Is there a place for the barefoot researcher?

I have a lot of time for academics. Some of my best friends are academics. I used to be something of an academic myself (I studied for, and obtained, an MA, and did some ground-breaking research into adult economics education which resulted in my being invited to embark on a PhD; I declined).

The reason I mention all this is, of course, by way of a prelude to, not so much an all-out attack on, but an all-out gripe about, academic research.

Don't get me wrong: I'm all in favour of it, especially when it comes to matters to do with ICT. But in my experience, most academic researchers do not see much value in research which is not what you'd call academic. I refer, as you may have guessed, to the sort of observations made and noted down by teachers and other practitioners. What I like to refer to as 'barefoot researchers'.

There's a lot wrong with the barefoot approach, undoubtedly. Joe Nutt eloquently - and forcefully - draws our attention to that in his post The value of real scholarship. He says:

The idea that someone can scribble a few inarticulate pages online, drag and drop a few minutes of video footage showing some exploited child enthusing about the latest gadget, and call it “research” just doesn’t cut it for me I’m afraid.

I’ll come back to that in a moment, but first let’s look at academic research. Too often it is concerned with minutiae, is incomprehensible, takes a long time to say anything of any practical value, is boring and even, occasionally, badly written.

Obviously, what I’ve said may be true of some academic research but not all. By the same token. Nutt’s mini-diatribe against less academic research is itself as selective as it is partisan, a caricature.

And superficial. In the excerpt just referred to Nutt links to Stephen Heppell’s Be Very Afraid website. I’d agree that to an extent the videos are short and don’t say very much. However, I went to that event and interviewed several youngsters, and I have to say that I was very impressed by how articulate they were in discussing what they used the ICT for, and why.

There is much to be said for teacher-led classroom research. There has been some excellent work by members of Mirandanet, for example, whilst at the recent Handheld Learning Conference there were sound presentations by teachers Dawn Hallybone and Philip Griffin. Both have been experimenting with handheld technology in the primary classroom, and neither could justifiably be accused of being more concerned with the technology than its educational value (another one of Nutt’s ongoing concerns).

For me, the value of such non-academic research is that it’s quick, anyone can do it, it can provide a solution to a problem quickly and it often indicates the need for a more academic appraisal in the future. Surely that would help to explain why Becta decided to fund research into the educational value of using Web 2.0 applications in the secondary school? It made sense to do so in the light of the growing mound of anecdotal evidence.

I believe that one of the side effects of the disparagement of non-academic research is that it causes teachers to be reluctant to put themselves forward as doing something noteworthy. I think that’s a pity.

Certainly the collection of Web 2.0 project ideas I published last year has been extremely well-received by teachers. The ideas have mostly been furnished by teachers, who tried them out with their students.

The book may not stand up to academic scrutiny, but it works where it matters: in the classroom.

I’m in the process of updating the Web 2.0 Project Book. If you’d like to submit an entry, please read this article.