Two Tracks: Design and Research

You'll notice in much of the documentation for this class, we describe two general categories of class projects: designs that solve problems and research that investigates phenomena. When you propose your project, you can choose either kind of project.

How can you know which to choose? Let's look a little bit at the two types of projects.

Design Projects

In a design project, you're typically trying to solve some problem by designing a tool to address it. Many of the tools you use in the OMS program are solutions to problems. Piazza and other online class forums address the problem of hosting class discussions without a co-located class. HipChat and Slack address the problem of making that communication more synchronous, rapid, and conversational. OSCAR addresses the problem of getting students registered for classes without gathering everyone in a giant gymnasium the way we used to do.

If you choose to do a design project, you'll want to:

  • Understand the problem, including the different stakeholders.
  • Understand the current systems that try to solve parts of that problem, especially their strengths and weaknesses.
  • Understand the broader pedagogical, cultural, or organizational issues at play in this problem.

If you choose to do a design project, your ultimate deliverable will be a tool you create to address the problem. The scope and completeness of that tool will depend on the problem you choose to address; very big problems may only be able to addressed with comprehensive prototypes, while smaller problems may lead to actual tools.

Research Projects

In a research project, you're typically trying to investigate a phenomenon that already exists. The goal is to gain greater understanding of the nature of the phenomenon and why it exists. Research is often thought of more in the context of the natural sciences, but research in EdTech is a massive field as well. Some general topics for research would include how certain tools actually change the learning process, how schools with technology differ from schools without, how different audiences receive and view educational technology differently, etc.

If you choose to do a research project, you'll want to:

  • Understand and very clearly define the phenomenon you want to investigate. Sometimes defining the phenomenon may even be part of the research.
  • Understand the current theories and methodologies that have been applied to this phenomenon.
  • Understand the research methodologies that would give the data necessary to make useful statements about the phenomenon.

If you choose to do a research project, your ultimate deliverable will be the results of your research, including the data you gathered, the analysis you performed on that data, and any accompanying documentation describing the structure of that data. In the limited amount of time we have, you may not be able to do a comprehensive study, but you should ideally be able to cycle through the research process (from research questions to data collection to analysis to conclusions) once. Note also that research has some additional IRB and FERPA rules that may need to be followed, so if you're considering the research path, discuss it with your mentor early so we can get the documentation going as fast as possible and maximize the time to actually do your research.

Hybrid Projects

The above two categories aren't mutually exclusive, however. There are lots of places where some overlap can occur. Oftentimes, we might use the results of some research to reflect on the design of a tool, or conversely, we might use a tool to test out some research hypotheses. Consider the following:

  • A quantitative study on how a particular tool exacerbates gender bias in online classrooms, culminating in changes to the tool to counter those tendencies.
  • A tool to improve student engagement in a classroom, followed by a study to examine whether or not student engagement actually improved through using the tool.
  • A tool to improve student learning based on a particular pedagogical theory, followed by a study to examine whether or not student learning improved, which then informs analysis of whether or not the pedagogical theory was accurate in the first place.
  • A qualitative study on the design strengths and weaknesses of an existing tool, like Piazza, that then informs the design of a script that adds valuable extra features or addresses certain problems.

In each of these cases, there are both design and research elements associated with the work.

Generally speaking, choosing between a design and a research project should be something you do very early in the course, ideally even during the first week. This first decision will be helpful to determining what topics and sources you'll want to start researching first.

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