Part 2: There isn’t a true need – Why you shouldn’t do Educational Design Research (EDR/DBR)

First I want to thank @urbie and @RoseNiDhubhda for retweeting part 1 in this series – Part 1: Epistemological Mismatch – Why you shouldn’t do Educational Design Research (EDR/DBR) as it gave me the push I needed to write part 2. I would like to beg your indulgence with this post – as I will not be providing references where I should be – my chemo brain fog makes it really difficult for me to digest academic papers at the moment – and I really wanted to focus on publishing the ideas while they are fresh on my mind rather than waiting … full referenced version will come when I paste the parts together into a paper for a conference or journal. 

Herrington et al (2007) warn that students run into trouble when “the solution is revealed to be a project of interest or ‘pet’ project, rather than a genuine attempt to solve an educational problem” (p.??). The second reason not to do Educational Design Research is that the thing in which you are designing does not solve a real educational need within an organization.

I propose that when decided whether the problem in question is viable for a PhD study, that you address three things:

  1. If you do not do the project, will the need still be a need in two years time? The PhD process takes time. If the need in which you are addressing is time sensitive, you run the real risk of the PhD process itself causing you to miss your window of opportunity for a successful project. If the need exists today, but must be addressed in the next 8-16 months, then it will be resolved regardless of the requirements of your PhD – and it will not stop or slow down just because your PhD has hit a slow spot in the process (e.g. waiting for ethics approval). Or, if it is too time sensitive, then the window of opportunity may pass by, and your design research project will not be relevant when you get to your data collection stage. The need in which you are designing a problem to solve, needs to be one that will still be a need when the PhD process allows you to work on solving it.
  2. Are members of the organization lining up to be your ‘champions?’ In order for any educational intervention to be successful you need champions within the organization – people that you work with to design solutions that fit within the organizational culture (this is especially important when you, yourself, are not an insider in the organization). If you only have one or two champions, then maybe the problem you are trying to solve isn’t really a problem the organization needs to be solved. If you are relying on one or two people to make your project successful, you are putting yourself in a risky position – life gets in the way (trust me on this one) – and when your one or two champions are no longer available to promote your project within the organization, you are out on a limb with little to support to help your project be successful. If you don’t have people lining up to champion your project, you may not have found a real need within the organization.
  3. Will new leadership within the organization support your project? You may secure support for your project during the proposal stage, but organizations change as time passes. It can be a full year or more between the time you start talking about your project to when you begin implementation. If the leadership in the organization changes, will they still see the need you have identified? If leadership changes, and your project is shuffled to the back burner, it may not have been addressing a real organizational need.

You may answer no to one or more of these questions and still be successful in completing an educational design research project – however, I am proposing that each of these questions are flags of concern. When answered in the negative, they provide a roadblock that may prevent you from successfully completing your PhD study.

This is perhaps one of the most challenging aspects for PhD Students because you need to do a thorough needs analysis in order to determine if there is a true organizational need, and yet you cannot truly do that needs analysis without ethics approval, which requires you to write a proposal, which by the time you have it written and approved, you are too invested in the project not to go forward with it – the project then becomes your ‘pet’ project, which is exactly the trap that Herrington et al (2007) are warning about.

If you are a supervisor of graduate students attempting to do Educational Design Research, I ask you, how do you help students guard against these risks? What can be done to help ensure students find projects that are suitable for educational design research?


Herrington, J., McKenney, S., Reeves, T. C., & Oliver, R. (2007). Design-based research and doctoral students: Guidelines for preparing a dissertation proposal. Proceedings from World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications, Vancouver, Canada.


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