Educational research in Australia

Researchers should try to keep researching during the pandemic. Here’s 5 tips to help you do it

Educational researchers, like many other workers during this COVID-19 pandemic, will be working from home for the foreseeable future. Most have additional teaching responsibilities so currently they will be pedaling fast to convert their teaching to online formats. Many will be juggling new or additional carer duties while working remotely. During this period, and afterwards, it is also likely external and internal research funding will be affected, with many researchers working in a low (or no) funding environment for some time.

We believe it is important, during this period, for researchers to continue with their research programs and to use the time to help develop or refine their research-relevant skillsets.

Experienced researchers, probably already involved in several research projects, will have the expertise to more easily adapt their research to the limitations of being confined to their homes or relatively less funding. And it is not uncommon in any research career to have periods of work away from the workplace or where research funds dry up. But this is a critical time for many researchers, especially research students and early career researchers. The strategies they use and develop now will help them keep their career trajectories intact.

In this article we outline 5 tips for researchers to help them stay research-active while working remotely and while research funding may be thin on the ground. We hope these tips will help researchers maintain their writing momentum and research activity over this period. Importantly, however, the ideas we present here do not substitute for the healthy and ongoing research funding that is ultimately required to tackle important research problems.

1. Research Design

The first thing to consider is research design and whether it needs to be adjusted because of the current social distancing regimes or reduced funding. In fact, this may be the single most important thing to think through in the first instance. Failure to do so may mean research objectives cannot be met and a critical window of data collection is missed. For some it could mean the loss of entire year in the study or research program.

If a shift in research design is needed, a key question is how can research objectives still be met while working remotely and while funding is limited? The research objectives will have been developed through careful reading, contemplation, and consultation so it is important to keep them front and centre as decisions on any changes to research design are made.

For example, some research objectives require longitudinal data from school students and/or teachers in each of (Australia’s) Term 2 (May-July), Term 3, and Term 4 of 2020. If schools are not holding in-person classes in some or all of Term 2, then is it still possible to collect longitudinal data in each of Terms 3 and 4? 

Or, the research context may be adjusted to collect data from students while they are learning remotely from home in Term 2 and then again once they are learning in-class at school. Either of the above considerations will likely also benefit research budgets, as they reduce or eliminate some costs associated with in-person data collection (e.g., travel costs).

Or, the researcher may be able to defer data collection that was planned for 2020 into early 2021 and still stay on track with milestones and timetable.

Shifts in research design of this nature are not unusual at the best of times. Often, approvals from university ethics committees or government departments are delayed, schools drop out from some projects, there is a shift in policy that makes some research issues less topical or timely, funding bodies reduce or remove funding schemes, and so on. Skills developed in adjusting methodology to suit the changing research landscape will be valuable throughout any research career.

Importantly, if research design needs to be adjusted, research students and early career researchers should consult with highly experienced researchers to ensure that the methodological shift will yield reliable and valid data that can directly address the research objectives.

2. Low Hanging Fruit

While working remotely it might be difficult to fire up entirely new research activities and projects. This often requires being on deck in the workplace to harness appropriate infrastructure and personnel to initiate new tasks. It may also be because data collection sites are not accessible during this time. When funding is reduced, it is also difficult to initiate new research projects. Whatever the reason, it is important to audit the “low hanging fruit” that may be available.

There could be essential deskwork tasks that can be done. For example, entering/refining references in an electronic bibliographic database that will eventually need to be imported into the thesis or paper. The format template for a thesis or forthcoming book can be developed ready for material as it is written. An ethics application may be developed and submitted. A survey may be designed. A stockpile of literature can be collected and read. A first draft of an article or thesis chapter can be polished into a second and subsequent draft. A partially completed article can be revisited, completed, and submitted for publication. A vital statistical or qualitative analytic technique may be learned.

For early career researchers, there may be a research article or chapter from the PhD that can be polished and submitted. There may be data from the PhD that have not been analysed and/or written up for publication. For research students whose data collection has been delayed, they may consider publishing a systematic review of the literature gathered for their project.

There are also many secondary datasets, archive materials, policy documents, and so on, that have already been collected/collated and ready for analysis. In our line of research, there is access to PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), TALIS (Teaching and Learning International Survey), TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study), PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study), and LSAY (Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth), etc. which all have variables that are relevant to our program of educational psychology research. Indeed, this period of remote working and low funding might be an opportunity to become familiar with one of these for-future research opportunities.

It is also not uncommon for a paper in Revise and Resubmit status to languish on the backburner. Now might be the time to summon the emotional and mental energy to engage with those Reviewers! If the deadline for resubmission has passed, contact the Editor to ask about an extension.

3. New Opportunities in (Educational) Research

The shift from in-class learning to remote online learning happened at scale and with great speed. What would have taken years to implement was carried out in a few days and weeks. From a research perspective, it is one of the largest educational experiments ever conducted.

Online learning is a reality of the future of education (in both school and higher education) and there is now a chance to know more about it on a very large scale. What are the modes and formats that optimise online learning? What online learning platforms are best? What is the optimal mix of teacher-directed, peer-to-peer, and self-directed learning in an online lesson? What student and home factors enable or impede online learning? What are the barriers to accessing and maximising online learning that we need to address in educational policies?

There are educational questions unique to this period that represent opportunities to better understand how students learn best.

There are many types of data that can be collected during this time. Surveys can be administered online. Students, teachers, or parents/carers can be asked to keep a diary during this time. There may be data that schools collect during this period that can be analysed.

Some researchers will have in-class (pre-COVID-19) data that can be matched with data collected during the COVID-19 remote learning period. This can answer some questions around in-class vs. remote learning and instruction.

There are also new opportunities to contribute to professional and practitioner outlets. It has been encouraging to see the extent to which researchers have been part of conversations and decisions around how to manage all aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Teacher, counsellor, and psychologist magazines, blogs, and newsletters are receptive to evidence-based advice that researchers can provide to support children and young people’s academic and personal wellbeing outcomes.

4. Collaboration

At a time of isolation, remote work, and limited resources, collaboration has never been more important. The emotional support this provides is essential as a basic human need. But there are also some very good research reasons for collaboration.

During this period of remote learning, different researchers will have different capacities. Some researchers will have school-aged children who are learning at home. Some researchers may have other carer roles, such as attending to an elderly parent. These researchers will have a different research capacity during COVID-19 than researchers who do not have such immediate carer roles.

One response to this is to develop collaboration among researchers who have complementary but non-overlapping capacities during this time. For example, a researcher with carer duties may be able to shoulder the load of deskwork that can occur at flexible times during the day and week, in collaboration with a researcher who is in a position to work during business hours or do work that requires real-time responses though the day. Or, a researcher whose participating schools can no longer participate in their research may connect with a researcher who does have viable school contacts. The same concepts apply where a researcher who has limited research resources can connect with a researcher who may have relatively more resources. Thus, a researcher with an established research design, instrumentation, or specific analytical skills can connect with a researcher who has accessible schools (or research resources/funding)—yielding a win-win outcome.

Remember also that on the other side of this period, the researcher with carer duties will be able to recalibrate to contribute in different ways again. Thus, through the life-course of writing and revising an article or chapter, it is often “swings and roundabouts” with each researcher contributing according to capacity and in different ways at different times.

5. Self-regulation (“The Main Thing is To Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing”)

When working remotely there can be vast capacity to lose important routines and structures that typically support research progress. When researchers have limited research resources, they may become disheartened or not be aware of what possibilities exist while they wait for more research funding to become available. During remote working, getting side-tracked, distracted, and procrastinating are also real risks. Moreover, with so many colleagues online in real-time during this period of remote work, there has been an escalation in e-activity (emails, online meetings, etc.) which may impede research progress.

Self-regulation will be a vital personal attribute to help researchers stay on-track and on-time—and to get past periods of low (or no) funding.

Quarantining (no pun intended) significant blocks of writing time is critical to maintain writing momentum. This will probably necessitate turning off email, messaging, mobile phones, etc. Having firm start times, break times, and clock-off times will also be important (including to maintain clear boundaries between personal and working life). This will also involve arranging (as best possible) a specific work area where concentration is easier.

The following mission statement may also be helpful to keep researchers research focused during this time: “The Main Thing is To Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing”.

Having said all of this, another important aspect of self-regulation is to adjust as appropriate to maintain personal wellbeing. If it is not realistic to set the bar at 6 metres, then don’t. Set it at 5 metres and see how you go. Cut yourself some slack where you need to. This remote work period may be something of a marathon and we should self-regulate accordingly as we seek that all-important balance between research productivity and personal wellbeing.

In Sum

For the foreseeable future our research lives have changed. But there will come a time when we are on the other side of this and when research resources are more readily and widely available. When that time comes, it will be important for our research programs and our research-relevant skills to have been maintained. There are lots of ways that researchers can do this—hopefully the ideas suggested here are some useful kick-starters.

Professor Andrew Martin, PhD, is Scientia Professor, Professor of Educational Psychology, and Co-Chair of the Educational Psychology Research Group in the School of Education at the University of New South Wales, Australia. He specialises in student motivation, engagement, achievement, and quantitative research methods.

Keiko Bostwick, PhD, is a Research Officer in the School of Education at the University of New South Wales, Australia. She specialises in student motivation, teacher and classroom effects, and quantitative research methods.

What does the post-truth world hold for teachers and educational researchers?

As 2016 draws to an end, I am left with a deep sense that things are going very, very wrong. I waver between fury and frustration, unease and dread. But these feelings are useless without some action.

I presented in a symposium at the AARE conference recently on social justice, and our theme was reframing and resisting educational inequality.

It struck me that there have been some really powerful examples of reframing and resisting this year.

For example, we have seen Nigel Farage and the Brexiteers do a stunning job of reframing the UK; we’ve seen Donald Trump resist every moment of rationality and opposition, instead successfully employing what has been described as a choreography of shame to take the presidency of the US. And here in Australia, we’ve seen the zombie-like rise of Pauline Hanson and One Nation from the political dead.

We have seen the TIMSS and PISA results released. Almost unanimously, the Australian media took the line that Australian students are slipping down the rankings and, heaven forbid, we’re even being beaten by Kazakhstan.

Leaving aside the incredible display of casual racism, xenophobia and complete lack of cultural awareness being displayed in the commentary, the fact is that TIMSS and PISA say very little about Australian schooling at all.

Yet, our federal education minister argues this is an urgent wake-up call proving that equity-based funding is unimportant and that instead we need to fix teachers and increase slipping standards in our schools.

Actually, minister, all we really need to do to improve our rankings is make the Northern Territory and Tasmania go away (to New Zealand, perhaps?) and hide all of the students who dare to come from circumstances of social and material deprivation or those who have special learning needs. Watch us rocket up the rankings!

Perhaps the most striking thing for me has been the way that discourses of equity and social justice have been mobilised in a very public and powerful way to argue for more testing, for more restrictions and control over teachers and teacher education, and to push for market models of education that undermine the public for private profit.

In the US, Trump has chosen a billionaire for his education secretary and has already announced a huge investment in turning public schools into charter schools. Similarly, Theresa May has a plan for more Grammar schools in the UK. Both are presented as addressing educational inequality.

Here in Australia, we have a phonics test suggested for our youngest students, modelled on the one the UK introduced a couple of years ago. Again, the argument is that this is needed most for children who are disadvantaged.

Education research is trash-talked on social media and given little oxygen in mainstream media and public discourse and is almost invisible in the policy arena.

The message is really powerful and simple and consistently prosecuted: education is broken because of bad teachers and teachers are bad because of teacher educators who are a bunch of out-of-touch educationalists who don’t know anything about the way the world works.

Of course all of this is complete rubbish.

I wonder about the correlation between increasing systems of surveillance and control over curriculum and pedagogy and the growing number of high stakes testing regimes, audit and accountability technologies, and the narrative of slipping standards, declining outcomes and an education system in crisis.

I wonder about how another set of tests is going to address sliding test results.

I wonder about what it means that we have had conservative coalition governments in control of the national policy agenda in this country for fifteen of the past twenty years.

I wonder about what it means when we have climate denying, market ideologues in control who reframe equity as a problem of teacher quality, who advocate for school vouchers instead of a vibrant public education system, who engage highly politicised and influential free-market think tanks in doing their policy work for them, while education researchers are ignored and teachers, parents, students and entire communities are reduced to those who simply have policy done to them.

I wonder what it means when I see multiple reports of children in the US being told by their classmates and in some cases, their teachers, that they will be locked up or their parents deported and themselves put into orphanages because they are Mexican or Muslim.

I wonder what it means when I read about a 10-year-old girl who says a boy who “grabbed her vagina” said it was okay because “if a president could do it, I can too”.

I wonder what it means when a 13-year-old Queensland boy takes his life because of bullying and the Courier Mail runs a piece calling the Safe Schools program “repulsive” and decrying “the ludicrous notion that most of our subjects nowadays include Indigenous, Asian and environmental components.”

I wonder what it means when Pauline Hanson calls for a ban on Muslim immigration and her fellow One Nation senator, Malcolm Roberts, declares that climate change is a “scam” cooked up by the CSIRO and NASA.

I wonder what it means that we lock up children indefinitely on Nauru, subjecting them to cruel and inhumane degradations, yet when Australian teachers protest, our Prime Minister gets annoyed at their “absolutely inappropriate” behaviour.

I think it’s telling that the Oxford dictionary declared “post-truth” as the 2016 word of the year. Similarly, chose “xenophobia” as their word of the year.

So what does a post-truth world mean for educational research, social justice, equity and addressing educational inequality?

What are the ways we can mobilise and fight back against the xenophobe, the misogynist, the racist, the anti-intellectual, the billionaire posing as a saviour for the common person, the rampant destruction of our natural systems on a global scale, and the complete disregard for the future of our planet and all who live on it?

We need to organise, to collectivise and not just to resist and reframe, but to entirely reconfigure how we approach social inequality through our individual and collective endeavours.

We need to grow community-based, regional, national and transnational networks that can stand together and reject the framing of education as simply a problem of bad teaching that completely ignores structural and systemic inequalities and decades-long policy failures.

We need to produce local, situated and deeply contextualised knowledges that are generated with the communities we work with.

We need a radical reimagining of the politics and practices of educational research.

We need to fight.

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Dr Stewart Riddle lectures in literacies education at the University of Southern Queensland. His research includes looking at the links between music and literacy in the lives of young people, as well as alternative schooling and research methodologies. Stewart also plays bass guitar in a rock band called Drawn from Bees.

Stewart is a member of the English Teachers’ Association of Queensland management committee and edits their journal, Words’Worth.