Using MITx to Teach Qualitative Research Methodology

Anthropology (Course 21A)
Susan Silbey
Megan Perdue
Digital Innovations & Tools
Active Learning
Blended Learning & Flipped Classroom

Prof. Susan Silbey’s self-paced MITx module “How To Conduct Conversational Social Science Research” successfully adapted the MITx platform for reflective learning in a pedagogical environment where answers are neither exclusively right nor wrong.

The module was created to accommodate growing demand for qualitative research skills among graduate students and researchers at MIT, though it has also been very popular among students around the world. In the module, students learn to understand the difference between quantitative and qualitative research, understand validity in qualitative research, conduct conversational interviews, and practice designing and using interview protocols designed for conversation rather than short factual information.

Using the MITx platform in a unique way, Prof. Silbey and Digital Learning Fellow Meghan Perdue designed a multiple choice question where both answers were correct, but instead of identifying the right answer, students were prompted to think deeply about whether a specific research goal would be better served using qualitative or quantitative methodology, and why. Once a student recorded their answers, they read Silbey and Perdue’s answers and were thus able to compare their understanding in relation to the instructors’. An online discussion section allowed students to reflect whether they agreed with the instructors’ perspective and if they disagreed, provide evidence. This allowed Silbey and Perdue to see how students were progressing in comprehension and discernment.

In another innovative use of MITx, students examined an excerpt from a qualitative research book using an annotation tool. Students identified where the chapter met various standards of validity and explained how the author was addressing them. After completing this task, students then toggled to Silbey and Perdue’s notes on validity to see the more informed perspective of their instructors.

In order to develop skill at creating well-designed interview protocols, students were presented with examples of two interview protocols, one created to achieve the goals of conversational interviewing; the other more like a survey conducted face to face. Qualitative research seeks access to the respondents’ accounts of their experiences in their own words rather than asking the actor to use predetermined categories. The respondents’ language is the subject of analysis. Poor protocols close off the actor’s voice; good protocols invite the respondent to tell stories in their own words. Using MITx, students edited the faulty interview protocol so that it better aligned with criteria for open-ended conversational interviewing.

To learn more, watch Silbey and Perdue describe their work in detail in the above video.