MeMyself&I

Archive for the ‘PhD’ Category

It’s been a while since I blogged, but I have decided to take it up again. This one is not about my PhD research, but my thoughts about research itself. Someone whom I’ve grown to admire and respect gave me a copy of her new book on grounded theory (Birks & Mills, 2011).  I cannot put it down, it is akin to reading a novel, which is highly unusual for a research text. It has demystified so much of the unknown for me on this particular research approach. The text is very accessible and written in a storytelling narrative – wonderful, inspiring! So much so that I have decided to answer the first set of questions posed in the text, which must be answered in 6 minutes. I was done in 5min and 45sec. Not bad, but it’s only the beginning – I have to come back to these questions, so I have to “file it carefully for another day”, as the authors suggest. And yes I will come back, already I have some things I wanted to add and refine for clarity.

How do we define our self?

By the way we think and act, which is governed by beliefs, and rooted in our culture, natural or adopted.

What is the nature of reality?

Something that we can make sense of, and gain a level of understanding.

What can be the relationship between researcher and participant?

Giver and receiver. One provides information – the other inquires and tries to make sense of whatever it is not yet known.

How do we know the world, or gain knowledge of it?

By experience, through social mediation.

The book: Birks, M. & Mills, J. (2011). Grounded theory: A practical guide. Sage Publications, London.

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A few months back my reflection on my PhD research project took me into a space where I started to explore in realistic terms about its contribution to knowledge, its usefulness for improving educational practice and my personal growth after completing the study.  I found holes of all sizes in my original proposed study, which left me with more questions than answers.

But it was a good thing… it was new learning, new reading, more consultations with a new group of critical friends. In this process, I found my place in education research, which according to my supervisors crosses boundaries between curriculum studies, sociology in education and ‘new educational psychology’ (whatever the latter means – I’ve never heard of it). They said the true focus is likely to emerge as I progress with the study.

One of my new critical friends asked me to write the problematic  in ‘plain’ English, which proved quite an arduous task but I pushed on. Several iterations later, I nervously presented the draft below, which he approved and later on so did my supervisors! I was happy… my motivation has been reinvigorated.

I guess this bit of framing shall remain in draft form until I’m done with the new literature review. As I read new materials, new angle emerges or I discover a new way of framing the questions. Such is the nature of conceptual framing I suppose… but here goes, inspired by the wisdom of Lee Shulman:

The educator in a profession is teaching someone to understand in order to act, to act in order to make a difference in the minds and lives of others– to act in order to serve others responsibly and with integrity.- Lee Shulman

Herein lies an extraordinarily complex but fascinating role of university teachers in educating competent graduates for their chosen professional careers and, equally important, for developing good citizens able to contribute to better societal good. But to what extent do university teachers appreciate such complexities?

My work as a curriculum designer has led me to believe that understanding the university teachers’ conceptions of ‘competence’, and their role in constructing curricula, is critical in understanding the productive preparation of students for professional practice. This was borne out of my interest in understanding how university teachers in different disciplinary fields make curriculum decisions. Using Basil Bernstein’s work on pedagogic practice, I hope to understand disciplinary ‘pedagogic discourse’ and its link to the teachers’ epistemological views.

It is my observation that the university teachers’ idea of competence may underpin their understanding of pedagogic discourse in their discipline, which then impacts on their role in the curriculum process. As such, the manner in which they conceive and enact the curriculum may have a link to the degree in which student abilities are cultivated and developed in higher education. By exploring how the teachers’ notions of competence are shaped, their identity, space and agency in the curriculum design and development process may provide insights into understanding what is being done and what needs to be done in improving professional education in the university setting.

Accordingly, the goal of my study is to understand the university teachers’ conceptions of competence and how this influences their thinking about the curriculum. Hence, the questions guiding this study are:

1) What do university teachers understand about the notion of competence?
2) What influences their understanding of competence in their discipline?
3) And how does it shape their curriculum decision-making?

The educational motivation of this research is to point the way to more effective educational practice by university teachers, to assist in developing the confidence and competence of students in preparation for professional practice and beyond. It is hoped that the exploration and analysis of the symbiotic relationship between university teachers’ conceptions of competence and curriculum thinking will increase understanding of factors that contribute to better educational outcomes in professional education.

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Twelve months into my doctoral candidature, I experienced an inner turmoil, uncertainties, self interrogation, critical reflection and finally elation for having eventually understood that there was indeed a bigger problem that needed addressing. This meta problematic will bear a critical part in my research agenda not only during my candidacy but also beyond. It now points me to the direction I can hopefully pursue, having recognised the narrowness of the conceptual frame I initially proposed. Yes, there is a bigger problem and deeper questions that at this point I cannot begin to imagine what likely answers I may uncover.

This new discovery has reinvigorated me, within which came a new goal for the project. Previously, if I were to be honest, my goal was to complete within my nominated timeframe… I knew what I was doing, my longitudinal design experiments more or less gave me the answers to the problem, therefore I can finish as scheduled. However, moving my candidature to The University of Newcastle had changed all these. My new supervisors asked me to 1) articulate where I see myself in 5 years time, i.e. what work would I be doing; 2) identify the place of my research in a specific field of education; and 3) explain what I will be contributing to knowledge. I now have answers to all these questions, which concurrently came about as a result of thinking in a larger frame about my thesis and reflecting on my true goal and aim for undertaking the project in the first place. I no longer care if I finish in 3, 5, or 8 years’ time because what I hope to discover is knowledge not yet known to anyone.

And so here I am with a re-framed thesis which is exciting and scary all at once. I like the analogy I used in one of my learning designs a few years back, that of being a tourist in a learning journey… a journey to the unknown, full of anticipation and excitement, and with it comes risks and maybe some disappointments along the way. I guess I need to practice what I preached… feel the fear but do it anyway!

I will share my re-framed thesis in my next post.

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I am reflecting on another recent success of my authentic learning research that has become a part of my being. I submitted a paper to HERDSA for the first time this year. My intention when I submitted was to get feedback on my work, I heard that HERDSA has a very good reputation for its rigorous review process.

And rigorous it was, the most informative feedback I’ve received by far. The only ever time I was asked to respond to every reviewer’s feedback and suggestions. I was required to document my reaction/response to each and every recommendation made by the reviewers. The learning for a relatively new researcher like me had been tremendous. There were many praises and encouragement as well included in the reviewers’ feedback, which was motivating for me and my co-researcher.

At the HERDSA Conference in Darwin, I was informed by folks from Sydney University that my research had influenced their presentation on role play, which was surprising to know. However, the biggest surprise came during the closing ceremony when my name was called to receive the best paper award for authentic learning. I couldn’t help but reflect on what the conclusion of my PhD thesis holds. I dream of contributing to knowledge to improve educational practice. With the two recent successes at conferences, I wonder if I am on track to make a difference.

Well, the PhD journey has just began, it is a while to go yet. It is good to know for now that interests in my research project continue to come my way. I have been invited again to present at another university on the same topic below. 

As I engage in my PhD work and get feedback from ‘critical friends’ I am seeing a slightly different path to how I’ve originally conceived how my thesis will unfold. The new title summarises or captures a more definitive focus for the thesis. This reframing was also heavily influenced by recent readings and updates to my literature review. The literature review is still in progress and it could change again, but I thought I should record my current thinking and see the complete evolution of my PhD journey 🙂

A special thank you to Tim Lever for capturing the essence of my original proposal better than I could, Tim suggested a more focused topic for my work. 

Research topic/title

Enculturation into discipline specific ways of thinking and acting whilst at university: Comparative evaluation of approaches in higher education to preparation for professional practice

Background
The educational issue that my research proposes to address is that traditional learning environments do not represent the values or practices of the profession for which educators intend to prepare students. In these types of environments students acquire abstract and decontextualised knowledge coming from teaching approaches that tend to separate “knowing” from “doing” (Brown, Collins & Duguid, 1989). In approaches where the interdependence of situation and cognition are ignored, the students do not perceive the knowledge acquired as being useful in solving real problems outside university, so what they develop is only “inert knowledge” (Collins, Brown & Newman, 1989). This is a type of knowledge that people can recall when prompted but cannot recall in problem solving situations (Bransford, et al, 1990; Cognition & Technology Group of Vanderbilt, 1990; Herrington & Oliver, 2000). Within the accounting domain, for example, researchers and practitioners both identify inert knowledge in graduate accountants, claiming that graduate accountants accumulate a storehouse of technical knowledge they cannot apply to solve real world problems (Catanach, et al., 2000, Freeman, 2008; Sundem, 1994).

Aims
In response to this educational dilemma, the central aim of my research is to propose, exemplify and test alternative approaches to learning and teaching in higher education that provide students bridges rather than gaps between learning at university and professional practice. Re-engineering the traditional learning environment, and developing and testing prototypes form part of this aim, in which the design of curricula integrates opportunities for students to perform authentic practices and activities that practitioners and experts engage in during real problem solving situations. 

Methodology
I envisage adopting an iterative empirical approach, which will be guided by an experimental framework known as ‘design-based research’ (Brown, 1992; Collins, 1992). Design-based research ‘blends empirical educational research with the theory-driven design of learning environments [thereby shaping] an important methodology for understanding how, when and why educational innovations work in practice’ (The Design-Based Research Collective, 2003, p.5). Consistent with the principles of design-based research, both quantitative and qualitative methods will be employed in the iterative cycle of design, implementation, analysis and modification. Ethnographic approaches will be used as it provides qualitative methods for looking carefully at how a design plays out in practice and how social and contextual variables interact with cognitive variables (Collins, Joseph & Bielaczyc, 2004). Additionally, the quantitative method of administering survey questionnaires provides a means for evaluating the effects of independent variables on the dependent variables (Collins, Joseph & Bielaczyc, 2004). The adoption of mixed methods is useful for the description of phenomena reflecting the complex issues that should be addressed (Brown 1992).

Expected outcomes
The conclusion of my PhD will deliver a greater understanding of how students build their knowledge in learning environments where preparation for professional practice is the explicit aim. It is also anticipated that the outcomes of my research will include practical guidelines for designing learning environments that facilitate better prepared students for their chosen professional careers.

Timetable
As this research will involve human participants approval for Ethics in Human Research will be sought by the end of Year 1. The study will proceed in three phases, as follows:

Phase 1: Development of framework – Year 1
This phase will involve a review of literature on educational innovations facilitated by previous research initiatives. The different educational approaches that have evolved will be contrasted, and I will identify the theoretical frameworks that align with the conventions of selected disciplines as case studies. The goal is to ‘specify the significant disciplinary ideas and forms of reasoning that constitute the prospective goals or endpoints for student learning’ (Cobb et al, 2003, p. 11).

Phase 2: Design and development of prototypes – First half of Year 2
Evaluation of the existing learning designs in use in selected discipline areas will be documented using both archived and classroom observation data. Evaluative comparisons will be drawn about features, strengths and weaknesses between the existing design in use and the intended design of prototypes. The curriculum design principles formulated in the previous phase will underpin the development of prototypes, within which intended learning outcomes, instructional materials, activity structures and assessment are central to the design. Because the focus of this study is on the design of a model of learning, the new learning design is reified in the learning environments. As Kelly (2004) observes, the exploration of research questions about learning are reified, explored, and tested by the design and use of the learning environment.

Phase 3: Implementation, data collection, analysis, and modification – Second half of Year 2
Multiple cycles of implementations and evaluations will be carried out in partnership with academic teachers at different campuses of a regional university. Both students’ and teachers’ perceptions of their physical and online “classroom” experiences will be investigated and, following the main tenets of design-based research, evaluation will be carried out using multiple strategies, e.g. online observations, recording of classroom episodes, survey questionnaire, individual interviews and focus group interviews.  

Within the different cycles of the implementation, the iteration process for analysis – prototypes modifications – evaluations will be documented in my thesis, and will focus on validating assumptions embodied in the prototypes, developing new ones, and finally refining and enhancing the different prototypes.

By Year 3 if not sooner, I will take leave of absence from work to take up full-time engagement in my PhD and complete the study. By the second half of Year 3 I envisage the writing and compilation of the thesis chapters will commence, which will include revisiting the literature review again along with methodological assumptions, following the lived experience of this research.

References 

Bransford, J.D., Sherwood, R.D., Hasselbring, T.S., Kinzer, C.K. & Williams, S.M. (1990). Anchored Instruction: Why we need it and how technology can help. In D. Nix & R. Spiro (Eds.), Cognition, education and multimedia: Exploring ideas in high technology, pp.115-141, Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Brown, A.L. (1992). Design experiments: Theoretical and methodological challenges in creating complex interventions in classroom settings. The Journal of the Instructional Sciences, 2(2), pp. 141-178.

Brown, J.S., Collins, A. & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning, Educational Researcher 18(1), pp.32-42.

Catanach, A.H., Croll, D.B. & Grinaker, R.L. (2000). Teaching Intermediate Financial Accounting Using a Business Activity Model, Issues in Accounting Education, 15(4), pp.583-603.

Cobb, P., diSessa, A., Lehrer, R., Schauble, L. (2003) Design Experiments in Educational Research, Educational Researcher, 32(1), pp. 9-13.

Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt (1990). Anchored instruction and its relationship to situated cognition, Educational Researcher, 19 (6), pp.2-10.

Collins, A. (1992). Towards a design science of education, In E Scanlon & T O’Shea (Eds), New directions in educational technology, Springer, Berlin.

Collins, A., Brown, J.S., & Newman, S.E. (1989). Cognitive apprenticeship: teaching the crafts of reading, writing and mathematics. In L.B. Resnick (Ed.), Knowing, learning, and instruction: essays in honor of Robert Glaser. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Collins, A., Joseph, D. & Bielaczyc, K. (2004). Design research: Theoretical and methodological issues. The Journal of the Instructional Sciences, 13(1), pp. 15-42.

Design-Based Research Collective (2003). Design-based research: An emerging paradigm for educational enquiry, Educational Researcher, (32)1, pp. 5–8.

Freeman, M., Hancock, P., Simpson, L., & Sykes, C. (2008). Business as usual: a collaborative and inclusive investigation of existing resources, strengths, gaps and challenges to be addressed for sustainability in teaching and learning in Australian university business faculties. ABDC Scoping Report, March, 1-54. 

Herrington, J., & Oliver, R. (2000). An instructional design framework for authentic learning environments. Educational Technology Research and Development, 48(3), 23-48.

Sundem, G.L. (1994) Scholarship in four dimensions, CA Magazine, 127(3), pp.39-44.

As I prepare for the first conference I am attending this year, I started to think why I need to go and what I will get out of it.  My reflection began when I came across this…

Source: "Piled Higher Deeper" by Jorge Cham http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=478

Source: "Piled Higher Deeper" by Jorge Cham http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=478

 I disagree. It is fun to attend a conference because for me learning is fun and that’s what happens when I go to a conference – I learn. The biggest benefit I gain from attending a conference is connecting with kindred spirits, folks whose work I admire and which inspires me. Conferences have a way of renewing the passion that brings like minded people together, and being part of that is a privilege that I truly value.  Attending a conference provides an opportunity to learn from experts, share ideas with others, and identify new knowledge and  techniques in my field of instructional design. I think it is quite a productive experience for a PhD candidate, given the knowledge explosion in the current information-rich era. It is a great way to keep abreast of emerging themes and technology.

But it is also hard work. My attendance will always be tied up with having an accepted paper. Throughout my PhD journey and beyond, my aim is to get my written work reviewed, as well as receive oral feedback during presentation.  I could then ‘network’ with folks doing similar research who are likely to extend my ideas. I think it is a win-win situation, and it is fun! But I’m sure that others will have opposing views about attending conferences instead of concentrating on thesis writing… well I say horses for courses!

I wonder if every PhD candidate feels the same way when they commence their PhD candidature… full of hope and aspirations, with ambitions that appear unreachable. How many actually get there and reach the top of their game? Or is it something like the one depicted below?

 

Source: http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1012

Source: "Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1012

 

Well right now, I do have ambitions, though I should say not at the Nobel Prize level. But I am also full of fear… fear of the unknown. I’ve embarked on what appears to be very much a solo journey but should it remain to be so? Perhaps it is because of how I am approaching my journey – somewhat closed – like putting a password to my blog on the framing of my PhD. Why did I do this, what was my fear exactly? That someone might adopt my ideas before I could secure a candidature? Perhaps. 

Dare I say I’ve had an epiphany… that despite my advocacy for social networking in this brave new world, I didn’t practice what I preached. I’m embarrassed to admit this but I’m glad that I came to the realisation sooner rather than later. How can I grow if my world remains closed, how can I reach my life ambition in a closed world? 

I need someone to share my journey, in fact I need the whole world in this journey… so I will use this space to share anything and everything I could to chronicle my PhD-related work, and anything in between.


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