Research Tools

Free Templates Help Clear Obstacles to Educational Research

stack of forms

Two universities have shared free tools to help reduce the obstacles involved in conducting ethical educational research. Carnegie Mellon University and Duke University have both created templates that others can use when they want to study students as part of research work involving teaching practices.

The schools published their sample text as Microsoft Word documents under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licenses on the Empirical Educator Project. EEP was begun about a year ago through the e-Literate website, run by education market consultants Michael Feldstein and Phil Hill, "to promote broader adoption of evidence-based teaching practices and foster a culture of empirical education across higher education," as an About page explained.

The specific contributions made by Duke and Carnegie Mellon address the barriers posed when faculty want to study activities involving students. Frequently, this part of the effort dampens their enthusiasm for undertaking research for a couple of reasons. First, educators are expected to have the design of their proposed experiments approved by their schools' institutional review boards (IRBs). And when students are part of the research target, they're expected to give their informed consent. Both pose "bureaucratic burdens" those instructors may not want to undertake, as an article on the EEP website explained. Likewise, education technology companies can also find those IRB processes daunting and impractical. "As a result, far less educational research gets conducted in ways that are both reviewed for ethical practices and shared as credible research that contributes to the state of the art in learning science," the article noted.

The two templates address different aspects of these obstacles. The Carnegie Mellon template is expected to accommodate about approximately 80 percent of the classroom research use cases faculty at the university would propose. According to Marsha Lovett, director of the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation, the hope is that the protocol text will be a "helpful resource" in promoting experimentation in learning. "Data collected in the classroom and in online learning environments has the power to reveal a rich view of the learning process and drive a transformation in how higher education works," she said in a statement. "A key to achieving this is making it easy enough — with the appropriate tools and resources — for faculty to routinely engage in research within their own courses. Such research — conducted at scale, across institutions — can then generate data-driven improvements in the way faculty teach and students learn."

The Duke template includes language and a process approved by its IRB for requesting and tracking informed consent from students. "Duke is delighted to be part of the Empirical Educator Project and to contribute to the community effort to advance evidence-based practices in teaching and learning," added Matthew Rascoff, Duke's associate vice provost for Learning Innovation unit. "Education innovation should be open source because advances have the potential to benefit all learners — they are positive sum. That is why we are freely sharing our streamlined approach to applied learning science research with the EEP community."

Feldstein and Hill are now seeking institutions to adopt and adapt the templates for their own educational and research contexts, with the goal of figuring how the tools might be used by different kinds of schools.

"If we are really committed to improving the quality of education systemically, then we have to create social infrastructure that lowers the barriers for ethical educational research to flourish," said Feldstein, who serves as director of EEP. "That's how medicine made such miraculous strides as a field in the past century. We need to do the same for education if we want to achieve equally dramatic improvements in the next century. The combined contributions from these two great universities represent an important step in that direction."

The templates and additional information are available on the e-Literate website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at dian@dischaffhauser.com or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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