Introducing educational design research
Jan van den Akker, Koeno Gravemeijer,
Susan McKenney and Nienke Nieveen
Design research has been gaining momentum in recent years, particularly in
the field of educational studies. This has been evidenced by prominent
journal articles (Burkhardt and Schoenfeld 2003), book chapters (Richey et
al. 2004), as well as books (van den Akker et al. 1999) and special issues of
journals dedicated specifically to the topic (Educational Researcher 32(1),
2003; Journal of the Learning Sciences 13(1), 2004), or to the more general
need to revisit research approaches, including design research (Journal of
Computing in Higher Education 16(2), 2005).
Definition of the approach is now beginning to solidify, but also to differentiate.
As methodological guidelines and promising examples begin to
surface with abundance, pruning becomes necessary (Kelly 2004). Dede
(2004) as well as Gorard et al. (2004) call for the educational research
community to seriously reflect on setting standards that improve the quality
of this approach.
This book offers such a reflection. Most of its chapters are revised,
updated, and elaborated versions of presentations given at a seminar held in
Amsterdam, organized by the Dutch Program Council for Educational
Research from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO/
PROO). As a funding agency, NWO/PROO is interested in the clarification
of what design research entails as well as articulation of quality standards
and criteria to judge proposals and evaluate the outcomes of such research.
The presentations and discussions during the seminar were very fruitful and
stimulating. They provided the impetus to produce this book, which makes
the findings available to a wider audience.
Motives for design research
The first and most compelling argument for initiating design research stems
from the desire to increase the relevance of research for educational policy
and practice. Educational research has long been criticized for its weak linkwith practice.
Those who view educational research as a vehicle to inform
improvement tend to take such criticism more seriously than those who
argue that studies in the field of education should strive for knowledge in
and of itself. Design research can contribute to more practical relevance. By
carefully studying progressive approximations of ideal interventions in their
target settings, researchers and practitioners construct increasingly workable
and effective interventions, with improved articulation of principles
that underpin their impact (Collins et al. 2004; van den Akker 1999). If
successful in generating findings that are more widely perceived to be relevant
and usable, the chances for improving policy are also increased.
A second motive for design research relates to scientific ambitions. Alongside
directly practical applications and policy implications, design research
aims at developing empirically grounded theories through combined study of
both the process of learning and the means that support that process (diSessa
and Cobb 2004; Gravemeijer 1994, 1998). Much of the current debate on
design research concerns the question of how to justify such theories on the
basis of design experiments. As the thrust to better understand learning and
instruction in context grows, research must move from simulated or highly
favorable settings toward more naturally occurring test beds (Barab and
Squire 2004; Brown 1992).
A third motive relates to the aspiration of increasing the robustness of
design practice. Many educational designers energetically approach the
construction of innovative solutions to emerging educational problems, yet
their understanding oftentimes remains implicit in the decisions made and
the resulting design. From this perspective, there is a need to extract more
explicit learning that can advance subsequent design efforts (Richey and
Nelson 1996; Richey et al. 2004; Visscher-Voerman and Gustafson 2004).
About design research
In this book, we use Design research as a common label for a family of
related research approaches with internal variations in aims and characteristics.
It should be noted, however, that there are also many other labels to
be found in literature, including (but not limited to) the following:
• Design studies, Design experiments
• Development/Developmental research
• Formative research, Formative evaluation
• Engineering research.
Clearly, we are dealing with an emerging trend, characterized by a proliferation
of terminology and a lack of consensus on definitions (see van den
Akker (1999) for a more elaborate overview). While the terminology has yet
to become established, it is possible to outline a number of characteristics that apply to most design studies. Building on previous works (Cobb et al.
2003; Kelly 2003; Design-Based Research Collective 2003; Reeves et al.
2005; van den Akker 1999) design research may be characterized as:
• Interventionist: the research aims at designing an intervention in the real
• Iterative: the research incorporates a cyclic approach of design, evaluation,
• Process oriented: a black box model of input–output measurement is
avoided, the focus is on understanding and improving interventions;
• Utility oriented: the merit of a design is measured, in part, by its practicality
for users in real contexts; and
• Theory oriented: the design is (at least partly) based upon theoretical
propositions, and field testing of the design contributes to theory
The following broad definition of Barab and Squire (2004) seems to be a
generic one that encompasses most variations of educational design research:
“a series of approaches, with the intent of producing new theories, artifacts,
and practices that account for and potentially impact learning and teaching
in naturalistic settings.”
Further clarification of the nature of design research may be helped by a
specification of what it is not. The most noteworthy aspect is probably
that design researchers do not emphasize isolated variables. While design
researchers do focus on specific objects and processes in specific contexts,
they try to study those as integral and meaningful phenomena. The contextbound
nature of much design research also explains why it usually does not
strive toward context-free generalizations.
Inside this book
This book was created to appeal to the rapidly growing international audience
of educational researchers who situate their studies in practice. The
publication contains four main parts, plus supplemental materials available
on the publisher’s website. First, a mixture of substantive information is
presented for those interested in learning about the essence of design
research. This includes: its origins, applications for this approach, and
discussion of benefits and risks associated with studies of this nature. The
second part of the book features domain-specific perspectives on design
research. Here, examples are given in terms of how this approach can serve
the design of learning environments, educational technology, and curriculum.
The third part of the book speaks to the issue of quality assurance.
Three researchers express their thoughts on how to guard academic rigor
while conducting design studies. In the last part of the book, policy
implications are offered in broad terms, and specifically in terms of understanding
and evaluating design research work. While the book’s supplemental
website contains additional information, its primary goal is to
provide in-depth examples of high-quality design research. Together, the
four book components and website provide an informative and instructive
platform for considering the domain of design research in education.
Barab, S. and Squire, K. (2004). Design-based research: Putting a stake in the ground.
Journal of the Learning Sciences, 13(1), 1–14.
Brown, A. L. (1992). Design experiments: Theoretical and methodological challenges
in creating complex interventions in classroom settings. Journal of the Learning
Sciences, 2(22), 141–78.
Burkhardt, H. and Schoenfeld, A. (2003). Improving educational research: Toward
a more useful, more influential and better-funded enterprise. Educational
Researcher, 32(9), 3–14.
Cobb, P., Confrey, J., diSessa, A., Lehrer, R., and Schauble, L. (2003). Design experiments
in educational research. Educational Researcher, 32(1), 9–13.
Collins, A., Joseph, D., and Bielaczyc, K. (2004). Design research: Theoretical and
methodological issues. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 13(1), 15–42.
Dede, C. (2004). If design-based research is the answer, what is the question? Journal
of the Learning Sciences, 13(1), 105–14.
Design-Based Research Collective (2003). Design-based research: An emerging paradigm
for educational inquiry. Educational Researcher, 32(1), 5–8.
diSessa, A. A. and Cobb, P. (2004). Ontological innovation and the role of theory in
design experiments. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 13(1), 77–103.
Gorard, S., Roberts, K., and Taylor, C. (2004). What kind of creature is a design
experiment? British Educational Research Journal, 30(4), 577–90.
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Kelly, A. (2003). Research as design. Educational Researcher, 32(1), 3–4.
Kelly, A. (2004). Design research in education: Yes, but is it methodological? Journal
of the Learning Sciences, 13(1), 115–28.
Reeves, T., Herrington, J., and Oliver, R. (2005). Design research: A socially responsible
approach to instructional technology research in higher education. Journal of
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