Case study 4: Working with ethics committees to develop new forms
Barbara teaches human-computer interactions. For a long time she had had students do small research projects that involved gathering some data from humans, mainly observing how people interact with computers and testing ability.
“For many years I did nothing, I just didn’t tell anybody I was doing it, because I asked a question and found out the answer was too hard. So I decided that it probably wasn’t worth trying to take it on. But when I was asked to join the Faculty Ethics Committee, I started to realise that we should have been.”
She started looking at the ethics application forms and found that there was one designated for class research projects, but it wasn’t well suited to capture the kind of information about the research her students were doing. “And because I was on the ethics committee, I felt there was a bit of responsibility on my shoulders to do it properly.” So she drafted a new form that she thought would ask the right questions that could elicit the information the ethics committee would need to assess her students’ research projects. She wrote up her unit using this trial form and then workshopped it with the ethics committee, adding a few new questions. She then trialled the form with teachers from two other wholly different disciplines: pharmacy and social work.
“And so through a process of collaboration and negotiation, we’ve now come up with something that a couple of other people have trialled, and so we’ve got a form that fits a range of different activities at undergraduate level where students are engaged in doing some sort of research work.”
Barbara points out that there are people who want to provide the best learning experience for their students and that means getting their students to do research. If there aren’t procedures clearly in place to facilitate this, “people will do it underground”. That creates risks for students and the university, but “if you make it accessible, people are actually quite happy to do the right thing,” she says. Well-created forms and review procedures, she argues, means that “it’s almost like a kind of peer review group in many ways. To say ‘have you thought about this,’ and ‘what sort of training do the students have before you expect them to do this,’ ‘how does that fit with other parts of their undergraduate degree?’ And in some ways it starts to align with some of the work that’s beginning to happen about embedding research skills in your undergraduate degree.”
“I think when students actually get to do authentic research, in an undergraduate level, that gives them a much better understanding of what the nature of research is; it’s not something abstract and out there, it’s something they can do. I think they get to actually experience all aspects of research -- the good, bad and the ugly -- but also how to organise themselves.... So it’s enthusing students for what research can do, building the skills, but at the same time scaffolding it in such a way that they can be successful.”