The value of research into practice

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The requirements of a PhD are straightforward. It should produce robust claims for an original contribution to knowledge. In other words, what does the research show which wasn’t known before?

I seem to be having a problem with articulating my findings. I don’t usually struggle with text but at the moment it’s hard to find the right words!

Often a side-step from stuckness can be useful.

To help find a path through the challenges of crafting a viable conclusion, I sidestepped and wrote about the defining characteristics of the research instead.  Initially, they seemed to be strengths which would contribute to the validity of the findings. Now I’m having doubts. Despite the extensive review of the literature alonside a methodology which appears appropriate, what if I’ve produced nothing original at all?

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The first defining characteristic of this research is it’s situated within a qualitative paradigm. Qualitative research is interested in individual practice, the ways knowledge about practice are constructed and understood, and the processes through which practice is replicated or reconstructed. Qualitative data should be rich and deep with analysis leading to new insights.

So far so good.

Denzin and Lincoln, in the 5th edition of the SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research suggest ‘critical qualitative inquiry inspired by the sociological imagination can make the world a better place‘ (2018: xi).

I’ve always believed changing the world is a tough call but we have the capacity to change our own little part of it.

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I wanted to address an issue I’d worked with for many years, as an ICT tutor for Adult and Community Education and during my time as Senior Lecturer in Education Development at the University of Lincoln.

The issue was digital diversity. At a time when teaching and learning was undergoing huge technology-supported shifts to more student-centred learning, I wanted to know what influenced the adoption of virtual environments. I believed this would inform my role with supporting staff as they negotiated shifts in digital practice, while also producing evidence-informed guidance which could be disseminated more widely.

Why did this matter?

The literature of digital education focuses on the impact of technology on student learning from the perspective of staff who, using Rogers Diffusion of Innovations model, could be described as innovators or early adopters.

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The digital practices of staff who are later adopters appears to be under-addressed. Yet the majority of my work depended on encouraging the digitally shy and reluctant to not only take early digital steps, but to continue on digital pathways. I thought contributing to this knowledge gap might lead to useful insights for the development of digital education, in particular from the late-adopter perspective which seemed to be less well investigated or understood.

A qualitative paradigm appeared to offer the potential for deeper insights. However, I knew from experience how inviting participants to talk about digital ways of working risked a skewed sample of self-selectors i.e. those who were already early adopters. I needed a way to reach a broader proportion of staff, in particular those wanting to explore change but lacking meaningful or timely opportunities to do so.

This led to the second defining characteristic of this research.

It’s practice-led.

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Participants were invited to take part in Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age (TELEDA). These were my online courses built on the principles of active and experiential learning. Driven by pedagogy rather than technology, staff were enrolled on the VLE as students and encouraged to reflect on the transfer of new knowledge to their own practice. In true qualitative style, participants were immersed in the environment being studied and I was immersed in the world of my participants. On TELEDA we could all be described as action researchers.

Research into practice is well established within schools of education. It was Aristotle who distinguished between making action (poiesis) and doing action (praxis). Within the social world, praxis involves making judgements, in particular for the human good (phronesis). This has been called ‘practical wisdom’ (Carr, 1987).

My analysis suggested new forms of practical ‘digital’ wisdom were needed alongside a better understanding of the constituent parts of digital capital. My research seemed to fit requirements in terms of literature gap and methodology. Rich, deep data was collected from TELEDA while the use of Braun and Clarke’s stages of Thematic Data Analysis supported the emergence of several dominant themes, alongside answers to the research questions.

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But are my findings original?

What constitutes originality in the first place?

I consulted Patter which I’d recommend to anyone who feels they’ve lost their postgraduate way.

I’ve been there often!

Pat Thomson suggests originality might be where PhD researchers present their own ‘…interpretations and categorisations. These arise from their particular question, sample, methods and analytic/theoretical approach. It is in the thinking-for-myself process that their originality lies.’ What is an original contribution? 

But is this enough?

I was influenced early on by the Illustrated guide to a PhD. This shows the size of an individual doctoral contribution compared to the sum total of knowledge. You need to look closely to see it!

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Your research doesn’t have to change the world, but it needs to produce original findings.

So where am I today?

A 2015 paper by Ana Baptista looked at the relationships between originality, creativity, and innovation in the doctorate as an original contribution to knowledge. They suggest originality is not a  commonly understood concept. This didn’t help much, nor did the reminder of how ‘students at times work independently in an uncertain environment‘ (2015:57). Definitely a component of part-time distance learning! However, I found this useful.

‘Doctoral theses are expected to make not just an original but also significant contribution to the field, the implication being that there is little value in originality if it is not also significant. However, the determination of significance is context-dependent.’ (2015:58)

It was nothing I hadn’t read elsewhere but was maybe the right words at the right time. Context-dependency lies at the heart of qualitative research, which recognises the influence of positionality, as does my research framework which applies a critical realism lens and the use of social practice theory.  Contextuality is a thread running throughout. There’s something in there which I can’t quite articulate.

I think I’m stuck in the what, how and why of it. I need to put aside what I did methodologically and focus more on alternative ways to present the outputs which include two new models of digital practice. But on their own, the production of new forms of practical digital knowledge, alongside the evidenced value of practice-led research for understanding digital capital, are not enough.

I need different ways to describe my original contribution to knowledge.

How have others coped with this stuckness?

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Digital practice

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Mistakes can be useful learning tools but we’re rarely rewarded for getting something wrong.

Another way to learn is to have something you’ve become used to taken away.

My biggest learning curve with regard to digital practice was on the MA Open and Distance Learning with the OU. It was a fully online course with lots of different platforms plus we were piloting their MyStuff portfolio when such tools were still new. The MA was also my first experience of virtual meetings with audio and I still remember how I jumped when the tutor’s voice boomed out at me from my laptop as I entered the online room!

The course had an international cohort which was another fresh experience. Comparing education as I knew it with what was happening in countries like Russia and the US provided valuable knowledge but I learned most of all from the final two modules.

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I chose one from Psychology and one from Social Science without realising they hadn’t been transferred to online formats. Typically, I’d assumed all the OU units would be like the ones I’d just taken.  When the courier arrived with a box of books, papers and a DVD I realised my mistake. This was my course. There were no online forums, no virtual meetings and if I wanted to speak to my tutor I had to book a phone call.

The resources were good. I still have them. But the greatest learning came from not having the digital communication and collaboration I’d become used to. Without these I appreciated their value in a way I never would have done otherwise.

It was the same with the assessment centres. I had problems parking, arrived late, and struggled with the physical writing. I sent emails and used social media. I no longer wrote letters and did little more than sign my name by hand. For days afterwards my arm and shoulder ached and I still haven’t forgotten how it felt to be sat in a room with over 30 people all scribbling away in various states of stress as the clock ticked and the temperature rose.

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Students still take examinations in this style.

Many VLE still look like content repositories when they can offer so much more.

Technology-first approaches to blended and distance courses are still common when all the evidence suggests a pedagogy-first path for the design of teaching and learning online is a more effective method.

I’ve been thinking of these experiences as I come to the end of my PhD. We’re discussing eternal examiners and planning a mock viva in preparation for the final defence. The end is in sight but I’m not there yet. There are still hurdles to jump. In the meantime, I’ve learned so much.

My research is practice-based. Participants were enrolled on my online courses, Teaching and Learning in a Digital Age (TELEDA). I was an insider, both at the university and as the developer and facilitator of the programmes.  Each of the three iterations of TELEDA were 30 level 7 credits and on the advice of the external examiner I had the validation booked for merging two modules into a PG Cert in Digital Education. A restructure halted those plans and instead TELEDA became a Diploma level option on a new MA in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.  It looked good on paper but institutional changes prevented it from happening.

Last year, with my colleague Patrick Lynch, we developed a pedagogy-first approach to enhancement called Design for Active Learning (D4AL). With or without technology, we explained, but its 2018, the tech will be in there somewhere, we’re just choosing not to lead with it. Again, progress was affected by changes we had no control over.

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When I gained my Certified Membership of ALT (CMALT) there were less than 100 certified learning technologists in the country. Today there are many more and for the past few years I’ve been a CMALT assessor. The portfolio submission has to address the design of learning yet the majority of people who apply are technologists. This reinforces the on-campus divides between those who promote technology enhanced learning and those who practice it on a day-to-day basis with students.

How can higher education institutions do more to develop their staff who teach and support learning to become digitally fluent practitioners?

TELEDA was successful.  I have a mass of data which confirms the value of experiential approaches to digital practice, in particular for later adopters of online ways of working. I know many participants took their TELEDA learning and applied to their own practice which was the original intention. Staff were enrolled as students on the institutional VLE and for many this itself was transformational. Getting lost online helped them rethink their own practice as did the supportive introductions to social media and creating audio and video as supplements for text. TELEDA covered learning design and assessment. It introduced the philosophy and practice of open education. We read and discussed seminal papers around the digital native and digital immigrant debate and Siemen’s Connectivism. It was an ideal opportunity to introduce accessibility of content as being of benefit to everyone and show how VLE and other digital tools supported widening participation and increasingly diverse student cohorts.MS Office 365 logos

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All this is in the thesis and published in a range of books and papers. I’ve learned a lot over the years about digital practice and like to think TELEDA is remembered by colleagues as a worthwhile investment of their time.

I’ve also seen a lot of changes in higher education and, like many others, have concerns about the future.  I remain convinced that VLE offer genuine opportunities for participation in transformational higher education experiences, in particular for students who are unable to enjoy a full time on-campus degree.

However, developing the necessary digital practice of staff who teach and support learning needs more investment. This is likely to remain the biggest hurdle of all.

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