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'Situated' learning: Novel approach to ethics training
Practice works better than lectures
There has been a great deal of emphasis in the past decade on improving research ethics training, but not enough thought is put into finding the best methods for providing such training, an expert says.
Do you rely on Web-based classes, classroom sessions, or something more innovative?
A group of investigators hope to provide clinical research sites with evidence-based answers to this question through the study of a training approach called "situated learning."
"Our goal is to try to improve research practices in responsible conduct of research, data security, and so on," says Brian Mittman, PhD, director of the VA Center for Implementation Practice and Research Support at the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System in Los Angeles, CA.
Just as health care clinicians are becoming part of the movement to rely on the practice of evidence-based medicine, so should investigators move toward the practice of evidence-based research, Mittman says.
"The basic idea is that researchers need to adhere to a long and growing list of guidelines and recommendations," he explains. "This is as opposed to the practice 20-30 years ago of researchers relying on their own judgment of ethic norms."
However, it's not enough to acknowledge the need for more ethics training. Such training also needs to be done in a useful and efficient way, using educational tactics that are supported in literature.
Research sites that default to an online educational program are not responding to evidence about how people learn.
"Learning in a classroom and on-line learning are very weak," Mittman says. "Using online learning reflects a lack of reading and understanding of the learning process because many types of learning do not occur very effectively in the classroom and online mode."
Online learning questioned
Even online education that is interactive and case-based is a weak strategy, Mittman says.
"I'm well aware that many of my colleagues are spending a lot of time and effort on online learning," he says. "It's a bit sensitive, but the research in education is clear that it's not a very effective way."
A better approach is case-based learning in group settings with interaction and discussion, Mittman says.
"There are many innovations in this field, such as ethics rounds, where a group gets together and talks about a specific case," he adds.
Another new strategy is situated learning in which learning occurs within the setting and situation that is real and meaningful to the person involved, he says.
"People learn ethics through cases and discussions that apply ethical principles to specific problems, rather than learning a set of rules and hoping they'll magically be internalized," he says.
"It's not enough to have ethics grand rounds cases," Mittman adds. "Research ethics needs to be taught in a much more hands-on, problem-based manner where ethical principles are learned and immediately applied to projects researchers are engaged in."
Situated learning is much less abstract, Mittman says.
Researchers would learn about ethical principals at the same time they are able to put these to use in their CR work.
When CR professionals take an online ethics course, they might not have an opportunity to put what they've studied to practice for several weeks or longer, he notes.
"So somehow that training weeks ago is supposed to be available to you," he adds. "In situated learning, you are learning at the time of the real problem, so it's arguably much more effective, and a fair amount of research in adult education supports this strategy."
Mittman and co-investigators have worked on a situated learning approach to teaching research ethics.
"This is an idea that we hope to develop more fully and pilot-test in a larger study," Mittman says. "We're in the preliminary stages of that effort."
Their approach involves intensive project team meetings in which researchers examine their projects in a detailed, comprehensive, point-by-point manner. They learn and apply the various research ethics principles, Mittman explains.
"Ideally, there would be protocols and a handbook for the research team," he adds. "We would hope to avoid the need for an outside facilitator or trainer to be involved, but that's an open question."
Situated learning is a well-established concept, and there are many examples of how it works, but not in the research ethics field, Mittman says.
"We're importing it into the field of teaching research ethics," he adds.