post-viva reflections

sunflowers and orange roses
Flowers from Cristina Devecchi after the viva

For six years, there’s been a V-shaped light at the end of the PhD tunnel. Now the viva is behind me.

Post-viva is a new experience.

What next?

I have amendments, which were to be expected. Chapters 1-6 are ok but Chapter 7 needs restructuring. The feedback is explicit and it’s good to know the precise areas which require attention. This is also a welcome opportunity to fix the embarrassing typos and broken cross-referencing links which appeared on the printed copy!

There’s a post-viva tunnel. This one has a light at the end too.

image showing a row of light bulbs with the centre one lit
image from https://pixabay.com/illustrations/light-bulbs-light-bulb-light-energy-1125016/

The viva is a critical part of the doctoral process and since agreeing the date, all future decisions have depended on them being ‘Before-viva’ or ‘After-viva’. Across the summer everything has been focused on V-day.

Coming out the other side is to pass a landmark in the doctoral journey but truth be told, it felt a bit disorientating. The adrenaline-fueled push was suddenly over and no one really prepares you for that.

What was it like?

image of a rollercoaster loops
image from https://pixabay.com/photos/roller-coster-fun-theme-park-171798/

When you press the thesis submit button, there’s no going back. The viva is a similar experience. The days leading up to it felt like a rollercoaster with no stopping or changing ahead. The inevitability was almost comforting. This was it. Then, within a few hours, that was that.

You can’t change anything.

What’s said in the viva stays in the viva.

This creates a sense of liberation.

Your thesis has been taken apart and reconstructed. You know what to do next. In comparison, the writing-up stage was a constant state of uncertainty. Change this. Move that. Rephrase the paragraph.  Post-viva is different. Someone else has told you what’s required.

It’s another step in the letting-go process. For years, you’ve been creating this unique work. Now, you’re getting close to the end point.

photo showing a woman holding her phd thesis wrapped in a shawl like a baby
image from https://tfln.co/phd-thesis-maternal-photoshoot/

Viva-prep

Two leading academics in your field have been invited to read and give feedback on your work. Preparation for this is essential.

You can assume you’ll be asked to talk about what you did, alongside the background and rationale, but you can never be sure of the other questions. Everyone’s viva will be different. The focus is on ‘your’ research, so the questions will be unique to this. With hindsight, I’d recommend the following viva-prep activities:

  • Work through the Tiny book of viva prep from viva survivors and the Top 40 viva questions (just a few of many similar resources online)
  • Ask your supervisory team to arrange a mock viva; the opportunity to ‘practice’ is invaluable
  • You can take your thesis and notes into the viva so:
    • Read the chapters, from start to finish, and highlight key points
    • Use coloured stickers to mark the beginning of each chapter
    • Proof read and check references again; there will be errors!
    • List the typos and take them with you to show you care
  • Print out key images (models, tables etc) and annotate
  • Use PowerPoint for notes (great tip from Chrissi Nerantzi); the slide size ensures conciseness while larger text is easy to glance at
  • Talk to others face-to-face and online; colleagues will be happy to share a range of viva experiences
  • Twitter can be a useful source of advice/support (e.g. #phdforum  #phdlife #phdchat #phdweekend @AcademicChatter)
image showing questions asking what, where, how, why
image from https://pixabay.com/illustrations/questions-font-who-what-how-why-2245264/

Be prepared

The viva is a formal academic process. It’s steeped in tradition and focussed on validating original contributions to knowledge. This is an opportunity to ‘defend’ your research decisions and outcomes.

A viva demands respect as well as confidence in your work, and its this challenging combination which adds to the uniqueness of the experience.

Any PhD journey has pivot points and the viva is one of them. Even with amendments, it brings with it a sense of achievement. Afterwards, I felt the knowledge thresholds I’d crossed over the years were becoming more defined and consolidated.

What did I learn?

A PhD is about mastering the tools of research. Sometimes it felt possession of these were taken for granted. My postgraduate degrees hadn’t prepared me for the rigours of a doctorate and there were times when it was assumed I knew what I was doing – when I didn’t.

It takes time to understand what ‘taking ownership of your research’ means. It requires stepping out alone and finding your doctoral self. Nothing can prepare you for that. You have to do it to know it, and the process can be messy.

Looking back, the early years presented some anomalies. If you lack knowledge and experience for progression, you can make mistakes. While these offer valuable insight, it can be disheartening at the time. For example, at the start I struggled to understand the difference between critique and criticism. I mistook invitations to defend my point of view with thinking it was wrong and needed changing.

I learned it takes confidence to make and justify original contributions to knowledge.

When it comes to the PhD, many students are embarking on something new and unfamiliar. They have to make their tools as well as use them. The process can be supported, but it needs to be experienced to be fully understood and I didn’t anticipate how confusing or potentially alienating this could be.

Know this…

The PhD will take over your life. Friends and family will be neglected. You’ll either be working on it, or feeling guilty because you’re not.

image showing lego figure sat at desk surrounded with lego stormtroopers, making him feel guilty
image from https://pixabay.com/photos/office-people-accused-accusing-2539844/

The going will get tough but when it does, hang on in there. Take it a chapter, a page, or even a sentence at a time. When the whole seems too much, it helps to break it down into smaller parts. If that doesn’t work, walk away.

It may sound counter-intuitive. There were many times I needed to stop but thought if I stayed with the laptop a bit longer, the problem would work itself out. I learned taking a break (walk to the park, down the river, round the block) often meant the solution suddenly appeared in my mind. This almost always happened so take a notebook!

image showing a walking path by a river
image from https://pixabay.com/photos/bank-river-landscape-nature-water-4402103/

When it gets tough, tell yourself it’s perfectly possible – because it is.

Here I am. Post-viva and so close to finishing, it feels realistic to start planning for post-PhD.

More than anything, I’m looking forward to reading again. The Tsunduko pile at home is onto its second column. There’s fact and fiction relating to Greek myth, poetry and prose on the Trojan War, and fantasy of the Philip Rothfuss kind.

i;es of books

image from http://www.openculture.com/2018/07/tsundoku.html

I’ve forgotten what it feels like to read for pleasure, without thinking it should be a research-related book or journal. I’m looking forward to experiencing the sheer joy of losing yourself in the pages.

Then, there’s the writing. Plans are already underway for performing some of my work in the new year. To have cognitive space for creativity again will be a total joy.

That’ll do well for starters!

image showing an open book with 3D pictures emerging
image from https://pixabay.com/illustrations/narrative-history-dream-tell-794978/

The Cinderella Paradox

Cinderella, having tried on the glass slipper, produces its fellow. Etching by George Cruikshank as an illustration for Grimm's "Aschenputtel." (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
image from https://www.gettyimages.co.uk/detail/news-photo/cinderella-having-tried-on-the-glass-slipper-produces-its-news-photo/3322408

Research based on teaching and learning has been named the Cinderella of higher education. As a result, the scholarly endeavours of practitioners have less status than those associated with traditional disciplines.

This was suggested by Jenkins in Pedagogic Research at Brookes: Achievements, Opportunities and Questions (2002). Cinderella status was further supported by Cotton, Miller and Kneale in The Cinderella of academia: Is higher education pedagogic research undervalued in UK research assessment? (2018) while Bridges Disciplines and Discipline of Educational Research (2006) explores the its poor representation in the REF.

With my viva in six weeks, I’m preparing to defend the rationale for a practice-led doctorate. With this in mind, I challenge the notion of pedagogic research having lower status.

One way to achieve this is to revisit the story of Cinderella itself.

Image from https://picryl.com/media/cinderella-fantaisie

In the Uses of Enchantment, Bettelheim claimed Cinderella was the best known but least liked fairy tale (1976: 236). The exact origin of the story is unknown but it appears to have evolved from different locations and times. There are many versions, such as Perrault’s Cendrillon and the Grimm Brother’s Aschenputtel alongside multiple Disney renderings; each full of increasingly stereotypical images and ideas.

At its core, the Cinderella character is rejected and excluded. Living in ashes, her domestic role is unappreciated and degraded. However, without the work Cinderella undertakes, the running of the house and the welfare of her father, step-mother and step-sisters would suffer. Cinderella’s situation is presented as menial and lowly, yet she has responsibility for ensuring the basic components in life are firmly in place. Think the physiological foundation of Maslow.

image showing an open fire
Image from https://pixabay.com/photos/wood-fired-oven-fire-cook-heat-1960099/

The assumption is readers will equate the kitchen and scullery as inferior places which Cinderella needs to escape from. But her work really matters and this is the paradox. When the slipper fits and the handsome prince claims her for his bride, Cinderella is removed from domestic duties, thereby reaffirming the association between household chores and lowly status.

Yet in the unwritten future of the story, when Princess C lives in presumed royal luxury, somewhere in the lower levels of her new palatial habitat, there will be others like she once. Those with the role of keeping the home fires burning and raking through the ashes.

Cinderella will be replaced because the work she did was essential.

image showing loaves of bread
image from https://pixabay.com/photos/bread-bake-flour-food-eat-bakery-4046506/

If the value of academic development activities were recognised in these changing and challenging times, then research into these practices might well increase in significance and status. Once this occurs, resources are more likely to be redirected into ensuring equality and longevity of opportunity.

If the analogy of practice-based research with Cinderella is to be considered robust, it requires rethinking. We should reconstruct the tale as being less about escaping from the hearth and more about re-establishing the heath as the heart and life force of the higher education institution, without which it would fall apart.

To survive, structures need solid foundations. Those who work and conduct research into their practice provide the evidence-based corner stones on which teaching and learning are based.

Cinderella is a rags to riches story. Regrettably, too often in the field of education and learning development, practitioners are seen as wearing rags. These compare poorly to the shining crowns of the academic disciplines.

This is unfair.

image showing a carnival mask
image from https://pixabay.com/photos/carnival-mask-venice-disguise-2999783/

In reality, we are chameleons, skilled in adapting to the environment of the day, frequently working across disciplines, and in close collaboration with colleagues from a range of professional services. However, it’s the eclectic nature of what we do which can contribute to lacking a recognisable identity. We e have to carve our own, but are too often remembered for what we did rather than who we are.

We offer unique combinations of experience and knowledge from a variety of different sources.  Our work creates bridges between academic theory and practice. We deal with pragmatic day-to-day problems while often supporting essential digital shifts with the later adopters of digital practice.

We’re full of tacit knowledge and practical wisdom but frequently lack the time and resources to convert this into theoretically informed writings and research projects.

All this reinforces the Cinderella paradox.

image of cinderells in front of the fire with the fairy godmother appearing
image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cinderella_-_Project_Gutenberg_etext_19993.jpg

Cinderella might be a useful way to draw attention to the inequality of status around practice based research but the analogy needs to be used with care. The original story is dark, full of jealousy and vindictive relationships. In earlier undisneyfied versions, the sisters hack their feet to pieces to make the shoe fit.

While it’s a story which has multiple versions, I’ve yet to see one which challenges the assumption that kitchens and sculleries are not good places to be. It seems unfashionable to suggest that in reality they constitute the central heart of any household, and those who work there should be praised for tending the hearth and keeping the flames alive.

old style kitchen
image from https://pixabay.com/photos/castle-palace-kitchen-scene-palatial-2516837/

Most of all, the risk of devaluing a place, is seeing its inhabitants as being less. With regard to educational practitioners, this is especially not true. In my 20 years in higher education, its been colleagues working in these areas who’ve had the broadest understanding of the student experience, the most eclectic knowledge of issues around teaching and learning, and the greatest problems in having their scholarship recognised and valued.

Supporting research into practice is a viable way to give these practitioners a voice.

We have interesting ideas and important things to say.

Every day we stoke the higher education fires and more support with capturing and disseminating our own evidence-based stories would be greatly appreciated.

room full of books
image from https://pixabay.com/photos/books-door-entrance-culture-1655783/

References

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

Cotton, D. R. E., Miller, W. and Kneale, P. (2018) The Cinderella of academia: Is higher education pedagogic research undervalued in UK research assessment?, Studies in Higher Education, 43:9, 1625-1636,

Jenkins, A. 2002. “Pedagogic Research at Brookes: Achievements, Opportunities and Questions.” Teaching Forum 50 (Autumn): 3–6

A PhD is a thing of joy

image showing a brick wall
image from https://pixabay.com/photos/backdrop-block-brick-building-21534/

Since seeing the quote ‘a PhD is a thing of joy‘ at last week’s Research Conference at the University of Northampton, I’ve been reflecting on the possibilities of my doctoral research creating joy.

I’ve come to the conclusion joy is a very real possibility. However, there needs to be certain criteria in place for it to manifest. A PhD should be memorable for the right reasons. It requires strong motivation for when times get tough and it can be hard to feel joyous when you’re conducting research part time, at a distance and reliant on digital communication with your host institution.

lighouse from pixabay
image from https://pixabay.com/images/search/lighthouse/

Today, with my viva booked for September and light shining at the end of the doctoral tunnel, it would be easy to gloss over the tough parts and present it as a thing of joy. But that wouldn’t do justice to those negotiating the challenges of part-time distance study. At the end of the day, it’s supporting the remote part-timers which I think matters most.

I’m not sure expecting the process to be a ‘thing of joy’ is as helpful as offering practical support from an insider experience.

The loneliness of the long distance learner is hard to anticipate – which is good.

If I really knew what lay ahead, would I have still applied?

Unequivocally…

Yes!

Because…

A PhD is about making original claims to knowledge. That’s a privilege but one which shouldn’t be underestimated. Your research outputs need to be meaningful to an external audience. They have to be authentic, valid, and rigorous. This means your PhD will possibly be the most challenging and rewarding academic experience of your life but it will be worth it.

Say it again.

It will be worth it!

image showing a handshake
image from https://pixabay.com/photos/hand-greeting-agreement-819279/

In 2014 I posted my top tips for surviving a part time phd. More recently (November 2018) I revisited them. Looking back, I believe they’re still applicable so here’s my advice for anyone thinking of going down the part-time doctoral route.

  • If your early research interests lie outside work, re-consider a work-related subject. The chances of completing are increased by the connections between research and daily practice.

The first year of my doctorate was spent planning to research digital exclusion in the community. It was based outside higher education and failed because it was not linked to my day-to-day work. Once I shifted to researching an area within my own practice it became achievable.

  • You need passion for the subject so to stay the course it helps to make your research personal;
  • There will never be enough hours in the days, weeks and months ahead, so ensure the topic informs what you do. Your chances of completing are increased by the number of connections between research and daily practice.
  • Don’t be overly ambitious. Your PhD is unlikely to change the world. Aim for making small but meaningful changes.
  • A doctorate is about learning to use the tools of research as much as the research outputs themselves.
image showing stonehenge
image from https://pixabay.com/photos/stonehenge-architecture-history-1590047/

A PhD isn’t a mystery. There are set rules underpinning the process. Learning these will lay the foundation for research in the future.

  • The regulations of doctoral research are laid out in your institutional guidance. Find this. Re-read often.
  • There are dozens of books containing research guidance. Find the book which ‘speaks’ to you.
  • Don’t be afraid to keep looking. When you find it, you’ll know it’s ‘yours’. Mine was the Action Research Dissertation by Kerr and Anderson. Reading this gave me the confidence I needed to move forward.

View the component parts of your research holistically. A doctoral project is elastic. Like a cat’s cradle, its shape can move and shift so the component parts are best understood as linked rather than separate. Also, it takes time to understand how the most liberating aspect is the freedom to think outside the box.

  • Doctoral research contains permission to be creative but this is also about being brave.
wizard of oz characters
image from https://pixabay.com/photos/the-wizard-of-oz-bert-lahr-516687/

Know that your research doesn’t take shape at the beginning. It develops as you read and reflect, then read and write some more. Most of all, it emerges from conversations, with colleagues, family, friends – because only by talking about it – getting it out of your head and into reality – can it become clear. Answering questions from others surfaces what you’re doing.

  • Have courage to put yourself in the public domain with all the risks of negative feedback. It’s part and parcel of being a doctoral researcher but part-time PhD students often lack opportunities to practice defending their choices.
  • Practice talking about your research. Learn to explain succinctly to anyone who’ll listen.
  • Take every opportunity to present. Feel the fear and do it. The experience of putting your research out there and inviting feedback from colleagues, friends and strangers will be invaluable.

I needed to understand my research was personal before I could begin to claim the necessary ownership.

  • You have to own your research therefore its worth repeating that confidence and courage are two essential attributes.
  • As is being brave enough to be original. Try out ideas with your supervisors. Your research deals with what’s new rather than what’s already known. The end conclusions may differ from early thoughts and directions. That’s ok. A Phd is a journey where the destination is not always known at the beginning.

It’s no exaggeration to say a part-time Phd will dominate your life. At some point you have to let it move in and take over.

This might mean neglecting other areas to give it space to grow. Family and friends may suffer your absence but it will be temporary.

image showing PhD highs and lows
image from Chrissi Nerantzi https://digitalacademicblog.wordpress.com/2017/09/12/heblogswap-by-chrissi-nerantzi-for-sue-watling/

Remember doctoral study can pose a trap you fall into. The walls get higher until the light disappears and it’s just you and your data. No one else can do the analysis for you.

  • Create deadlines with targets and give yourself rewards for reaching them.
  • Develop the sense you have something worthwhile to say. Your subject is unique, otherwise you wouldn’t be researching it.
  • Join a research group. If you can’t find one, set one up. There will be others in similar positions to yourself. Seek them out.
  • Write a blog. Even if the writing is for an audience of one – yourself – make the process of regular reflection on progress an exercise in conciseness.
  • Remember the viva is time limited and you need to defend the core of your findings, not the peripheral externalities.
image showing a fence boundary
image from https://pixabay.com/photos/fence-style-wooden-barrier-1670087/

Research needs boundaries. At the beginning, there’s no horizon and I’ve always had problems with boundaries as described in Know Your Limits, Whenever I felt stuck, I revisited Lincoln and Guba’s advice on trustworthiness, in particular their evaluative criteria. Establishing these can offer an authentic framework within which to work.

  • Credibility – confidence in the ‘truth’ of the findings
  • Transferability – showing that the findings have applicability in other contexts
  • Dependability – showing the findings are consistent and replicable
  • Confirmability – neutrality or, in other words, the extent to which the findings are shaped by the respondents and not researcher bias, motivation, or interest.

The most liberating aspect is the freedom to think outside the box. Qualitative research contains permission to be creative. You’re looking for connections which haven’t been seen before. This takes imagination, sociological or otherwise. I needed to understand my research was personal before I could begin to claim the necessary ownership.

image showing a key and a lock
image from https://pixabay.com/photos/key-gold-door-white-isolated-314676/

And therein lies the heart of doctoral study.  Academic practice at Level 8 is a leap forward and working at Levels 5-7 doesn’t always prepare you for presenting and defending original claims to knowledge.

Your PhD is yours. Own it and be prepared to defend your findings. They belong to you. They’re totally unique and that’s a powerful position.

If you’re thinking of doing a doctorate, I hope this helps.

A PhD needs time and commitment. It might not always bring you joy but it will be worth it.

University of Northampton Research Conference June 2019

images showing university of northampton

I love a good conference!

Themes running through the Annual Research Conference were around research being creative, inclusive and applicable. It needs to make a difference to the lives of others, either within  communities aimed at supporting more effective research practice or ensuring impact in the wider society.

There were many examples of creative approaches to postgraduate research.

The ‘Bake your Research’ invitation resulted in some amazing creations. I missed the judging so by the time I arrived the cakes were under the first stages of attack.

results from the Bake your Research competition

But, thanks to Twitter, the winning cake from Chetak Nangare has been digitised and uploaded to social media.

winner of the bake your research competition

Creativity was the theme of Julia Reeve’s keynote which addressed ‘Becoming a Creative Researcher‘ through the use of storytelliing, visualisations and Lego.

storytelling dice and activitiy instructions

I first encountered Lego through a workshop with Chrissi Nerantzi at MMU and the following year invited Chrissi to facilitate a session at Hull. This led to funding for bricks and the addition of model building to our programme of events supporting teaching, learning and research. Julia’s presentation reminded me of working with PhD students in the Graduate School where the opportunities to build and share their research models reinforced the power of stepping outside traditional academic boundaries and trying alternative approaches. The outputs can offer surprising insights and the technique is well worth trying.

image from twitter showing Kieran Fenby-Hulse

Speaking of alternative, Kieran Fenby-Hulse bought his unique ‘academic cabaret‘ to the conference. Titled ‘On Difference and the Academy‘ Kieran explored notions of privilege and outsider theory to question approaches to equality and diversity in higher education, and to challenge academia as being a conservative and exclusionary environment.  Original and provocative, Kieran disrupted traditional keynote expectations in ways which were both entertaining and hard hitting, through his talent for words and performance, alongside quick-fire changes of genre and clothes, all combining to make it an unforgettable event.

Postscript – Kieran’s keynote can now be seen on You Tube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=29mqaIWoq1g

Images showing Kieran Fenby-Hulse performing his academic cabaret

Inclusion was a thread running through the presentations.

For me, the most memorable included Jay Batchelor who spoke about ‘Sound Communication? Language Preference for the Deaf Community‘, Introducing herself in sign language (reinforcing how l’ve have forgotten most of mine through lack of practice!) Joy addressed the need for inclusive approaches to communication. We often we take for granted the ability to participate in the built environment and Joy demonstrated this with a comparison of information text from a train station and an airport. I took away a useful reminder of how accessibility of content, often focused on vision impairment, needs to incorporate equal attention to hearing loss as well.

Joy Batchelor presneting on communication for hearing loss f

I also liked Lucy Atkinson’s work on student transition. It demonstrated how much transition support has developed since the Getting Started initiative at the University of Lincoln which I faciliated many years ago. This addressed the student experience in the months and weeks prior to enrolment but Lucy’s work is breaking new ground by researching and facilitating support at Level 3 through the Foundation Student Framework at UoN. Lucy also spoke about Urb@n Research at the University of Northampton, an undergraduate bursary opportunity similar to UROS at Lincoln.

Lucy Atkinson presenting on student transition

Lucy showed a great example of the use of social media on her concluding slide. So often at conferences, you want to follow up presentations and adding a slide like this makes it easy.

Lucy Atkinson contact information

Current developments with supporting researchers to get the most from their postgraduate experiences, and building a PGR community, was introduced by Melanie Petch, Research Developer in the Graduate School at UoN. As a distance learner, doctoral research can often feel like an isolating and exclusive environment. It was lovely to meet Melanie in person after having corresponded for so many months, and good to see how the Grad School is very much aware of the need to include all students, regardless of location and mode of study.

Melanie Petch presenting on reseatcher development

The issue of language was frequently raised, in particular the word ‘training‘ and its potentially negative influence when used to refer to research events. There are parallels here with digital practice where programmes of development are so often labelled as ‘training‘ sessions. I noticed in many groups there was still an association of digital practice with ICT and technology rather than pedagogy or learning design. Language matters and a huge advantage of research conferences is with providing places with time and space to discuss the appropriateness of the words we commonly use, often without considering their wider meanings and interpretations.

Student identity was another subject of debate relating to language.  As well as undergoing doctoral research, Anthony Stepniak is the Student Research Student Officer for Northampton Student Union. The presentation on the ‘Ethical implications of staff/student research‘ addressed ways in which student roles are understood and reinforced.

Are students partners, collaborators, co-constructors or paid assistants? Language choices influence attitudes which in turn alters approaches to student engagement and active participation in learning experiences. Blurred staff-student boundaries can create ethical gaps in partnership work which projects like this are highlighting in order to inform the necessary questions which need to be asked.

Anthony began his PhD the same time as I transferred to Northampton. We shared induction so are part of the same cohort and I’m intrigued by his research which looks at portrayals of the wicked queen in fairy tales. I remember discovering Bettelheim’s ‘Uses of Enchantment’ many years ago. I was fascinated to discover how myths, legends and folklore all contain elements of universal truths and am looking forward to reading more about Anthony’s work in the future.

It’s impossible to cover everything.

The universal conference challenge is one of choice.

Parallel sessions give more researchers chance to present but also mean audiences are split between the different strands. This was a conference with variety and vibrancy. I’ve missed the ‘Feminist Research Feminist Scholarship’ Roundtable which deserves a blog post of its own.

feminist research and scholarship round table

Ditto the ‘Three Minute Thesis’ where participants condensed years of work into 180 seconds.

winners of the three minute thesis competition

Oh – and ‘a phd is a thing of joy‘.

I’m still reflecting on the truth of that statement.

Another blog post in the making….

In the meantime the Waterside Campus was looking lovely in the summer sunshine.

images showing the waterside campus of the university of northampton

Final words in this post come from the presentation ‘Knowledge mobilisation in higher education’ by Hala Mansour and Cristina Devecchi. Evidence has to be applied in three ways; it needs to be exchanged, transferred and mobilised. Research is not just about producing knowledge. It’s about using and applying it.

cristina devecchi and hala mansour presenting

Research conferences remain valuable opportunities for the first step of mobilisation which is exchange. Every conference has a presentation which stays with you. Speaking from the experience of being there, Cristina also led the session addressing ‘Being a Refugee Child in Lebanon: Implementing Children’s Rights in a Digital World through the Blockchain Educational Passport‘.

cristina devecchi presenting

Displacement from home and country has led to the rise of mobile transient populations. Refugees leave with nothing except their minds. They have no possessions and in a world where digital identity is essential, they are digitally destitute. Cristina is reseraching the use of blockchain technology to make permanent records which can travel independently online and confirm educational achievement.

This issue is at the heart of shifts to digital societies. Those excluded are marginalised, silenced and made invisible. For refugees this is a digital divide on a scale which most of us with easy internet connections cannot even begin to understand.

This presentation exposed the millions living lives we can’t imagine. But as Cristina and Hala said previously, knowledge on its own is not enough. It needs mobilisation if its to have any real and lasting effect.

Events such as Northampton’s research conference can provide the first stepping stones to making this happen.

 

…..

 

 

The Other Side of Lurking Part Three – rethinking digital practice

image of a pile of stones
image from https://pixabay.com/photos/zen-stacked-stone-meditation-1412305/

As I prepare to leave my current role, my visible digital participation has reduced to an occasional retweet. I’m now watching from the sidelines, observing and thinking about future directions.

I’ve become a lurker.

The Other Side of Lurking: Part Three follows others* on the Digital Academic blog, all addressing the issue from a range of different perspectives. You might think there isn’t much more to say, but if lurking practice is more common than active engagement, there’s a need to focus on what digital silence means for the future of online education.

The OER19 conference at Galway included a workshop titled Three Lenses on Lurking. It was facilitated by my online colleagues Leo Haverman, Suzan Koseoglu and Caroline Kuhn.  Along with Aras Bozkurt, we’ve been discussing lurking for some time. Participating in this investigation into lurking behaviors was valuable experience but over the past few months I’ve become the lurker in the group. Distracted by an institutional review and the final stages of my PhD, my active participation faded. Lurking made it possible to continue to follow discussions and reflect on ways forward, but it excluded my voice.

image of a padlock
image from https://pixabay.com/photos/locked-gate-padlock-security-2143493/

Yet, we know lurking is common practice. Applied to online participation, Neilsen’s  90-9-1 rule (2006) and the 80/20 Pareto Principle (1971), quoted in Sarah Honeychurch et. al.. (2018),  reminds us how more people adopt lurkish stances than proactive ones. Other papers such as Preece and Shneiderman (2009) reinforce how reading dominated leading, with passive access more frequent than interaction. These authors cite Kollock (1999) who calls lurking an activity which does not produce a visible contribution. Like watching and listening.

Can these practices still be as influential as active participation, here and now in 2019?

From decades of experience supporting online education, alongside all my research into digital practice, I would say No. Yet many can give examples where passive engagement has been valuable. My education developer head underpins effective pedagogic practice with social constructivist theory, but the reality suggests there’s times and places where access-only appears to be enough. If digital shyness is more common than digital participation, then clearly it should not be ignored. Rather than perceive it as resistance, we need to work with it instead.

image of a jigsaw with a missing peice
image from https://pixabay.com/photos/puzzle-missing-particles-654963/

I’d suggest lurking matters because it highlights the under-addressed gap between theory and practice in online education. For the past two decades, learning and teaching has been filled with the promise of technological transformation. However, all too often the digital experience remains a case of ‘I set up a discussion forum but no one used it, so I didn’t bother again‘.

For many years I’ve believed finding ways to encourage and support online interaction lies at the heart of effective teaching and learning. But it seems regardless of what you do to encourage online activity, digital practice remains a personal choice and lurking the majority response. Maybe instead of trying to change this, we should find ways to reconceptualise it as having value.

image showing a cats eye peering out from behind grasses
image from https://pixabay.com/illustrations/cat-eye-grass-view-lauer-position-1367000/

I lurk. You lurk. We all lurk. Lurking has intention and purpose. If lurkish behaviors are to be understood as legitimate choices, do we need to review the construction of online resources and rethink pedagogic practice to support less visible activity?

This would involve exploring the causes of silence and accepting not everyone learns best through active engagement. Contribution should not be mandatory for those who feel less comfortable with online collaboration. Lurking might result in digital absence but as digital developers and facilitators of online learning, maybe we have a responsibility to listen and understand the ways this silence can contain its own messages.

If we need to design for legitimate lurking, what would this look like?

It seems a problem with advocating lurking as legitimate learning is how the approach challenges digital education theory. We’ve been told education is social and been offered communities of practice and inquiry, zones of proximal development, conversational frameworks, social, cognitive and teaching presences, all requiring interaction, the binary opposite to inactivity.

image showing a person isolated on a mountain top
image from https://pixabay.com/photos/isolate-top-mountains-alone-cliff-1209275/

21st century digital practice has called for cognitive shifts. Promoters of online learning have advocated adopting models such as Salmon’s Five Stage approach to moderation and the establishment of e-tivities, Laurillard’s Conversational Framework or Garrison and Anderson’s Community of Inquiry. All based on the theory of social constructivism but as frequently happens where change is involved, these processes are situated within liminal spaces, where new approaches and knowledge can be perceived as troubling.

My doctoral research suggests digital practice is diverse and troublesome. Participants teaching and supporting learning, in particular the later adopters of learning technologies, need to make fundamental conceptual changes alongside the acquisition of digital capabilities and confidence. These involve shifts from didactic transmission to student centred co-construction of knowledge, approaches which contradict the suggestion lurking as valid  learning.

image showing a library
image from https://pixabay.com/photos/library-books-education-literature-869061/

However, without opportunities to watch, listen and read, those who are nervous and hesitant about online interaction are less likely to engage. The divides between the digitally confident and the digitally shy are wide and deep. My research findings suggest digital practice is more troublesome than the digital advocates might realise. The use of the internet challenges existing ways of working. It attacks academic identity and beliefs about knowledge in the way open education challenges the conception of publishers as gatekeepers. Individual response to these approaches cannot be assumed to be positive.

Digital practice is like other forms of physical skill such as riding a bicycle. It needs practice. But if you’ve been doing it for years its difficult to remember how it feels to be a novice. It’s the same with virtual environments. If you’re comfortable with online navigation and interaction it’s easy to forget what it feels like to lack digital confidence and be nervous about venturing into online spaces.

image showing digital interaction
inage from https://pixabay.com/photos/social-media-digitization-faces-2528410/

Advocating lurking as valid learning can feel like a backwards step. Everything I’ve done since entering higher education at the turn of the century has been focused on promoting and supporting online interaction. The literature speaks of developing relationships with students and building curriculum designs around collaborative approaches. We believe higher education is about more than acquisition. Using Laurillard’s six types of learning experiences, adopted by UCL in their ABC Currciulum Design work, it involves collaboration, discussion, investigation, practice and production.

How can this be achieved online where lurking is the preferred behavior?

If you can take a horse to water but not make it drink, maybe we need to begin looking at the water rather than the horse.

image from https://pixabay.com/photos/horse-waterhole-rural-farming-3552781/

*  previous blog posts addressing lurking


 

 

 

 

Alexa

image from https://www.amazon.in/Amazon-Echo-Smart-speaker-Powered/dp/B0725W7Q38

The family refer to Alexa as ‘she’.

Alexa is artificial intelligence, built to respond to commands and presented as female. Unlike a sat nav, you can’t change the gender. While some say the voice is androgynous, to me it sounds like a woman and this is uncomfortable. It worries me.

What also bothers me is the way I see people talk to Alexa. The ability to demand an action, the lack of please and thank you, is rude. It must be having an effect, in particular on young minds who are are also having the socio-cultural associations between women and service being reinforced.

The family laugh at my concerns but the habit grows incredibly fast.  By the end of an hour I’m saying ‘Alexa, volume 4’ to turn down the music which she (see what I mean?) was told to find. It’s alarming how quickly new behaviours are embedded. You get in the car, and ask for the radio. This is how fast ways of being change.

Alexa is early technology.  This time next year it will have moved on, like the e-reader shifted from clunky keyboard to swipe screen. But where will Alexa move to?

image showing the first Kindle e-reader and a current one side by side

I’m beginning to feel I’m on the wrong side of the digital revolution.

Words like revolution and transformation should be used with care. Easy to throw into conversations, their significance gets diluted by repetition, but when it comes to the social impact of the internet, language like this is appropriate. However, the implications of digital development are not yet fully understood – or feared.

Sometimes it feels like we’re walking into dystopian futures with eyes wide open, but not seeing. Alexa is the beginning but do we really need apps linked to fridges to tell us when to buy milk, have remote control of household appliances or be so totally dependent on electronic systems for storing and accessing our hard-earned cash. Is it wise to have the administration of our lives resting on cables running under the ocean, in particular for accessing public services, health and welfare. Is it? Really?

I’ve long had concerns about the consequences of unequal access but even as I write these words, I’m aware they involve unspoken assumptions the digitisation of society is good. It has advantages to be sure. But what is it doing to relationships and the quality of interpersonal communication? How is it changing what it means to be human?

image showiing Siri logo
image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Siri_icon.svg

I watch family interact with voice activation and the ways they use Siri on their devices. Actions which remove politeness and grace and replace them with commands. The technology we’re increasingly dependent on for the administration of day-to-day to life emerged from controlling weapons of war, the language of computers still reflect their military origins and remnants of this remain.

Failure to initialise. System error. Fatal exception. Corrupted file. This week I saw the message ‘You have aborted this video’. Then there’s the dreaded ‘Word is not responding’ followed by ‘Word is shutting down’ when you’re in the middle of a long document you haven’t saved for a few pages and Autorecovery is never as up to date as you need it to be!

image showing windows error message

We have less control over our devices than we think

If the machine was using us in 2007, think how much more it’s using us now!

Virtual reality is an artificial simulation but one at risk of being perceived as real. We think we know the difference but do we?

Spend an hour being disconnected. Extend the absence to a day or a week. How does it feel? I access my life through my laptop and struggle without it. This scares me but I can’t stop. Everything is online.

My Alexa weekend has got me thinking. Maybe we need to apply social theory to the digital domain. Revisit the social construction of technology. Theorise digital practice.

image showing steps on a pile of rubble
image from https://pixabay.com/photos/stairs-concrete-construction-1481394/

I drove to Manchester and where the M62 crosses the Pennines, the motorway becomes vulnerable to the weather. Its high up and exposed to cross winds. Snow quickly settles in the outside lane, where poor driving conditions increase risk of accidents as visibility worsens and the road surface is icy. Good drivers adjust their speed while others power on, feeling secure in their metal bubbles.

Motorway driving is dependent on individuals following the rules of the highway code. Keeping a safe stopping distance from the vehicles in front. Showing courtesy to other road users. A busy motorway is like an artery. So long as there’s no obstructions people should reach their destinations safely. But as we’re continuously told, hearts need to be kept healthy, with attention to diet and exercise supporting the free flow of oxygenated blood around the body.

image showing busy motorway junctions
image from https://pixabay.com/photos/architecture-buildings-cars-city-1837176/

Social life is not so different. It requires compassion. Care. Kindness. Understanding how little things matter, like when you’re driving and a stranger smiles as you stop at a pedestrian crossing, or a quick flash of the lights when someone les you out at a difficult junction, a hand raised in acknowledgement to say thank you.

Technology has long been a primary driver of social change. This can be good. Digital developments, where science, engineering and the arts come together, have the capacity to alter the world, make it a better place, one which supports individual health and happiness. So long as the ways in which the affordances aim to improve the human condition, not diminish it.

You can re-programme Alexa’s ‘wake-up’ but the default setting is a command.

‘Alexa’

Would it have been so hard to make ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ a requirement of use? The ways in which technology usage can influence attitudes and actions are known yet it’s deemed ok to demand a service rather than request it.

People will talk to their device as they talk to others, and ‘Alexa’ can be said as a question as much as a command, but the lines are thin and blurred. Usage will be diverse and it seems a missed opportunity to build some kindness into what feels like an increasingly hostile world.

It bothers me that criticality appears to be waning and there’s an absence of digital mindfulness.

‘Alexa, what should we do?’

‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand the question.’

image showing questions asking what, where, how, why
image from https://pixabay.com/illustrations/questions-font-who-what-how-why-2245264/

Since writing this, Amszon have announced Amazon will start letting random people provide Alexa answers. A topic for a follow-up post but here some points for critical relfection from the article.

“The system will use game mechanics to engage users — people will be able to earn “points” each time the assistant shares one of their answers. But as other platforms…have discovered, user-generated content is open to mischief and propaganda. It’s easy to imagine the kinds of answers somebody might submit for questions about Donald Trump or measles vaccines, for instance. Amazon [says] it’s relying on a combination of algorithms and human editors to help vet responses and hoping that a system of user up and down votes will weed out mischief-makers. But previous experiments with user-generated answers, such as Yahoo Answers and Quora, have never really taken off, so Amazon has a hard task ahead.”

Why is Amazon doing this?


Kindle images from

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/14/Amazon_Kindle_-_Wikipedia.jpg

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kindle_Fire_web_browser_05_2012_1430.JPG

The week the internet was 30

image showing Sir Tim Berners Lee
image from https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-47524474

I’ve often wondered if what we call the internet keeps Sir Tim Berners Lee awake at night. Reading his open letter to the Web Foundation this week, it sounds like it might.

TBL writes ‘…the divide between those who are online and those who are not increases, making it all the more imperative to make the web available for everyone.’ and calls for us to ‘…make sure it is recognised as a human right and built for the public good….making this happen should be a ‘priority agenda of our governments’

image showing the earth surrounded by digital networks
image from https://pixabay.com/en/network-earth-block-chain-globe-3537401/

I would suggest higher education also has a role to play. The undergraduates of today are the citizens of the future, which will be digital in ways we don’t yet know or understand. They should be given opportunities to develop digital graduate attributes which not only develop confidence with online environments but include opportunities to raise awareness of the impact of digital practice. This should be critically examined and promoted in ways which are accessible and inclusive because the digital is political.

The internet is about power and all students should have time to explore questions about who holds this power and what is done with it to affect the lives of others.

social media icons on a tree
image from  https://pixabay.com/en/tree-structure-networks-internet-200795/

Walk down any high street, take public transport, sit in a pub or a café and its clear how connectivity rules. The mobile device is ubiquitous. Not 100% but enough to represent social transformation.  In less than two decades we’ve become digitally connected, with everything done online being tracked, recorded and monitored. Data about our online activity underpins all internet transactions. Online lives are exposed through browser histories with all transactions leaving permanent digital footprints. Bentham’s panoptican has been reinvented for a digital society. The all seeing eye is virtual.

Orwell and Foucault were right!

image showing the panopticon
image from http://foucault.info/doc/documents/disciplineandpunish/foucault-disciplineandpunish-panopticism-html

The early pioneers of the world wide web saw it as an opportunity to create democracy and give everyone a voice, in particular those previously silenced. While  evidence shows there are places where this has happened, the fact remains that patterns of internet access mirror existing forms of marginalisation.  Digital exclusion is a 21st century form of discrimination where those without equitable access are disempowered. But this is not the only problem society faces.

TBL identifies three sources of dysfunction affecting today’s web:

  • Deliberate, malicious intent, such as state-sponsored hacking and attacks, criminal behaviour, and online harassment.
  • System design that creates perverse incentives where user value is sacrificed, such as ad-based revenue models that commercially reward clickbait and the viral spread of
  • Unintended negative consequences of benevolent design, such as the outraged and polarised tone and quality of online discourse.

The Contract for the Web declares ‘governments, companies and citizens around the world can help protect the open web as a public good and a basic right for everyone.’ It calls for everyone to commit to a number of principles. Taking a few minutes to read and sign up is to make a commitment towards understanding what you do online matters.

google icon seen through a magnifying glass

image from https://pixabay.com/en/magnifying-glass-google-76520/

The contract is not only aimed at governments and corporations, there are individual responsibilities for citizens who can agree to the following.

  • Be creators and collaborators on the web so the web has rich and relevant content for everyone.
  • Build strong communities that respect civil discourse and human dignity so that everyone feels safe and welcome online.
  • Fight for the web so the web remains open and a global public resource for people everywhere, now and in the future.

For every advantage the internet offers, there are disadvantages. The internet is a mirror of society with all its benefits and horrors. If we want to make a positive difference, we can commit to ensuring our use of the internet prioritises those values which promote public good.

As internet users, we all have a responsibility to ensure not only equality of access but attention to the ways that access is used.

As the web reaches the age of 30, this week is an opportune time to raise discussion and debate about these issues. Visiting the Contract for the Web would be useful place to begin.

life ring against a stormy sea
image from https://pixabay.com/en/ocean-coast-spray-surge-2530692/