Mitchell Peters: research stay reflections

21 Dec 2018
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Mitchell Peters, Open University of Catalonia (Barecelona)

Research Stay Purpose

Reaching the end of a 3 month research stay at the CRDE is a fitting moment to reflect on how the stay has informed my work, including key research findings, implications and emerging questions.  My intention in coming to Edinburgh was to experience in situ another academic reality, build a professional network and participate in a community of practice of researchers in the field of digital education.  My goal was to take advantage of the training and collaboration opportunities available through workshops, reading groups, seminars and meetings.  A clear objective was to come to the CRDE after completing a 5 month data collection phase ending in July 2018 as an opportunity to begin data analysis and report writing within a different academic context.  As such, seeking out informal guidance and feedback, while having the opportunity to present my work and gain valuable insight from peers and experts was a clear goal.

One of the principle benefits of a research stay is interacting with a different academic community and reality beyond your own institution, getting to know the valued disciplinary (or interdisciplinary) practices and perspectives that is unique to each context.  Of course, there is much insight that can be gained by analyzing the outward facing online communication and digital presence of the M.Sc. program in DE.  The program structure, teaching methodology, course learning outcomes and assessment approach are fully transparent through the digital footprint of the program.  Likewise, individual faculty members who constitute the program team are also highly visible online; their research outputs, their twitter feeds, blogs, and other digital activities can give a sense of the identity and DNA of the masters program.  Similarly, a  variety of student learning artefacts are visible through open blogs, twitter feeds, MOOC’s, and other open sites.  That being said, and this might be a central tension of purely digital/distance research, might there be some limitations in ‘understanding’ and ‘knowing’ a program context and phenomenon at a distance?  In this sense, Lave and Wegner's seminal work on situated learning and community of practice has certainly rung true for me over the last several months.  Informal chats while preparing tea, casual lunches in the lounge, and more formal meetings and research seminars have all given me a more in-depth and situated perspective of the program and the team members that shape and influence the design and underlying structures, assumptions and practices.  In this sense, my stay here has given me ‘rich’ contextual knowledge that can then inform my data interpretation, implications and report writing.

Research Focus and Initial Results

In short, my current doctoral research focuses on examining student experiences of learning in higher education through a multi-site and multi-case study.  Professional graduate programs at the intersection of education and digital technologies have been selected at the Open University of Catalonia, Spain, the University of Edinburgh, U.K. and the University of Illinois Urbana Champagne, U.S.A. as the research settings.  The general aim is to understand the complex relations and interplay between the academic and disciplinary practices developed in formal university scenarios and the everyday informal and professional practices that happen outside of the classroom.  As such, my work is interested in understanding how students engage learning across a continuum of contexts—from formal to informal—as they develop valued academic practices and perspectives in the field of digital education.   In particular, I am interested in understanding the strategies students use to generate opportunities for learning across a continuum of contexts and practices in digital environments to support formal academic learning.  I also aim to understand how students conceive of their learning engagement across these contexts and practices (i.e. what outcome or impact might this engagement have on their current practice or future professional practice?).

As my study focused on the M.Sc. in Digital Education as one of three case sites, my goal was to interact with professors directly linked with this program.  Discussions with the M.Sc. program team focused on my research objectives and initial results.  In our conversations, I hoped to gain insight into their experiences of student learning in the program, including assumptions they have about student trajectories and capabilities, the struggles or challenges they face in the program, how students engage academic practice with professional practice and what learning support might students need that is not already being provided.  I was able to meet with most lecturers and professors teaching in the masters and had inspiring and productive conversations about their views of student learning across contexts.  In some cases, there was a great deal of resonance in the approaches to researching student learning across formal and informal contexts evidenced through digital and mobile technology, for example in the work of Dr. Michael Gallagher (found here).  Likewise, it was helpful to understand how lecturers negotiate and design reflective practice and critical engagement between academic work and the professional contexts of their students.  These conversations helped me understand the rich and situated knowledge that structures the setting, intentions and circumstances of the M.Sc. in D.E.

Much of my time at the Centre was spent analyzing mostly qualitative case-study data collected across 3 sites from 13 student participants (4 from U of E).  An initial thematic analysis of the program structure and course requirements led to the development of an interview and observation protocol underpinned by a lifelong learning ecologies perspective.  Two distinct phases of interviews examined the intentions for learning online, past trajectories and student approaches to learning through learning accounts of a typical ‘work’ week that may be considered a “vignette” approach.  Online observations followed the initial interview to find patterns of practice and behaviour in observation of a limited range of open sites such as twitter, linkedin, and personal websites or blogs.  The second interview was designed to corroborate thematic results from the first interview and online observations, as well as pose follow up questions. After initial open coding, a thematic network analysis (Attride-Stirling, 2001) was completed attempting to systematize the extraction of lowest order premises evident in the text (basic themes), to categories of basic themes grouped together to form ‘organizing themes’, in order to construct superordinate themes that encapsulate the principle meanings and richness of the data into ‘global themes’.

A parallel objective of my stay in Edinburgh was in completing a journal article for the British Journal of Educational Technology entitled “The Contribution of Lifelong Learning Ecologies in Online Higher Education: Students’ Engagement in the Continuum Between Formal and Informal Learning”.  In response to the research objectives, three salient themes emerged,  including; i. learning strategies in developing valued academic practices; ii. engagement patterns in the continuum between academic practice and professional practice; and iii. student conceptions of learning engagement across a continuum of trajectories, contexts and practices.  The implications of these findings point to, from a lifelong learning ecologies perspective, the importance of recognizing the varied and diverse trajectories and digital competencies and practices of students as they engage in the program, and in particular what struggles or challenges they may have as they participate and develop core academic skills such as information literacy, knowledge management and critical engagement with conceptual and theoretical frameworks, as well as in time management, planning and (research) organization skills.   As evidenced from initial results, as students develop digital learning strategies, that is, as they translate course tasks designed by the instructor into required learning outcomes through sustained activity (engaging with resources/artefacts and peer support) they develop academic and disciplinary practices and perspectives valued by the program.   Initial results likewise indicate that students conceive of these developing disciplinary practices transforming into professional practices, and indeed impacting professional trajectories into the future.   

Influence of CRDE & Emerging Questions

As online higher education moves from the margins to the mainstream, programs such as the M.Sc in D.E. will only continue to emerge as training solutions for professionals across diversified fields and backgrounds.  We will therefore see wider and varied ways that professionals are instructed in a particular discipline to build their understanding of emerging professions at the intersection of digital technology and education, training and development.  Recently, the work of Schulman (2006) who wrote about signature pedagogies in the professions, has inspired my thinking about how different programs prepare professionals for work in education in and with the digital.  This begs the question of how graduate programs in digital education, learning design and new technologies, or E-learning (or any variety of name in this fast moving field) are preparing future practitioners for their varied and diversified professions.  Schulman noted three dimensions of instructional strategies for signature pedagogies; i. a surface structure that involves the operational elements of teaching and learning, how the curriculum/courses are organized and how teaching is done within a particular discipline; ii. a deep structure that delves into the assumptions educators make about how knowledge is best learned and how a developing practitioner learns to think like a professional; and iii. an implicit structure that deals with the moral aspects of teaching and learning in a given discipline, including beliefs, values and attitudes.  I mention these dimensions because, irregardless of whether we agree that digital education should be considered a signature pedagogy (that is a whole other debate), I contend that this structural framework is a productive way to frame how a program with such characteristics operates, particularly the deeper dimensions that shape the assumptions and moral aspects educators  and professionals consider within a discipline.

In this line of thinking, my experience working at the Centre for Research in Digital Education has given me rich insight into the deep and implicit structures of the program.  This in turn has helped me understand how students are encouraged to think and act in the field of digital education, and how valued (inter)disciplinary practices and perspective may converge or diverge across the broader field of education and digital technology.  The interdisciplinary approach of the teaching team in Edinburgh is a distinguishing feature of the program, shaping how students critically engage in the field of digital education.  Influences such as critical post-humanism, postdigital education and science, mobilities theory, digital geographies, digital cultural heritage and multimodal assessment, among others, have underpinned the deep and implicit structures of the CRDE and MSc. in DE.  In turn, these structures have also helped me think about how students are engaging in their studies across contexts and practices, and how differences and similarities across case sites and across students are impacted by these influences.

Timeline and Activities for Completing Doctoral Work

As a full time doctoral student in my final (third) year of study, I am aiming to submit my thesis by the summer of 2019.  With data collection completed, I am now in the final phases of the research design.  The next step will include interpretation and integration of the qualitative (interviews, observation, program documentation) and the quantitative (survey) data analysis. The final phases of data interpretation and methods integration as well as report writing and assessing implications of the results will unfold from January to June 2019.  In this time, I also hope to disseminate initial results and implications through academic conferences as well as journal publishing opportunities.  Similarly, I would like to continue to engage with the two programs I have worked with throughout the study (U of E and UIUC) in order to share and disseminate relevant research outputs where appropriate (webinars, etc.).  The future of online higher education will continue to be a fast paced and rapidly evolving field, and I would like to continue to research and prepare professionals who are making sense of the potentialities and opportunities for personal and professional development through lifelong learning.