Where is the theoretical base in eResearch? eResearch versus eLearning

Recently I have been reading quite a lot about eLearning.  I know it is one of those words with an ‘e’ in front of it, but rather than simply existing on the superficial level of language, the sub-field of eLearning is a vibrant one with numerous scholarly contributions, journals, associations, and software.  One of the most active associations is ASCILITE , or the Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education, that runs an annual conference, professional development activities , and a journal.  http://www.ascilite.org.au

Admittedly this association was established in 1985, so it has had a long time to build a scholarly community of practice (and if it has been a key force in the development of the eLearning community in this region, it has certainly done a pretty good job).  The literature on all aspects of the learning-cycle are well-researched; as are the technical frameworks for large-scale implementation of eLearning environments (as well as the learning outcomes are well researched and mapped).  Plus, the most important thing is that eLearning largely sits within established educational research on constructivism, constructive alignment, inquiry based learning, blended learning and other theories that help teachers and administrators understand where eLearning may help in the classroom and in other learning contexts.  Without a strong evidence base to support it, eLearning would arguable not work well as educators would not know how to use it. It would be akin to a dunce that sits in the back-corner, unable to engage constructively with other students; except maybe to distribute assignments to other students every now and again.

Unlike eLearning, eResearch does not really have a discoverable theoretical base, perhaps because it is a lot newer concern or perhaps because it is a large-scale government policy agenda, rather than a focused intellectual concern (ie. there are no journals, no associations, no research focused conferences, and very few developed theories to understand it).  Although extraordinarily valuable skills, one would need to draw a very long bow to claim that data management is an intellectual concern or that cloud services are a vital method of research inquiry.  The problem that I see is that although eLearning is undoubtedly about learning and the research about learning (and there is a great amount of literature to support this claim), eResearch is not really research (nor is it usually the research about good research).

Although there are lots of debate about the nature of research and indeed this is a highly contested space of competing ways to interpret and measure the world, the lack of literature about eResearch suggest that it doesn’t really enable new research but simply exists to support data management, remote instrument access, and other important services that are required to do modern scientific research.  The term ‘science support services’ would be a much more honest term and perhaps Science does not require the same theoretical base and research context to get on with the job of doing good science (or perhaps they have the same concerns as I do about the all-too-often remoteness of the term ‘eResearch’ from where research happens).  Journals, conferences, class-rooms, debates, lectures, libraries, curriculum, and even blog-posts are all part of the ‘infrastructure’ of research built-up over the past one thousand years in many countries (or 10 years in the case of this blog). If ‘eResearch’ does not comfortably sit within these established ‘infrastructures’ it is something else all together.  eLearning has managed to do this and does it well, but eResearch has a long way to go. Perhaps more humanities and social science educated people working within the eResearch agenda will help build up the theoretical base and arguments for eResearch. At the moment eResearch is theoretically thin and thus cannot be easily communicated within research; and especially humanities research.

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