Social research methods and open educational resources: a literature review (C-SAP collections project)


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A literature review written by Kate Orton-Johnson and Ian Fairweather as part of the C-SAP (Higher Education Academy's Centre for Sociology, Anthropology and Politics) project "Discovering Collections of Social Science Open Educational Resources".

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Social research methods and open educational resources: a literature review (C-SAP collections project)

  1. 1. Social Research Methods and Open Educational Resources – Literature Review Kate Orton-Johnson, University of EdinburghIan Fairweather, University of ManchesterThis literature review was written as part of the C-SAP (Higher Education Academys Centrefor Sociology, Anthropology and Politics) project "Discovering Collections of Social ScienceOpen Educational Resources". The project ran from August 2010 - August 2011 as part ofPhase 2 of the HEFCE-funded Open Educational Resources (OER) programme. Theprogramme focused in particular on issues related to the discovery and use of OER byacademics and was managed jointly by the Higher Education Academy [HEA] and JointInformation Systems Committee [JISC].Introduction Research methods training has an ambiguous place in the social sciences. A recent surveyfor the ESRC’s National Centre for Research Methods concluded that there is a high level ofdemand for both qualitative and quantitative training (Mosely & Wiles 2011). Researchstudents expect to get high quality training and are often disappointed with the training theyreceive (see for example Frazer 2003). Employers look for researchers who have a broadskill set and those seeking to pursue a research career increasingly need to demonstratetheir familiarity with a range of methods, both quantitative and qualitative. There iswidespread agreement that undergraduates need to have a good understanding of researchmethods in their discipline and that they benefit from the opportunity to do some form ofresearch, both in terms of their understanding and of their employability (See for exampleEdwards & Thatcher 2004, Winn 1995). There is an increasing emphasis on trainingstudents to conduct research, and many degree programmes now contain a researchmethodology component (See for example Wagner 2011). Research councils are investingin and promoting methods excellence in research methods through the launch of the UKconcordat on the career development of researchers and by establishing the organisationVitae to enhance professional development for researchers (Mosely & Wiles 2001; 8). Allthis has encouraged researchers to reflect upon their training needs, but at the same time,students often complain research methods courses are irrelevant and uninteresting, tooabstract and dry and not sensitive to their needs, or that they are delivered by lecturers whoThis content is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution‐NonCommercial‐ShareAlike 2.0 UK: England & Wales‐nc‐sa/2.0/uk/    1 
  2. 2. have no real expertise or interest in the topic. Staff are often ambivalent too, perceivingthese courses as difficult to teach and to engage students with.Nevertheless, there are real gaps in the provision of research methods training and there isa need to provide high quality training that meets students’ needs at the time when theyperceive it to be relevant. One solution may be online resources, particularly openeducational resources which can be incorporated into existing courses or used by studentsdirectly. However there are problems with accessibility and with ensuring the quality of theseresources. This project seeks to address this by developing a way to make high quality openeducational resources for research methods discoverable to both staff and students. Theturn to online provision and the use of OERs assumes that students are able and willing tomake effective use of the internet. This assumption is often justified on the grounds thattoday’s students are ‘digital natives’ who have grown up with the internet and are fully literatein its use and so the first section of this literature review will explore the evidence for thisidea.Digital natives and digital literacies? Literature surrounding academic and student use of online learning resources points to theneed to understand engagement with and use of these kinds of resources in the broadercontexts of existing disciplinary and academic identities, expectations and learning practices.What emerges from the literature is an inconsistent and contested picture of how studentsuse and understand their use of digital resources (Condie and Livingston, 2007). Indeed, theJISC e-learning and pedagogy scoping study of undergraduate blended learning suggestedthat there is a paucity of research which has concerned itself specifically with the studentexperience (Sharpe and Benfield, 2005). This has important implications for studentengagement with online resources - learning to learn with technology can undermine studentunderstandings of academic work, challenging a self imposed adherence to reading lists andcourse materials, highlighting concerns with identifying ‘proper’ academic information onlineand shifting student perceptions of what is expected of them in the production of academicknowledge.Engaging with online resources impacts on existing social and cultural learning practices andthe contexts in which technology use is embedded must be understood (Orton-Johnson,This content is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution‐NonCommercial‐ShareAlike 2.0 UK: England & Wales‐nc‐sa/2.0/uk/    2 
  3. 3. 2009). Understanding these social and cultural contexts is potentially problematic in the lightof deterministic narratives that assume that students, as users of technology, are in someway inherently digitally ’native’ (Prensky, 2001) or naturally predisposed to use and, moreimportantly, benefit from their use of digital resources.A digital native is defined as someone able to access and confidently use a range of newtechnologies and as someone for whom using the Internet is a first port of call for informationand learning. This notion of a ‘native’ generation is often used to explain, rationalize andpromote the use of new technologies in education with claims made about a generation thathave been immersed in a networked world of digital technology who use and make sense ofin different ways and who have different expectations about learning (Bullen et al 2011). In acritique of the native metaphor Helsper and Eynon (2010) (along with a growing body ofliterature) point to the need to understand digital literacies along a continuum that connectsto learning and learning practices in different ways, rather than associating changinglearning patterns, competencies or expectations with a particular demographic orgenerational effect. This may help us understand how users search for, evaluate andengage with OERs in different learning and research contexts rather than assuming anatural digital literacy where provision of resources will result in meaningful use.While students may engage with technologies to the extent that they have become anormalised part of daily life it is problematic to assume that personal or social use translatesinto knowing how to use online resources for academic work. Issues of trust and credibilityremain important as students make strategic decisions about their academic priorities andfocus (Orton-Johnson, 2009). As Helsper and Eynon (2010:504) argue breadth of use,experience, self-efficacy and education are just as, if not more, important than age inexplaining how people become ‘digital natives’ and the distinction between the digital ‘native’and the digital ‘immigrant’ provides only an over simplistic binary in understanding use ofresources, overstating a desire for more technologically-focused approaches to teaching andlearning at university (Baym and Ross 2007).Bullen at al suggest (2011) that the student ‘tool kit’ of technologies is surprisingly limitedbeyond general communication or program-specific online spaces and resources. There isevidence to suggest that the search and reading approach of the ‘net generation’ lackscoherent selection criteria and quality evaluation skills (Comba 2011) and we cannot assumeThis content is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution‐NonCommercial‐ShareAlike 2.0 UK: England & Wales‐nc‐sa/2.0/uk/    3 
  4. 4. that all students are competent and confident in dealing with and critically assessinginformation (Livingston 2008), possibly pointing to a need for information gateways orportals. However, there is also evidence to suggest that while ‘generation Y’ doctoralstudents in particular are increasingly engaging with open web technologies in theirresearch, reading (rather than contributing to) wikis, blogs and internet forums they haveworking patterns and preferences which may challenge the rationale of open resources.Students prefer tailor-made advice and guidance, are unwilling to share their researchprematurely and look to libraries and peers rather than academic supervisors and teachersto assist in navigating a broad and growing range of multi-media materials and resources(Carpenter et al 2010). Again context is key in understanding different patterns ofconsumption and engagement with the emphasis being on provision of resources that arerelevant to students learning contexts and course content (Bullen et al 2011). This poseschallenges for generic resources provision and conversely for closing off cyberspace andusing VLE or QERs as ‘walled gardens’ (Baym and Ross 2007) that suggest particular kindsof understandings of safety and risk, ownership and belonging in online spaces.Literature focusing on the development of online learning resources also points to a lack ofknowledge about potential users and how they find, access, and use digital learningresources. Recker et al (2004:94) go further in arguing that we lack an understanding of theuse and eventual effectiveness of educational digital learning repositories and resources ininstructional settings. Their research into academics search and use strategies suggests thatin order for learning objects and repositories to live up to their potential ‘usefulness theymust be age/level-appropriate, current and accurate. Resources must be flexible enough toallow for flexible and broad online searches, as well as specific searches, often by age-leveland topic (Recker et al 2004:102). For teacher engagement peer recommendation wasvalued as were pedagogically focused rather than generic resources. Raising questionsabout granularity Recker et al also highlight a preference for resources that need little or nomodification and that can be easily and usefully employed in existing teaching.Disciplinary differences are also seem to play an important role in the use and understandingof online resources with a contextual influence on teaching and learning (Jones et al 2004): “the socio-cultural form of each subject or discipline has a history and a pattern of engagement with academic resources in teaching and learning. These ways of using resources carry over into the digital world. Issues arising beyond technology and theThis content is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution‐NonCommercial‐ShareAlike 2.0 UK: England & Wales‐nc‐sa/2.0/uk/    4 
  5. 5. university also affect the use of digital resources and this is particularly apparent in the influence of copyright legislation.”This again suggests that context and the social cultural life of higher education plays animportant role in staff and student understandings of the purpose and position of onlinelearning resources in the academy.It is this context and social cultural life which also impacts upon the way research methodsare taught and how this teaching is received by students. A number of pedagogicalchallenges have been identified by teachers of research methods, often revolving aroundstudent engagement. Given the wide range of quantitative and qualitative research methodsused in the social sciences, how can students be given a broad grounding in these methodswhich they nevertheless perceive as relevant to their own disciplines and research projects?If high quality open educational resources for research methods were easily discoverablecould they be used by students to meet their own training needs or could they be adapted bystaff to support their teaching. In order to address this question the remainder of thisliterature review will be devoted to an examination of the pedagogical challenges associatedwith teaching research methods across the social sciences and how open educationalresources might be employed to address them.Pedagogical challenges of teaching research methods to students from different backgrounds/disciplines Social research is increasingly being evaluated by Government agencies and researchcouncils in terms of its supposed contribution to the economy in whatever sense that can bemeasured and this has lead inevitably to critiques of the value of social research and a focuson empirical, experimental and often quantitative evidence as the only justifiable outcome ofpublicly funded research. Not surprisingly, these changes have raised a number of dilemmasand concerns about the role of universities in the training of researchers, what constitutesgood quality research training and the relevance of postgraduate research training coursesto students needs. This has focused attention on the provision of research methods trainingfor postgraduates particularly through the Researcher Development Framework and theESRC doctoral training centres but also raised a fair amount of suspicion among academiccommunities about how the demands of research funders are related to public policyagendas or even commercial interests, and whether the imposition of formal trainingThis content is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution‐NonCommercial‐ShareAlike 2.0 UK: England & Wales‐nc‐sa/2.0/uk/    5 
  6. 6. programmes and emphasis on competency in research methods compromise some of thetraditional elements of the PhD.John Hockey has documented the ongoing debate in the social sciences about the inclusionof formal research training into the PhD and the adherence of the ESRC to the trainingbased PhD. (Hockey 1991). He also identified important disciplinary distinctions between themore quantitative disciplines including economics and business studies where the movetowards a training based model was generally well received and the more qualitativedisciplines such as sociology where the model of the PhD as apprenticeship continued to bepopular. For many supervisors in these disciplines ‘perceptions of training courses were thatthey were essentially concerned with the transmission of methodological techniques, acontent which some perceived as too narrow’ (Hockey 1991: 201). Many were alsoconcerned that the time spent on formal research training represented a significant loss oftime for research. Even though Hockey’s research was carried out twenty years ago, theseconcerns are still regularly expressed by staff and students in the more qualitative socialsciences. Nevertheless, the NCRM report of 2011 identified high levels of demand forqualitative and quantitative training, but the level at which this was needed varied: ‘thedemand for quantitative methods training is mostly at introductory level, while the demandfor training in qualitative methods is mostly at the intermediate or advanced level (Moselyand Wiles 2011: 4). Furthermore, early career researchers tended to look for qualitativemethods training whereas more researchers wanted training in advanced quantitativemethods (Mosely and Wiles 2011: 8). The survey also identified a pressing need forquantitative training but not at the expense of qualitative training.As far back as the Dearing Report (NCIHE, 1997) there was discussion of new approachesto teaching suggesting that the student experience could be enhanced through the use ofresource-based learning. This discussion was connected to the idea that as studentnumbers increase, the cost per student should fall to keep the total cost within publicspending constraints (Dearing, 1997: Appendix 2). As Holley and Oliver point out, however,‘the economic model of unit costs takes pedagogy away from the expert tutor, the subjectspecialist, and places it firmly in the hands of management’ (Holley and Oliver 2009: 4). Thisshift towards the commodification of education has contributed to a tendency to fragmentteaching into discrete blocks or modules that can be delivered in more flexible ways lendingthemselves particularly to online delivery. This modularization is presented as student-This content is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution‐NonCommercial‐ShareAlike 2.0 UK: England & Wales‐nc‐sa/2.0/uk/    6 
  7. 7. centred, but Sharpe and Benfield have argued that when e-learning adapts new or unusualpedagogies learners report an intensely emotional experience and a major concern with timeand time management‟ (Sharpe and Benfield, 2004:7) Nevertheless, ‘with pedagogic choicebecoming a matter of strategy rather than tactics, the choice of teaching techniquesbecomes a matter of serving functional agendas of efficiency’ (Holley and Oliver 2009: 5).Allthis has had important implications for the pedagogy of research methods that have createdboth opportunities and challenges. Most significantly research methods, particularly atundergraduate level have come to be seen as more or less generic sets of skills andtechniques that can be delivered to large groups of students outside of their disciplinarycontext.The Social sciences are typically imagined by those who teach and study them to be a freeform of social and political enquiry (Mills 1959) but the current financial and ideologicalcontexts in which social sciences are taught raise serious concerns about the ‘ever-growingsubjugation of scholarly and teaching practices to external, utterly alien commercial andmanagerial interests’ (Frade 2009: 10). Generic research methods provision offered outsideof departments is often associated with this ‘commercializing’ or ‘instrumentalizing of socialscience research’, particularly when compulsory. Methods courses are sometimes perceivedas threatening to reduce social science to a ‘set of bureaucratic techniques which inhibitsocial inquiry by “methodological” pretensions’ (Mills 1959: 20) and this impression isexacerbated if these courses impose a conceptual division between method and theory thatpertains in the natural sciences but disguises the fuzzy relationship between these notionsthat characterizes actual practice in the social sciences. In this way, the isolation of methodsfrom disciplinary teaching and students’ own departments can lead to mistrust of ‘methodsteaching’ and a retreat into disciplinary language and habitus.The NCRM survey of 2011 identified that ‘the most common reason given for undertakingresearch methods training was to meet the needs arising from a current or planned researchproject’ (Mosely & Wiles 2011:4) As Maria Birbili has argued, students motivation - or lackof it - to participate in research training is a key issue and ‘being aware of the different waysin which social science research students ‘want and need to access research training’(Birbili 2006: 4 ) can help institutions to provide a better student experience. In hercomprehensive review of literature on educational research training Birbili identifies thatresearch on the views of students about research training, in the social sciences and otherThis content is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution‐NonCommercial‐ShareAlike 2.0 UK: England & Wales‐nc‐sa/2.0/uk/    7 
  8. 8. disciplines, indicates that some students are resistant to idea of compulsory researchtraining and tend to judge research methods training by its ‘relevance and usefulness to theirown practical work’ (Birbili 2006: 4) often becoming ‘resentful if they perceive that there is amismatch between the two’ (Birbili 2006: 4) In many cases students may come to seeresearch methods training as a distraction from their main purpose of completing their thesis.Mosely and Wiles found that respondents to their survey did appear to be ‘motivated to trainmore by short-term needs than more longer-term wants’ (Mosely & Wiles 2011: 54) 60%expressed a desire for training relevant to specific research projects and only 5% suggestedthat they were motivated by a desire to open up new opportunities for research in the future.However, Mosely and Wiles contrast short term needs with longer term wants and argue that‘the wide range and large number of training topics selected by respondents as training‘needs’ suggests they had more long term and wide-ranging ‘wants’ in mind (Mosely & Wiles20011:54). This apparent ambiguity may be rooted in social scientists perceptions of howthey learn to do social scientific research.50 years ago Mills described social science as ‘a craft’ (Mills 1959: 195) as opposed to atechnique or a methodology (Frade 2009:11). He identified three conditions for the pursuit ofsocial science as a free form of enquiry; a vocation, a ‘sociological imagination’ and a politicsfor the social sciences ‘opposed to the handing over of the disciplines and theaccommodation of their practitioners to the powers that be’ (Frade:15). The educational taskof the social scientist, as Mills saw it, is not only the passing on of skills and techniques, butthe transmission of these pre-requisites to the next generation of social scientists. Thesevalues of craftsmanship and disciplinary identity seem at odds with the bureaucraticprinciples of efficiency, economy and measurability which often motivate the pedagogy ofmethods teaching, particularly the separation of methods from theory and the delivery ofmethods teaching in large generic cross-disciplinary courses. So much so that for studentswho have developed a strong disciplinary identity accepting that one can be taught methodsindependently from theory, or from a specific research project seems like accepting adebased form of social science.The use of open educational resources has considerable potential to address this problemby making generic methods resources freely available to researchers and teachers as andwhen they need it in a form that can be tailored to a particular research project orThis content is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution‐NonCommercial‐ShareAlike 2.0 UK: England & Wales‐nc‐sa/2.0/uk/    8 
  9. 9. incorporated into a more theoretical course. The challenge is to offer research methodsresources in such a way that consulting them is not considered what Walter Benjamin wouldhave called a ‘mechanical Duty’ which’ does not flow from the work itself’. (Benjamin 1915:78-9) The achievement of such provision, however, risks falling prey to the bureaucratizationof academic practice itself, as Frade puts it: Naturally, when meeting managerial targets is the master motive driving vocational practices, any language which deviates from counting, efficiency, quality’ and the like is bound to be dismissed out of hand as anachronistic or out of place (Frade 2009: 10)Nevertheless, without ways to contextualize open educational resources for researchmethods in their disciplines and in their own research students are unlikely to engage withthem or find them useful.The existing literature on research methods provision in the social sciences suggests thatkey areas of concern are students reaction to research training; the content and andstructure of methods courses; and pedagogical issues such as the extent to which face-to-face teaching can be substituted by technology-mediated learning and how to incorporatepractical experience in research training (Biribili 2006: 1). The Researcher DevelopmentFramework indicates a number of skills and competencies that research students areexpected to acquire including the basic principles of research design and strategy,awareness of a range of methods and tools, as general research skills such as, bibliographicand computing skills, Students are expected to develop and practice competencies such as,communication skills, research management and team-working skills. As a number ofcommentators have pointed out, however, research involves more than selectingappropriate methods and carrying them out or executing a set of prescribed steps (Birbili2006, Amulya, 1998; Walker, 1999). Although researchers need to develop anunderstanding of the methodological tools available within their disciplinary tradition,research training must ‘prepare students to think about research as a dynamic process [and]appreciate the many factors (e.g. personal, ethical, theoretical, political, technical, social etc)that shape it’ (Birbili 2006; 3)This content is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution‐NonCommercial‐ShareAlike 2.0 UK: England & Wales‐nc‐sa/2.0/uk/    9 
  10. 10. The literature suggests that the success of research training also depends upon studentsperceptions of what constitutes research and their assumptions about the nature of differentresearch methodologies such as the relative value of qualitative and quantitative methods. Apreference for quantitative research can lead students to query the validity of qualitativeinquiry and vice versa (Glesne and Webb, 1993). All of this is strongly influenced by theirdisciplinary background but also by their individual experience and the orientations of theirlecturers or their supervisor. This makes it all the more important that students see therelevance of methods training to their disciplines and individual research projects. As Winnhas observed, for many students research is not in itself an intrinsically appealing subject(Winn, 1995, p. 203) Winn argues, therefore that students benefit particularly from practicalexperience of research which allows them to appreciate issues such as building fieldrelationships, gaining access, or working within time constraints but also gives them theopportunity to gain an understanding of how the various stages of research fit together inthe research process (Winn 1995, p. 204).Successful engagement of students in research methods training relies on a soundunderstanding of the processes of, and obstacles to, learning. These may be related tostudents’ conceptions of research itself which are in turn related to the research cultures oftheir institutions and departments. As Claire Wagner and her colleagues have pointed out,‘The choice of teachers for a research methods course tends to reflect the perception ofmethodology within a department or even the institution as a whole’ (Wagner et. al. 2011:83). In some institutions methods training is regarded as the transmission of basicinformation and skills and junior staff members or postgraduate students are asked to teachthe course. In others, where it is viewed as an ‘esoteric interest’, it is left to faculty memberswith a ‘methodological cast of mind’ (Wagner et. al. 2011: 83). A recent development,fostered by Vitae and the Researcher Development Framework is the shift from the idea ofmethods training and ‘transferrable skills’ to the idea of reflective professional developmentof researchers throughout their career. On this model research methods provision is part ofthe development of the individual researcher into a rounded professional who may continuein an academic career or find themselves engaged in commercial research. Mosely andWiles analysed the content of job vacancies for research posts in social sciences and foundthat ‘skills in both qualitative and quantitative methods are sought and, in each of theseapproaches, skills in data analysis in particular’ (Mosely & Wiles 2011: 53). Their analysisalso showed that of employers are seeking researchers with skills across a range ofThis content is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution‐NonCommercial‐ShareAlike 2.0 UK: England & Wales‐nc‐sa/2.0/uk/    10 
  11. 11. methods, suggesting a growing need for social researchers to have generalist researchskills. Research students, however, tend to be focused on their primary research project,which they see as the route to an academic career and, as a result they are not necessarilyaware of the requirements of employers.Elizabeth Frazer conducted focus groups with students in Sociology, Anthropology andPolitics Departments at the University of Oxford in 2003 to explore students views aboutresearch methods training. It emerged from the focus groups that ‘there was no uniformconception of what research training should consist of, and in general the conceptions thatwere articulated were vague’ (Frazer 2003: vii). Nevertheless, Frazer reported generaldiscontent with methods programmes that did not meet students expectations. Sociologystudents were disappointed by the lack of theory in their methods courses and by aperceived bias towards quantitative methods. They were unhappy with the assessment ofmethods courses and some reported feeling ‘insulted’ by them. (Frazer 2003: vii).The anthropology students in Frazer’s study were extremely negative about their researchmethods training ‘they were not only in disagreement with the faculty as to what trainingshould comprise, but […] the scope for communicating this disenchantment was virtuallynon-existent.’ (Frazer 2003:xii) Some students expressed the view that the theoreticalgrounding that they received was their real training. They were most positive aboutopportunities to hear about other students or researchers’ experiences. ‘There was strongdisagreement over the issue of whether teaching the methodology of a technique (such asinterviewing) should be subservient to a critical awareness of the social relations involved inthat technique’ (Frazer 2003: xiv). For these students there is some scope for teaching andlearning insofar as it aids critical thinking and self- reflection on fieldwork, but on the whole toattempt to teach in any systematic way ‘field research methodology’ provokes resentment’(Frazer 2003 xv) Many students did, however express the belief that there is a basic set ofanthropological tools which can be taught to all students and applied more or less universallyin the field’ (Frazer 2003: xiv). There was also a suggestion that training could be overlytheoretical and lacking in ‘practical training in specific techniques relevant to particularstudents’ areas of research’ (Frazer 2003: xiv) Interestingly there was considerablescepticism about lecturers ability to teach practical skills.This content is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution‐NonCommercial‐ShareAlike 2.0 UK: England & Wales‐nc‐sa/2.0/uk/    11 
  12. 12. Politics and International relations students felt that the research training courses were toogeneralized, and did not have enough specific reference to their own research projects. Theteachers of the courses did not understand their specific research requirements and theirsupervisors tended to ‘strongly recommend’ all courses, rather than taking account of theirindividual needs either. Students said that political science did not have uniquemethodologies, but encompassed the methods of other social sciences. They felt thatpolitical scientists were trained to be theoretical (Frazer 2003: vxii). As for other disciplinesthe connections made between methods training and employment were tenuous. ‘A generalperception was that professional political science work, in particular, is oftenmethodologically basic’ (Frazer 2003: vxi). Training in basic software packages wasconsidered more important for professional work than any specialist political science skills.In all disciplines there was little clarity about what “skills” social scientists develop. Frazerreports that ‘The word “skills” met with laughter from some students while for others “Skillshas a very manual labour-type connotation”’(Frazer 2003: ix) At the same time, Frazer’sresearch found that ‘students did not have clear knowledge of employment opportunitiesoutside academia. In fact, the majority of students seemed happy and even to wish to limitthe acquisition of skills to those directly required for their own research projects’ (Frazer2003: vii). There is a strong suggestion here that students’ ambivalence or even antipathytowards generic methods courses is connected to a lack of understanding about whatbecoming a professional researcher entails and how generic research skills might relate tothat. Learning ‘practical’ skills is useful only if students understand when and why it would beuseful to apply for what purposes. (Frazer 2003: xxiii). Another issue was timing and somestudents reported frustration that courses that would have been helpful in developing theirresearch were delivered too late to be of any use. This suggests a need for greater flexibilityso that students could take courses at times appropriate to their needs.The idea of ‘teaching’ or ‘learning’ many of the skills necessary for good social scienceresearch can be problematic in itself. Often the assumption is that they are best acquiredthrough practical research experience (for anthropologists this is connected to the idea offieldwork as a rite of passage). For this reason the supervisor and peer group are of crucialimportance in student’s decisions about their development partly in providing guidance aboutwhat training opportunities to pursue, so any strategy for promoting engagement with OER’smust target supervisors as well as students themselves. A key problem with methodsThis content is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution‐NonCommercial‐ShareAlike 2.0 UK: England & Wales‐nc‐sa/2.0/uk/    12 
  13. 13. courses (which came up for Frazer’s focus groups) relates to employability. Many studentsare focused upon obtaining academic posts through teaching and publication and acquiringskills that may be important in professional/non-academic careers is not their main concern.Students accept that methods training may be useful in employment, but as most researchstudents intend to pursue academic careers, it is significant that ‘students overwhelminglythink that “research training” is irrelevant to an academic career except in so far as it aidstheir research (Frazer 2003: xviii)Mosely and Wiles found that researchers do appreciate the importance of gaining a wideranging skill set. Staff with responsibility for training social scientists in particular emphasiseda need to promote training in what might be viewed as the ‘fundamental’ skills of social science research methods, as well as the need to support training in transferable skills, many of which are IT related (Mosely and Wiles 2011: 53)However, as Wagner has identified, textbooks on research methods tend to addressthe ‘how to’ of research methods, rather than the pedagogy of teaching methods(Wagner et. al. 2011: 75). Their survey of articles published between 1997 and 2007identified seven themes in the discussion of, research methods teaching. The firstreferred to general issues or aspects of teaching research methods and was oftentheoretical in approach. The second concerned data analysis and data analysissoftware particularly in teaching qualitative research methods. Theme three focusedon teaching quantitative research methods and theme four on teaching mixedquantitative and qualitative methodologies. Theme five described specific techniquesfor teaching research methods and theme six concerned the way in which researchmethods pedagogy is conducted within a specific disciplines. Finally, theme sevenconcerned teaching ethics in research (Wagner et. al. 2011: 78).Literature providing an introduction to research methods in the social sciences has tended togo over much of the same ground, focusing on how knowledge of the social world is gainedincluding, for example, surveys, interviewing, participant observation, and documentary andcomparative research (eg Bryman 2008, Gilbert 2008, Silverman 2005). Methods are haveto be delivered as a set of techniques that are generic enough to be adopted by diverseresearchers in order to equip them with a toolkit of procedures for collecting data that fitstheir research template. Despite considerable investment in the development of researchmethods, such as the ESRC’s research methods programme, the National Centre forThis content is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution‐NonCommercial‐ShareAlike 2.0 UK: England & Wales‐nc‐sa/2.0/uk/    13 
  14. 14. Research Methods and the Researcher Development Framework, recent publications aimedat teaching research methods to students often eschew an abstract or ‘how to’ approach infavour of focusing on specific examples (eg Devine and Heath 2009 or ODonoghue, andPunch,2003) Some contemporary research methods literature concerns itself with therelationships that are held to exist between theory and practice, and the place of values andethics in the process of carrying out research (eg Sayer 1984, Churton and Brown 1999).Tom ODonoghue, and Keith Punch (2003) discuss a series of examples of researchconducted by postgraduate students in order to demonstrate the interplay between theapplication and the context of the research problem revealing the way in which theapplication is moulded by and to that context (O’Donaghue and Punch 2003:1). Themethods covered are common to other methods texts, including grounded theory, lifestories, phenomenology discourse analysis, social semiotics and participant observation. Butthe approach of presenting actual research projects allows students to see how aninteresting question was tackled in terms of both strategy and technique, or to identify whatother research methods might have been appropriate. Students can see how others haveexplored the principles that underpin a method and how they argue the case for using thatmethod in their research. This provides an opportunity to discuss themes of good practice inresearch (O’Donaghue and Punch 2003:1).Kim Etherington concentrates on developing reflexivity in research, offering an insight intothe processes of doing research through the personal stories of researchers. In her view,‘many research books are difficult to read and seem to have little relationship to the reader’sown lived experiences of undertaking research’ (Etherington 2004) The narrative approachshe adopts to discussing research projects brings to the fore the theoretical ideas ofpostmodernism and social constructionism that are present in her own thinking and herstruggles to make sense of these ideas in her practice of narrative therapy. In this way theproblematic relationship between methods and theory is highlighted in a core researchmethods text.This may seem like an attempt to bridge a formidable gap but some discussion of this isproblem is increasingly regarded as essential for courses in research methods training.Devine and Heath, for instance highlight the crucial link between the choice of researchmethods and research findings (Devine and Heath 2009: 3) and point to a growing distanceThis content is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution‐NonCommercial‐ShareAlike 2.0 UK: England & Wales‐nc‐sa/2.0/uk/    14 
  15. 15. between theoretical developments which are critical of past empirical research andproponents of empirical methods who dismiss theory as irrelevant (Devine and Heath 2009:4). Mike Savage and Roger Burrows have addressed the changing significance of empiricalresearch in sociology in a context where data gathering for non academic purposes hasbecome ubiquitous (Savage 2007). They identify a crisis of confidence in sociologicalmethods of data gathering both quantitative and qualitative associated with a ‘shift ofexpertise away from the academy’ (Savage and Burrows 2007: 10) This crisis cannot beaddressed by more methods training but by reflection on how sociologists should relate tothe proliferation of social data gathered by others (Savage and Burrows 2007:12).Tim May also attempts to address the relationships between theory and method in socialresearch through major philosophical and methodological debates touching on problems ofobjectivity, positivism and realism through to postmodernism and feminism that haveimpacted upon the way social scientists collect and interpret their data. (May 2001). May, forexample, draws a parallel between postmodernism and the problem, of establishing ageneral explanation of beliefs beyond their social context in comparative research. Suchimportant methodological critiques associated with ‘the post modern turn in the socialsciences’ (Devine and Heath 2009:8) raise questions about the interpretation of empiricaldata which cannot be addressed in isolation from theory. ‘The ways in which we collectevidence and the methods by which we do so are, then dynamic issues in the socialsciences’ (Devine and Heath 2009: 10) The challenge for methods teaching here is toexplain complex topics in a succinct and straightforward manner whilst addressing practicalissues of concern to researchers planning fieldwork such as, conducting a survey, includingsampling, using questionnaires, or advice on coding and analysis. (May 2001). This literaturesuggests that methods training cannot be restricted to such practical concerns but mustrelate theory, methodology and method.Other barriers to accessing methods training are lack of time and lack of funding, particularlyfor contract researchers. (Mosely & Wiles 2011:9). There is a considerable demand forlocally-based training but the establishment of the ESRC Doctoral Training Centres willconcentrate research methods provision in fewer centres that may be more distant fromresearchers’ home institution, making face-to-face short courses more difficult and onlineresearch methods training will be expected to fill this gap.This content is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution‐NonCommercial‐ShareAlike 2.0 UK: England & Wales‐nc‐sa/2.0/uk/    15 
  16. 16. One of the ways to overcome some of the problems identified as barriers to training, such as time limitations and accessibility is to make use of internet- based training. When asked whether they had ever used internet-based research methods training resources only a third said ‘yes’. (Mosely & Wiles 2011:43)Access to OERs could be a means of providing for the practical needs of researchers in atimely fashion that is difficult to achieve in traditional methods courses, without researchershaving to travel, but the current level of use of these resources is very low. The NCRMsurvey of 2011 found that their was a willingness among researchers to use such resourcesbut their was a lack of knowledge about their availability and a problem of ensuring qualityand appropriateness (Mosely & Wiles 2011:5) Researchers perceived a lack of suitabletraining or resources in the topic areas in which they were interested and some expressed apreference for face-to-face training (Mosely & Wiles 2011:43). ‘A lack of time to locate andmake use of on-line training or resources was frequently noted’ (Mosely & Wiles 2011:43).It has been observed that the introduction of technological (e-learning) solutions do little tochange established pedagogical practices (see Oliver 2009) and it remains to be seenwhether access to good quality OERs for research methods in the social sciences will be anagent of change. Schoenfeld argues that what is most important in preparing students tobecome researchers is providing a supportive environment that lives and breathes researchissues, is open and reflective, allow people to pursue ideas that they really care about, andprovides them with many opportunities to learn, early on, from their mistakes they willinevitably make. (Schoenfeld 1999: 200) Flexible alternatives to compulsory researchmethods programmes are most likely to overcome students resistance by meeting theirdiffering needs (Collinson and Hockey, 1997) and access to good quality OER’s couldprovide a means for students, in consultation with their supervisors, to assemble acustomised research training package. This entails examining not only social theory,methodology and method, but also the relationships between them.References Amulya, J. R. M. (1998) Passionate curiosity: A Study a research process experience indoctoral researchers. EdD Thesis, Harvard UniversityBaym, S and Ross, J (2007) The ‘digital native’ and ‘digital immigrant’: a dangerousopposition Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Society for Research intoHigher Education (SRHE) December 2007. Available atThis content is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution‐NonCommercial‐ShareAlike 2.0 UK: England & Wales‐nc‐sa/2.0/uk/    16 
  17. 17. Maria 2006 Teaching Educational Research Methods. Subject Centre For Eucation, A., & Blackman, D. (2003). Can Research Methods Ever Be Interesting? ActiveLearning in Higher Education, 4(1), 39-55.Bullen, M., Morgan, T. & Qayyum, A. (2011). Digital learners in higher education: Generationis not the issue. Canadian Journal of Learning Technology, 37(1), .Bryman, Alan (2008) (3rd edition) Social Research Methods, Oxford: Oxford UniversityPress.Carpenter et al (2010) Researchers of Tomorrow: A three year (BL/JISC) study tracking theresearch behaviour of Generation Y doctoral students. Available at, Mel and Anne Brown 1999 (re-issued 2010) Theory and Method (London Palgrave)Collinson, J and Hockey, J. (1997) ‘The Social Science Training-model Doctorate: studentchoice?’ in Journal of Further and Higher Education, 21(3), pp. 373-381Comba V. (2011), Net generation and digital literacy: a short bibliographical review andsome remarks, Journal of e-Learning and Knowledge Society, v.7, n.1Condie and Livingston (2007) Blending Online learning with traditional approaches:Changing practices. British Journal of Educational Technology. 38(2) 337-348Devine, Fiona and Sue Heath 2009 Doing Social Science – Evidence and Methods inEmpirical Research (London Palgrave)Edwards, D. F., & Thatcher, J. (2004). ‘A student-centred tutor-led approach to teachingresearch methods’. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 28(2), 195 - 206.Etherington, Kim 2004 Becoming a reflexive researcher: using our selves in research(London, Jessica Kingsley Publishers).Frade, Carlos 2009 ‘The Sociological Imagination and its Promise Fifty Years Later: Is Therea Future or the Social Sciences as a Free Form of Enquiry’. In Cosmos and History: TheJournal of Natural and Social Philosophy 5(2) pp9-40Frazer, Elizabeth 2003 Learning to be Researchers: The utility of research training forPostgraduate Students, Nigel, ed. (2008) Researching Social Life, (3rd edition), London: SageThis content is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution‐NonCommercial‐ShareAlike 2.0 UK: England & Wales‐nc‐sa/2.0/uk/    17 
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