Analysing your student’s technology abilities.

There was a time when the preliminary stages for a research project or research degree involved finding appropriate publications related to the topic and noting the knowledge. There was an emphasis on ‘finding’ as this may involve walking through stacks of journals and reading a number of articles to locate ones which were relevant to the topic. It was often followed with writing on filing cards the particular information so that the cards could be sorted and begin to form the foundation of a research proposal or literature review.
With the advent of technology, there has been a significant change in what is understood as research practice and this now involves dependence on a range of technologies. In the early stages of a student’s candidature it is worthwhile assessing their technology capability such that appropriate interventions can be organised and a process of developing the technology skills can be devised to run parallel with the emerging research skills.
The importance of technology came to mind recently at a research conference at which all research students in a faculty were invited to present. Awards were given and it seemed to me that those who received awards also excelled in presentation technology. The adage ‘death by powerpoint’ is a strong reminder of how important visual publication of one’s findings can be. Many of the presentations at this conference could perhaps be viewed from that ‘death by powerpoint’ lens. They were words on screens! Two of the presentations which won awards were sophisticated image journeys, one of which used powerpoint and the other made use of the emergent précis technology. The experience alerted me to the role that technology can play in all aspects of a candidate’s experience.

Technology is not restricted to presentational technology. There are sophistications in word processing that include formatting and referencing. The earlier a research student is exposed to these the better. In particular, the exposure and adoption of some of the referencing technologies (such as endnote) requires early exposure so that the procedures become enmeshed into the student’s every day research practices. For example it is a lot easier to be loading references into the end note files as you go as a researcher than to have a large number of references that need loading.
Similar technology is the searching technology. Understanding which words to use to find the appropriate literature in a vast array of literature is a skill that is often developed with assistance from librarians and this means introducing students to the library facilities early while they are still formulating their routines.
Because of my own preference for qualitative research there is a range of other technology with which I am not familiar, nevertheless I know it exists. Statistical services that are available through the computer are also important. Even within qualitative research there have been developments in terms of electronic ways to more effectively record data and convert that data to text and in some cases analyse the data as well.
One of the dilemmas for the research supervisor is that their own technology capability can be a draw back. Without seeing the worth of a set of technology skills in your own research practice, it is hard to recommend the set of skills to a novice researcher.
One research supervision strategy for introducing appropriate technology links to the discussion a supervisor might have with their student in the early days of candidature to ascertain what they see as their expectations of a research journey. That discussion might also explore what the student sees as their technology capabilities and gauge their awareness, if not their expertise, with some of the obvious technologies. It may even be worthwhile having a check list to work through with a student to check their familiarity. Where you identify a lack of familiarity, either choose an appropriate time in the candidature to expose them to that technology or look for at opportunities to encourage their networking with the appropriate authorities to acquire those skills.
Interventions over technology also link to the ways in which students learn. Technology skills are often acquired when undertaking real projects. When a real need is identified, provided that the added stress of learning something new will not push out other deadlines, students can be encouraged to learn the technology in the context of a real project. This can be particularly useful for simple technologies such as formatting a document. Once there are the foundations for a document, introduction of formatting also invites using the index as an overall skeleton for the document. The same would apply to introducing referencing programs as soon as a student is starting to identify specific references that help to build their understanding of the topic.

As with any of the skills involved in undertaking research, one introduction is not necessarily going to solve all problems but it does introduce the agenda to a student so that they can be alert to growth possibilities throughout their candidature.


About the (research) supervisor's friend

I work at a university helping university academics who are supervising research students. I am a research supervisor myself and also work as a research coach for people undertaking their research I was originally in a Management Faculty and when I completed my doctoral studies on 'doing a doctorate' I started working with research supervisors to help them improve their practice.
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