This blog entry is a draft for a workshop to help academic staff take a second step in focusing their inquiries. This workshop builds on the work participants would have done in ARQ Workshop #1.
The goal of this workshop is to learn more about identifying research questions that are most worth the effort to answer. (It takes just as much work to answer a trivial question as to answer an important one.)
In ARQ Workshop #1, participants identified a technology used persistently in their courses, a technology that seemed valuable yet in some way problematic. Then they identified an activity -- a pattern of action that was enabled or supported by that technology - that was also of obvious importance and yet somehow problematic.
What additional characteristics make an activity important to study? After we list a few criteria, we ask participants to identify an activity worth studying in their own courses. And, if they like, they can modify or add to this list of criteria. (If you have such improvements, please e-mail me! We'll improve these materials and acknowledge your contribution.)
- Focus on an activity that 's pervasive, important, and capable of being significantly improved through adroit use of technology. For example, it's important for faculty to understand what students are thinking, in order to adjust teaching on the fly and improve learning. Personal response systems (a.k.a. 'clickers', 'classroom voting systems,' 'online surveys') are spreading, and can help instructors get a more precise sense of what all their students are thinking.
- Focus on an activity that can be improved incrementally so that, as you learn more, you can keep improving the activity and its outcomes. That improvement usually comes from learning more and more about how to exploit the activity. For example, over time faculty might learn how to ask more powerful questions using a personal response systems, and how to use the PRS to facilitate Peer Instruction.
- Focus on an activity that is defined enough that you can actually study and improve it without making that research into a career. "Studying how to moderate online discussions" is a broader and more challenging topic than "studying how to get students to pay attention to one another's comments before they post a new comment online."
- Focus on an activity that is also important to other courses that these students take. Your study about how to improve that activity are more likely to be of interest to your colleagues: they could use your methods to improve their own teaching, for example. And, these kinds of incremental improvements in an activity become more accepted and effective when the change occurs 'across the curriculum.' Students learn to expect the changed activity and, as they engage in its repeatedly, they become more skilled. So faculty who teach them later on can try more ambitious improvements.
HINT: List lots of such technology-supported activities - ten or more. Imagine asking your students questions that address your concerns as well as your hopes. Which potential study scares and excites you the most? Is there a potential inquiry that makes you think, "Now that I've thought about this, I can't not learn more about what's really going on here!" (For more on this hint, see this short essay in the Flashlight Evaluation Handbook.)
PS The outcomes of that activity, the activity itself, and the technology are what we call a "triad." 'Triads' are a simple grammar for conceptualizing some important things that go on in a course: technology, activities, and outcomes.