Consenting Adults – Getting unstuck with ethical research

red tape - from www.flickr.com/photos/opensourcewayToday marks a breakthrough in my research – the funny thing is, it hasn’t even really begun, yet! Right now I am in the planning stages of a project that will get underway AFTER I finish my MA, I hope. Such is the life of a grad student in a course-based program. But I digress – let’s get back to the breakthrough.

For those of you who haven’t entered the nearly-medieval apprenticeship model of graduate studies, much of what we do is subject to intense scrutiny, and for good reason. Over the years, many researchers have created studies with unethical procedures and intents. There was the Berkeley prison experiment in the late 1960s, the notorious Dr. Mengele performing horrific experiments on concentration camp prisoners in Nazi Germany; and closer to home, it has just come to light that aboriginal children were malnourished in the name of science. I don’t want to join that group, even by accident. Fortunately, Canadian researchers have a strict set of guidelines that have been in place since ___ which prevent abuses like this from happening.

So what does this have to do with my research? Everything, because a great deal of the hard work of research happens in the planning. My plan is to work with teachers and parents in communicating directly with each other through Facebook Groups, instead of by the indirect method of sending notices home through students. As a mother of three teenage boys, I know how fallible that method can be, even when the kids aren’t trying to keep parents and teachers from meeting! But even research as simple as that is full of potential ethical potholes.

First, there’s the issue of involving children in research. Yikes! As masters’ students, we were warned not to even try that, lest our research get hung up in the bureaucracy of working with “vulnerable populations”. Fortunately, the students aren’t participating in this study. It’s between parents and teachers, and the communications they send to each other. Phew – one hurdle jumped.

Next: Facebook. This is where I started lying awake at night, saying “Ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod, my research is crap!” How come? Well, it’s my duty as a researcher to keep my participants as free from risk as possible. Facebook, being a private US-based company, is a venue out of my control. They keep their servers outside of Canada (apparently, northern Norway has a bunch of them), and the electronic data stored there is subject to the USA Patriot Act. That means that the FBI can ask to see any data it wants to if it feels there’s a risk to US citizens’ security. Oh man. Talk about potential confidentiality breaches!

Next: Group discussions. How on earth was I going to honour confidentiality if the parents and teachers were all talking together on Facebook, most likely with their own names and faces on their profile pictures? How could I guarantee that a parent wouldn’t talk about their Facebook Group while waiting in the parking lot for young Jesse to finish with band practice? This was getting complicated. Not only that, but don’t they say that the Internet is forever? How was I going to be able to I felt like walking away from the whole thing, because it was just too difficult. But damn it, this proposal is mandatory. I can’t finish my degree without it, even if I don’t actually carry out the research.

It’s not as bad as I feared, though. In reading about planning ethical research, I learned that working transparently, and with full consent from adults, saves my bacon. So long as disclose all the risks, lay out every contingency and receive informed consent from individuals who are capable of giving it (i.e. my adult research group), I have their leave to go ahead. I also have the responsibility to tell my participants what will happen with the raw data I collect, and the added responsibility of keeping their identities anonymous to people outside the group – unless I have express permission from participants to use pictures or other identifying information.

Along the way, I am responsible for checking in with my participants and making sure they are happy to continue with the study. They are allowed to leave the project at any time, for any reason. If they choose to leave, I must get rid of as much of their data as I can (not possible in the case of group discussions, but again, full disclosure and sign-off on that in advance means that they agree to their part in conversations staying behind). When the study is all done, they need to know that I will keep their information as secure as possible, and get rid of the raw data after an agreed-to amount of time.

The key to conducting ethical research is keeping your participants fully informed, and allowing them to make the decision about whether or not to proceed. There, that wasn’t so bad, was it? And no, my research isn’t crap. I’m excited enough about it that I may go ahead and run the project, even if I don’t need to do it for my MA credentials. After all, wouldn’t you like to know when those parent/teacher conferences are, and that the dog didn’t eat your kid’s homework assignment?

Recording a lecture doesn’t equal a flipped classroom

Does a lecture move us up the arrow any?  Didn't think so.

Does a lecture move us up the arrow any? Didn’t think so.

According to researchers’s very preliminary work at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, CA, “Flipped Classrooms” may not make any difference to students’ learning outcomes. This article has my knickers in a twist.

I don’t know what makes me more angry

a) that the researchers are right at the beginning of their grant and either they or the media who have picked up their *preliminary* work are prejudging the outcome, or

b) that someone has the bright idea that learners have to sit through a lecture at all, whether it is before or during scheduled class time.

Maybe educators should try something different than lecturing.  How about getting the students to dig around for the information, both inside and outside of class.  How about making them active participants in their own learning?  An educator’s best asset is his or her repository of knowledge, which includes knowing where to find things, how to make connections, and who else is doing excellent research in the field.

In my ideal “flipped classroom”, the educator would develop a “treasure hunt” of sorts for great information about the topic at hand.  Then the learners would come into the classroom ready to discuss, analyze, synthesize, apply and all those other higher orders of learning that Bloom talks about.  Why on earth would anyone assume that learners would do well with an hour of talking head on a learning management system when there is the whole Internet at their disposal?

I guess the corollary of this “preliminary” research is that a flipped classroom does not necessarily equal great pedagogy.

Thinking – that everyone else is smarter than you?

This morning, I had a small crisis of confidence – the type that happens to anyone who has taken a course and decided (even for a moment) that everyone else is smarter than they are.  It’s easy to have when your paper comes back, and you see that you’ve missed a key point or two, and another is due in two weeks; meanwhile, over on the discussion forums, you’re supposed to say something intelligent about your assigned reading.

So there I was, on the couch in my dressing gown, with the house a mess, Mythbusters in the TV background, and Caffarella’s Planning Programs for Adult Learners by my side.  I was pretty sure that in our team discussion, I just summarized and threw in some of my own experience, without getting into any analysis.  Damn.  “What’s there to analyze in Caffarella, anyway,” I thought.  “I don’t know what I’m doing here. I’m as shallow as a puddle.”

During our two-week residency, the faculty and staff at Royal Roads told us repeatedly, “the support of your cohort will get you through this program.”  Time, then, to hop onto Facebook, which has become the student lounge of our cohort, since we are spread over 3000 km and three time zones in this distance program.  Here is what happened next:

What is analysis?

Sometimes making things super-easy is the best way to kick-start your thinking.  I’m feeling better now.

Using Pinterest to think visually… and academically!

Square Peg in a Round Hole

It has taken a little improvisation…and whittling!


What do you do with a largely visual medium when you have a textual task to complete? In our case, using and evaluating Pinterest, you see where you can get a word in, edgewise or otherwise.

For the last ten days, I have been working with a small group of fellow Master’s students on evaluating both a digital technology – and the evaluation model itself! Our professor, Jo Axe, asked us to conduct our research and our discussions using the technology we were evaluating, and to revise the evaluation model to meet the needs of 21st-century teaching and learning. The model is called SECTIONS, an acronym for Students, Ease of Use, Cost, Teaching and learning, Interactivity, Organizational issues, Novelty, and Speed. Jo also provided us with a guide to evaluation created at the University of British Columbia, which gave us questions to help frame our research. So far, so good; we just needed to pick a technology and get to work.

We didn’t make it easy when we chose Pinterest as our tool. As a visual bookmarking site, it is ideally suited for images: charts, diagrams, infographics, and of course pictures and videos. One member of our group balked at the whole procedure. If we couldn’t write an academic essay using Pinterest, he said, we were setting ourselves up for failure. The rest of us carried on, figuring that even if the process failed, we would learn from it.

Personally, I’ve found the experiment to be amazing. I already had a Pinterest account, signing up for it in February, just as the online world was starting to take notice of it. But I had only used it for about six weeks when the novelty wore off for me, and I got busy with applying for grad school, and starting my studies. This project meant that I dusted off my account, and would begin to use Pinterest in a different way than before, not only repinning things that I liked, but searching for appropriate academic articles with images, adding my own pins, using boards collaboratively, and adding extensive descriptions and comments. For me, the project was pushing the functionality of Pinterest to its limit, a prospect I found very exciting.

I now know that my previous experience was a bit of an advantage. I already knew how to create a board and how to add a cover picture, as well has how to repin, like and comment on images from users that I followed. These were tasks that my colleagues had to learn from scratch. Pinterest is quite easy to learn, with relatively few functions compared to social media behemoths like Facebook, but there are still a number of considerations that challenged us, especially as we used it in an academic context. How would we manage attribution? Would there be enough space in the text fields for us to complete our thoughts with the appropriate amount of back-up? How do we make an image for an academic link, so we can pin it? Was all of this adding more work to our research?

In fact, we did have to shave off some of the edges to make Pinterest fit with our task. I found myself carrying thoughts over more than one comment. One colleague pinned her synthesis using her blog. Another, already adept with images, edited an image of RefWorks and showed how it has social media sharing – but not Pinterest – built in. Some of the workarounds felt like turning right three times to turn left, and some were simply slippages as we climbed the learning curve. Ultimately, as we gather to discuss our work this evening, I think we’ll have some suggestions for the wider academic community – and for Pinterest – as we learn to turn a picture into a thousand words.

A thought from Donna Sparkes

fake restaurant sign

It’s easy to make your own fake Chinese restaurant sign


“With the speed in which new technologies are created, ease of use is essential and yet a struggle. What is easy to one user may not be easy to another. Modern-day learners will need a technological fluency far beyond learners of the past century. Where in the past there were rollouts and training sessions on new technology, the expectation now is that learners will be up and running with minimal training, able to find their own way. “

Linking the spiritual with the intellectual quest

In her post, “An epistemological mid-life crisis“, my master’s degree colleague, Donna Sparkes, expressed a feeling that probably anyone with both a brain and a sense of wonder grapples with at least once in their life: the spiritual crisis.  Here it is, in her words:

Over the past few years I have been going through a major personal challenge in my spiritual life as I’ve been questioning what it is I truly believe. I know I am not the first person to experience this, but I’m not concerned about the commonality of this experience; I’m just concerned about me. I have many questions, many doubts, more questions and more doubts, and I feel stuck. The thing with a question is that it opens the door to not knowing. Actually, not know is exactly where a question starts, and that leaves me feeling torn. I am homesick for the truth I once knew as I look for the truth I seek.

I especially like that last sentence – “I am homesick for the truth I once knew”. Certainty feels so great – so safe, comfortable, simple, and I left it behind, too. I spent my teens and early twenties as an evangelical Christian, and thought seriously about becoming a minister. Then I took an amazing course on “The Bible as Literature”, where we applied critical thinking to everything I held dear. At the same time, I started reading liberal biblical scholars, hung out with people who weren’t afraid to ask difficult questions, or to hear me ask them, and spent many hours in reflection.  Prayer, even.  It didn’t happen overnight, but 1987 was a watershed year for me where I gave myself permission to keep asking the questions.  One sunny summer afternoon, it came to me that “If God can’t handle me kicking at the tires of my faith like this, then it probably isn’t much of a faith, and my version of God is probably wrong.”

Thus started a search for spiritual bedrock that continues to this day. I don’t know anything spiritual for sure except that I still have my sense of wonder.  Despite all evidence to the contrary, I can’t shake the belief that maybe god is the energy that holds all things together, that love probably IS the answer (to what question?) and that purpose is a good thing to have.  

I believe these squishy, feel-good principles strongly enough that I want to explore how widely-dispersed religious communities use online media to communicate, learn from each other, and move forward in a spiritual community. Somehow, I plan to build a research topic around this, despite my own questions about the fundamentals of faith. If the spiritual quest is important to enough people (like me) that they continue to meet in person to get to the next level of their faith (whatever that may be), then what are they doing online?  Can a spiritual community transcend physical boundaries and find either truth or joy?  

This topic needs refining, and as the Quakers say when presented with a new idea, “it needs seasoning”… which usually means pulling it apart and putting it back together word by word, until everyone is satisfied or it falls apart. I’d appreciate the help of anyone who has gone on a spiritual quest which has involved looking at spiritual communities online for the answers.

Day 6 of Sick

If you haven’t been ill lately, you probably have forgotten what it feels like. I say that only because I had certainly forgotten. Mostly, my immune system is iron-clad, and if a germ manages to get through my outer defences, I’ve got a crack team of white blood cells that usually show the bugs the door in a day or two. But this week I have struggled with ongoing fever, headaches, nasty wet cough, fatigue, and nothing is touching it. Yuck. And yes, I’ll be seeing my doctor in a couple of hours.

I mention this lousy business here, because I wonder how illness might affect my studies. I’m very glad to be enrolled in a program where most of the instruction is through distance education, and I’m not expected to show up in class at a particular time. I managed to hand in an assignment on time, even though I was too sick to leave the house. The assignment took me longer than I had thought, in part because I am finding my thinking a bit foggy, but I got through it.

The hard part will come if this drags on much longer. Already, I have missed three days of work, and it’s difficult to make appointments with people as I continue my job search. It’s tough to watch life carry on when I can’t keep up, but for now, at least my studies haven’t been affected much, yet.

Ugh, this sucks

Pouting childLet’s be perfectly clear here.  I have drawn the line under my work as of my last post, and this one does not count for any self-evaluation except the one that I am doing right now, as I type.  And frankly, I would have titled the post “I suck”, except that I am trying to be a bit kind to myself.

I want to and need to get my blog self-evaluation asssignment done and handed in two days early, so I can head off to Portland (Portlandia!!) with a clear conscience and one less thing on my plate. Now it is 8:34 pm. I have an outline, and I have some notes.  I *don’t* have printer ink, which is hindering me, and think that I may need to hop in the car and drive to campus if I intend to get much done tonight.

Do I stay and soldier on through at home, keeping my 12-year-old silent company and letting the empty coke cans from last weekend attract the fruit-flies?  Or do I ship out for a more intense and studious atmosphere?

What really sucks is that I have 23 more months of self-discipline ahead.  I am NOT on a boat.  I am taking two classes that I borrowed lots of money for.

For what it’s worth, just writing my little hissy fit down seems to have stiffened my resolve. I think after this self-pep talk, I’ll be ok tonight.

Through the research lens

One more post before I draw a line under my work and prepare my self-assessment assignment.  I feel that this record of reflection would not be complete without blogging about how our two weeks of learning about research have now coloured how I look at all manner of new information, particularly the news.

In the Victoria News from Friday (August 3, 2012) I read about a U.Vic researcher who is looking for participants in her study on the effects of moderate exercise in the cognitive functioning of seniors.  As I read through the article, I was looking at her methodology, a topic that would have made my eyes glaze over just three weeks ago.  Sample size? 100 participants.  Selection criteria? The research is selecting her participants according to screening criteria, e.g. they can’t already be active for 150 minutes per week.  What kind of research? Mixed method, featuring quantitative testing and interviews.  Researcher bias? She has an interesting background in neuroscience and kinesiology.  Is that going to colour her interpretation of the results?  We’ll see.

And that’s just one article!  How will I cope with Dr. Art Hister on the Global Morning News, with his daily look at the latest health research?  I’m sure I’ll be running to the internet to look up the journal, or emailing Dr. Art myself to say, “What are your sources?”

I’m even planning to read one of my favourite books with my research cap on.  That would be Now you see it: The brain science of attention and how it will transform the way we live, work and learn, by Cathy N. Davidson (2011).  As the chair of English and interdisciplinary studies at Duke University, she *should* have some very solid research behind her claims.  I haven’t examined them with my research hat on yet, but it’s on my to-do list for the month of August.

Yes, this program has changed me already.  I hope Paul and my kids get used to seeing me with my nose in a book or in my laptop… Reference: Davidson, C.N. Now you see it: The brain science of attention and how it will transform the way we live, work and learn. (2011) New York, NY: Penguin.

A bit of applied research in our final days on campus

Which way should we go?It was Charmaine’s idea to get Bill and Lisa a gift. Very thoughtfully, she emailed the whole cohort for ideas… not realizing that Bill and Lisa were on the cohort list (sneaky of them!).  We had not even really decided on a present when Charmaine got a note back from Bill saying that he “couldn’t accept gifts from students”.  Was this the truth, or just a handy bit of “truthiness” created as a deflection?

About the same time, as we were discussing at my table what we might choose as a thank-you gift, John Dallas raised a similar point. “Do you think it might look like we are trying to buy their favour?  Maybe it’s a conflict of interest.”  Smart guy – that had never occurred to me.

What could we do?  Should we take Bill at his word and forgo any thank-you gift?  Should we go with our intuition (most of us are Ns, after all) and get something nice?  I decided to research the matter. I put together a quick question for an expert in the field of ethical process in post-secondary institutions, Colleen Hoppins.  I guess this would be a Delphi study of very limited scope and narrow focus.

My question was, “Our cohort would like to present Bill and Lisa with a gift tonight to show our appreciation.  Are they allowed to accept? Should we specify that it should in no way affect our marks? ;-) ” (Novak, C., personal communication, August 2, 2012)

She answered very quickly.  The feedback I received from my question was as follows:

Thanks, Catherine! :)

Yes, quite right, small gifts of appreciation when transparently given from the group as a token of appreciate [sic] are fine.

It was a pleasure to meet with the class and I so appreciated all the great questions and energy.

Best wishes.

Cheerio,
Colleen (Hoppins, C., personal communication, August 2, 2012)

I had the answer within 30 minutes, proving that it needn’t take long to design a question, nor does the research period need to be lengthy or the cost expensive.  It’s not Master’s level in scope, but my conscience was clear as I went to Purdy’s for two boxes of assorted chocolates.

I hope you enjoyed them, Bill and Lisa!