversity-related topics, or safe spaces to process feelings with teachers.

According to Rossen, many schools are already considering how to continue supporting students at risk for bullying, including by restructuring the school environment.

One principal, Rossen said, recently switched to single-use bathrooms to avoid congregating in those spaces once in-person learning commences to maintain social distancing requirements. “The principal received feedback from students about how going to the bathroom is much less stressful for these students in part due to less bullying,” he said.

More opportunities for special needs students

In Becker and Breaux’s research, parents of students with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), particularly those with a 504 plan and IEP, reported greater difficulties with remote learning. But some students with special learning needs—including those with IEPs and 504 plans—thrived in an at-home learning environment. Recent reporting in The New York Times suggests this is one reason many students want to continue online learning.

According to Cara Laitusis, PhD, a principal research scientist at Educational Testing Service ( ETS ) and a member of CPSE, reduced distractions may improve learning outcomes for some students with disabilities that impact attention in a group setting. “In assessments, small group or individual settings are frequently requested accommodations for some students with ADHD, anxiety, or autism. Being in a quiet place alone without peers for part of the instructional day may also allow for more focus,” she said. However, she also pointed out the benefits of inclusion in the classroom for developing social skills with peers.

Remote learning has improved academic outcomes for students with different learning needs, too. Marks said her seventh-grade daughter, a visual learner, appreciated the increase in video presentations and graphics. Similarly, Hibbard said many of her students who struggle to grasp lessons on the first try have benefited from the ability to watch videos over again until they understand. Post-pandemic, she plans to record bite-size lessons—for example, a 1-minute video of a long division problem—so her students can rewatch and process at their own rate.

Learners with anxiety also appreciate the option not to be in the classroom, because the social pressures of being surrounded by peers can make it hard to focus on academics. “Several of my students have learned more in the last year simply due to the absence of anxiety,” said Rosie Reid, an English teacher at Ygnacio Valley High School in Concord, California, and a 2019 California Teacher of the Year. “It’s just one less thing to negotiate in a learning environment.”

On online learning platforms, it’s easier for kids with social anxiety or shyness to participate. One of Gardner’s students with social anxiety participated far more in virtual settings and chats. Now, Gardner is brainstorming ways to encourage students to chat in person, such as by projecting a chat screen on the blackboard.

Technology has helped school psychologists better engage students, too. For example, Greiert said the virtual setting gave her a new understanding of her students’ personalities and needs. “Typing out their thoughts, they were able to demonstrate humor or complex thoughts they never demonstrated in person,” she said. “I really want to keep incorporating technology into sessions so kids can keep building on their strengths.”

Reid says that along with the high school students she teaches, she’s seen her 6-year-old daughter benefit from learning at her own pace in the familiarity of her home. Before the pandemic, she was behind academically, but by guiding her own learning—writing poems, reading books, playing outside with her siblings—she’s blossomed. “For me, as both a mother and as a teacher, this whole phenomenon has opened the door to what education can be,” Reid said.

Eleanor Di Marino-Linnen, PhD, a psychologist and superintendent of the Rose Tree Media School District in Media, Pennsylvania, says the pandemic afforded her district a chance to rethink old routines and implement new ones. “As challenging as it is, it’s definitely an exciting time to be in education when we have a chance to reenvision what schools have looked like for many years,” she said. “We want to capitalize on what we’ve learned.”

Further reading

Why are some kids thriving during remote learning? Fleming, N., Edutopia, 2020

Remote learning has been a disaster for many students. But some kids have thrived. Gilman, A., The Washington Post , Oct. 3, 2020

A preliminary examination of key strategies, challenges, and benefits of remote learning expressed by parents during the COVID-19 pandemic Roy, A., et al., School Psychology , in press

Remote learning during COVID-19: Examining school practices, service continuation, and difficulties for adolescents with and without attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder Becker S. P., et al., Journal of Adolescent Health , 2020

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  • Open access
  • Published: 03 July 2024

Healthcare leaders navigating complexity: a scoping review of key trends in future roles and competencies

  • Samantha Spanos   ORCID: 1 ,
  • Elle Leask   ORCID: 1 ,
  • Romika Patel   ORCID: 1 ,
  • Michael Datyner 1 ,
  • Erwin Loh   ORCID: 2 &
  • Jeffrey Braithwaite   ORCID: 1  

BMC Medical Education volume  24 , Article number:  720 ( 2024 ) Cite this article

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As healthcare systems rapidly become more complex, healthcare leaders are navigating expanding role scopes and increasingly varied tasks to ensure the provision of high-quality patient care. Despite a range of leadership theories, models, and training curricula to guide leadership development, the roles and competencies required by leaders in the context of emerging healthcare challenges (e.g., disruptive technologies, ageing populations, and burnt-out workforces) have not been sufficiently well conceptualized. This scoping review aimed to examine these roles and competencies through a deep dive into the contemporary academic and targeted gray literature on future trends in healthcare leadership roles and competencies.

Three electronic databases (Business Source Premier, Medline, and Embase) were searched from January 2018 to February 2023 for peer-reviewed literature on key future trends in leadership roles and competencies. Websites of reputable healthcare- and leadership-focused organizations were also searched. Data were analyzed using descriptive statistics and thematic analysis to explore both the range and depth of literature and the key concepts underlying leadership roles and competencies.

From an initial 348 articles identified in the literature and screened for relevance, 39 articles were included in data synthesis. Future leadership roles and competencies were related to four key themes: innovation and adaptation (e.g., flexibility and vision setting), collaboration and communication (e.g., relationship and trust building), self-development and self-awareness (e.g., experiential learning and self-examination), and consumer and community focus (e.g., public health messaging). In each of these areas, a broad range of strategies and approaches contributed to effective leadership under conditions of growing complexity, and a diverse array of contexts and situations for which these roles and competencies are applicable.


This research highlights the inherent interdependence of leadership requirements and health system complexity. Rather than as sets of roles and competencies, effective healthcare leadership might be better conceptualized as a set of broad goals to pursue that include fostering collaboration amongst stakeholders, building cultures of capacity, and continuously innovating for improved quality of care.

Peer Review reports

Healthcare leadership has grown in scope and importance in response to the increasing complexity of healthcare delivery [ 1 ]. Healthcare systems have become increasingly multifaceted, delivering a vast array of services across multiple levels, from preventative and primary care to acute, specialized care, and long-term care, to address the care needs of a changing population [ 1 ]. As populations age, chronic diseases rise, and the epidemiology and demographics of disease shift, new models of care rapidly emerge to address the ever-expanding spectrum of patient needs [ 2 ]. Advancements in technologies, tests and treatments and personalized medicine come with regulatory and ethical implications, and a growth in workforce specializations [ 3 , 4 ]. Healthcare leaders are navigating evermore complex webs of actors in the system – doctors, nurses, technicians, administrators, insurers, and patients – striving to balance priorities, foster collaboration, and provide strategic direction toward high-quality and safe patient care [ 5 ]. At the same time as running complex services, healthcare leaders need to continually assess, implement, and govern new technologies and services, adhere to the latest regulations and guidelines, operate within the confines of budgetary allocations, and meet growing consumer expectations for affordable and accessible care [ 6 , 7 ].

Competent healthcare leadership is widely considered to be critical for improving patient safety, system performance, and the effectiveness of healthcare teams [ 8 , 9 , 10 ]. Leadership has been identified as a key shaping influence on organizational culture [ 11 ], including workplace commitment to safety [ 12 ], and on preventing workforce burnout [ 13 , 14 ]. The increased need for multidisciplinary and integrated care models has shed growing light on the leadership roles of clinicians, including physicians, nurses, and allied health practitioners [ 15 , 16 , 17 ]. Individuals with both clinical and leadership expertise have been considered vital in complex healthcare landscapes because of their ability to balance administrative needs while prioritizing safety and high-quality care provision [ 18 , 19 , 20 , 21 , 22 ]. For example, physician leaders, through their deep understanding of clinical care and their credibility and influence, have been considered best able to devise strategies that improve patient care amidst stringent financial conditions [ 23 , 24 , 25 , 26 ]. Clinical leaders, particularly physician leaders, might also be of key importance for facilitating the success of collaborative care and care integration [ 27 ].

The formalization of healthcare leadership emerged as the importance of specialized healthcare leadership skills became increasingly needed, recognized and understood [ 1 , 28 , 29 ]. Leadership in healthcare has been conceptualized in several different ways, and a multitude of theories, frameworks, and models have been proposed to explain leadership roles and responsibilities [ 30 , 31 , 32 , 33 ]. For example, the CanMEDS Framework describes the Leader Role of physicians, which is comprised of key and enabling competencies, tasks, and abilities [ 34 , 35 ], and adaptations to this Framework emphasize the varying roles that leadership comprises and the competencies that fulfill them [ 36 ]. Although these frameworks present a good starting point for articulating leadership role scopes and their associated competencies, many fall short in explaining how leaders navigate complex, dynamic, multi-dimensional, and highly variable healthcare systems [ 37 ]. This is becoming increasingly recognized; CanMEDS is due to be updated in 2025 to incorporate competencies related to complexity [ 38 ]. Meanwhile, on the front lines, lack of role clarity and ambiguity about tasks and responsibilities presents a significant barrier for healthcare leaders [ 1 , 15 ]. In complex and unpredictable systems like healthcare, leaders spend substantial time ‘sense-making’, understanding, prioritizing and responding adaptively according to the needs of the situation [ 39 , 40 ]. The latest research on future healthcare trends tells us that increasing complexity associated with digital innovation, healthcare costs, regulatory compliance, sustainability concerns and equitable resource distribution will pose challenges to all actors in health systems [ 41 , 42 , 43 , 44 , 45 ]. In the face of these emerging challenges, it is vital to understand the range and type of roles and competencies that leaders will need to fulfil in the imminent future.

The aim of this scoping review is to examine the literature on the key trends in roles and competencies required for healthcare leaders in the future. We conceptualized ‘competencies’ as the attributes, skills, and abilities that comprise the fulfilment of varying leadership roles, as informed by the CanMEDS Framework [ 34 , 36 ]. Scoping review methodology was utilized to capture a broad range of literature types and identify key themes or groupings of future trends in leadership roles and competencies. Rather than focusing on answering specific questions (as per previous systematic reviews on leadership [ 46 , 47 ]) or developing theory (by utilizing a theoretical review approach to leadership literature [ 48 , 49 ]), we sought to map and identify patterns and trends within the leadership literature [ 50 ]. To investigate trends in leadership roles and competencies, we targeted emerging perspectives from key reputable thought leaders to supplement academic research [ 51 , 52 ].

The conduct and reporting of this review followed the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses Extension for Scoping Reviews (PRISMA-ScR) guidelines [ 53 ].

Search strategy

Comprehensive search strategies were developed, adapting search strategies utilized in a previous systematic review on physician leadership [ 26 ], and receiving input and expertise from two clinical librarians at Macquarie University (see supplementary file 1 for database search strategies). Medline, Embase, and Business Source Premier were searched from January 2018 to February 2023 to enable meaningful inferences to be made about future trends based on current perspectives. To capture key trends, patterns, shifts, and forecast changes to healthcare leadership, the Medline database search was limited to the ‘Trends’ subheading, “ used for the manner in which a subject changes, qualitatively or quantitatively, with time, whether past, present, or future. Includes “forecasting” & “futurology" ” (see supplementary file 1 ) [ 54 ]. For Embase and Business Source Premier, the ‘Trends’ subheading was not available, and instead key search terms were included to capture future trends, including “predict*”, “forecast*”, “shift*” and “transform*”. Efforts were made to locate texts that could not be retrieved, by searching Macquarie University’s digital library records and contacting authors to request the full text.

To complement the database searches, targeted searches of the Faculty of Medical Leadership and Management (FMLM; UK) website and The King’s Fund (UK) website were undertaken to identify emerging perspectives on the future roles and requirements of healthcare leaders. Targeted website searches can aid in uncovering unpublished yet relevant research identified by advocacy organizations or subject specialists, and research potentially missed by database searches [ 52 , 55 ]. Key search terms entered into the websites included ‘future healthcare’, ‘medical leader’, ‘clinical leader’, ‘medical manager’, ‘physician executive’, and ‘education and training’. We included articles that focused on leaders with a clinical background and leaders without a clinical background, to provide a comprehensive overview of leadership roles and requirements of reference to health systems [ 26 ].

Article selection

Database literature search.

References were uploaded into online data management software Rayyan [ 56 ], and duplicate records were identified and removed. Titles and abstracts of results were screened by three team members (SS, EL, RP) according to the inclusion and exclusion criteria (Table  1 ). Articles were included if they focused on future trends in the roles, competencies, attributes, or requirements of healthcare leaders, and if they reported on countries within the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). We limited our search to OECD countries to maximize the generalizability of findings within a developed context and enable meaningful trends to be identified. A subset of the articles was screened by all three team members to ensure that decisions were being made in a standardized manner. After this article subset was screened, the three team members discussed screening decisions, and disagreements were resolved by consensus or through discussion with JB [ 57 ]. During this process, two further exclusion criteria (#4 and #5, Table  1 ) were added to ensure that the screening process adhered to the aim of the current review. We excluded articles that focused on theories and definitions of leadership (e.g., for the purpose of developing educational or professional frameworks) without highlighting trends or changes in roles and competencies for future leadership. We also excluded articles that focused on healthcare interventions in which leaders may have been participants, but their roles or competencies were not the focus. Articles included at title and abstract screening were independently read in full and assessed for eligibility. Disagreements about inclusion were resolved through discussion, with JB available for arbitration if necessary. It was determined at this stage that if articles were conference abstracts in which the full presentation could not be accessed, the article of focus was sought and included in the analysis.

Targeted gray literature search

References were screened according to the inclusion and exclusion criteria (Table  1 ), except that articles only needed to report (rather than focus) on future leadership roles and requirements. This is because we wanted to ensure that our analysis broadly captured the most recent sources of information on healthcare leadership requirements, even if these sources did not focus exclusively on leadership.

Data charting process

Data from all records were appraised and charted simultaneously using a purpose-designed Excel data charting form designed by SS (and subsequently reviewed and endorsed by RP and EL). Multimedia records arising from targeted gray literature searches were listened to and transcribed by RP and checked by SS. Extracted data included article details (authors, year, country, text type), leadership focus (training or educational approaches, styles of leadership), and major and minor themes. Database literature were extracted first to identify and develop themes, and the targeted gray literature were extracted second to extend and embellish those themes.

Synthesis of results

Data from included articles were synthesized according to the Arksey and O’Malley framework for scoping reviews, selected for its detailed guidance on data collation, synthesis, and presentation [ 58 ]. The breadth, range, and type of data were analyzed using descriptive statistics, and underlying groups of leadership roles and competencies were analyzed using thematic analysis. First, the authorship team familiarized themselves with the articles to gain a broad overview of contexts in which leadership was discussed. An inductive approach was used to identify emerging themes of leadership roles and competencies in the database literature, where common concepts were identified, coded, and grouped together to form themes. Team discussion facilitated the final set of themes that were interpreted from the data. During this process, the extracted data were compared to the codes, groups, and resultant themes to examine the degree of consistency between the data and the interpreted findings. Where inconsistencies were identified, suggested changes (e.g., to code labels or groupings) were compared, and the most appropriate changes adopted. Targeted gray literature sources were deductively analyzed according to the identified themes.

Selection of sources of evidence

Figure  1 displays the process of identification and screening of included studies. Database searches yielded 160 records, from which 11 duplicates were removed. The remaining 149 database records were screened by title and abstract, after which a further 114 records were excluded. Of the remaining 35 that were assessed for eligibility, 22 were excluded, and 13 were included in the current review. Targeted gray literature searches yielded an additional 188 records, from which 146 were identified as duplicates and removed. The remaining 42 records were read in full and assessed for eligibility, from which a further 16 were excluded, and 26 were included in the current review. In total, 39 records were retained and synthesized.

figure 1

PRISMA flowchart displaying the process of identification and selection of included articles

Characteristics of sources of evidence

The characteristics of the included records are displayed in Tables  2 and 3 . Of the database literature, most articles were published in the USA ( n  = 11), and the remaining two articles were published in Canada and Australia. Seven articles were empirical; three studies employed qualitative methods [ 59 , 60 , 61 ], three were quantitative [ 62 , 63 , 64 ], and one mixed methods [ 65 ]. Six articles were non-empirical; three were perspective pieces [ 66 , 67 , 68 ], and three were reports on training or organizational interventions [ 69 , 70 , 71 ]. Of the targeted literature, blog-type articles were most common ( n  = 11) [ 72 , 73 , 74 , 75 , 76 , 77 , 78 , 79 , 80 , 81 , 82 ], followed by news articles ( n  = 5) [ 83 , 84 , 85 , 86 , 87 ], reports ( n  = 4) [ 88 , 89 , 90 , 91 ], editorials ( n  = 2) [ 92 , 93 ], podcasts ( n  = 2) [ 94 , 95 ], and video and interview transcripts ( n  = 2) [ 96 , 97 ]. As targeted gray sources selected were The King’s Fund website and the FMLM website, the records from these websites were published in the UK.

Leadership roles and competencies

All 13 articles derived from the database searches focused on innovation and adaptation in future leadership. Two empirical articles reported on the ways in which clinical and non-clinical leaders innovated during the COVID-19 pandemic, rapidly designing new models of hospital care [ 61 ] and extending their roles to encompass the implementation of virtual leadership [ 64 ]. Qualitative investigations explored the importance of entrepreneurial leadership for implementing clinical genomics [ 59 ] and key leadership attributes for practice-level innovation and sustainability [ 60 ]. Four articles examined leadership training approaches that build physicians’ capacity to understand, adapt to, and manage change, overcome resistance, and think entrepreneurially [ 62 , 63 , 65 , 70 ]. Two reports described the necessity for healthcare leaders to be able to create a shared vision for an organization; one highlighted the importance of leaders being confident and “self-propelled to intervene” [ 69 ], and one emphasized physician leaders’ credibility as a catalyst for change management among healthcare providers [ 71 ]. The latter report also identified that visible and committed leadership that is sensitive to workplace cultures is critical for the success of change management activities [ 71 ]. Three perspective pieces discussed increasing opportunities for medical and other clinical leaders to create positive change in increasingly complex healthcare landscapes and fulfill the demands of the industry and public [ 66 , 67 , 68 ].

In the targeted gray literature, 19 of 26 records (73%) focused on innovative and adaptive leadership. Records primarily explored adaptive leadership behaviors during COVID-19, such as service redesign, introducing improved flexibility, learning mechanisms, and support platforms [ 73 , 76 , 77 , 97 ], and future innovation to manage climate change impacts [ 81 ], growing inequities [ 89 ], and emerging technologies [ 75 , 83 , 94 , 96 ]. Comfort with change, vision setting, and a desire to innovate were emphasized as key leadership attributes for future healthcare [ 82 , 83 , 88 , 96 ]. Records also explored how to best train and develop leaders for transforming health systems, including the National Health Service (NHS) [ 84 , 90 , 96 ]. New leadership training structures were proposed that foster innovation and adaptability in leaders [ 80 , 90 , 96 ] and encourage flexibility for cross-disciplinary learning.

Collaboration and communication  was a second theme that emerged across all 13 database articles. Three studies explored how collaborative leadership can foster innovation with regards to implementing genomics testing [ 59 ], creating new work models during COVID-19 [ 61 ] and developing new leadership styles via telecommunications [ 64 ]. Six articles focused on the importance of collaborating to build relationships across organisations [ 67 , 68 , 71 ] and within teams [ 65 , 69 , 70 ]. Three articles highlighted that effective communication contributes to organizational success, through fostering psychologically safe cultures [ 60 , 66 ] and generating the trust and rapport necessary for implementing technological innovations [ 71 ]. Two studies examined the impact of leadership training on physicians’ communication competencies [ 62 , 63 ].

In the targeted gray literature, 17 of 26 records (65%) focused on collaboration and communication. Records discussed specific initiatives to improve communication in clinical teams, such as staff surveys, daily huddles, and dedicated days for networking [ 75 , 77 , 80 , 95 ]. Cross-boundary collaboration and collective leadership (e.g., between clinicians and managers) [ 83 ] were advocated as a means to solve challenges [ 81 , 90 ], help build public trust [ 79 , 83 ], and improve quality of care [ 78 , 83 , 85 , 94 ]. Twelve records focused on the importance of team and leadership collaboration to create positive workplace cultures and improve staff wellbeing, through communication strategies such as openness and honesty [ 78 , 80 , 95 ], active listening and empathy [ 73 , 78 , 86 , 88 , 90 ], transparency [ 88 , 94 , 95 ], and inclusivity [ 85 , 94 ]. Three articles emphasized that encouraging staff autonomy, building trust, and demonstrating compassion facilitate better quality care than demanding and punitive leadership actions [ 73 , 74 , 88 ].

Nine of 13 database articles (69%) focused on a third theme, self-development and self-awareness in leadership. Four articles examined approaches to leadership development that incorporated self-development and self-awareness (e.g., personality testing) [ 63 , 65 , 69 , 70 ], with two articles describing these competencies as enablers for the development of other more advanced competencies (e.g., execution) [ 69 , 70 ]. Similar competencies explored included landscape awareness [ 60 ], self-organisation [ 60 ], emotional intelligence [ 64 ], and self-examination, the last of which was described as essential to gain skills beyond clinical roles [ 68 ], facilitate positive perceptions of others [ 66 ], and to remain relevant and effective in a changing healthcare environment [ 67 ]. One article also proposed strategies such as journaling, mindfulness, and feedback to encourage ongoing reflection on leadership decisions and biases [ 67 ].

In the targeted gray literature, seven of 26 records (27%) focused on self-development and self-awareness. Records examinedd the importance of continual personal leadership development, including mentoring and experiential learning, to facilitate understanding of one’s own skills [ 78 , 80 , 97 ]. Tools to facilitate self-reflection in physician leaders were advocated including the FMLM smartphone app [ 92 ] and leadership longitudinal assessments [ 91 ]. Self-care and resilience practices (e.g., meditation, social support) were also advocated for physician leaders as a means to manage “greater levels of stress and responsibility” [ 94 ].

Consumer engagement and advocacy  was a fourth theme and a focus of nine targeted gray literature records (35%). Records discussed patient and community engagement as essential for health system improvement, and examples included involving patients in health service design [ 74 , 77 ], creating channels of ongoing dialogue [ 79 , 83 ] and building stronger health system-community relationships [ 79 , 88 ]. Two records described the importance of public health messaging in improving health literacy [ 83 ] and countering misinformation [ 86 ], and two focused on the role of leaders in advocating for social justice and striving to improve equitable outcomes [ 75 , 93 ].

This scoping review identified 39 key resources that explored future trends in healthcare leadership roles and competencies. These records were derived from a combination of academic and targeted gray literature searches, juxtaposed and synthesized to build understanding of leadership to improve health systems into the future. Four themes of competencies emerged from the findings – innovation and adaptation, communication and collaboration, self-development and self-awareness, and consumer engagement and advocacy.

The competencies of healthcare leaders given the most attention in the literature over the last five years relate to innovation and adaptability . Both the academic and targeted gray literature focused on how leaders, clinical and non-clinical, demonstrated innovativeness and adapted to the demands of COVID-19, including rethinking and redesigning systems to support staff and patients [ 64 , 77 ]. The second focus of the literature on innovation and adaptability was geared toward the development of these capacities in leaders through education and training, as well as through opportunities for leaders to actualize their skills [ 70 , 90 ]. The literature indicated that as the complexity of healthcare is accelerating, leaders must both understand, and have opportunities to demonstrate, innovation amidst dynamic, variable, and demanding environments [ 59 , 60 , 71 ]. This aligns with prior research demonstrating that innovation uptake requires strong change management, and the ability to rapidly assess, understand, and apply innovative changes (e.g., medical technologies) [ 1 , 98 ]. While innovations might improve the system’s ability to deal with complex challenges in the long-term, their implementation can be challenged by a number of moving parts – including workforce changes, new rules and regulations, fluctuating resources and new patient groups – which leaders must consider and appropriately plan for [ 99 , 100 ]. Perhaps an even greater challenge for leaders to overcome when embracing innovation is the tendency for growing complexity to lock the organization into suboptimal conditions (i.e., inertia) [ 101 ]. Building awareness of the interacting components of complex systems and the flexibility required for adaptation and resilience should be a key focus of healthcare leadership education and training [ 102 ].

Competencies associated with communication and collaboration have also been a focus of the healthcare leadership literature. Academic literature dealt primarily with how collaborative structures and behaviors can help leaders innovate and build organizational cultures geared for success [ 59 , 61 , 71 ]. Targeted gray literature focused on how leaders can foster communication within teams, and the positive impacts of an open and accountable culture on staff wellbeing and productivity [ 73 , 74 ]. These findings echo research on resilient health systems emphasizing that ‘over-managing’ restricts the adaptive capacities needed by teams within dynamic healthcare environments [ 100 , 103 ]. The literature pointed to the need for leaders to strengthen communication and collaboration at varying levels – environmental, team, and organizational – to enable more efficient and better-quality healthcare delivery, and during this process they should endeavor to model the balance between autonomy and accountability [ 104 ]. Implementing regular touchpoints that engage multiple stakeholders, such as communities of practice, can help to create positive feedback loops that enable systems change [ 105 ], and overcome organizational barriers to collaboration and information sharing, such as weak relationships and inadequate communication [ 106 , 107 ].

Self-development and self-awareness  also emerged as an important aspect of leadership. Academic literature focused primarily on how these capacities are developed in leaders through structured education and training, including self-assessments and targeted educational modules [ 65 , 69 ]. Targeted gray literature discussed a range of activities outside of structured training (e.g., experiential learning) that can support leaders’ self-reflection and development, for physician leaders in particular to assess their performance and improve their leadership approaches [ 91 , 92 ]. These findings suggest that personal leadership development must go beyond formal curriculum requirements to incorporate everyday learning inputs [ 78 ], and align with other recent literature suggesting that self-regulation in leaders can be fostered through practicing self-discipline, boundary-setting, and managing disruptions, particularly in the digital age [ 108 , 109 ]. Practicing self-awareness can help leaders not only to sense-make in complex systems – to adapt to new situations and make appropriate trade-offs – but also to sense-give – to articulate and express the organization’s vision [ 40 ]. A minor theme, observed only in the targeted gray literature, was related to leaders’ roles and competencies in consumer engagement and advocacy . The importance of increasing consumer engagement in healthcare was emphasized, as well as the structures that are needed to facilitate these changes [ 79 ]. Working alongside consumers was highlighted as critical during times of changing care and need, such as during COVID-19 [ 77 , 86 ]. Although the involvement of consumers and the public in the co-production of care is increasing [ 110 ], there is limited academic literature focused on the roles of leaders in creating optimal environments for co-production. Consumer and community involvement in change efforts helps to improve care processes and outcomes [ 111 ], but leaders might face challenges understanding and operationalizing local engagement mechanisms [ 112 ]. Identifying the organizational and system levers that enable greater consumer involvement, and how leaders can advocate for these levers in their local context, is a fruitful area for future investigation.

The findings of the current review have implications for professional organizations that train healthcare leaders, such as the Australian College of Health Services Management (ACHSM) in Australia, and train clinicians to be leaders, including the UK’s FMLM. Creating a future-focused curriculum addressing the competencies related to the themes identified, in particular innovation and adaptability, is essential to prepare healthcare leaders for growing and changing scopes of responsibility. Such competencies are less amenable to formal theoretical teaching solely and require carefully crafted experiential learning programs in health settings, with supervision by experienced and effective healthcare leaders.

Strengths and limitations

A notable strength of this scoping review was the inclusion of a broad range of sources and perspectives on the future of healthcare leadership. We captured empirical studies, theoretical academic contributions (e.g., commentaries from healthcare leaders), and targeted grey literature, which is often a more useful source of information on emerging topics [ 52 ]. As a result, our findings identified key future trends in the roles and competencies of leaders, both clinical and non-clinical, across a wide range of contexts and situations. Another strength of this review was its specific focus on contemporary literature that examined future trends in leadership, to inform how leaders can prepare for upcoming challenges, rather than focusing on leadership that was effective in the past.

There are limitations to this review. Our search strategies may not have adequately captured other leadership trends applicable across contemporary healthcare settings or those faced by leaders and teams on the front lines of care [ 113 ]. Incorporating search terms related to specific settings, as well as complex systems concepts, may have enabled greater inferences to be made about how unique future challenges require new approaches to the development of healthcare leaders. To scope future-focused research and perspectives, database searches were narrowly restricted, and it is likely that key articles were missed. Targeted gray literature searches represent key thought leaders in healthcare and leadership, and while this enabled relevant information to be efficiently collected, undertaking highly focused searches may have introduced bias associated with geographical area (i.e., the UK) and particular stakeholder groups (e.g., policy-makers) [ 55 ]. Our choice to limit the current review to studies reporting in OECD countries further limited generalizability to other settings including in low-income and middle-income countries (LMICs) [ 1 ].

The roles and competencies of leaders are deeply enmeshed in, and reflective of, a complex and continuously transforming healthcare system. This research highlights the types of roles and competencies important for leaders facing a myriad of challenges, and the range of contexts and situations in which these types of roles and competencies can be applied. The ways in which roles and competencies manifest is highly contextual, dependent on both role responsibilities and the situational demands of healthcare environments.

Data availability

Data supporting these research findings are available upon reasonable request. Further inquiries can be directed to the corresponding author.


Faculty of Medical Leadership and Management

National Health Service

Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses Extension for Scoping Reviews

Royal Australasian College of Medical Administrators

United States of America

United Kingdom

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The authors thank Mary Simons and Jeremy Cullis for their specialist guidance on database searches.

This work was funded in part by RACMA. RACMA contributed to the conceptualization and design of the research. JB is funded and supported by an NHMRC Leadership Investigator Award (1176620).

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research paper distance education

Research Trends in Open, Distance, and Digital Education

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research paper distance education

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This chapter sets out to explore the research field of open, distance, and digital education (ODDE) building upon the 3 M-Framework developed in the context of distance education along three broad lines of research: ODDE systems and theories (global macro-level); management, organization, and technology (institutional meso-level); and teaching and learning in ODDE (individual micro-level). Based on various bibliographic analyses, the flow of research areas and trends is described. The COVID-19 pandemic is discussed as a turning point that already has a huge impact on research and practice of the entire field of ODDE. According to thematic similarities and dissimilarities in the academic fields of educational technology (EdTech), distance education (DE), and instructional design (ID), four clusters of academic journals are identified with different thematic foci in various educational contexts. This information can be used to guide researchers to choose an appropriate journal in which to submit their work.

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research paper distance education

Shaping the Field of Open, Distance, and Digital Education

research paper distance education

The Impact of International Organizations on the Field of Open, Distance, and Digital Education

  • Academic journals
  • 3M-Framework
  • Scientific networks
  • Systematic review
  • Meta-analysis and synthesis
  • Bibliometrics


Research into open and distance education and the application of educational technologies have matured over the last 70 years. In the foreword of the book Online Distance Education: Towards a Research Agenda , Otto Peters ( 2014 ), one of the pioneers who witnessed the development of the field since the 1950s, describes four periods of distance education: the first was characterized by the complete absence of research (except for the works by Charles A. Wedemeyer), the second in the 1960s by the dominance of comparative studies to prove that correspondence education is at least as good as conventional face-to-face education, the third in the 1970s which was shaped by a focus on educational technology and the emergence of open universities, and the fourth in the 1990s which was marked by the emergence of online learning and teaching. Digital technologies have shaped research and development in education substantially by the late 1990s and 2000 onwards. In recent decades, the academic fields of educational technology, distance education, and instructional design have been established with a number of academic journals, conferences, and scholarly societies, as well as universities offering study programs in those areas. To describe this situation, Peters ( 2014 ) states: “Looking back at the stark absence of academic research in the 1950s and its modest beginning in the 1960s, we become keenly aware of the enormous progress achieved in online distance education in a relatively short time” (p. xii).

This chapter sets out to explore this progress that has been made in the research field of open, distance, and digital education (ODDE) and to look ahead in the light of experiences and the shift in 2020/2021 towards online learning and teaching due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 3 M-Framework of Research Areas in ODDE

Research into ODDE is a relatively young scholarly discipline emerging in the 1960s and 1970s. High-quality academic journals have existed for only about 40 or 50 years (e.g., the British Journal of Educational Technology or Distance Education ). Around 20 years ago, distance education research was subject to critique (see Saba, 2000 ) and characterized as “atheoretical and predominantly descriptive” (Perraton, 2000 , p. 1). Given that research questions should be posed within a theoretical framework and embedded in a holistic structure of research areas within a discipline, Mishra ( 1998 ) called for “a comprehensive and cohesive structure internationally to provide a strong foundation to the discipline” (p. 281). However, in the field of ODDE, there was no validated meta-structure of research topics around that time, i.e., the absence of a map of research areas that would help to organize the body of knowledge in the field. The structure of a research discipline forms the foundation for identifying gaps and priority areas for researchers.

In order to meet this need and to better describe the broad and interdisciplinary nature of the field, Zawacki-Richter ( 2009 ) carried out an international Delphi study to develop a validated framework of research topics that became later known as the 3 M-Framework. Three broad categories of research were identified from the Delphi study:

Macro-level: distance education systems and theories (the global system level)

Meso-level: management, organization, and technology (the level of educational institutions)

Micro-level: teaching and learning in distance education (the individual learner and teacher level)

Along those lines, 15 research areas were identified on the 3 levels that were further elaborated by a team of international scholars, administrators, and practitioners in the book Online Distance Education: Towards a Research Agenda (Zawacki-Richter & Anderson, 2014 ) (see Table 1 ).

According to Anderson and Zawacki-Richter ( 2014 ), a research agenda in any given discipline can be defined as an ongoing, iterative process consisting of six interdependent activities:

Quantify what research has previously been done.

Review and evaluate that research.

Describe new research needs on the basis of the quantification and evaluation.

Prioritize the research needs in a research agenda.

Perform and evaluate the new research, and by doing so…

Redefine the research agenda. (p. 486)

The structure of the 3 M-Framework is an important foundation for developing research agendas for individual researchers and scholars, research departments and institutions, and even national and international research cooperations. It is especially helpful to complete the first three tasks – to quantify what has been done in each area of the discipline, to review that research, and to identify gaps and priority areas for future research.

Before we look into the content of research publications to describe trends and research priorities, we provide an overview of the different academic journals in ODDE.

Thematic Scope of Academic Journals in ODDE

Research and development in the field of ODDE is addressed by a wide range of researchers, from a variety of disciplines. In the following section, we report hitherto unpublished findings from a cluster analysis of journals that was conducted in a research project led by the first author of this chapter. The study assumed that there are separate research communities in the broader field of ODDE, i.e., researchers with a background in distance education, educational technology, and instructional design. The identification of these clusters helps to understand the structure of the discipline(s). Furthermore, it may further help guide researchers new to publishing in ODDE, such as doctoral students and early-career researchers, to choose an appropriate journal in which to submit their work.

The analysis was based on 10,827 articles published between 2007 and 2016 in 26 educational technology, instructional design, and distance education journals (see full list of the journals in Appendix A). The journals were selected based on their high reputation and impact in the field. Twenty journals were listed in the 2016 Thomson Reuters Journal Citation Report in the “Education and Educational Research” category. A further six journals were chosen according to West’s ( 2016 ) list of important and prestigious journals in the field of instructional design and technology. At this point we have to acknowledge a bias towards English language journals that are indexed in international databases, e.g., journals like Distances et Savoirs (French), Revista de Educación a Distancia (Spanish), or Distance Education in China (Chinese) were not included in this study.

The aim of the analysis was to identify similarities and dissimilarities in the thematic scope of the journals. The cluster analysis is based on the mean correlation of the journals in terms of the relative frequencies of the topics (“concepts” retrieved with a text-mining tool) covered in the publications. For example, a high correlation with the other journals was calculated for the British Journal of Educational Technology (BJET; \( \overline{r}=0.84 \) ), making it a very representative journal for the field.

The dendrogram in Fig. 1 presents evidence that a four-cluster solution is appropriate to group the journals based on their thematic similarities.

figure 1

Dendrogram of journal clusters, 2007–2016 (N = 10,827) (for abbreviations see Appendix A)

Table 2 provides an overview of the journals in each of the four clusters, which are sorted according to their size. Table 3 lists the ten most frequent concepts in each cluster. Figure 2 reports the relative frequencies of the 20 most frequent concepts over the 4 clusters. This content-related information is used for the interpretation of the four journal clusters.

figure 2

The 20 most frequent concepts, unweighted over the 4 clusters

Journal Cluster 1: Educational Technology, Learning, and Computer Science

The first and biggest cluster (with over 7000 articles) contains leading, high-impact educational technology journals that cover a broad range of topics associated with instructional design, technology, and computer-supported teaching and learning in all levels of education, among them Computers & Education (CAE), the British Journal of Educational Technology (BJET), and Educational Technology and Society (ETS). There is also a focus on instructional and cognitive psychology research, represented by Learning and Instruction (LI), the Journal of the Learning Sciences (JLS), and Instructional Science (IS). In addition, the more technology-centered and computer science-related journals such as the IEEE Transactions on Learning Technologies (IEEETLT) and Educational Technology Research & Development (ETRD) are also in this cluster.

Journal Cluster 2: Educational Technology from K-12 to Higher Education

The second cluster is characterized by general, but smaller, educational technology journals representing about 16% of the articles in the sample, including Learning, Media and Technology (LMT); Technology, Pedagogy and Education (TPE); and the Journal of Computing in Higher Education (JCHE). The scope of these journals is related to the application of educational technologies ranging from K-12 to higher education settings. However, in contrast to cluster 1, these journals have a stronger focus on the school context: teacher , school , and teaching are among the ten most frequent concepts (see Table 3 ).

Journal Cluster 3: Distance Education in the Context of Higher Education

This cluster is characterized by journals that focus on research into distance education and student learning in online courses, such as Distance Education (DE) or the American Journal of Distance Education (AJDE). In terms of their relative frequencies (see Fig. 2 ), students , online, and course are the most prevalent terms in these journals. The concept of distance does not appear in the upper 20 concepts in the other clusters at all. Contrary to prior assumptions, the journal Internet and Higher Education (IHE) is categorized in this cluster. It does not share the same distance education background as the other journals; however, its content-related proximity may be explained by the fact that the other journals in this cluster also focus on the higher education context. Another reason may be the widespread use of distance education and online learning in higher education and the frequent use of technologies such as the Internet in these processes.

Journal Cluster 4: Technology-Enhanced Learning in School Settings

The two journals that constitute the smallest cluster, Contemporary Issues in Technology & Teacher Education (CITTE) and the Journal of Technology and Teacher Education (JTTE), clearly stand out, as they explicitly deal with topics related to teacher development and the design of technology-enhanced learning in school settings and subjects. The concepts of teacher and classroom show the highest relative frequencies (see Fig. 2 ), and the terms professional and development are among the ten most frequent concepts, together with teacher on the top of this list (see Table 3 ). Neither journal is listed in the Social Sciences Citation Index (SSCI).

Journals are one of the crucial means for the diffusion of scientific knowledge, and they can be considered “as indicators of the intellectual state of any given branch of knowledge and can be further used to identify the epistemic status of any discipline” (Bozkurt, 2019 , p. 497). The results of the analysis confirm that ODDE is an interdisciplinary field and a discipline with many intersection points with educational technology (Bozkurt, 2019 ; Bozkurt & Zawacki-Richter, 2021 ).

With this understanding of the overall landscape of academic journals in ODDE, we can now turn towards reviewing the research trends, patterns, and areas covered in the scholarly publications.

Research Trends Emerging in Content Analysis and Systematic Reviews

The 3 M-Framework was the starting point for a number of bibliographic studies to quantify and review ODDE research. The first review that followed the Delphi study was published by Zawacki-Richter, Baecker, and Vogt ( 2009 ), who reviewed 695 articles in the time period between 2000 and 2008 in 5 major peer-reviewed journals: Open Learning (OL), Distance Education (DE), the American Journal of Distance Education (AJDE), the Journal of Distance Education/International Journal of E-Learning & Distance Education (JDE/IJEDE), and the International Review of Research in Open and Distance/Distributed Learning (IRRODL).

The major outcome of this study was a frequency tabulation of the research areas covered in the publications revealing a strong imbalance: the micro-perspective (teaching and learning in distance education) is highly overrepresented. Over 50% of all articles deal with the top three issues, interaction and communication in learning communities (17.6%), instructional design (17.4%), and learner characteristics (16.3%), whereas other important areas (e.g., costs and benefits, innovation and change management, or intercultural aspects of distance learning) are dreadfully neglected. This finding was also confirmed by other studies, for example, in a follow-up systematic review study of 861 articles published between 2009 and 2013 (Bozkurt et al., 2015 ). The results of these studies demonstrate that while some research areas are used widely, some others are neglected (see Fig. 3 ). Besides, the top three research areas identified by Zawacki-Richter et al. ( 2009 ) remain unchanged in Bozkurt et al.’s ( 2015 ) study. This view implies that there is a need to pay close attention to the ignored research areas if the field intends to explore different domains and build a solid basis for further growth. It is noteworthy to highlight that the educational technology research area is listed with the highest score on the meso-level which justifies the close relationship between the distance education and educational technology journals.

figure 3

The trends of 3 M-Framework (adopted from Bozkurt et al., 2015 ; Zawacki-Richter et al., 2009 )

Quantitative Content Analysis and Text-Mining

Moving beyond the quantification of research areas and topics and the mapping of publication and authorship patterns, content analysis, text-mining, and topic modelling (see Krippendorff, 2013 ; Silge & Robinson, 2016 ) of academic journals allow for deeper insights into the development and flow of research trends over time. Content analysis examines the conceptual structure of text-based information and detects the most frequently occurring themes within large amounts of data. Fisk, Cherney, Hornsey, and Smith ( 2012 ) conclude that computer-aided content analysis is a suitable method by which to map a field of research. Thus, content analysis is an invaluable means of interpreting and coding the content of a research discipline and identifying gaps and priority areas for future research.

As West ( 2011 ) observes:

There is practical value to understanding where we are right now, and where we have been in the very recent past. To understand this, it can be helpful to review some of the journals in our field to see what conversations are being held, research being conducted, tools being developed, and theories being accepted. (p. 60)

Special software is available to support the analysis of huge amounts of text-based data, for example, the text-mining tool Leximancer™. The software locates core concepts within textual data (conceptual analysis) and identifies how these concepts interrelate (relational analysis) by the frequency with which words co-occur in the text. Leximancer™ then produces a visual map, which clusters similar concepts that co-occur in close proximity (thematic regions). Packages for text-mining and topic modelling are also available for the open and free statistical programming language R (see: ), e.g., the tidytext package (Silge & Robinson, 2016 ).

Content analysis and text-mining studies in the field of ODDE are available based on publications in the major and most influential journals. By analyzing 515 research articles published in the journal Distance Education between 1980 and 2014, Zawacki-Richter and Naidu ( 2016 ) were able to identify the following main themes over seven 5-year time periods: professionalization and institutional consolidation (1980–1984); instructional design and educational technology (1985–1989); quality assurance in distance education (1990–1994); student support and early stages of online learning (1995–1999); the emergence of the virtual university (2000–2004); collaborative learning and online interaction patterns (2005–2009); and interactive learning, massive open online courses (MOOCs), and open educational resources (OER) (2010–2014). The concept map in Fig. 4 shows the major topics (concepts in five thematic regions) covered in the articles published over 35 years (1980–2014). Not surprisingly, the journal publishes research on open and distance education with a focus in the higher education context. The other two major topics covered in the articles (i.e., students and learning ) are connected via the theme interaction . Learning is seen among these articles as a social process that is facilitated by interaction among participants. Furthermore, the provision of opportunities for interaction, communication, and collaboration between students and their teachers, as well as among students via two-way media, is proposed as constituent element of distance education. In such settings, teaching and learning are seen as the result of careful design and orchestration of the learning environment, communication processes, learner support, and use of learning materials.

figure 4

Concept map of 515 articles published between 1980 and 2014 in the journal Distance Education (Zawacki-Richter & Naidu, 2016 , p. 249)

A similar review was conducted for the journal International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning (IRRODL). Zawacki-Richter, Alturki, and Aldraiweesh ( 2017 ) analyzed 580 articles published between 2000 and 2015 and identified 3 broad themes emerging over this 15-year period: the establishment of online learning and distance education institutions (2000–2005); widening access to education and online learning support (2006–2010); and the emergence of MOOCs and OER (2011–2015). In the field of educational technology, Zawacki-Richter and Latchem ( 2018 ) reviewed 40 years of publications in the leading journal Computers & Education . The content analysis of abstracts and titles of 3674 full articles published between 1976 and 2016 revealed that research progressed through 4 distinct stages, reflecting major developments in educational technology and theories of learning with media: the advancement and growth of computer-based instruction (1976–1986); stand-alone multimedia learning (1987–1996); networked computers as tools for collaborative learning (1997–2006); and online learning in a digital age (2007–2016).

Mishra ( 2019 ) used a combination of bibliometrics and thematic content analysis to review contributions in the first 10 years to the Journal of Learning for Development (JL4D). He reports that JL4D’s major focus is placed on student learning, teachers and teaching, and contextual needs in education, while citation analysis shows that “the contributions are by and large influenced from the field of educational technology in general and experts in the field of open and distance learning” (Mishra, 2019 , p. 173). Thus, the journal is rooted in the field of open and distance learning, addressing a niche of research in the area of innovations in learning leading to development.

Citation and Journal Network Analysis

Social network analysis (SNA; Wasserman & Faust, 1994 ) of citations is another technique to explore relationships in scholarly knowledge networks. Garfield ( 1972 ) described journal networks as a “communication system” that reveals the intellectual structure of a discipline. In journal network analysis, the nodes in the scientific network are journals (actors), and the relations (ties) are based on citations (Narin, Carpenter, & Berlt, 1972 ). Bozkurt et al. ( 2015 ) used SNA to visualize the relationships between keywords of articles in distance education journals and found that the majority of published research deals with research on the micro-level, covering topics and issues such as ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’ processes in online distance education. Wolf, Andrzejewski, Clark, and Forney ( 2020 ) analyzed the qualitative research literature in distance education by constructing a two-mode network matrix of qualitative articles by theories and methodologies They showed how the theories and methodologies co-occurred. For example, case studies are often linked with social constructivism, the Community of Inquiry, transactional distance, and self-regulated learning. Park and Shea ( 2020 ) applied co-citation and cluster analysis to identify trends in online, distance, and blended learning research based on 5699 articles with 159,891 references retrieved from the Web of Science (WoS). The dataset was divided into two time spans from 2008 to 2012 and from 2013 to 2017. The study revealed that literature reviews, meta-studies on distance education, and research into communication patterns in asynchronous discussion were most cited in the first time period. In the second period, researchers turned their attention to online learner’s satisfaction and self-regulation, informal learning, and MOOCs. In the entire 10-year period, the Community of Inquiry framework was the most prevalent theoretical foundation in the publications, a finding confirmed by Bozkurt ( 2019 ) and Bozkurt and Zawacki-Richter ( 2021 ).

Systematic Reviews and Meta-analysis Studies

Drilling further down into content and research findings, systematic reviews (Gough, Oliver, & Thomas, 2017 ; Petticrew & Roberts, 2006 ; for systematic reviews in education, see Zawacki-Richter et al., 2020 ), including or not including meta-analysis (Borenstein, Hedges, Higgins, & Rothstein, 2009 ), are the gold standard to synthesize research to inform evidence-based policy and practice. As Hammersley ( 2020 ) noted, systematic reviews became influential “in the context of the longstanding, and challenging, issue of how to ‘translate’ research findings into reliable guidance for practical decision-making – to determine which policies, programs, and strategies should (and should not) be adopted” (p. 23). The methodological approach of systematic reviewing became influential by the emergence of the evidence-based medicine movement in the second half of the twentieth century. Systematic reviews are also being carried out more and more frequently in the educational sciences. Dowd and Johnson ( 2020 ) report an increase in the number of systematic reviews published in the leading journal Review of Educational Research with a proportion of 41% in 2017 and 43% in 2018.

Rather than providing a general overview of research trends and scholarly networks in a given discipline, systematic reviews aggregate findings of primary studies to answer a review question, indicate the direction or size of effect in a meta-analysis, or qualitatively arrange research findings in a configurative synthesis: “Rather than looking at any study in isolation, we need to look at the body of evidence” (Nordenbo, 2010 , p. 22). In contrast to traditional or narrative literature reviews, which are criticized as being biased and arbitrary, the aim of a systematic review is to carry out a review that is rigorous and transparent in each step of the review process, thereby making it reproducible and updatable.

Meta-analysis has a long tradition in ODDE research (see Bernard, Borokhovski, & Tamim, 2019 ) in comparing distance education with traditional face-to-face education (Bernard et al., 2004 ) or comparing learning outcomes (Zhao, Lei, Yan, Lai, & Tan, 2005 ) and learner performance (Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, & Jones, 2009 ) between these two modes. Previous meta-analysis studies have focused on the impact of media on learning (e.g., see the second order meta-analysis by Tamim, Bernard, Borokhovski, Abrami, & Schmid, 2011 ), while meta-synthesis studies focused on factors influencing students’ experiences (Blackmon & Major, 2012 ), course environments, learning outcomes, learners’ characteristics, and institutional and administrative aspects (Tallent-Runnels et al., 2006 ).

Historically, it has often been the case that a triggering event at the macro- or meso-level has led to a new research direction at the micro-level. The next section will deal with these alternating research waves in ODDE.

Alternating Research Waves

Based on the different levels of 3 M-Framework, waves of alternating institutional and individual research perspectives were proposed by Zawacki-Richter and Naidu ( 2016 ). As an extended and updated version, four waves covering the past 40 years are presented in Fig. 5 . Responding to a triggering event such as the foundation of open universities, quality problems at distance teaching institutions, or the emergence of virtual universities, researchers turned their attention to issues on the micro-level of teaching and learning. The four waves can be labelled as follows: (1) the consolidation of distance teaching institutions and instructional design; (2) quality assurance and student support; (3) virtual universities, online interaction, and learning; and 4) artificial intelligence, big data, and intelligent support systems.

figure 5

Alternating research waves over time (based on Zawacki-Richter & Naidu, 2016 )

The First Wave: Institutional Consolidation and Instructional Design

The establishment of open universities and distance teaching institutions around the world in the 1970s and 1980s was a critical milestone in the history of ODDE. This revolutionary new form of educational practice posed an enormous challenge on organizational management and professional practice. The idea of ODDE was embodied by these developments and found an opportunity to apply its theory and practice through a systems view (Moore & Kearsley, 2005 ). The temporal, spatial, and transactional distance between learners and learning sources (i.e., other learners, instructors, and learning materials) required the development of curriculum and instructional design strategies to effectively and efficiently deliver education.

The Second Wave: Quality Assurance and Student Support

With the removal of temporal and spatial barriers, more learners had the opportunity to access education. This situation also led to the emergence of massification in ODDE with mega universities (Daniel, 1996 ) of more than 100,000 or even millions of students. With the growth of distance teaching provision, quality problems emerged, resulting in low completion rates and dropout. It is not surprising to see that research focused on quality assurance and the implementation of learner support services along the student life cycle (see Reid, 1995 ). The ultimate purpose of quality assurance is to provide the best possible solutions to learners, and this requires a systematic approach, internal and external quality mechanisms, and policies and strategies in place. The nature and characteristics of learning processes in ODDE require a comprehensive and operational learner support system.

The Third Wave: Virtual Universities, Online Interaction, and Learning

The proliferation of information and communication technologies around the new millennium, and more specifically online networked technologies, allowed ODDE to expand its boundaries. Online learning is beginning to be seen as the new face of distance education. Researchers are fascinated by the enormous opportunities that the new information and communication technologies afford for collaborative online learning and teaching. The capacity increase that emerged with digital solutions has expanded the boundaries of not only education but also many concepts. For instance, openness, flexibility, and accessibility took new forms such as MOOCs, OER, and practices. With the integration of online distance learning, the boundaries between distance education institutions and conventional education providers are blurring, moving ODDE into the mainstream of education (Xiao, 2018 ).

The Fourth Wave: AI, Big Data, and Intelligent Support Systems

With the increasing digitalization and the spread of online technologies, a massive volume of (big) data has been produced that can be managed, processed, and analyzed. Artificial intelligence (AI) methods such as machine learning or deep learning are already used for learning analytics to identify students at risk (early warning systems), for automated assessment, and to design adaptive learning environments and intelligent tutoring systems (Zawacki-Richter, Marín, Bond, & Gouverneur, 2019 ). Despite the enormous potential of AI in education, challenges remain in terms of ethical implications and issues of privacy and data protection.

COVID-19 Pandemic: The Turning Point

As noted earlier, alternating research waves are shaped by significant developments in the history of the ODDE triggered by technological advances in the society. In this sense, we consider the COVID-19 pandemic as a turning point for many dimensions of our lives including ODDE. This section, thus, provides reflections from the recent articles which probably affect the future scenarios and identify possible future waves in ODDE.

The COVID-19 pandemic was a wake-up call for all walks of life across the globe, including open, distance, and digital education. The pandemic and its consequences indicate a new future that we can call the new normal where radical changes and paradigm shifts are ahead of us (Bozkurt & Sharma, 2020a , 2020b ; Xiao, 2021 ). A recent systematic review about emergency remote teaching and learning in schools during the COVID-19 pandemic reports that the studies were “heavily focused on the impact of lockdown and the COVID-19 pandemic on schools and learning, but particularly on the challenges experienced by teachers as a result of switching to online forms of teaching and learning” (Bond, 2020 , p. 204). These challenges were echoed in different studies and included social, psychological, and technological aspects. For instance, Crompton, Burke, Jordan, and Wilson ( 2021 ) reported that educational practices, ranging from digital to analog and from online to offline, were mostly dependent on educational technologies. Bozkurt ( 2022 ) examined impact of the Covıd-19 pabdemic and identifed three broad themes: (1) educational crisis and higher education in the new normal: resilience, adaptability, and sustainability, (2) psychological pressures, social uncertainty, and mental well-being of learners, and (3) the rise of online distance education and blended-hybrid modes. Bozkurt ( 2022 ) further noted that the future of education is being shaped in the present time and there is a need to focus on issues such as digital pedagogies, care and empathy-oriented pedagogies, equity and social justice, and new educational roles in the new normal. In a similar study, Mishra, Sahoob, and Pandey ( 2021 ) reviewed research trends in distance and online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic using co-citation analysis and keyword analysis with 330 peer-reviewed research articles and conference papers retrieved from the Scopus database. According to Mishra et al. ( 2021 ), the articles mostly cover post-secondary education (67.9%), whereas research in the context of K-12 education (10.3%) and workplace training and lifelong learning (7.6%) is lacking. They found that the field has focused on remote teaching and learning as a new term to describe online distance education. There has been a focus on educational technologies and their capabilities to support online learners.

These studies show that the COVID-19 pandemic was a turning point and an opportunity to reimagine and redesign education, including ODDE. It is also emphasized that considering teaching and learning are “primarily about human beings, for human beings, and by human beings” (Xiao, 2021 , p. 3), there is a need for care and empathy-oriented human-centered pedagogies (Bozkurt & Sharma, 2021 ).


This chapter provides a comprehensive overview of the flow and development of research in ODDE over time based on the 3 M-Framework of research areas on the macro-, meso-, and micro-level. Earlier bibliographic content analysis and systematic reviews report that ODDE has a clear focus and high research interest on interaction and communication in learning communities, learner characteristics, instructional design (micro-level), and educational technology (meso-level). These results also show which research areas we have examined sufficiently, and which research areas we should focus more on, hence offering clues for setting a future research agenda. Content analysis and text-mining studies demonstrate how the field of ODDE has been advancing and addressing emergent and diverse issues to ensure its sustainability. Through citation and journal network analysis studies, the intellectual growth of ODDE can be tracked, which in turn can guide new studies to build on previous research. In this process, systematic reviews, meta-analyses, and syntheses are conducive to identifying research gaps and priority areas and to informing evidence-based practice and interventions.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 was certainly a global game-changer that has led to the application of ODDE across the globe in all education sectors. Driven by the societal transformation of digitalization, ODDE had been in the spotlight even before the COVID-19 pandemic – now ODDE has fully entered the mainstream of education. ODDE is now practiced in its different forms across all disciplines and on all educational levels from pre-school to higher education.

Even though the trigger from the COVID-19 pandemic is horrific, the future of ODDE looks bright and promising. In light of this development, it is important to build upon the theory, research, and practice in ODDE to prevent that the wheel is reinvented.


Big Science and Little Science in Open and Distance Digital Education

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Appendix A: Number of Articles Published in 26 Journals Between 2007 and 2016







Australasian Journal of Educational Technology





British Journal of Educational Technology





Cognition and Instruction





Computers & Education





Distance Education





Educational Technology and Society





Educational Technology Research and Development





IEEE Transactions on Learning Technologies





Instructional Science





Interactive Learning Environments





Int. Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning





Int. Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning





Internet and Higher Education





Journal of Computer Assisted Learning





Journal of Computing in Higher Education





Journal of Educational Computing Research





Journal of the Learning Sciences





Learning and Instruction





Learning, Media and Technology





Technology, Pedagogy and Education





American Journal of Distance Education





Contemporary Issues in Technology & Teacher Education





International Journal of E-Learning and Distance Education





International Journal of Technology and Design Education





Journal of Research on Technology in Education





Journal of Technology and Teacher Education





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  • b ETS was discontinued and stopped accepting submissions in December 2016

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Reimagining tertiary education: issues, challenges and solutions.

Tertiary education in Nigeria is in crisis that requires urgent attention. The reason for this crisis is the failure to appreciate and come to terms with the fact that education is fundamental to national development. Thus, stakeholders in education have come to a consensus that there is a need to save the tertiary education sector from imminent collapse. Hence, the need to reimagine the tertiary education sector by setting the conditions whereby it can perform at its best and compete globally. This paper on reimagining tertiary education: Issues, challenges and solutions have as its main thrust: the meaning of tertiary education, the historical development of tertiary education, the goals of tertiary education, the importance of tertiary education, the needs of tertiary education in Nigeria, issues confronting tertiary education, challenges and possible solutions to issues and challenges of tertiary education in Nigeria. These sub-headings provided the direction for this paper.

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An eVTOL on a helipad in New York City with the Statue of Liberty in the background.

Electric air taxis are on the way – quiet eVTOLs may be flying passengers as early as 2025

research paper distance education

Executive Director, Oklahoma Aerospace Institute for Research and Education, Oklahoma State University

Disclosure statement

Jamey Jacob receives federal funding from NASA, FAA, EDA, NSF, DOD, and DHS. He is currently president and co-founder of USA-OK (Unmanned Systems Alliance of Oklahoma), the Oklahoma Chapter for AUVSI (Association of Uncrewed Vehicle Systems International).

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Imagine a future with nearly silent air taxis flying above traffic jams and navigating between skyscrapers and suburban droneports . Transportation arrives at the touch of your smartphone and with minimal environmental impact.

This isn’t just science fiction. United Airlines has plans for these futuristic electric air taxis in Chicago and New York . The U.S. military is already experimenting with them . And one company has a contract to launch an air taxi service in Dubai as early as 2025. Another company hopes to defy expectations and fly participants at the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Backed by billions of dollars in venture capital and established aerospace giants that include Boeing and Airbus, startups across the world such as Joby , Archer , Wisk and Lilium are spearheading this technological revolution, developing electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft that could transform the way we travel.

Electric aviation promises to alleviate urban congestion, open up rural areas to emergency deliveries, slash carbon emissions and offer a quieter, more accessible form of short-distance air travel.

Two style of eVTOL, both with propellers that lift them vertically, with New York Harbor in the background.

But the quest to make these electric aircraft ubiquitous across the globe instead of just playthings for the rich is far from a given. Following the industry as executive director of the Oklahoma Aerospace Institute for Research and Education provides a view of the state of the industry. Like all great promised paradigm shifts, numerous challenges loom – technical hurdles, regulatory mazes, the crucial battle for public acceptance and perhaps physics itself.

Why electrify aviation?

Fixed somewhere between George Jetson’s flying car and the gritty taxi from “The Fifth Element ,” the allure of electric aviation extends beyond gee-whiz novelty. It is rooted in its potential to offer efficient, eco-friendly alternatives to ground transportation, particularly in congested cities or hard-to-reach rural regions.

While small electric planes are already flying in a few countries , eVTOLs are designed for shorter hops – the kind a helicopter might make today, only more cheaply and with less impact on the environment. The eVTOL maker Joby purchased Uber Air to someday pair the company’s air taxis with Uber’s ride-hailing technology.

In the near term, once eVTOLs are certified to fly as commercial operations, they are likely to serve specific, high-demand routes that bypass road traffic. An example is United Airlines’ plan to test Archer’s eVTOLs on short hops from Chicago to O'Hare International Airport and Manhattan to Newark Liberty International Airport .

While some applications initially might be restricted to military or emergency use, the goal of the industry is widespread civil adoption, marking a significant step toward a future of cleaner urban mobility.

The challenge of battery physics

One of the most significant technical challenges facing electric air taxis is the limitations of current battery technology.

Today’s batteries have made significant advances in the past decade, but they don’t match the energy density of traditional hydrocarbon fuels currently used in aircraft . This shortcoming means that electric air taxis cannot yet achieve the same range as their fossil-fueled counterparts, limiting their operational scope and viability for long-haul flights. Current capabilities still fall short of traditional transportation. However, with ranges from dozens of miles to over 100 miles, eVTOL batteries provide sufficient range for intracity hops.

The quest for batteries that offer higher energy densities, faster charging times and longer life cycles is central to unlocking the full potential of electric aviation.

While researchers are working to close this gap, hydrogen presents a promising alternative , boasting a higher energy density and emitting only water vapor. However, hydrogen’s potential is tempered by significant hurdles related to safe storage and infrastructure capable of supporting hydrogen-fueled aviation. That presents a complex and expensive logistics challenge.

And, of course, there’s the specter of the last major hydrogen-powered aircraft. The Hindenburg airship caught fire in 1937, but it still looms large in the minds of many Americans.

Regulatory hurdles

Establishing a “ 4D highways in the sky ” will require comprehensive rules that encompass everything from vehicle safety to air traffic management . For the time being, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is requiring that air taxis include pilots serving in a traditional role. This underscores the transitional phase of integrating these vehicles into airspace, highlighting the gap between current capabilities and the vision of fully autonomous flights.

The journey toward autonomous urban air travel is fraught with more complexities, including the establishment of standards for vehicle operation, pilot certification and air traffic control. While eVTOLs have flown hundreds of test flights, there have also been safety concerns after prominent crashes involving propeller blades failing on one in 2022 and the crash of another in 2023. Both were being flown remotely at the time.

The question of who will manage these new airways remains an open discussion – national aviation authorities such as the FAA , state agencies , local municipalities or some combination thereof.

Creating the future

In the long term, the vision for electric air taxis aligns with a future where autonomous vehicles ply the urban skies, akin to scenes from “ Back to the Future .” This future, however, not only requires technological leaps in automation and battery efficiency but also a societal shift in how people perceive and accept the role of autonomous vehicles , both cars and aircraft, in their daily lives. Safety is still an issue with autonomous vehicles on the ground.

A view inside the cockpit. The controls look like two videogame joysticks with two monitors in between.

The successful integration of electric air taxis into urban and rural environments hinges on their ability to offer safe, reliable and cost-effective transportation.

As these vehicles overcome the industry’s many hurdles, and regulations evolve to support their operation in the years ahead, I believe we could witness a profound transformation in air mobility. The skies offer a new layer of connectivity, reshaping cities and how we navigate them.

  • Fossil fuels
  • Climate change
  • Electricity
  • Electrification
  • Greenhouse gas emissions (GHG)

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Public finance and budgets

Countries across the OECD are facing long-term fiscal pressures in areas such as health, ageing, climate change, and defence. At the same time, governments must grapple with mounting debt levels, rising interest rates and high levels of uncertainty. In this increasingly constrained fiscal environment, reconciling new and emerging spending pressures with already stretched public finances requires high-quality budget institutions and processes.

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Key messages, oecd countries are facing long-term fiscal pressures..

The long-term fiscal pressures associated with climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions; ageing populations and shrinking labour supply; and rising health care and social care costs continued to mount. Interest expenditures are now increasing significantly. The current geopolitical tensions are adding further new spending pressures, including in the defence area, as well as greater economic uncertainty.

Reconciling these pressures with already stretched public finances requires high quality budget institutions and strengthened public understanding

Budgets are about more than money. They are a statement of a nation’s priorities. Engagement and oversight of the budget process by Independent Fiscal Institutions, parliaments and the public is fundamental to democratic governance and trust in government. Empowering the public to understand fiscal challenges is essential for generating the will to solve them

Governments must have credible public financial management frameworks to build trust in budgetary governance and maintain enough fiscal space to be able to finance crisis responses when needed.

Governments must have credible public financial management frameworks to build trust in budgetary governance and maintain enough fiscal space to finance crisis responses when needed.

Each of the crises of recent years has shown the importance of preserving the resilience of public finances; countries need to be able to finance large and unexpected expenditures, such as in the aftermath of major natural disasters, to support a distressed sector or to address the consequences of a major pandemic. However, debt levels in OECD countries have risen significantly in recent years.  

General government expenditures amounted to 46.3% of GDP on average across OECD countries in 2021

Between 2019 and 2021 general government expenditures as a percentage of GDP increased by 5.4 percentage points, from 40.9% in 2019. This  increase is largely explained by the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to significant economic disruption. This prompted  large-scale fiscal stimuluses, including increased spending on healthcare, social welfare programmes, and support for businesses and individuals affected by the pandemic, while at the same time GDP was falling.  

General Fiscal Balance

The fiscal balance is the difference between a government’s revenues and its expenditures. It signals if public accounts are balanced or if there are surpluses or deficits. Recurrent deficits over time imply the accumulation of public debt and may send worrying signals to consumers and investors about the sustainability of public accounts which, in turn, may deter consumption or investment decisions. Nonetheless, if debt is kept at a sustainable level, deficits can help to finance necessary public investment, or in exceptional circumstances, such as unexpected external shocks (e.g. pandemics, wars or natural disasters), can contribute to maintaining living conditions and preserving social stability. 

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Related policy issues

  • Fiscal Frameworks Fiscal frameworks outline the government's fiscal intentions and explain how these will be implemented concretely. Well-designed fiscal frameworks provide clarity and stability in government fiscal operations, ensuring that spending on policy priorities of governments, like healthcare, education, and climate adaptation, are funded and sustainable. Additionally, they build resilience by helping governments prepare effectively for economic challenges. Learn more
  • Fiscal federalism network The OECD Network on Fiscal Relations across Levels of Government, also known as the “Fiscal Network”, provides a platform for countries to engage on intergovernmental fiscal relations and fiscal decentralisation policy issues. Its core mission is to improve the efficiency, equity and stability of fiscal systems through cross-country policy analysis and international comparisons. The Network facilitates best practice sharing through high-level meetings and maintaining a comprehensive decentralisation database, informing policymaking and reforms. Through collaborative efforts like workshops and the Fiscal Federalism publication series, the Network enables policymakers to access and contribute to research and insights on managing financial relationships across government levels. Supported by a multidisciplinary OECD team, the Network emphasises concrete outcomes, offering members a structured environment to learn, share and apply successful policy strategies. Learn more
  • Gender budgeting Gender budgeting is a public governance tool that governments can use to assess how budget decisions impact gender equality. When implemented effectively, gender budgeting helps expose how gender inequalities may have inadvertently become embedded in public policies and the allocation of resources and promotes budget measures that will be effective at closing gender gaps. Learn more
  • Green budgeting Green budgeting uses the tools of budgetary policy making to provide policy makers with a clearer understanding of the environmental and climate impacts of budgeting choices, while bringing evidence together in a systematic and co-ordinated manner for more informed decision making to fulfil national and international commitments. Learn more
  • Health budgeting Without a major policy shift, health spending is projected to outstrip both expected growth in the overall economy and in government revenues across OECD countries. Competing priorities for government spending are also squeezing health budgets. Urgent action is therefore needed to finance more resilient health systems while ensuring the fiscal sustainability of health systems. Learn more
  • Parliamentary budget offices and independent fiscal institutions Our work with parliaments and independent fiscal institutions (IFIs) supports fiscal transparency and accountability. At a time when the sustainability of public finances is under close scrutiny, these oversight institutions play a crucial role in raising the quality of the debate on fiscal policy and ensuring that public budgets are managed effectively. Learn more
  • Performance budgeting In an environment of budget constraints and high citizen expectations it is necessary to demonstrate that public expenditure is providing value for money and delivering on performance. The availability of good-quality performance information not only assists policymakers in making more informed budgetary decisions but also enables the broader public to hold the government accountable for delivering the outcomes promised to citizens. Learn more
  • Public accounts Good management of public money is vital for good governance, ensuring essential services like healthcare and education run smoothly. Public accounts track government income and spending, they show how money is managed and if the government can fund these crucial services. Learn more
  • Public debt management Prudent public debt management is critical for well-functioning national financial systems and helps to reinforce sound fiscal and monetary policies. Public debt portfolios, both in terms of their size and composition, have the potential to generate substantial risk to countries’ balance sheets and overall financial stability. The OECD promotes good practices in public debt and risk management and provides recommendations to assist policy makers in their efforts to adopt and implement prudent debt management policies. Learn more
  • Spending Reviews Spending reviews are tools for systematically analysing the government’s existing expenditure. The OECD has found that spending reviews have proved to be an important tool for governments, not only to control total expenditure by making space for more resources, but also to align spending allocations with government priorities and to improve the effectiveness of policies and programmes. Learn more


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