Category Archives: PhD

Thoughts on: “Digital is not the future – Hacking the institution from the inside” – how education support staff can bring change

One of the best things about my research and being part of a community of practice of education technologists/designers is that there are a lot of overlaps. While I’d hate to jump the gun, I think it’s pretty safe to say that harnessing the group wisdom of this community is going to be a core recommendation when it comes to looking for ways to better support Tech Enhanced Learning and Teaching practices in higher education.

So why not start now?

There’s a lively and active community of Ed Techs online (as you’d hope) and arguably we’re bad at our jobs if we’re not part of it. I saw an online “hack” event mentioned a couple of weeks ago – the “Digital is not the future – Hacking the institution from the inside” discussion/workshop/something and joined up.


There’s a homepage (that I only just discovered) and a Twitter hashtag #futurehappens (that I also wish I’d noticed) and then a Loomio discussion forum thing that most of the online action has been occurring in.

Just a side note on Loomio as a tool – some of the advanced functionality  (voting stuff) seems promising but the basics are a little poor. Following a discussion thread is quite difficult when you get separate displays for new posts that only include most of the topic heading and don’t preview the new response. (Either on screen or in the email digest). Biographical information about participants was also scant.

All the same, the discussions muddled along and there were some very interesting and thoughtful chats about a range of issues that I’ll hopefully do justice to here.

It’s a joint event organised by the London School of Economics (LSE) and the University of Arts, London (UAL) but open to all. Unsurprisingly then, most participants seem to be from the UK, so discussions were a little staggered. There was also an f2f event that generated a sudden surge of slightly decontextualised posts but there was still quite of bit of interest to come from that (for an outsider)

The “hack” – I have to use inverted commas because I feel silly using the term with a straight face but all power to the organisers and it’s their baby – was intended to examine the common issues Higher Ed institutions face in innovating teaching and learning practices, with a specific focus on technology.

The guiding principles are:

Rule 1: We are teaching and learning focused *and* institutionally committed
Rule 2: What we talk about here is institutionally/nationally agnostic
Rule 3: You are in the room with the decision makers. What we decide is critical to the future of our institutions. You are the institution
Rule 4: Despite the chatter, all the tech ‘works’ – the digital is here, we are digital institutions. Digital is not the innovation.
Rule 5: We are here to build not smash
Rule 6: You moan (rehearse systemic reasons why you can’t effect change – see Rule 3), you get no beer (wine, juice, love, peace, etc)

We have chosen 5 common scenarios which are often the catalyst for change in institutions. As we noted above, you are in the room with the new VC and you have 100 words in each of the scenarios below to effectively position what we do as a core part of the institution. Why is this going to make our institutional more successful/deliver the objectives/save my (the VCs) job? How do we demonstrate what we do will position the organisation effectively? How do we make sure we stay in the conversation and not be relegated to simply providing services aligned with other people’s strategies?

The scenarios on offer are below – they seemed to fall by the wayside fairly quickly as the conversation evolved but they did spark a range of different discussions.

Scenario 1
Strategic review of the institution and budget planning for 2020
Scenario 2
Institutional restructure because of a new VC
Scenario 3
Undertaking of an institution wide pedagogical redesign
Scenario 4
Responding to and implementing TEF
Scenario 5
Institutional response to poor NSS/student experience results

(It was assumed knowledge that TEF is the upcoming UK govt Teaching Excellence Framework – new quality standards – and the NSS is the National Student Survey – student satisfaction feedback largely.)

Discussions centred around what we as Ed. Designers/Techs need to do to “change the discourse and empower people like us to actively shape teaching and learning at our institutions”. Apart from the ubiquitous “more time and more money” issue that HE executives hear from everyone, several common themes emerged across the scenarios and other posts. Thoughts about university culture, our role as experts and technology consistently came to the fore. Within these could be found specific issues that need to be addressed and a number of practical (and impractical) solutions that are either in train or worth considering.

On top of this, I found a few questions worthy of further investigation as well as broader topics to pursue in my own PhD research.

I’m going to split this into a few posts because there was a lot of ground covered. This post will look at some of the common issues that were identified and the from there I will expand on some of the practical solutions that are being implemented or considered, additional questions that this event raised for me and a few other random ideas that it sparked.

Issues identified

There was broad consensus that we are in the midst of a period of potentially profound change in education due to the affordances offered by ICT and society’s evolving relationship with information and knowledge creation. As Education designers/technologists/consultants, many of us sit fairly low in the university decision making scheme of things but our day to day contact with lecturers and students (and emerging pedagogy and technology) give us a unique perspective on how things are and how they might/should be.

Ed Tech is being taken up in universities but we commonly see it used to replicate or at best augment long-standing practices in teaching and learning. Maybe this is an acceptable use but it is often a source of frustration to our “tribe” when we see opportunities to do so much more in evolving pedagogy.

Peter Bryant described it as “The problem of potential. The problem of resistance and acceptance” and went on to ask “what are the key messages, tools and strategies that put the digital in the heart of the conversation and not as a freak show, an uncritical duplication of institutional norms or a fringe activity of the tech savvy?”

So the most pressing issue – and the purpose of the hack itself – is what we can do (and how) to support and drive the change needed in our institutions. Change in our approach to the use of technology enhanced learning and teaching practices and perhaps even to our pedagogy itself.

Others disagreed that a pedagogical shift was always the answer. “I’m not sure what is broken about university teaching that needs fixing by improved pedagogy… however the economy, therefore the job market is broken I think… when I think about what my tools can do to support that situation, the answers feel different to the pedagogical lens” (Amber Thomas)

The very nature of how we define pedagogy arose tangentially a number of times – is it purely about practices related to the cognitive and knowledge building aspects of teaching and learning or might we extend it to include the ‘job’ of being a student or teacher? The logistical aspects of studying – accessing data, communication, administrivia and the other things that technology can be particularly helpful in making more convenient. I noted the recent OLT paper – What works and why? – that found that students and teachers valued these kinds of tools highly. Even if these activities aren’t the text-book definition of pedagogy, they are a key aspect of teaching and learning support and I’d argue that we should give them equal consideration.

Several other big-picture issues were identified – none with simple solutions but all things that must be taken into consideration if we hope to be a part of meaningful change.

  • The sheer practicality of institution wide change, with the many different needs of the various disciplines necessitates some customised solutions.
  • The purpose of universities and university education – tensions between the role of the university in facilitating research to extend human knowledge and the desire of many students to gain the skills and knowledge necessary for a career.
  • The very nature of teaching and learning work can and is changing – this needs to be acknowledged and accommodated. New skills are needed to create content and experiences and to make effective use of the host of new tools on offer. Students have changing expectations of access to information and their lecturers’ time, created by the reality of our networked world. These are particularly pointy issues when we consider the rise of casualisation in the employment of tutors and lecturers and the limits on the work that they are paid to do.

Three key themes emerged consistently across all of the discussion posts in terms of how we education support types (we really do need a better umbrella term) can be successful in the process of helping to drive change and innovation in our institutions. Institutional culture, our role as “experts” and technology. I’ll look at culture and expertise for now.


It was pretty well universally acknowledged that, more than policy or procedure or resourcing, the culture of the institution is at the heart of any successful innovations. Culture itself was a fairly broad set of topics though and these ranged across traditional/entrenched teaching and learning practices, how risk-averse or flexible/adaptable an institution is, how hierarchical it is and to what extent the ‘higher-ups’ are willing to listen to those on the ground, willingness to test assumptions, aspirational goals and strategy and change fatigue.

Some of the ideas and questions to emerge included:

  • How do we change the discourse from service (or tech support) to pedagogy?
  • “The real issue is that money, trust, support, connectedness and strategy all emanate from the top” (Peter Bryant)
  • “the prerequisite for change is an organisational culture that is discursive, open and honest. And there needs to be consensus about the centrality of user experience.” (Rainer Usselmann)
  • “We need to review our decision making models and empower agility through more experimentation” (Silke Lange) – My take on this – probably true but perhaps not the right thing to say to the executive presumably, with the implication that they’re currently making poor decisions. Perhaps we can frame this more in terms of a commitment to continuous improvement, then we might be able to remove the sense of judgement about current practices and decision makers? 
  • “we will reduce the gap between the VC and our students… the VC will engage with students in the design of the organisation so it reflects their needs. This can filter down to encourage students and staff to co-design courses and structures, with two way communication” (Steve Rowett)
  • “In the private (start-up) sector, change is all you know. Iterate, pivot or perservere before you run out of money.That is the ‘Lean Start-up’ mantra… create a culture and climate where it is expected and ingrained behaviour then you constantly test assumptions and hypotheses” (Rainer Usselman)
  • “Theoretical and practical evidence is important for creating rationale and narratives to justify the strategy” (Peter Bryant) – I agree, we need to use a research-led approach to speak to senior academic execs

While change and continuous improvement is important, in many places it has come to be almost synonymous with management. And not always good management – sometimes just management for the sake of appearing to be doing things. It’s also not just about internal management – changes in government and government policy or discipline practices can all necessitate change.

One poster described how change fatigued lecturers came to respond to an ongoing stream of innovations relating to teaching and learning practice coming down from on-high.

I don’t think anyone will be surprised to hear that staff got very good at re-describing their existing, successful practice in whatever the language of the week was.

Culture is arguably the hardest thing to change in an organisation because there are so many different perspectives of it held by so many different stakeholders. The culture is essentially the philosophy of the place and it will shape the kinds of policy that determine willingness to accept risk, open communication, transparency and reflection – some of the things needed to truly cultivate change.


Our status (as education designers/technologists/support with expertise) in the institution and the extent to which we are listened to (and heard) was seen as another major factor in our ability to support and drive innovation.

There were two key debates in this theme: how we define/describe ourselves and what we do and how we should best work with academics and the university.

Several people noted the difference between education designers and education technologists.

“Educational developers cannot be ignorant of educational technologies any more than Learning Technologists can be ignorant of basic HE issues (feedback, assessment, teaching practices, course design, curriculum development etc).”

Perhaps it says something about my personal philosophy or the fact that I’ve always worked in small multi-skilled teams but the idea that one might be able to responsibly recommend and support tools without an understanding of teaching and learning practice seems unthinkable. This was part of a much larger discussion of whether we should even be talking in terms of eLearning any more or just trying to normalise it so that it is all just teaching and learning. Valid points were made on both sides

“Any organisational distinction between Learning & Teaching and eLearning / Learning Technology is monstrous. Our goal should be to make eLearning so ubiquitous that as a word it becomes obsolete.” (SonJa Grussendorf)

” I also think that naming something, creating a new category, serves a political end, making it visible in a way that it might not be otherwise.” (Martin Oliver)

“it delineates a work area, an approach, a mindset even…Learning technology is not a separate, secondary consideration, or it shouldn’t be, or most strongly: it shouldn’t be optional.” (Sonja Grussendorf)

There was also an interesting point made that virtually nobody talks about e-commerce any more, it’s just a normal (and sometimes expected) way of doing business now.

For me, the most important thing is the perception of the people that I am working with directly – the lecturers. While there is a core of early adopters and envelope pushers who like to know that they have someone that speaks their language and will entertain their more “out-there” ideas when it comes to ed tech and teaching practices, many more just want to go about the business of teaching with the new learning tools that we have available.

As the Education Innovation Office or as a learning technologist, I’m kind of the helpdesk guy for the LMS and other things. Neither of these sets of people necessarily think of me in terms of broader educational design (that might or might not be enhanced with Ed Tech). So I’ve been thinking a lot lately about rebranding to something more like Education Support or Education Excellence. (I’ve heard whispers of a Teaching Eminence project in the wind – though I haven’t yet been involved in any discussions)

But here’s the kicker – education technology and innovation isn’t just about better teaching and learning. For the college or the university, it’s an opportunity to demonstrate that yes, we are keeping up with the Joneses, we are progressive, we are thought leaders. We do have projects that can be used to excite our prospective students, industry partners, alumni, government and benefactors. So on this level, keeping  “innovation” or  “technology” in a title is far more important. So, pragmatically, if it can help me to further the work that I’m doing by being connected to the “exciting” parts of university activity, it would seem crazy not to.

There was some debate about whether our role is to push, lead or guide new practice. I think this was largely centred on differences of opinion on approaches to working with academics.  As I’ve mentioned, my personal approach is about understanding their specific teaching needs (removing technology from the conversation where possible) and recommending the best solutions (tech and pedagogic). Other people felt that as the local “experts”, we have a responsibility to push new innovations for the good for the organisation.

“Personally I’m not shy about having at least some expertise and if our places of work claim to be educational institutions then we have a right to attempt to make that the case… It’s part of our responsibility to challenge expectations and improve practices as well” (David White)

“we should pitch ‘exposure therapy’ – come up with a whole programme that immerses teaching staff in educational technology, deny them the choice of “I want to do it the old fashioned way” so that they will realise the potential that technologies can have in changing not only, say, the speed and convenience of delivery of materials (dropbox model), but can actually change their teaching practice.” (Sonja Grussendorf)

I do have a handful of personal Ed tech hobby horses that the College hasn’t yet taken an interest in (digital badges, ePortfolios, gamification) that I have advocated with minimal success and I have to concede that I think this is largely because I didn’t link these effectively enough to teaching and learning needs. Other participants held similar views.

Don’t force people to use the lift – convince them of the advantages, or better still let their colleagues convince them. (Andrew Dixon)

A final thought that these discussions triggered in me – though I didn’t particularly raise it on the board – came from the elephant in the room that while we might be the “experts” – or at least have expertise worth heeding – we are here having this discussion because we feel that our advice isn’t always listened to.

Is this possibly due to an academic / professional staff divide? Universities exist for research and teaching and these are the things most highly valued – understandably. Nobody will deny that a university couldn’t function in the day to day without the work of professional staff but perhaps there is a hierarchy/class system in which some opinions inherently carry less weight. Not all opinions, of course – academics will gladly accept the advice of the HR person about their leave allocation or the IT person in setting up their computer – but when we move into the territory of teaching and learning, scholarship if you like, perhaps there is an almost unconscious disconnect occurring.

I don’t say this with any particular judgement and I don’t even know if it’s true – my PhD supervisor was aghast when I suggested it to her – but everyone has unconscious biases and maybe this is one of them.

Just a thought anyway but I’d really like to hear your thoughts on this or anything else that I’ve covered in this post.

Next time, on – the role of technology in shaping change and some practical ideas for action.



Random PhD tips – the early years

One of the things that I’m finding with this study is that there is a wealth of advice out there and it still feels vaguely productive to pore over that instead of pressing on with actual “work”.

Here are some scattered tips and things that I’ve read and been told in no particular order.

The PhD is essentially a research apprenticeship. While one of the stated goals is to make a contribution to the scholarship, a large part of it is about demonstrating that you are able to competently carry out research and use it to build a solid argument. It doesn’t have to be massive or incredibly sophisticated – indeed, there’s a respect paper (yet to read but it’s on the list) titled “It’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize” by Mullins and Kiley (2002).

In the early stage of your research, it’s all about the reading. You don’t know what you don’t know yet or where the literature will take you so it’s just about reading, reading and more reading. Everyone has said to enjoy this phase because you generally never get to be this indulgent again. (I’m happy with this advice but I also want to make sure that I make the most of the reading that I do so I’ve been fiddling around the edges looking for ways to capture the information, quotes, ideas and further reading to be found in it – partially in a bibliographic/citation tool (Zotero) and partially in blogging about it)

How to read is also a thing. Given the ridiculous amount of material out there, reading cover to cover isn’t going to get it done. I’ve repeated had it suggested to skim the abstract, the introduction and the conclusion, references and if this seems relevant, dip into the methodology. Then decide whether to proceed. This part I’m finding harder, as I’m yet to feel confident that I can make this judgement but I’m sure it will come with time. It seems sensible to put a little more trust into readings recommended by my supervisors and clever colleagues and so far, so good.

Building some solid organisational systems is a no brainer. This is something that I particularly enjoy – probably more than the work part that actually comes after it. Working out categories and folders and backups is great but I’ll have to press on pretty soon.

Emotional resilience is a pretty common theme in the advice literature. It’s a long, draining process requiring us to put our ideas and intellect on display to the world and there will inevitably be some tough feedback. There’s also a lot of talk about imposter syndrome – the fear that people will realise that we aren’t are smart as we make out. (I initially typed smark there, so I’m not sure what that says). This seems reasonably healthy to me – kind of the inverse of the Dunning Kruger effect.

I’ve already felt fairly conscious of the fact that many of my peers seem to be using more theoretical (dare I say jargony) terms in their writing and I wonder if I am judged for not doing this. (I have a political thing about “plain English” and accessible language but I do understand that there are some terms and concepts that are far more effectively communicated in “jargon”). At the moment, I feel that the best thing for me to do is to use the language that best enables me to share my thoughts. (I have found a glossary tool that I’ve added to this blog and will be populating at some point that adds mouse-over definitions for terms in the text. One of my favourite things about reading on the Kindle is being able to highlight words for an instant defintiion. The Trowler book that I’ve been banging on about has a nice linked glossary section at the back, that has helped me to get across concepts like ontology and epistemology, endogenous and etic, among others)

Communicating early and often is also a key theme in the advice so far – as a fairly self-reliant person this is certainly something that I’ll need to work on but I definitely see the value. Many hands etc etc. In the past I’ve liked/needed to thrash an idea out in my head to come up with some kind of solution that I was willing to share with others but I just don’t think this is going to cut it this time around.

Being open to ideas from seemingly unrelated areas is another great piece of advice. A lot of these have come from Inger “Thesis Whisperer” Mewburn’s blog and “How to Tame your PhD” book, I must add. Going to talks by other researchers might lead to any number of brain waves as you extrapolate their ideas to your context.

I’m not super close to the writing stage yet but like the idea of setting time limits to get certain things done. Avoiding that whole “work expands to fill the time available to it” trap. I’ve long been an advocate of Pomodoro technique (the hardest part is starting the timer) and I understand the notion of “the perfect is the enemy of the good/done”. All of this writing will go through umpteen drafts, so it doesn’t have to be good the first (or the fifth) time, it just has to be written.

Talking to people about what you’re doing and what you’re planning (particularly supervisors) can be an effective way to add some deadline and social pressure to do the work. (I’m still trying to work out exactly what I need to be doing yet – it seems like just reading is too easy)

There are a lot of people around that want to help us to succeed and are willing to help – there is research training, library skills training, communities of practice and reams of published advice. For all of this, I am particularly grateful. Thanks.

Thoughts on: “Doing Insider Research in Universities” (Trowler, 2012) Part 3 – Good research design and ethics/politics

I’m not sure that this is how I’ll process all of the books that I read – in fact I’m almost certain that it isn’t – but I’ll continue this series of posts about Trowler – Doing Insider Research in Universities because I have found it to be a great way to dip my toe into the many issues that I will face in my research.

The next two chapters look at value and robustness in insider research (which, again, I take to be about being able to defend your methodology – and choosing a good one) and then the ethics and politics of insider research in your university, which is pretty much unavoidable.

He opens with a discussion of some of the criticisms that case studies face as well as some of the responses to these. I’ll leave it here in full as it sums it up well.

Case study researchers may find their work subject to the following criticisms (Flyvbjerg, 2006): it only yields concrete, practical knowledge rather than the supposedly more valuable general, theoretical and propositional knowledge;  generalization from one case is not possible and so the research does not contribute to the development of knowledge; the research can generate hypotheses, but other methods are necessary to test them and build theory; case study design contains a bias toward verification, i.e., a tendency to confirm the researcher’s preconceived notions. Both Flyvbjerg and Yin (2009) refute these criticisms, but those who research their own universities need to be clear about precisely what their research questions are, what the rationale behind the research design is, and what the truth claims are. This advice holds for any kind of research, but other designs tend to draw less critical fire.

(He also highlights Gomm et al (2000), Simons (2009) and Yin (2009) as great starting points for further investigation of case study methodology)

Trowler dips back into some of the ontological questions that he touched on earlier in the book, comparing the merits of the true vs the useful. (I may be oversimplifying this). This draws on Sayer’s notion of “practical adequacy” in prioritising the usefulness of information. I kind of get it but think I’ll need to dig a little deeper. I can see how some true things mightn’t necessarily be valuable but as for things that are kind of true…?

This is echoed in further discussions of Bassey’s idea of “fuzzy generalizations”. In short, this is about acknowledging that life is complex and theory won’t always accommodate the range of factors at play. So that rather than saying that in situation A, if B happens then C will follow, we might say in situation A, if B happens then C will generally follow between D and E% of the time. It’s not as neat and arguably not as helpful but no doubt more realistic.

In terms of the design of research, Trowler posits twelve questions for researchers to consider to test the rigour and quality of their proposed methods.

1. In designing the research, how do I know that my planned approach will answer the questions I have more fully than any other?
2. How do I design the research to take best advantage of the benefits of insider research while avoiding its pitfalls as far as possible?
3. Conceptually, how do I represent my organization, its culture and its practices? (And how does this representation shape my design?)
4. How and from whom will I secure access to the data I need? (Why them and why not others?)
5. Whom should I inform about the project, and how should I describe it, when I seek ‘informed’ consent? (And how might this affect my data?)
6. How will I ensure that the project is run ethically so that all participants and institutional bodies are protected? (While at the same time being as transparent as possible to readers so they can judge the robustness of my approach and conclusions?)
7. If I am using participant observation, what are the ethical issues in relation to the people I observe in natural settings? (And how might my answer to that question affect my data?)
8. If using interviews, what measures should I take to deal with interview bias? (And will they assure a sufficient degree of robustness?)
9. What should the balance be between collecting naturalistic data and formally ‘collected’ data? (And how can I offer assurances of robustness about conclusions drawn from both?)
10. How should I analyse the different forms of data I have, given that there will almost certainly be a large amount of various sorts? (And how do I ensure that sufficient and appropriate weight is given to each form of data in generating conclusions?)
11. How, and how much, will I communicate my findings to participants to ensure that they are happy with what I intend to make public? (And will this affect the way I present my conclusions to other audiences?)
12. Generally, in what other ways can I satisfy the reader about the robustness of my research and its findings?

(I was a little hesitant to just paste this in holus bolus but it all seems particularly valuable).

In very pragmatic terms, there will also inevitably be a number of ethical and political issues to consider when undertaking insider research in one’s own institution. The question of whether to anonymise the institution and the research participants is a live one – though at this stage, to me, it seems impractical and counterproductive, particularly when it could mean reducing the number of sources of data for fear of not being able to correctly reference them. The lack of transparency could also arguably lessen a reader’s view of the robustness of the research.

I also think that the question of to what extent people change their behaviour under observation is a valid one, however there are no doubt ways to mitigate this.

Politically, senior leaders in the organisation will imaginably want to feel confident that the research won’t damage the reputation of the university before granting access. Does this then lead to self-censorship and selective reporting if there are areas where there is room for improvement?

At a higher level of ethical debate, the selection of standpoints from which to pose questions and to begin observations and investigations can raise some concerns. If I fail to incorporate the perspective of voices that are less often heard, am I guilty of perpetuating the status quo?

Lots to think about and to be perfectly blunt, I would be naive not to factor in the question of what asking the wrong person the wrong question might mean for my career prospects in the organisation. Fortunately I have a little time to think about some of these things.


Thoughts on: “Doing Insider Research in Universities” (Trowler, 2012) Part 2 (Being an insider and research methodologies)

I just realised that Part 1 of these posts had been sitting in my drafts folder – waiting for ??? – so if it seems like I’ve had an incredibly productive burst of writing, yeah nah. (Which isn’t to say that I don’t have a fair bit to say about this book now, as I have found it particularly helpful)

One thing I have learned, sadly, is that the Kindle doesn’t sort “highlights” (selections that I’ve made in the text) by chapter, so my notes aren’t as useful to me as I might’ve hoped. I’ll know to add notes to the highlights as well next time, listing the chapter. (It is still pretty handy being able to collate them in the page though)

Chapter 2: Researching Universities. 

Trowler looks here at some of the knowledge and data issues that we face when researching in universities. Primarily the nature of the different types of knowledge present – implicit and explicit.

Implicit relates to practice knowledge (a.k.a phronesis) that has been developed through experience and which can be harder to express in words. Things like how to deliver a rigorous and yet engaging lecture. Because it is lived knowledge, it can be argued that it carries more legitimacy than that which has come from theory. At the same time, it will be very important to remember that there can often be a gap between people’s perspectives of their actions and the actions themselves.

On the other side we find propositional or technical knowledge, which is more like your old fashioned book learning. Easier to express and generally more objective but if we take into consideration the fact that unis exist in different contexts and can have their own quirks, this knowledge is likely to be useful in different applications.

Trowler references Blackler (1995), who

distinguishes between five types of knowledge identified in the organizational literature: embodied; embedded; embrained; encultured and encoded. These terms describe, respectively, knowledge which lies in muscle memory and is seen in skilled physical performances (performative knowledge); that which is located in systematic routines; knowledge which lies in the brain (cognition); that which is located in shared meaning systems; and finally knowledge which is encoded in text of various sorts.

For the research that I’m considering – which currently seems to be drifting toward the role of the university as a whole (or as an “ecology” if you will), I can see that there may be value in most of these kinds of knowledge. I get the feeling that there is definitely going to be a need to consider some of the theories relating to organisations and management.

In a nutshell, I need to be mindful of the ontological and epistemological questions that come up relating to the nature of reality and of knowledge and have an answer ready for questions about how I have done so.

Chapter 3: Research design, data collection and theory

This is a major section for me as I’ve been out of the formal research loop for a long time. If you don’t read anything else in this book (and methodology is important to you), read this. This chapter runs through major methodological approaches, offering up pros and cons for all of them. Ultimately Trowler’s own research took an ethnographic case study approach in a single site and drew from four sources of data: “interviews, observant participation, documents generated within and without the institution and other studies of it”.

Having stepped us through the alternatives, Trowler’s case for his approach in his research appears sound. (Of course, at this stage I’m going off intuition rather than experience but my understanding is that as long as you can make a strong/valid enough argument for your methodology, you can pretty much do what you like)

He anchors this discussion with a comparison of two ontological perspectives (whether they exist as a dichotomy or as points on a spectrum is debatable, of course). There is the “realist” approach (more quantitative, tied to “correlations of a generalisable nature”) and the “social constructivist” (more qualitative, reality is more subjective, more specific but less generalisable).

A key question raised – and certainly one that I’ll need to consider – is that of single site vs multi site research. Beyond the basic logistical issues, there is also (for me) the matter of one site being insider research and another being outsider research. (Even though if I was to go with a second and even a third site, I have connections and relationships in both).

To be clearer, at this stage I’m considering primarily researching within my own university (ANU) and possibly the neighbouring University of Canberra. A third option could be my former employer, the Canberra Institute of Technology, a Vocational Education and Training provider. On the one hand, this would introduce a lot more variables to the things being examined – well-resourced, research “elite” university vs emerging, “standard” university vs resource-challenged teaching focused adult education provider. All of these variables will necessarily shape the data collected and the questions asked. On the other hand, being able to compare approaches to similar questions (how can we better support TELT practices) could well be more illuminating.

Trowler identifies 6 type of comparative projects of interest:

1. The factors influencing the success or otherwise of an innovation (for example around virtual learning environments’ deployment and use)
2. Approaches to management and leadership and their effectiveness
3. The implementation of a national policy
4. Compliance (or otherwise) with national quality (or other) guidelines
5. Professional practices in a discipline or field of study
6. Student responses to an innovation

To be honest, the added complexity feels like an overreach at this juncture – I’d rather do something simpler well. It does open the door for further research down the track of course.

Of the methodological approaches discussed, I’d summarise them as follows:

Ethnographic – Participant observation
Researcher ‘lives with the natives’ for prolonged periods of time, fly on the wall type observation, often starts froma particular standpoint, “should be for people and not just about them”, language and textual objects vital,

Action research
Focused on solving particular problems, researcher is often a practitioner, iterative processes

Evaluative research
“Evaluative research in higher education aims to attribute value and worth to individual, group, institutional or sectoral activities happening there”. Care needs to be taken to ensure that it makes a larger contribution (theoretical/methodological/professional) to knowledge in the academic world

Hypothesis testing
Often trying to replicate findings of other studies, may try to improve on methodological flaws in prior studies, applying and extending theory

From here, Trowler moves on to discussing the importance of connecting theory to research. From what I can see, it seems to be partially as a way of finding a standpoint and a set of questions and partially as a way of testing some of the hypotheses.

He offers a solid overview of the characteristics of theory:

1. It uses a set of interconnected concepts to classify the components of a system and how they are related.
2. This set is deployed to develop a set of systematically and logically related propositions that depict some aspect of the operation of the world.
3. These claim to provide an explanation for a range of phenomena by illuminating causal connections.
4. Theory should provide predictions which reduce uncertainty about the outcome of a specific set of conditions. These may be rough probabilistic or fuzzy predictions, and they should be corrigible – it should be possible to disconfirm or jeopardize them through observations of the world. In the hypothetico-deductive tradition, from which this viewpoint comes, theory offers statements of the form ‘in Z conditions, if X happens then Y will follow’.
5. Theory helps locate local social processes in wider structures, because it is these which lend predictability to the social world.
6. Finally, theory guides research interventions, helping to define research problems and appropriate research designs to investigate them.

One of the goals of theory seems to relate to being able to “render the normal strange”. A challenge to face as an insider researcher – and particularly in the face of information sources that will come with their own biases and preconceptions – is to maintain that objectivity.

One way of addressing this is by “the application of Stenhouse’s (1979) notion of the ‘second record’ (the use of a detailed understanding of meaning systems to ‘read’ interview data) to this kind of secondary data about the institution.”

Trowler mentions that he probably collected too much data which caused problems in the data analysis phase – no idea how to deal with that but this is something that I will look for in my further reading about research practices.

This chapter also includes a solid description of the methodology that he used in his own PhD research – I think what I’m going to need to do is to create a spreadsheet or database outlining different methodologies – that should be particularly helpful. (Already partially discussed above).


Thoughts on: “Doing Insider Research in Universities” (Trowler, 2012) Part 1

This book was recommended to me (I’m pretty sure) by Inger Mewburn and while it is relatively short, it is incredibly pertinent to my PhD research. One of the reasons that I chose my topic area (Factors influencing TELT practices in Higher Ed) is the level of access that I have to this world through my day job as a learning technologist. I’m relatively new to the Higher Ed sector, after spending a long time in Vocational Education and Training – the other adult learning sector – and while there are many commonalities, there are more than a few significant differences to navigate.

Trowler seems to have a refreshingly grounded perspective of the Higher Ed sector, celebrating its many strengths but not being afraid to name the areas for improvement. There’s a lot to unpack in this remarkably short (74 pages all up) book so I’m going to break it into chunks.

Chapter 1: Insider research: a brief overview

Launching into an examination of the pros and cons of conducting research in your own educational organisation, Trowler quotes Merton (1972) who suggests that

insider doctrine (that only insiders can do ‘proper’ research because of the depth of their understanding) and the ‘outsider’ doctrine (that only outsiders have the necessary detachment for robust research) are both fallacies because we rarely are ever completely an insider or an outsider

The main thing, Trowler suggests, is that it is vital to state explicitly in your justification of your research methodology exactly how an endogenous (insider) approach might “illuminate areas of interest” and “where it could obscure them” (and the steps taken to avoid this)

In broad terms, the advantages of endogenous research include:

  • “better access to naturalistic data… greater access to the second record (underlying meanings of statements made in person or in print) and hidden transcripts (the occluded articulations of power relations within organisations)”
  • “the researcher is better able to produce ‘emic’ accounts (ones meaningful to actors), especially using an ethnographic approach”
  • ” the insider researcher is empowered to deploy naturalistic data (records of activities that are neither elicited nor affected by the actions of social researchers), critical discourse analysis (an approach to the study of the production and effects of texts of all sorts) and phenomenography (an approach to the study of the social world which captures the different ways in which a concept is apprehended, usually through interviews with a range of respondents in a particular social field)”
  • “Being culturally literate; one can deploy different types of data, which are relatively easily available, in interrogating an argument”
  • “There may be a better chance of having a beneficial impact on university practices too, especially if the research project involves action research or when research questions address the implications for policy and practice of the project’s findings (LSE Public Policy Group, 2011)”
  • “In addition, specific groups, previously under-represented or dis-empowered may benefit. Insider research is one way of addressing this issue by shining a light on experiences and ways of knowing of women and other groups”

On the other hand, there can be some significant practical disadvantages to insider research

  • “One’s involvement as a participant in the site of research may mean loss of the ability to produce good, culturally neutral, ‘etic’ (culturally neutral depictions of the social world, describing behaviours) accounts because if can become difficult to ‘see’ some dimensions of social life; they easily become normalised for the participant (the literature talks about the difficulty for insiders of “rendering the normal strange”: Delamont, 2002).”
  • “Moreover, there may be a conflict between the role as a researcher and one’s professional or student role in the university. There may be issues of power differentials between the researcher and researched, in either direction, which can be very problematic both ethically and methodologically (see Ryan et al, 2011 for a discussion of this…)”
  • “Finally, respondents who know the researcher personally or by reputation may have pre-formed expectations of their alignments and preferences in ways which change their responses to questions (a form of the effect called ‘interview bias’)”

My thoughts: 

As a full-time employee of a university with what I feel are a number of interesting avenues for investigation on offer, I am still highly mindful of the fact that not everyone may be as supportive and open to research into our practices as one might expect. Higher education can be an environment where people are necessarily heavily invested in their own expertise – it is essentially their currency – and even when questions are asked of their teaching (or professional) practices (rather than their discipline knowledge), it can sometimes be taken poorly.

Any number of other political factors can come into play and, rightly or wrongly, need to be considered and accommodated. Anonymising the data is possible but it does feel as though this would impact the narrative aspects of the thesis and, realistically, given the links to papers and conference presentations and the relatively small size of the ed tech community in Australia, it’s hard to believe that people wouldn’t figure out who you are writing about anyway.

Putting these things aside, from a purely practical perspective, as a part-time researcher and full-time employee, being able to work on research (with the blessing of my manager) that directly benefits our organisation during work hours is highly appealing. Maintaining a high degree of mindfulness about keeping an analytical and objective mindset – “rendering the normal strange” – might take a degree of effort but with focus seems achievable.

Merton, R. K. (1972). Insiders and Outsiders: A Chapter in the Sociology of Knowledge. Americal Journal of Sociology.lsLSELDSE
LSE Public Policy Group. (2011, April). Maximizing the impacts of your research: A handbook for social scientists. Retrieved March 17, 2016, from
Ryan, L., Kofman, E., & Aaron, P. (2011). Insiders and outsiders: working with peer researchers in researching Muslim communities. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 14(1), 49–60.

Doing nothing in the early days of a PhD

Well that’s not entirely true but I have been knocked around a little over the last two weeks with a cold/chest thing and my reading & writing have certainly slipped down the priority list. That’s the sucky thing about being sick – you’d think, great, time at home to just rest up and get stuck into some reading but you really just don’t feel like doing much more than staring and lying down. And coughing, so much coughing.

I have managed to engage in what might be considered productive procrastination – the fiddling around the edges of work and particularly preparation. Working on to-do lists, going to workshops (on searching catalogues and library databases), meeting my supervisor Lina, installing software everywhere that I might use it and clearing out folders (physical and digital).

I even embarked on a large scale but highly relevant project at work to review how we (professional staff – ed designers, learning technologists, IT support people etc) are currently working with Ed Tech at the university and how we might do things better. As you can imagine, this is of crazily large scope (much like my research questions at present) and could so easily be dragged down a thousand side-tracks. Keeping the first meeting focused on what questions we need to be asking (rather than what solutions we can find) proved to be hard work but we got there in the end. One thing about solutions is that everyone loves having ideas but there is often a sense of “someone – not me – should definitely do this brilliant thing that I just thought of”. My focus here is going to have to be on ensuring that action items for any of these things get attached to specific people.

We did make some progress though and came up with some key questions and issues and there was a lot of goodwill in the room.

screenshot of padlet with key issues

In many ways, these are the same issues that I’m considering for my thesis. (Did I mention that I’m doing a PhD? I’m starting to feel like I bang on about that a little too much). I’m also starting to feel as though I may be able to dig deeper into the role of educational support staff in higher education, particularly after reading a major report funded by the OLT (Office of Learning and Teaching) which seems to have overlooked us entirely. (I’ll post more about this report soon, as there’s a lot of interest to discuss).

My hope is – in addition to being able to spark a meaningful improvement process at work – that these discussions will help me to focus my research. (And also that my research might help to focus the project – win/win really)

We have flagged the need to look at the language used in this field, which I know full well will be a hellish quagmire but it’s still a discussion that is needed. (If there is one thing that people in academia like, it is a robust discussion about words. See also, being right.) (I tease but only because I know that I’m as guilty as the next person)

It did surprise me though, how much the term “technology enabled learning” grated on me as I read the report – I’ve been using “technology enhanced learning and teaching”. (But really, “enabled”? – as though learners can’t learn without the tech?). We have a ways to go I think.

So I’m doing things but deep down I know that I need to be reading a lot more. And reading better as well – some good advice that I’ve had this week is that I don’t have to read these books cover to cover. I still have a little FOMO there but feel that this will pass.

Doing everything in the early days of a PhD

I suspect one of the advantages of starting a PhD a little later in life than many is having a greater sense of how and where to look for help. Three weeks in (officially), I’m a little overwhelmed with the scale of the job that I have taken on – but I’m “assured” (not reassured) that this is normal and also that this feeling never really goes away. (I’m also pretty sure that my knowledge of where and how to find help is marginal but I at least have a glimmer of an idea)

I’m also grateful to know a number of people that have already been there and are willing to share their hard earned experiences. Stubborn, younger me would’ve paid less heed to these lessons, needing to make my own mistakes (and there’s still plenty of time for that) and work everything out myself. Happily I’ve moved past that phase. I have a housemate in the 9th year of her Linguistics/Autism/something research, a number of friends (more sciencey) that are done and dusted and basically everyone that I work with that have also been there, done that.

This post isn’t about setting out to become one of the many how-to PhD bloggers – but I’m very happy that they’re out there. Particularly Inger (Thesis Whisperer) Mewburn, who I met before I even knew about that side of her and before I even saw myself doing this thing. She’s already been very supportive and helpful and being able to toddle along to her workshops is great. Her blog and that of Pat Thomson (“Patter”) are constantly talked up and are high on my to-read list.

The university offers a great range of workshops on all aspects of research and writing – sadly I’m a 3.5 hr bus ride away but I’m still making the weekly trip to the Thesis Proposal Writing Workshop and getting a lot from that. So far we’ve covered the basic bones of a thesis (and a proposal) and the fact that while there is some flexibility in structure, you’re still generally looking at ILMRaD (Introduction, Lit review, Methods, Report of research findings and Discussion). As someone from a story writing background, I’m very interesting in finding ways to spin a compelling story and so I think that the preference for putting the methodology up front is going to present some challenges here. (Arguably putting it up front would work if it was the story of me doing research but I feel like the thesis is more the story of the content and putting it at the start feels like explaining the magic trick before you’ve done it. I guess that’s the difference between academic and creative writing and it simply is what it is)

My (employer) college and university offers a similar range of training opportunities and is being quite generous in letting me make the most of them. I’ve also been pointed towards a host of books and articles, including “How to write a better thesis” by Evans (2014) just last night.

I have no doubt there will be many trials ahead but I find it entirely comforting that there are so many people that have gone before me that are willing and happy to share their knowledge and experiences. I haven’t even mentioned the gentle yet focused guidance I’ve had from my supervisors, Peter and Lina. We’re still talking about how regularly to meet and at this stage, where I’m gingerly stepping down the beach to the sea of possibility, I’ve been unsure how vital early meetings are (it seems like I just need to do a tonne of reading) but my housemate made a very helpful point last night that this is also a key relationship building time, which I guess is something I can overlook at times in the midst of all the other things going on.

Thoughts on: “What should count as Education Research: Notes towards a new paradigm” (Anyon, 2006)

I’m on my weekly bus trip to Sydney – between 3.5 – 4 hours – to take a workshop on Thesis Proposal Writing (and also to get to know my scholarly colleagues) so it seems like a good time to do some reading and jot down some ideas. (The super chatty backpackers of last week are gone and the bus is basically a big moving quiet library – with wifi, which is great in itself)

So I’ve diligently downloaded some of the recommended readings – in this case 

– and I start reading. Very quickly I realise that while it is an interesting enough chapter, focussing on the need for bigger picture research into the social and political contexts that surround the success or otherwise of education reform in “urban” American schools, it’s pretty well irrelevant to my own research.

This at least leads me to a few thoughts and ideas for TELT practices.

When teachers provide optional readings, it would be great if there was an option to

  1. tag them (ideally by both the teacher and student)
  2. support student recommendations/ratings
  3. directly include in-line options for commenting

It would also be valuable if teachers (while I’m focussing on Higher Ed, I think I’ll go with the term teachers instead of lecturers/academics for now) provided a short abstract or even just a basic description.

This got me thinking further about the informal student recommendation/rating systems that are currently in use and what we need to learn from them. Students at my university, the ANU – I guess I need to add a disclaimer on this blog about all opinions etc being my own and I don’t speak for the ANU – have created a lively Facebook space where they share information and opinions (and cat/possum pictures). These discussions often include questions about which are good (easy) courses or what lecturer x is like. I suspect that the nature of these communities – particularly the student ownership – makes officially sanctioned groups/pages less appealing, so it isn’t necessarily a matter of aping these practices, rather looking for opportunities to learn from them in our TELT practices.

My own supervisor has written about the student experience of TELT practices – I’ll be curious to see whether this question is addressed. (Reading that book is high on my list, I’m just trying to get my head around what it means to be a PhD student and researcher currently so this is the leaning of my reading to date)

The chapter does finish with a quote that I did find relevant though:

Most educational research seeks to provide guidance into how to alter existing policies or practices deemed problematic, but the extent to which research findings effect change is small. The impotence of most research to alter established policy and practice is well recognized

So even when it doesn’t appear that a reading is going to be of value, I guess it can still trigger other ideas and offer more universal thoughts.

Post Script: Just looking at the citation above, it’s clear that I need to get a better grasp of how to use Zotero in the browser. Any and all advice most welcome.

Thoughts on: A general framework for developing proposals – Developing Effective Research Proposals. (Punch, 2000)

book cover

Writing in this format for gathering my thoughts and collecting useful quotes and ideas from articles/books/etc proved fairly useful to me while completing my Masters so I figured that I’d give it a shot here now.

(Actually it’s funny now going back to that old blog as the final post was an overview of my thoughts about doing a research methodology subject, which seemed utterly redundant as it was the final subject in the degree and not an area that I felt that I would likely to spend any further time on)

Anyway, while I thought the first of these posts would relate to Paul Trowler’s mini-book on “Doing Insider Research in Universities”, I’m still working my way through (and enjoying) that and in the meantime was given Chapter 3 of Punch’s book about research proposals to read at the first of the Thesis Proposal Writing Workshop sessions offered by USyd ESW. (Homework, who knew?)

Punch offers a pragmatic and seemingly reasonable (based on my limited knowledge) approach to framing a research proposal. He readily acknowledges that there can be no single perfect approach but more a broad set of guiding principles that should enable one to hone one’s area of research interest down to specific and measurable data collection questions. (This isn’t to say that it won’t be a cyclical, iterative process with some potential dead-ends but ultimately it should result in a product that is “neat, well-structured and easy to follow”)

Here are some of the key points that I took from the chapter:

  • Three key questions at the heart of the proposal – What, Why and How (how coming later and including when, who and where – i.e. the methodology)
  • Why is important – the justification for the research and will often merit multiple sections
  • Logical flow from research area -> research topic -> general research questions -> specific research questions -> data collection questions

Possible examples:
Research area: youth suicide
Research topic: factors associated with the incidence of youth suicide
General research question: “What is the relationship between family background factors and the incidence of youth suicide?”
Specific research question: “What is the relationship between family income and the incidence of youth suicide?”

The point is to move toward questions that can be directly asked and answered.
“Is it clear what data will be required to answer this question?”
The answers to the general questions are the sum and synthesis of the more specific questions.

Punch prefers the term “indicators” to “factors” (which I have been tending to use to date) because “of its wide applicability across different types of research. It applies in quantitative and qualitative contexts, whereas the terms ‘dimensions’, ‘factors’ and ‘components’ have more quantitative connotations.

He also makes the point that the more well-considered the research questions are, the more they suggest the types of data that are necessary to answer them. “It is the idea behind the expression that ‘a question well asked is a question half-answered.'”

Punch goes on to point out that “should” questions (e.g. Should nurses wear white uniforms?) are unduly complex and require a lot of unpacking to answer. (Who’s to judge “should”?)
A more productive question might be “Do nurses think they should wear white uniforms?” – to which I would add maybe “Why do nurses think they should wear white uniforms?” – which perhaps gets more complicated but can still form a reasonable question to a nurse.

In broad terms, Punch then reiterates the importance of being clear on the what and the why of the research before moving on to methodology. There is some interesting discussion of the value of hypotheses in relation to the research questions – though at this stage I don’t think they will be relevant to my research – which links to aligning theory to the research questions.

Some reflections and questions raised.

At this early stage I’ve been concerned about my lack of a strong research background in terms of knowing what kind of methodology I plan to use. Many of my peers seem to have already mapped out the next 3-6 years and I’m still trying to figure out what I really want/need to find out.

This chapter has reminded me that figuring out the what and why – which I’ve made a modest start on in my mind at least – is vital in informing the next steps in the research.

It has also sparked a few random ideas and questions for me to pursue, which feels like a win.

Why don’t more people use TELT practices in Higher Ed / Adult Ed?
Is the learning technologist a factor? Where do we sit? In Organisation? or separately?
(There’s some crossover with pedagogy maybe. Also compliance and innovation)
How do these factors interrelate?

What if I start out by thinking there is a gap in the literature and there actually isn’t?
What’s the difference between a learning practice and a teaching practice?
Which factors (or sets of factors) impact TELT practices and how do they interrelate?
What actions are needed at what levels & contexts to mitigate the barrier factors?

Just finally, I’ve also decided on some tools to start my documenting process – Zotero and Scrivener. (Probably worthy of posts in their own right). The following bibliographic entry comes from the Zotpress plugin for WordPress and seems to have done a nice job in preview. (I do need to find out what the “official” citation style is. Currently I’m going APA because I like it)

Starting a PhD

Photo 1-03-2016, 5 21 45 PM

This is me, today, Tuesday the 1st of March 2016. This is the day that I officially start my PhD studies (is it studies or research?) with the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney.

Surprisingly enough, the exact topic is a work in progress but broadly I will be looking into Technology Enhanced Learning and Teaching (TELT) Practices  in Higher Education, the factors that influence it and ways to better support it. My supervisor is Peter Goodyear and my associate supervisor is Lina Markauskaite, both decent seeming people that have done a lot of respected work in this and related areas.

So why am I doing it?

This is the make-or-break question I suspect. The thing that will ultimately determine whether or not I finish. Happily I think my reasons are solid.

I want to know more about this field and I want to be better at my job as a learning technologist. (I used to mock the pretension of that title but it’s grown on me). I don’t necessarily aspire to a job in academia but I do think that this will help me professionally whichever path I do end up taking.

I see the questions that I have around this field as a puzzle and one which deserves to be solved. I think that technology can be better employed in adult education to create deeper and more meaningful learning experiences for students and it disappoints me that I don’t see this happening more regularly. I’d like to better understand what factors shape TELT practices in higher education and see what can be done to better support it.

I’m grateful for the opportunity that I’ve been given in being taken on as a student. I haven’t followed the more conventional academic path to get here in terms of research based study and there is certainly some catching up to do but this just makes me more determined to succeed.

The word “scholar” was mentioned a few times last week when I attended the HDR (Higher Degree by Research) induction session and while for some reason it evokes images of 12th Century monks painstakingly writing on parchment by candlelight in a dim cell, it feels special to be a (tiny) part of this history.

I should probably go read something now. (Though surely I’ve earned a break – see, proud scholar already)