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Multipurpose Design for Education Research

One of our team members attended a small elementary school with, as she describes it, three classroom wings, a library, a main office, and a multipurpose room. The library (you guessed it) housed books; the main office contained offices for the school secretary, nurse, and principal; and the multipurpose room was, in turn, cafeteria, auditorium, gymnasium, classroom, indoor bus-stop, and likely several other rooms she can’t now recall. The multipurpose room met the ever-changing needs of students and teachers through its adaptability.

Rooms like that one have neither a single use, nor a single user (their flexibility is their strength), and within education settings, curricula, lesson plans, and even rooms, are rarely one size fits all. Why, then, would we create a digital learning platform that would accommodate only one type of education research?

Well, we didn’t. We’re behind Terracotta, a tool for conducting experimental research in learning management system (LMS) course sites. When we tell people about Terracotta, we tend to get the following questions: Who is supposed to use it? Teachers? Researchers? The answer is “Yes! Both! – and more!” The next question is: How will they use Terracotta? Our answer is, “In many different ways!”  

Admittedly, conducting experimental research in the LMS is a fundamentally niche activity, but with Terracotta, we’re working hard to avoid creating barriers, and to broaden participation in education research. Any meaningful systematic reform in education requires buy-in from various stakeholders, and we think that any research on these reforms should be accessible to and inclusive of these stakeholders. As the creators of a digital research tool, take it from us: we could make things much easier for ourselves by focusing only on the specialized needs of researchers. But if we excluded other voices, the range of ideas for exploring what works, and the benefits of knowing what works, would be diminished. 

So, who should use educational research infrastructure? Obviously, researchers. Researchers do research. But they’re not alone in this space.

Teachers are innovators, and they should be empowered to know whether their innovations work. Research conducted by practitioners, commonly known as action research, has a robust tradition in education. When teachers engage in research (and blur the line between “teacher” and “researcher”), they become change agents – teaching moves become teaching improvements and these improvements can snowball, catalyzing new hypotheses and new innovations. Action research can also be a method for reflection and can facilitate teachers’ professional growth.

Taking stock, we’ve got researchers doing research, and additionally, we’ve got teachers doing research.  Everyone’s doing research! Cue the confetti!         

…um, …but wait; is that all?

Not quite. Rather than doing research independently, teachers and researchers should collaborate, forming a symbiotic relationship with many benefits on both sides. On the one hand, education research is hard – it’s a profession heavily laden with technique, abstract concepts, and epistemology. Full-time teachers rarely have the methodological expertise or the theoretical background knowledge to make substantive progress in research. For these reasons, teachers can benefit from partnerships with researchers, who can chart clear paths through compliance protocols, research designs, analytical methods, and scholarly writing. 

On the other hand, teaching is hard – it’s a profession that requires keen insight into feasibility, insight generally earned through thousands of hours…teaching. Researchers often lack intuitive understanding of the practical constraints of student learning environments, the needs of diverse students, the nuances of assessment, and the importance of classroom management. For these reasons, researchers can benefit from partnerships with teachers, who can identify opportunities and set up guidelines for what is possible in practice. If we want to support collaboration, we need to develop research infrastructure that accommodates both audiences.

So, the challenge for us, as the developers of a research tool for education, is to make a multipurpose room – at once a place that can be used by people independently, and a commons where people are brought together to interact. A tool that simultaneously and flexibly supports professional researchers as well as teachers who are participating in research. 

“Who is supposed to use Terracotta?” Collaboratives of teachers and researchers. 

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And, there are already several models for collaboratives of the type we suggest. One, the Teacher Run Experiment Network (TREN), provided support for over 45 teachers to address their most pressing questions. Teachers received funding and personal consultation from 3 experienced researchers in designing and conducting experiments. On the other end of the spectrum, the ManyClasses model involves researchers identifying a core experimental contrast, and a collective of teachers volunteering to embed the experimental study in their classes, using their own materials and intuitions about implementation. In this way, the ManyClasses model aims to produce legitimate estimates of the benefits of a practice, in a way that is uniquely considerate of diversity, accounting for a range of implementation variables and opportunities.

Different models of collaboration may be appropriate, or inappropriate, for different research questions. For example, if the goal is to test generalizable theory, a ManyClasses approach might be best. If the goal is to identify teachers’ latent insights about what works, a TREN-like model might be best. But regardless of their structure, these collaboratives would benefit from a toolkit. We’re working hard to ensure that this is a multipurpose toolkit– and that education research infrastructure can be beneficial for multiple user roles. If we had envisioned Terracotta to only be useful to researchers, or teachers – or designers, or developers, or administrators – we would have fundamentally blunted its benefits. Instead, Terracotta aims to support a breadth of users and user needs. “How will they use Terracotta” – Together, in whatever way works best for their goals. This is an exciting time.  As learning technologies and digital platforms proliferate, we’re seeing new opportunities to better-understand student learning, success, and equity — and to improve it! At this early stage, a cohort of research tools is emerging, and it’s important that we advocate for broader and more diverse forms of engagement and collaboration.