A little learning technology experiment.

Tomorrow (14th January 2017) I’ve been asked to speak at one of the regular seminars we provide for doctoral students – I have an interest in educational technology, but I am also in general something of sceptic with regard to technology. Don’t get me wrong. I am not at saying that we shouldn’t make use of it, or that it doesn’t have potential. I’m just less than convinced by the claims of those who are trying to sell us the products we need to make it work.

In my view a technology mediated learning experience cannot possibly be the same as a face to face experience. So I thought I would try a little experiment. I only have 20 minutes to speak in the seminar, so I thought I would try and record what I am going to say, and use the PowerPoint slides to make an enhanced audio recording. On the face of it those who are there will get the same experience as those of you who are reading this and decide to click the link and watch the video. But I bet you don’t. If you are planning to be (or were) present at the seminar, I would be interested in getting feedback on which method you preferred and why.  Of course, there is much more to technology mediated learning than this, but I’m hoping this might be the start of a discussion on what is realistic.


Here’s the (rough) transcript of the video.  Doctoral Seminar 14th January 2017_script  (It’s a Microsoft Word version. Please let me know via the comments if you would like a plain text format)

Just as a matter of interest I kept a record of the time I spent on developing this – in terms of the video production it took me about three hours to record, make the slides and edit it in Adobe Premiere.  I used that so I could export it as an MP4 file to reduce the size – Yes, it would probably have been quicker to narrate it directly into PowerPoint, but that, or at least the version I am using, tends to generate very large .WAV files which can’t be uploaded to Youtube. At least you should be able to watch this on a mobile device.


The EU and the immigration debate

I couldn't find a suitable public domain picture about the topic, so here's a nice picture of a kitten instead
I couldn’t find a suitable public domain picture about the topic, so here’s a nice picture of a kitten instead

Right. I suppose I’d better add my views on this wretched referendum. I admit that I have always been reasonably well disposed to the idea of international co-operation, while being sceptical about the claims of nationalists of whatever stripe. My natural inclination was, at first, to vote to stay.  I was, however,  prepared to be convinced by a decent, well argued campaign to leave. The European Union is in many respects an unlovely cartel that promotes corporate interests above the wellbeing of citizens. Now, were the leave campaigners to promote any sort of alternative to that, or to offer a reasonable strategy for what would happen in a post EU Britain I would have given serious consideration to a leave vote.


Unfortunately, that is not what is on offer. There are all sorts of ridiculous claims being made about “sovereignty”, “red tape”, “an EU superstate”, “x billion pounds a week that could be spent on the NHS, or Education. I could have lots of fun with all of these, but I don’t have the space. So, today I want to talk about the worst and most depressing of these misdirections which is the one about immigration. (and predictably the one that is gaining most traction). Does anyone seriously imagine that if Britain leaves the European Union tomorrow, the population will begin to fall, NHS waiting lists,will fade away, housing will slowly become cheaper and more plentiful  or that “entrepreneurs” will see the light, and turn round and say, “Oh dear me. We can no longer import cheap labour from the EU. Therefore we will, at once, happily reduce our profits, and pay “British” workers a decent wage and, as a bonus, reduce unemployment at a stroke”.  Even if all the EU immigrants pack their bags and go home the weekend after the referendum, (Which they won’t. How would that happen, exactly?)  thus releasing “jobs”, I suspect any jobs that might become available will mostly go to robots, or to non EU immigrants who are actually capable of doing them,  not to the sturdy British yeopersons of UKIP fantasy.


Population movement is a fact of life. It always has been and always will be, and if anything it is going to be increased by modern communication and transport technology.  Inevitably, populations will move to where there are the best chances of survival for their families. (And migrants are people too, you know. The other night I was watching the BBC news with the subtitles on because I was on the phone – who says men can’t multitask? when I saw the subtitle “300 migrants drowned”. Not 300 people, you’ll note. (BBC news channel, 6 pm, Sunday 12th June 2016, if you want a citation). That was nice and neutral of the Beeb wasn’t it?


Anyway I digress. My point is that because the UK has had a relatively strong economy for the past 20 or so years it is currently an attractive destination.  That doesn’t mean it always will be.  I don’t have the slightest idea what will happen to the economy if Britain leaves the EU, (Neither, I suspect  does anyone else!)  but if the leave campaigners are right and “independence” heralds some bright new economic dawn then you can bet the farm that immigration will shoot up as a result. Oh you say, but we can control our borders? Don’t be ridiculous. If capital wants cheap labour, it will find cheap labour, borders or not. If however, they are wrong, and we are all reduced to living in cardboard boxes and existing on tins of Whiskas, then yes, I think we can be reasonably confident that immigration will fall.  I’m not quite sure that is quite what those advocating leaving are hoping will happen. But if it does, it might be worth considering that population movement works both ways. Having left, we won’t be able to emigrate quite so easily as we could now.

Prefigurative doctorates?

Traditional study?
Traditional study?

The other day I attended a very interesting seminar on “Prefiguring democratic education” which got me thinking about my own practice, and what I might be able to do to make more of a contribution to the sort of socially just, democratic society that I think education is supposed to be working towards. Prefigurative politics is, put very simply,  the idea that you try and create a more just society through social innovation, while always recognising and documenting existing social constraints. So it behoves me to reflect on how I might incorporate it into my own practice

I lead, and do most of my teaching on, a couple of modules on a professional doctorate programme, (which I also co-direct). This programme, by definition, is pitched at a very high academic level, and thus is somewhat exclusive. To succeed a student needs to have considerable previous, experience of academic work, and ideally should have done some primary research before starting the course. Much as we might want to open it up to anyone who was suitably inspired, I can’t help thinking that if I did so, we would find that students who didn’t have the “correct” background would struggle. So from the very start, I have a set of social constraints. What would be involved in “opening up the doctorate”? Yes, I know there are lots of admirable initiatives such as the Lincoln Social Science Centre and any number of MOOCs which try to do precisely that though I am not sure that they are able to address all of the existing social relations around doctoral study. Which are, inter alia

  • The almost exclusively textual nature of study at this level
  • The relative inaccessibility of many of those texts
  • The exclusivity of language used in those texts
  • The demand for “originality” with its concomitant emphasis on individual achievement,
  • individual responsibility for methodological design?
  • The enormous workload expected of doctoral students

My point is that it institutions, with their fees and matriculation protocols are only part of the barriers to wider access to advanced level study. We can do more to prepare students for it. In the spirit of prefigurative politics, I’m thinking there might be scope to introduce a “taster” course using freely available technologies which would allow students to present and share their ideas for doctoral study. I would be the first to admit that this needs an enormous amount of thought, but one way forward might be to facilitate students making a short pitch for their research problem  in at least three different media and then discuss each other’s contribution using a wiki or similar technology. The idea of using different media is to get away from the primacy of texts, since following McLuhan, if the medium is the message, then there are going to be subtleties in the different messages. (Though if I’m honest, I did rather pick the figure of three out of the air!)

For example a student researching the transition to school leadership from teaching might offer a description of their own experience of moving into a new more senior position, upload a photo essay, and make a short audio recording. (These may or may not have anything to do with education) Other students (and any interested researchers) could then relate these stories to their own individual experiences. There would be no notion of passing or failing – you’d have to be inspired to participate and create. In fact if you were inspired you might then consider pursuing the more formal course. You might reasonably ask how this is “prefigurative”. Well I think it is important to get away from the primacy of the academic text and show students that their own, their colleagues and ultimately their research participants’ experiences are as valid as anything described between hard covers and shoved onto a shelf in the University library.  Of course none of this begins to resolve any of the larger issues. The fact that all formal education is essentially about creating social divisions between the “have-qualifications” and the “have not-qualifications” is a major problem. Then again, if we are to occupy unused parts of the educational landscape we have to start somewhere, and this is as good a place to cut through the barbed wire as anywhere. I’m open to ideas, though I suppose I should practice what I preach and try and do something like this myself.

Using a conceptual framework to manage your data

Information overload
Information overload?

One of the problems with any research endeavour is that you collect a lot of data. Not just the primary data you get from your interviews and so forth (though, if you’re doing it properly, there’ll be a lot of that), Rather, I am referring to the ideas that you generate as you read the literature.

I think students struggle with this. I know I do.

If you just make notes at random, you will eventually have to organise them, and to do that you need an organising principle. All the text books suggest that you should have a “conceptual framework” in advance and try and relate your reading to that. “Conceptual Framework” is one of those phrases that researchers use, a bit like “ontology, epistemology and axiology” to frighten new research students.

I’ll try and explain. I’m currently interested in the way information is managed inside Virtual Learning Environments. The reason for my interest is that students are often heard complaining that academic staff use Blackboard, or Moodle, or whatever it might be “inconsistently”. So the concept of “inconsistency” is one element of my conceptual framework. When I come across something I’m reading that talks about this, I can make a note of the author’s argument and whether I agree with it or not, and why. I might even help myself to a particularly pithy quotation (Keeping a record of where I got it from, of course).

That’s simple enough, except that one concept does not make a framework. The point is that you have to have multiple concepts and they have to be related to each other. Firstly in creating my framework I should probably define (to my own satisfaction) what I mean by “inconsistency”. It might be a rather hit and miss approach to the types of learning material provided (e.g. on one topic there’s a PowerPoint, on another there are two digitised journal articles, on another a PowerPoint and half finished Xerte object), or it might be that one member of the teaching team organises their material in a complex nest of folders, and another just presents a single item which goes on for pages and pages, or it might be that one of a students modules is organised into folders labelled by weeks (When did we study Monmouth’s Rebellion, was it week 19, or week 22?) or by the format it was taught (Now, where did she present those calculations – was it in the “lecture”, or the “seminar”?). So for the purposes of organising a conceptual framework it’s not so much defining inconsistency, as labelling types of inconsistency. You might say they’re dimensions of inconsistency.

Also as researchers we try to explain things. So it’s likely that much of the literature will offer explanations. That’s another part of our framework then – explanations, or perhaps we’ll label it “responsibility”. This inconsistency might be the teacher’s fault, for being technologically illiterate, not understanding the importance of information structures, or just being too idle to sort it out properly. Another researcher will argue that it’s the students’ own fault, because that’s the nature of knowledge, and if they spent more time applying themselves and less time on their iPhones…. I’m being a bit flippant to make the point that there are always many dimensions of any conceptual framework. You do have to make some decisions about what you’re interested in.

Even if you do, your framework will get quite complicated quite quickly, but it is a useful way of organising your notes, and ultimately will form the structure of your thesis, or article, or whatever it is you are preparing. Nor will you need all of it. You have to be quite ruthless about excluding data. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I should say why we need a conceptual framework for note making.

One of the problems of making notes is that it tends to be a bit hit and miss. If you’re working at your computer, you probably have lots of files, (though you may not be able to find them, or remember what’s in them) but if an idea hits you on the train, or in the kitchen, or someone else’s office you might enter it on a note app on your phone, scrawl it on a post it, say something into a digital recorder, take a photo of it, or you might, as I do, rather enjoy writing into a proper old fashioned notebook. The result is that, conceptual framework or not, you have a chaotic mess of notes. To bring some order to this I recommend the excellent (and free) Evernote, (which is available for virtually every conceivable mobile device, and synchronises across all of them) and though I do like fountain pens and paper, Evernote is my main note making tool. (Incidentally this blog post started life as an Evernote note, as I was thinking about my own conceptual framework – I thought it would be helpful to my students to share this) As with any digital tool it is only as good as the way you use it. Which takes me back to the conceptual framework. Evernote allows you to create as many “notebooks” as you like, and keep these in “stacks”. Think of a filing cabinet full of manila folders as a stack of notebooks. But you can also add tags to all your notes which is a way of indexing your folders. (E.g. if you had a filing cabinet full of folders on inconsistency in VLEs, red paper clips attached to the folders might indicate the presence of a document indicating teacher responsibility for it, and a green clip indicate the presence of documents arguing about student responsibilities). Obviously with verbal tags you can have as many “coloured clips” as you like.
You do of course have to tag your folders consistently, and you have to bring all your notes together. No matter how good your digital note management app is it can’t really do anything about the folded post it note in your back pocket. So good practice for a research student, is, once a week, to bring all your notes together, think about your categories and your tags. (if you do use Evernote as I’ve suggested you will also be able to print a list of tags, which will help you develop a much more sophisticated conceptual framework)

Qualitative Research Traditions – teaching notes

Below is an edited digest of the notes I used for a teaching session I delivered this morning for novice researchers as part of our Researcher Education Programme.  They’re only an outline of the topics I covered and are designed to provoke discussion (which they did), but I thought students might find it useful if I wrote them up as a brief summary

Perhaps the biggest problem in qualitative research is that it’s not really a single tradition. It’s really a group of traditions which have their roots in an exotic variety of academic disciplines, mostly in the social sciences and humanities.  Much of what we’re going to look at in this session can be traced back to research in psychology, history, anthropology, sociology, literature and philosophy).
If you’re doing qualitative research it’s important that you are able to recognise these traditions  because you’re going to come across them in the literature, and you may wonder why the authors are asking the questions that they are asking and why they’re drawing the conclusions that they’re drawing from the evidence they cite. It’s also true that you yourself will approach your work from a particular theoretical perspective, and it will be very helpful to you to read others who share that perspective (and perhaps even more useful to read those who do not. Charles Darwin, for example. claimed that he was in the habit of making a note of every objection that occurred to him, or was brought to his attention, so that he was prepared to deal with any objection that might be raised). Also, when it comes to writing up, your examiners will be looking for where you are situating your work.
We can break qualitative research traditions into 3 groups. Note what they have in common – they’re all very human (you don’t get many chemists working in the qualitative tradition!).  First you have the investigation of lived experience. That is, how do people, often particular types of people (experts, students, members of minority groups, workers in any given industry – whatever) experience life as they live it. (Note, not as how we, or the press, or anyone else thinks they should live it!)  How do they experience interactions with each other, and the world.  Second, there is the investigation of society and culture, which is characterised by studies of the way people come together into groups, which could be anything from a pub quiz team to a whole society, or dare I say a Researcher Education Programme, but also of how those social entities influence individuals thought and behaviour. Researchers in this tradition might look at rituals, values, customs and beliefs and how they are transmitted from members to external members. Finally there is the study of language and communication. Language here is interpreted very broadly. There are many languages other than spoken ones – We all know what a red light means when we see it outside crossroads, but it has quite another meaning in a disreputable back street!  So messages are conveyed by all sorts of things – a gesture, a logo, your clothes, a corporate livery – I could go on!
Lived Experience
Since my field is education, I’m going to concentrate on examples from that field, but these apply pretty  much across the social sciences.  Cognitive psychology is the study of the structures and processes involved in mental activity, and of how they develop as individuals mature.  Researchers in this tradition typically study how decisions are made, why people think the way they do. Research methods characteristic include protocol analysis, getting participants to keep diaries recording how they made decisions (or to think aloud as they do so) and comparing the results from different participants.   Life history is pretty much what it says it is. Researchers in this tradition argue that you can only really understand a person by studying as much of their life as possible. A researcher might shadow a subject, or conduct a number of extensive interviews with them discussing all sorts of things from their early childhood, to their family life, or observe them in a number of settings. They might also interview friends, colleagues and family.  Phenomenology  and phenomenography despite their similar names are quite different approaches. A researcher in the phenomenological tradition would identify a topic of personal and social significance, choose appropriate participants, interview each of them and analyse the interview data with a view to getting descriptions of the phenomenon as experienced by those who experience it from every possible angle. At the same time it attempts to give it meaning from outside the individual by looking at the structures that give it meaning.  Phenomenography in contrast is the study of how people come to hold different views. A phenomenographer might study a group of teachers to understand how they come to hold different views and deploy different techniques in classroom management.
Society and culture
Ethnography is the study of any given culture, the features thereof and the  patterns built into those features. Some of the most famous ethnographies are anthropological, (e.g. Margaret Mead’s work in developing societies) but it is a tradition that has spread across many social science disciplines as it can tell us much about how individual’s behaviours are determined by cultural values, beliefs and so on, secondly, it focuses on the emic perspective of a culture’s members and third on the natural settings in which individuals operate. Critical theory on the other hand starts from critiquing that environment. In education, one of the most important scholars is Paolo Freire, who pointed out that education only reinforced oppression unless it opened the eyes of (in his work) Brazilian peasants to the ways  in which they were oppressed. One such method of oppression was the education system itself which was simply reinforcing the codes and customs of the oppressive society in which they lived.  Freire argued that they had to take responsibility for their own education to overcome this.  There are no particular methods associated with critical theory, since researchers in this tradition would argue that you can only determine the method once you have deconstructed the situation you are researching and identified the sources of opression.  Finally ethnomethodology is the study of how we learn to behave in  situations, or the techniques individuals deploy to situate themselves in a situation.  One technique characteristic of ethnomethodology is called breaching – that is establishing what the  social rules are, breaking them and observing how people react to such rule breaking.
Language and communication
 Hermeneutics is the study of the process by which individuals come to understand the meaning of a text. As I said earlier a text can be anything that contains a message that can be read – it can be a document, but it could be an image, an outfit, or even a myth, or social custom.  Hermenueticists claim that there is no objective reality, only what we interpret. It follows from that any text must be informed by those interpretations, so we need to continually examine and re-examine the text in the light of its parts, and vice versa to get a true understanding of the author’s interpretations.  Semiotics is the study of signs, and it differs from hermeneutics in that researchers in this tradition argue that the message doesn’t exist until the sign is created.  They do share the view that anything is a sign, but they argue that signs are reflective of particular social realities. Language, musical notes, mathematical symbols, and yes, street signs are all objects of semiotic study. A semioticist would be interested not only in what the sign says but how it is written. Finally structuralism focuses on the systemic properties of phenomena – that is what is essential about some feature of the social world, and each feature can only be understood by examining its relationship to other features of the same system. Consider a textbook for example. It will have chapters, page numbers, an index, and will follow certain typographical conventions.  (indented text in italics would have no meaning on its own, but in an academic text it would almost certainly indicate a direct quotation)
Summary of part 1
Research  traditions are not paradigms and they’re not methods. They’re important in qualitative research partly because it is so varied. We couldn’t possibly cover all the different research traditions in 3 hours, and we certainly couldn’t cover all the methods. However, there is one research method  (not a methodology, note) that can site quite happily in any or all of these traditions, and it is a method that is very popular with students. That is the case study.  Now, you can make a convincing argument that all research deals with cases. Every experiment, every response to a survey is a case, but when we talk about case study research we generally mean the detailed examination of one or more instances of a phenomenon.  Which also raises one of the most profound problems for qualitative research:- If you accept that there is an objective reality external to our senses, then qualitative research has little to say about it. Put simply how can you make any claim to knowledge based on a handful of, or just one case study!
Case study
 Well, you can find one answer to that in the way you design your case study. As with any method, your research problem will play a very significant role in your choice of method.  What do you want to know about a topic? Is there some particular instance of that topic that that will tell you something about it. Is it a very good example? Is it a very bad example? Is it just a typical example with nothing special to recommend it? These are the kind of decisions that will inform your sampling strategy. While sampling tends to be associated with quantitative research, it is equally important in qualitative research, since you’re basing your claim to knowledge on that case. So either the case tells you something about the wider phenomenon, or you’re simply claiming that your knowledge is limited to that case (Which is by no means an invalid move for a researcher).  It’s particularly important if you’re trying to prove or disprove a proposition. (Logically disproving a proposition is the only valid scientific move since we can never say with absolute certainty what will happen next. Karl Popper famously posited that the proposition “all swans are white” would be fatally undermined by the appearonce of a black swan . For the same reason I can’t make negative claims (No swans are black). You can argue around this – for example  that the black long necked bird swimming in the pond outside the window is not in fact a swan, but you’re already on thin ice. You would have to say that being white was an essential property of being a swan).  But most research is trying to be more positive than that.  Many case studies are evaluative – that is they look at an instance of a programme or intervention and can show that x works in situation y.  Some other important things to consider with a case study are your own professional background and experience– in that sense a lot of case study researchers have a great deal in common with ethnographers, because it’s acknowledged that their presence in the case can have a significant influence.
Something that is often underestimated in all research is what’s called  “Entry to the field”. If you want to do a study of a particular case you have to get access. You have to identify gatekeepers, and get past them which can be really challenging, especially if you are dealing with a sensitive topic. (Try and do a case study of Mid-Staffordshire hospital and see where that gets you!) . All sorts of issue – even if you can use power to “force” your way in, you may not get the highest levels of co-operation!
Data collection in case study
This is where the case study shows its flexibility and also reveals its roots in ethnography. Characteristic of case study is that you use multiple data sources, but within a boundary which you draw around your case. (Cases aren’t always easily defined). The point is to reveal as much as you can about the case from different angles. There are nearly always interviews in case studies, but you might also collect documents, and observe people as they work within the case, take photographs, make notes on the settings etc. All this raises some very important considerations. First, one piece of data might prompt you to collect some more data. You might be told of a document in an interview, a document of whose existence you were previously unaware. So while you certainly go in with a plan, you may well go beyond it.  Data collection is therefore emergent in that it emerges from  your research. A second point is that you will collect a very large amount of data, so you should always record your interactions. Remember our recent discussions about metadata? Well, you should create metadata for all your interactions – it doesn’t have to be vastly detailed. But each interview should have a note of when and  where  it took place, the names of all present, any observations about the setting, (including your subjective impressions) and the main points that emerged from the interview. Similar records should be made for every other piece of data. You can think of them as manifests if you like (Shipping containers all have a piece of paper attached to them listing what they are supposed to contain, who sent it, and who is to retrieve it. This is called a “manifest”)
Finally, as you are generating so much data, it can be very difficult to know when to stop.  These four guidelines are helpful – First there’s exhaustion, (of data, not you)  which you can identify when you know your respondents won’t or can’t tell you anything knew, (and pull a resigned face as you walk into the room) you’ve read all the documents you can reasonably hope to read, taken all the photos, – well you get the idea.  Second, there’s saturation. We haven’t talked a great deal about coding in this session, but as you collect data, you begin to assign bits of it to categories which you will have derived from the literature, from your own thinking and so  on. This is a bit of a subjective judgement, but when you find  you aren’t really finding anything that adds new categories, or that you feel you have enough evidence to make the point about each of your categories that you want to make, then you can consider stopping. Similarly when you’re just finding the same things, so that your data is showing consistent regularities  (e.g. all the teachers are making the same complaint about the principal) you can stop . Finally you have to consider whether you are going beyond the boundary of your case and your research question – whether you are overextending yourself.
This is probably the biggest issue that qualitative researchers have to deal with and it’s particularly a problem for case study researchers. Postivists would say that you can’t generate enough scientific data from a small study, and certainly not from a single case. Well, let’s discuss that.
What about an extreme case? Flyvbjerg (2006) refers to a study of a petrochemical plant which was undertaken to see whether exposure to particular solvents caused brain injuries. The study was of a single plant which was highly commended for its health and safety practices? Why did the authors argue that the data they collected was generalizable?  Because if they found evidence of brain injuries among workers in such a plant, they were likely to find it in plants which were less assiduous about health and safety.  So an extreme case of a phenomenon is likely to provide knowledge about that phenomenon.  In the same article he refers to a study of the persistence of working class family relationships. The theory was that the strong family ties that were characteristic of the British working class would be weakened by increasing affluence. So the researchers picked on  a single town (Luton) in the late 1960s which happened to be very affluent.  They found that in fact the ties and relationships persisted, so they could then posit that these ties were not necessarily a response to economic hardship.  Of course there are other kinds of generalisations. There is a quasi positivist argument that the more case studies find the same thing about a phenomenon the stronger are our grounds for believing that thing.  There are also other claims to truth. Many case study researchers (and qualitative researchers in general) reject the basis of the positivist claim to knowledge and instead try and achieve credibility, plausibility, and familiarity. Case studies of professional practice for example, often ring true with their readers. But one criticism of that approach might be that you’re making the reader do all the work!
Pros and cons
I’d just like to finish with a list of pros and cons of case study research. Among the big pluses is, I think the fact that case studies tend to be very readable. There’s a bit of a debate about whether you should anonymise them. I tend to agree that reading about a real case has much more resonance, but that’s really very unusual. There are often compelling ethical reasons for anonymising your study and frankly you may not get access unless you promise to do so.  Even so, a well written study can still ring true with the reader. The fact that case studies follow the ethnographic tradition by trying to expose the emic perspective, that is the experience of what is like to be “in” the case is often helpful in this regard.  But as I said earlier, case studies can be compatible with many research traditions.
They are not without their disadvantages. First, is the fact that they are often very difficult to do (New doctoral students sometimes see them as an “easy” option. Really nothing could be further from the truth.) There is the difficulty of gaining access, of being sure that you are getting the full picture, and the fact that even if you do succeed in that endeavour, you will generate a large quantity of data, which will take a long time to analyse. We’ve discussed the generalizability issue, and I think it is worth repeating that generalisation can have multiple meanings. No, you can’t generalise from a single case in the positivist sense, but you can indulge in theoretical or analytical generalisation.
Finally, bear in mind the ethics of doing a case study. There are nearly always ethical problems in research, and case studies have a habit of hiding theirs until late. What do you do if you’re studying a hospital department for example and find high levels of incompetence? Who is your responsibility to? The research participants, or the hospital’s patients?  That’s not an easy decision, and actually ethical issues are usually less clear cut than that.
The session would normally conclude with a debate about the students own ethical problems, but on this occasion Drs. Kathleen Watt and Catherine Burge gave a presentation on practice led research.

so here they are.

Form, function and content in the VLE

The other day I blogged about the gap between the theory of providing material via an institutional VLE from the perspective of an educational developer and the reality of doing so as I experienced it as an academic. My feeling was that most of us, (academics, that is, though I reiterate, by no means all academics), tend to see it as a content repository, and many students tend to regard it in the same light. Now as it happens, there has been a recent and very interesting debate about the purpose of VLEs on the ALT Jiscmail list. One of the points made there was that the VLE tends to shape our way of thinking about technology, and I think there is something in that. Of course there are many other tools out there besides VLEs, and I was quite impressed with this attempt to incorporate some of them into Blackboard, posted by a contributor to that debate.


However, for better or worse, Lincoln and many other institutions are likely to continue with some form of VLE for the foreseeable future, and as I said in the last post, I actually deconstructed a VLE site (Blackboard in this case) which had accumulated about five years worth of material. One of the first challenges in any kind of research, (and I maintain that this is a form of research), is analysis. So, bearing in mind Bourdieu’s warnings about the malleability of classes, and the way the field in which they operate tends to define them, here is a list of the classes of material I found. At first sight it reminded me a little of Borges’s Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge,  insofar as it has very little in common with recognised practice in the field of education.

  • Powerpoint slide sets used in lectures that are substitutes for lecture content
  • Powerpoint slides designed for use in class discussions
  • Word/Pdf Documents designed as handouts
  • Word/Pdf Documents which are drafts of articles
  • Word/Pdf Documents which contain downloaded articles
  • Web links to Open Source journal articles
  • Web links to journal articles on publishers sites that have copyright clearance
  • Web links to journal articles on publishers sites that do not have copyright clearance
  • Web links that are out of date
  • Web links that are broken
  • Web links that work
  • Blackboard wiki pages
  • Blog entries
  • Contributions to discussion groups
  • Audio recordings of lectures
  • Video clips
  • Video clips that no longer work
  • Administrative documents
  • Assignment submission instructions
  • Those that, at a distance, resemble flies.

(Oh all right, I just took that last one from the Celestial Emporium)

While it looks as though I have emphasised form and function over content here, that’s partly to make the point that form and function tend to dominate technological discourse. I did also give each item up to three subject based keywords, and the new site is in fact organised by topic because I thought that would be of more interest to the students.  But I thought the form listing was interesting too because inherent in it are quite a lot of assumptions about what is helpful for student learning. Yes, there’s a variety of forms, but is the same content available in each form? (No, of course not. Though it should be, if only to promote accessibility.)

Form is important in technology. Not everyone can access Word 2010 documents for example, and certainly not everyone has access to broadband sufficient to download video clips. What does the existence of broken, out of date and copyright infringing material, (which, let me reiterate, has all now been removed,) tell us about our attitude to providing this material? This is one site in one department in one University, but I’ll bet it’s not atypical. What I would really like to do is a set of multiple case studies of sites in different institutions and different disciplines. The purpose of doing so, as with any case study, is not to generalise, but to learn from what other people are doing and improve practice. Yes, sometimes that will involve being critical (constructively) of practice, but case studies can just as easily uncover excellent and otherwise hidden practice. While the last couple of posts may sound as though I’m very critical of the site as it was previously conceived, I do think it made a lot of good and useful material available to students. (They just couldn’t find it!).

As I say I think it would be really useful to do some research into this on a wider basis, but there’s an obvious methodological challenge. Since I don’t have access to sites anywhere other than Lincoln, if I ask for participants, there’s an obvious risk of only being given access to sites that participants want me to see. On the other hand extreme cases can be very informative in qualitative research. That’s a discussion for the research proposal though. On the basis of this case, I think though that there is an argument to be made that it is too easy for function to follow form, and for both of them to overshadow content in VLEs, and perhaps in e-learning generally.

What are VLEs for?

It occurred to me the other day that we I have been working with VLEs (Virtual Learning Environments) in one form or another for getting on for two decades now, and during those twenty years endless articles and books have been churned out on e-learning. I had been going to write something about how technology has transformed educational practice, but actually I don’t think it has, or not, so far, by very much. My role has, historically, been one of “supporting” academic colleagues with this technology, but it was only recently, when I became a programme leader, (with responsibility for my very own module) that I began to think about what kind of support would be useful to me. I’d be the first to admit that I am probably something of a special case. I know our VLE inside out and am very comfortable with the technology. I realise that not everyone shares that knowledge or comfort, so this is inevitably something of a personal take.

Nevertheless, it didn’t take many interactions with actual students to make me realise that the approach to e-learning we had been taking on the doctoral programme I studied, taught on, and am now leading, wasn’t really meeting their needs. (Come to think of it, as a student I hardly ever used the VLE myself). Let me say now, that this is not going to be a normative piece laying down the law about how VLE sites should be structured. I’m sure Lincoln’s doctoral students have their own unique set of needs, and these will be very different from say the needs of undergraduate students in other disciplines and at other universities. That said, to go back to the issue of support I started out with the idea that people needed to get a hold on how the technology works. I suppose they do, and in fairness, that was often the focus of requests for support. (Still is!) And that is what we, as educational developers have, by and large, provided, relying on the creativity of colleagues to do something clever with it. I suppose where we have fallen short is that we haven’t really built on that foundation. Having swapped my educational developer hat for an academic hat, I can see why. It’s really challenging to completely redesign a VLE site to match what the students say their needs are. At a programme board last year I reacted to student criticisms of what was provided for them on the VLE by blithely announcing that I would completely redesign it, thinking it would take a few weeks at most. It took six months, and detracted from quite a lot of things I was supposed to be doing, like, er research. Even now, even though the redesign has been launched, and seems to have been well received I’m acutely conscious that I’ve hardly begun to scratch the surface as far as things like learning activities for the students are concerned. Most of the work I have done so far is simply about providing a structure for the various teaching materials that I and other colleagues have provided, along with a little bit of cosmetic work on the menu and home page.

While I said I haven’t been doing research, I do think this exercise has given me the foundations of a theoretical framework for thinking about the contribution VLEs can make to a course. Clearly, if a VLE is to meet the needs of students, there has to be quite significant engagement with both the students and with the colleagues who are teaching on the programme. That’s not particularly original. Sharpe & Oliver (2007) make much the same point. Secondly, I think there is a need to think about what sort of contribution the VLE can make to students’ learning. Clearly, the best VLE in the world is no substitute for the University library. Yet, in the exercise I have just completed I counted around 400 “learning items” which had been generated over the last five years. These included PowerPoint slides, Prezis, and handouts from teaching sessions and guest lectures, podcasts, videos, and quite a few journal articles that (ahem) didn’t appear to have appropriate copyright clearance. (Those have all been removed now.) On top of those there was a whole range of what might be called regulatory documents such as programme handbooks, ethical approval forms and assignment submission sheets. Clearly that’s a significant and useful resource, but on its own it’s not anything like adequate for doctoral, or even, some would argue undergraduate, study. Even having imposed some sort of structure on all this material, which is really all I have done in the redesign, I’m still not sure where to go next. What learning activities are appropriate? Why? How do I design them? Do I limit myself what the technology offers? (A fairly obvious danger in simply “training” colleagues to use the technology)

So this raises the question, what exactly is a VLE for? Maybe that’s better phrased as “what is it not for?” Students, at least in surveys at Lincoln have often said that they want “consistency” in the way staff use the VLE. Well, yes, but I think there has to be a general agreement about what we can reasonably expect of a VLE. There is clearly a tension between this desire to meet students’ legitimate expectations and the kind of academic freedom that these technologies allow. It doesn’t seem reasonable to me to expect e-learning to take the same form in, for example, modern dance that you would find in chemical engineering. Equally, it could be argued that providing students with material through the VLE detracts from the important skill of literature searching, whether that’s done in a library or through a Google search. Even more importantly, providing them with “all the resources they need”, even if it were possible, is unlikely to encourage them to develop a critical engagement with the literature.

Where does that leave us then? After nearly 20 years of using VLEs have we just ended up with an expensive, badly organised repository of content of dubious value? In some cases undoubtedly, though it would be quite wrong to think that all VLE sites fell into that category. There is some excellent work out there. I’ve been to plenty of conferences where I’ve seen good, innovative and creative practice, and I know from my support role that many colleagues at Lincoln are pushing the boundaries in quite imaginative ways. The challenge is to spread this kind of practice, bearing in mind that such innovation is risky even if the major risk is that academic staff devote more time to their students than to their research. (After all you might not get that grant bid in, or that journal article submitted, and since the teaching grant disappeared in the humanities and social sciences that is by no means a small risk). I do think though that there is a case for more detailed research into what academics actually do in terms of course design with a VLE. But that’s for another post.

Sharpe, R & Oliver, M (2007) Designing courses for e-learning in Sharpe, R & Beetham, H. (eds). Rethinking pedagogy for a digital age: Designing and delivering e-learning. – Routledge, London (pp41-51)

Making a video with PowerPoint

This is by way of a bit of self development. The university library has introduced a new piece of software called Talis Aspire, designed to make reading lists a little easier, and I was wondering how best to introduce it to colleagues who are less than enthusiastic users of technology. I’ve also been thinking for a while that it ought to be possible to make reasonable quality videos using simple tools – in this case PowerPoint 2010.

This is very much a first attempt. I realise the text is very small, and there’s no sound at this stage because I wanted to keep the file size low, and anyway, I didn’t have a lot of time. Depending on how well recieved this is, I may well develop a more accessible version later on. (Any volunteer voice actors out there with a few minutes spare time? I envisage a male/female conversation, but it’s not essential). Anyway, here’s the “proof of concept”

Library closures and pornography

Campaign poster from Save Lincolnshire Libraries
Campaign poster from Save Lincolnshire Libraries










Well, that title should get me a few more hits than usual, but I fear sweatier readers will be disappointed. The post is really about library closures and threats to freedom.

Now,  it would be fun to ridicule the hapless Councillor Worth’s selfishness and lack of empathy, as evidenced in this poster featuring a tweet in which he explains why closing virtually all of Lincolnshire’s branch libraries, is not going to cause anyone much inconvenience. (A tweet! Says it all really). Never mind, I try to keep the tone of this blog reasonably restrained. After all I’ve never met the man, so it wouldn’t really be fair.

Anyway I think there’s a more sinister agenda at work. One of the councillor’s earlier pronouncements on the topic was that we didn’t need libraries because everyone has a Kindle, or iPad. (Of course, everyone in Lincolnshire has probably got one of these devices for each of their cars).  Even if that were so, a single computer is about as much use for serious research as a single book. Which is to say “not very much”.  Serious research needs serious reading, and as any academic will tell you the publishing industry is very good at leeching off the work of researchers who quite often have to pay quite large sums to access published versions of their own work, having been forced to hand over the copyright to their publishers in order to get published at all. (There’s that free market at work!)  So maybe the Internet isn’t quite as free as Cllr. Worth and his colleagues would like to believe. I don’t think that’s malice on their part. I think it’s genuine ignorance of the fact that what you can find for free on Google and the like, is only a tiny part of the Internet. It’s not “free” anyway. To access it you have to hand over quite a lot of personal data, which is much more valuable to these companies than the coin in your pocket.

The issue that’s worrying me more though,  comes from elsewhere in Cllr Worth’s party, namely from David Cameron’s pronouncements about “filtering” on-line pornography. Now, I am not about to start defending pornography of any sort, but I wonder how long it will be before “pornography” filters become “unsuitable material” filters, and we’re all told what we can and can’t read, or before we have to register to read the works of Karl Marx, or even, if you prefer, Ayn Rand.  If you can filter one thing, you can filter others.

I am well aware that the filtering idea is completely impractical, (unless you have humans somewhere along the line judging what counts as ‘inappropriate material’), but once these ideas get floated they can be hard to kill, and it’s not entirely inconceivable that some workable system may be found and implemented.  For a party that once claimed to defend individual freedom, the modern Conservatives seem remarkably anxious to control every aspect of our lives in remarkable detail. In fairness I suspect the Labour Party would be just as greedy for this level of control. (I haven’t forgotten the ID card fiasco).  Happily we have a defence, in the shape of our libraries where we can go to the shelves and pick different ideas up in the space of a couple of hours without even having to think of the right words to put into a search engine. We really must not allow ourselves to lose this. And that applies to every county in the UK, not just Lincolnshire.

Oh and by the way if some registration system for on-line pornography (or anything else) is introduced, I urge you to opt in. Not so you can look at the wretched stuff, but so that you remain free to live your life as best you can. My argument is rather based on the “I am Spartacus” principle. Admittedly that didn’t work out all that well for Spartacus’s army, but the principle is sound.  The powerful need to differentiate between us, to break us into smaller groups, in order to control us.

As Shelley said “Ye are many, they are few”. Don’t ever let them forget it.

Let’s (not) close all the libraries

A threatened library in Lincolnshire
A threatened library in Lincolnshire (Photo by Richard Croft)

Lincolnshire County Council has recently announced plans to cut its library service to the bare minimum required by law. This means that some 29 libraries will close, out of a total of 44. Now, I’ll be honest, and say that I don’t make a great deal of use of the branch library in my village, (although I do use Lincoln Central Library quite frequently). The reason I don’t use my village branch library is that it doesn’t have the resources I tend to use, and anyway it (mostly) only opens during the hours that I’m at work. I only mention this because the reason that is given for this wholesale closure is that the number of books being borrowed is falling. Indeed the council’s own consultation document argues that only one fifth of the county’s population is borrowing books from the library.

That is not a figure I dispute. What I do dispute are two things. First that the number of books borrowed is in any way an accurate measure of library use, and second that a service that is regularly used by one fifth of the population is in any way underused. First, let’s deal with what libraries actually do. Personally, even though I do use Lincoln Central Library quite regularly, I can not remember the last time I borrowed a book. I regularly call in to read publications such as the Spectator, the New Statesman the Times literary and education supplements, and a variety of special and local interest magazines. I would argue that this is a profoundly valuable service, (after all, politicians are always bleating that no-one is interested in politics, so you would think they would want to encourage people to read these things). I presume I am not the only person to use the library service in this way. I certainly see others leafing through these periodicals quite regularly (Usually when I want to read them, but never mind that for now). My point is that I, and presumably my fellow journal readers would not buy all these publications if the service were to disappear. Even if it were financially viable, I would not wish to fill my house with what would eventually become waste paper.

Of course, I don’t only go to the library to read free periodicals. I occasionally consult reference works (It may come as a shock to younger readers that not everything is on the Internet, and further that not everything on the Internet has been subjected to the quality control that a publisher would apply.), and sometimes, I pick up the leaflets about local services that are displayed in various racks, or left on the tables. I would argue that all this makes me a better informed citizen, aware of what is going on in my city and county. Yes, I use the Central Library, which is not under threat, but I am reasonably mobile, and I am not fool enough to imagine that circumstances might one day arise in my personal life that would severely restrict my mobility, and this why a network of branch libraries is so vital so that people out in the villages can tap into its services. Finally, if I may indulge in a personal reminiscence, and a brief virtual trip across the Pennines I am still grateful to Oldham’s excellent library service for the contribution it made to the development of my imagination and curiosity in my formative years. (It’s still excellent, in my view, and the new (ish) Central library and art gallery building is the first thing I’d direct a visitor to the town to see. Actually, it’s probably the only thing, but that’s another story.). I do not believe for one minute that any technological environment can replicate a child, even a pre-reader running from one book to another, and turning the pages to see what happens next. You just don’t see the same delight on their faces when they press the buttons on a Kindle. You certainly can’t measure it.

Which brings me to my second point. This claim that only one fifth of the population of Lincolnshire uses the library service. Even if we equate book borrowing with library use, which I think we can conclude is absurd, that is still pretty impressive. I suspect any other media in Lincolnshire would kill for that level of penetration. I read somewhere that Radio Lincolnshire is listened to by about 5% of the population, and I don’t know what the Lincolnshire Echo’s sales figures are, but the fact that it has gone from a daily to a weekly paper in the last year, suggests that it may not be enjoying the most robust of circulations. Further, the numbers argument can be applied anywhere. I personally am no longer related to any children of school age. I don’t know how many people are. Probably a minority of the population of Lincolnshire.. Shall we cut the schools then? Or perhaps school transport? As I go to work each morning I regularly see a fleet of buses shuttling through my village each ferrying what appears to be a single child to school. (Yes, I know they’re probably just starting their journeys and I’m exaggerating for effect, though not by much.)

To get back to the point though, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to the council that the reason people might not be using libraries (in the way that they can measure – as I demonstrate above, their benefits are not so easily measured as their costs), is that they’re not open at times when people might want to use them.

Actually, I’m sure it has occurred to them. I thought I’d finish with a second hand account from a colleague who was able to attend the Council’s executive committee when it met to discuss the closure plans. I quote

“It confirmed all my prejudices. If you can imagine a room full of puce-faced Tories, gleefully cutting everything for the sake of it, without any thought for the social consequences, then you pretty much have it. It was all ‘How soon can we cut this, or that? Isn’t this great?’”

Now I wasn’t there, and that’s a second hand account, and an admittedly partial one. But a careful reading of the consultation document really does lend credence to the idea that that is how it might well have been written.