On (Higher) Education Research

It was round about the time that Hack Education Weekly News started to feel like it was repeating itself. It was when conferences  re-occurred, and keynotes were duplicates. How could we move on, how could we build…

Or perhaps it is best to see it in the “disruptive” movement. That one press release. Not the “education is broken” one, the other one. The one with the numbers, and the projections. Where we sneer a little (maybe), and say that it isn’t proper research, and that it is unethical.

Proper ethical research in online education is hard to find, because it is increasingly hard to do. If you are reading this you are probably already painfully away that there is precious little research funding available for education, less for higher education research, and practically none for online higher education research.

A lot of great research is still being done in this area, but not as anyone’s day job. It’s evenings and weekends for those working in academia… and (increasingly) for those who no longer (or never have) worked in an institution.

Working without a grant, or without expectations, can be liberating (though only if you don’t think to hard about your unpaid academic labour). Without the need to report regularly, or to demonstrate impact to a schedule.

Without the need for ethical approval.

Sadly, there are some things in research practice that do need the kind of things only access to university systems provide. Sometimes you need to prove you are part of an institution in order to get a grant, or speak at a conference. Sometimes you want access to an academic library, or to institutional data. Sometimes you do want to make sure your research meets ethical guidelines.

There have always been independent researchers, in many fields. Indeed the early modern era was awash with them. But it was also awash with terrible, unethical research practices. Part of the process of localising most research within an institutional structure was to provide a solid ethical and methodological basis for ongoing research – providing for better research, and kinder research.

Education – in particular – has suffered from a certain dialogue with ethical and methodological parallels drawn by those with a scientific mindset. Is “experimenting” on students and learners ethical? Can it even tell us anything about learning that is generalisable? Serious researchers can answer these sophomoric questions, but there are so few serious researchers left.

And the game is almost up.

Enterprises as diverse as HEFCE and Pearson are designing new forms of what is, effectively, education research. Ignoring the old verities in the simple pursuit of a comparable data point.

The word “crisis” is overused. But in this case it is, I think justified.

So what now?

I see a space for what I’m going to call an “open ethics”. A peer ethical (and methodological, because so many ethical issues in research are just clumsy and unfamiliar methodology) review panel, conducted transparently and openly.

It should be possible to draw on educational research expertise. It may even be possible to pay them, by offering a similar service to the wilder air-quotes “research” of our friends in Silicon Valley and Central London in order to subsidise the independent and semi-detatched academics that are pushing research forward.

No one benefits from the avalanche (haha!) of poor quality and dubiously ethical research in education today. The occasional gems we find just highlight the greyness of the slurry, and it is the latter that dominates the op-ed pages and thinkpieces.

I just wanted to put this idea out there to see what happened next. And to see where (if anywhere) there was support.

13 thoughts on “On (Higher) Education Research”

  1. I can see it working, but I wonder if this is a bit them and us. I’d like to see elearning doing it for its own reasons, not as Loch Ness Monster repellent

    1. Cheers Pat for your comment. The idea of offering the service to industry is both to secure an income stream which would mean I could actually pay people for doing work, and to drive up standards of research more generally.

  2. In the way of the Interwebz I have come across this post indirectly and I am glad that I did. I and Jenny Mackness have been engaged in research around Rhizo14 – a cMOOC on Dave Cormier’s Rhizomatic Learning – for over a year and I think it’s safe to say that we will be glad to get past this . We have a paper published at http://openpraxis.org/index.php/OpenPraxis/article/view/173, a second in review, and a third nearing completion.
    Jenny and I did not seek approval since neither of us are bound by the disciplinary codes of an institution. I served on the Ethical Approval panel of my former university and gave workshops for PhD students on Research Ethics. Jenny has a broad interest in ethics and has blogged extensively on this topic (though she can speak for herself).
    So rather, we engaged in ethics from a personal perspective – but from a rich perspective of knowledge and experience.
    Our data collection and use protocol emerged from our previous experience and our engagement with Rhizo 14 participants see https://francesbell.wordpress.com/research/rhizo14-research/
    As independent researchers, we aren’t bound by the need for institutional approval but are we somehow ‘less ethical’? – I don’t think so . The bureaucratic machinery of ethical approval is just that – machinery. It may serve to standardise and improve ‘ethical research’ based on principles in a university but ethics are located in practices as I think that Jenny and I have shown in our ethical research practice beyond the ken of institution. Others may disagree:)

    1. Fair point. But the charge of “unethical” research is bandied about in Edtech a lot, and it would be good for many (especially those with less experience or at the earlier stages of building a career) to have independent say-so.

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