Design Based Research in Education

Design Based Research in Education

Design-based research (DBR) is a research methodology used in the learning sciences whereby interventions are conceived and implemented in real-world environments in order to test hypotheses and generate frameworks in a practical and iterative manner. As an approach, it was  popularised in education research by Jan Herrington and colleagues such as Thomas C. Reeves. Reeves presentation ‘Enhancing the Worth of Instructional Technology Research through Design Experiments and Other Development Research Strategies’ (2000:8), defines the characteristics of DBR as an approach that seeks to address complex problems by collaborating with practitioners in real contexts to incorporate technical affordances and known as well as hypothetical design principles to propose potential solutions. There is an iterative process in play which is used to refine and reflect on the process and principles used.

Herrington defines the phases of a design-based research project in ‘Design principles for mobile learning’ (Anthony Herrington, Jan Herrington and Jessica Mante 2009:129). In the first phase of design-based research, a problem is analysed in depth in consultation with the practitioners or teachers involved. A solution is then designed according to theoretical principles and with knowledge of recent technological affordances. The proposed solution (or intervention as it is sometimes known) is then implemented in two or more iterations, with adjustments and improvements made between implementations, so that the emphasis remains on finding the best way to present the subject in the particular pedagogical context. The last phase is the creation of design principles based on the knowledge gained from the theory, practice and reflection of the previous phases. The focus of the approach is always upon improving the learning design, rather than proving that one approach works better than another.

Reeves has developed a design research model, which he compares to a predictive research approach. The predictive approach starts with the hypotheses, based on existing theories, then moves to an experiment phase designed to test the hypotheses. Based on the test results a theory is refined which can then be used by practitioners in the field. The design research approach, however, starts with the examination of the problem by both the researchers and practitioners who collaboratively develop a solution informed by design principles and technological affordances. An iterative process of testing in practice takes place, the result of which loop back to the early phases of problem and development, refining the methods and design principles used along the way. A reflection process takes place, continuously, to enhance the implementation of the solution. The entire model loops back on its early stages and is an iterative process.

Figure 1: Reeves comparison between predictive research and design-based research. (Source:
Figure 1: Reeves comparison between predictive research and design-based research. (Source:

This is an action-based research approach, with Reeves writing:

The overall goal of research within the empirical tradition is to develop long-lasting theories and unambiguous principles that can be handed off to practitioners for implementation. Development research, on the other hand, requires a pragmatic epistemology that regards learning theory as being collaboratively shaped by researchers and practitioners. The overall goal of development research is to solve real problems while at the same time constructing Design-principles that can inform future decisions (2000: 12).

Context is important for design-based research projects, which are often situated in a real-world environment. By prototyping proposed solutions, the success in learning can be observed and changes can be made to refine the proposal which can then be released for further use and further refinement, feeding into the iterative nature of this research project. Design principles are the characteristics of the learning intervention, highlighting what it is planned to do and how, listing the learning environment and potential outcomes. Herrington et al (2009: 134) describes the mobile learning design principles as:

  • Real world relevance: Use mobile learning in authentic contexts
  • Mobile contexts: Use mobile learning in contexts where learners are mobile
  • Explore: Provide time for exploration of mobile technologies
  • Blended: Blend mobile and non mobile technologies
  • Whenever: Use mobile learning spontaneously
  • Wherever: Use mobile learning in non traditional learning spaces
  • Whomsoever: Use mobile learning both individually and collaboratively
  • Affordances: Exploit the affordances of mobile technologies
  • Personalise: Employ the learners’ own mobile devices
  • Mediation: Use mobile learning to mediate knowledge construction.
  • Produse: Use mobile learning to produce and consume knowledge.


  • Koole, M and Ally, M. ND. Framework for the Rational Analysis of Mobile Education (FRAME) Model: Revising the ABCs of Educational Practices.EDN4502w: Research and Evaluation of Emerging Technologies in Education 2014 Course Reader. Cape Town: University of Cape Town.
  • Joole, M. 2009. A model for framing mobile learning. Mobile learning: Transforming the delivery of education and training. Athabasca: Athabasca University Press.
  • Herrington, A, Herrington, J, and Mantel, J. 2009. Design principles for mobile learning. New Technologies, New Pedagogies: Mobile Learning in Higher Education. Wollongong: University of Wollongong.
  • Reeves, T. C. 2000. Enhancing the Worth of Instructional Technology Research through Design Experiments and Other Development Research Strategies. Unpublished paper presented at International Perspectives on Instructional Technology Research for the 21st Century.

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