Monday, October 22, 2012

On undergraduate research, active learning, and IRBs

Today marks another day in the long, slow process of obtaining IRB approval for my class project. It is moments like these, when after a month of back and forths, I begin to really think about Human Subject boards and what they mean for research. First and foremost, I am a huge fan of Human Subject approval boards. I think the history of human based research provides plenty of bone chilling examples why we need IRB boards.

However, I am less than convinced that IRB boards completely fulfill their stated goals. In many instances, the behavior of boards would seem to be directly contradictory to their mission. This summer, I received a mail based survey, approved by an IRB and sent to my home that requested my social security number. Let's take a moment and look at this particular example. The IRB board was, in this (as in all instances) supposed to be protecting my privacy and rights as a research subject. However, they approved a study that 1) targeted people living in my zipcode, 2) had my address, and 3) wanted my social security number? The steps above are a how to guide for identity theft!

I, as I am usually on the opposite side of the IRB process and had just successfully had the requirement removed from my own IRB, was understandably vivid. There were a few choice calls made.

Which brings me to today's IRB challenge. Or active learning is a headache . . .
My research methods class designed their own survey, and wants to test the survey with their peers. So, as we all know from Bloom's taxonomy and the resulting body of research that followed, one of the best ways to facilitate student mastery of concepts is to allow students to design and execute their own projects.  My class did this. They designed their own study, and wrote an amazing survey. They all took citi certification and we discussed research ethics. We even won a research grant to conduct the research.
And, even though it is a class project and might be exempt from the IRB requirements, I submitted an IRB. I want them to be able to actually do something with their data. We asked for exempt status from written consent, as we would not be collecting names.

We found out today we will not be getting the exemption. IRB, in "protecting" subjects (undergraduate students studied by other undergraduates) feels that the best way to protect the students' privacy is to require us to collect their names on written consent forms. Once we have consent forms, the data cannot go home with students but must go straight to a research facility - so by the way would I mind giving them access to my lab 24/7.

I am certain we will come to a solution. And I am also certain as IRB frustrations go, this is on the small end. I think however, it illustrates the true problem with current pedagogy - while the university will sing the praises of active learning, problem based learning, and "undergraduate research" the infrastructure necessary to conduct projects - and to protect students participating in the research - is lacking. Psychology departments once (and many still do) treat participation in faculty research projects as a part of course requirements. There is certainly a power difference there (it is part of your grade to allow us to experiment on you) that we do not have here - this project is student designed, student executed, students interviewing students.

My commitment to this kind of active learning - facilitating the class in designing and executing a project - remains strong. I simply hope that all aspects of the university can better synchronize how we do student designed and student lead research projects in the future.

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