August Focus & Mentor-in-Residence

Categories: Careers, Instruction, Online Learning, Other, Professional Development and Continuing Education, Research Design, Research Ethics, Research Roles, Research Skills, Supervising and Teaching Research Skills and Roles, Teaching

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MethodSpace offers a new topical focus each month, and features an expert in that field as the Mentor-in-Residence. For August 2020 we will focus on Teaching and Learning Research. We will explore classroom instruction in research methods, as well as research foundations and experiences in other curricular courses. We will explore ways experienced researchers guide and mentor future researchers. We will explore ways to learn the art and craft, the practical skills and mindsets, that will prepare us to design and conduct ethical studies that have scientific merit and make a real impact. We will consider these questions in the context of face-to-face or online instruction. August is promising to be a busy month! We’ll feature original posts, interviews with researchers, authors, and educators, and links to open access resources. You will find the unfolding series through this tag.

Fortunately, we have an excellent Mentor-in-Residence this month! It is always exciting to meet the author of one of your favorite books, so I was delighted to make acquaintance with Dr. Linda Bloomberg. I used her book Completing Your Qualitative Dissertation: A Road Map from Beginning to End in my efforts to guide doctoral students. It offered clear descriptions and examples so beneficial to those struggling to complete their PhD work. This month she will share insights about online learning as well as about completion of the dissertation or thesis.

JES. Please start by introducing yourself. How did you become interested in student research and teaching and learning?

LB. I was introduced to qualitative research during the AEGIS doctoral program at Teachers College, Columbia University, and right away I knew I wanted to teach research. I was quite unaware of qualitative research methods until I did my own dissertation, and I was fascinated by what I learned. As soon as I graduated with my doctorate I began writing  Completing Your Qualitative Dissertation: A Road Map from Beginning to End, and the first edition was published with SAGE in 2008. Right after graduating, I also served as dissertation Chair to two of my own classmates in the AEGIS program who were conducting qualitative studies. I have continued to remain immersed in the field of qualitative research, and regularly attend the annual International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry and other relevant international research conferences in order to remain current in the ever-evolving field. At Northcentral University’s School of Education, where I have served for the past seven years as Full Professor and Director of Faculty Support and Development, I develop graduate curriculum on qualitative research methods and regularly present webinars on cutting-edge topics in the field. I also currently serve as dissertation chair and subject matter expert to over twenty doctoral candidates. Aside from research methods my other areas of interest are adult learning and adult development, and how each of these compliments the other. Mentoring graduate students and engaging with them in their research endeavors, and at the same time supporting their learning and development, is a real joy!

JES. Your book, Completing Your Qualitative Dissertation: A Road Map from Beginning to End, is in its fourth edition, with a fifth on its way. A new book The Art [and Science] of Teaching Online: Engaging and Empowering Online Learners, is coming soon. Can you tell us about how your interests in helping students succeed with dissertations intersects with your commitment to improving online learning.

LB. Let me address each part of your question, and then find a way to synthesize my response. First, the purpose of my text Completing Your Qualitative Dissertation: A Road Map from Beginning to End is to provide both students and instructors a clear guide to conceptualizing and writing a qualitative dissertation. This book was originally designed as a “dissertation in action”, with each of the chapters including two sections: instruction and application, with each application section mirroring an actual dissertation chapter.

It has been very gratifying to see how this book has been used in graduate programs all over the world and I regularly receive notes from students and faculty who are using it in their research courses. Second, working for over two decades in the ever-expanding and evolving online environment has provided me with the experience and insights regarding the specific challenges posed to both teaching and learning. The distance that characterizes this environment poses a significant risk to engagement, on the part of both students and instructors. As a result, teaching in the online environment encompasses certain skills as well as a deep understanding of the ways in which students can remain maximally engaged, and therefore achieve success in their studies.

Now more than ever before, with the recent dramatic thrust into the world of online learning as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more educators at every level are scrambling to assemble curriculum and adapt their pedagogy to an online format. Modes of communication differ significantly in online courses, with a greater reliance on asynchronous communication methods which do not occur in “real time”. Monitoring student progress, identification and follow-up of issues or barriers encountered by students are also critical tasks for instructors to minimize the likelihood of student disengagement or withdrawal. 

My forthcoming book The Art [and Science] of Teaching Online: Engaging and Empowering Online Learners offers educators the knowledge and competencies needed to successfully teach online, including technical and communication skills, and ongoing responsiveness and support. Finally, I will try to address your question regarding the intersection of my interests in helping students succeed with dissertations and my commitment to improving online learning. Because I have worked for a number of years for Northcentral University, which is a fully online institution, and prior to that in various other online and blended educational contexts, my interests in online learning and qualitative research have converged. I think each of my books captures these professional interests, serving the purpose of sharing my knowledge, skills, and experience, to elevate and enhance both learning and teaching within the context of Higher Education, both traditional and online.

JES. Thinking about teaching research methods online, what kinds of learning experiences help students gain the skills and mindsets necessary to carry out original research?

LB. My forthcoming book The Art [and Science] of Teaching Online: Engaging and Empowering Online Learners is based on two central concepts and these are woven through each chapter: First, student engagement is central to successful online learning. Second is the concept of student empowerment; that is, enhancing students’ sense of ownership and autonomy with regard their own learning and development. I recognize that online learning should not be thought of as “alone learning”, and so to be successful, instructors should be cognizant, right from the start, of instilling in their students a growth academic mindset, and an “I can do this attitude”. Together with ongoing mentoring, support, and encouragement, instructors should work collaboratively with their students each step of the way, providing the necessary resources and materials that will build knowledge and skills so students will be able to conduct and successfully complete a rigorous and original research study that will add valuable knowledge to their particular field of practice. Understandably, research methods and the practical application thereof is mostly new to students when they set out on their graduate journeys. As instructors I think it is therefore so important that we always remember to “walk in our students’ shoes”; we were once there too. And so imparting our knowledge, expertise, and experience and at the same time remaining keenly intuitive to their diverse and individual needs and interests, as well as their unique strengths and limitations, is paramount.

JES. What is the most important first step for someone who will be teaching research-related courses online for the first time in the coming term?

LB. The Spring of 2020 saw educational institutions around the world being forced to rapidly convert to online education, a shift that has come with some significant challenges including an overtaxed technological infrastructure, students’ disorientation, and instructors’ own learning curve. As universities across the country begin to make the difficult decision to continue with online learning in the fall semester, instructors will again be asked to adapt their classes to an online format. Instructors were, and still are, required to improvise quick solutions in less-than-ideal circumstances, including lack of (or limited) training and support.  The ability to effectively communicate, manage unfamiliar technology, and access and deliver content in new ways becomes especially critical when there is less available time to acclimate to new tools and operating environments.

That said, it is imperative that instructors are engaging and inclusive in their teaching approach, and that the needs of all students–including those who are most vulnerable–are being met. An important first step for someone who will be teaching research-related courses online for the first time in the coming term is to be open to learning.I am a proponent of collaborative learning, and I know that you, Janet, have written extensively on this topic. Presenting oneself as a co-learner and adopting a learner-centered teaching approach goes a long way to building trust and motivation.  Indeed, with the transition to online education, learning with and from each other, and sharing support and resources is part of the onboarding process, both for instructors and their students!  While instructors are content experts in their field, right now they may be facing a situation in a pedagogical sense where they feel somewhat uncertain and unfamiliar.

I would say, keep the focus on engagement, and make sure that students do not become overwhelmed with the content. Additionally, incorporate individualized instruction into online courses, both with regard to assignments and modes of instruction. For each course unit, provide a list of concepts and objectives that you expect them to master by the end of their study on the unit, and encourage them to take advantage of textbook readings, online supplemental materials, mini-lecture videos, and tutoring sessions, when available. By replacing the traditional lecture with multiple forms of content delivery and review, instructors will appeal to diverse needs and abilities, and students will hopefully become maximally engaged. With regard to communication, be available, and make use of both synchronous and asynchronous tools. With the rapid shift instructors are not expected to have all the answers, but they should know how to point their students in the right direction should they need additional resources or support.  Teaching research methods in the online environment will also mean remaining flexible. In this way, instructors will be able to meet diverse needs and address multiple interests so that their students can engage in meaningful research and successfully complete their studies.  

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