There is a growing demand for more evidenced-informed practice in higher education; it is clearly important that we have an understanding of the best methods for teaching, learning and assessment. Much of this activity is driven by lecturers, evaluating their own teaching practice, in their own discipline, with their own students. Typically university guidelines stipulate that research activities require ethical review, whilst there are no similar strictures applied to scholarship activities or quality assurance measures. In this blog post Kay Hack (HEA Consultant in Academic Practice, email@example.com), who has chaired both University and Health Research Authority Research Ethics Committees, questions whether this distinction is appropriate or necessary for ethical pedagogical practice.
Quality assurance, scholarship or research?
“Why do I need ethical approval to ask students’ opinions as part of my pedagogic research project but I don’t when I ask them to complete module surveys or teaching quality questionnaires?” Expansion in student numbers and changes to the way higher education is financed has led to the emergence of a number of mechanisms for evaluating the quality of provision and the student experience, as well as a drive for quality enhanced learning and teaching . Scholarship and research activities are distinct from quality assurance metrics in intent if not in methodology. Scholarship activities tend to provide recommendations for policy or action at a local level, for example within a module, program or an institution, whilst pedagogical research aims to generate and share new knowledge through the systematic analysis of learning or teaching practice. The distinction between quality assurance, scholarship and research is not merely one of semantics; whilst all of these interventions should be ethical, typically university regulations stipulate that only research requires ethical review.
As chair of a university research ethics committee and an active practitioner both within my own institution and the wider pedagogic research community, I feel that there is a lack of engagement with the ethical review processes for pedagogic research. Whilst some practitioners consider that discipline-based pedagogic research is low risk and that the requirement for ethical review is an overly burdensome and bureaucratic practice, or that it has been developed to protect the institution rather than the research participants, I have also come across genuine confusion as to when ethical review is required. This can be because of uncertainty as to whether a project is scholarship or research, or how to deal with action research or scholarship activities which were initiated in response to a specific, local issue but have subsequently developed into a substantive research project. Similarly colleagues question whether it is permissible to use historic data that was collected prior to an intervention as a control, or whether projects which access corporate and public data are regulated by the Data Protection Act or if they require separate approval. As learning analytics become both more sophisticated and user friendly - the possibility of ‘observing’ the complete student online learning experience is now a reality, and provides an attractive data resource for teachers who wish to gain a greater insight into how students learn online. As a minimum, practitioners need guidance and clear policies of how and when data may be used and when consent is required. I feel that this lack of understanding amongst academics has resulted in a ‘don’t ask – don’t tell’ culture, where colleagues will not apply for ethical approval, in case they are told they cannot use historic or other data collected without consent for research; this is illustrated by the following comment from another university research ethics committee chair:
"Actually I think we’ve only had one [pedagogic research] application … in the last couple of years. I suspect there are more out there, though, and that colleagues either don’t know they should be seeking review or are pretending they don’t know."
Risks and benefits of pedagogic research
The requirement that research undergoes more stringent oversight than other (potentially more harmful) activities emerged after the Nazi atrocities and questionable post-Second World War medical practices. Ethical review was considered necessary to protect research participants and to ensure continued public trust. But should pedagogical research be exempt from similar review processes? Unlike biomedical research, where the risks and benefits are not distributed equally, the benefits of pedagogic research are usually realised within the community (school, faculty, institution or discipline) undertaking the risk. Students may bear the burden of the research but they are also positioned to realise the benefits. The teacher / researcher undertakes reputational risks of a poorly designed or executed project, but equally can gain professional advancement or an enhanced reputation from dissemination of the project outcomes. The institution also benefits from having an active pedagogic research community, but risks losing trust of students and staff from either an overly taxing review process, or if they are negligent in ensuring the protection of research participants. The aim of research is to improve society through the generation and dissemination of new knowledge; pedagogic ‘research’ which may not be generalisable beyond the institution or discipline in which it takes place, still has the potential to improve the education or experience of current and future students.
Are the ethical review processes of pedagogic research fit for purpose?
Whilst it is accepted that the majority of pedagogic studies are low risk, they do raise important questions of autonomy and privacy, and go to the heart of the trust between students and institutions. However, I reject the argument that pedagogic research requires more stringent legislation than other scholarship activities. Furthermore ethical review by committee establishes an adversarial process, and discourages discourse between the applicant and the reviewers. An alternative approach is to situate both pedagogical research and scholarship activities within an ethical infrastructure which facilitates constructive dialogue between all stakeholders - lecturers, students and other members of the academic community. Ethical approval should not be a hurdle, but an opportunity to reflect on research design and receive pre-study peer review; embracing a more constructive approach may go some way to instil confidence and compliance with the process.
For more detailed discussion on these ideas and some suggested processes to facilitate ethical approval of scholarship and pedagogic research, please contact me for a copy of my monograph ‘Pedagogic Research in the UK Higher Education Sector - Are the ethical review processes fit for purpose?’.
Are your institutional processes for ethical approval of pedagogic research fit for purpose?
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