Tech is changing academic research too

By Corinne Bendersky, Ph.D. , written on April 26, 2013

From The News Desk

In case you haven’t heard, technology is changing education. While the debate rages on about technology’s disruption in the classroom, there hasn’t been much talk of the massive makeover happening on the other side of the academic house: faculty research.

This is no small thing. Everyone is excited about the possibility of an e-revolution in education because of the potential for giving more people access while simultaneously bringing down costs. Similarly, technology is making it possible to do research faster and with greater accuracy, which affects everything from business patents to medical breakthroughs and, frankly, the future of our enlightened society.

Just like edtech, research technology has evolved from clunky desktop machines to today’s Web-based software platforms. Here’s a quick recap of how far we’ve come over the last half-century:

60s and 70s: End of the mainframe

In 1968, Hewlett-Packard released the first desktop scientific calculator. It was laughably bulky and cumbersome by today’s standards, but at the time it marked an early move toward miniaturization of technology that had previously been relegated to enormous rooms full of mainframe computers. These calculators were superbly sophisticated for their time and streamlined scholarly research in important ways.

Texas Instruments took miniaturization to the next level by turning HP’s desktop behemoth into a handheld device beginning in 1973. This might seem quaint in our era of pocket computing, but this breakthrough of compact complex calculating power was so significant that faculty and students still use these devices today in spite of the proliferation of Swiss Army knife mobile devices.

Also in the 1960s, software programs such as SAS and SPSS emerged that allowed corporations and academic researchers to do complex data analysis that previously had to be sketched out in longhand. Launched well before usability was a thing, these software programs required advanced training for even the most sophisticated users, but once a researcher was up to speed it took much of the excruciating pain out of complex computations that are a required part of academic publishing.

The 70s also marked the move away from mainframe computing’s heyday and into the brave new world of desktop software. SPSS released its second version in 1972, punctuating how inflexible the software development process was back then (companies release updates every four weeks, not four years, nowadays).

80s and 90s: The days of desktop software

Microsoft’s first electronic spreadsheet, Multiplan, was launched in 1982, followed by the now ubiquitous Excel program in 1985. Though Excel is the everyman’s spreadsheet these days, it was then and still is an incredible piece of software for simplifying and documenting the endless calculations required in academic research. Also in 1985, a new statistical software package called Stata hit the market and was quickly adopted by scholars in economics, sociology, medicine and other disciplines.

Contemporaneous to these improvements in software, the competitive race between Apple and Microsoft led to greater availability of computers for faculty and students in the 1980s and 90s. The byproduct of this from a research perspective is that today’s generation of college students — and many of tomorrow’s research faculty — are the first to have enjoyed access to a computer in their homes throughout their lives. This removes an important technical roadblock and allows these emerging scholars to focus on perfecting research methodology instead of bogging down in remedial computer training.

The 21st century: Into the cloud

The migration of software and data to the cloud has been another game-changer for researchers. In particular, cloud-based technologies have, for the first time, improved the way we actually collect information. My colleagues and I have used simple tools like SurveyMonkey and Zoomerang, which are pretty well known these days, and more sophisticated platforms like Qualtrics, to gather data.

As an organizational behavior researcher, my research requires measuring attitudes and other insights about what “makes us tick” and how we work together. In human insight research like mine, Web-based tools have removed the logistical barriers of broader sampling and made the experience more enjoyable for respondents, both of which lead to better data.

I recently completed a study that illustrates the point. I wanted to test our assumption that extroverts who are outgoing and make good first impressions are better workplace colleagues than their more anxious counterparts. This kind of research requires doing surveys and controlled experiments, which involve staging various scenarios where the conditions change for each individual.

In the past, there would have been a mountain of tedium standing in the way of the data I need. To survey members of an organization, for example, I would have to print hundreds of copies of a physical form — each of which might be several pages long — and provide self-addressed and stamped envelopes for each potential respondent to ensure confidentiality. Then, I would have to ask the organization to dedicate people to distributing and collecting the survey and the employees to spend time completing the survey during a narrow window in their workday.

Cloud-based software has gotten so sophisticated that these problems are a merely a bad memory for researchers like me. For my study, I used a single technology platform — the aforementioned Qualtrics — to conduct both survey and experimental data collection. Rather than distributing hard surveys to an organization at great expense, I was able to extend the geographic reach of the survey and use a splashy Web interface to make the poll more appealing to increase response rates. On the experimental side, I created a simulated instant messenger platform that created the impression that the subject was interacting with a real person.

It’s an exciting time for education. The secret is out on what the Web is doing for teachers and students, but let’s not forget that big changes are happening on the research side, too. And that’s good for all of us.

[Art by William Hogarth via Wikimedia]