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?

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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.

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.

I believe everything I hear

I heard this on the CBC so it must be true…

An intrepid commuter decided to combine thrift and exercise, and started cycling to work along the highway.

“Big whoop,” I thought as I listened, “people commute by bicycle all the time here, and on the highway too.” But it turns out that this cycle trip was in Ontario, and on the 401 from Ajax to Mississauga.

Peter Oldring, the host, went on the morning cycle trip – complete with honking cars, 3-lane merges, hitching onto the back of trucks, and being pulled over for a ticket. The commuter pocketed the slip of paper without batting an eyelid (I assume… this was radio). He’s received about 75 so far.

Why does he do it? Because he can! He’s in great shape, and is breaking new trails.

This is ThatMore awesome stuff from This Is That includes the Pay Per Use Parks program, Canadian kids who practice mixed martial arts, and why a protest group from Saltspring Island wants the Calgary Stampede to change its name.