Collaborative research–Rethinking the model

As I have been doing some reading all summer, my whole notion of research is shifting somewhat.  Maybe it is reflecting the shift that many of our students are living, as well.

I’m coming to realize more and more that although in schools we treat research as a somewhat solitary activity, in its true form, research is a very networked activity.

As George Siemens writes, in describing Connectivism, “learning is no longer an internal, individualistic activity.”  He goes on to point out that learners “remain current in their field through the connections they have formed.”   I often think of how scientists or historians conduct research, not in an isolated bubble, but in a network of colleagues, acquaintances, librarians and in the company of information from the past. 

Siemens goes on to cite Karen Stephenson, who writes:

“Experience has long been considered the best teacher of knowledge. Since we cannot experience everything, other people’s experiences, and hence other people, become the surrogate for knowledge.”

Our students already practice the power of knowledge sharing because they use their social networks not only socially, but in order to help one another….in the olden days, via long phone calls about homework, and now via Facebook or MySpace or IM.  But do we ask them to employ those skills DURING the school day, officially, particularly when they are engaged in a research project?

As I read more and think about research projects, and then think about how my own approach to learning has changed the last few years with the increasing ability to network both within and outside of my campus, I am realizing that we need to be addressing those changes in library research programs as well.

What ways can we  support students in drawing on the knowledge of both experts and of one another?

Some practical ideas I am considering that would allow students to network more:

  • Using message boards or forums during research projects so that students can give one another research tips is a way to engage students more actively.  We tried this last year during our Vietnam Wall project and it worked well.  Students enjoyed giving tips to one another.
  • Creating collaborative wikis for projects is another way.  Again, we tried this on a government policy project, where students collaborated across class periods on a wiki.
  • Asking a student to explain to the class how they would approach a research problem establishes that students have expertise as well (a fact they already realize, since students often ask other students for help.)
  • Asking students to “play” librarian for a class and explain how to use the appropriate databases.
  • Enabling some sort of “chat” during a research period that could be used for research help from one another.
  • Making sure that students spent time conferencing face to face with one another every couple of days to share good resources with each other (ala the Cha-cha website model).
  • Employing a “team” of researchers–assign a research project to a team, much as a team of scientists would work on a research dilemma.  Allow the teams to conference with other “teams” from other class periods, via blogs, wikis, Skype chats, chatrooms, or face-to-face meetings.
  • Posting white butcher paper on the wall where students can write requests for help on a topic and others can volunteer to assist them or write suggestions.  (It doesn’t always have to be “high tech.”)
  • Helping students set up a Pageflakes site with feeds from helpful blogs and links to helpful websites to “display” their learning network.
  • Having students use web-mapping software like Inspiration or to map out who their information “lifelines” are.
  • Teaching them how to use the bookmarks of other experts or their friends as a way to broaden their network and find good information.
  • Asking them to show you how they use social networking to help them with research–What are the sites they use to share information and help one another?

By redefining research in a more “real world” and connected way, I think we can help it become more integral to our campuses and more integral to the way our students learn.  

I’d like to hear of other ideas you may have for helping students “network” during a research process.  Thanks to Dean Shareski for the links.

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