Updates from the Field: Discussions About Research Agendas at VSA 2015

July 27th, 2015

Presenters at this year’s 28th Annual Visitor Studies Association Conference revisited the topic of research agendas, and focused on what it means to implement a research agenda, and on the process of integrating them into one’s practice. Some of the big questions discussed were, “Now that field-wide research agendas have been developed, how can we put them into action?” and “How can field-wide research agendas be applied at an institutional level?” The discussion was led by Jessica Luke from the University of Washington Museology Graduate Program.

Current Field-Wide Research Agendas

The session began by identifying some current field-wide research agendas, including:

  • Learning in Natural History Settings
  • Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA)
  • National Art Education Association
  • Learning Value of Children’s Museums
  • Giant Screen Cinema
  • Making as Learning
  • CAISE Practice & Research Roadmap

Many of the above can be explored in more detail on the Research Agendas landing page on InformalScience.org. Though each of these agendas was developed through different processes and by different stakeholders, they have several similarities: research and practice integration, a focus on the unique learning characteristics found in each environment, and an emphasis on capacity building and professional development. Presenters in the VSA session explored potential uses for field-wide agendas, including informing the development of an institutional agenda; informing thinking about relevance, impact, and sustainability; aligning goals with other institutions; and creating an inventory of field knowledge.

An Example of Using Research Agendas at an Institutional Level

Stephen Ashton discussed his experience implementing a research agenda at the Thanksgiving Point Institute, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit farm, garden, and museum complex located in Lehi, Utah, that draws upon the natural world to cultivate family learning. Thanksgiving Point developed its own institutional research agenda shaped from its mission, and also participated in the Association of Children’s Museums’ Learning Value of Children’s Museums research agenda because that field-wide agenda’s conceptions of learning, value and impact resonate with the institution’s own. Ashton shared several pieces of advice for people interested in incorporating a research agenda into their own organizational practice:

  • Strategically develop your own institutional research agenda by aligning it with an appropriate field-wide one.
  • Have clarity about how research and evaluation inform your organization’s mission.
  • Partner with like-minded institutions.
  • Utilize local resources, especially universities.

An Example of Using a Research Agenda at an Association Level

On a field-wide scale, Danielle Ross discussed the way the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ (AZA) Conservation Education Committee (CEC) uses its research agenda as a framework to develop a better understanding of the research being conducted in the zoo and aquarium field. AZA’s goals are to populate the framework by collecting current work on research questions, to house and disseminate that information from a central repository, and to support professionals in connecting with each other to collaborate on research and in sharing resources. Implementing the AZA research agenda began by gathering data about studies currently being conducted in the field. The Association sent surveys to member organizations to identify the types of questions being asked, and to get a sense of who was doing what. The results of the two surveys are being used to help identify common areas in need of further research. Ross compared her experience with the AZA research agenda to using a map to navigate to a destination: starting with a clearly defined goal and using a research agenda as a tool to get there.

Discussions about Challenges and Opportunities of Research Agendas

Although session participants showed interest and excitement around implementing research agendas, they also spoke of challenges: finding the institutional support, having the capacity for implementation, and navigating the documentation needed for Institutional Review Boards (IRBs). The session concluded with a lively group discussion about the nexus of research, evaluation, and practice. Questions brought up during the conversation were, “What is the relationship between research agendas and evaluation? Do evaluators find research agendas useful? Where do research and evaluation intersect, and where do they differ?” In general, evaluators who attended the session found the idea of research agendas useful because they help contextualize evaluation and the evaluation questions they are asking within the wider field. One participant mentioned that research agendas provide evaluators with opportunities to ask bigger questions that have generalizable implications beyond an individual project or program. Another attendee offered the COVES (Creating a Collaboration for Ongoing Visitor Experience Studies) Project as an example of the “evaluation equivalent” of a field-wide research agenda. There was general agreement that while not without challenges and related issues, the idea of using common measures and asking common questions has the potential to help institutions and fields tell more powerful stories about impact. From a project leader’s perspective, research agendas can provide contextualization and a vision for the direction of one’s work.

Have you incorporated a field-wide research agenda into your own practice? Share your experiences by leaving a comment.