Moving research methods teaching online
As part of UCL's Connected Learning Live events, Dr Anne Preston, brought practitioners together to share some of their challenges and ideas about online teaching of research methods.
25 August 2020
Dr Anne Preston, Principal Teaching Fellow, shares some ideas below about teaching research methods online, discussed at a Connected Learning Live staff development event.
Listen to the Online research methods and fieldwork Connected Learning Live recording. See more upcoming Connected Learning Live events and past recordings.
Research methods can be notoriously hard to teach. Some of the most common challenges lecturers face are related to the fact that students come to their research methods and skills modules with a variety of backgrounds and experience.
Some parts of research processes are also hard to grasp as concepts and processes lack specific links to context (especially in large, generic methods classes), so students themselves feel a bit lost.
Students might also lack interest in research methods and skills, seeing them as a requirement for getting a research report and dissertation mark and something that won’t be used beyond university.
A Connected Learning approach to online research methods and fieldwork
To address some of these issues collaboratively, and look at different ways in which connected learning might offer an opportunity to develop research methods and skills, I ran a session on online research methods and fieldwork. My aim was to bring practitioners in these fields together to share some of their challenges and ideas about teaching research methods and doing fieldwork online.
Draw on online resources and materials for a hands-on and relevant learning experience
The move to online has potential to bring our focus to the breadth of resources and materials available on live research projects.
Certainly, Covid-19 has brought about a surge of data sharing and information about new research projects across disciplines. These can provide students with a birds-eye view of how research questions, methods and processes come about, and potentially bring abstract concepts to life.
This can also promote engagement and interest as students can see the disciplines they are studying playing out in real-time, in terms of contributions to the development of knowledge.
Resources such as the COVID-19 Research Project Tracker by UKCDR & GloPID-R is a live database of funded research projects on COVID-19.
COVID-19 Social Science Research Tracker is an international list tracking new research about COVID 19, including published findings, pre-prints, projects underway, and projects at least at proposal stage.
Drawing on online resources and materials for a hands-on and relevant learning experience can help students see the importance of terminology, concepts, skills and processes which might otherwise remain quite decontextualised.
You could identify and share these resources or ask your students to do a web review of them and identify problems themselves.
Create the conditions for (online) research methods learning
Creating conditions for learning, particularly in the online space is about scene-setting for the rest of your module and more generally for how students engage in learning about research methods.
Asking students to introduce themselves to each other through an online forum or module chat space at the outset is really valuable given the diversity of students. As with all forum activity, engagement can be inconsistent. So, it’s important to give students a list of points to include, e.g.
- prior research experience;
- current research interests;
- what they hope to get out of the course can be helpful.
Similarly, including activities to engage with research methods early on can help engage students. Online activities can involve:
- background reading;
- critiquing a research study;
- designing a data collection strategy;
- considering the ethical issues involved in undertaking research on a particular topic with a particular population.
Although it might be early in the module, students can revisit these processes throughout, so getting them engaged early is paramount.
The Connected Learning Essential course for staff has guidance on setting up and facilitating a number of online teaching approaches which can help you put ideas into actions for creating these conditions
- 1.8 Using icebreakers [2 mins]
- 2.5 Tools to support collaborative learning [10 mins] are particularly helpful.
Check out this case study on Dr Nicole Blum's tips for designing asynchronous activities and moderating online discussions.
Helping students to ‘troubleshoot’
The online space can also provide a venue for students to engage in self-reflection and, in turn, this can help you identify areas where you might want to review concepts and skills.
Once students get to know you and each other a bit more, you could invite them to share their perspectives on part of the research process they find most difficult, using an online forum or other collaborative tools.
Use of virtual pinboards
Virtual pinboards like Padlet can work well for this collaborative troubleshooting. Again, it is worthwhile doing this ‘in context’ of research examples. Opportunities to talk about the processes of research can help demystify research methods and help enable students to become more self-aware of their own skills and areas of development.
Incorporating developmental activities, where students can access continued formative feedback can be very effective to help students view research methods learning as a process rather than a race or bounded set of knowledge to be acquired.
Assessment for Learning ideas on the Connected Learning Essentials staff course has a list of great ideas you could use for this, including creating an online research methods Learning Journal or using different mediums (not just writing!) to express their own learning or questions.
Is there a way in which you can use video media to share with students what you would usually do in a face to face situation? What ‘beyond the slides’ info do you usually end up sharing which you know you might miss out in this new online learning context?
Synchronous sessions (if possible) can be used to identify areas where students need additional support and to signpost students with particular interests to relevant resources. You can use ‘show and tell’ types of activities and get the chance to share your tacit knowledge - something which can be overlooked in a move to online.
Really consider what most suits the pedagogy of research methods
With the move to online, it can get messy trying to translate what would have been face-to face-research methods learning activities into the online space. Add to this timetabling and accessibility considerations and it can feel like an insurmountable task.
Think about would have been face-to-face
One way to approach this is to think about what you would have taught in a face-to-face context (and any online moodle-based homework) on a scale, and then consider whether activities are synchronous or asynchronous. That way, you are engaging with the best pedagogical purpose first and then deciding on the delivery format subsequently.
Sometimes things just might not work well online, or, something is just better taught via a pre-recorded lecture. That’s fine too. The point is you are making an informed decision based on the research learning needs of your students.
- Structure (content and pace);
- Individual or group;
- Face to face or at distance;
- Teacher or student-directed.
To do particular activities or learn about a specific research skill, do your students really need to be in a group? Is there a particular topic that you would have done in a more flexible way that really needs to be synchronous? For example, if your module involves learning an analytic method or software, then consider walking students through the process in an online ‘demo’ video’; you can make the data or whatever it is available, and explain the rationale and theoretical underpinning of the methods being used (you can do this synchronously or asynchronously).
Decide whether you will use video as well as text for asynchronous sessions. Think about different forms of video (e.g. expert talking head, research in action, animation) to bring abstract concepts to life.
New tools and software
With the move to online, instructions are more important then ever in learning to use new tools. When analysing data, provide clear step by step instructions on the software version to use if students are to download it themselves; how to access/download software and associated datasets or libraries; and the commands to use.
'Follow along with' videos (you don’t need to make high spec films) can build students’ confidence and develop their understanding of analytical strategies and how to undertake them using the software.
This can work well with a flipped learning approach. See 5.5 Flipped Learning [5 minutes] on the Connected Learning Essentials course for more information on how to structure this kind of activity.
Open Educational Resources (OERs)
Finally, there are also loads of resources online for teaching and learning research methods, from existing online videos (remember Youtube is not accessible everywhere in the world) to blogs, free tools and lesson plans.
Consider how Open Educational Resources (OER’s) can help you and your students. Begin by checking out all the guidance available on OER’s from the Connected Learning Essentials course
Whatever you take from this list, there will still be some be obstacles ahead. But as someone who teaches research methods, you have probably always faced challenges. Maybe going online will be blessing in disguise?