Educational Design Research: An Emerging Planning Tool

Schools are institutions that leaders seek to improve. They take actions so that operations are more efficient; they take actions so that outcomes are more closely aligned with goals than they currently are. They also take actions so that new goals are achieved.

Whether the improvements are meant to reform operations (make them more efficient or effective for existing goals) or to transform operations (so that new goals are achieved), improvement and change requires planning. Traditionally, leaders approach this work in a familiar manner:

  • Begin by identifying the area of improvement;
  • Design a system that will led to the improvement;
  • Implement the systems;
  • Gather evidence to judge the degree to which the improvement has been realized;
  • Identify a new problem.

Leaders approach these as clearly bounded and linear; it is reasoned that once a step is completed one proceeds to the next. While this approach works well for some systems, many recognize that social systems like schools are far more complex and the planning processes comprise neither well-bounded steps nor linear steps.

In many situations, school leaders seek a sophisticated knowledge of the improvements they undertake:

  • deep understanding of the complex issues they face;
  • to design effective interventions;
  • to understand why their interventions succeeded or failed;
  • to ground all of this in sound theory and existing practice.

Leaders are recognizing the traditional linear models of planning are not amenable to the traditional linear planning. They need more time and structures to understand problems, they must craft interventions to reflect the nuances of their situation, and they need real evidence to understand their work. Educational design research (McKenny & Reeves, 2012) is emerging as a model for those who seek to both reform and transform school operations.

In my book Efficacious Technology Management: A Guide for School Leaders (which is available under a Creative Commons license and can be downloaded at is include these paragraphs on educational design research:

McKenny & Reeves (2014) captured the dual nature of educational design as a method for designing interventions and a method for generating theory, as they noted it is motivated by “the quest for ‘what works’ such that it is underpinned by a concern for how, when, and why is evident….” (p. 23). They further describe educational design research as a process that is:

  • Theoretically oriented as it is both grounded in current and accepted knowledge and it seeks to contribute new knowledge;
  • Interventionist as it is undertaken to improve products and processes for teaching and learning in classrooms;
  • Collaborative as the process incorporates expert input from stakeholders who approach the problem from multiple perspectives;
  • Naturalistic as it both recognizes and explores the complexity of educational processes and it is conducted with the setting where education is practiced (this is opposed to the pure researcher’s attempt to isolate and control factors, thus simplifying the setting);
  • Iterative as each phase is complete only after several cycles of inquiry and discourse.

Projects in educational design research typically comprise three phases (see figure 7.3), and each phase addresses the problem as it is instantiated in the local school and it is either grounded in or contributes to the research or professional literature. For school IT managers, the analysis/ exploration phase of educational design research is focused on understanding the existing problem, how it can be improved, and what will be observed when it is improved. These discussions typically engage the members of the technology planning committee who are the leaders among the IT managers. Design/ construction finds school IT managers designing and redesigning interventions; this phase is most effective when it is iterative and grounded in the planning cycle described in Chapter 6. Reflection/ evaluation finds them determining if the solution was successful and also articulating generalizations that can inform the participants’ further work and that can be shared with the greater community of school IT managers.

Figure 7.3. Phases of educational design research (adapted from Ackerman, in press)


Ackerman, G. (in press). Open source online learning in rural communities. In I. Bouchrika, N. Harrati, and P. Vu. (Eds.). Learner experience and usability in online education. Hershey, PA: IGI-Global.

McKenney, S., & Reeves, T. (2012). Conducting educational design research. New York: Routledge.

McKenney, S., & Reeves, T. (2014). Educational design research. In J. Spector, M. Merrill, J. Elen, & M. Bishop (Eds.), Handbook of research on educational communications and technology (pp. 131–140). New York: Springer.