In age of information abundance, students no longer treat teacher as an exclusive source of information. Nor are they willing to remain passive recipients of classroom monologue. Teacher’s task is compounded given the heterogeneous nature of the student fraternity. As Bloom taxonomy states, learning is an evolution from knowledge and comprehension towards synthesis and evaluation via application and analysis. No doubt, given the information overflow, the surplus generated might remain unharnessed in the absence of ecosystem.
In post graduate settings like in a B-School, the transition from rote learning in diverse socio-eco-geographies to research driven pedagogies present its own set of problems. Conventional delivery of courses in research methods and consequent applications like term papers, dissertations etc. are poor diluted adaptations of study methods normally found in doctoral research thus divorced from corporate reality. Often neither they facilitate advancement to corporate careers nor establish grounding in academic carriers, the net result being perpetuating copy-paste methods. Therefore research ecosystem remains a farce.
While internships as a norm are designed as an on job training or a source cheap extra labour in practice, colleges mandate the report adhering to the norms and practices of standard research methods creating dissonance. The outcome is the student may prepare and present a report that is at variance from the job undertaken manifesting in apparently shabby and shallow job. Furthermore, given the plethora of B-Schools, good research jobs are extremely unlikely to be offered to students of Tier-II and Tier III B-Schools in the near future.
Faculty occupied with several bureaucratic tasks in addition to their load of teaching can hardly devote time to build up the research abilities. In fact, many teachers themselves are found wanting when it comes to research and writing skills. Most research performed is superficial just to add to statistics. The author knows quite a few cases where teachers themselves did not know about problem definition, hypothesis formulation, research design etc. and since they could not admit their ignorance before the students, they resorted to the time-honored method of shouting back with all their might at the students! Perhaps it is possible they may not have come anywhere remotely near a research publication in their lifetime and now asked to participate in an exercise mirroring the process of PhD! If ‘n’ faculty were asked about the objective behind the internship, dissertation, thesis, term paper etc. it will not be a surprise to find ‘n2’ reasons reflecting lack of clarity in the supposed introduction and treatment of the subject.
In fact what passes on as primary research is hardly any research. Some questions are prepared often with little relevance to objectives, filed conveniently by friends and acquaintances, data once received are fed to SPSS or Excel to obtain percentage tables (feeling is SPSS is great and you have to do in SPSS without understanding anything but data entry). More often than not, that is what they would have learnt! Ironically, all the time in the classroom is supposedly spent to learn different statistical software and tools without bothering about the neither variable identification nor instrument of data collection. If the student does not know to identify the right variables, how can software help in getting the right results? Garbage in garbage out! One can have numerous questionnaire designing tools but not knowing what data points to obtain, what utility it serves other than a bragging point is unknown.
Students are to be given extended engagement of indentifying problems or in exploring their interests. If problem identification is erroneous, obviously solution too is erroneous.. Literature survey, the methodology used, can be applied in relation to similar exercise performed in corporate corridors. Since literature survey needs to be sequential or structural but data collection is not, mind maps, mental models, use diagrams, flow diagrams, and their adaptations can be in handy. Further the ease of using these tools can create interest facilitating easy pinpointing the problems. These also will help in identifying the possible hypothesis. In fact hypothesis framing has developed into sort of hyper-madness. If the problem definition is erroneous, how can anybody think, hypothesis will be right. Just because, the data is executed through some statistical software, it does not become gospel! The focus therefore for considerable period must be to make students identify the problem. Numerous caselets can be designed.
Students take up research out of curiosity and one wonders how you set a hypothesis. Why organized retail is succeeding or what perception do people have about organic food or why there is a craze about start-ups are just few examples. In a causal research, hypothesis is essential, but with others, theory building through evidence can be encouraged. With most B-School internships nothing but sales jobs or executing role of glorified assistants, research in orthodox sense is not possible. Yet if mystery consumer research is tool, there can be ‘mystery salesman’ too! Students in the course of sales pitch can record every possible detail though how uncomfortable it might be; ponder over the data time and again; detect the patterns and probably we might see interesting contours emerging up. This can be of great insight in theorizing consumer behavior through qualitative analysis of pattern building. If 20 students are engaged in similar tasks, the kind of mammoth research output that can come out might be worth pondering. Why principles derived broadly from areas like visual ethnography cannot be used to understand merchandising or consumer behavior in retail outlets? Video analysis through CCTV cameras (it might raise issues of privacy though) can be another way of getting serious insights. Of course work is harder; takes huge amount of time and this might be the reason not many may venture out. Students can be encouraged to prepare white papers that might reflect their homework during interviews for marketing jobs in particular.
To examine why sales of retail outlet in Bangalore is falling, one cannot choose the weather of Chennai as a variable! A lot of thinking has to happen to choose the appropriate variables. In fact, subjects like economics revolve around identification of suitable variables for demand function or supply function etc. In fact, variable identification is not merely important for dissertation, term papers etc., it is a crucial ingredient for business analysis. What utility does SWOT, PESTLE, ‘Five-Whys’ etc carry in absence of choice of right variables? Yet, these ingredients are often neglected.
One cannot obviously go in questionnaire based research to understand linkages between GDP and inflation. Similarly, one cannot use macroeconomic data or firm’s financial data to understand impact of celebrity endorsements on creating attention and interest in the product. The questionnaire if chosen must be reflective of the objectives. The data collected through questionnaire must give the answers for the problem you have identified. Analysis is a science; developing questionnaire is an art. Questionnaire based tools are no substitute for this. Similarly, whether one uses questionnaire, focus groups, depth interviews or any data capture tool, in absence of right design, the data capture will simply be useless. Yet 99% of the cases what one observes this to be the most common problem. Most faculty themselves cannot design good questionnaires nor discussion guides or interview guides. Many faculty themselves suffer from inability to identify problems or in choosing the right variables or even building the right hypothesis. It is not unusual to find many proxy Ph.D’s existing in academics. To avoid the mask falling off, the bogey of advanced statistical software is created. It is not unusual to find many senior teachers lending their name as first author to junior faculty, their M.Phil/Ph.D students/ postgraduate students etc to inflate their papers without even knowing single bit of content of that paper. It would be futile to expect them to guide the students in terms of their research pursuit. Many occasions, those sitting in judgment might not have even published a working or conference paper leave alone in a refereed journal. It is no wonder, why student dissertations suffer.
Most occasions, analysis does not extend beyond percentages. The failure on part of most students to explain the logic behind the statistical tests used is glaring. Results are on account of poor variable selection and poor questionnaire design or both. Secondary quantitative research rarely goes beyond identifying correlations etc. If one has to examine the cause effect relationship, need to choose right predictors is essential as is choosing the right number of observations. Convenient sampling more focused on number (100 seems to be some magic) rather the methodology of sampling will naturally yield poor results when passed through the relevant statistical tests.
Barring regulatory requirements, research output and research method need not follow single mode. It is understandable that summer internships are to be presented in certain format, but diversity can be the key in unlocking student learning across various other subjects particularly term papers or its glorified variants. A student might be very good in primary data collection through video recording or photographs. There is no reason why she should not be encouraged to develop video documentary or photo album out of her research. Working conditions in IT or manufacturing industry or citizen initiatives in solid waste management or little known tourism spots can be excellent material for video treatment. Some are very excellent in number crunching where encouragement can happen through usage of advance statistical tools facilitating movement towards perfection in equity or debt research or valuations or even modeling sensitivity analysis, scenario modelling etc. Issues like size-profitability impact, advertising impact on firm value etc. jell well with these lines of thinking. Equity research reports have their own identity in the industry and similarly, marketing research reports too have developed unique format as have industry giants like McKinsey and PWC. If students are pursuing internships or even placements in client or vendor profiling (industry uses secondary research), what purpose questionnaire based causal studies will help them is moot. Adaptations from these models can bring students in alignment with industry practices.
Students often are given book chapters or case studies or even books as part of class reading. PPT presentations are often just a reflection the transmission of text to PPT without application of mind. Students can be encouraged to develop play or drama based on this. In the author’s experience despite student enthusiasm for these forms, they simply are unable to proceed beyond the initial stages as it involves perfect understanding of the concepts inherent in the readings and translation of the same into creative work. The translation if comes out well might signal very good understanding of the subject on the part of the student. Caution would be in order at this stage. Students would perform theatrical arts or even perhaps a circus on relatively open ended topic with little boundaries all over the town yet when it comes let us say develop a performance based on case studies or books let us say impact of health care or climate change on business or increasing in user generated content, they cannot go beyond 2-3 minutes without bringing the PPT into picture albeit in a creative way.
Students can be encouraged to develop posters or exhibits where they may not have good writing skills. Something like Apple vs Samsung or ways to create legal business models of piracy or evolution of modern retail industry or television broadcasting etc can become handy topics for posters or even exhibits. Going forward, data visualization tools with the development of several new representational tools can be of great help in modeling various interrelationships among variables with potential for host of interpretations to spring up.
Students often may find gaps in their initial research. Can it leads to new product development or might even to new business model. Perhaps there can be occasion for venturing into market design. The output can very well range from descriptive piece to product brochure. Often students in their own experience would have felt need to design new products. Energy candies to replace energy drinks, development of video products to enhance sports coaching or bikes customized to individual requirements or electronic blankets may aptly demonstrate the presence of user driven innovation. This can actually be the first step towards making students inclined towards entrepreneurship or innovation management or product development. As an aside, it is different matter, a whole tribe of armchair entrepreneur teachers are emerging as an unintended consequence of fad to create and teach entrepreneurship. Given the plethora of map based tools, it is entirely in the realm of possibilities to use maps as research outputs maybe to illustrate supply chain of mobile handsets to cars, to develop location databases, create tourism based map products among host of other things. Podcasts can be another way of encouraging student research. Online tools are great aids in making students understand by making them prepare reports in the form of series of blog posts, FB posts, tweets, Storify, participate in user forums, contribute to Wikipedia etc. in other words involvement in creating content (user generated) can be effective way to channel their interests in variety of ways. They can be even output creation through series of reports on happenings in the industry or ecosystem.
If the student learning is an objective, let students be allowed to learn the way they feel most comfortable. They can be encouraged to choose the topics of interest and allowed to proceed. As a faculty group, are we so challenged in terms of our talent, skill-set and versatility that we cannot put students on the track of learning in the manner they would learn best and topics they would learn best. Is it perhaps faculty group itself cannot bring itself to compose 500 words of original thinking? It is a fact that many thrive on parasitic models like hanging around to somebody else to add on to their paper collection. Paper publications are just for certificates and statistics to meet regulatory and institutional obligations rather than pursuit of knowledge. Seniors hang upon juniors; juniors hang around students and so on as long as the one lower in the hierarchy does all the dirty work and ensure one certificate to the one senior in hierarchy. In certificate obsessed faculty research often saddled with parasitic tendencies, it is almost impossible to think differently about ensuring students are launched into orbit of research driven learning.
The bottom line is students have endless reservoir of curiosity and can tread where angels but it is often the reluctance of faculty for variety of reasons that fail in unlocking that potential. Further there is strong element of entrenchment among certain class that only method is good for the students. What is good for geese need not be good for gander. Further, for all the talk of positioning students towards placements, very few think in terms of creating a platform for demonstration of academic accomplishments. For most, the entire exercise of student driven research is to portray as yet another statistic, something that has to be ticked against to satisfy rankers and accreditation agencies rather than genuine interest in fostering the same. There is a pressing need to demystify research and not add to the complexity. Yet, until the release from the imprisonment in a mindset dictated by their news-cycle driven TRP obsessed idiosyncrasies happens, research driven subjects will persist to be a charade.
(The observations are based on more than decade experience of the author in academic research. These are personal observations and as such do not reflect the views of the organizations the author is or has been associated with. The author has experimented with varied pedagogical tools, some pioneering, in striving to improve student learning through demystifying research and analysis. A list of works guided or co-produced by the author can be found at this URL: http://stalkingtheory.blogspot.in/2015/10/working-with-students-list-of-works.html )