Saturday, February 13, 2016

Getting Started with Education Design Research

This semester I am taking Education Design Research (EDR) as a research elective for my doctoral work. While I had heard of EDR before as a methodology, I really had never learned too much about it, so this course is is a great opportunity to learn more. EDR is also known as design-based research (DBR). This terminology may be more familiar for some, as it is sometimes used in other fields beyond education. I am fascinated by this approach so far, and I am interested in learning more!

The text we are using for this course is by McKinney and Reeves (2012), and I found their definition for EDR helpful; they describe this methodology as “a genre of research in which the iterative development of solutions to practical and complex educational problems also provides the context for empirical investigation, which yields theoretical understanding that can inform the work of others” (p. 7). The basic idea of EDR, then, is to develop an intervention to address a particular problem in education, while at the same time also generating theoretical understanding of the situation. Both quantitative and qualitative research methods can be used, depending on the nature of the research question, and from the reading I have done so far, EDR seems to be one way to make mixed-methods research a reality. (There is some contention about the used of both quantitative and qualitative methods in the same study in education; I can not speak to weather this is the case in all disciplines.)

Taking this as an introduction for the uninitiated into the idea of EDR, I feel that I should say that am not fully certain about just what this approach looks like in practice. I have looked at several examples of EDR studies, and it seems like there is a wide variety among them. So…a few parts are still a bit muddy for me.

A Few Muddy Points about Education Design Research

I wonder a bit about the general acceptance of this methodology. EDR is a relatively “new” methodology (as compared to more established quantitative and qualitative traditions), as it was formally introduced in the early 1990s. Early in the course, we read seminal works introducing the approach of EDR; both have a copyright of 1992. (See Brown, 1992, and Collins, 1992). I have not yet found many examples of EDR studies to review; it may very well be that I am not looking in the right places, or–as I suspect–perhaps this approach is still a bit too novel that it does not yet have widespread acceptance?

That is perhaps a trivial wondering in the grand scheme of things. A more substantial “muddy” point for me is this: although I appreciate the emphasis on both practical outcomes (i.e., interventions to solve educational problems) as well as theoretical understanding (i.e., adding to the research literature in the field of education), I wonder how well this always works out in practice? Over the past few weeks I read several examples of EDR/DBR studies (including Wang et al., 2014, and Thompson Long and Hall, 2015) and I viewed presentation by several of my classmates on other EDR/DBR examples. Throughout these studies, it seems that some researchers definitely emphasize the “improving practice” piece, while others focus more on the “developing theory” piece. Perhaps that is in the nature of how an individual study unfolds? Or perhaps the authors actually have multiple publications underway from the same research study, and different journals emphasize different elements? But this was something I wondered about: if EDR is truly aimed at both of these outcomes (the practical and the theoretical) should they be expected to be given equal treatment? Or is it really all right to emphasize one over the other?

A third wondering that remains a bit “muddy” for me is the generalizability of EDR studies. Because these are  studies of the particular (along the same lines of case studies), the outcomes are going to be strongly contextualized to a given setting, where the research was carried out. McKinney and Reeves (2012) indicate that this is not too much of a problem (they put much of the burden for generalization on the reader of the research, rather than the researcher himself or herself–see pp. 21-22), I wonder if this approach is accepted by many educators? In my exploration of case study methods, I have found two schools of thought on the topic of generalization. Some theorists believe the burden lies upon the researcher to build a case for generalization–or perhaps “transferability”–to other settings. The other group place the burden–similar to McKinney and Reeves’s approach–on the reader, though with the expectation that the researcher will provide a “thick description” of the context (Lincoln & Guba, 1985) to support the reader in determining the transferability. I am curious to learn more about this aspect of EDR/DBR in particular.

Conceptualizing EDR and Comparing to Other Methodologies

I created this concept map to show my current thinking and understanding of EDR as a research methodology.

EDR, as I currently understand it, results in both practical and theoretical outcomes. The practical results are the nature of seeking to address problems of practice by designing interventions that will actually be put into place through the course of the research. At the same time, researchers will be seeking to develop descriptive and even predictive theories based on the work they conduct in the development and implementation of the intervention.

McKinney and Reeves (2012) describe the process of EDR as
  • Theoretically-oriented – EDR uses existing theory to frame the inquiry, and aims to further elaborate theoretical understanding (p. 13)
  • Interventionist – EDR strives to positively impact practice through the design and use of solutions to real problems (p. 14)
  • Collaborative – EDR is conducted in collaboration between researchers and practitioners (p. 14)
  • Responsively-grounded – EDR is structured to explore the complex realities of teaching and learning contexts and respond accordingly (p. 15)
  • Iterative – EDR interventions evolved through multiple iterations of investigation, development, testing, and refinement (p. 15)
EDR has connections then to a wide variety of research traditions. It connects to qualitative methods such as grounded theory and case study through the emphasis on “thick description” of the context (Lincoln & Guba, 1985) and the development of knowledge by examining a specific context. EDR is strongly linked to action research methods with it’s emphasis on solving problems of practice. And EDR may employ survey methods, or other quantitative methods as an essential aspect of understanding the situation, and in understanding the results of the intervention. EDR seems ideally situated to bridge the qualitative-quantitative gap, depending upon the research questions being asked, of course.

Finally, while there are many different ways researchers carry out EDR studies, McKinney and Reeves (2012) have advocated a generic model for EDR research comprised of three main “movements”:
  • Analysis + Exploration – to understand the context of the problem
  • Design + Construction – to create the intervention to address the problem
  • Evaluation + Reflection – to determine the suitability of the intervention to actually solve the problem, and to develop the theoretical understandings that may result.
These steps may be repeated through multiple iterations, and, in fact, it seems likely that this is the preferred approach to EDR, based on readings from Brown (1992) and Collins (1992).

I am still early in my explorations of EDR/DBR as a research methodology, but already I see tremendous possibility in this approach! I may not use EDR for my upcoming dissertation, but I can definitely see myself using EDR for future research projects in Education.



Brown, A. L. (1992). Design experiments: Theoretical and methodological challenges in creating complex interventions in classroom settings. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 2(2), 141-178.

Collins, A. (1992). Towards a design science of education. In E. Scanson & T. O’Shea (Eds.), New directions in educational technology (15-22). Berlin: Springer.

Lincoln, Y. S., & Guba, E. G. (1985). Naturalistic inquiry (Vol. 75). Los Angeles: Sage.

McKinney S., & Reeves, T. C. (2012). Conducting educational design research. London: Routledge.

Thompson Long, B., & Hall, T. (2015). R-NEST: Design-based research for technology-enhanced reflective practice in initial teacher education. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 31(5), 3–5.

Wang, S.-K., Hsu, H.-Y., Reeves, T. C., & Coster, D. C. (2014). Professional development to enhance teachers’ practices in using information and communication technologies (ICTs) as cognitive tools: Lessons learned from a design-based research study. Computers & Education, 79(1), 101-115. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2014.07.006

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