5.7 Desk based research

Desk based research is taken here to mean research which uses any form of data which already exists or which is automatically collected and so has not been collected specifically for the purpose of the project by the individual practitioner researcher. Traditionally, desk based research would have included artefacts such as diaries and journals, newspapers and public records, although it can also include websites, recordings and films. 

More recently, there has been a great deal of interest in learning analytics, which are described as the "measurement, collection, analysis and reporting of data about learners and their contexts, for purposes of understanding and optimizing learning and the environments in which it occurs" (Society for Learning Analytics Research, 2012).  Often these are data which are generated automatically by the systems or websites which people use, such as how people navigate through websites, the number of times they access particular resources  what information or responses they provide.

The Open University provides a wealth of data for desk based research. Materials for students, such as teaching materials, study guides and assessment guides are all easily accessible via Module websites. Subject websites are also increasingly common and can generally be accessed via IntranetHome. Materials created by students, such as TMAs, are also a rich source of data, although permission may need to be obtained from the Module Team to access them. Similarly, there is data on student's use of iCMAs, including final scores and attempts made.  At an institutional level, there may be documentation relating to students generally, such as recruitment and retention data.

Benefits of using desk based research

The main benefit of documentary evidence is that it offers another perspective to the research, and so can be an important part of triangulation. Often this perspective can be official or formal, such as policy documents, guidance to students or even tutor notes for assignment feedback. This more fomal perspective can then be compared to interview, observational or diary data to gain a better understanding of the research setting, and also to identify any possible conflicts between these different views of 'reality'. Where learning analytics are used, the data generated by the scan give a rich picture of how students are using learning resources and identify any issues such as problems with particular questions on an iCMA or whether particular groups of students, such as disabled students, are unable to access learning materials.

Taking an example from the Open University, policy documentation may state clearly the purpose of feedback to students and there are a number of processes involved in ensuring the quality of this feedback. However, interviews with students, conducteed as part of the COLMSCT CETL, revealed that they did not always find the feedback they received useful in helping them understand how to do better in future assignments. Similarly, interviews with tutors revealed that they did not receive specific guidance on how to provide this 'feed forward' element of feedback. So, the official line on the purpose of feedback did not necessarily align with the reality of those who provided or received the feedback.

Disadvantages of using desk based research

The main disadvantage of using these kinds of evidence or data is that it can generate the belief that, because it has been written down, it is factual and truthful. This is particularly the case for diaries and journal and, as can be seen from the example above, policy documents.  They therefore need to be treated in the same way as other forms of data and should be seen as 'a viewpoint' rather than 'the viewpoint'.  The exception to this rule is learning analytics where the data are generated by the system itself and so should be more reliable.

Guidance on using desk based research

An article by Monageng Mogalakwe (2006), The Use of Documentary Research Methods in Social Research in the African Sociological Review (10,(1),221-230) outlines some of the issues in using documentary evidence in research. It is availiable online at:

The Open University Masters course, T847 The MSc Professional Project has a good overview on using documents as evidence. A link to the current student website can be found here:

The Society for Learning Analytics Research (SoLAR), which includes OU researchers, has a website about learning analytics, including links to a concept paper on open learning analytics: http://www.solaresearch.org/

Last modified: Tuesday, 4 Mar 2014, 16:37