The Audacity to Call a Spade a Spade

In Conversation with Prof Junhong Xiao by Dr David Lim

Junhong Xiao is Professor at the Open University of Shantou (formerly known as Shantou Radio & Television University), a local branch of the Open University of China, Visiting Professor at the Open University of Guangdong, China, and founding member of the Centre for Open Education Research at the University of Oldenburg, Germany. From 2001 to 2002, Professor Xiao worked as a Visiting Research Fellow at the Faculty of Education and Language Studies, the UK Open University, funded by the China Scholarship Council. In the first twenty years of his academic career, Professor Xiao published widely in the fields of English grammar, discourse analysis, pragmatics, systemic-functional grammar, and TESOL. Since 2001, his main research interest has been in various aspects of open and distance learning. His publications include about 300 papers (including translations) in dozens of journals and 10 books. A complete list of his journal publications is available at: . Professor Xiao is Co-Editor of the SpringerBriefs in Open and Distance Education series. He is on the editorial boards of several international journals, serves as peer reviewer for numerous high-impact journals (both English and Chinese), and provides consultancy in the areas of his expertise. He was Associate Editor of Distance Education (2014-2022), Guest Editor of the International Forum of Distance Education in China (2013-2022), and a member of the Editorial Board of System: An International Journal of Educational Technology and Applied Linguistics (2014-2020).

The Education Drive

Dr David Lim [DL]: Prof Xiao, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed for OUM’s inspired e-magazine. The Open University of Shantou has been your base since the 1980s and, over the decades, you have taught English at university level, served as a Visiting Research Fellow at the Open University in the UK, acted as remunerated consultant in education, deep-dived into open and distance learning, published key research in the field, contributed as an Associate Editor of Distance Education, and co-founded the Center for Open Education Research (COER), to mention but a handful of your career milestones. What is it that drives you to make your mark in education? And what is your educational philosophy?

Prof Junhong Xiao [JX]: Dr Lim, thank you for your compliments and for this opportunity! Education determines an individual’s destiny, hence the destiny of mankind. I grew up in the politically unsettled times in the history of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). University education was but a rosy dream in my childhood because I was not born into a politically privileged family. My grandfather was an entrepreneur and landlord in old China, i.e., before 1949. So when PRC was founded, our family turned from the “exploiting” class into the “ruled” class, that is, target of the dictatorship of the liberated proletariat. Corrections were deemed to be necessary for the “ruled” class to become useful to the new society. Unfortunately, in reality, those well-intentioned corrections were often accompanied by discrimination in many aspects of life, including education, which culminated in the so-called Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), a period when I was receiving my primary and junior secondary education. During the Revolution, university education was the prerogative of people with politically privileged family backgrounds, for example, offspring of the exploited class in old China or of the revolutionary class (people who fought to overthrow the old regime and liberate China from the exploitation of the ruling class). Fortunately, the ruling Communist Party realized the devastating damages brought by the Revolution and ended this turmoil. Also gone with the conclusion of the Revolution was the discrimination against the “ruled” class and the country has been increasingly tolerant and inclusive politically ever since. A typical case in point is that everyone has been able to compete for access to higher education on an equal basis, regardless of family backgrounds. Without this change of course, I would have had a different life and could not possibly be what I am today.

It is this early personal experience that aroused my love for education in the first place, a love that has grown into a passion as the years went by, because I wanted to help people from disadvantaged backgrounds to live a better life. I do not want to see what happened to me happen to other people. Because of this passion, I have devoted my whole career to education for four decades. I became a teacher when I graduated from college in 1983. At that time, teaching was not an admirable and attractive profession in China, hence the last choice for university graduates, especially those like me who majored in English and could easily find a high-paying job in the international business sector. However, no other profession has ever crossed my mind, neither at that time nor in the following decades. And it was this passion that ignited my zeal for distance education when I joined the Open University of Shantou, a local branch of the Open University of China (formerly known as China Central Radio & Television University) in 1988. I was impressed by the mission of distance education and had a great sense of achievement when I saw many of my early students change their destiny through distance education, who could not possibly access higher education otherwise and who cherished this second chance from the bottom of their heart.

In a word, human agency plays a decisive role in education whereas the role of technology is subsidiary and supplementary at most.

In my eyes, education should be of humans, by humans, and for humans. Education is a purely human enterprise and humanity should be a distinctive feature of education. I have criticized technology-dominated/led education on many occasions, including in my writings not because I am a Luddite but because I am concerned with the loss of humanity. There is no denying that technology is essential to education, especially when it comes to distance education. I fully recognize the affordances of technology for advancing and democratizing education. However, its role should not be overexaggerated or taken for granted, as is the current zeitgeist in the global educational community. Otherwise, technology will do more harm than good to education. Educational reform should be led by educators who should of course make the most sensible pedagogical use of technology; educational reform should never be determined by technology with educators as a slave to technological advancements. In a word, human agency plays a decisive role in education whereas the role of technology is subsidiary and supplementary at most. No attempt should be made to replace human educators with technology!

Perceptions of Distance Learning Qualifications

DL: Praise be to that, Prof Xiao. I could not agree with you more, given educators’ popular practice of putting the cart/technology before the horse/learners. Now, on the issue of public acceptance of distance learning, according to a recent report, Online Higher Education Provision in China, published by the British Council and the Department for International Trade (DIT), China in 2020 had “more than 8.5 million students” enrolled in distance learning programmes at tertiary level. That’s almost one quarter of Malaysia’s current population. Notwithstanding, distance education in China has a perception issue in the eyes of Chinese employers, the report highlights. Despite strong Chinese government support for the sector, “many employers do not see distance learning qualifications as comparable with those earned through traditional degree programmes.” Those of us in the field in China and elsewhere are no doubt familiar with the narrative.

From your home base, how do you as a practitioner grapple with the perception issue? Do you see the employer perception issue dissipating over time if the Chinese government were to recognise qualifications awarded through overseas universities’ distance learning programmes, which it currently does not?

JX: The perception issue has long existed, with a history as long as the practice of distance education. In China, this issue has become more conspicuous since the higher education enrolment expansion policy was in practice in 1999. With conventional universities and colleges more and more accessible even to low-performing students, dedicated distance education institutions have been increasingly marginalized. However, it is worth noting that distance education graduates from conventional higher education institutions, especially top universities, seem to be less discriminated compared with their counterparts from, say, open universities. I have taught both at campus-based and distance universities. I believe the perception issue is more societal than merely pedagogical/educational; it is the result of the interplay of numerous factors, both pedagogical/educational and non-pedagogical/noneducational. As a matter of fact, in China, distance education practitioners themselves also face the perception issue, often taken as inferior to their campus counterparts. I have repeatedly called on my fellow colleagues to fight for parity of esteem when confronted with discrimination.

Since this issue is not merely pedagogical/ educational, I don’t think recognition of overseas distance education programme qualifications will help. In my opinion, the key to solving the perception problem is basically in the hands of distance education institutions. To be frank, I am afraid not all distance education institutions and their management teams take quality as seriously as they should. There is often more lip-service than concrete action. The problem tends to deteriorate given the more commercialized nature of the sector with many private providers. If our graduates are good enough, they will surely be accepted and favoured in the talent market. The UK Open University (UKOU) has set a good example. The UKOU is admired even by top Chinese universities! Do not blame the employers; do not blame the society. Blame ourselves as distance education practitioners and providers; take concrete actions to justify the respect we look forward to.

Parity of Esteem

DL: For over three decades you have immersed yourself in the field of open, distance, and digital education (ODDE), insights from which would no doubt have fed into your 2018 reflection paper published in Distance Education titled “On the Margins or at the Center? Distance Education in Higher Education.” Inspired by Som Naidu’s speech on the location of distance education relative to the putative centre, the paper makes a case against the popular (mis) perception that distance education – used as an umbrella term for “all ‘alternative’ modes of higher education except part-time campus-based higher education” – is still today located at the margins while conventional campus-based higher education is at the centre, when in fact things have evolved in such a way that both distance education and campus-based education now both occupy the centre of higher education. Distance education is, in short, “no longer ‘learning at the back door’”; rather, it is now “learning through the front door of higher education.”

Reading the paper, one could almost hear practitioners of distance education who have persevered over the decades cheering you on and cheering even louder when you assert that, with all that has been demonstrably achieved, “There is no more need to make a case for its [distance education’s] validity and value as a mode of education.”

There is one question, though, about the paper, that I’d like to ask. You wrote that “Distance education universities should not be overoptimistic about the so-called parity of esteem they have been striving for in the past decades by overestimating the extent of convergence between distance and campusbased education.”

My understanding of this part of the claim is that, although distance education and campusbased education have contributed ideas to each other’s development, there remains, nonetheless, problems such as poor acceptance of distance education by some staff of campusbased education, which is an indication of their lack of esteem, of their snobbery, perhaps, towards distance education. But not just by the staff of campus-based education. Some employers, too, as we saw earlier, share the same attitude.

Was that the sense you were aiming at? If there is a lack of parity of esteem weighted against distance learning, how big a problem does it pose for distance learning, really? And how does one address it effectively? Or is this something one has to shrug off for as long as elitism remains desirable, justified or otherwise?

JX: Yes, your understanding is correct. That’s what I mean. And I agree that poor employer acceptance adds to lack of parity of esteem. As for its influence on distance learning, I think we need to distinguish distance learning from distance learning programmes. Distance learning is now part of the (new) normal of campus-based students in China, as is the case elsewhere in the world. I don’t think there is a perception issue related to this kind of distance learning. However, students of distance learning programmes, or distance education students, whether they study in dedicated distance education institutions or in conventional universities and colleges, are surely affected. Distance education institutions and practitioners should not take a laissez-faire attitude to this problem. As I said earlier, we need to take major responsibility for re-branding and de-stigmatizing distance education.

In my opinion, the key to solving the perception problem is basically in the hands of distance education institutions.

Now is the best of times for achieving parity of esteem. The “mainstreaming” of distance learning into campus-based education has been further accelerated due to the COVID outbreak. Nowadays, no conventional institutions can bear the consequences of refusing to accept distance learning. Very few, if any, conventional educators dare to speak up against distance learning as they used to do. Three years ago, almost overnight, these institutions and their educators considered themselves as champions and leaders of distance learning! Distance learning is something progressive, something contemporary, and something desirable. What they shrug off now is not distance learning, but distance learning programmes run by distance education institutions. This attitude is absurd, snobbish and hypocritical but gives us an opportunity. What distance education institutions need to do is prove their distance learning is as good as, if not better than, the distance learning their conventional counterparts offer. The comparison is not between distance learning and face-to-face learning now. That’s why I maintain now is the best of times for achieving parity of esteem.

The Problem with ODDE Research

DL: You recently co-authored a research paper with Yiwei Peng which reviewed empirical research published in selected distance education journals in 2021. The journals covered include the major ones like Distance Education, International Review of Research in Open and Distance Distributed Learning (IRRODDL), and Open Learning. Published in the Asian Journal of Distance Education, the co-authored paper is tantalisingly titled, “Is the Empirical Research We Have the Research We Can Trust?” Your review came up with a series of findings, some more brow-raising than others, which deserves to be quoted in full:

less than one quarter of the sample studies adopted the qualitative approach while over 90% of the quantitative studies followed the survey and correlational designs, resulting in a staggering disproportion from the perspective of diversity in research approach and design. Over 60% of the sample studies did not spell out their sampling strategies and only about 20% of the specified sampling strategies were probabilistic in nature, limiting the generalizability of the findings. Over 90% employed questionnaires/ scales/rubrics and/or interview protocols to collect data but over 70% of these two types of instruments were neither reviewed nor piloted before put to use with less than 50% available in full content, hence likely to undermine the value of the findings. Researcher bias, ethical concerns, and limitations were addressed in 10%, 50%, and 70% of the studies respectively.

To say that the situation painted by the findings is less than ideal would be an understatement, which is not to say that research is an easy endeavour. In response to the question posed in the title of the paper – Is the empirical research we have the research can trust? – readers, guided by the findings, would not be far off the mark if they were to answer, “not really, mostly.”

In the global field of ODDE, and in concrete terms, how widespread are these problems which you and Peng identified in the paper? How worried should we be as ODDE practitioners, researchers, policymakers, given the findings and conclusions? And how damaging are these unveiled realities, not the unveiling itself, given the pre-existing bias against ODDE?

JX: Thank you for picking up on this research paper! The inspiration for this research came from my experience as editor and reviewer in the past years. The findings echo my hunch. I aired my worries on many occasions but this is the first time my concerns are evidence-based. The problems we identified are very common in the field. Stephen Downes wrote two commentaries on this paper. In an earlier commentary, he said this issue “has been on my mind for a number of years now” (https:// and in the later one, he said “I would have consulted a wider selection of distance education (DE) journals, but I would imagine the result would have been the same, if not more so”( .

Having said that, I don’t mean to deny there is good research in the field. Looking back at the history of distance education research, we have not been short of rigorous research which has contributed to the healthy growth of the field. This was especially the case in the earlier years. Distance education used to be the “private garden” of a small minority of educators who devoted themselves to its practice and research because they embraced its mission and value propositions. Recently, I had the honour to contribute a chapter on Michael Grahame Moore to the Palgrave Handbook of Educational Thinkers ( 10.1007/978-3-030-81037-5_172-1). While reviewing Moore’s distance education theory and thinking, I was deeply impressed by its implications for today’s emerging practice. For example, anyone with adequate knowledge of his transactional distance theory would not be so naive as to take a technological deterministic approach to ODDE unless s/he deliberately does so for a hidden agenda; and anyone familiar with his interaction theory would not be so naive as to take learner-learner interaction for everything and merely rely on social network software to shed light on student learning. By the way, I am planning to write a follow-up to highlight the relevance of Moore’s “traditional” classic distance education theory to today’s ODDE.

However, professional distance education researchers are far outnumbered by “amateur” distance education researchers nowadays. So it is not unexpected to see so much sloppy research. Professor Paul Prinsloo from the University of South Africa aptly commented on the participants of the World Conference on Online Learning, Toronto, 2017, saying “many of the delegates from traditional distance and open education institutions experienced something like getting back home after a night out, and when you open your front door, the house is filled with people you don’t know and who sees you, as the rightful owner, as having to defend your presence” (https:// tag/contact-north/). Of course, I don’t mean ODDE should continue to be an exclusive club of educators from dedicated distance education institutions (I’m sure this is not what Paul meant by making this comment). It’s exactly because of its inclusiveness that the field is vibrant and fast-growing. And I don’t mean that affiliation with dedicated distance education institutions necessarily implies professionalism. There are “amateur” distance education researchers at distance education institutions and conventional institutions alike. My appeal to newcomers is: take ODDE as seriously as any other discipline, be well equipped with its foundational theories, respect its history, learn about distance educators’ research, and make meaningful contributions to its sustainable development through theory and research-informed practice as well as relevant and rigorous research of your own.

We have every reason to worry about the current situation. Unless it is rectified, there will be no parity of esteem to speak of, not to mention achieving sustainable development. Based on and informed by lousy research, ODDE would come to a dead end. Even if it persists in the mainstream, it will be further marginalized or re-marginalized. No doubt, the realities, once unveiled, will intensify the long-existing bias against ODDE. However, the damage will be temporary if we have the courage to admit the realities and take actions to address existing problems. It is not that no damage will occur if they remain hidden. We will have to pay a bigger price if we turn a blind eye to them or even choose to cover them. Unfortunately, this is what many people do. And this is the real damage, a bigger danger!

The Importance of Critical Self-Interrogation

DL: In “Introduction to History, Theory, and Research in ODDE”, the section introductory chapter you contributed to the landmark Handbook of Online, Distance, and Digital Education (2022) helmed by the editors-in-chief, Olaf Zawacki-Richter and Insung Jung, you reiterate the point that “The bias against ODDE exists, whether we like it or not.” You then go one big step further by arguing that, too often, ODDE practitioners-researchers who are internal to the field themselves compound the problem of external prejudice against ODDE despite all that ODDE has achieved precisely because one too many of them produce ODDE research that not only lacks credibility but detracts from the credibility of ODDE as a field, a mode, a practice, and a community. The chapter in question is essentially an extension and companion piece to the review paper you co-authored with Yiwei Peng. It picks up on the case built earlier on how, often, in ODDE, “the research we have is not the research we need.”

My appeal to newcomers is: take ODDE as seriously as any other discipline, be well equipped with its foundational theories, respect its history, learn about distance educators’ research, and make meaningful contributions to its sustainable development through theory and research-informed practice as well as relevant and rigorous research of your own.

I appreciate reading ODDE papers like yours precisely because they say what needs to be said when no one seems to want to say it, all with scholarly decorum. They are refreshing given that, from my own disciplinary perspective, ODDE discourse tends to be too agreeable, to shy away from critical if not “irreverent” self-interrogation by way of intellectual debates in order to provoke thinking and rethinking and to move the field forward.

But I can imagine that your writing about the state of ODDE research is not winning you many friends, or is it?

How would you respond to the proposition that ODDE discourse tends to be over-represented by solemn reiterative investigations into bone-dry micro issues which interest few beyond the investigators, or which yield banal answers to question that needn’t be asked in the first place, while under-represented by big questions requiring thoughtful discursive responses and often counter-consensus position-taking?

JX: Thank you for your comments! Your observation of ODDE discourse is right to the point. I have no idea since when criticisms or intellectual debates have basically become something of a rarity in this field. But this is a fact that merits our attention. For years, I have been critical of “agreeable” discourse, to borrow your words, “in order to provoke thinking and rethinking and to move the field forward”. Many people feel irritated or offended and even take it personally. I don’t care because this is not personal. Fortunately, my writings have also brought me many new friends. I declared my resignation as Associate Editor of Distance Education in August 2022 after working for the journal for ten years, starting as a reviewer and then as an editorial board member and later its Associate Editor – a capacity which lasted more than eight years. I submitted two papers – the co-authored paper you mentioned above and a reflection on ten critical issues of open and distance education research – to the journal last summer, both of which were highly critical of distance education research and were desk rejected by the Editor who feared they “reflect poorly on its authors and if published …then on the Editors and the journal”. You see, in his eyes, they were not agreeable, hence not even deserving the benefit of doubt that an author should not be denied by sending the papers out for peer review. I brought the issue to the attention of the editorial board, triggering a series of reactions from board members and eventually leading to the collapse of the board with numerous influential figures leaving the journal, including Tony Bates, Jon Baggaley, Michael Kerres, Dianne Conrad, Insung Jung, Paul Prinsloo, Olaf Zawacki-Richter, Marco Kalz, Suzan Koseoglu, and Patricia J. Slagter van Tryon. In this, I’m not alone. I particularly admire Jon Baggaley for his candour when speaking of our field.

I fully agree that ODDE discourse is dominated by repetitive “I did this to my course and it worked well” studies, findings of which are not generalizable, not to mention that there are already answers to some of the questions asked or that the wrong questions are asked. On the other hand, there is a paucity of research focusing on “big questions”, i.e., exploration of macro-and meso-level issues, including theory building and revisiting. For example, very few studies explored how to realize core values of ODDE such as equity in education, social justice, and democratization of education, in other words, how to take advantage of ODDE to cater for the underprivileged/disadvantaged it was supposed to serve in the first place. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are a case in point. Research has shown that the major beneficiaries of MOOCs are the well-educated with higher education qualifications from relatively better-off regions of the world rather than those who are in real need of access to higher education. ODDE research is also found to seldom involve the underprivileged/disadvantaged as research subjects. Traditional distance education was well known for its cost-effectiveness while maintaining high quality because its accessibility can reduce cost. However, very little research focuses on the iron triangle of ODDE today: access, cost, and quality. It seems that money is not a problem and technology is accessible to everyone. It goes without saying that we need to focus more on big questions. For this, I’m pleased to share that COER is preparing to launch a journal with an exclusive focus on macroand meso-level research.

The Agenda-Setting Power of Asia

DL: English is the global language of ODDE discourse and practice. It is the dominant language used not merely to relay information but more importantly to influence and shape collective thought and thinking about what counts as important agenda worth pursuing in the field. Proficiency in the English language is unevenly acquired in Asia (and elsewhere) and those without a firm command of it – and who simultaneously lack other kinds of capital – will have reduced access to knowledge production, opinion-leading, and agenda-setting. Is this a subject to which ODDE practitioners in Asia have given sufficient critical attention, in your view?

JX: No, I don’t think sufficient critical attention has been paid to this issue in Asia, at least not in China and other Asian countries where English is neither an official language nor a second language. ODDE is a glocal enterprise, which means that we as practitioners, researchers, or policy-makers are both beneficiaries of and contributors to the field. As you said, English is the lingua franca of ODDE. So we can neither make the most of best practices and research outcomes in other parts of the world nor add to the knowledge base of the field by sharing our expertise unless we master English. This should be an issue of concern for Asian ODDE educators. Twenty years ago, when I was a visiting Research Fellow at the UKOU, I was keenly aware of the absence of Asian practice and research in the international ODDE literature. Many colleagues that I talked to expressed their strong interest in how distance education was practiced in China and what Chinese researchers had done to move the field forward. While back at home in China, practitioners and researchers learnt about international practice and research from translations of early and even outdated literature. Both cohorts were actually not in tune with each other when it came to their common cause. Even today, I notice this phenomenon in China as well as in other countries, although the gap may be narrowing a little bit because the younger generation of ODDE practitioners and researchers are better at English than their predecessors.

To introduce the latest best practices and cutting-edge research of ODDE, with generous and far-sighted support from the then Editor of Distance Education in China, the official journal of the Open University of China, I established the International Forum as a regular feature of the journal in March 2013 and guest-edited this forum until its closure in July 2022 due to changes in editorship. My responsibilities included identifying and commissioning potential authors, reviewing and translating into Chinese the invited submissions, and writing a scholarly commentary for each paper to highlight its relevance to the Chinese context and implications for Chinese practitioners and researchers. By the way, these commentaries mostly began with criticisms of related problems in Chinese ODDE. During its lifespan of nine and a half years, the Forum published 121 papers contributed by 155 researchers from 28 countries, with authorship ranging from ODDE gurus such as Michael Grahame Moore, Tony Bates, Terry Anderson, Jon Baggaley, Alan Tait, and Stephen Downes to rising stars. This was a “marathon” undertaking unprecedented in the history of Chinese journal publication. However, it was basically a one-way communication with Chinese ODDE community as a beneficiary rather than both as a beneficiary and contributor to the international community.

I fully agree that ODDE discourse is dominated by repetitive “I did this to my course and it worked well” studies, findings of which are not generalizable, not to mention that there are already answers to some of the questions asked or that the wrong questions are asked.

I look forward to Asian ODDE colleagues’ growing presence in the international arena: hearing more Asian voices and seeing a bigger Asian role in leading opinions, shaping thinking, and setting agenda.

Wrapping Up

DL: It’s a been pleasure chatting with you, Prof Xiao. Thank you.

JX: Thank you, Dr Lim. The pleasure is all mine. I do appreciate this opportunity to speak out about “sensitive” issues although I might lose some more (potential) “friends” after this interview.