I just finished teaching a summer graduate course in Qualitative Research. This is a course that I love to teach, as it is, in my opinion, a genuine learning by doing course. It is a course that asks students to really examine the relationship between what they observe and how it fits into their understanding of the world. The first part of the course involves a concentrated amount of reading and discussion about theory, design and philosophical frameworks. But soon these ideas need to be put to use. The only way to really see or understand the relationship between research design and theory is to actually start researching and describing what is witnessed. Students then need to test their choice of research methods by interviewing, observing, developing surveys, and seeing what works. There is both failure and discovery.
What often happens in the middle of this experimenting and application phase is that students begin to ask more questions and feel they have a more precise research direction to follow. This is also a moment I love in the course. It is a time that the class moves from a common thread of discussion to many threads. Each student is beginning to move into their own area of expertise and it seems at times that the collective knowledge of the class is growing in leaps and bonds. It is also a time for a really great research librarian to come into the classroom and work with students individually. The overall content and how to research it can be discussed as a group but the midway point is when expertise and individual feedback is most important.
I like to use a blog to support and hopefully extend the core discussion, which is collective but also helps the individual research agendas of each student. This is also a great place for me, as the professor, to observe how the class as a whole is moving forward in their research projects. With a finite amount of time in the classroom, the blog can increase the amount of time spent on individual projects; understanding what students are working on, how they are able to articulate their research and most important how they are relating it to the theory and research that is already out there. This is not an easy task for either the student or the teacher, as good research is often messy at the beginning stage. Personally, I like to see the class blog fill up with lots of reading and comments and be a bit messy.
The problem is, as always time, the time needed to investigate individual research questions and the time to give structured and specific responses. This is why I like to have a research librarian come at least twice to the course. At the beginning of the course it just helps to reinforce the notion of how much research is required and how one can go about it in a methodical manner. The second time is for more individualized discussions on the different research directions the students are taking.
But this time the research librarian could not come to any of my classes! She was teaching and at the exact same time. Panic. My whole plan was crumbling. The only solution I could see was to have the librarian participate in the course blog and see what individual students were posting about their projects. Within days the librarian (Linda) emailed me that she had created an online research guide for the class based on what she had read. I posted a link to the guide and started to talk to students about using it with their individual projects in class. She also linked the blog to a qualitative research database that in its self accommodated every possible type of research design and theory the students might have.
And then it was the last day of class and we were out of time. I talked to the librarian about possible ways of giving online advice to the students after the course was over. The obvious choice was to continue to use the blog. Students would post and the librarian and I would respond with comments and answers to their posts. The librarian would continue to add elements to the online research guide for the students and hopefully, there would be enough individualization that every student would get solid information concerning the next steps in their research. I think this can be a great process yet it will rely on all of us; the teacher, the students, the blog and the librarian to continue with the work started during the semester. But this is an unknown factor. The energy of a classroom and the face-to-face discussion seemed to feed the energy of the blog, I would love this experiment to continue well beyond the course timeline but I am unsure of how we can keep the energy and interest up. And of course the ultimate question is still unknown, what sort of impact will it have on the students final theses. Yet as Albert Einstein once said, “If we knew what we were doing, we wouldn’t call it research”