Close this search box.
October 31, 2014 |

Among the many welcome surprises of being part of Connected Courses has been the emergence of a research community interested in studying and learning from the course. As part of the “why” unit 1 I had considered that we might want to try to capture some of the student outcomes of all the connected courses that are informed by this connected course on connected courses. So I worked with my colleagues in the Connected Learning Research Network to design a student survey that faculty could use as a tool to gauge student engagement and experiences in their connected course. What I hadn’t anticipated was that there might be folks who want to study how the current connected course has unfolded.

Laura Gogia was the first to contact me about this possibility, and soon there was a lively group of researchers on the forum discussing possible research projects. The discussion has ranged widely between broad sharing of theory and insights on research on connected learning writ large, as well as discussion of research on Connected Courses specifically. In order to capture some of the projects that are being incubated on Connected Courses specifically, Laura has set up a Connected Courses Research Working Group site to catalog these research interests and efforts. We also agreed that I’d take a first pass at some general guidelines for research, and ask the community for comment. So here I am.

As the research director of the Digital Media and Learning Hub which is sponsoring Connected Courses, I am enthusiastic about this effort informing research on connected, open, and online learning. And I also feel a sense of responsibility to ensure that any research that does take place conforms not only to the letter of our IRB reviews, but also the values of this community. At its best, research becomes a valuable source of insight and reflection that enriches a community. At worst, it can create a climate of mistrust and concern that participants’ words and actions might be taken out of context for use in presentations, publications, and for the reputation-building of the researcher.

I ran across some of these dynamics in one my first studies of an online community back in the nineties, SeniorNet. A team of us had gotten an NSF grant to study this community, and we were doing it in collaboration with the organization, in order to provide formative feedback. But I remember when we announced that we were conducting the research to the community, some participants voiced concerns that they were going to be treated as “lab rats.” Even when a community is out in the open as SeniorNet was and as Connected Courses is, this does not mean that participants feel that their posts and comments are free game for researchers to appropriate and reframe for research purposes. This was an early lesson in being clear about our own subjectivity and intent as researchers, as well as in how important it is to connect with the community and its values before firming up a research plan.

After some discussion on the forum, the Connected Courses researchers were in agreement that we should draft up some shared research guidelines to vet with the community before research gets under way. We benefited from the prior work of Frances Bell, Mariana Funes, and Jenny Mackness in their research on Rhizo 14. I’ve drawn heavily from the posting on Frances Bell’s blog that describes their research approach. So with all that as background, here’s a version 1.0 of research guidelines for Connected Courses. I’d very much appreciate comments and suggestions. At the end of next week, I’d like to move this over with the appropriate revisions to the Connected Courses main site so that it is documented and out in the open – though I expect it to continue to be a “living” document.

Community Guidelines for Research on Connected Courses

Connected Courses is a collaborative network of faculty in higher education developing online, open courses that embody the principles of connected learning and the values of the open web. Many of our participants are also researchers, and may look to the Connected Courses community as a source of research insight and material. These community guidelines for researchers are meant as a complement to our community guidelines to sketch out an approach to research on Connected Courses that is true to the values of the community above and beyond the technical requirements of institutional and ethics review boards that researchers are accountable to.

Online communication, such as tweets, blog posts, and comments are generally out in the open and technically “public” and available for researchers to analyze and quote. Internet researchers have, however, documented how a particular communication may be technically public but viewed by the individual who posted it as meant for a more limited or private context. Even if an individual feels that they have “published” in public or have consented to be part of research, they might still feel like trust has been violated if their words are taken up and reframed in a way that they feel is out of context or misrepresented.

In the context of an open online setting that advocates for shared purpose and community values, we believe it is incumbent on researchers to uphold community norms and expectations, even if it results in a higher burden of consent than might technically be required by most ethics review boards. In a climate where “big data” and “public online data” is increasingly easy to come by, it becomes even more imperative that researchers resist the temptation to conduct “drive-by” research that is disconnected from the goals and values of the community.

In order to model research that is community and context aware, researchers interested in studying Connected Courses are encouraged to participate actively in the community and share their plans and progress in the forum or as part of the Connected Courses Research Working Group. We expect any researcher conducting research on Connected Courses to make their best effort to disclose the nature of their research to the community through these and other channels. We strongly advocate for research that not only advances theory and knowledge, but also enriches the community being researched.

In addition, we put forward the following community guidelines for research, modeled on an earlier study of the open course, Rhizo 14.

Public posts, comments, and artifacts shared on sites, apps and platforms such as Twitter, G+, blogs, Facebook, and Zeega

Researchers can analyze and publish data that is de-identified or aggregated in ways that can not be traced back to an individual.

Any identifiable quotes or descriptions of activities should not be used in a research publication or presentation without the permission of the individual. This includes anonymized or pseudonymized quotes, because they can be linked back through a search engine to an individual public posting.

Interviews and Surveys

Participants in Connected Courses may also be contacted and recruited to participate in surveys and interviews for specific research studies. In these cases, it will be incumbent upon the researcher to offer a clear explanation of the consent and privacy procedures, how the data will be used, and what benefit the research will provide to the individual and the Connected Course community. We strongly urge any researcher who is interested in surveying or contacting individuals for interviews to coordinate their efforts with the course facilitators and researchers in the community in order to align research goals with community needs, and to minimize the burdens on course participants to respond to research requests.

Update: November 1, 2014

Based on Maha’s suggestion, I have put up a public gdoc of the guidelines for edits and comment