Friday, June 29, 2012

The research behaviour of Generation Y doctoral students

"The research behaviour of Generation Y doctoral students" is a UK study of higher education research students (those undertaking a PHD). It is a 45 page document (avialable in PDF and as easy to read web pages) and was released June 2012 by the British Library and the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC).

The study found that students look for text-based secondary material. That is the look for journal articles, books and other published work. A few science students look for published data-sets and in the social sciences, arts and humanities newspapers, archival material and social data may be used. The report's authors suggest this needs further research and may indicate a move away from using original data. But it does not seem surprising, based on my experience of higher education.

E-journals were found to be the primary research resource, with access being an issue for Generation Y students. Unlike older students, almost half of Generation Y will made do with the abstract, if they can't get the full article. The researcher found that open access and self-archived is not understood by the students, with material not published in formal journals being avoided by the students. The researches suggest students are not being trained adequately to deal with these information sources. However, I suggest there is a general failure by academic to accept the new reality of the Internet. This risks the future of academic research, just as the retail industry, newspaper publishing are under threat from new technology.

The researches found that Generation Y students use web technology tools more than older students, but they are still relativity conservative. This seems a reasonable approach to me, given that the students will risk the disapproval of their older supervisors and examiners if they do anything radical, or which is not supported by their institution. As with other professionals, I suggest librarians are still largely in a state of denial about the Internet, propping up obsolete publishing models and effective acting as underpaid marketers for vastly profitable private academic publishing companies.

The researchers found that Generation Y doctoral students generally work alone. This seems to be the major failing with current approaches to the way research supervision is conducted at universities. It contradicts research by CAPA which shows that students collaborating are happier and that most research is now done in teams. This seems similar to the issue with coursework at universities, where many lecturers cling to the idea that the students learn from and appreciate bespoke lectures, which research shows these are a poor teaching technique.

The researchers found that Generation Y students prefer personalize face-to-face support and training. This is not surprising, as we would all like that. Unfortunately the researchers do not seem to have asked the right questions. As an example, I estimated that the amount the student is paying for their higher degree is sufficient to provide them with about eight minutes individual attention from staff, per week. The question then is how to best use that available eight minutes: on individual face-to-face support, or in other ways? In particular, a few minutes of attention goes a lot further when used online, than face to face.

The researchers ask if institutions can have the students support each other. This would not seem to be a question at all, as that is the way online education is already routinely done at university, with students encouraged to learn together. There are well established techniques which online course designers and tutors are trained in. These same techniques should be able to be adapted for research students. Given that most research students are being prepared for a career where they will work in teams, it would seem natural to teach them team skills.

One curious aspect of the report is that I could not find any mention of who wrote it, nor how to cite the report. Given the significant and scholarly nature of the undertaking, this seems a curious omission.


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