March 24, 2011

“More research needed” as an excuse for inaction (Post 2)

Prior to working in education—and overlapping with my work in education—I’ve also been involved in science and environmental issues for many years, in both paid and volunteer roles. Anyone with a history of looking at the political battles over acid rain, ozone, and more recently climate change can tell you that the leading rallying cry of those who would avoid change is “more research is needed.”

This is a tricky issue, for many reasons that start with the inherent margin of error in a single study, or even in a series of studies. It would not have been appropriate to convert power plants to cleaner coal when the very first studies showing a link between air pollution and dying lakes in the northeast were published, because of the possibility that the studies were wrong and a large conversion cost would have been incurred, with little or no benefit. However, the do-nothing advocates—often with a financial stake in doing nothing—dragged out the argument for years, and in some cases decades, longer than was necessary. This isn’t only true of environmental issues, either—cigarette manufacturers and their political supporters are another prime example.

The beauty of the “more studies needed” approach is that it is quite adaptable and puts an impossible burden of proof on the advocates for change. Are you 100% sure that acid rain killed the fish in this lake? Are you 100% sure that the patient’s lung cancer was due to his pack-a-day habit? Are you 100% sure that online learning is better for all students than their face-to-face classes?

The nuanced answers don’t play well in the media and in political debate. No, we’re not 100% sure that the patient’s lung cancer was caused by smoking, but we know that smokers have higher rates of cancer. No, we don’t think that online learning is for every student, but we think every student should have the option.

2 Responses to “More research needed” as an excuse for inaction (Post 2)

  1. John, this is why I – and others – have called for a focus on design-based research (often referred to as developmental research) as an approach that both researchers and practitioners should employ. In the final section of the literature review that Tom Reeves and I published in Computers & Education back in 2009, Tom and I outline both the process and why we believe it to be one that K-12 online learning programs should seek – not demand – to be used when research is being conducted on their program.

  2. Michael, is the lit review you reference available online? I would love to see it and think about how it fits with the needs we’re seeing.

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