Design-based research – it’s finally making sense!

I’ve been doing a lot of reading about Design-based research as part of my preparation for comprehensive exams. My current plan for my thesis project involves the use of design-based research methodology to improve upon resources to support the adoption of iPad technology by higher education instructors.

Until today, I didn’t complete grasp why I felt that design-based research was the right methodology. I knew that I wanted to build something (a program framework) and I wanted to instantiate that framework. I also knew that by building and instantiating the framework, I would learn a lot from the process itself. I struggled with research methodology, as I could see how this could fall within the scope of program evaluation and that is could easily use both qualitative and quantitative data collection methods (hence mixed-methods), but I could also see that there was so much more to it than program evaluation, and the evaluation aspect wasn’t the true focus to what I wanted to do – design and theory development where closer to my goals.

My investigations into design-based research repeatedly turned up discussions on the complexity of educational research, and the need for methodologies that take into account the complex context that is education. When designing solutions to educational problems there are many places where design decisions need to be made. Each of these decisions contributes to the variability in the solution. Design-based research assumes that there are many solutions to a problem; therefore, the goal of design-based research is not to find “the” solution to a problem, but rather to find a “better” solution to a problem.

A word that appears frequently in the design-based research literature is “enactment”. At a minimum it appears when the author describes the iterative cycles of design, develop, implement, evaluate that are fundamental to the structure of a design-based research project; however, “enactment” is more fundamental that just a step in the iterative design cycle.  Hoadley highlighted the importance of enactment to the design-based researcher, “implementation is one of the core challenges because the design-based researcher recognizes that any findings are composed of the interaction between design and enactment, between the general and the local. Iteration and replication are not checks against dishonest researchers or chance coincidences, but rather the fundamental mechanism for exploring how local and global interact, for probing the edges of design-oriented understandings.” (Hoadley, 2004, p.211)

In my gut, I knew that in some way “design and development” was an act of research, not just an act of practice.  I just didn’t see any reference to that, until I read Richey & Nelson, who say “a basic premise of … the design-development-evaluation process itself can be viewed as a form of inquiry” (1996, p.1222).

Design-based research uses the act of “design and development” to help formulate better theories. One of my research goals is to develop new theories, and Edelson supports the role of design-based research in theory development, stating that “design plays a critical role in the development of theories, not just their evaluation” (2002, p.106).

When you use theory to inform the design and development of educational resources, and you use the activity of designing and developing as an inquiry into the enactment of the theory, you learn from the process. Because the context of educational research is complex, you cannot anticipate all the requirements of a theory when you conceptualize it. It is not until you enact the theory, that you can truly understand it. Also, as you enact the theory, you learn things that require you to adapt the theory to the new information. It is this form of inquiry through enactment that is fundamental to design-based research, and the reason design-based research provides a good methodology for theory development.

It is all starting to come together for me now.


Edelson, D. (2002). Design research: What we learn when we engage in design. The Journal of the Learning sciences, 11(1), 105-121. doi:10.1207/S15327809JLS1101_4

Hoadley, C. M. (2004). Methodological alignment in design-based research. Educational Psychologist, 39(4), 203-212. doi:10.1207/s15326985ep3904_2

Richey, C., & Nelson, W. A. (1996). Development research. In D. Jonassen (Ed.), Handbook of research for educational communications and technology (pp. 1213-1245). London: Macmillan.

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