Return of the Mac(book)

August 2017. That’s THE deadline. I’m putting it out there as further motivation to get.this.thesis.submitted. I’ve been quiet on the blogging, and working, front for the last 18 months or so due to welcoming my little buddy into the world. But I’m now back writing. The poor chap has already been dragged to supervision meetings. He’s not a fan of theory yet, but is quite happy to help me highlight journals:

J 1

Reading buddy

Having a substantial period of time away from the thesis has been good for perspective, both for seeing my work more clearly, and for appreciating a work/life balance. Also, with my buddy in nursery now for 3 days a week, it puts a different value on my time for writing. It’s tough balancing the sleepless nights, teething and weaning with trying to write a polished final draft, but it only goes to reinforce the realities of doing a PhD: you can’t put your life on hold. And seeing this face at the end of a day writing only makes me want the PhD even more to secure a good job and future for him.  Onwards…

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Two steps forward, one step back…

This is the continuous dance of the PhD and the writing process. There is nothing wrong with this gauche sequence. Some steps are slow and faltering; others resemble a fast quickstep. One step takes you sideways, another forces you back. Throw in a full twirl after the one step back, and there’s the feeling that everything is momentarily thrown off-balance. And then the music rightens you and you take another step. Although the band is there to support you and encourage your steps to follow one after another, this a solo number. One step after the other, what ever direction that may be.

Yesterday I witnessed the best dance sequence of the whole PhD process. Each step taken was calm, proud, determined. Each step was in one coherent direction: forward. Across a stage, in front of a friends, family and teachers. In front of a silenced band. Yesterday I was incredibly proud to watch the graduation dance of my colleague and officedog muse, Dr Maureen Michael, from the School of Education, University of Srirling. We started the PhD process at the same time and know each others weaknesses and strengths better than we do our own. It has been an absolute privilege to see such a close colleague successfully audition for the most important performance of her life. It has provided me with such beautiful proof that this awkward dancing is not in vain. I look forward greatly to following in her steps next year. One step after the other, forward.

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Congratulations Dr Mo! xx

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If the shoe fits…

We have a rule in our house. No recounting your sleep dreams to each other…

So last night I had this crazy dream, I was in Tokyo and I was carrying three talking chipmunks in my backpack, when…

Zippit, my loved one. Not on my time. This dream-event never happened and, in this current dimension, most likely never will. Therefore, this is a selfish monologue of which I want no part. Take it to Russell Grant.

However, for this blog I have decided to break with this rule just once (and for which I duly apologise, but I’ll make the ‘dream’ bit as short as possible).

A few nights ago, I dreamt I took into a shoe repair shop five pairs of patented, high-heeled shoes that needed re-heeling. The cobbler lined them up on the counter and asked,

“Ah, I see these are Latour shoes. Can’t you wear something that is more comfortable? These look very awkward to walk in”.

“No, no”, I replied, “I need to attend all these events this year and I must wear these Latour shoes to look the part. As you can see, they’ve taken a bit of a bashing as I’ve tried to break them in, but they’re getting more comfy.”

“Ok”, she replied, “that will be £55”

“£55!!”, I remember exclaiming – and this is when I realised I have been a student too long – “Do you do student discount?” and brandished my student card.

I got them dream-repaired for £46 – result!

So, this dream sequence stayed with me over the next few day and got me thinking about how we choose the terminologies we work with, or even as we try to shoe horn them in, when analysing and theorising our data. I won’t be the first to admit that learning about ANT has been like learning a whole new language where the wrong subject-object-verb configuration can reveal you as an ANT interloper. Each word has to be carefully picked up, held against the light, and inspected for its suitability and sense-making for an ANT-styled sentence. After all, the description in ANT is the analysis.

However, appropriating terminology adopted, or created, by fellow ANT authors is only affording me to make sense of my data to a point. I am struggling to find the right combination of words to fully express my analytical concepts. At my last supervision, it was suggested that I could start shaping my OWN terminology to help me conceptualise my data!! This is probably the biggest, scariest outcome of my PhD process so far. I now have a RESPONSIBILITY to add to a new language – a new way of describing – that needs to make sense of a very complex ontology. So, I am excited, but nervous, as I start playing around with new configurations of words, verb conjugations and meanings. ‘Playing’, I think, is the key notion here. I am allowing myself some time to play with the words and this can only help my thinking process as I cut, paste, delete, paste, cut, and delete some more. I am hoping in the next few months I can start replacing those dream high-heels with a few pairs of lovely comfy flip flops that won’t make my feet hurt so much….

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Employing a different tack: Employability as a Discourse

In the latter part of 2014, my colleague, Errol Rivera, attended a conference in Edinburgh that addressed the subject of university-to-work transitions. In this blog post, Errol raises the question about how ‘employability’ is increasingly being treated as a ‘discipline’ in its own right. He argues for an alternative narrative drawing on Foucault: one of ‘employability as a discourse’.

 

“In October, fellow educators gathered at a Society for Research into Higher Education event to discuss the state of graduate employability and share success stories of work placement and internships initiatives. In the concluding plenary, an interesting conversation arose. Regarding the subject of employability, its growing importance and the level of understanding it requires, are we looking at the rise of a new discipline?

The employability of HE graduates is an issue which impacts us on a national if not global level. Those within and outwith education institutions have an interest in tracking the current state of employment among graduates, identifying contributing factors, and articulating and projecting the effects of graduate employment statistics onto the social, political, and economic robustness of our society. The search to define, provide, and increase employability for our students has necessitated powerful tools for a deeper, more widely applicable understanding of the matter. But what are we actually trying to do with that understanding? Are we looking for significant relationships between practice and outcome? Do we assume there is a solution – that somewhere between the data and the relevant context we can reverse engineer a single policy or a combination of policies that can be enacted on a university or national level to bring about positive change? Are we chasing a single, all-encompassing answer that doesn’t exist – that shouldn’t exist?

Engaging with the notion of ‘employability as a discourse’ is a direct response to this ongoing conversation. What would we find if we employed the critical lens of Michel Foucault’s “The Order of Discourse” as a sensibility for interrogating publications, employability initiatives and university strategies – everything that articulates our understanding of how we ensure graduates’ futures? Given Foucault’s imperative for specificity and his resistance to the “process of exclusion” that is the notion of ‘Truth’, I’d imagine such an interrogation would lead us to acknowledge the success of work placement schemes, internships, and programmes of study that are contextual, dialogic, programme focussed, and even provisional. In embracing the culture of the respective practice of each profession, these initiatives are eschewing the notion that graduate employability maps onto to a single outcome. There is no single solution, and nor should educators be looking for one.”

Errol Rivera works at Edinburgh Napier University as a creative writer and pedagogical researcher. He also loves dogs and backs my on-going campaign for an office dog. You can follow his adventures @escottrivera.

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If we build them, will they come? The stickiness of Open Badges.

So I thought Twitter was just a phase… How wrong I was. It bewilders me: what makes one social media application ‘stick’ and another one wither away into an html graveyard? This was the concern for those attending a session on The Realities of Badging at the Opening Education Practices in Scotland Advisory Forum in October. Open Badges (OBs) are digital image files created by Mozilla Firefox and are being taken up by some educationalists as a tool for recognising and rewarding non-academic activities [think boy/girl scout badges for the digital generation]. These files contain metadata about what skills, qualities, and level of achievements the badge holder has attained, as well as information about who has issued the badge, and even its verification by a third party. The value in their portability and imagery emerges when students add them to their social media sites, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and WordPress, in order to showcase their employability

For OB’s to ‘stick’, a reciprocal affiliation needs to develop between HE and FE institutions and employers. With such few trials of OBs in existence in the UK, the qualities of this relationship are unclear. For universities, there is no point spending resources creating OBs unless employers agree to value OBs, understanding what they represent and what weighting they carry. Employers are reluctant to offer their unreserved support for OBs until they understand the purpose and currency of OBs through regular adoption and use by HE and FE institutions. A charity director at the session summed up this catch-22 situation with her somewhat rhetorical question, ‘if we build them, will they come?’.

In her blog post Evidencing Employability Skills with Open Badges, Grainne Hamilton, a former Jisc RSC Scotland employee, summed up three possible barriers to making OB’s ‘stick’ for employers:

  1. Employers want to immediately understand the value behind a badge. They don’t want to spend time clicking through to the detail of a badge unless they feel it will reveal something worthwhile

  2. Employers are concerned with badge apathy and are likely to be put off the concept of badges if they come across too many badges that are irrelevant to them in a given context

  3. It is probable that new trust networks will develop but initially it is likely badges from issuers employers already know and trust will be valued more.

Grainne’s blog post offers some solutions to these problems, including tagging, clustering and endorsing badges. However, for me, there is a larger issue that needs to be addressed around employability and the use of Open Badges: one of articulation. Wouldn’t handing out badges, albeit in shiny digital formats, simply reinforce the cognitive acquisition metaphor of ‘skills’ that can be ‘transferred’ from one place to another? As my colleagues in the Careers department argued when asked about OBs, the issue isn’t how we represent the skills attained – a certificate, digital badges or LinkedIn – it is how the student then articulates their understanding of this skill in relation to the workplace during an interview. The issue isn’t about how easily the employer can understand or recognise the significance of a LinkedIn endorsement or an Open Badge for Digital Learning, it is about how the student recognises and translates their non-academic experiences into professional responses about workplace practice. As educators, this is where our focus needs to be directed in order to better understand and enhance graduate employability.

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Opening up to OERs

In an attempt to demystify the practices surrounding Open Educational Resources (OER), Open University (OU) and the Scottish Funding Council have come together to launch the Opening Education Practices in Scotland (OEPS) Advisory Forum. I attended their first meeting last week at Edinburgh Training and Conference Venue to find out what it was all about.

Firstly, what are Open Educational Resources and Open Educational Practices?

OER

Our understanding of Open Educational Resources is grounded in established notions of openly licensed content. We have a specific focus on freedoms afforded by openly licensing content (allowing “The 5 Rs”: retain, reuse, revise, remix, redistribute) and the degree to which design development and distribution accounts for equity and openness.

OEP

We think of Open Educational Practices as those educational practices that are concerned with and promote equity and openness. Our understanding of ‘open’ builds on the freedoms associated with “the 5 Rs” of OER, promoting a broader sense of open, emphasising social justice, and developing practices that open up opportunities for those distanced from education.

OEPS project working definitions

The OEPS project has been set up to encourage the incorporation of OERs into daily teaching routines as well as to develop, share and inspire OE best practice in Scotland. OEPS aims to achieve this by developing a peer network and by creating an online hub. The project itself will run from 2014 to 2017 but aims for its outputs to be sustainable well beyond the life of the project.

The hub itself will be based on OpenLearn Works – an existing OU platform designed to share learning projects. They envisage the main users to be practitioners, providers and researchers while the majority of browsers to be informal, learners and students. The idea is that communities can exploit the resources and systems on OpenLearn to genuinely produce positive widening participation change. During the project, OEPS aims to turn OpenLearn into an online hub by:

–          Adding more content

–          Improving the search functionality

–          Giving clearer guidance on creating and uploading OERs

–          Creating alternative formats

–          Becoming mobile-friendly

–          Adding new support mechanisms

–          Becoming interoperable with other platforms

–          Creating a user profile so users can gather and curate profiles and make connections with other users.

I homed in on a couple of useful OER applications that an online hub could facilitate during the mornings’ discussions:

  1. Using OERs to shop courses. OU found that 31.5% informal learners use OERs to try out university-led courses before they sign up. With university fees as they are these days, you want to be sure the course is right for you so this seems an incredibly savvy and sensible use of OERs.
  2. Undertaking guerrilla research. OERs can be used to do research in a much shorter amount of time than conventional pathways by blogging about research ideas or using existing data. This is not an argument to replace traditional research, but to enhance it.

However, in his morning plenary speech – ‘The Battle for Open’ – Prof Martin Weller (Institute of Educational Technology, The Open University & ICDE Chair in OER) highlights that although OERs are no longer on the periphery of education and openness has, so-called, won the battle, it is the meaning of openness that is now up for grabs. In attempts to spread the philosophy of openness, we could in fact create closed resources where contracts and licenced software packages start to close down the opened spaces.

Weller

After lunch, the afternoon flowed into a series of workshops arranged to encourage discussions around current OER practices and initiatives, both in the workplace and in HE and FE. One workshop I found very timely for my own interest was on Open Badges. John Casey (City of Glasgow College) summarises the day’s discussions about the challenges facing Open Badges in his blog post ‘Taking Care of Business’: The Realities of Badging. My next blog post will look at these issues in more depth.

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Reflections on using a mixed methods approach in education research

I do wonder if I should doff my researcher cap more to statistics. Don’t get me wrong; I have an inherent prejudice of words over numbers when it comes to research. Yet a recent experience working on an education project at Edinburgh Napier University allowed me to realise the value that a statistical analysis can bring when using it alongside qualitative research – known as a mixed methods approach. Mixed methods is defined nicely by John Cresswell (2007) as:

a research design with philosophical assumptions as well as methods of inquiry. As a methodology, it involves philosophical assumptions that guide the direction of the collection and analysis of data and the mixture of qualitative and quantitative approaches in many phases in the research process. As a method, it focuses on collecting, analyzing, and mixing both quantitative and qualitative data in a single study or series of studies. Its central premise is that the use of quantitative and qualitative approaches in combination provides a better understanding of research problems than either approach alone. (p. 5)

Our small team was interested in investigating novel feedback initiatives for Higher Education students, and our research questions were very much led by our desire to understand what worked (I do wonder if I am a pragmatist at heart…). Our large sample size (710 students) meant it seemed almost rude not to invite statistical analysis into the research design. This, we felt, would help us see a pattern in our results – a trend – while interviews would allow us to probe into the ‘why’s’ behind these patterns.Whilst I and another qualitative researcher geared up the tape recorder for interviews and focus groups galore, the PI for the project flexed his statistical software in anticipation for some serious number crunching. Each of us were relieved the other was doing the ‘hard part’ of the research.

An in-depth explanation of this project and our rationale for choosing to work with a mixed methods approach can be found in our chapter in SAGE Research Methods Case “Mixed-Methods Research in Education: Exploring Students’ Response to a Focused Feedback Initiative“, but in this post I thought it would be useful to summarise some suggestions of what we, as individual researchers, learnt from working together in a mixed methods collaboration.

Working in a mixed methods research group can stimulate intellectual curiosity

It is unusual for a researcher to be ‘methodologically bilingual’: able to work equally comfortably with both quantitative and qualitative methods. Therefore, working on a research project with others who have strengths in different data collection techniques or analysis is a fantastic learning opportunity. For example, I managed to apply my statistical understanding that I had learnt in my MRes stats class to a real-world problem thanks to the PI’s love of explaining ANOVA tests.

Giving time to discuss your different viewpoints before you begin the research

As quantitative and qualitative methods can be argued to stem from different ontological and epistemological standpoints, it is important to discuss upfront how these will affect the study’s design. We made sure we were comfortable sharing our views because it led to a deeper and more equal understanding of each method’s strengths and weaknesses.

Considering publishing and funding opportunities before you start a mixed methods project

Some funders may be particularly keen to fund only quantitative or qualitative work, not a mix of the two. It is useful to be aware of any biases from particular research communities before applying for funding. Furthermore, writing up mixed methods projects for publications can be challenging as you have basically collected two different sets of data for one project and these need to be succinctly yet thoroughly represented within a strict word count. Therefore, it’s worth not only checking the word count required by different journals, but also making sure that the journal is ‘open’ to reviewing mixed methods research.

I would definitely work with mixed methods research again, but I still feel I’d need a statistical ‘expert’ to accompany me on the project. That in itself is a bonus as it’s much more fun working in a group than going solo (especially when the team exemplifies the Thesis Whisperer’s Circle of Niceness!).

References:

Cresswell, J. (2007). Understanding mixed methods research. In J. W. Creswell, & V. L. Plano Clark (Eds.), Designing and conducting mixed methods research (pp. pp. 1–19).Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

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