1st innovation forum: Design Research

Design research as a methodological proposal for looking into the relationship between innovation and research

Begoña Gros

Slide Presentation

Innovation and research

Up until the late 1980s, innovation in university-level teaching focused on analysing teaching methods. It was thought that innovation and change arose through methodological changes adopted individually by certain lecturers. The growing institutionalisation of efforts in innovation over recent years has led to what Hannan and Silver (2005) call “guided innovation”. While not denying the individual process, the focus is on innovation that is directed by institutions providing incentives for it. These authors pick out seven types of innovation, together with the associated research for improving knowledge in each of those areas. The seven types (Hannan & Silver 2005: 161) are these:

  • 1. Individual and group innovations: relating to the teaching rooms and the course, as a direct response to the needs of the students and to professional matters (student-led seminars, laboratory simulations, etc.).
  • 2. Subject-specific initiatives: this takes in initiatives backed by professional associations and groups.
  • 3. Innovations in technology-based education: making use of the new technologies, and acquiring or developing associated materials.
  • 4. Innovation prompted by the curriculum: to meet the needs of the modular and/or semester-based structure, to respond to changes in the content of the various fields of study and to interdisciplinary developments.
  • 5. Institutional initiatives: including decisions on different procedures and professional-development processes.
  • 6. Systemic initiatives: concerning the creation of a governing body in the new universities or distinct committees suiting each institution.
  • 7. Systemic spin-offs: these arise within higher-education institutions as a result of the procedures and practice applied throughout the system.

Innovation in higher education has come to mean a process intended to introduce some change leading towards improvements for a person, a course, a department or the institution as such and its context as a whole.

Though used as a single concept, this kind of innovation may have different implications for the teacher and for the student. The two are not necessarily related. An innovation in the student’s learning procedures may be independent of any ‘teaching’ in its traditional sense. “A change in what teachers do may have little or no effect on what or how students learn” (Hannan & Silver – 2005: 23). When searching for evidence in change processes, Cuban (2000) feels that two criteria should be borne in mind: penetration and effectiveness. For the first, whether the change has really led to changes in teaching-learning programmes and forms should be assessed; and for the second, the degree of improvement in learning quality is to be analysed. The existence of quality indicators should enable both aspects to the analysed.

An innovation process involves intention, planning and effort, yet even if it meets all those requirements, it may still fail in terms of outcomes. For that reason, research is particularly important since it enables innovation processes to be directed thanks to the knowledge generated by the research projects.

Research methodologies

In our view the use of research methodologies that take account of the multi-dimensional nature of many of the issues involved should be examined, and in this respect we think participatory methodological approaches are of particular interest.

In most cases, sector-specific surveys and analyses are the most commonly used kinds of research. This way of approaching research is valid for gathering information on a macro level. Nevertheless, it is useful to be able to combine that with an analysis enabling further detailed work to be done on the basis of specific theoretical approaches. In short, we feel it is useful to go further in using participatory research methods.

Figure 1 presents the difference between a predictive approach and a participatory approach. In general, predictive research is based on testing theories and hypotheses, while the participatory approach focuses on analysing the practices of the participants involved (teachers, students, technical staff, project managers etc.).

Figure 1. Differences between the predictive and the participatory approaches

Educational design-based research

The difficulties of using experimental research methods in studies on aspects of education and learning became apparent in the 1990s. Predictive research is based on testing theories and hypotheses by designing experimental situations, and this makes it necessary to design an artificial situation and to establish independent variables. In most cases, the results obtained are of little use in improving basic research and in underpinning the design of practices. Consequently, the qualitative kind of methodologies associated with ethnographic research have been coming into educational research. One of the best-known methodologies is action research, which facilitates pursuing a participatory analysis in which all involved become the protagonists in building up knowledge of the reality of the subject of study, in identifying problems and needs, and eventually in drawing up proposals and solutions.

As we see it, discussion should be based not so much on the instrumental methodological option (quantitative or qualitative) as on using methods enabling innovation design to be linked to practice. That is why we find the proposal initially launched by Ann Brown (1992) to be particularly significant: she clearly established the necessity and urgency of seeking new methodological proposals for fostering the link between innovation and design research. She established the need for:

  • tackling theoretical issues concerning the nature of learning in its context;
  • approaching the study of learning in real contexts;
  • going beyond measurements of learning based on experimental models;
  • finding research projects that facilitate educational assessment

The chief aim of design research is to foster the sustainability of innovation. For that reason, the structure of the research is based on its objectives rather than on choosing a particular methodology. This framework offers a transformative vision of educational research, one in which the results obtained during the process enable the designs themselves to be evaluated and refined. That standpoint of gradual refining implies implementing an initial version of the design to see what results it brings. The design is then constantly reviewed until the objectives originally set are met.

The design of this kind of research is based on a cyclical process in which the educational design is constantly reviewed and adapted to the contextual conditions of the system in the light of the learning objectives. The process rests on reflecting on both the practice and the theory underpinning it. It thus achieves an improvement in knowledge as well as in practices.

This kind of research is pursued in real, complex learning environments, and in the presence of a wide range of variables that cannot always be controlled or ascertained a priori. For that reason, ascertaining which elements may be affecting the success of the design is one of the critical aspects of this methodology. Those elements are traced by identifying and analysing the contradictions or conflicts that arise when the activity is in progress, and thus revealing which aspects may be affecting the success of failure of the learning process.

Design research differs from classic experimentation in these respects:

  • it is carried our in real contexts in order to avoid the distortions inherent to laboratory experiments;
  • the aim is not to control variables but rather to identify them in order to characterise the situation;
  • the research starts off with a general plan and with materials that are not necessarily fully defined at the outset;
  • the materials are fine-tuned in accordance with progress made and with the context;
  • the objective is not so much achieving the repeatability of the implementations arranged as improving the design implemented and generating guidelines for implementing research designs in situations featuring similar conditions;
  • a systematic analysis of the educational implementations is run, and in it social interactions among the participants are part of the research analysis;
  • it is geared towards developing a profile characterising the design in practice rather than towards demonstrating a hypothesis;
  • decision-making on how to pursue the various stages of the work is handled by all the participants in the process rather than being the preserve of the researchers.

The research work is not defined by the methodology (quantitative or qualitative) but rather by its objective, which is essentially to explain a change, an innovation.

Research and development form a continuous cycle in designing the intervention, analysing it and re-designing it. Consequently, the research has these features:

  • 1. It combines the design of learning situations or ambiances with the development of theories. This means that these two aspects must be coherent to some extent, though their relationship must in any case be flexible and modifiable during the course of the experimental work.
  • 2. The research and development form a continuous cycle of intervention design, application, analysis and re-design.
  • 3. The participants are co-participants in the design and also in analysing the results.
  • 4. The pursuit of the research work must rest on methods enabling the connections between the process applied and results of interest to be traced and taken account of.

The research is centred on designing the practices and exploring every aspect of those practices during the implementation stage: artefacts, action plan, activity structure etc.

The aim of design research is to shape dynamic research situations in which the active participation of all parties involved is very important. It is in some ways quite similar to action research and to the trend associated with reflective practice. However, an important aim in this approach is to arrive at knowledge through well-founded educational interventions. The purpose is not only to improve a particular practice but also to improve scientific knowledge.

In designing the experimental stage, it is important to bear the following factors in mind:

  • 1. The local conditions forming the context of the intervention.
  • 2. Constant review based on the design and the experimentation.
  • 3. The relationship between multiple dependent variables.
  • 4. Studying the social interactions of the participants.
  • 5. Co-participation in the design and in analysing the results.

In short, design research spotlights the innovation implemented, and requires critical, on-going evaluation of the elements characterising it. Even though repeatability is not a goal to be attained, it is useful to be able to generalise the results of the implementation for the purpose of guiding the design process in similar contexts. To achieve that, simultaneous triangulation methodology is used, i.e. applying both qualitative and quantitative techniques in gathering and analysing the information. Which of those techniques are selected depends on the complexity of the situation and the context to be analysed.

This approach requires “a little more than showing that a particular design works.” The researcher is expected to provide evidence based on learning achievements connected with theoretical elements in learning and the construction of knowledge (Barad-Squire, 2004: 6). In short, research design is interactive, framed and directed towards intervention, though still underpinned by theory.

Reporting the results of the research

Describing what was done is somewhat less important in this context, since the intention is not so much to replicate the implementation as to learn from mistakes in order to improve the design that was implemented and to create a knowledge base that may help to achieve success in some other implementation in similar contexts. The importance of the documentation on changes made to the design marks out boundaries between the phases in the process. When that documentation is completed, the aim is to characterise the design elements involved in each phase. A detailed history of the design facilitates reporting back to other researchers and evaluating the credibility of the decisions taken regarding a design and the quality of the lessons learned from the research. It also facilitates the proper use of that documentation in any subsequent implementations.

A design-research report demands a different approach to analysing and reporting on the experiments. In classic research procedures, results reports are based essentially on five sections forming a linear sequential process: background to the problem, enunciation of the research hypothesis or questions, description of the method used, results, and conclusions.

Since design research is a circular model, some aspects are repeated at every stage. Hence results analysis and partial conclusions may appear in several places in the report. In this respect, most research projects using this kind of methodology draw up heir final reports on the basis of the various phases and cycles involved in the research work, replicating the above-mentioned model for each stage and reporting on the outcomes and the adjustments made in each case.

Reporting results

Graphic 1. Reporting the results


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