The Use of Digital Artefacts in Teaching and Researching: Guidelines for Practice

I wrote these best practice guidelines with Haira Gandolfi at the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education in 2020. We’re sharing them here in case others find them useful.

The use of digital artefacts in teaching and researching presents a number of practical challenges relating to the administration of files which need to be stored, distributed (internally, for assessment, feedback, etc. purposes) and (potentially) shared (externally, for dissemination purposes) in ways which fall outside of existing institutional procedures. It is imperative that we establish best practice in relation to these matters in order to minimise the risks of online harms and technical difficulties resulting from production and circulation of digital artefacts. Furthermore, providing established procedures will lower the burden on staff members who wish to incorporate digital artefact production into their teaching and researching (also for students) in a manner which in turn encourages further innovation. This might ultimately take the form of two checklists: one for students who are producing digital artefacts (e.g. as part of assignments and/or research projects) and the other for staff members who are producing and/or incorporating them into teaching, research training and research projects. The table below suggests guidelines for establishing best practice in this area: 

StorageDistribution (internal)Sharing (external)
Microsoft OneDrive and other apps within MS Office suite which fall within university data protection agreementsWebpages (e.g. spaces in the faculty website) which are subject to clear Faculty branding and controlOther external cloud-based digital platforms (e.g. YouTube, Soundcloud, etc.) which might be more effective for dissemination purposes but raise potential issues which should be considered

For staff & students: use of email lists, link sharing, etc.For students’ official assignments/dissertations: Moodle upload versus copying the link and including it in main text of assignment 
If included in the main assignment document, where should it be included? For example should it be part of an appendix or in the main text, with the  implications of the former for word count etc.
Relevant questions to be considered in relation to potential risks and their mitigation:

To what extent is the content of the artefact likely to provoke a hostile reception online? For example, is the topic politically polarised, are there organised groups active in relation to it? What steps can be taken on a sharing platform to mitigate these risks? For example, turning of comments or making a video for private distributionIs it possible to provide participants with a right of recall? How should this be communicated to them? How do we ensure a capacity to act on such a request?

The points around storage, distribution and sharing illustrated above will also have risk assessment and ethical implications that we would like to see reflected in the writing up of research proposals, risk assessment and ethics forms within the faculty. We identify, for instance, implications to: 

  • Informed consent: is consent being given to use of digital platforms, artefacts and strategies for data collection (only) or also for public engagement (i.e. external sharing)? And when informed consent is asked for public engagement purposes (dissemination), is the information provided about the different types of digital dissemination platforms and their associated risks (e.g. circulation of digital artefacts through social platforms) clearly outlined and negotiated with participants?
  • Right to withdrawal: is it being considered also in relation to ‘right of recall’ when publication dissemination is done through digital platforms such as social media? How might this be ensured and acted upon in practice?
  • Data protection & Risk assessment: are questions related to data protection and to the protection from harm of those (staff and students) undertaking and disseminating research being clearly explored in research planning? For instance, are the risks of using social media platforms for dissemination of potentially polarising topics being considered and mitigated with the support of the faculty?

To address the illustrative points raised above, we propose the elaboration of a ‘dissemination plan’ as part of any research planning process, in conversation with both risk assessment and ethics applications. This could be undertaken on a programme level to ensure consistency in such initiatives. 

Case-example:

The production of podcasts/videocasts in a quasi-research capacity, approaching their production in a manner akin to a research interview but then making this available as an artefact, poses particular dilemmas. This has the potential to accelerate the production and circulation of knowledge, as well as to facilitate downstream methodological innovation by supporting research students in the exploration of these methods. However, it’s imperative to draw a distinction between data collection (i.e. producing knowledge through an interview) and public engagement (i.e. recording an interview for public discussion). This doesn’t preclude the use of podcasts/videocasts in the latter sense as part of learning and/or research but it does mean their unique status should be understood and treated accordingly. For example, their production might be framed as an object of reflexive deliberation or they might be used to disseminate research findings in a manner which would leave research students with valuable experience in knowledge exchange. 

ConsentMethodology
It’s important that students have a clear sense of a dissemination plan which can in turn be explained to interviewees at the earliest possible stage of the process. This should include a sharing plan involving the risk assessment described above, as well as the steps which have been taken to mitigate these risks. This might require a revision of the existing consent forms as it is unclear that the current rubric of ‘sharing’ adequately covers the issues raised by the circulation of digital artefacts through social platforms. Furthermore, it can’t be assumed that interviewees will have an adequate understanding of the issues raised by sharing, therefore proactive explanation may be ethically necessary. It’s imperative that students understand the potential ramifications of producing a podcast/videocast in terms of the responses they are likely to elicit from interviewees. The relatively underdeveloped state of the research literature on podcasting means there is no professional standard established in this area. However there are intellectual resources within the qualitative interviewing, creative methods and STS literatures to support students in considering the interview as a constructed situation which encourages certain reactions and discourages others. This raises questions of visibility and its meaning to the interviewee which might prove intellectually fruitful as well as being necessary for methodological rigour. 

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