Educational Design Research, PhD Proposals, and Ethics

In a chat today, I was asked about ethical approval and writing an educational design research proposal. The concern was around doing interviews before receiving ethics approval. Generally, we are told that we cannot do this, however, it is not possible to write a research proposal for participatory research (and educational design research is definitely participatory) without having several detailed conversations with someone in the organization in which you wish to do the research.

This brought me back to the process that was used in my Masters program at Royal Roads University. As an MA student, I was required to do an Action Research project. In addition to an academic supervisor, I was to seek out a research sponsor, that is, someone from the organization where I was doing my research to support me in the process. Since the purpose of Educational Action Research is to make some form of organizational change through an educational intervention, as part of the proposal process, I was required to seek out a research sponsor and have them sign a formal letter of sponsorship. They were also required to read and approve my research proposal.

For my PhD research, I’m doing educational design research. I’m working with Family Medicine Preceptors (clinical teachers in family medicine) to create a professional development program around the use of iPads in teaching. As I am not a family medicine physician, nor a preceptor, I could not possibly understand the context of my research without having a sponsor for my research. In this case, I am working with two family medicine physicians. The three of us will work closely throughout the research process. 

Rather than worrying about the ethical considerations with interviewing my sponsors, I should have felt free to have in-depth conversations with my sponsors. I should have spent more time, not less, talking to them about the research problem and the initial design. I should have reviewed my research design with them, and got their feedback on the implications for implementing the design within their context. Had I done this, my proposal would have been stronger from the beginning, and my actual research would look a lot more like my proposal.

So, my advice to anyone doing educational design research (or action research), is to find someone in the organization in which you are doing your research to act in the role of research sponsor. This person (or these people) can help you better describe your research context and validate the feasibility of your research within their organizational context. Educational Design Research is cooperative research, it is participatory, your sponsors will likely also be research participants and co-researchers, and will play a large role in the success of your research. It is in no way unethical to talk to your sponsors while developing your research proposal, I argue that is it unethical not to.

That being said, please talk to your supervisor. Unfortunately, what makes the most sense to me, doesn’t necessarily align with current policies. The rules about ethics are different across institutions. It is, unfortunately, an area that is poorly understood and an area that is dominated by post-postivist thinking – such that some ethics boards have difficulty understanding any research that does not follow a clearly constructed protocol. Educational design research necessary needs to be flexible and adapt to the context in which it is being situated. Contexts are not often well understood by the researcher in advance of the study, and contexts change with time.

I expect to be doing more Educational Design Research after my PhD, without the need for a formal PhD proposal process. In future research, I will apply for an ethics exemption (or approval) to complete the needs analysis phase in advance of creating the initial design. I think this makes the whole process more effecient. I could then treat the needs analysis as a separate study which informs the educational design research study.

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