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Research and professional track students

The i-Conference was two weeks ago (time seems to be going very quickly now). It was a really good experience, and I feel that I left with a much better understanding of the history of information schools and some of the challenges they (we?) face. Much of the conference was navel gazing through the lenses of other schools’ navels and in some ways this sort of brought me closer to some of the important reflection on education that I loved so much at Olin. There’s one thing, though, that’s bothering me a bit.

If you just happened to randomly walk into the conference and listen to a reasonable sampling of the discussion, you would have no idea that any of these schools have masters or undergraduate students apart from wonderful conference volunteers. One of the few times that these students were mentioned was as a way to accomplish more tedious or technical aspects of research (eg: hire students to program something) that are not of interest to PhD students or faculty. I made this remark in mixed company and got at least one “Amen,” so I’m emboldened to continue the conversation here for a bit.

The conference’s theme this year was “research frontiers in information,” a topic that I will grant is more in the realm of PhD candidates and professors than others. A review of last year’s proceedings, themed “bridging disciplines to confront grand challenges,” does show more discussion of teaching in the papers.

I’ll admit that part of where I’m coning from is my opinion that every masters student and undergrad should have a research experience during their academic career. In my work experiences (which are limited and may, to some degree, be atypical), I’ve encountered some headaches that have resulted from what I’d characterize as a lack of exposure to research methods.

Two examples

In one workplace, I watched a study grind to a halt because employees were not aware of human subjects review processes. The review board’s reaction — once they became involved — had the tone of “you should have known better,” while the employees involved hadn’t known about this at all. As a consequence, some of the employees ended up developing an impression of the review board as a meddling, unnecessary hinderance.

One of the smart things Olin faculty did was to require a mock-IRB process for nearly every project involving users. Practically, this achieved a couple of things: (1) the iRB members caught a few problems with student protocols that could have caused ethical problems and (2) they often suggested ways to revise protocols to get better results. More useful in the long term though, going through this process led us to engage in some very important conversations about ethics and research. At least within some SI masters courses, I have at times been uncomfortable with how casually the informed consent process is taken. A more robust discussion and empahsis on consent and review processes could better prepare students for both professional and academic futures.

In a second example, a project team decided that they would try using ethnographic methods in their work. This is, by and large, a commendable decision. In explaining their plan at a project review, though, the team described it as more or less just watching people and indicated a preference not to refer to sources on how, exactly, one might do ethnography. I opened my mouth to speak, but another colleague versed in ethnographic methods got there first; he was rather upset about the idea that observing people in a haphazard fashion could seem to anyone like ethnography. These feelings had been building for some time, and unfortunately the message came across as closer to “this is my territory, stay out,” than encouragement to engage more with the methods. Many people left the room offended or startled.

This was not the ideal outcome, and I spent some trying to patch things up between everyone (everyone was much more understanding of each other once past the initial frustrations) and even more time thinking about how this could have been gone better. The situtation absolutely would have been helped if my colleague was more open to the idea that ethnographic methods are something that people from many disciplines can learn and use — something I strongly believe. Ultimately, the project team needed to appreciate that there is more to ethnographic methods than the readily visible routine of observing people. Preparing people to engage with methods in this way is a lifelong learning skill that can be developed in school better than many workplaces.

What to do?

Determining if and how to engage students, particularly professional-track students, in research is a challenge across higher education that certainly exists within the i-schools.

One problem that I feel needs to be addressed is the prescriptive nature of the way many courses are taught. In project based learning, discussing the why of a routine associated with a particular method is incredibly important, as is allowing students to innovate and adapt a method to fit their particular project. Some courses at SI very narrowly prescribe a particular way of doing things. Pedagogically, taking a particular implementation of a method and foisting it on students is a dangerous thing.

I respect those who argue that narrow prescription is an effective introduction to a method that can serve as a stepping off point for future innovation and variation, but I disagree. Defining the what of a method without giving students a chance to take ownership of why is, in my experience, more likely to lead to replication of the routine in the future. When eventually given the freedom to use new and different methods — be it in a future course or the workplace — students trained this way tend to respond within the narrow scope in which the method was presented to them. I can think of very few situations when “you must do it this way because that’s how it’s done in industry” is an acceptable, complete answer to student questions, yet this is a recent and real example that stiffles student curiosity and initiative. I believe that this sort of teaching to replicate the methods’ outputs rather than to understand, adapt, and improve on various methdological tools is at least partially responsible for the problem in the second example.

This teaching of why rather than what is a generalizable goal across project based learning and research as a whole, and indeed the distinction is not always clear. This fuzziness is something to be embraced for the opportunities project based learning offers for students to learn about methods and also to do original work that sometimes — with the right amount of encouragement and support to develop the ideas just a bit further — can result in something publishable. Many courses do embrace these opportunities.

More traditional forms of research in higher education offer amazing potential for mentorship of newer students in a way that rarely happens in the classroom. I’m incredibly happy about my experiences with research so far at SI. Some of my peers have had trouble finding the right research experiences, and I have to wonder if we are doing enough. Earlier I stated my belief that a research experience should be required for every student; even if this is unpopular with some students, it may be an eat your vegetables situation. Such experiences are not only important for the methods and knowledge learned but also for giving developing a basis by which students can decide what career opportunities and/or further education they which to pursue.

I raise these concerns not because I think that SI or other i-schools require radical change. Many already structure their curricular and other opportunities in a way that encourages to learn about research and research methods. Within particular courses or curricula, faculty and instructors are making great strides at integrating teaching and research. I hope that within our schools, we define research and researchers broadly enough that we remember to talk about and share the best practices being developed across undergraduate, professional, and PhD programs. Perhaps next year’s i-conference is an opportunity to do just that.

{ 8 } Comments

  1. Noor | October 29, 2006 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

    There is a traditional view in academia (well, at least SI) that master’s students are not interested in research (and some faculty even believe that master’s students aren’t even capable of research). I think the split campus situation at SI further deepens this divide – PhD and master’s students don’t really get a chance to get to know each other.

  2. Brian | October 30, 2006 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    About a year and a half in, I’d have to say that it’s easier to tunnel into super interesting research outside of SI than it is inside SI itself. SI students get more respect outside the department than in; this is one of the indicators that makes me bet the department is living on borrowed time. (Of course, on an academic timescale, it may last quite a while on that borrowed time.)

  3. Andrea | October 30, 2006 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    There’s a fundamental incentive problem in involving MSI students in research as well–from a PI perspective, by the time you identify a sharp cookie, find them a spot on your project, get them trained, and finally get them doing something, they graduate. It is a complete drag on the PI to continually re-recruit and re-train students; it’s a completely inefficient use of time resources in a continually time-crunched environment. I’m not saying that’s a good excuse, but it’s a systemic inhibitor to involving MSI students in research.

    Like Noor, I’ve also heard the (absurd) opinion that MSI students aren’t interested in/capable of research. That’s a circular problem with not having/receiving research training, and I think also partly an outcome of the professional focus of the program. I get the impression that this is an issue everywhere, not just at SI. In any case, I’m going to politely disagree with your opinion that everyone should eat research vegetables, as (let’s be honest) many of students are in for credentialling and those folks don’t need another barrier to becoming professionals; the requirement of an expensive degree is quite enough.

  4. sean | October 30, 2006 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    Andrea, I’ll agree that any research requirement should not be too much of a burden for the folks that are here for credentialling. That said, I do think that many schools could stand to do better at preparing all of our graduates to engage with the research methods they use. Serving everyone research vegetables might not be the right answer, but I think it’s one way to get there.

    The challenge of incentivizing PIs to train masters students to be good researchers only to watch them graduate as soon as they are ready is very real, and I think figuring out how to best do that is a topic worthy of some serious conversation. I think at least part of the answer will extend back to undergraduate preparation for this sort of work.

    I’ve used a somewhat sloppy definition of research (or perhaps no definition at all) here, so I want to clarify that a bit. I think that the universal minimum for SI graduates should be an ability to engage with and question the methods used in their disciplines. This can be achieved outside of more traditional research projects through course projects, so long as students are encouraged to try variations of methods and discuss what did and did not work, and why.

    Beyond that minimum, we should endeavor to help anyone who wants a more traditional research experience to be part of their education find a way. On an individual level, this seems to happen pretty well at SI. Institutionally, though, I don’t think that this is really part of what we value (yet).

    I’ve also noticed the occassional attitude that masters students are unable or unwilling to participate in research, which definitely makes me feel a bit sad. I think there’s a trend in higher education of underestimating students — this was influenced quite a bit by my undergraduate experiences, and I’ll quote Olin President Rick Miller’s testimony before the Spelling Commission on student capabilities:

    Students are more capable than expected. Perhaps the most important conclusion we reached in our experimentation with bright engineering students is that they are far more capable of independent learning in truly challenging situations than we expected. During the “Olin Partner Year” when 30 students worked closely with our founding faculty on educational experiments, we found that students rarely failed to achieve specific results under pressure when challenged to do so in small teams. We also found that they make highly responsible and remarkably mature and insightful colleagues in making important fundamental decisions in many aspects of the educational enterprise. We suspect that students are frequently under-estimated as partners in the educational process in other institutions. Furthermore, when students are better challenged and given real responsibilities, they appear to become much more engaged in their own learning process, learn faster and more deeply, and become more committed to completing the program.

    For example, we asked five students who had recently graduated from high school (but had never taken a college course) to design, build, and demonstrate a pulse oximeter (a medical instrument for measuring the oxygen content and pulse rate of a patient’s blood) within five weeks. They had never heard of the instrument, but were eager to attempt the challenge… Within five weeks they produced a working prototype that calibrated well against a hospital instrument! In the process, they not only learned enough about the device to build and operate one, but they achieved an enormous sense of achievement and genuinely enjoyed the intense experience. None of the students were fooled into believing that they had learned all they need to be electrical engineers, but instead they now have a heightened sense of curiosity and interest about transistors and circuit design that tend to motivate them later in courses in this area.

    As a result of this and many similar experiences, we developed a teambased project-centered educational approach at Olin College that is a little like learning to “swim in the deep end.” Each semester students spend at least 25% of their time in team-based design/build projects in which they are expected to “do” first and then “learn” later. More traditional approaches in engineering have assumed that students need several years of prerequisite course material in physics, math, and circuit design before attempting any such challenging projects.

    The principle of engaging students in learning by discovery is now deeply woven into the fabric of the Olin educational environment…

    …I suspect the principle is generalizable beyond engineering to other disciplines as well. Bright and creative students love a challenge, and appear to be far more capable of success in challenging situations than is typically assumed.

    Miller’s testimony digresses beyond the topic of this discussion– whether or not masters students’ ability to research is underestimated — but I think it’s quite illustrative of what students can do when turned loose on a problem.

  5. Andrea | November 2, 2006 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    There are pretty different user needs between students on a research versus professional track, and these aren’t really addressed in a professional program… I’m starting to believe that the ALA accreditation paradigm is becoming more and more problematic for iSchools that want to be broader than just LIS.

  6. sean | November 4, 2006 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

    These are good points. I wondered if some of the headache could be resolved if Michigan offered a PhD program in which people could get an MSI along the way, but that would probably reduce the exposure professional-track MSIs would have to research to levels even below what it is now. Since I feel current exposure is too low relative to what everyone has, I quickly back away from this idea.

    The accreditation issue is an interesting problem outside of the iSchools too. With my previous institution being new, we were super-worried about ABET acceditation (more so than we should have been). If you imagined the possible space in which you could create a new engineering school’s curriculum, it’d be this big cloud. Adding ABET constraints would draw a smaller circle within that cloud, and then our fears and efforts to be responsible went and put us in a smaller box within that circle within that cloud. I don’t know enough about SI yet to be able to tell if any of that is happening here, but now I’m wondering.

  7. Anonymous | April 2, 2007 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

    One thing you understandably overlook is time. Time on the part of the professors and other research staff. As I’m sure you know, professors are extremely busy. Time, in fact, is generally the scarcest resource for professional researchers. It would be great to get every masters student involved in some part of their research projects. But masters students and undergraduate students, probably because of their inexperience and lack of formal training, usually require a good bit of mentoring and training before they become productive members of research teams.

    It is not that professors don’t want their students involved in research. It generally has more to do with the fact that there are enormous pressures on professors to produce research at a fast pace.

  8. sean | April 2, 2007 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

    I certainly underestimated the time it takes to mentor an undergraduate or masters’ student to produce good research. I’m more aware of this now than in October and I’ll be even more aware of it in a few years.

    That doesn’t give SI and other programs a free pass on tackling the issue, though. My critique is about more than the number of opportunities*, it’s also about the way in which some courses present research methods to users that makes me uncomfortable.

    I applaud the way that CSCW (SI689) exposes SI students to the intersection of research and practice. Masters students complete a semester-long practical project (most often an evaluation of an existing CSCW system), yet the day-to-day discussion in class is tied primarily to published research. Additionally, students are twice asked to critique a paper. I believe that students leave this course understanding that current research often does apply to CSCW product design. They also know that while they may not have substantial research training, they can still pick up papers and ask questions about the findings.

    This does not always happen. There are also courses that sometimes place “research” on an unreachable pedestal for students and suggest that the best that practitioners can achieve is a haphazard, rushed approach, the sort of approach that leads to data too noisy to use in practice. We should expect a level of rigor appropriate for the task, whether it is academic research or product design.

    There are also specific bits and pieces training associated with particular methods that I still feel are lacking. I’ll go back to human subjects training. During 501, SI asks all students to interview people in outside organizations. Students should receive training and have the opportunity to discuss the ethics and risks associated with these activities at least at the level of the basic modules in eresearch.


    *Since the fall, I’ve substantially reevaluated my position on research opportunities for masters students at SI. They exist — both with faculty members and PhD students — in reasonable quantities, and I think it is okay that students have to work a bit to find one. There is always room for improvement, particularly in making existing opportunities visible, but on the balance, SI does alright in this respect.

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