Online Research Skills Modules…

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I wrote this post yesterday (Tuesday), then had the good sense to ask my co-blogger Catherine to have a read through.  She discovered a plethora of spelling mistakes (par for the course with me, sadly), but also offered her own, contrasting perspective on some of the issues discussed here.  You may remember from previous posts that Catherine and I are both doctoral researchers: she in the discipline of English (an Art), and I in the discipline of Psychology (a Science – an assertion that may be debated elsewhere, but is not the topic of this post).  In any case, I’ve highlighted Catherine’s comments and contributions in blue, and it makes for a nice dialogue, in my humble opinion.

Laptop and HeadphonesLearning: how do you get yours?

Learning about Researching is part and parcel of the doctoral process:  you start out knowing a bit about your research topic, and a bit about research methods and skills.  And you end up with a doctorate, that is the culmination of three or more years of work, and stands for the progress you have made in both these areas, although often the research expertise is underestimated in favour of the thesis content (the topic).

[CP] If it’s helpful, I can give you my perspective as a Literature researcher: in this discipline, the thesis is often seen as an apprentice piece to demonstrate one’s skill as a researcher, e.g. ability to use archival material, verify biographical facts, synthesise a broad range of information, track down obscure references, etc.  Gradually (so as to be almost imperceptible), there’s a need to also demonstrate ability to utilise the collaborative possibilities offered by web 2.0 technologies.  In some ways, the subject is subordinate to the actual research process.  We can pick anything, so long as it fulfils the claim to originality criterion, and might never touch it again once the thesis is submitted.

In the last 18 months of delivering professional development opportunities, I have noticed that attitudes to “research skills” vary widely with the doctoral researchers I have come into contact with.  Some have a concrete grasp on the concept of “skills” – they keep records of what they are learning and which workshops they attend.  Some are quick to spot a gap in their knowledge or experience, and track down a way to gain what they need to improve on, or learn from scratch, the necessary ability.  Others yet, are fully clued up on fulfilling their development needs as a researcher, but don’t formalise it by keeping records or lists – they just realise they need to know how to do ‘X’, and go get that information from wherever/whoever they can find it.  Sometimes less formal approach to learning is more effective (specific to the current needs of the researcher and time-frugal.  For example, by acquiring a 20-minute informal tutorial to writing the syntax for a specific analysis in return for a cup of coffee and a couple of biscuits.

[CP] I’ve noticed a certain amount of resistance to the idea that PhD students need to learn skills – there’s an assumption that they’re already Very Clever People and don’t need to be taught anything else.  However, I’ve also noticed that those who see themselves as professional researchers, rather than ‘just’ experts in a particular subject, seem to do much better.  Particularly at the moment with academic posts being scarce, those with a strong portfolio of transferable skills can adapt more easily and find related work.

Personally, I favoured the book/internet approach to finding out what I needed for my doctorate; and the self-teaching aspect worked well for me.  That doesn’t mean I didn’t also do well (and better, in some instances) when I got some face-to-face hints and tips from our PostDoc and my supervisor, only that I preferred to get my information from the written (and often illustrated) word.

Of course we know that researchers vary in learning styles, and learning styles vary within researchers, so it’s a bonus to have a choice about how to acquire knowledge and skills, and a privilege to be able to select a method that fits with the subject matter, time available, context and the day’s preference.  Which brings me to the DR2 (Doctoral Researcher Development Resources) E-Learning modules on Study Direct…

booksE-learning: isn’t that for Undergraduates?

Ummm, why only undergraduates?  Did we stop learning at graduation? (I hope not / I doubt it)  OK, so “E-learning” isn’t the most attractive or descriptive phrase, but all it means is learning from electronic resources.  Resources can be geared up for any level of study, and e-learning modules have several advantages (skip this bit if you’ve heard it before):

  • Go at your own speed – flick past the bits you know, pause to work on the bits you don’t know so well.
  • Linking to next steps – take a journey from the module that directs you to more detailed information, further resources, concrete examples, alternative approaches, or experts in the topic area.
  • Put in the time you want to – you can return to the module at any time you like, no need to sit through the whole thing in one go. Recap and revise earlier parts at your leisure.
  • Multiple media formats – a film, a text, an interview snippet, images and interactivity: these methods play to strengths in most learning styles  and intelligences.  Prevents boredom induced by turgid chunks of text, and makes content far more memorable (isn’t that what learning is about?)
  • Relevant and specific to you – ditch the bits that you don’t require, and focus on the sections that are pertinent to you at your current stage of research.  Or those parts that will soon be pertinent, if you’re planning in advance, which isn’t a bad idea at all.
  • Facilitating consolidation – select sections of different modules that have something in common.  E.g. If you’re writing a methods section, you might want to check out a module on Ethics, one on Methodologies in your discipline, and one on the Literature Review.  Not all sections of all modules will be relevant, but by carefully taking what you need from each, you can consolidate your learning and find it easier to create meaning in your research skills, in a holistic way (rather than just ticking boxes against a list of “things I ought to learn”).  And if you follow it up with putting what you’ve learning into practice by (e.g. continuing with the current example) writing up an ethics proposal, your learning is then practice-based and now becomes a personal experience.

taking notesE-learning for Researchers: so what does the Doctoral School provide?

We have fully licensed all 14 modules of the Research Skills Online set for researchers, produced by Epigeum (a spin-out company from Imperial College London), in conjunction with Durham University.  As it happens, Epigeum and Durham won a ‘Gold’ Learning impact Award for the collaboration on these resources, which is a happy coincidence – we bought the licenses for these modules last year) 🙂

The modules cover pretty much every aspect of research skills that you will acquire during, or shortly after your doctorate.  Many of them approach the topics from a disciplinary perspective, which is helpful – especially where the cracks between disciplines can easily expand into chasms on some matters.

These are the titles in the series, and further details of what to expect from each module can be found on the DR2 website:

An Introduction to Research Skills (10 minute film)
Research Methods in Literature Review (study time: 1h 50m)
Research Methods in the Arts and Humanities (study time: 2h 20m)
Research Methods in the Sciences (study time: 2h 50m)
Research Methods in the Social Sciences (study time: 2h 50m)
Intellectual Property in the Research Context (study time: 1h 35m)
Getting Published in the Arts (study time: 1h 50m)
Getting Published in the Sciences (study time: 1h 40m)
Ethics 1: Good Research Practice (study time: 1h 35m)
Ethics 2: Working with Human Subjects (study time: 2h 20m)
Project Management in the Research Context (study time: 1h 55m)
Career Planning in the Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences (study time: 1h 35m)
Career Planning in the Sciences (study time: 1h 35m)
Managing your relationship with your Research Supervisor or Principal Investigator (study time: 1h 45m)
Selecting a Conference, Presenting & Networking (study time: 1h 25m)

All the modules are open to all researchers at Sussex, and you can access them through the DR2 E-Learning site on Study Direct, for which you’ll need your ITS username and password.  Have a go, and let us know what you think.

[CP] In terms of the DR2 modules, I found them very useful, and so did my partner (also researching for a doctorate).  It was a hundred times better than anything I got at B**********! (Name of university obscured to protect the innocent) The literature review and journal article modules were particularly good.

We’ve had these modules in place for just over a year now, and will be shortly evaluating them – if you’ve had a go at one or more of these modules, we’d be very grateful for your feedback.  You can leave feedback on each module on the DR2 E-Learning site, or email dr2@sussex.ac.uk with your comments.

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