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. Still, 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. Â One of the most active associations is ASCILITE, or the Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education, which runs an annual conference, professional development activities, and a journal. Â 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 critical force in developing the eLearning community in this region, it has undoubtedly done a pretty good job). The literature on all aspects of learning is 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 essentially 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 different learning contexts. Without a solid evidence base to support it, eLearning would arguably not work well, as educators would not know how to use it. It would be akin to a dunce in the back corner, unable to engage constructively with other students, except maybe to distribute assignments to other students now and again.

Unlike eLearning, eResearch does not have a discoverable theoretical base, perhaps because it is a much newer concern or maybe because it is a large-scale government policy agenda rather than a focused intellectual problem (i.e. there are no journals, no associations, no research focused conferences, and very few developed theories to understand it).  Although precious 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 I see is that although eLearning is undoubtedly about learning and the research about learning (and there is an excellent amount of literature to support this claim), eResearch is not research (nor is it usually research about good research).

Although there is a lot 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 suggests that it does enable new research but exists to support data management, remote instrument access, and other essential services that are required to do modern scientific research.   The term science support services would be a much more honest term. Science does not need the same theoretical base and research context to get on with the job of doing good science (or they have the same concerns as I do about the all-too-often remoteness of the term research from where research happens). Journals, conferences, classrooms, debates, lectures, libraries, curriculum, and even blog posts are all part of the research infrastructure built up over the past one thousand years in many countries (or ten years in the case of this blog). If eResearch does not comfortably sit within these established infrastructures, it is something else altogether. 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. Currently, eResearch is theoretically thin and thus cannot be easily communicated within research, especially humanities research.



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