It is no secret that there is a huge gap between research and practice in education (and many other areas of social practice). Here’s a suggestion of a model that might remedy some of this. Parts of it are based on a draft of a proposal for development project.
Why community-based research?
There are many specific gaps in our knowledge regarding the immediate needs of practicing educators in many areas. Traditional research approaches are limited in their ability to provide timely and relevant information to practitioners. Research institutions are used work in isolation or limited partnerships and inform their community of the results of their inquiry only at the end of a project, long after the work in a particular context was done. To compound matters, this reporting is frequently conducted through channels inaccessible to practitioners such as academic or specialist conferences or peer reviewed publications. In feedback loop of inaccessibility, these channels then often shape research design and topics under investigation making obtaining new knowledge time-consuming, inflexible and often irrelevant to anyone outside the research community. The overhead of traditional research institutions both in terms of time, cost and focus makes them ill-suited to contribute useful knowledge to a fast-moving practice-based field such as e-learning.
As an alternative, I propose a community-based approach to research as a model for allocating a portion of the funding available for knowledge. This is inspired by the successes of distributed community-based research and development in Open Source software where all research and development efforts are directly driven by practitioner need. Such work is conducted in public with constant feedback from the practitioner community which contributes to the formulation of research questions, research design and assists with research progress.
What could a community-based research effort look like?
Imaging a large development or evaluation project with, £50,000 allocated for research. However, the questions that need answering a too numerous to address in a single project. But 50k would be consumed in overhead before any meaningful results would be obtained. Instead, the project could establish an online community where practitioners are encouraged to formulate questions within the parameters of their field and researchers offer solutions either by pointing to existing research evidence or suggesting research design for finding out the answers. Researchers can then collectively or individually bid for small research grants between say £500 and £7,500 to cover the cost of their work or purchase of equipment. Research progress and results are shared with the community giving the researchers a chance to modify their research approach as they go about the business of knowledge gathering. Furthermore, the line between researcher and practitioner is fluid.
The researcher and practitioner roles are merit-based and self-selecting rather than institutional. Practitioner (action) research is encouraged and supported. There is no reason why teachers or even students couldn’t apply for these grants.
This approach could make it possible to receive real evidence necessary for the success of a development project within the project’s time frame (say of 18 months). This approach also builds in an element of sustainability since community members can keep contributing research even after the funding has disappeared.
The grand vision
Of course, the example above was just something borne out of the needs of a single imaginary project. But it could easily scale up to something bigger (Facebook of research) where actual major funders would go for viable ideas to fund. The pool of practioners could expand to include parents, administrators and policy-makers. I outlined some metaphors for this in other posts on this website.
The knowledge caveat
This project (at the larger scale) would have to very explicitly and painstakingly adopt a situated-knowledge approach to evidence. Educational research (particularly of the quantitative variety sought by policy makers) makes unwarranted claims to universality. Knowledge gathered under this project would have to consciously make the opposite claim. Here I would like to propose the idea of epistemology as ethics but that is a subject of another post.