Developing Research Designs for Studies into Complex Socio-Technical Systems

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Research into complex socio-technical systems requires a multi-disciplinary approach in which the role of actors, public values, and technical innovation are integrated. The research is aimed at systems design and the development of institutional rules for the operation of the technical innovation, taking multiple actor interests and public values into account. This multidisciplinary approach entails that research designs range from grounded theory approaches towards discrete event simulations; and from case study analysis towards agent based modelling. Consequently, the academic toolbox of research methods is wide and knowledge and creativity is required to develop appropriate research designs. Therefore, within our master programmes on complex socio-technical systems, our challenge was to make our students more aware of the competing and complementing theories, research methods, and design approaches that are at the base of complex socio-technical systems design and analysis. Teaching academic research skills offers the master student the means to develop a suitable and feasible research design for their master thesis project. Ultimately, these skills enable graduated students to critically assess research performed by third parties during their professional careers. The course we developed goes beyond the teaching of single research methods, which is often the core in dedicated courses on research methods. Our objective is to support students in developing a suitable and feasible research design in a multidisciplinary research context. This research design is the basis for their master thesis project. In the course we teach students to discover a scientific knowledge gap on the basis of a literature review, to formulate the contribution they wish to make to fill (part of) this gap, to formulate a well focused main research question and related sub questions and to choose an appropriate set of research methods that logically leads towards reaching the research deliverable and research objective. In addition, the data requirements, risks, and data analysis method(s) are part of the overall research design. Finally, an informative abstract, research flow diagram, bibliography, and a time schedule with research activities need to be added to the research proposal.
In this case history we present our experiences with the course in which so far approximately 900 students participated. Based on our experiences we are now developing a redesign for a blended learning format for the course. The latter offers a general part on research design and video material to address the wide variety of research approaches and related research methods to support the academic creativity of the master students to develop their own research design. Gamification will be used to encourage the students to engage in an interactive peer review process. Our vision is that this blended learning format can be adapted to any MSc programme that wishes to adopt a similar course to prepare their students for their master thesis project.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationInnovation in the Teaching of Research Methodology Excellence Awards
Subtitle of host publicationAn Anthology of Case Histories
EditorsDan Remenyi
Place of PublicationReading
PublisherAcademic Conferences
Number of pages15
ISBN (Print)978-1-911218-42-5
Publication statusPublished - 2017


  • research design
  • literature review
  • socio-technical systems
  • Multi-disciplinary research
  • mixed methods
  • online course


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