#SOCRMx week 1

Throughout the MSc Digital Education (MScDE), I’ve been pushing against my own discomfort with sharing partially formed ideas. In the first course, An Introduction to Digital Environments for Learning (IDEL) this merely involved blogging to an audience of one (my personal tutor) and I think one post that was shared more widely within our cohort. Yet still, the very act writing and pressing ‘publish’ with relative frequency seemed far to concrete and final for what were ‘baby’ ideas – ideas that were still forming, still growing, still so ‘unready’ for any kind of scrutiny. I survived, however, and began to accept that ideas are always like this, perpetually changing, becoming more nuanced, and never complete.  It was possible, even, that the early scrutiny which had seemed so invasive might even be helping with idea formation, so with my next course (Digital Education in Global Context), I pushed back harder against the discomfort by participating in and at times leading a group blog, though it remained walled behind the HEI log-in. Later, in Education and Digital Culture, I went public. Initially, it was terrifying. That is, it was terrifying until I realised that I probably didn’t have an audience anyway, and that the nature of the ‘lifestream’ blog that we were doing was somewhat prohibitive in allowing anyone unfiltered access to our musings anyway, due to its (or.. my) often tangential engagement (that sounds like a bad thing: it wasn’t; rather, it is reflective of learning in ‘the age of abundant information’).

Here I am again, starting another course (Social Research Methods, now running through the MOOC #SOCRMX on the EdX platform but with slabs of work within the institutional VLE  on either side – a kind of ‘Moodle-MOOC sandwich’, if you like), and once again I’ve been asked to make my thinking public. One would think it would be easy by now – but I have to admit to still having apprehension. I’m very much at the beginning of the dissertation research adventure, and will most probably change direction completely at least 18 more times before settling on a topic. But if this course has taught me nothing, it’s that it’s okay to be tentative. One might even say that ‘finished’, ‘final’, and ‘error-free’ are print literacy values anyway, so here’s to throwing off the shackles with some very provisional thinking.

 

What kind of topics are you interested in researching?

I’m less interested in the ‘what works’ framing of research questions and more interested in trying to understand messy complexities (fortunately I’m not in search of funding;). I feel that without unpacking some of these complexities, it’s hard to see for what or for whom the ‘what works’ works. More specifically, I’m interested in doing research at the intersection between the field I work in, EAP, and the work I’ve been doing on MScDE, by exploring the relationship between ‘academic literacies’ and digital technologies. This area, of course, has so many potential directions, and my focus will need to be narrowed significantly.

 

What initial research questions might be starting to emerge for you?

At the moment my questions are not manageable and all a bit ‘woolly’. Possible questions may focus on:

  • the actual (digital) literacy practices of (particular group of) students on (particular) undergraduate assignments; and agential roles of technology within this
  • the relationship between these literacy practices and the (digital) literacies used by students in their social lives
  • student narratives about academic literacies
  • lecturers’ narratives: their perceptions of the ‘required’ (privileged) literacies, and their perceptions of the literacies students use

 

What are you interested in researching – people, groups, communities, documents, images, organisations?

I’m not sure I see these as entirely separate. Rather, I’m drawn to the notion of assemblage and Actor Network Theory, in which ‘the entities that we commonly work with in education – classrooms, teaching, students, knowledge generation, curriculum, policy, standardized testing, inequities, school reform – are in fact assemblies or gatherings of myriad things that order and govern educational practices’ (Fenwick & Edwards, 2012, p. xi). I’m interested in how academic writing practices are assembled. i.e. what they consist of, in terms of human/social and non-human/material elements. I like doing discourse analysis – but I don’t want to privilege the text over the practice of writing.

 

Do you have an initial ideas for the kinds of methods that might help you to gather useful knowledge in your area of interest?

Whilst the encouragement to ‘craft’ a research approach in this week’s (last week’s) #SOCRMx materials was welcomed, I’m also conscious of the traditions of academic literacies. AcLit principally uses an ethnographic methodology, ‘involving both observation of the practices surrounding the production of texts – rather than focusing solely on written texts – as well as participants’ perspectives on the texts and practices’ (Lillis & Scott, 2007). Breaking this down into methods, Heath and Street (2008, p. 29) suggest that literacy ethnography can include ‘surveys, formal interviews, focus groups, photography, and activity logs along with spatial maps, video recorders, or audio recorders’.

Because I’m interested in both social and material actors in digital writing practice, I was excited to recently come across methods suggested by Ibrar Bhatt and Roberto de Roock (2014) which aim to capture the ‘sociomateriality of literacy events’. Using ‘real-time screen recordings, with embedded video recordings of participants’ movements and vocalisations around the tasks during writing, the result is a multimodal rendition of digital literacy events on- and off-screen’. The analysis, in particular, seems complex – but I’m intrigued to learn more.

 

What initial questions do you have about those methods? What don’t you understand yet?

There’s still too much to list here..

 

Do you perceive any potential challenges in your initial ideas: either practical challenges, such as gaining access to the area you want to research, or the time it might take to gather data; or conceptual challenges; such as how the method you are interested in can produce ‘facts’, ‘truths’, or ‘valuable knowledge’ in your chosen area?

The challenges are plentiful – from

  • scale and scope being too large to
  • local receptiveness to the value of the ‘knowledge’ the study might produce, as historically a study skills approach to academic writing has been supported, and
  • access to the equipment to do the recordings if doing a multi-modal recording of students’ literacy practices, and the privacy concerns that might arise from this.

 

Looking forward to sharing research ideas with others over the next 8+ weeks, and convinced I’ll be more timely with the next post.


References

Bhatt, I., & de Roock, R. (2014). Capturing the sociomateriality of digital literacy events. Research in Learning Technology, 21. https://doi.org/10.3402/rlt.v21.21281

Fenwick, T. & Edwards, R. (2012). Researching Education Through Actor-Network Theory. Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell

Heath, S. B. & Street, B. V. (2008). On ethnography: approaches to language and literacy research. London: Routledge

Lillis, T. & Scott, M. (2007). Defining academic literacies research: issues of epistemology, ideology and strategy. Journal of Applied Linguistics and Professional Practice, 4(1). http://doi.org/10.1558/japl.v4i1.5

6 Responses

  1. James Lamb

    Hello Renée, it’s nice to be reading your work again. Thanks for laying out your different ideas here.

    I can relate to your sense of excitement (from reading Bhatt and de Roock) about approaches that strike a chord with your interests. I sometimes find reading through methods texts to a bit mechanical (as I search hopefully for a ‘best fit’ to match my developing ideas) whereas finding examples of specific studies can sometimes be really fruitful and energising.

    The possibility of taking an ethnographic approach would certainly seem to sit well with your interest in sociomateriality and also the study of digital literacy practices. I can see from your reference list that you’ve already got an idea of some of key voices in the field, however if I can add a further suggestion (from a subject and methodological perspective) it would to look at the work of Gourlay and Oliver who have used ethnographic approaches combined with a sociomaterial lens to study the digital literacy practices of students. Something I like about Gourlay and Oliver’s work is the way that they devise new research methods to specifically address their questions, for instance their recent work around longitudinal multimodal journaling which seems to resonate with some of your own interests. At the same time, I appreciate you might already have come across their work.

    Good luck with you continuing thinking, Renée: I’m going to follow your blog with interest.

    James (Lamb), Teaching Assistant

    • Renée

      Hi James, great to ‘see’ you again. I hear you on the sometimes mechanical nature of reading methods texts.. but the Gourlay & Oliver suggestion looks excellent – thank you. I’ve read (and enjoy) quite a bit of Gourlay’s work, but I’m less familiar with her work that’s specifically with Oliver [edit – a brief Google took me to their book, Student Engagement in the Digital University, and I wondered how I hadn’t noticed it previously (while getting excited); then I realised it hasn’t been released yet. I have come across their chapters in Goodfellow and Lea (2013) & Ryberg, Sinclair, Bayne & de Laat (2016), but I don’t think I’ve read the work with Lancos.]. I’m looking forward to following up on it at the weekend, with a specific focus on methods 🙂
      Renée

  2. Jeremy Knox

    Intriguing responses here Renée – sounds like there are some exciting avenues to explore here!

    I second James’s recommendations here too – thinking about ‘devising’ or ‘crafting’ methods seems appropriate where the underlying theoretical ideas challenge a lot of the assumptions that ‘established’ social science methods seem to adhere to (like ‘subject’ researchers and ‘objects’ of study, rather than, say co-constitutive relations between things). Tricky territory, but a worthwhile pursuit!

    ‘I feel that without unpacking some of these complexities, it’s hard to see for what or for whom the ‘what works’ works.’

    The ‘for whom’ is an important question isn’t it. Is there a universal human condition, and (therefore) a general process of learning common to all that can be examined, studied, discovered, approximated? It seems that if that assumption underpins one’s world view, the research approach adopted will be less concerned with specific contexts, and how they might affect ‘learning’.

    I suppose one question here might be, if we *can* ‘unpack the complexities’, will we eventually discover ‘what works’? Or is ‘what works’ not the right question to ask in the first place? In other words, when we are critical of something like an instrumental, quantitative approach to research that seeks generalisability (for example), I think it is useful to distinguish between critiquing the method (e.g. ‘it can’t unpack complexities’) and the underlying ‘world view’ that underpins it (e.g.’there actually isn’t an underlying “what works”, just complexity all the way down!).

    ‘exploring the relationship between ‘academic literacies’ and digital technologies’

    Sounds productive!

    ‘the actual (digital) literacy practices of (particular group of) students on (particular) undergraduate assignments; and agential roles of technology within this’

    I can see how sociomaterial approaches would be very useful here, and there would be some good literature (as you mention below) to support this.

    ‘I’m not sure I see these as entirely separate. Rather, I’m drawn to the notion of assemblage and Actor Network Theory, in which ‘the entities that we commonly work with in education – classrooms, teaching, students, knowledge generation, curriculum, policy, standardized testing, inequities, school reform – are in fact assemblies or gatherings of myriad things that order and govern educational practices’ (Fenwick & Edwards, 2012, p. xi)’

    Indeed, a good critical angle here to consider when exploring the methods presented in this course – how do methods, as presented, tend to assume distinct ‘sites’, spaces, objects, subjects. With this area of theory, I think it is important to push past simply the notion of ‘networks of connected things’ – sociomaterial theory is about more that this: co-constitutive networks and things, produced through relations, rather than having some kind of existence before or outside of them.

    ‘I like doing discourse analysis – but I don’t want to privilege the text over the practice of writing.’

    Interesting. And focusing exclusively on text seems to privilege the social over the material. However, it also depends on what counts as a ‘text’?

    ‘scale and scope being too large to’

    Indeed, and particularly where the methods are complex to enact (as perhaps in the Bhatt & de Roock 2014 you cite), small, bounded, situations can produce vast amounts of data, requiring significant time commitment. Worth thinking about!

    Some great ideas emerging here, and a thoughtful approach to possibilities. Look forward to seeing how this takes shape!

    • Renée

      As ever, this is challenging and thought-provoking feedback – thanks, Jeremy.
      There’s a lot to unpack, and some of it I guess is to mull over whilst I’m reading rather than a prompt to respond directly. However, I do take your point on “distinguish[ing] between critiquing the method (e.g. ‘it can’t unpack complexities’) and the underlying ‘world view’ that underpins it (e.g.’there actually isn’t an underlying “what works”, just complexity all the way down!)”. I need to be clearer on this and take care not to conflate methods with epistemology.
      No doubt there will be more from me on this later – I seem to be accumulating half written posts/replies whose thread of coherence unravels before I can complete them..
      Renée

  3. Noreen Dunnett

    Hi Renee I really enjoyed your post, particularly the bit about your feelings on blogging. You write very well but I know how you feel about public exposure of the thinking process – I set up a blog for my PhD research and I’ve only made three posts in 3 years!

    Your research sounds really interesting and very close to my own interests, both methodologically and in terms of the topic – I love doing discourse analysis and managed to do some in my Masters dissertation, within an action ethnographic approach. As James and Jeremy have very ably given you feedback about the theoretical aspects maybe I can help with the more practical aspects. The advice someone gave me when I was trying to choose my research area was to leave my ‘big’ idea – to do with games and narrative – to the PhD and go with my ‘doable’ idea which was about Twitter and learning. I was advised to focus as narrowly as possible so I started with my participants. They were the students on a part-time PGCE course at a local university, going out on school placement. After that I narrowed the ‘medium’ down to one Twitter hashtag #bgpgce . In conjunction with the course tutor we introduced the Twitter hashtag to the students as a way to communicate, discuss and keep in contact with each other on placement and to build up a network of academic contacts. I kept a record of all the tweets on the hash tag over a three month period.

    Your first bullet point in the research question section seems to be doing that:

    “the actual (digital) literacy practices of (particular group of) students on (particular) undergraduate assignments; and agential roles of technology within this”

    The other tip is to choose a group of people and a medium that you have easy access to in terms of collecting data. It makes life so much easier. I made a big mistake with my initial set of participants for my PhD and access was a nightmare, to the point that I considered giving up the whole thing!

    Do you have particular technological means which you are interested in investigating ie like Twitter or are you interested to see ‘which’ technologies the students use in the course of an assignment?

    If you were looking at academic’s digital literacy practices would you be focussing on their publication, websites or profiles or their teaching practices?

    The student literacy narratives sounds interesting too – I’m really interested in this aspect. What would you be hoping to find out from their narratives exactly? How they develop their digital learning practices?

    Happy to discuss any of this further if you wanted.

    • Renée

      Hi Noreen

      It’ s great to know someone feels the same vulnerability in going ‘public’!

      Thanks so much for your excellent feedback. The passing on of advice about going with the ‘doable’ option – and explanation of what that really meant (‘one where the data collection is fairly straightforward and can be achieved in about three months’) – really gave me perspective. The timeline for the dissertation is something I’m still very vague about (e.g. how long for literature review; to recruit participants, write up findings, etc.). The timelines from the sample proposals we’ve been given (in Moodle) are helpful, with a range from beginning to end of 4 months to 1 year, it can be difficult to see what would fit with one’s own life. On top of that, there are also considerations driven by university policy/submission requirements for graduation (submission by 13 August 2018 for November 2018 graduation/November 2019 graduation if we submit after this).

      Your point about ensuring participants are easily accessible (and about narrowing the selection to a particular group and location) is also really valuable. I would really like to work with the students from my own institution, but despite their physical proximity, there may be difficulties in getting institutional research approval. I need to investigate this further, and have alternatives if it isn’t going to be possible.

      “Do you have particular technological means which you are interested in investigating ie like Twitter or are you interested to see ‘which’ technologies the students use in the course of an assignment?”

      I’m interested in which technologies, and how specifically how they’re used (i.e. not just which technologies, but how these technologies manipulate/are manipulated in/co-determine literacy events), and also about the impact of device choice on literacy practices. Quite a few students work primarily from their mobile phones on campus, and I’m interested to know the effect of this.
      ”If you were looking at academic’s digital literacy practices would you be focussing on their publication, websites or profiles or their teaching practices?”
      The latter – specifically which literacy practices they privilege, and require of students, and the narratives they enter into around student writing. I suspect approaches used are largely normative rather than transformative (described by Lea (2016) as ‘including explorations of what can be written and how, where these conventions come from and in what ways they are legitimised’). I see your point about being less able to take a sociomaterial approach with this…

      “What would you be hoping to find out from their narratives [around academic literacies] exactly? How they develop their digital learning practices?”
      How they develop their practices, but also how they engage with digital technologies* and what their strategies are for negotiating resources** (and if there are differences across programmes), what their understanding of their own practices is, whether they have critical awareness of the role/influence of the technologies they use (this could be simple, like acknowledging difficulties, or differences in the way they use texts based on how they access them), how/if there are spatial influences on digital practices. I understand that all this is too much for a masters dissertation – & narrowing of focus is required.

      Thanks again for your comment – I do need to be directed to thoughts of the practicalities. Your research into games and narratives also sounds very interesting. I’d love to hear more (though clearly not through your blog 😉

      Renée

      *looking at the different kinds of connections and associations among things, the networks that are created and the ends that are served by the created networks (i.e. the types of questions Fenwick & Richards (2011) suggest that ANT can help us to ask).
      **access, evaluation, utilisation, and the role of technologies in these negotiations

      Fenwick, T. & Richards, E. (2011). Introduction: Reclaiming and Renewing Actor Network Theory for Educational Research. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 43(1), 1-14.
      Lea, M.R. (2016). Academic literacies: looking back in order to look forward. Critical Studies in Teaching and Learning (CriSTaL),4(2), 88-101.