Monthly Archives: March 2016

Doing everything in the early days of a PhD

I suspect one of the advantages of starting a PhD a little later in life than many is having a greater sense of how and where to look for help. Three weeks in (officially), I’m a little overwhelmed with the scale of the job that I have taken on – but I’m “assured” (not reassured) that this is normal and also that this feeling never really goes away. (I’m also pretty sure that my knowledge of where and how to find help is marginal but I at least have a glimmer of an idea)

I’m also grateful to know a number of people that have already been there and are willing to share their hard earned experiences. Stubborn, younger me would’ve paid less heed to these lessons, needing to make my own mistakes (and there’s still plenty of time for that) and work everything out myself. Happily I’ve moved past that phase. I have a housemate in the 9th year of her Linguistics/Autism/something research, a number of friends (more sciencey) that are done and dusted and basically everyone that I work with that have also been there, done that.

This post isn’t about setting out to become one of the many how-to PhD bloggers – but I’m very happy that they’re out there. Particularly Inger (Thesis Whisperer) Mewburn, who I met before I even knew about that side of her and before I even saw myself doing this thing. She’s already been very supportive and helpful and being able to toddle along to her workshops is great. Her blog and that of Pat Thomson (“Patter”) are constantly talked up and are high on my to-read list.

The university offers a great range of workshops on all aspects of research and writing – sadly I’m a 3.5 hr bus ride away but I’m still making the weekly trip to the Thesis Proposal Writing Workshop and getting a lot from that. So far we’ve covered the basic bones of a thesis (and a proposal) and the fact that while there is some flexibility in structure, you’re still generally looking at ILMRaD (Introduction, Lit review, Methods, Report of research findings and Discussion). As someone from a story writing background, I’m very interesting in finding ways to spin a compelling story and so I think that the preference for putting the methodology up front is going to present some challenges here. (Arguably putting it up front would work if it was the story of me doing research but I feel like the thesis is more the story of the content and putting it at the start feels like explaining the magic trick before you’ve done it. I guess that’s the difference between academic and creative writing and it simply is what it is)

My (employer) college and university offers a similar range of training opportunities and is being quite generous in letting me make the most of them. I’ve also been pointed towards a host of books and articles, including “How to write a better thesis” by Evans (2014) just last night.

I have no doubt there will be many trials ahead but I find it entirely comforting that there are so many people that have gone before me that are willing and happy to share their knowledge and experiences. I haven’t even mentioned the gentle yet focused guidance I’ve had from my supervisors, Peter and Lina. We’re still talking about how regularly to meet and at this stage, where I’m gingerly stepping down the beach to the sea of possibility, I’ve been unsure how vital early meetings are (it seems like I just need to do a tonne of reading) but my housemate made a very helpful point last night that this is also a key relationship building time, which I guess is something I can overlook at times in the midst of all the other things going on.

Thoughts on: What is educational research? Changing perspectives through the 20th century (Nisbet, 2005)

This is a substantial and comprehensive paper that takes us on a journey from the late 19th century to the modern age. Nisbet explores the place of research in education and how it has shifted in focus and character over time in response to the needs and demands of stakeholders.

Nisbet broadly identifies three key shifts in the role of the researcher in education – “from academic theorist in phase 1, through expert consultant in phase 2, to reflective practitioner in phase 3.” Clearly these can never be absolutist descriptions as there are always going to be a range of types of research occurring at any time but they do still offer an interesting insight into the ways that cultural norms and trends have led research. He also rightly wonders whether “the growing acceptance of research in education… may have had the effect of restricting its scope”

Rather than focusing here on the entirety of this overview, I’ll look more at some of the key ideas. (I’m very much still at the point of needing to better understand the nature of formal research in education and I heartily recommend this paper if you’re interested in the context of this but a blog post will do it no justice)

Early educational research had a highly psychological and quantitative bent

The concept of educational research which was established was experimental, primarily psychological, involving measurement, seeking solutions to the educational problems of the day, and this interpretation monopolised educational research for the first half of the century

Edouarde Claparede delved into some interesting questions in the field of cognition in Experimental Pedagogy and the Psychology of the Child (1911), asking:

Before learning anything, it is necessary to learn how to learn (p.57)

How far are the various mental functions able to be independent of each other, or, on the other hand, how far do they reciprocally influence each other? [correlation and factor analysis] (p. 61)

When we educate a certain function, are we acting on others at the same time? [transfer of training] (p. 64)

The heavily science driven approach persisted for many decades, lead to a flourishing of standardised testing (as well as bizarre experiments where students were sprayed with a 1% solution of nerve gas to increase alertness). Some of the less radical work relating to student fatigue led to contemporary practices of limiting class times to around 40-45 minutes. Broadly however, education research was seen as an academic pursuit that was largely “out of touch with ‘real problems'”

Major shifts occurred in the 1960s when governments started to review education systems and practices and saw a need for supporting evidence for change. Researchers became more closely aligned with education departments who started to demand more of what they saw as relevant value for their money.

Relegating research to this instrumental role carries risks: trivialising, in pursuing volatile educational fashions; restrictive, in limiting research within the constraints of existing policy frameworks; potentially divisive, creating an elite group of researchers in alliance with authority; and ultimately damaging, in that it can leave the researchers wholly dependent on their powerful partner. Researchers who decline to accept this requirement, choosing an unpopular or unfashionable line of inquiry, are liable to find that they receive no grants, that their papers are not accepted by journals, or, if published, are not widely read or quoted.

Meanwhile, in the 1970s shifts in the parallel disciplines of psychology and sociology led to a move away from the long-standing quantitative methods in education and towards greater acceptance of qualitative approaches including case studies “exploring issues in more depth with relatively small numbers”. It aimed “at understanding and insight into the complexities of learning and human behaviour”.

This in turn saw a rise in Action Research and the teacher-researcher movement. Greater emphasis on reflective practices by teachers was (is) a key component of this. Other approaches also emerged.

The practice of measurement was also questioned. In-depth interviews provided a different kind of data, approaching a topic from the perspective of the interviewee rather than within a framework decided in advance by the researcher. This phenomenographic method (as it is called) has its roots in the philosophy of phenomenology, which opposes the positivism or naturalism inherent in contemporary science and technology – the standard scientific approach to knowledge by formulating hypotheses and designing experimental procedures to test these – on the grounds that this finds (or negates) only what the researcher is looking for, whereas the open-ended methods of phenomenography produce data for formulating new interpretive constructs. This approach focuses on awareness or ‘encountering’ and accepts the role of description in how we perceive situations and how we interpret or ‘understand’ them. Thus, from the interview transcripts, the researcher derives interpretive categories: for example, the way students speak about their reading and understanding leads to the categorisation of ‘deep’ and ‘surface’ learning (Entwhistle, 1981). Recognising the subjectivity involved, the interpretation is supported extensively by excerpts from the interview transcripts.

Further approaches drawn from the worlds of philosophical and sociological theory included:

Garfinkel (1967) introduced the term ‘ethnomethodology’ to describe his approach to research which explores ‘the patterns and structures discernible in societies’

(These) are not a matter of external social constraints, roles or functions imposed on hapless individuals but are produced through cultural and interpretive processes that people collaboratively use to make sense of the world and render it mutually comprehensible (Maclure, 2003, p. 188)

Arguably, much of this and other post-modern / poststructuralist approaches raise interesting and valuable questions but don’t appear to be used widely in educational research due to their lack of connection to more pressing practical questions facing educators.

This is evidenced most dramatically – and I would argue is manifested most apparently in the apparent government obsession with standardised testing and metrics – in the contemporary reality that ” evaluation and data gathering studies are more likely to attract funding than theoretical analyses which aim at insights into problems, the enlightenment function of research”. This is also clearly where the booming corporate face of education sits – the textbook publishers (Pearson, McGraw Hill etc) with their expanding range of teaching and testing products.

My thoughts and ideas

As ever, these are a little random in some ways and reflect some of the tangents that I went off on while reading this paper. Some are simply to-do items for further investigation.

Teacher reflection processes – if this is to be taken seriously as a form of professional development – need to be more tightly framed and/or led

How much research can I get my teachers to do into their practices – can we get the uni to support this? Can this become a more substantive part of their teaching professional development? Where is the carrot for this?

I need to look more deeply into the existing OLT research projects

A final quote:

But research has become part of every professional role today, and in education one task of professional development is to weave a research question into the expertise of teachers, leading them to adopt at a personal level the self-questioning approach which leads to reflection and understanding, and from there into action

This reminds me that professional development for higher ed “teachers” should be a vital avenue in my research and also makes me think about the value of reflection in a vacuum. Surely Communities of practice are a vital element of the step to action?


Claparède, E. (1911). Experimental Pedagogy and the Psychology of the Child. Longmans, Green and Company.

Entwistle, N. (1981). Styles of Learning and Teaching John Wiley UK.

Thoughts on: “What should count as Education Research: Notes towards a new paradigm” (Anyon, 2006)

I’m on my weekly bus trip to Sydney – between 3.5 – 4 hours – to take a workshop on Thesis Proposal Writing (and also to get to know my scholarly colleagues) so it seems like a good time to do some reading and jot down some ideas. (The super chatty backpackers of last week are gone and the bus is basically a big moving quiet library – with wifi, which is great in itself)

So I’ve diligently downloaded some of the recommended readings – in this case 

– and I start reading. Very quickly I realise that while it is an interesting enough chapter, focussing on the need for bigger picture research into the social and political contexts that surround the success or otherwise of education reform in “urban” American schools, it’s pretty well irrelevant to my own research.

This at least leads me to a few thoughts and ideas for TELT practices.

When teachers provide optional readings, it would be great if there was an option to

  1. tag them (ideally by both the teacher and student)
  2. support student recommendations/ratings
  3. directly include in-line options for commenting

It would also be valuable if teachers (while I’m focussing on Higher Ed, I think I’ll go with the term teachers instead of lecturers/academics for now) provided a short abstract or even just a basic description.

This got me thinking further about the informal student recommendation/rating systems that are currently in use and what we need to learn from them. Students at my university, the ANU – I guess I need to add a disclaimer on this blog about all opinions etc being my own and I don’t speak for the ANU – have created a lively Facebook space where they share information and opinions (and cat/possum pictures). These discussions often include questions about which are good (easy) courses or what lecturer x is like. I suspect that the nature of these communities – particularly the student ownership – makes officially sanctioned groups/pages less appealing, so it isn’t necessarily a matter of aping these practices, rather looking for opportunities to learn from them in our TELT practices.

My own supervisor has written about the student experience of TELT practices – I’ll be curious to see whether this question is addressed. (Reading that book is high on my list, I’m just trying to get my head around what it means to be a PhD student and researcher currently so this is the leaning of my reading to date)

The chapter does finish with a quote that I did find relevant though:

Most educational research seeks to provide guidance into how to alter existing policies or practices deemed problematic, but the extent to which research findings effect change is small. The impotence of most research to alter established policy and practice is well recognized

So even when it doesn’t appear that a reading is going to be of value, I guess it can still trigger other ideas and offer more universal thoughts.

Post Script: Just looking at the citation above, it’s clear that I need to get a better grasp of how to use Zotero in the browser. Any and all advice most welcome.

Inspired by Alda

ticket for alan alda talk

Easily one of my favourite things about working at a university is the rich range of speakers that come to share ideas with us. This week alone we have presentations for International Women’s Day and lectures on vote buying in Indonesia, Public Private Partnerships in infrastructure, Poverty alleviation in Brazil and Argentina, the Paris Climate Talks, the 2016 Defence White paper and exploring fertility of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

Last night we also had Alan Alda talking about science communication. He was amazing.

This isn’t something that I knew about him before but this is a long standing passion of his. He is the co-founder of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University and hosted a tv series – Scientific American Frontiers – interviewing scientists around the world for more than a decade.

Funnily enough, I suspect that like many of the 1300+ people in the audience, that wasn’t my primary reason for going to the talk. (Though it did seem interesting in itself). Whether for his performances as Hawkeye in M*A*S*H, Sen. Arnold Vinick in The West Wing or most recently Pete in Louis CK’s Horace and Pete, Alda is an astounding actor and communicator and has won over many fans in his long career.

While Alda spoke directly about science communication, it was clear to me that everything he said could just as easily be applied to teaching practice, particularly in higher ed where there can be a tendency to get caught up in highly complex and dry technical language. (Which isn’t to say that this isn’t needed or that academics and scholars don’t need common specific terminology to communicate sophisticated content, more that particularly when introducing new concepts, it can be helpful to think about other cognitive processes that aid in learning)

In a nutshell, what I took away from the presentation was:

  • It’s ok to use plain English to explain concepts that the audience (student) isn’t familiar with
  • People retain information far better when it is attached to an emotion that they have experienced in receiving it.
  • Presenting your information as a narrative with a degree of showmanship will enhance engagement.
  • When you know too much about something, it can be easy to forget how to see it from the perspective of a novice (and adjust your explanation accordingly)

Alda illustrated all of these core ideas with stories and demonstrations that were exciting (a desperate rush for emergency surgery in Chile), disgusting (children thrown in a river in medieval times to ensure that public events stayed in public memory), amusing (an exercise in getting the audience to guess a song by having someone tap it out on the lectern) and truly sad (doomed lovers doing a heartbeat experiment)

Much of what he had to say resonated deeply with many ideas related to cognition and learning over the years that have sparked my interest in scenarios, game based learning and gamification. While he didn’t drill down into which researcher showed what, there is a wealth of research out there that has demonstrated the value of the emotional and personal connections that presenters/scientists/teachers can add to their teaching practices to make them resonate more with an audience.

When asked which areas of science have the biggest problems with this, he made the point that what the anti-vaccination campaigners on their side  (as far as persuasion goes) is the emotion and the intimacy of their personal stories. No idea how to counter this but I think he’s right.

There was also an additional point raised (timely on International Women’s Day) about how women in science sometimes feel that they have to present a more dispassionate and impersonal face to their audiences to avoid the stereotypes of “emotional” women. Again, no solutions but an interesting point.

The Q&A component of the talk was filmed and here it is

Thoughts on: A general framework for developing proposals – Developing Effective Research Proposals. (Punch, 2000)

book cover

Writing in this format for gathering my thoughts and collecting useful quotes and ideas from articles/books/etc proved fairly useful to me while completing my Masters so I figured that I’d give it a shot here now.

(Actually it’s funny now going back to that old blog as the final post was an overview of my thoughts about doing a research methodology subject, which seemed utterly redundant as it was the final subject in the degree and not an area that I felt that I would likely to spend any further time on)

Anyway, while I thought the first of these posts would relate to Paul Trowler’s mini-book on “Doing Insider Research in Universities”, I’m still working my way through (and enjoying) that and in the meantime was given Chapter 3 of Punch’s book about research proposals to read at the first of the Thesis Proposal Writing Workshop sessions offered by USyd ESW. (Homework, who knew?)

Punch offers a pragmatic and seemingly reasonable (based on my limited knowledge) approach to framing a research proposal. He readily acknowledges that there can be no single perfect approach but more a broad set of guiding principles that should enable one to hone one’s area of research interest down to specific and measurable data collection questions. (This isn’t to say that it won’t be a cyclical, iterative process with some potential dead-ends but ultimately it should result in a product that is “neat, well-structured and easy to follow”)

Here are some of the key points that I took from the chapter:

  • Three key questions at the heart of the proposal – What, Why and How (how coming later and including when, who and where – i.e. the methodology)
  • Why is important – the justification for the research and will often merit multiple sections
  • Logical flow from research area -> research topic -> general research questions -> specific research questions -> data collection questions

Possible examples:
Research area: youth suicide
Research topic: factors associated with the incidence of youth suicide
General research question: “What is the relationship between family background factors and the incidence of youth suicide?”
Specific research question: “What is the relationship between family income and the incidence of youth suicide?”

The point is to move toward questions that can be directly asked and answered.
“Is it clear what data will be required to answer this question?”
The answers to the general questions are the sum and synthesis of the more specific questions.

Punch prefers the term “indicators” to “factors” (which I have been tending to use to date) because “of its wide applicability across different types of research. It applies in quantitative and qualitative contexts, whereas the terms ‘dimensions’, ‘factors’ and ‘components’ have more quantitative connotations.

He also makes the point that the more well-considered the research questions are, the more they suggest the types of data that are necessary to answer them. “It is the idea behind the expression that ‘a question well asked is a question half-answered.'”

Punch goes on to point out that “should” questions (e.g. Should nurses wear white uniforms?) are unduly complex and require a lot of unpacking to answer. (Who’s to judge “should”?)
A more productive question might be “Do nurses think they should wear white uniforms?” – to which I would add maybe “Why do nurses think they should wear white uniforms?” – which perhaps gets more complicated but can still form a reasonable question to a nurse.

In broad terms, Punch then reiterates the importance of being clear on the what and the why of the research before moving on to methodology. There is some interesting discussion of the value of hypotheses in relation to the research questions – though at this stage I don’t think they will be relevant to my research – which links to aligning theory to the research questions.

Some reflections and questions raised.

At this early stage I’ve been concerned about my lack of a strong research background in terms of knowing what kind of methodology I plan to use. Many of my peers seem to have already mapped out the next 3-6 years and I’m still trying to figure out what I really want/need to find out.

This chapter has reminded me that figuring out the what and why – which I’ve made a modest start on in my mind at least – is vital in informing the next steps in the research.

It has also sparked a few random ideas and questions for me to pursue, which feels like a win.

Why don’t more people use TELT practices in Higher Ed / Adult Ed?
Is the learning technologist a factor? Where do we sit? In Organisation? or separately?
(There’s some crossover with pedagogy maybe. Also compliance and innovation)
How do these factors interrelate?

What if I start out by thinking there is a gap in the literature and there actually isn’t?
What’s the difference between a learning practice and a teaching practice?
Which factors (or sets of factors) impact TELT practices and how do they interrelate?
What actions are needed at what levels & contexts to mitigate the barrier factors?

Just finally, I’ve also decided on some tools to start my documenting process – Zotero and Scrivener. (Probably worthy of posts in their own right). The following bibliographic entry comes from the Zotpress plugin for WordPress and seems to have done a nice job in preview. (I do need to find out what the “official” citation style is. Currently I’m going APA because I like it)

Starting a PhD

Photo 1-03-2016, 5 21 45 PM

This is me, today, Tuesday the 1st of March 2016. This is the day that I officially start my PhD studies (is it studies or research?) with the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney.

Surprisingly enough, the exact topic is a work in progress but broadly I will be looking into Technology Enhanced Learning and Teaching (TELT) Practices  in Higher Education, the factors that influence it and ways to better support it. My supervisor is Peter Goodyear and my associate supervisor is Lina Markauskaite, both decent seeming people that have done a lot of respected work in this and related areas.

So why am I doing it?

This is the make-or-break question I suspect. The thing that will ultimately determine whether or not I finish. Happily I think my reasons are solid.

I want to know more about this field and I want to be better at my job as a learning technologist. (I used to mock the pretension of that title but it’s grown on me). I don’t necessarily aspire to a job in academia but I do think that this will help me professionally whichever path I do end up taking.

I see the questions that I have around this field as a puzzle and one which deserves to be solved. I think that technology can be better employed in adult education to create deeper and more meaningful learning experiences for students and it disappoints me that I don’t see this happening more regularly. I’d like to better understand what factors shape TELT practices in higher education and see what can be done to better support it.

I’m grateful for the opportunity that I’ve been given in being taken on as a student. I haven’t followed the more conventional academic path to get here in terms of research based study and there is certainly some catching up to do but this just makes me more determined to succeed.

The word “scholar” was mentioned a few times last week when I attended the HDR (Higher Degree by Research) induction session and while for some reason it evokes images of 12th Century monks painstakingly writing on parchment by candlelight in a dim cell, it feels special to be a (tiny) part of this history.

I should probably go read something now. (Though surely I’ve earned a break – see, proud scholar already)