The Research: The Opportunity

As I wrote in my last post, I do research. But doing research is not easy if you aren't allowed to apply for major research grants. Sometimes, though, you get lucky.

I've got a good relationship with Nelson Education--the Canadian imprint for Cengage Learning, publisher of a number of textbooks I use in my courses, and also my employer (I do consulting for them on their Canadian psychology websites). So late last year, the local rep asked if I'd be interested in helping them evaluate the CengageNOW platform (which includes online etextbooks and interactive study guides). Oh, and they'd provide free access codes for students in my Perception class--but unfortunately, only for about half the class.

OK, I've just been designing this kind of experiment for a couple of years: Does using an etextbook cause students to do better, worse, or exactly the same in a course? I jumped at the chance. Half the class would get a free access code to the etextbook, the other half would use a regular printed textbook. At the end of the course, I could compare the two groups in terms of the dependent variable of final grade. Perfect! But who would get the free etextbook and who would have to pay for a textbook? How would that be decided? And is it fair that some students get something for free, and others don't?

These are important questions to consider. Obviously, the fair thing to do (and also the most obvious, from a statistical point of view) would be to randomly assign students to the etextbook and printed textbook groups. However, some students may not want to use an etextbook--even if it's free. In that case, I would have to exclude them from the study data, but then I could use their access code to give to students who registered late. The issue of free, though, I couldn't overcome. Nelson was not willing to pay for free printed textbooks for the other half of the class (about 107 students). Rats! This means I've got a confound that I couldn't overcome: students who got the etextbook would also be getting it for free, whereas students who bought and used the printed textbook would be paying for it.

If there are any difference in grades between these two groups, it could be because of the resource used (maybe reading an etextbook is more fatiguing so students spend less time reading, compared to a printed textbook--or maybe it's easier to read). Or it could be because of the "free" aspect (students feel less "invested" in the free etextbook, so don't read it as much as they would a printed textbook that they had to pay money for). Argh! Not so perfect. But it was the best I could do under the circumstances; I'd need almost $20,000 to buy textbooks for half the class!

There still were many more hurdles to overcome. Next: research ethics and the maze that is HERO.

Why aren't you studying?


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