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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.

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