PhD (About)

Welcome to the trials and tribulations of a part-time doctorate. It not easy to combine a part-time PhD with full time employment but keeping a research log is probably the best additional bit of work any p/t researcher can undertake. It’s a way of not only keeping key issues on the surface, it ‘s a record the thousands of tiny incidents which might not seem relevant at the time but later you will be so glad you wrote them all down.


This section of my digital academic blog contains pages relating to my PhD pathway. On this page is some background about how I got here in the first place. the other pages contain the log from my previous institution, my ongoing progress and a publications list.

If you have any questions or comments about this research please do feel free to get in touch or tweet me using @suewatling

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What am I doing?

I’m investigating the development of digital capabilities and exploring the shift in practice from face-to-face to online environments for staff who teach and support leaning.

What are my research questions? 

This has been one of the most challenging areas so far. It’s not that I don’t know what I’m doing – it’s more I haven’t found appropriate ways to phrase the questions. Think developing digital capabilities, think lectures compared to the community of inquiry model for online education.

University lecture @1350 Laurentius de Voltolina community_of_inquiry

Put these alongside working with staff who teach and support learning , and finding ways for them to become more digitally confident with their learning designs.

How far have I got?

I’m at a the data analysis stage. I have three draft thesis chapters but they need revising and some reconstruction to take in account feedback and adjustments to focus.

How am I doing this? 

I’ve conducted an action research project.

At the time I started my PhD, I was piloting an online teacher education course (24 weeks, 30 level seven credits) called Teaching and Learning in a Digital Age (TELEDA). I set it up to support my belief that experiential and immersive learning was the best way to develop digital capabilities for academic staff in higher education. A supervisor suggested I turn the development of the course into my research. It would make a lovely action research project they said, after all you don’t want to be doing all that positivist stuff do you?

I didn’t know an action research doctorate was not common but it seemed like a good idea at the time. I’d already abandoned ambitions to investigate digital exclusion in the community because of the full-time work/part-time PhD equation. The more I could integrate the research with the day job the better.

disabled parking road sign next to a postbox

How did it go?

The action research part went brilliantly and I’m confident I can defend the choice.

Overall, after a rocky start the PhD went well, then really badly, but hopefully all is good again. Everyone gets highs and lows but mine often seem more severe and dramatic than most. That’s life I guess!

So what happened? 

Most participants on my course were supportive. I tried to use Participatory Action Research techniques but to be honest, were all busy people and most didn’t want that level of involvement. The experience is an interesting one to reflect on. However, nearly all found the time to helpfully answer my continual requests for evaluation and some agreed to a research interview once their e-portfolio assignments had been completed, marked and returned.

After the TELEDA pilot, and half way though the next TELEDA, the external examiner suggested I write a second 30 credit course, pilot it and combine them both into a PG Cert in Digital Education. He could see from data I shared with him how TELEDA was creating a cultural shift as well as an educational one.

cartoon showing a person battling with a wall of a technology

So I did. I ran the second course, this time bringing in the Digital Education Developers to give them some experience of the reality of learning and teaching online and for myself to observe how – if at all – this changed any dynamics for me as the course leader. It was the third year, the third iteration, and the third data set.  Dates for the validation panel were being discussed. The quality office documentation written and potential panel members approached….then the Centre for Educational Research and Development  I worked in was  restructured and it all came crashing down. In the new regime everything ‘digital’ was removed from my work load. I was Senior Lecturer in Education Development and told to focus on the non-digital aspects of my role. Are there any?  The validation was cancelled, my courses suspended and it seemed 15 years of experience and expertise in the field of digital education had come to an end. I could complete my PhD but was no longer sure I’d be in a position to make use of the learning which had come out of it.

digital divide with a page and an ipad

Oh no! (or Err Nerr as we say in ‘ull) What happened next?

There was only one option. I left and moved to the University of Hull to take up a post of Academic TEL Advisor. I spoke to people in the Faculty of Education and applied to continue my PhD. Since the beginning I’d always had problems with appropriate supervision. There was no one with a background or interest in digital education and the same thing happened at Hull. My application was rejected. This was interesting because like the removal of the digital elements of my work at my previous institution, it suggested the virtual was not being seen as an area for investing research time and energies. Also education faculties and departments in HE seem to still be predominantly school focused whereas my research was learning and teaching in HE.

jisc digital capabilities model

In the meantime, the subject of developing digital capabilities for staff who teach and support learning was gaining traction across the sector. When I presented at conferences there were always lots of nodding heads and wry smiles of recognition when I talked about digital divides on campus and Metathesiophobia (fear of change) which I applied to the shift from f2f to digital designs.


All of this seemed to be making my research even more relevant and I knew I wanted to continue my PhD – but it was clearly not going to happen at Hull.

Go on….

Thanks to Chrissi Nerantzi from Manchester Met who suggested I approach to Professor Ale Armellini at the University of Northampton. Ale is Director of their Institute of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education and a specialist . in the pedagogical application of learning technologies in a range of learning designs. Ale is now my first supervisor. In 2018 the University of Northampton is moving to their new Waterside campus.


An absence of lecture theaters means the whole institution is moving to blended learning design. The match couldn’t be better. I’ll continue to explore the relationship between staff and their VLE while investigating the value of digital presence in online communities of inquiry.

What have I learned?

Time is the major problem with doctoral study. There are other issues like self-funding, appropriate supervision and support, transferable skills, digital capabilities but for part-timers it is TIME and the lack of it which causes the greatest pressure and stress. This is as much about chronological time as it is about the cognitive shift required to get the PhD head on – especially after a day at work or when family, friends or the allotment are demanding your attention. In the past I have taken 5 days leave and found I don’t start to feel PhD-ish until at least the 4th or 5th day.

black and white alarm clock

Another problem was not having a clear enough idea of what a PhD involved. Advice like you don’t have to change the world and a PhD is about learning to do research more than your research outcomes is true. But as I wrote in Know Your Limits for Thesis Whisperer last year, I had problems with boundaries. The illustrated guide to a Ph.D. was helpful in putting some perspective on the size of your research (in the overall scheme of things it really is quite small).


Yet for each stage – the literature review, methodology choice, tools for data analysis as well as the overall conceptual framework – I read and wrote enough to constitute a thesis for each of them. Within two years I had more than enough words but not the right ones or in the right places.

It’s been several years since I joined the PhD pathway. The last year I’ve been transitioning between universities, the previous three were data collection, the year before was the literature review (and trying to get a sense of what it was ‘d all about) while in the very beginning I tried to do something else which had to be abandoned.

It feels like 2016/17 could be the beginning of the final stage.

Looking forward to it…bring it on 🙂

open laptop with the word learning on the screen