Netla – Veftímarit um uppeldi og menntun

Rannsóknarstofnun Kennaraháskóla Íslands

Ritrýnd grein birt 27. desember 2004

Sólveig Jakobsdóttir

Distributed Research
in Distributed Education

How to Combine Research & Teaching Online [1]

This article focuses on why and how one can do “distributed research” in teacher education. The concepts of distributed education, learning, and cognition are introduced and discussed as well as the concept of “distributed research.” Two studies using a “distributed research” model, done with staff and distance education (DE) students at Iceland University of Education, are described. In the former study, 10 graduate students (also teachers at the time in 10 schools across Iceland) gathered data with online questionnaires among 761 students in 1998. The same instruments and methods were used in 2002 when17 graduate students gathered data from 1402 students in 14 schools. In the latter study, qualitative data was gathered by 66 graduate students in 2001, 2002, and 2003 on Internet use of well over 200 individuals and entered into an online database. Methods and organization in studies of this kind are presented. Potential problems related to the use of this method are, e.g., research ethics, quality of data and information overflow as well as technical problems. However, with careful organization the method can provide many practical benefits for the researcher/teacher educator and educational benefits for students/collaborating teachers. The author is an Associate Professor at Iceland University of Education.

Recently, the Icelandic Ministry of Education, Science and Culture (2001) published an educational project plan emphasizing and defining distributed education or learning [2]. Soon after, I started (informally) to call a type of research I have engaged in for the last years – distributed research [3], and later on introduced the concept at a national conference on ICT in Education (Jakobsdóttir, 2002a). When one searches for the term “distributed research” in databases such as ERIC or Proquest little comes up that gives a clue to what that concept might mean. On the other hand, one can find many articles concerning distributed learning or distributed cognition. What do those terms mean? In the first section of the article I will present some definitions, then discuss why teacher educators might want to engage in distributed research and the types of tools that are convenient to use. I will then provide examples of distributed research studies and projects and finally discuss some important issues in relation to the topic.

Distributed Education, Learning and Cognition

Bates (1996) defined “a distributed learning environment” as a learner-centered approach, which integrated a number of technologies for activities and interaction in asynchronous and real-time modes; a model which was based on blending campus-based delivery with open learning systems and distance education. Bates maintained that the approach could give flexibility to customize learning environments and to meet the needs of diverse student populations. Similarly, Dede (2000) emphasized technologies when describing “distributed learning” as a new model of education, in which classrooms, workplaces, homes, and community settings were linked with sophisticated computers and telecommunications to enhance learning. In their project plan, the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture (2001), like Bates, emphasized a hybrid nature of distributed education or learning, describing it as a blend of campus-based or on-site learning and distance learning or net-based learning.

Most 20th century people aquired their formal (and informal) education from places, institutions or individuals that were perhaps considerably distributed over their country or even the world. As an example, an Icelander, from a small town might have completed a primary and lower secondary level education there over a period of 10 years, then gone to the capital Reykjavík for 4 years to complete upper secondary (high school) education. Then completed an undergraduate degree somewhere in Europe after 34 years and finally a graduate degree in Australia after one or more years. However, with new technologies, people can now study at more than one place at the same time. When opportunities for online education were still few in Iceland, institutes in the forefront of offering such opportunities, such as Iceland University of Education, tended perhaps to regard distributed learning from its own perspective, that is, that the students, all studying at their institution, were spread over most of the country. It appears, however, that it is now more common to look upon distributed learning from the learners’ perspective (Bates, 1996; Dede, 2000; Ministry of Education Science and Culture, 2001). That is that one can study at different places or institutes with different individuals and resources all at the same time. In the latter view, one can see a drive towards acquisition of just-in-time competencies by individuals, perhaps in a more market-driven educational landscape as described, e.g., by Rogers
(2001). In the former case, on the other hand, there may be more emphasis on social elements and creating learning communities for the development of a professional, an “educated” person, rather than just a “skilled” one.

The theory of distributed cognition views cognition as distributed over people and tools (University of Florida - College of Education, 2002). The theory focuses on a socio-technical system, and with it has developed a recognition that groups of individuals have cognitive properties that are different from sole individuals (Halverson, 2002). In the distributed education [4] program on ICT in Education at Iceland University of Education, we base our teaching methods on social constructivism and take advantage of the power of combined intelligences built into the tools we use and our combined brain power to think and work together (Jakobsdóttir, 2002b). With the help of online tools, we try to build an online learning community among our DE students, most of whom are practicing teachers, engaging in shared information gathering and knowledge building. We also, to some extent, use an apprenticeship model. Students can, for example, engage in field practice, and can learn teaching and research methods through participation in activities and projects, some of which are initiated by the faculty members. We invite students to participate in our research and development projects, among them studies to which I would like to refer as distributed research.

Distributed Research – What, Why, and How

The concept

So what exactly is distributed research? Fitz-Gibbon (1995, cited in Tymms and Coe, 2003) introduced that concept about a decade ago and has promoted the idea of distributed research to improve education (Fitz-Gibbon, 1999, 2003; Fitz-Gibbon & Tymms, 2002), as have her colleagues at the Durham Curriculum, Evaluation, and Management (CEM) Centre (Tymms & Coe, 2003). They use the concept to describe research involving high collaboration with schools and teachers or practioners, and with an aim to improve educational systems within and encourage experimentation, rather than to just passively research them from the outside (Fitz-Gibbon & Tymms, 2002; Tymms & Coe, 2003). The CEM Centre has a staff of over 60 people and deals with data from more than a million students, so a very high collaboration must be required (Tymms & Coe). A feature of such a research model is that outside researchers analyse the broad patterns in the data but that interpretations of each school’s data are made in the schools themselves, by those who know most about the context (Fitz-Gibbon, 1999). Fitz-Gibbon (2003) further summarized major principles of distributed research as “measuring what matters” (not just achievement) and “confidential feedback to teachers on every student”. In the former case indicators are chosen including affective, behavioral, cognitive, demographic, expenditure, and flow.

In many ways, or at least to some degree, the type of reserch I have engaged in matches the features Fitz-Gibbon and her colleagues at the CEM Centre use. In the teacher education context, one could think about distributed research in the way that students or individuals who are distributed or located over different areas participate together in one or more part of the research process, e.g., in data gathering in order to gather a lot of data in as short a time as possible. Collaborative or online communication projects in schools and/or between (research) institues and others are based on a similar idea (e.g., the Globe program,, and the Bionet projects, In the studies I have been conducting with my graduate students, the research is on the schools in which they teach or with participation of individuals they teach or know in their location.

The benefits

Important parts of the research process, regardless of the methodology used, include the following [5]

  • Preparation and planning: including literature review, planning the research and writing a proposal, (and perhaps applying for funding).

  • Data collection

  • Data analysis

  • Writing, publication/dissemination

The potential of collaboration between very many may be most effective during the data collection stage and for the literature review. At other stages it is probably much better to have a smaller team or only one individual.

The potential benefits of doing distributed research are several and could perhaps be classified as: practical, making the research process more efficient and productive; and educational, that is, empowerment issues for the student and the teacher/researcher.

On the practical side there are the following benefits. Much more data can be collected within shorter periods with very little cost. In addition, it is possible to locate and include more literature in a review. Finally, when students are also practicing teachers they can provide important links with educational workplaces and MUCH higher response rates which is often a problem in online surveys (Matthíasdóttir, Dal, & Lefever, 2004; Witmer, Colman, & Katzman, 1999).

On the educational side there are the following benefits. Students experience parts of researchers’ roles and learn by a cognitive apprenticeship model (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989; Collins, Brown, & Holum, 1991). The experience can get them to think about and look closely and more critically than before at different types of phenomenon or practices. Also, students (practitioners) can bring valuable experience and insights to the research process, which is actually also a practical issue. And, in addition, it is likely that the results will have value and be of use for the student.

The tools

There are many tools available to involve a community of online learners in distributed research. The main tools are of course Internet-connected computers. Special survey systems such as Outcome is available to digitalize and put surveys online (Matthíasdóttir et al., 2004; Witmer et al., 1999). One can, however, also use “regular” web editors capable of creating online surveys. I have myself been using Frontpage with or without an Access database, depending on whether the data should be kept private and just gathered into a text document or somehow categorized and published (immediately or edited) on the web from a database. In additon, I have been using open “regular” webs to present general information and closed discussion forums for FAQ’s and discussion about the research method and results. Finally, I have gathered more private information from participating graduate students by e-mail.

Examples of Distributed Research Studies

I will present two rather different examples of studies employing a “distributed research” model.

Study 1 – Computer culture of Icelandic schools in 1998 [6] and 2002 [7]

In a first-semester class, on ICT in education and school computer culture [8], in the falls 1998 and 2002, DE students (practicing teachers) were invited to participate in a study on computer culture and gender and age differences in computer use and computer-related attitudes and skills (self-assessed). In 1998, two years before the millennium, very little research had been done in Iceland on computer use in schools and more knowledge was badly needed. This was the first year the graduate-level program was offered In 2002, it was interesting to do a similar study and compare results to the first one, after a period when a National Curriculum Guide for Compulsary School had been published in 1999 with special emphasis on the integration of ICT (Aðalnámskrá grunnskóla, 1999) [9]; also many educational institutes had put a lot of money and effort into technology and teacher training. The DE students that decided to accept the invitation had a chance to test and make suggestions for improving the questionnaire that was going to be used. They were required to write research reports with the following sections: introduction, method, results (from questions they selected and in which they were interested), and conclusions. The participation was evaluated as 1,25 credits (equivalent to ca. 50 hours of work). They were paid for the data gathering from the research grants (10.000 Icelandic Kronas) [10]. The DE students selected participants in their own schools. In the smaller schools it was possible to invite everyone in the school in grade 5 to 6 (age ca. 1011) or older. But in larger schools one or two classes were chosen from each year or all students from two to three selected years. Data was gathered online (see survey in Icelandic on and was mostly quantitative but the survey also included open-ended questions. The data was saved in a text document on the server and gathered within about two week period in November during both 1998 and 2002 and later copied into Excel and SPSS for analysis. Table 1 shows the number of graduate students (teachers) and the number of students from their school that they gathered data from. About half of the students in the course each year accepted the invitation to participate in the study (the other half did different types of projects).

Table 1. Study 1 – number of participants in 1998 and 2002.
  1998 2002
Schools 10 14
Graduate Students 10 17
Students / Participants
Mostly age 11–17
761 1402


It should be noted that there are only about 192 Icelandic schools at the compulsory level (age 6 to 16) in Iceland and 36 at the upper secondary level (age 16 to 20) (Ministry of Education Science and Culture, 2004). So, in 1998, close to 5% of all Icelandic schools at the compulsory level participated in the study and 7% in 2002. During both years, one upper secondary school participated (out of 36). During both years, the participation rate in each school was high or usually between 90-95% (all students present during the day of the data gathering in their class). In contrast, collecting data online among students at the upper secondary level in Iceland at a similar time by sending students direct requests by e-mail resulted in 24% participation rate (Matthíasdóttir et al., 2004; Witmer et al., 1999).

The participating schools were fairly evenly distributed around the country. It would have been very expensive and time consuming to get to all these different locations, especially during the middle of winter when flights are sometimes cancelled due to bad weather and the road conditions are often highly dangerous.

The presentations and articles that have been written about these studies community (Jakobsdottir & Hjartarson, 2003; Jakobsdóttir, 1999, 2001; Jakobsdóttir, Jónsdóttir, & Hjartarson., 2004) have been used both as reading materials for other cohorts in the class involved as well as by others in the educational community. In addition, results from 1998 have been used by politicians and policy makers when considering gender-related equity in computer use within the country. After the 2002 data gathering, several of the participating graduate students have been working on further data analysis and special reports concerning their own schools. And one staff member from one of the two schools that participated in the study both years co-authored an article focusing on the results from her school (Jakobsdóttir et al., 2004).

Study 2 – Internet use of Icelandic students 2001-2003 [11]

In the second distributed research study I will describe, graduate students in a second-semester class on net-based teaching and learning (see [12] participated in a study funded by the Icelandic Research Council during the spring of 2001, 2002, and 2003. Table 2 shows the number of graduate students and observations. In this study, 66 students in the three cohorts gathered data, did preliminary data analysis, and discussed results. Online discussions resulted, e.g., in changed coding of behavior – due to a behavior pattern the group identified after the first round of data gathering in 2001.

Six students worked further on the project: did literature review, web design, further data analysis, and have so far made six conference presentations: five in Iceland and one abroad . A report about the project (Jakobsdóttir, Gautadóttir, & Jóhannesdóttir, 2004) is available on the project web (

Table 2. Number of graduate students and observations/interviews.

Year Number
of graduate students
Number of observations
Number and %
of “valid” [13]observations
2001 15 58 47 (81%)
2002 22 102 79 (77%)
2003 29 117 101 (86%)
All years 66 277 227 (82%)


Results from the study have shed some light on how Icelandic children and adolescents use the Internet at home and school, and revealed, e.g., the sudden interest in and use of MSN [14] and blog in 2003. Results have been presented to later cohorts of students both in the course involved and within the undergraduate department at the Iceland University of Education. Some spin-off projects where graduate students have used similar or the same research methods have also been initiated, for example, on the use of webquests in schools.

The graduate studies participating in the studies outlined above were mostly involved in the latter stages of the research process. However, I have also used online webs to gather and present materials and resources from student groups, working in different courses, that have been useful in teaching and/or research related to ICT in education for myself or others. These include a concept bank ( and banks of annotated bibliographies or reviews and critiques ( and of books, articles or web-based materials.

For Consideration

There are several issues or limitations that need to be considered concerning the research model I have presented. These include the following:

  • Personal protection – research ethics

  • Organization

  • Technical issues and problems

  • The quality of data

  • Information overflow

When involving students in any type of research one has to be very careful about ethics. It has, for example, to be made clear that graduate students are invited but not required to participate. In turn, the graduate students choosing to participate need to treat their students the same. Permissions from authorities and passive or active consent of parents or guardians needs to be obtained. In a distributed research design, where participants are located in many different places, this procedure can become cumbersome and inhibit the research process. In some areas, strict guidelines may apply and approval for doing research may require a long time. On the other hand, going through the correct channels to obtain necessary permits may be an important learning experience for students, provide an important model and facilitate their future research. But the online teacher may need to be very flexible with students regarding time limits for the study and provide a minimum of month or two for this part of it. Also, as in any type of research, ownership of the data and authorship for articles or reports about the study should be clearly defined beforehand. Data that each student gathers should be made available to that person, for his or her own data analysis. And as Fitz-Gibbon (1999) pointed out results may be understood and interpreted better in the context where they were obtained than from the outside, and have a higher potential to be useful to improve educational practice (Fitz-Gibbon & Tymms, 2002; Tymms & Coe, 2003). Finally, another ethical issue is that special care needs to be taken regarding data, which should not be published online without participants’ (and/or parents’/guardians’) knowledge and permission even if it should not be possible to identify individuals from the data involved.

The organization and presentation of the research method and procedure needs to be made very clear and specific. It is easy for on-line students to loose track of directions in a complicated procedure, especially if they have limited prior research experience. As was seen in study 2, there was a considerable number of invalid observations. Some of the DE students gathering the data did not read the directions very carefully; or directions were not sufficiently clear, and therefore not all of the participants that were selected were within the age range chosen by the researcher. The study should preferably be presented and discussed thoroughly prior to the data gathering in an on-campus session and perhaps narrated slides online could help keep students on the right track as well as phone or online chats during the data gathering period.

Another important issue to keep in mind is that technical problems can occur. Web servers could, for example, crash during data gathering time, before data has been saved to a different location. Also, the researcher can make technical errors. In one case when I was gathering references and annotated bibliographies from a group of about 25 students I accidentally left the Frontpage web site used for the data gathering open on my computer at work on Friday. I very happily noticed when I returned to work the following Monday that each student had sent in their four entries by the deadline over the weekend with the total number of new entries then about 100. However, when I closed the Frontpage web site I accidentally saved the Friday version thereby deleting all of the 100 new entries. In that particular case, fortunately, the technical staff at the university had back-up files and were able to help me retrieve what was lost but one cannot count on being that lucky. As an example, I accidentally lost my Internet connection working at home during a time I was accessing an online database with results that were being gathered in an informal survey about online teaching and learning tools resulting in some loss of data.

Yet another issue, is that the quality of data needs to be examined. In some online surveys participants can send in more than one entry. In study one, we found, for example, that about 10% of the entries needed to be deleted because they were duplicates of an earlier entry (some students accidentally? pressed the Send button more than once). Also, graduate students’ research methods may not be as solid as the researcher’s and also uneven across a large group. Differences could very well be seen in study 2 where the descriptions of Internet use varied considerably in style depending on the individuals who gathered the data. Practice in campus-based sessions may be required as well as very specific guidelines and perhaps video presentations of research methods.

Finally, because it is so easy to gather large quantities of data within short periods of time, there is a question of an information overflow. Is one able to analyze and process everything within a reasonable amount of time?

However, when carefully planned there should be several benefits for both teacher educators and their students. For the teacher educators there are many practical benefits which can make their work lighter. The students, on the other hand, can learn through cognitive apprenticeship, a learning model, introduced and advocated, for example, by Brown, Collins, & Duguid (1989) and Collins, Brown, & Holum (1991). Tuomi-Gröhn & Engeström (2003) emphasized the importance of boundary-crossing in the development of expertise (p. 3), with such crossing often requiring cognitive retooling when students enter, often unqualified, into unfamiliar territory (p. 4). Beach ( 2003) introduced the concept of consequential transition when an individual’s sense of social position or identity is shifted, linking the latter with knowledge propagation. In relation to a social theory of learning, Wenger (1998) emphasized the importance of communities of practice for learning, shaping of identities, practice and meaning. The methods associated with cognitive apprenticeship aim to enculturate students to do authentic practices (Brown et al.), and may therefore be especially appropriate when helping a group of graduate students to cross boundaries or make a transition from being students/teachers to being teachers/future researchers within both learning and professional communities.

When I was a student at the University of Minnesota, my fellow graduate students and I were invited to volunteer to help a professor, in a study he was conducting, with data collection in schools in the Twin Cities. We were neither offered authorship nor course credit but were encouraged to take advantage of the offer "to get our feet wet" as researchers. This experience was provided early in the program, during the first semester, and in retrospect was vital for my transition from student to a researcher/social scientist. One main reason was probably that it really helped to make the class of "a researcher" more accessible and understandable. A feeling of "OK - I could well do this myself" developed, replacing a vague feeling that someone doing research was an elderly genius (white, bearded, male) in a lab coat. Later on in the program, I was offered with a student one year ahead of me, to participate in a study conducted by another professor. In that case, we students "took over" the study and became the first two authors of an article written about it. When I look back from my current teacher educator/researcher role, I can see that I have tried to reproduce my former mentors' model with my own students but just changing and adapting the procedure, with new technologies, to the different type of environment (DE vs. campus-based), and culture (Iceland around the milennium vs. Minnesota during the early 90's). Providing such research apprenticeship experiences for online graduate students distributed all over the place may be harder in some ways than providing them for campus-based students. But they should not be deprived of such an experince, and it can and should be done with the new tools and technologies that we have available. The distribution of students can also add value to the whole process and discussions and communications online can also help keep the group together and enhance the experience of a community of practioners.

This article describes a phenomenon that has been very useful and existed in teacher education (both in the regular and DE program) at the Iceland University of Education and in other places, even if it has perhaps not been regarded as a special research model (Bjarnadóttir, 1996; Jóhannsdóttir & Guðmundsdóttir, 2004; McDonald & Kim, 2001). But giving the concept a name may make it more visible and call attention to the potential of this research model to improve education. The model should be particularly relevant for educational institutions with high number of online students and ambitions to combine research and practice, to increase the research activities of both faculty and students, and to enhance educational experiences.


I wish to thank all the graduate students who have participated with me in the “distributed research” studies I describe in this article. I also thank my colleagues Þuríður Jóhannsdóttir, Ingvar Sigurgeirsson, and Allyson Macdonald for the help and inspiration they have given me in relation to this article. I am also indepted to my former advisers and mentors at the University of Minnesota – Simon Hooper and Gregory C. Sales.



  1. This article is based on a paper titled “Distributed Research by and for Teachers and Teacher Educators” presented 12.3.2004 at the NERA conference, Reykjavík, Iceland

  2. In Icelandic “dreifmenntun” and “dreifnám”

  3. In Icelandic “dreifrannsóknir”

  4. Almost all distance education courses at Iceland University of Education are online but with campus-based sessions, see e.g. the Graduate Department Study Guide for 20042005
    p. 276, (Kennaraháskóli Íslands, 2004).

  5. See for example popular textbooks on doing educationl research (Gall, Borg, & Gall, 1996; McMillan, 2000).

  6. Study funded by Iceland University of Education – research and development fund.

  7. The study in 2002 was part of the LearnICT project (see and funded by the Icelandic Research Council.

  8. The course was part of a graduate level diploma program on ICT in education offered for the first time during the fall of 1998 at Iceland University of Education (see

  9. See also recent translation in English of the general section (National Curriculum Guide for Compulsory School, 2004).

  10. About 150 $US or 120 Euros.

  11. Supported by the Icelandic Research Council.

  12. In the same program as described in study 1.

  13. Of Icelandic students; engaged in Internet use; age 619. Interviews are a few more than observations because in three cases, two individuals were observed using a computer together in the same observation but had separate interviews.

  14. Microsoft Windows Messenger which is communication software.


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