I’ve recently started working on a new project – this one is at Loughborough University. It’s been a while getting involved; unlike my other projects this one is actually salaried – I’m an employee! – so the contract inevitably takes longer to set up than with other clients. Also September and October were very very busy with other previous commitments, mainly with the Open University and CSIR Meraka, which meant I could really only get into it once I was back from leave I booked way back before we even got the funding allocated. Still … the 4th November finally came round and at last I could get down to working on it properly, rather than odd bits here and there squeezed between other things.
What’s great, for a start, is that I’d already worked at one of the collaborating partners already and with the other the project is with Coventry University and Ryerson University. It’s also a follow-up to a project that the PI and I had already completed, and written up, and reflected on. That was the Creating a Better Built Environment project. So often you start on something and need to spend a while getting a handle on everything. This time I already know most of the issues and how to evaluate. The danger is though that there’s a tendency to think “business as usual” – every new project, even a second iteration of a running project, throws up new things.
The first thing to get underway was the evaluation of the learning so far – although it’s an 18 month project, that really only contains one academic year, so there’s only one shot at everything. By the time I came on board the students were almost at the end of their first semester, so I wanted to get into getting feedback on their experiences straight away.
It’s always a dilemma what to go for with getting student experiences. Obviously you survey them, that generates lots of numerical data, which always gives you something to analyse, and is the only stuff some people look at, so getting all those numbers makes everyone on the project feel secure. Immediately though we hit an impasse – 5 point or 4 point Lykert scales for responses? I’m firmly on the 5 point side of the argument, but others on the team were on the 4 pt side. I’m not at all convinced by the argument on the other side (in fact, if I’m asked to fill in a 4 pt scale I either draw a fifth point in the middle and tick that, or refuse to fill it in). However, luckily on the team we’ve got a few lateral thinkers one of whom suggested we do both, then analyse the differences. So, not only a compromise, but also another spin off research question which we can publish on. Win-win.
The dilemma with getting the qualitative feedback is interviews or focus groups. On the last project we interviewed the teams separately. and got quite different responses from each team. The ability to do comparative analyses between the different groups proved really useful. However, lots and lots of interviews is not only time consuming to conduct (and we’re trying to limit the impact on the students) but also is a real pain to transcribe (and that’s my job). However, the project plan calls for focus groups (if in doubt always check back with the project plan – really obvious thing to do but frequently forgotten). But I’m hoping to do one or two interviews too. So far I’ve done two, one at Coventry f2f and one at Ryerson via GoToMeeting. Both went well, the Coventry lot needed a bit of prompting at first but soon got very talkative, the Ryerson lot needed no prompting, but audio problems meant I couldn’t always hear what they said – in fact my voice coming over their speakers was all I could hear at times. However I got a great range of data – the best you could hope for really in that some of what they said confirmed what we got last time, some of it was new stuff, and between the groups there was some stuff they shared and some that was different. Of the new stuff what the CU students said was that the chance to do virtual teamworking felt more like the real thing because they were working with external people. That’s not something I’d thought of before. We think of the issues and skills of virtual teamworking as the issues with being at a distance, or cultural (or timezone) differences, or institutional differences, but the outward facing aspects of the project was also something they found a challenge (not in the sense of it being difficult, but in the sense of it being something they had to address and found to be a valuable experience). What was also reassuring was that my answer to my last question (“how do you feel about being part of a research project”) was a very positive one for both groups. We so often hear that in the age of the “student as customer” (grrr) that students want to be cosseted and spoonfed – and won’t take on any risks because they want value for money. Both the British and Canadian students were even bewildered that this should be an issue. In Coventry I got puzzled looks and the answer “well we volunteered for it” and in Ryerson it was a jubilant “we’re pioneers”. Reassuring that educational research is not meeting any flak from the student end. Perhaps we can start being a bit less hesitant about doing it.