I’ve been pretty quiet in the last couple of days, since things started to speed up, and soft planning of the previous week turned into more focused preparation with more tangible outcomes. Since things are progressing on multiple fronts here is a little rundown of each individual pursuit:
Where to start? What to ask first? Substance vs. method
My main takeaway from the 1st planning week was that whilst I started to feel immersed more and more in the world of student reading, and I felt that I did quite a bit of background reading, I simply still didn’t know what to ask from students. I felt that I am ahead with methodology and I have a clear picture of how I want to do things and why, but I still missed the substance, the core set of questions that I would like to ask and know more about. This didn’t necessarily meant that I couldn’t think of questions to ask, on the contrary: I had too many of them, covering too many topics. After thinking about it for a while I had concluded that I needed a higher level approach than individual questions, and so themes were born. I wrote down all the initial questions that I could think of, getting them out as quickly as I could and grouped them according to what would be the most appropriate method to ask it. After this exercise I ended up with a long list of questions organsed into several tracks. I grouped the similar ones (with sort of an affinity mapping, but quicker/simpler) and identified a couple of themes which seemed to run across multiple questions. Here are my themes:
- Everyday life
- Actions / Activities
- Social interactions
I will be using these themes to guide and serve as lens to look at student reading as an experience. All enquiries will touch on these themes as a baseline, and will look for human factors within the everyday life of students such as needs, behaviours, motivations, experiences, values, and desires. Instead of focusing on particular preconceived questions, I will use these themes to guide interviews, run through diaries, and set the framework form my focus group.
This fitted well with my other endeavour, which was to leave space for serendipitous exploration, and at most only semi structure things. I didn’t want to script or plan all aspects of this research, I think the most interesting things come from unexpected places, and this type of approach models real life better I think.
At this point I was happy with the substance. I felt I had good focus points and I was confident that I could explore each individual theme in greater detail, with the exciting view that the road within each theme will most likely lead me to interesting places and situations. Oh, and I am expecting that the best fun will start when the connections between these things will start to surface. (if ever, but hoping)
As I mentioned previously I was very pleasantly surprised with the student response so far. I have close to 300 quite diverse students, who are willing to help out, and most of them are prepared to sacrifice more time than an online survey. I am hoping this has to do more with the genuine interest in the topic than the incentives, (which are pretty good I think) but either way it shows that students are willing to contribute and participate in formulating thinking and design within the university, the only thing we need to do is to ask them nicely. I worded and sent a general “to do” email for all participants, and adjusted the signup form to display it after filling it out. If I think back to the last week, probably at least half of it was burned on recruitment organisation. Something which can never be underestimated on any project…
Interviews are now scheduled with 10 candidates for the next 8 days, with all the invitations sent out, from which 5 confirmed attendance. I carefully selected 10 completely different students, in terms of age, time spent at the university, studied subject and gender. I had my 1st participant in for an interview today and had a great time with lots of insights. Audio recording all interviews and later making detailed notes of the audio.
Personal and book diary preparation
Both personal and book diaries are now ready and will be printed tomorrow. I working on distributing them and making them available online at the moment, with the aim that they should be available to pick up from tomorrow.
I have sent out invitations for 8 participants, carefully selected again for difference, from which I have 1 confirmed participant now. The preliminary
I started library observations in parallel at the English Faculty Library. It is a nice environment with nice people and lots of things to pick up on, so making heaps of notes. I am only doing this for 2 days, so I am pretty passive and static at the moment, but would like to engage more and generally be more mobile from next week, where all the parallel things ease up a bit.
Online survey and Hangouts
Apart from thinking about them a bit, not much progress has been made. Hangouts will be scheduled soon, but the online survey is planned at the very end of the study period, so I don’t even think about it for now.
This week I am interviewing mostly, so from the next post I would like to move away from planning and project preparation and focus more on reading related things in my posts. Oh and the weekly whacky bag is filling up too!
So last week I spent on planning. Project planning for me not only means preparation for the upcoming activities, but also putting myself into the right mindset. In this instance that means the reading mindset, and so I started surrounding myself with books (more than I would do normally), I started paying attention to the different kinds of reading I do, and I started to become more conscious about small little things we tend to do during reading.
Things like efficiency. I was reading Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper’s book The Myth of the Paperless Office and was fascinated to see their findings on the affordances of paper, and how people exploit the tactile nature of the paper for efficient reading. We start turning pages in parallel whilst reading, in order not to interrupt the main activity, without needing visual attention. Our fingers are capable of wondering across the page, finding the edge, grabbing a page and prepare it for turning, all without even looking at our fingers. We can do this to be more efficient at the reading activity, and so we can focus in parallel to other activities like writing, annotating, or comparing which in most cases accompany a reading activity. In the digital world this is a bit harder, since most of the time we need to pay visual attention to the act of navigation, and even the most advanced e-readers on the market today are only catching up in this respect.
This is not closely related to this project, but I believe small things like this in the specific context of student reading at Cambridge will be key to understand, and design software or products which acknowledge and take things like this into account. So how do we get to things like this? To make this happen, apart from ‘putting myself into the right mindset’ I focused on 2 things:
I created a visual project timeline, based on the amount of real time the project has, highlighting the ratio of planning, data gathering, analysis, design and artefact creation time. This will give others and me a vague framework in terms of timing, milestones and goals. I will post the project plan image in the next post, since Tumblr doesn’t seem to allow inline uploading and embedding into a text post (why?)
Questions and research methodologies:
To find out things we need good questions too. Not only good questions, but also questions asked in the appropriate format. I’ve been talking previously about how I would like to gain insights and validate those insights with quantitative methods to extrapolate. So this means that largely I will start with a small set of questions, which I will try to find answers to mainly using observation and interviews. Then as I extend my knowledge in the area, I will use a focus group and an online survey to validate those assumptions. Since I am the sole researcher in this project, that means that during the 10 weeks of the project I would only reach a limited number of people, places and situations. To somewhat balance this out I am planning 2 types of diaries in parallel, which would provide contextual information: student diaries and book diaries. Student diaries would be standard activity logs, capturing as much contextual data as possible around particular students reading activity. Book diaries would follow the route of books borrowed from libraries, requiring students to log things when the book is used.
Using these methodologies I am aiming to establish a set of baseline data, which is received from multiple sources, for better accuracy. At the moment I am collecting all the questions I can think of initially, and categorising them based on what is the best method (of those mentioned so far) to ask that question. The Observation/Interview categories of those will be my initial ammunition.
If everything works out as planned, the baseline data coming from initially known questions, asked in multiple formats will give a strong base for the gathered data, and the additional, but yet unknown questions and findings validated later would give depth and richness in understanding. Something like this:
Observation of places and people:
to gain insight and understand how things work
Interviews and casual chats:
to get deeper understanding of specifics
Book and student diaries:
to gather a larger volume of contextual information in parallel with observations
to validate findings coming from observation and interviews
to validate findings coming from observation and interviews
Preparing things like this is immensely important, but next week I will need to get to hard planning, which involves sorting out recruitment, and observation places (library), so that all of this can actually happen. I am also still meeting a handful of extremely kind and knowledgeable people who help me pulling all this off (their names will be gathered together and included in the project hall of fame at the end) and I am also sitting in to Qualitative Research Methodologies lectures which gives me a pretty focused brush-up of how things work on the field.
This Arcadia project is about finding out more about how students go about their academic reading at the University of Cambridge. This is extremely vague and wide, so let me try to put this in context a bit and specify it a little bit more.
We know from previous Arcadia projects that while reading lists are at the heart of academic reading at Cambridge, we still don’t know much about how these lists are constructed, used in real life, or how closely are being followed. We have learnt that supervision and departmental reading lists are being used differently, but we are still pretty much in dark about student’s decision models, motivations, and emotional aspects around reading. In this regard this projects aims to fill some of these gaps, and provide better understanding not only on reading lists, but on the whole reading experience from a student point of view. We are speculating that probably there is an important social dimension in reading and learning, and so we would like to validate and understand more in this regard. In a nutshell, it has been identified that there is a gap between the theory and the practice around reading at Cambridge, and so naturally we would like to explore and perhaps help close the gap.
Why is this important?
There three immediately apparent potential benefits which I can see now, and I am pretty sure that more will follow as the project progresses:
Better library services through more realistic expectations
Currently library acquisitions are largely based on departmental reading lists which might be out of sync with real world expectations. With understanding more what the real student needs are, and aiming to provide more organic data on what’s needed, libraries would be in a better position to anticipate needs, and act accordingly. Imagine no, or less competition for core books needed for an essay, or being able to find all the required books in one place. Also imagine students not having to spend half a week to just find and gather reading materials for a weekly supervision assignment.
Better teaching and learning tools through informed design
One of the main aims of this project is to produce material which can be used to design better educational tools. By having deep and meaningful understanding coming from real users, educational technologists can design tools which might solve real world problems. It could also help in thinking more widely and conceptually about everyday problems, and not necessarily jump to technical conclusions, or uninformed and disconnected solutions when thinking about technology which would plug the gap. Communicating what we have learnt is therefore key, so that it is understandable at all levels, all the way from practitioner to decision makers.
Awareness of real student needs for supervisors and other teaching or support staff
Supervisors and other university staff I am sure are eager to help, but since the whole system is so diverse and large, it is hard to coordinate or understand how things work for a student outside of the local supervision, or library context. From a student’s perspective supervisions or library visits are merely stop points within a far reaching system and a real life social network. Understanding what happens outside of these local contexts or hubs, how these interconnect is very valuable in my opinion, for everybody who is a cog in this huge and complicated machine.
My natural reaction is that in order to have meaningful and deep understanding, going further than understanding individual islands of contexts tied to physical places, certain people or interactions, I will need to position myself as close to students as possible and observe across all these contexts. I feel there is a certain disconnectedness and distance in data coming from surveys, interviews and focus groups just because there are too many hops and conversions in the transmission. Don’t get me wrong, I am not disputing the validity or usefulness of these methodologies, I am just trying to re-position them to serve as validation tools rather than driving forces. For me richness and the deep understanding of a subject comes from close interaction and immersion in an area, exploring daily routines, picking up on behavioural patterns, understanding emotions and social interactions, exploring extremes and uncovering everyday practices and mannerisms which play key roles in making decisions around reading.
So my plan is to adopt a hybrid approach, where qualitative primary data is based largely on lightweight ethnographical observation, with contextual diaries, interviews and surveys serving as validation tools, in order to allow extrapolation. I am aiming to be based in public places of at least two departmental libraries, with a view to shadow a small number of students and prepared that my journey will take me to unexpected places and situations. There is thinking around observing various physical places in the system, and I am investigating ways of following objects like books as they are passed hand to hand. I am aiming for holistic understanding rather than scientific and statistical rigour and 100% correctness. In the commercial world this approach is already established and there are numerous examples, where innovation is driven from user needs and behaviours.
Where I am now and what’s next?
Well, this week has gone crazy fast. I started doing some background reading, and am still looking at previous Arcadia project reports, there is good data in there. I also met several people, designers who are experts in extracting information through ethnography, and researchers who are active in this field. Fascinating how much you can learn by just saying hello to people. From those conversations I am trying to distill a practical approach, given the time and resource constraints of the project. My aim for next week is to have a clear idea of what exactly I will be doing (start sorting out practical things, recruitment, ethical considerations, library placement etc…) and draw up a plan which I can throw out of the window if I need to :) My aim is to post that sooner rather than later next week.
Oh, and also next week I will be introducing “The Weekly Wacky”, a weekly collection of crazy ideas that pop up as I go along - not only to have some distraction, but also because I believe these “bags of crazy ideas” can be fertile grounds of further discussion and thinking outside of the project scope.