My PhD: From a Distance Teacher to a Video Researcher

Back in the 1990s, it was easy to think that there were only minor differences between teaching on campus and teaching from a distance. Since then, things have changed, and distance learning has become – despite today’s commonplace – a field of its own. In this essay, Lena Dafgård describes her journey from an educational practitioner to a researcher with an interest in video.

I encountered distance education for the first time in 1994 when I was working as a teacher in contract education. During that time, I thought that there were only minor differences between teaching on campus compared to teaching from a distance. However, I soon realised that distance education entailed challenges I was ignorant of.

Ever since, the complexity and challenges of distance education have been my main interest. The more experience in distance education I have gained, the more I have realised how much complexity there is and how important course design is. Course design is basically everything. I have come to understand how the organisation affects the interaction with the teacher and among students and how essential it is to facilitate the interaction to increase the distance students’ learning.

In this article series, authors of newly defended PhD theses tell about their experiences from their doctoral studies at Nordic universities.

Course design needs to be different online and onsite. One important difference between distance and campus courses is that a major part of the teacher’s planning does not go to the time when teachers and students meet – as on campus – but, instead, for facilitating students’ learning from a distance.

“An important difference between distance and campus courses is that a major part of the teacher’s planning does not go to the time when teachers and students meet – as on campus – but, instead, for the construction of the course design”.

My interest in video was aroused in 1995, when video conferencing was implemented in some of the distance courses I taught. I became interested in how to reduce the dominance of asynchronous (not in real time) text-based communication, which was the most common mode in distance courses during this time.

To make distance learning more effective, I wanted to develop a more varied student learning environment, which could be more like the learning environment on campus, for example by using video for different pedagogical purposes. Also, my own experience as a distance student (about 250 credits) contributed to my understanding of how important a teacher’s design of the students’ learning environment is for successful studies.

Developing a research interest

In 2006, I applied for the PhD studentship in Applied Information Technology towards Educational Sciences at the Centre for Educational and Teacher Research, CUL, at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. When my application was accepted at the IT-faculty, I knew I was going to direct my research towards digital distance education.

To specify my research interest, I investigated which empirical research had already been conducted. From an international perspective, the results clearly showed that research had been focusing on asynchronous, text-based communication, for example, discussion boards. Synchronous (in real time) oral communication was less investigated. According to the literature, one common problem with distance education is that students can perceive their situation as lonely and isolated.

One way of reducing students’ feeling of isolation is to use video, but research on the use of video in distance education was lacking. To identify gaps in research – also in Swedish distance higher education – I conducted a review of doctoral theses, which demonstrated that in all but one of the twelve theses published between 2002 and 2009, text-based asynchronous communication dominated. 

My own extensive experience as a distance teacher made me interested in focusing on the teacher’s perspective in my research. It also turned out that most investigations were directed towards the students’ view of both distance education and video. Therefore, I decided to choose the teacher’s perspective on the use of video in digital distance higher education as the research interest of my thesis. The aim of the thesis was to better understand the possibilities and limitations of video in digital distance higher education. 

Defining video

After analysing several hundred articles on video, it became clear to me that the concept of video is problematic, as it can refer to different kinds of video content and purposes of using video, for example, entertainment and various educational purposes.

To make it more complicated, video is seldom defined in educational research. For my thesis, I defined video as audiovisual material used for educational purposes: “digital moving pictures and sound, including both video and television, which are used in higher education”. 

Another problem in video research is that several categories of video are often mixed in the same study, for example, video used as learning materials (instead of literature) and recordings of lectures without a critical discussion of how the results of the research can be influenced by the possibilities and constraints of each category. Not only that several categories are mixed, but also how the categories are used can affect the results.

To define and study each category separately, a classification system of video must be developed. Several attempts have been made to develop such a system – particularly within teacher education – but, unfortunately, the categories were not on the the same level or they were more adapted to teacher education than to pedagogical use in other courses. Some researchers claim that the starting point of a classification system should be the choices teachers make to facilitate student learning, while others argue that a categorisation of video should be directed towards how video is used.

Typology of video

The aim of one of the studies for my thesis – a national web-based questionnaire – was to compare how six categories of video were used in distance courses. Therefore, it was necessary to develop a classification system, a typology, to define the video categories for the respondents. This typology, based on the pedagogical use of video – that is, how video is used and for which purposes – consists of two main categories – recorded and live video – and six subcategories. It has been tested on the literature review and in the web-based questionnaire, which was answered by 740 course coordinators responsible for 1,240 distance courses. The typology, presented below, is a major contribution to research on video.  

Source: Dafgård, L. (2020). Digital Distance Education: A Longitudinal Exploration of Video Technology. (p. 121). Department of Applied Information Technology, University of Gothenburg. 

Recorded video

  1. Video-based materials: video recordings instead of literature are used for student learning. 
  2. Video-recorded teaching situations: recorded lectures, seminars, lab work, video feedback to students, etc.
  3. Video materials not produced for pedagogical purposes: news programmes in language learning, documentaries, a video produced for entertainment to illustrate how a story board is structured.
  4. Video as a tool for learning: students make a video production (4a); students’ acting is recorded and analysed, frequently used in professional education and training, for example, teacher education and medical education (4b).

Live video

  1. Video conferencing: A studio with rather expensive equipment, based on hardware and mostly used for groups of students.
  2. Desktop conferencing/web conferencing: A web camera and headset with an add-in to the browser (software-based) – for example, Zoom, Skype, and Teams – mostly used individually with one person in each location. 

The typology shows that the uses of video are diverse. It is appropriate to distinguish between recorded video and live video, and both categories are divided into subcategories.


The results of my investigations indicate that it is essential to define the investigated categories of video, and the typology above is an important contribution to research on video. Teachers may not always be aware of the large potential that video has for pedagogical purposes. As each category has its specific possibilities and limitations, the typology will assist teachers in deciding upon the most suitable category of video for a specific learning situation.

The results of my thesis can be helpful for distance teachers, and all teachers, as distance learning has become an everyday issue since the Covid-19 pandemic. The results can help teachers to better understand the possibilities and limitations of video in digital distance higher education. 

It is a fantastic feeling for me, who started as a practitioner, that through the results of my research I can contribute to the development of teaching practice in digital distance education, particularly regarding the use of video. It is even more fantastic that I will be able to contribute to this development further in my current work, as I am working as an educational developer specialised in digital competence at my current workplace, NGL (Next Generation Learning) Centre at Dalarna University. The doctoral thesis provided me with a solid ground for understanding what is going on in the field.

Thesis in a nutshell

Understanding the possibilities and limitations of video in distance education

  • Title: Digital Distance Education – A Longitudinal Exploration of Video Technology
  • Day of defence: January 31, 2020
  • Object of study: Video technology and its uses on distance courses and in distance teaching
  • Findings: Video is mostly used as a supplement to other resources. Teachers’ experience of distance education and participation in in-service training affects their use of video. The use of video can create a learning environment similar to a classroom, but conditions like the difficulty of perceiving non-verbal signals through video affect the communication situation negatively.
  • Structure: A monograph consisting of 8 chapters
  • Supervisors: Rikard Lindgren, professor at the University of Gothenburg, and Thomas Hillman, senior lecturer at the University of Gothenburg
  • Grading committee: Johan Lundin, professor at the University of Gothenburg, Dina Koutsikouri, senior lecturer at the University of Gothenburg, Sylvi Vigmo, senior lecturer at the University of Gothenburg, and Anders D. Olofsson, professor at Umeå University
  • Opponent: Stefan Hrastinski, professor at KTH Royal Institute of Technology
  • Read the publication arrow_forward

    Photos: Scandinav, Johan Wingborg