The Changing Nature of Research in Higher Education

Research in higher education looks very different today than it did even ten years ago.  Academics who, not so very long ago, were well acquainted with physical library study spaces and large collections of peer-reviewed academic journals, find themselves in a digitized world of research with unprecedented access to information and virtual repositories of human meaning-making activity.  The nature and culture of research in higher education is shifting, including that which is considered “worthy” content to explore when conducting research in all kinds of disciplines.  One need look no further than the APA reference guide and the ever-expanding list of possible resources (e.g.. YouTube videos and TED talks, podcasts, blog posts, etc.) to note that the “rules” of research are expanding, and must expand, alongside our access to information.

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As a current doctoral student (and someone who received my initial graduate degree a decade ago), I am curious about the ways the research sector of higher education has changed over time. How are undergraduate students being taught to conduct research?  What kind of shifts have been made due to new tools and technology platforms that assist in the research process?  What cultural shifts are happening in graduate and doctoral programs, and are these cultural shifts impacting research strategy? 

Jonbloed et al. (2008) posit that higher education has an expanding set of stakeholders and thus a continually shifting societal expectation of what a university’s public obligation is.  Early universities provided education exclusively for clergy and societal elites, but over the centuries, higher education has been democratized such that there are many invested parties and participants with competing paradigms and priorities. Indeed, one of the major, ongoing, accelerated shifts in higher education is the diversification of students, staff, and faculty and the role that universities can/should play as advocates of–and vehicles for–social justice (Brennan & Teichler, 2008).  We also now live in a “knowledge society” where knowledge is considered the solution to everything and the key to personal and societal advancement (Jonbloed et al., 2008).  Thus, higher education institutions (HEIs) are driven to make teaching and research more publicly accountable, often restructuring programs and creating new ones to meet modern societal demands and forfeiting, or “reorienting,” long standing academic norms and values along the way (Jonbloed et al., 2008).

Even the doctorate degree, a terminal, research-based degree program which is typically the highest academic degree that can be awarded by a university, isn’t immune to change.  There is an increasing demand for doctoral programs to become more relevant, to produce academics with transferable skills in their field in addition to research skills, and to even be more sensitive to issues of employability that extend beyond creating new academics who scarcely step outside the “ivory tower” of a university campus (Park, 2005).  This requires attention to the course structure and modality of a doctoral program, the quality of the mentorship provided, the diversity of students within the program, and an expansion of that which is considered sufficient, valuable evidence of research contributions in a given field.

At the undergraduate level, much focus is given to the development of research skills as a form of information or digital literacy.  K-12 schools and districts across the United States differ greatly in their approach to teaching digital literacy skills.  Thus, undergraduate students at HEIs come into lower division classes with a wide range of background and abilities (or lack thereof) informing their approach to research.  In a case study conducted at Texas Christian University (TCU) by Huddleston et al. (2019), faculty were surveyed to determine what research skills they felt were most needed and valuable for undergraduate students to have, and which skills undergraduate students tended to struggle with most.  A list of nine core skills for research success was produced based on faculty responses:

  1. Topic selection
  2. Search strategy
  3. Finding resources
  4. Differentiating source types
  5. Evaluating sources
  6. Synthesizing information
  7. Summarizing information
  8. Citing sources
  9. Reading and understanding citations

Perhaps unsurprisingly, faculty overwhelmingly felt that the skill they most wanted students to master by the time they graduated was the ability to critically evaluate information and sources.  This was, however, also found to be the weakest skill that undergraduate TCU students possessed, and that they were least likely to be able to do at a satisfactory level upon graduation (Huddleston et al., 2019).  It is no coincidence that the ability to think critically about an information source is needed now more than ever due to the overwhelming amount of information and sources available on the world wide web.  While access to valuable, credible sources of information expands, students need to be able to recognize “worthy” material in dynamic ways which allow them to differentiate their source types appropriately.  Certainly not all valuable research material is limited to the contents of academic journals, but neither is every blog post worthy of scholarly consideration. In this case study, Huddleston et al. (2019) note that the university library/librarians are important resources and guides when it comes to information literacy instruction, and a number of suggestions were made to help increase the visibility of librarians at the department level, leveraging their knowledge and training alongside faculty in a collaborative approach to teaching undergraduates needed research skills.

There is no denying that a certain level of digital and informational literacy is essential in all areas of higher education given that “research outputs across the academic disciplines are almost exclusively published electronically,” and therefore “organizing and managing these digital resources for purposes of review…are now essential skills for graduate study and life in academia.” (Lubke et al., 2017, p. 285) Of course, in the year 2021, there are also a myriad of digital tools available that not only assist in the research process, but make it easier to practice information literacy and grow a researcher’s individual technical savvy. Assuming the literature review (i.e. research paper) is the most frequent research-based activity conducted in higher education, especially at the graduate level, Lubke et al. (2017) propose a simple, 3-step framework which can become the essential workflow for a paperless research project.

Lubke et al. (2017)

As the image suggests, stage one begins with selecting a digital tool to store and analyze sources.  Some suggested platforms include Zotero, EndNote, F1000 Workspace, RefWorks, and Mendeley.   Each tool has its own strengths and weaknesses, but generally speaking, each is an example of a digital tool that assists researchers in methodically storing and organizing possible source material for consideration, both in the current research process and for possible future use (e.g. dissertation).  Once sources have been selected and stored, researchers may then move to stage two where they may read, annotate, and analyze their sources.  This is where weak sources may be removed from consideration and where important pieces of information are mined and commented on in preparation for creating an academic argument (Lubke at al., 2017). In the annotation phase, digital tools like GoodReader can be used to take notes and highlight a text; then, annotated versions of sources may be saved separately from the original.  Finally, in stage three, researchers may choose to employ Qualitative data analysis software (QDAS) like QSR NVivo to synthesize themes and pull together information from across sources, ultimately drawing conclusions for publication.

The nature of research in higher education–and really, higher education itself–has changed drastically over the course of the last couple of decades.  Higher education is expanding in its scope and purpose, and there is increasing demand for academic research to have immediate, practical value. When conducting research, the most frequent problem faced by students and academics at all levels is what to do with the vast amounts of information we now have access to: how to source it, organize it, and analyze it critically.  Direct instruction in digital and information literacy continues to be a need in postsecondary education (both undergraduate and graduate), but there are a number of tools available that can be powerful aids in the research process, expanding our knowledge base and extending our capacity to think critically about sources, thus also expanding our potential for innovation.  There is no doubt that the nature of research will continue to evolve alongside the digital world…are we ready to consider the possibilities?

References

Brennan, J. & Teichler, U. (2008).  The future of higher education and of higher education research. Higher Education, 56(3), p. 259-264. https://doi.org/10.1080/13583883.2003.9967102

Huddleston, B., Bond, J., Chenoweth, L., & Hull, T. (2019). Faculty perspectives on undergraduate research skills: Nine core skills for research success. Reference & User Services Quarterly (59)2, pp. 118-130. 

Jonbloed, B., Enders, J., & Salerno, C. (2008). Higher education and its communities: Interconnections, interdependencies and a research agenda. Higher Education, 56(3), p.303-324.  https://doi.org/10.1080/13583883.2003.9967102

Lubke, J., Britt, V., Paulus, T., & Atkins, D. (2017).  Hacking the literature review: Opportunities and innovations to improve the research process. Reference and User Services Quarterly (56)4, p. 285-295.

Park, C. (2005). New variant PhD: The changing nature of the doctorate in the UK. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management 27(2), p.189–207. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/1360080050012006

Digital Wisdom & Circumnavigating “The Algorithm”

In his 2013 essay “From Digital Natives to Digital Wisdom,” author Marc Prensky claims that an important aspect of exercising digital wisdom involves actively seeking out alternative perspectives, and capitalizing on the enhanced access to these perspectives that technology affords. Though I agree that wisdom in any sphere of life is directly associated with actively seeking out and listening to many different voices, I do not think algorithms, data tracking, cookies, and social media feeds necessarily set up the modern internet user for success in this arena, and we often run the risk of being stuck in our own digital echo chambers. 

Let us first consider the Facebook News Feed.  Facebook is the biggest social network on the planet with over 2.7 billion monthly active users worldwide (Clement, 2020).  For the vast majority of users, the Facebook News Feed serves as the home base and primary content organizer that ultimately determines how users interact with the platform in any given instance, including the content they consume or engage with.  That which shows up on a news feed is determined by a complex algorithm, but the end goal of the news feed is to ultimately show the user content that they find meaningful.  Facebook determines this based on a relevance “score.”  The score is given based on past behaviors (like posts, likes, replies, comments and shares on a user’s profile), past engagement with content from certain publishers, and whether or not the content has been shared from within your friend network (Rubin, 2020).  In short, the more a user interacts with the things they like or are interested in, the more they will have the opportunity to engage with that same type of content in the future.

Facebook’s attempt to narrow the scope of what users interact with is not innately bad; after all, it does help regulate the overwhelming amount of content available on the internet and it attempts to make available content meaningful and hyper-relevant to the user.  But this narrowing of scope has resulted in a risky consequence, namely that the algorithm does not inherently help the user see/read/hear alternative perspectives and thus become more digitally wise.  For most users, the algorithm leads to a fairly robust echo chamber wherein the consumer is constantly being exposed to ideas and sources and content that they (probably) already like or ascribe to.  Especially where news content is concerned, it’s a bit of a breeding ground for confirmation bias. 

(GCFLearnFree, 2019)

So my question is this: how do we “beat the algorithm” in digital spaces (both literally and metaphorically speaking) in order to remain mindful of our information sources and consider the underlying assumptions behind what we consume? How do we self-identify potential echo chambers and intentionally seek out alternative perspectives?

I believe the answer lies (at least partially) in media literacy education. According to Hobbs (2010), media literacy is a subset of digital literacy skills involving:

  1. the ability to access information by locating and sharing materials and comprehending information and ideas
  2. the ability to create content in a variety of forms, making use of digital tools and technologies;
  3. the ability to reflect on one’s own conduct and communication by applying social responsibility and ethical principles;
  4. the ability to take social action by working individually and collaboratively to share knowledge and solve problems as a member of a community;
  5. the ability to analyze messages in a variety of forms by identifying the author, purpose, and point of view and evaluating the quality and credibility of the content.

In a study conducted with 400 American high school students, findings showed that students who participated in a media literacy program had substantially higher levels of media knowledge and news/advertising analysis skills than other students (Martens & Hobbs, 2015).  Perhaps more importantly, information-seeking motives, media knowledge, and news analysis skills independently contributed to adolescents’ proclivity towards civic engagement (Martens & Hobbs, 2015), and civic engagement naturally requires dialogue with others within and outside of an individual’s immediate circle.  In other words, the more students were able to critically consider the content they were consuming and the motives behind why they were consuming it, the more they wanted to engage with alternative perspectives and be active, responsible, productive members of a larger community.

Understanding how the Facebook algorithm works is one form of media literacy education and it can certainly go a long way in helping users of that particular platform identify and avoid echo chambers therein.  However, echo chambers can exist outside of the Facebook algorithm to the extent that any given individual fails to seek out opinion-challenging information.  Therefore, in an attempt to lean into media literacy and, by extension, civic engagement, here are three simple but meaningful tips that the digitally wise might find useful:

  1. Habitually check multiple news sources; this is the only surefire way to ensure you’re getting complete information with the maximum amount of objectivity.
  2. Intentionally reach out and interact with people of different perspectives, both on and offline; take care to discuss new ideas with facts, patience, and respect.
  3. Be aware of your own biases; wanting something to be true doesn’t make it factual. (GCF Global, 2020)

These “tricks of the trade” are not revolutionary, nor do they find their origins with the dawning the internet, yet these are the very practices that have, perhaps, become more difficult to actively employ in digital space.  Consequently, reminders about the simple things never hurt.  Simple concepts aren’t necessarily simple to enact.  The passive internet user is the one most likely to get caught in an echo chamber; the digitally-wise will make consistent efforts to challenge their own thinking and intentionally seek out alternative voices, even if it takes a little bit more elbow grease to do it.

References:

Clement, J. (2020). Number of monthly active Facebook users worldwide as of 2nd quarter 2020. Statista. https://www.statista.com/statistics/264810/number-of-monthly-active-facebook-users-worldwide/    

GCF Global. (2020, October 8). What is an echo chamber? Digital Media Literacy. https://edu.gcfglobal.org/en/digital-media-literacy/what-is-an-echo-chamber/1/

GCFLearnFree. (2019, June 18). What is an echo chamber? YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Se20RoB331w&feature=emb_logo

Hobbs, R. (2010). Digital and media literacy: A plan of action. The Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program & the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. https://knightfoundation.org/reports/digital-and-media-literacy-plan-action/

Martens, H. & Hobbs, R. (2015). How media literacy supports civic engagement in a digital age.  Atlantic Journal of Communication, 23, 120–137.

Prensky, M. (2013). From digital natives to digital wisdom: Hopeful essays for 21st century learning. Corwin, 201-215.

Rubin, C. (2020). 10 ways to beat the Facebook algorithm in 2020. UseProof. https://blog.useproof.com/facebook-algorithm