Teaching social research methods online: interview with Debbie Collins

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Eva Nedbalova

Debbie Collins is not only the director of NatCen Learning, she is also working on her doctoral thesis with NCRM (supervised by Melanie Nind, Sarah Lewthwaite and John Woollard). The topic of her thesis is highly relevant in these strange lockdown times. Debbie is looking at the teaching of social research methods online. We asked Debbie about her research.

What did you do to try to understand teaching of research methods online?

My research design involved two cases studies: a quantitative short course, taught asynchronously; and an introduction to research methods module that formed part of a substantive Masters’ course. This had a blended option involving face to face and online elements, and an entirely online version involving both synchronous and asynchronous elements. Data collection involved semi-structured interviews with teachers involving document stimulated recall, conversations with learners, observation and course documents. I also spoke with seven online research methods teachers from the UK, North American and Australasia.

What are your main findings?

Teaching and learning social research methods online presents many challenges. Some of these are concerned with the subject e.g. its complexity and difficulty, and some with the online environment e.g. how to generate interactivity to support deeper learning. Adapting teaching of research methods to the learners taking the course is a particular challenge for those teaching in asynchronous, online learning environments.

Online social research methods pedagogy is still in its infancy and there is little pedagogic culture. Learning how to teach research methods online typically involved trial and error, with varying levels of institutional eLearning support.

Teachers adapted the strategies, tactics and tasks used in their face-to-face research methods teaching to the online environment. This involved adapting: content and how it was organised and presented to learners; the ways in which content was taught, such as the use of data, examples and activities; the assessment of learning; and the organisation of teaching time and teaching tasks. With experience, online methods teachers were able to transform their research methods teaching, for example by reframing what interactivity might look like online.

Educational technologists and digital learning specialists play an important role in helping methods teachers adapt and transform their teaching to the online learning environment.

What did you find are the main challenges of teaching methods online?

Teachers face a variety of challenges such as learner diversity, in terms of disciplinary and cultural backgrounds and whether studying full time or part time, presented teachers with challenges about where to start, what prior knowledge to assume, the pace and level at which to pitch the course.

How to organise of content, making it more suitable for online instruction and manage students’ cognitive load.

Teaching with and through data, seen as a distinctive feature of social research methods pedagogy. Specific challenges related to whether and how students could generate their own data safely, the accessibility of suitable datasets that would not overwhelm students and how to make available and support use of software tools at a distance.

Methods teachers’ often had little experience of using eLearning platforms and tools.  This was compounded by lack of (access to) institutional digital learning support services. A particular challenge was how to generate (greater) interactivity, particularly in asynchronous spaces such as online forums, to support deeper learning through intensive reflection and discussion.

Adapting to differences in the way preparation and teaching time needs to be organised for online teaching, and in managing the expectations of students, faculty / other stakeholders.

Are there any advantages of teaching and learning research methods online?

Yes, for example learners can have greater control over the pace at which they travel through the course. The affordances of eLearning technologies allow learners to repeat, review and reiterate elements of the course as required e.g. replaying a video explanation, re-reading instructions, creating their own links and connections between topics.

The functionality and affordances of eLearning platforms and tools can also be used by teachers to support deeper methods learning, e.g. use of collaborative tools such as Wikis where learners can work together to create research tools or generate research findings.

The online learning environment also affords teachers and learners time to consider questions and responses to them. Teachers can feel they can take the time to find useful references and/or resources for students.

How could your findings help methods teachers?

I wrote two NCRM Quick Start Guides based on the findings from this research. They provide guidance and share examples of practice, with the aim of provoking discussion and developing pedagogic culture. One is called Teaching social research methods online and the other Teaching social research methods asynchronously online - guiding principles

Findings from this research are also being used by NCRM as it develops new online research methods courses.

Train the trainer sessions are being developed by NCRM and will draw on this research and the earlier Pedagogy of Methodological Learning project, providing guidance on teaching research methods online.

Thank you Debbie for sharing your doctoral work with us. Good luck with finishing your thesis!