methodology reflection

Research update #59: I’m back – what did I miss?

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

I took a little time off – as it appears many of my fellow candidates are – due to the plague and the impact it is having on, well, everything. Work in the online education space has been frantic and it seemed like a good time not to try to do too much.

One thing that I’m very conscious of now is the fact that the role and value (at least hopefully perceptions of value) of edvisors has changed now. I know this will impact what I’m looking at but it’s not really clear yet how. Academics are absolutely far more aware that we exist and largely seem to be appreciative of this fact. What does this mean for my main research question?

What strategies are used in HE to promote understanding of the roles and demonstrate the value of edvisors among academic staff and more broadly within the institution?

To be honest, I’ve been thinking for a while now that this isn’t the right question anyway. It doesn’t explain why I’m doing this research (the problem) and it moves straight into looking for a narrow set of solutions for an assumed problem. This problem being that academics and management don’t know what edvisors do or what they contribute. It also assumes that edvisors and edvisor units have the time, energy, skill or political capital to develop and implement formal strategies to address this.

The heart of the issue is really, to put it plainly, why don’t people respect our skills, experience and knowledge and take our advice seriously? Which seems possibly a bit pointed or needy as a research question but that’s not hard to tweak. So this is something that I’m thinking seriously about at the moment.

Something else is the fact that I’ve never been entirely happy with my methodology. Unfortunately, as someone who hasn’t done a lot of research before – at least at this scale – I’m dealing with a lot of unknown unknowns. How much data do you need for a good thesis? People have said to me recently that the best PhD is a done one, so maybe the question is just how much data do you need for a thesis – but I feel like if I’m putting in the time, it needs to be good.

Generally my approach when faced with a big project is to gather up everything that seems to have some value and throw it at the wall to see what sticks. Then it is just a gradual process of filtering and refining. The problem is that the scope of “everything” has expanded to cover edvisors across three roles, academics and leaders in potentially 40+ universities around Australia, as well as policy documents, job ads and position descriptions, organisational structures and whatever else crops up along the way. Given my ties to the TELedvisors community, I’d hope that this group will also play a substantial part of what I’m doing.

But maybe this can be done more cleverly.

Could there be enough material just in the edvisor community? Even in the TELedvisor community? (486 members and counting). I’d long felt that case studies were an interesting way to tell a story but lack something authoritative. But I’ve been reading Five misunderstandings about case study research by Flyvbjerg (2006) and I’m starting to see the possibilities. (I think I’ll do a separate post about this)

If the world’s going to change, I might as well join in.

Flyvbjerg, B. (2006). Five Misunderstandings About Case-Study Research. Qualitative Inquiry, 12(2), 219–245.

Research update #56: Tying theory to methodology

While I’m waiting for faculty approval to submit to university ethics, I have time to consider some of my bigger questions sitting in the ‘later pile’. A big one relates to how (if?) my theoretical framework relates to my methodology in a meaningful way. There are a couple of theories that I’m drawing on for this research, though to be honest I’m not sure how officially ‘theoretical’ they are.

There’s work by Whitchurch and others about the Third Space as it relates to Higher Education, the liminal space between admin and academic that edvisors occupy. And there’s work relating to Social Practice theory by Shove and others that I feel may be helpful in defining the different kinds of edvisors by the work edvisors they do. It may also reveal something about how we/they work with academics and management in terms of the ways practices are disseminated and evolve. This seems to crossover into the realms of change management, which I seem to be hearing a lot about recently in this space and which perhaps seems like a useful angle to take, strategically. (Truth be told though, I think that too much weight is probably given to change and not enough to maintenance and sustainability of existing good learning and teaching practices, so who knows where I’ll land on that)

There are a couple of concerns that I have – are the theories that I’m looking at robust enough to inform the research that I’m doing? Are they even really theories, as such? Shouldn’t they be providing me with some ideas about how I should be designing my research data collection? To date, I’ve been largely assuming that they will come to the fore when I eventually get onto data analysis and trying to make some meaning from the things I’ve collected.

Nobody seems to be jumping up and down about this though – which has become my default indicator of whether I’m going horribly wrong – so I guess I’ll just keep meandering along. I have reached out to a couple of academics in business faculties now though, with an interest in the way organisations work because I have a strong feeling that this is an important factor in successful edvisor/academic/management collaboration but I have no idea what the language is that I need to describe this or what models or frameworks will best help to understand it. I’ve mentioned before that one of the things I like about doing this PhD study is the opportunities that it creates to reach out to people who have done interesting work, who, for the most part seem willing to share their expertise.

It draws into sharp contrast a comment yesterday from one of the academics on my progress review panel. I asked whether my blogging here, as a way of getting my ideas straight, might prove problematic down the road with my thesis – i.e. are there risks of being pinged for self plagiarism or something? I’m pretty sure that my writing style here is far more casual than my academic writing style but we do also have go-to turns of phrase and words that we favour. (I know I really overuse ‘particularly’, ‘however’, ‘interesting’, and a few others but I struggle to find replacements that feel as much like me). Anyway, the academic seemed just as concerned about people stealing my ideas. Which I guess it was nice that someone thinks I might have ideas worth stealing but, given that my entire aim with this research (as far as I know currently) is to improve and change practices and relationships with edvisors, I’m mostly of the opinion that I want my ideas to circulate and evolve. But maybe I’m naive.

Anyway, more things to think about.

methodology PhD research

Research update #53: Methodology or Messodology?

I have identified around 17 different types of data that I want to collect for this research. I have been waiting for people who know more about this than I do to say – ‘you’re out of your mind’ – but as yet, nobody has.

It looks a little something like this.

More than a few of these things (edvisor numbers, quals, entry points, unit structures) don’t even necessarily answer my research questions but seem important in the journey towards them. The I.T bit in the corner is more of a stray thought because I’ve been spending a LOT of time in my own edvisor practice lately chatting to them and there is wealth of research to be done on their role in edutech projects that nobody seems to have touched on yet.

Determining how, where and from whom to gather this data is my first stage and will involve working closely with a set of key informants across institutions. I would assume a mix of edvisors, edvisor unit managers (or higher level types – DVCAs maybe?) and I’d imagine teachers but that seems slightly hazier right at the moment. One of the edvisors on the review panel did note that there is a major difference between types of edvisors and while I believe I have acknowledged that, I can probably give it a lot more thought in terms of considering the relationships between edvisors (academic developers, learning designers and learning technologists) and our perceptions of each other. So that’s fun.

For now, the logical thing to do seems to focus on the interviews with key informants, which are intended (amongst other things) to provide some insights into how to go about collecting the rest of this data. I’d like to get a reasonably representative cross-section of people in a range of different types of unis (I considered TAFE and private providers but that’s just too much extra), so I figure I need Group of Eight, Australian Technology Network, Innovative Research and Regional ones. But maybe that’s overdoing it. I do think there is something to be seen in comparing teaching oriented vs research oriented ones and perhaps also (though maybe this is the same thing) well resourced vs less well resourced institutions. Then again I haven’t considered any of these things as factors in my proposal so far, so ??? Anyway, I guess that falls under the research apprenticeship side of this whole endeavour.

But, be honest, this still seems like way too much to be trying to do right?

Analysis Discourse analysis methodology SOCRMx theory

Week #3 SOCRMx – Discourse Analysis

When I first stumbled across Foucault in some paper since cast to the depths of my mind, my immediate response was that it was wanky and unhelpful theoretical tosh. I’ll admit that I struggled to get my head around it but my broad takeaway was that it sat too far in the whole post-modern create your own reality school that has since brought us ‘fake news’ and Donald Trump.

Imagine my surprise then as I worked through the resources relating to Discourse Analysis – and particular five different theoretical approaches to doing it – only to find the Foucauldian Discourse Analysis might in fact be the closest thing to what I need in exploring the language used around Edvisors to see if and how it shapes their status and identity in tertiary education institutions. The other option is Critical Discourse Analysis, which kind of works in the same way but seems slightly angrier about it. Maybe not angrier but you seem to need to start from the position that there is an existing problem (which there probably is) and then dig into what you’re going to do about it. Both are on the table for now anyway.

The great news is that from what I knew of this a week ago – that it existed and a couple of people had mentioned that it sounded like what I wanted to do – I now think that can see why and how it might be valuable. Not that I know how to do it yet but that will come with time.

So once again the EdinburghX SOCRMx MOOC is coming through for me. I had hoped to have explored 2-3 additional topics by now but came down horribly sick late last week and am barely just functional again now.

For what it’s worth, here are my other scratch notes on Discourse Analysis taken from the course so far:

Qualitative approach to the study of language in use – spoken or text.

Covers diverse sources from interviews/focus groups to secondary material such as archival material, policy documents, social media and so on.

Various ways of doing it from the micro (sentence by sentence) to the macro (overall impact of how language is used) depending on the theoretical framework chosen.

References: Discourse – David Howarth and Analysing Discourse – Norman Fairclough (more practical)

Common criticisms of DA – it’s idealist (the world is just a product of our minds) and relativist (anything goes). Also that Discourse Analysts confuse changing the way that we talk about a thing with actually changing the thing itself. Maybe, maybe not.

“Critical discourse analysis is actually really interested in the ways in which systems of representation have actual material effects and asymmetrical effects on the distribution of burdens and benefits on particular social groups, access to resources and so on and so forth” (MOOC video introduction)

There are many different types of discourse analysis, including conversation analysis, which analyses talk in detail (see Charles Antaki’s excellent web site for a good introduction to conversation analysis), and critical discourse analysis, which pays particular attention to how relations of power and domination are enacted through discourse. “”

An important aspect of discourse analysis, for our purposes, is that it treats language as action. As Gee puts it, language “allows us to do things and be things… saying things in language never goes without also doing things and being things” (Gee, 2011, p.1). It also places importance on context: “to understand anything fully you need to know who is saying it and what the person saying it is trying to do” (ibid, p.2).

Not Conversational Analysis for my work

Critical Discourse Analysis – about power relationships and social issues. Almost seems too loaded? Documents that seek to present particular political positions

Foucauldian Discourse Analysis might be relevant – how language shapes identity

There was also an assignment for us to try it out with. One of my major interests is job advertisements, which is perhaps not the best place to start given how formalised the structures of these things are but I did it all the same. Outlaw Country!

This is the sample text:

*This is a new open-ended, part-time (0.5 FTE) post in the E-Learning Development Team, which has been created to support the development of the University’s online distance learning provision. The role holder will provide application management support to academic programme teams for the delivery of fully online courses. In the performance of these duties the role holder will coordinate the registration of courses, students and staff on the University’s Canvas learning management system (LMS).

The post will provide first-line user support to staff and second-line support to students, responding to queries on the Canvas LMS. The post requires a combination of good technological skills, awareness of course and user administration processes and expertise in delivering training and support services. Creative approaches to problem solving and the ability to learn and apply new skills quickly will be necessary, as well as good organisational skills, excellent interpersonal skills and above all, a strong commitment to customer service.

The role forms part of a small team working to the highest standards and best practices for online learning. You will be expected to work on your own initiative, leading staff training and user support services, as well as working effectively within a team.*

These are my responses.

1.Significance: The nature of the text is highly specific and directive. The requirements expected of the reader are made explicit with the use of terms like “The post requires”, “will be necessary” and “ you will be expected”. As a job advertisement this is fairly standard language. The use of “and above all” gives extra weighting to the need for a “strong commitment to customer service”

2. Practices: This text is being used to describe a recruitment process

3.Identities: This text describes in detail the characteristics that the (suitable) reader should possess and explicitly states their relationships with other people and groups described. This positions the writer very much as the person holding the power

4.Relationships: The text defines the relationship between the reader (if successful) and stakeholders in the university and also the relationship between the reader and writer (employee/employer)

5. Politics: The nature of a job advertisement is to describe ‘how things should be’. It broadly pushes a line that the institution cares about quality teaching and learning and also quality customer support.

6. Connections: Everything is relevant to everything else in this piece of text because it has a singular focus on the specific goal of recruiting the right person.

7. Sign systems and knowledge: Some of the language used assumes that a certain type of knowledge relating to technology enhanced learning is possessed by the reader. It is heavily factual and not supportive of different interpretations of what is written.


I don’t know if I’m ‘doing it right’ particularly but it did make me think a little more about the nature of the power relationships expressed in job ads and the claims that they make to reflect an absolute truth in reality. So that seems like a thing.

I haven’t taken a look at the discussion posts for the other topics but the fact that there are only 3 other posts about Discourse Analysis in this MOOC after 3 weeks makes me wonder whether it’s simply a topic that people are engaging with or whether people aren’t really engaging with the MOOC overall. Hopefully it’s the former, because I’m getting a lot out of this.