PhD (About)

cartoon showing a tangled mess of strong betwen a person on one side and a person with a PhD on the other

Welcome to the trials and tribulations of a part-time doctorate. It’s not easy path combining part-time study with full-time work and an allotment. Know this – if you thinking of choosing a similar path (with or without the allotment) it will be a challenge!

Keeping a research log helps. It’s an attachment to your research which provides instant progress reminders (or not as the case might be) and most of all, is a record of tiny incidents which might not seem relevant at the time but later you will be so glad you wrote them down.

This page has some background while the others pages include the log from my previous institution, ongoing progress month by month and a publications/prsentations list. If you have any questions or comments please do feel free to get in touch or tweet @suewatling

A solitary PhD is a lonely affair and it’s good to talk!  Alternatively you could use the form below.

What am I doing?

My research explores digital shifts in attitudes and practices of staff who teach and support learning in UK HE.

It’s take me years to create that single sentence.

I’m analysing data from an institutional, pedagogic and individual perspective. The data was collected from participants on my short online courses, Teaching and Learning in a Digital Age (30 PG credit) over a three year period. The courses attracted a mixture of digitally fluent and digitally shy staff involved with teaching and learning at the University of Lincoln. I applied an Action Research methodology to the course development, inviting participants to be involved the process of course design and delivery, and thereby exposing them to the pedagogic rationale behind the activities. I was interested in how a CoI model of course design might support the development of individual digital skills and confidence while the experiential style of the courses was enhanced through staff being enrolled as students, for many this was their first experience of how the VLE appeared as a L&T platform to their own students.  Reflection was a core element of the course and reflective logs included in the data collection, along side evaluations and discussions while after completion, participants were invited to take part in semi-structured interviews.

Where did it begin?

When I applied for a PhD, my role was Learning and Teaching Co-ordinator in the Centre for Educational Research and Development (CERD) at the University of Lincoln. Following a review and restructure, I became Senior Lecturer in Education Development in the Educational Development and Enhancement Unit (EDEU). Both CERD and EDEU ran the PG Cert in HE and the Higher Education Academy (HEA) Professional Standards Framework (PSF) and I was involved in supporting these. I had an MA in Gender Studies and just completed an MA in Open and Distance Education with the Open University. As part of the day job I’d managed a successful institution-wide transition programme called Getting Started (giving new students early access to the VLE) and facilitated a 12 month HEA funded Change Academy looking at Embedding Open Educational Resources as a whole institution approach. Both projects highlighted low levels of digital capabilities and confidence across the disciplines and exposed digital divides between those who supported and mandated the technology and those who used it for teaching and learning. I knew these divides existed but the insight from these two major projects was a shock with regard to the extent. Those of us who tweet and chat online, who sort out the day with a ten minute skype call over breakfast  – we’re in the minority. The technology with the potential to transform is actually divisive. Those who use it are taking advantage of the affordances of being online, for example the 24/7 access at a time, place and device of choice while those who don’t are being excluded and effectively silenced. The biggest problem of all is the divides themselves are invisible.

What’s it all about?

I wanted my research to be useful. I wanted it to focus on making a tangible, practical difference to the adoption of technology enhanced learning. I thought if I examined more closely the attitudes and practices of staff towards their VLE and other digital tools it would reveal how best to design and deliver staff development courses and activities. I was reasonably digitally capable and my MA in Open and Distance Learning had reinforced how the internet could a powerful learning tool but I have no natural affinity with technology. It more often than not doesn’t work for me. I know what tech failure feels like.

Why am I doing it? 

Since the late 20th century, computers and the internet have been hailed as transformational with the potential for bringing about a revolution in the way teachers teach and students learn.

Using Rogers Diffusion of Innovation Model, digital change has been led by the innovators and early adopters but for the majority the predicted transformation has not happened. Apart from adoption of email, uploading content to virtual learning environments (VLE), digitised reading lists and onine assessment, the university of today is similar to where I took my first degree as a mature student in 1988/1991.  Staff give lectures. Student attend lectures. Examination of knowledge acquistion takes place.

image from 

The research literature around technology enhanced learing (TEL) has been dominated by the innovators and early adopters. I wanted to know more about the Late Adopters and Laggards who exclude themselves from digital events and opportunities. I thought knowing more about their attitudes and practices might help explain why the predicted digital transformation hadn’t happened. Their voices were missing from the literature and it was a gap I thought my research might be able to fill.

How to do it? 

I planned to run focus groups and set up interviews. These would be promoted as discussions on learning design and student engagement. I’d seen how talking about transition and open education had bought together staff with a mix of different digital capabilities in a way that branding an event as technology or digital could never do. My involvement with the PGCert and HEA PSF had provided opportunities to talk to those I was calling the ‘digitally shy’  – I felt confident of reaching a diverse sample of participants.

At the same time…

An output from the HEA Change Academy programme was a short course called Teaching and Learning in a Digital Age (TELEDA). Validated at 30 PG credits, I was ready to pilot it with a cohort of PGCertHE students looking for the next step. The wider plan was to develop a blended MA in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education which would begin with the PGCert and have a choice of modules at Diploma level, including TELEDA.

Teaching and Learning in a Digital Age (TELEDA)

To take TELEDA, staff were enrolled on the VLE as students and through a series of reflective blog posts they reflected on how the experiential learning experience could be applied to their own modules and programmes. The course was fully online with no lectures. Students were given sets of activities which involved working in pairs or small groups looking at learning design, open education, communication and assessment.

The underpinning philosophy of TELEDA was based on the principles of experiential learning. The plan was to shift from traditional transmission style lectures to a Community of Inquiry model of constructivist learning developed by Garrison and Anderson  (2003).

University lecture @1350 Laurentius de Voltolina        community_of_inquiry

What happened next?

My supervisor asked why I was going through the process of setting up focus groups and interviews when I could use the participants on my TELEDA course instead.

It would make a lovely action research project, you don’t want to be doing all that positivist survey stuff 

I’d already planned to apply the principles of participatory action research (PAR) to the course, seeing it as open ended and continually under development, but hadn’t thought of combining TELEDA and the PhD.

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 and my supervisors in the School of Social Science simply didn’t get why digital inclusion matters. I’d switched to education thinking the more I could integrate the research with the day job the better.

disabled parking road sign next to a postbox

It seemed to fit.

I knew I wanted to use a qualitative methodology which was grounded in an `interpretivist’ philosophical position, following the approaches outlined by Lincoln and Denzin. I’d been drawn to Geertz’s ‘thick description’ as a way of explaining not just facts and opinions but their associated commentary and interpretations. I believed understanding the adoption of technology enhanced learning involved setting it within the wider context of the social and cultural impact of the internet . This included issues of inclusion/exclusion and the acquisition of digital capital. My MA in Gender Studies had introduced me to postmodernism and  Foucauldian structures of power and control alongside Bourdieu’s concept of habitus while the theories of Marshall McLuhan seemed particularly adept with regard to social media in 21st century. However, aside from the theory there were other potential areas for research. These included the course construction via PAR, the course content (open education, online communication, collaboration and assessment), the processes of experiential learning, critical questioning and reflective practice, the pedagogical shift from face-to-face to online and the associated development of digital skills and confidence, all alongside the experiences of the participants themselves. Anyone of these could have been a PhD and I had them all together.  The problem with using TELEDA was the potential size of the project and how to reduce the PhD component into something smaller and more manageable.

In the meantime, the pilot went ahead and was a success. It ran a second time and, following requests from staff and advice from my external examiner, I wrote and validated another 30 PG credit TELEDA looking at social media in learning and teaching and the creation of a multimedia resource.

Controlling my PhD

With hindsight it’s not surprising how the PhD quickly went out of control. Thinking I might not get another chance to collect data on how staff understand technology enhanced learning, I collected everything I could from the activities and interactions as well as the PAR evaluations. In total there were three iterations of TELEDA and at the end of each course I invited participants to take part in a semi-structured recorded interview.

Over the next three years I had a number of different supervisors, none with a technology enhanced learning background and each one interpreting my research with their own lens. I became confused as to what the key research questions were. The PhD could have been many different subjects but I identified three

  • adopting a PAR approach to course development,
  • an evidence based digital capabilities framework for staff who teach and support learning
  • examining the effectiveness of a Community of Inquiry model of online learning.

Finally – as if all this were not enough – my role at the University of Lincoln changed and the elements of digital education removed. While the decision to do this was difficult to understand and accept, I saw it as indicative of the on-campus digital divides between those with the power to make decisions and those tasked with carrying them out. While some will argue the digital no longer needs to be made explicit because it’s so implicit in teaching and learning in 21st century, many of us who work with TEL know the reality is very different. Gaps between digital theory and practice continue to widen and deepen as innovators and early adopters explore the integration of digital tools in their practice and the late adopters and laggards maintain traditional ways of working. The problem is lack of communication with like attracting like in particular between the technofans and technophobes. TELEDA represented a rare opportunity for crossing boundaries and having meaningful conversations about teaching and learning in a digital age with people from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines who might not otherwise have come together.

Digital divides are present across the educational sector, in schools and FE colleges as well as HE. I’m currently sitting on validation panels for programmes with partner colleges and the documentation varies from awareness of the need for critical digital literacies to zero reference to either the theory or practice of teaching and learning online.

Removing the digital from my role meant the end of TELEDA and the plans for an MA for T&L in HE. This was a disappointment, After three years there were clear evidence of changes in practice with staff adopting the digital tools and activities to use with their own students and teaching teams. These were brilliant opportunities for a longitudinal study of the effects of experiential learning but they were all lost.  The changes also affected my PhD, isolating it from my new role and it felt clear that the research was being devalued. When I saw my present job advertised – Academic TEL Advisor – it seemed the perfect opportunity to continue to support staff to develop confidence with the digital affordances of virtual environments. I successfully applied and moved but unfortunately hadn’t shifted to cloud based storage so although I kept most of my data, some of the evidence of changes in practice in the form of email and video was lost.

This year my new team was reviewed and restructured- yet again! I’m now a Teaching Enhancement Advisor, changes driven by the TEF but with the digital elements remaining firmly in place. The university has recognised the need to develop the digital capabilities of staff and approved a DC team with an initial remit to scope the digital competencies of staff across the institution. While the culture here is arguably more traditionally analogue than at my previous location, there is a strong acknowledgement that teaching excellence has virtual elements as much as face-to-face ones.

How far have I got?

The School of Education at the University of Hull rejected my application to continue my PhD on the grounds there was no one available to supervise. At first I was shocked and upset but realised again this is evidence of the digital divide with TEL being seen as technology more than learning enhancement.

As they say, one door closes and another one opens. I’m now in a much better place with Prof Ale Armellini at the University of Northampton as supervisor. In September 2018 Northampton are moving to a new campus with no lecture theatres so are currently addressing new pedagogical approaches. The mixed reactions to this decision across the sector are mixed and tracking such a major shift in practice will be an interesting project in itself.

Where am I now?

I left Lincoln having completed all the interviews and at a very early data analysis stage with three draft thesis chapters. Everything now needs revising and adjusting. The rejection by Hull and the registration with Northampton has taken a year. Combined with a new role followed by a review and more changes is partly I think why the combination of p/t PhD and f/t work has been so challenging.

The advantage is the opportunity to reflect and revise. My PhD is fundamentally about technology enhanced learning but with emphasis on the enhancement of learning rather than the technology. More than this, it’s about the individuals who came onto the course and their reactions to finding themselves reorientated as students in an online Community of Inquiry. It’s about the application of the theory of teaching and learning in a digital age into practice. How was the experiential and immersive design of TELEDA for them?  What changed? Did it help them become more digitally confident practitioners or not? Did they cross any thresholds?

I’m running out of time and the data ages every year. I know this is likely to be raised as an issue at transfer and viva, as will the confusion around what the core of this Phd is. Resolving this needs attention to the philosophical structure; my epistemological and ontological beliefs, my conceptual framework for the nature and construction of knowledge and truths and I’m confident I can defend my choices and circumstances.

What happens next? 

I’m currently reviewing my literature, research questions and themes for data analysis. There are a number of key issues including raising awareness of digital divides and developing digital capabilities for learning and teaching. I’ve presented at conferences to lots of nodding heads and smiles of recognition when I talk about digital divides on campus and Metathesiophobia (fear of change) which can be applied to the shift from f2f to digital designs.

digital divide with a page and an ipad jisc digital capabilities model


Time is always going to be an issue alongside self-funding, distance learning and appropriate support all of which cause pressure and stress.  You need a clear enough idea of what a PhD involves. 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’ve always had problems with boundaries. Here I found The illustrated guide to a Ph.D helpful in putting some perspective on the size of your research (in the overall scheme of things it really is quite small).

This is the current challenge – what to leave behind and what to take with me.

May 2017