Professor Joe O’Hara shares insights on educational research

From Audust 24 to 26, 2020, MCU held The Third Annual International Symposium Education and City: education and quality of living in the city. This year the traditional scientific event has been conducted in the online format. The co-organizers were Dublin City University (DCU) in Ireland and University of Taipei in Taiwan, with special guest – Centre for Evaluation,Quality & Inspection (EQI) at DCU. We met with Director of EQI, Professor Joe O’Hara, to ask his opinion on a number of topical questions.

This is the 3rd year you have been participating in the Symposium. Can you share your impressions? In particular, how the Symposium has changed during this time?

Joe O’Hara: I think the Symposium has developed quite a lot in the last three years. I think there’s been a very broad range of connections made between researchers from different parts of the world that have been facilitated by Moscow Сity University. And this is very important because rarely do we get a chance to meet colleagues from different continents in the way that this Symposium has created the space for us to do that. So I now have colleagues that I regularly meet from Taiwan, from Europe, and from the U.S., and our location of meeting is Moscow. I think that’s really important.

I think also that thematically, it’s been a very interesting development from the initial attempt to create this idea of what does it mean to do education in a city. So there’s a real sense now of a field emerging. There’s a real sense of a group of people coming from quite diverse areas beginning to create this idea of an important new area of educational research. And we carry with us different experiences and different ideas and different contexts, but that’s beginning to develop into a really strong way of us thinking: what does it mean to be in a city and to be engaging in the work that we do?

The other relationship I’d like to mention is the relationship between Dublin City University and Moscow City University, that’s really growing. In the last year, we’ve been very lucky to have an Erasmus+ project CRELES begin in the area of culturally responsive leadership in schools. And I think that’s a real fruit of this Symposium. Without the Symposium, that project would never have happened. We would not have got to know colleagues in Moscow, and we would not have been able to create a new network around the mutual work that we do. And that’s enormous to me, perhaps that’s the biggest outcome in a way. It’s this development of a really in-depth research relationship, which of course is built on really positive personal relationships.

Dublin City University and Moscow City University have been partners for a year now in the CRELES project. In your opinion, how is it going?

Joe O’Hara: The project is going remarkably well, given the context. I mean, halfway through the project suddenly the whole world shut down, and it’s amazing that we’ve kept working. I think tribute to that goes to the quality and the professionalism and the experience of the research teams involved. I’d like to mention my colleague, Dr. Martin Brown, who manages the process on the DCU side. He’s an incredibly experienced manager of these, and he has kept the project on track. And what’s been fascinating is to see the way the project has pivoted from actions that required going to visit people and to engage with people to actions that are now about developing survey instruments and developing the academic infrastructure for the project. It’s been a really clever change of focus. And I just know from talking to our national agency here that this project is one of the very few projects that has continued to work efficiently over this period. And I think that’s a tribute to colleagues in Moscow, Austria, Ireland and Spain. And I think the only reason we can do this is because we have this relationship that emerged from the Symposium. I think it’s because we know each other, we trust each other, we’re able to work together. We respect each other’s professionalism and knowledge, and that gives us a solid foundation from which to say, look, we need to change something here, and everybody is happy to go with it. There’s that element of trust. And that comes from the relationships we’ve developed through the Symposium and the opportunities we’ve had to communicate and connect in different places around the world.

Can you tell about your work at the Centre for Evaluation, Quality & Inspection?

Joe O’Hara: What I’m really interested in is questions of quality around education. It’s one of these things that we’re always talking about. We need a quality education, but how do you define that, firstly. And then secondly, how do you achieve that? The Center really looks at that. We look at what is the nature of quality, what are the mechanisms for achieving quality. Inspection is one of the systems that’s most widely used within Europe, but also a lot of the ideas that we have are drawn from broader evaluation theory, from the idea of how you place a value on something. So these three things came together in a research center that was set up about 12 years ago now and continues to work through questions around quality and education.

Another strand is around school inspection and school evaluation, particularly looking at modes to improve quality within schools. A lot of that work is done by my colleague, Dr. Suzanne O’Brien, who works with schools around the idea of self evaluation. So it’s not just the big, bad person coming in and making judgements about you. It’s about you as a school community or an educational community saying, this is what we do well, and this is how we can prove it. So that’s one big element. And the second big element that the CRELES project comes from, the one that we’re working on with Moscow City University, is the idea of the way in which increasingly diversifying societies impact on the way we talk about quality. So EQI is a joint research center with the center for culturally responsive evaluation and assessment at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champagne in the U.S. Their work is around culturally responsive assessment and culturally responsive evaluation.

And then the third thing we do is a lot of small scale program evaluations. Currently I’m involved in the evaluation of Charles University in Prague. I’m on the international panel for that. We’ve worked on areas of anti bullying programs within European schools. We’re working as evaluators on a number of different European projects where we just do the evaluation of the project performance. And we’re working with a lot of major providers of education in Ireland to evaluate their values and ethos, which is a big thing in our schools. That’s the third element. So there are the three elements. We do a lot of research, and then we do a lot of program evaluation and separate evaluation projects.

You are president of the European Educational Research Association. Can you tell about the role of the Association for Europe’s education?

Joe O’Hara: To me, and maybe this is just my bias, the role of EERA is to create a platform where people from different European countries and regions have an opportunity to talk to each other about education and educational research. It’s a space where educational researchers can come together, can network, can dialogue, can create new relationships. And the purpose of that, which is in a very simple mission statement that we have, is to engage in research for the benefit of society. We’re encouraging our members and those associated with us to do education research. And our fundamental perspective is to benefit society. We’re about improving social structures and social policies through the engagement and high quality educational research.

Fundamentally EERA a relationship-based organization, a networking-based organization. It’s bringing together people from around Europe, and beyond to engage in this type of thing in order to do research for the benefit of society. It’s a very complex organization: we have 42 members from 37 regions and countries, 33 academic networks, a peer-reviewed journal. We have a conference most years, this year it’s happening online where we bring over 3000 people. So that’s what we try and do.

In summary, what I’d like to say is that as we approach the Symposium and as we address the ideas, underpinning the idea of quality within education, and within education systems in cities, we need to think about what is the unique voice and contribution that educational research brings to this.