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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 et.al. 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?