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9 January 2012
Daniel Richardson, senior lecturer in the Department of Cognitive Perception and Brain Sciences, tells Ele Cooper about his plans to conduct two experiments in one go – and why “manipulating” students in London, Japan and France is all part of the plan...
What gave you the idea for this project?
Before Obama became president, I was reading an article in the Guardian about whether his race would play a part in the result. I then saw a thumbnail image of Gary Younge, the author of the piece, and saw that he was black, which I hadn’t known. As soon as I saw that I felt my perceptions of what I’d just read shift slightly. I wondered why on earth that had happened – Younge’s argument was very coherent, very clear, so why should that knowledge shift it?
This relationship between a text and its author became even more interesting to me when I saw the reader comments, where people were getting into viciously heated arguments and the only information available about them was the silly name or logo they were using. Scrolling through, I began playing a game where I’d try and interpret what they’d said in light of their picture or nickname, and it suddenly occurred to me how often we operate based on stereotypes.
It used to be that when you wrote to someone, you knew them personally in some way because you knew their address. You had a connection; perhaps you’d even met them before. But now, so much communication can happen with so little context, and it’s this contextless communication that became very interesting to me.
What was the next step?
I talked to David Green, a colleague who is very interested in UCL’s skew on global citizenship and how we think about things in a global context. It seemed to us that this is potentially an interesting and very big problem with the notion of globalisation: you can communicate with colleagues in China and Brazil immediately, but what do you know about them apart from a vague stereotype of Chinese or Brazilian people if you’ve never actually met them?
The opportunities are so easy to communicate now, particularly online, but that means that preconceptions play a stronger role than ever before – but this hasn’t been examined. So one element of the project is looking at the role of our knowledge about other people and how that informs our interactions with them.
You say that’s one element of what you’re planning to explore – what else will you be focusing on?
I want to think about how we teach research here. Often, when our undergraduates do their third-year dissertation, their professor might say, “I’ve been investigating this model for 20 years, so why don’t you investigate that but with your own little spin?”
That’s nothing like the actual research that I do as a researcher. It generally begins at a conference bar or through an email with a friend when we’ll come up with a half-formed idea and we won’t have any idea what we’re doing. We’ll plunge through the literature, we’ll revise, we’ll completely change the focus, or do one experiment that won’t work but then something strange will happen and we’ll investigate that instead. It’s a collaborative, shoddy, directionless sort of exploration, completely different from the very clean, straightforward way that we teach research.
It seemed very strange that there was such a disconnection between teaching research and actually doing it. So we thought, what sort of experience can we give students that would give them this hands-on notion of how we actually conduct research? It’s a hugely important question: where do we get our ideas for hypotheses if they’re not given to us by other people?
At this point, a friend showed me the work of a guy called JJ Aucouturier. He was a computer science professor at Temple University in Tokyo who did a project where he took 30 students from Temple and said, “There’s 30 of you, we’ve got three months, and at the end of these three months we’re going to submit 30 articles to journals.”
This was ridiculous – no individual faculty publishes 30 articles in three months, these kids had never even written a lab report before, they had no idea what they were doing!
JJ is an acoustical engineer who has a box that can change the emotional tone of your voice, and he told the class they had to conduct 30 experiments using the box. The work had to be done entirely collaboratively, online and using wikis where everyone can contribute and you can see how these edits are happening. The idea was that any problems they came up against, which an individual would spend a whole day banging their head against a wall trying to solve, would be solved by 30 people working together.
Temple has a policy much like UCL’s where a flag will go up if you plagiarise more than 30% of an essay. These students were collaborating rather than plagiarising so they deliberately shared exactly 30% of their essays, going right up against that limit.
They also threw the work open to the community, so everyone from academics at UCL to random strangers commented on the blog, all chipping in ideas, sometimes bad, sometimes incredibly good. The whole thing just stumbled forward and they did it: they ran experiments, solved all these problems and got several projects near completion – then the earthquake hit Japan, they couldn’t go back to university for three months and the whole thing fell apart.
However, it was a qualified success and very interesting from a pedagogical standpoint. We’re still operating under the model of science publishing whereby one lone genius presents his ideas to the Royal Society and it’s ‘Professor Someone’s Theory of Something’. That’s not really how we do modern science, there can be up to 20 people involved in one project and this idea of a solitary genius toiling away in his lab is old-fashioned – it’s just not how it works.
So we smashed these two ideas together and in September 2012 we’re hoping to replicate JJ’s class but this time using a certain number of students at UCL, the same number again in Tokyo, then the same again in France, where JJ has moved to. And all these students together, perhaps 100 of them, will collaborate on an online project over the course of three months. So we’re replicating the research aspect of JJ’s original project, but then we have our sneaky psychologists’ hats on and we’re manipulating people as well. It could well be a complete disaster, or something fantastic could come of it.
In what way will you be manipulating people?
Part of a successful collaboration is being able to tell someone “that’s a bad idea”, and it’s a very difficult thing to do. If we’re working together online but I don’t know much about you, am I politer because I don’t want to offend you or do I not care about your feelings because there’s not really a ‘person’ attached there?
We’re going to set each group up differently in terms of their IDs and the level of information that’s available about them – so one of the groups could just be assigned arbitrary numbers, another group will get to pick code names, and the third group will have a real photograph of themselves and a link to their Facebook profile or whatever – and we’ll see if this affects their interactions.
We’re going to try and collect data about how these interactions go as we go along, then at the end we’ll tell the students what was really going on and ask them to reflect upon the experience they had and why they presented positive or negative comments in the way that they did. So it’ll be an experiential study as well as an empirical one, not to mention potentially being a way to generate 100 research papers.
Part of your study is being funded by the Vice-Provost (Education)’s office. What will that money go towards?
JJ now lives in France but he still has lots of colleagues in Tokyo so I’m going there to find someone who has the right sort of attitude to try and do this unusual thing. What we need is a personal commitment from someone to stick with this even when it goes disastrously wrong because they think it’s a fun project!
It’ll be the most ‘foreign’ place I’ve ever been to, which is exciting because as someone who’s studied cultural differences I feel I really ought to get out of Europe! And since the whole thing is about the context of collaborations I thought it would be fantastic to go and actually meet the people that I’ll be working with in Japan, rather than them just being an email address.
Do you have any predictions for how the project will pan out?
I’m pretty sure we won’t get 100 people submitting papers. However, I’m sure that of the papers that are submitted, some will get published. It won’t be breakthrough science because there’s just no opportunity to do that – it takes a really long time to come up with ideas and theories; I’m still struggling to do it in my own research! But taking an idea from one area of psychology and then transporting it to another area of psychology is still good science because lots of people go off in different directions but not much work is done connecting findings across fields.
There will be genuine collaboration in some groups, and that will be fantastic. Some groups will just descend into argument and it’ll fall apart at the end, and that’s fine too because this whole thing is an experiment. Besides, the experience of having a large collaboration break down completely is probably more valuable than having it work seamlessly – and if we’re serious about educating people in how to collaborate despite distance and cultural differences then that’s a very useful thing.
So there will be massive failures at some points but I think they will be instructive failures and I would hope it would boost the students’ employability as well as their understanding of what it means to be a global citizen.
Dr Richardson was eligible for the funding that enabled him to go to Tokyo because he is a Provost Teaching Award winner.
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