The Online Field Research Project

To pick up the gauntlet metaphorically thrown down by Amanda last week, here is the first of what will probably be a series of posts on my experience teaching an introduction to research methods course online this semester. When I last taught this course two years ago, I used Amanda’s Best Breakfast in Town project. Given the constraints imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, sending students into restaurants simply wasn’t an option this time around. Yet I still wanted students to experience the trials and tribulations of real-world field research. I decided create a new research project on specialty coffees from Central America, with teams investigating coffee from Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, respectively. To increase the authenticity of the project, students are responsible for designing a survey (replete with a pilot test and my coaching to try to avoid problems like sampling bias), conducting remote interviews with the people who produce and sell these coffees, analyzing the resulting primary source quantitative and qualitative data, and communicating their conclusions in an industry-style report.

I again used Charles Wheelan’s Naked Statistics, which is filled with examples on what can be gleaned from the use of descriptive and inferential statistical methods. I also assigned Daniel Wilkinson’s Silence on the Mountain: Stories of Terror, Betrayal, and Forgetting in Guatemala; excerpts from Jeffery Paige’s Coffee and Power: Revolution and the Rise of Democracy in Central America; plus related newspaper and journal articles. The purpose behind these reading and writing assignments was to try to set the stage for the “active” aspects of the research process — familiarize students with the economic, cultural, and environmental contexts in which coffee production and consumption occurs, and make the work’s relevance as obvious as possible. As with breakfast, coffee is part of the daily lived experience of nearly all college students, which I think makes demonstrating relevance much easier than with a more abstract topic like democratization or neoliberal institutionalism.

The project is scaffolded around individual, team, and class-wide tasks to promote accountability and peer interaction. Whatever each student creates for a graded assignment* — a potential survey question, for example — gets shared with his or her teammates and then, through the team, with the entire class via Google Docs and discussion. While the whole class has access to the survey, each team completes its own analysis of the survey responses and the interviews it has conducted with people who produce and sell coffee from its country. In addition to the written report, teams will be presenting their findings during the last few days of class. I have also been telling students that they should share their team’s report with potential employers when they are searching for work.

So far nearly all students seem to have been quite engaged, despite the course running on Zoom and Canvas. Reports, presentations, and final exams are happening this week and next; I’ll soon have additional evidence of how successful the research project has been as an active learning technique. My hope is to keep using it post-pandemic, maybe even with some students conducting research on the ground in Central America as part of a study abroad program.

*Mostly graded with a simple rubric of satisfactory, submitted but insufficient, and not submitted.

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