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,

and revision;

• 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.


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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

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