Where have we hidden all the dead rats?


Image from: getdoggin.blogspot.com

Last week I was at an e-learning seminar which focused on how well used research on e-learning was by people who were teaching. [Surveys suggest ‘not much’].  One speaker suggested that e-learning research would be valued more if it used a methodology more closely related to a ‘lab testing’ model using control groups and placebos, but the context usually makes this [seem] impossible. The outcomes of e-learning research tend to be rather vague: most fall into the categories of ‘slight improvement’, or ‘no significant improvement’ observed in learning. So, he asked: what would make research on learning more useful to those using it to inform their teaching.  One response was that research publications should have clearer and more applied messages about what works, and how to make it work. My response was that there should be more information about what didn’t work. To carry on with the lab testing analogy: I want to know about the dead rats and what killed them I want to know what had an impact and I want to know when that impact had unintended or negative effects. If that information is hidden from me I can’t have confidence in the reports on positive effects.

This led to an discussion about why e-learning practitioners,  researchers and policy makers were hiding their e-learning ‘dead rats’, and what the scale of this might be.  One reason put forward was that e-learning research papers are often written by practitioners and ‘experts’, and these papers serve as public advertisements for their expertise. No one wants to advertise their mistakes because of the likely negative impact on their career prospects.  Institutions don’t want to publicise their mistakes when it involves student satisfaction and questions where they invested their resources.

Is e-learning particularly worse in this than any other area of applied research?  I don’t know. The over-reporting of positive results and the hiding of negative ones is one of the main arguments in Ben Goldacre’s work focusing on range of scientific practices. But I do know that we in e-learning should stop hiding our dead rats if we want to appear scientific in the best sense of the word.

About Gill Kirkup

I have worked most of my life as an academic engaged in a combination of teaching, research and scholarship. A strong theme over the years has been a critical engagement with the gendering of technologies and the technologies of gender and identity. This blog is a place where I can reflect on all of these - sometimes in a scholarly way -but not always.
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