Shadowing Research Approach in Evaluating Learning Spaces in Higher Education: A Methodological Discussion


Research is a major part of understanding the impact of new learning spaces at City University London. However, like all Higher Education research, methodological questions soon arise. I had a number of discussions with colleagues working on ‘Learning Spaces Evaluation’ about the best method of developing an understanding of the functionality and effectiveness of the new learning spaces at City University London. My current thinking is that an ideal method would be the ‘Shadowing Research Approach’.

Observation has an anthropology root and originated in the colonial encounter between Western people and colonized non-Western people, as Europeans tried to understand the origins of observable cultural diversity (Wikipedia, 2012). Later on, it seems that the observation method leaked in Psychology and Sociological studies. So although the observation method started as very intimate, stretching over many years, it was adopted to fit the demands of time and resources limitation in the West. This more ‘laboratory’ or ‘quasi-observation’ approach has a number of weaknesses, one of which is that it does not provide a holistic picture. Also, as pointed out to me by Kate Reader, observations can create unnatural behaviour in the learning spaces user. Furthermore, observations tend to focus on overt behaviour and does not consider the internal thinking and intentions (Denscombe, 2003).

As such, I suggested we consider taking a ‘shadowing research approach’. In essence this approach combines quasi-observation (or peer- observations which is what we had planned) with case study work. It does not have to be as intimate as the original anthropological observation (i.e. we are not going to follow the academic home!) yet it will give us a richer and holistic view of the users’ behaviour and patterns of using the technology.

So the chosen user, in this case, a staff member becomes the centre of the case study. We would employ a tool kit of research methods, such as in-class observation, out-class interviews (conversations), and usability questionnaire for a stated period of time (1 month for example). The approach would demand that we look at the staff member with a wider lens, meaning that we would seek to question and understand:

Observation camera
Observation in evaluation of new learning spaces at City University London
  • their interaction with technology generally (e.g. what technologies are present in the user’s life);
  • their teaching style (e.g. do they know about ‘blending learning’)
  • attitude and perceptions toward education technology
  • understanding of learning spaces

At the end of the one month period, we should have a better understanding of the relationship between the user and the learning space. And as we have more information on their attitudes, perceptions, and general interaction with education technology across their academic teaching, we should get over the problem of having a single snapshot of their use of the space.

The approach allows us as the researchers to identify ourselves as active participants in the construction of the learning spaces experience for the user and not to shy away from our explicit influence on the interpretation of the data.  This now permits us to interpret the relationship of the user with the learning space through our expert viewpoints.

In conclusion, there are a number of ideas to discuss further with City University’s Learning Spaces experts before implementing the ‘Shadowing Research Approach’, including:

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