Being on the edge of things

In an archive edition of Monitor (1964) Philip Larkin talks about Hull being ‘a little on the edge of things’ and how he ‘quite liked being on the edge‘.  Hull is my home. I know about being on the edge and when it comes to my PhD it’s the same story. I need to  find a research community and when it comes to my subject, Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL), I don’t know where that is.

So who am I and what am I doing? it’s back to the TEL People. In previous posts I’ve written about their tribes and territories in terms of identity and language.  Today I’m reflecting on TEL research. Who’s doing it and where do TEL People go research support?

a plant surviving behind barbed wire

It was no surprise I was the only one at the University of Northampton’s postgraduate induction week to be researching online education or how out of 6 of us within the School of Education, I’m the only one researching outside of the compulsory sector. I call my research educational but the educational research discipline has never felt like home.  For years I’ve been writing about the loneliness of the long distance learner and already at Northampton I feel like I’m on the edge of things again.

For the PhD this week I’ve been reading the disciplines and discipline of educational research by David Bridges. As assessor for the REF, Bridges looked at the diversity of disciplinary approaches to educational research (ER). He asks if ER should be seen as a single subject or are there more benefits to adopting a multi-disciplinary identity. Applying either to my own research assumes it already sits within a discipline but I don’t know where to find it.

image of a maze

The word discipline carries the idea of unique qualities. This is where Becher’s first work on academic tribes and territories began. Based on research carried out in the 1980s, it was a time when you were defined by your subject. You were a sociologist, psychologist, archaeologist. If you didn’t have an …ology you were a chemist, physicist, geographer or historian. Your ideological home then shaped the ways in which you conducted research inquiries. The second edition (2001) looked beyond the traditional hold disciplines had over research epistemologies. It brought in influences from learning and teaching alongside the shift to more practice-based as well as interdisciplinary programmes. This reflected the changing HE landscape and by the 3rd edition (2012) Trowler was suggesting epistemological essentialism no longer suited the complexity of HE.

So the idea of a single disciplinary community is dead. Or is it? Bridges concludes by asking if the disciplines themselves contained intrinsic research validity which is weakened by adopting a multidisciplinary approach. The debate continues but where does TEL fit in?

finding-a-home-pixabay

Finding a home for my PhD has always been a problem. In spite of it dealing with sector-wide issues around blended learning, no one has wanted it. It’s a touch ironic how a 3 year study of the attitudes of academic staff towards digital pedagogy and practice is so unloved. Maybe if TEL was recognised as a discipline in its own right it might gain more respect. As it is, TEL People tend to be classified as techies (when we’re not) and our outputs seen as less valuable than the related disciplines like education and computing science where we’re most often shoehorned in to fit.

It’s clear there’s more to read and reflect on with regard to disciplinary difference and the location of TEL. Trowler (2014) writes about strong and moderate essentialist approaches while Neuman, Parry, and Becher (2002) allocate disciplines into Pure, Applied, Hard and Soft; binaries which inevitably contain implications of preference. In this taxonomy, Technology is Hard Applied while Education is Soft Applied an TEL crosses both boundaries so straight away there’s an epistemological clash.

house on the edge of a jetty

I’m sure that where ever I find my TEL home, it’s still going to be on the edge of things.


Bridges, D. (2006) The disciplines and discipline of educational research. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 40 (2) pp 259–272

Neuman, R., Parry, S., & Becher, T. (2002). Teaching and learning in their disciplinary contexts: A conceptual analysis. Studies in Higher Education, 27(4), 405–417.

Trowler, P. (2014) Depicting and researching disciplines, strong and moderate essentialist approaches. Studies in Higher Education. 39:10. 1720-1731


All images from pixabay


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