Category Archives: My Research Journal

Step by step my journey to become a researcher

Reaching out to rural Africa

This is a repost from ALT’s blog, for whom we (John, Dominic, and me) wrote this to give context to the webinar we gave with the support of the fab @A_L_T team

This post describes three perspectives on a workshop that took place in Kenya in June of this year. The participants were emerging researchers from computing, education and agriculture faculties and from Kenyan and British universities, and they were funded and supported by the British Council Researcher Links programme. The potential learners rural communities in East Africa but specifically the community of Kinangop in the central highlands of Kenya, more details of this community will be given in the next section. The focus of the workshop was the exploration of innovative and appropriate social science methodologies and this perhaps needs some explaining, in terms of a learning technology audience.

The Background to the Workshop

John Traxler @johntraxler

We believed that it should be possible to develop learning technology systems and support for rural African communities but only if it is possible to engage with these communities in an authentic and ethical manner to understand their livelihoods, aspirations, environmental challenges, experiences and expectations. The research techniques currently available, interviews, focus groups or surveys for example, were inappropriate and inadequate in their conventional forms and so we set about trying to understand the  context and devise or adapt alternatives.

The workshop built on previous projects and pilots in Kenya, for example the SEMA, an acronym that also means ’shout out in swahili, project that incorporate sophisticated SMS functionality into a in-service distance learning initiative for 200,000 primary teachers. The group also had some preliminary reading including Richard Heeks’ depiction of ICT4D2.0, moving towards meaningfully participative ICT4D from top-down, North-down ICT4D, and Büscher’s exposition of a ‘mobile empirical’ paradigm, and had submitted position papers each outlining their perspectives and objectives.

The programme, in outline, for the four days was a day for input from various national experts, for example educational NGOs and IT start-ups, to give some background, then a day of input, adaptation and preparation based around some candidate methods, a day in the field in Kinangop with community members trying out our adaptations and finally a day reflecting on our experiences.

The proposed methods included rich pictures, in order to explore conflicts and competition within the community, card sorts, in order to elucidate mental constructs using pictures but without making prior assumptions, digital storytelling, as a different angle on community lives, and SMS, exploiting the universality of 2G coverage to access data and opinions, and provide information. These were the candidates. Perhaps understandably this preliminary foray yielded variable direct results but exposed a host of unexpected ideas to pursue.

The groups are now drafting and reviewing a set of papers and would welcome reactions, contributions and ideas.

The Background to the Fieldwork: Friends of Kinangop

Dominic Kimani (Conservation Coordinator of FoKP)

The Friends of Kinangop Plateau (FoKP) for biodiversity conservation was founded in 1996 and has evolved since then. It is a Community Based Organization (CBO) with 800 members in Central Kenya, Nyandarua County. FoKP is firmly committed to biodiversity conservation through sustainable environmental and nature-based enterprises as alternative livelihood, as its mission states. It delivers its mandate through strategic partnership with stakeholders such as Kinja Mkungi Water Users Association, Kiburu Community forest Association, Urumwe Mkungi Self-help Group, National Museums of Kenya, and County Government of Nyandarua among others.

The main conservation challenge is the change of land use from the traditional livestock farming, which was compatible with grassland retention to cash crops and food crops. Information sharing for the best farming practices is lacking due to uncoordinated avenues through which the farmers access such information. FoKP work with local people from the beginning, they are the best guardian of natural resources, harbour traditional management systems that are still relevant, they understand their areas of occupation, their wealth of indigenous knowledge, touches on species and people and some have home-made solutions to their problems.

FoKP is involved in various activities like woolspining and weaving, beekeeping, indigenous forest restoration, clean water, sanitation and protection of water sources, environmental education, adult basic education, and sustainable agriculture to mention but a few. It also has spearheaded many conservation and livelihood projects. The CBO is capable of bringing together like-minded people in designing best communication and integrating sustainable project that would bridge the gap between the experts (scholars) and the user groups to achieve sustainable development. Members are always ready for partnership in developing  tools that work best for various problems that affect their livelihoods and environment.

How did the workshop go, what did we learn from it, what would we change?

Caroline Kuhn (PhD candidate, one of the emergent scholars)

The experience of the workshop was hugely enriching and eye opening. In preparation for the workshop we had to do some homework that already gave me insights into an unexplored paradigm, namely the mobility paradigm and the different methods that can be used to explore the unfolding and moving social reality of communities. We had to come up with a tentative research question. I was interested in exploring what I needed to know about the community so that together we could co-produce whatever was needed to improve their livelihoods. I was and am very interested in not asking question but hearing the voices of people. Among the different methods that we learned on the second day, I decided to try out the ‘walking with’ method, which allows to have a ‘mutually useful conversation’ with a member of the community while walking through a particular place. The features of the place, the people you cross with, the shops, the houses and schools you encounter elicit different themes in the conversation that do explain elements of the context, allowing the interviewer to get acquainted with contextual aspects of their life that would not pop up in a formal interview in some clinical location exempt from noise and other ‘distractions’.

The afternoon was incredible in preparation for the field work, learning from each other’s experience!

We prepared our protocol and we had our tentative ‘plan’ for Wednesday.  Wednesday very early we went to Kinangop, an app. 120 km trip [1] from Nairobi that offered me the opportunity to understand more of the rural life in Kenya. We had a warm and very generous welcome with tea and homemade biscuits. We introduced ourselves and we split into groups to start our field work. Anne and I connected with a young woman that was keen to share her experience of being a non-married and academically educated women in that community, a ‘strange species’ as she would call herself. We sat and we walked. We talked and we shared. The conversation was rich while sitting but it got richer once we started to walk. As the theory suggests, moving around the local context offers insights into many daily aspects of the community life. The conversation flows with the movement. It is powerful!

What did I learn? The method is powerful, but it requires some experience so that the conversation can be conducive to theorisation, with that I mean theorising in the Freirean sense. That is, looking critically into the reality and in that process, allowing for reflective moments that can lead to realising where is, if at all,  the change needed. This I realised in the process of writing my paper and discussing my data with a friend. Another important aspect we all realised while debriefing the field work on Thursday, is the need to access members of the broader community and not only the representatives of the different interests groups. As a first approach it is very helpful but it is far away from the real and messy picture. In my case, it is vital to talk to women that are farmers, mothers, wives and individuals, that struggle to live their daily lives and are constraint and/or enabled by the social setting they operate in. How is their reality, what are their struggles, what do they need to be more agents of their lives? The social structures need also to be scrutinised and look at how they are shaping women’s agency in their daily life. Much work is still to be done! Exciting times ahead 🙂

And I had the faboulous chance to meet again with my @GOGN_OER colleague @judyphalet

More about the authors

Dominic Kimani: A conservation Coordinator of Friends of Kinangop Plateau and Research scientist at National Museums of Kenya. He is interested in Biodiversity Conservation, citizen science and local community livelihood support.

John Traxler is Professor of Digital Learning in the Institute of Education at the University of Wolverhampton. He is particularly interested in the potential and the problems of using appropriate and innovative digital technologies to support and encourage learning amongst marginal and neglected communities, for example refugees and rural communities, and has worked on various projects in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East

Cape Town with #go_gn + OEGlobal. Fantastic!


I am part of a wonderful network, the @GOER_GN, a global network of PhD students that are researching in open education in general. Everyone has a slightly different focus, but all of us are interested in using OPEN as a tool to social justice and inclusion. The #go_gn (how the gang is called) organises once a year a gather together, an intensive seminar for 3 days. There, all of us have a chance to present our research for 20 min, and we get 10 min for comments and feedback from the gang. That is a luxury I have to say! So many bright scholars around me focusing on what I am doing and thinking how to shed light in the not so clear spots.

I had good feedback on my work, basically two things: I can’t solve the world with my PhD, that is for later, so I need to pick up ONE strand and go deep into it. As my beautiful friend @catherinecronin says, go in and go out!  (advice she, in turn, got from one of her committee’s members). Second, I need to differentiate between doing research, as objective as possible, finding out things from the data, discovering the problem and barriers to students’ digital practice, and another is to solve those problems. And I agree, I have a tendency to be pragmatic, well, I am pragmatic! But when one is doing research, the real need is to do the research, to flesh that little bit of the world we are worried about.

Here is the feedback and a succinct account of my work in words of @phillospher1978 aka Rob Farrow, who was taking notes during the sessions.

Caroline’s research centres on personal learning spaces as an alternative for institutional students.  Her project has had to evolve somewhat since she started.  She has been working with undergraduates to explore their personal learning environments.  Similar themes were also raised at a ‘student voice’ conference at Bath Spa.  Guided by Selwyn, Caroline is looking at actual practices and analysing them in terms of openness. Several theoretical frameworks are currently under consideration, including Schatzki (2006) and Kemmis et al (2010).  The aim of education is taken to be flourishing (Wright, 2010).  

A constructive grounded theory approach (Charmaz, 2014) explored assumptions about ‘digital natives’ and provides a richer description of actual student learning ‘spaces’ and the extent to which these are ‘open’ or ‘closed’.  Interesting things arising from the data include the idea that students are overwhelmed by the sheer amount of material available online; students are also concerned about their grades and this can impede experimentation.  There is no shared understanding of digital literacies, but Google is so commonplace as to not even be thought of as a tool.  Many students are intimidated by technology with which they are unfamiliar.   This work has led her to the idea that an explorative mindset needs to be cultivated and encouraged.  


  • Similar themes emerging in the work of others in the grou
  • Need to distinguish the research elements and the attempt to be pragmatic and improve student learning
  • How to deal with students who are risk-averse?
  • Maybe a need to narrow down the study and be less tempted to follow every idea or theoretical lead.  Clear research questions may help.

One thing that has become clearer to me is the danger to be an advocate of our own research. Doing research should not be done to re-confirm what one is advocating for. Instead, it should be the outcome of the study. I attended the talk that Cheryl Hodgkinson-Williams gave at OEGLobal. She was telling us about the new project they are undertaking within a bigger project she leads, ROER4D. The project is studying the impact of OEP in the world. This new project is a meta-analysis (synthesis she also called it), that will analyse and unpack the causes of change in the different countries that are taking part of the project. She said it is not the role of the researcher to advocate but to understand what are the barriers and then find ways to overcome those barriers. And that is where my research will aim to go, to identify the barriers students encounter in their daily academic digital practice. This will be accomplished exploring the state-of-the-actual of students’ academic practice, scrutinising the present and not the potential, staying grounded in the reality, in the daily entanglements of students when engaging with the Web for academic purposes. 

In the conference, I presented my work but in a slightly different manner than I had planned. The reason for this? We had the gala dinner the night before and it was the first talk the last day!! It needed to be dynamic and challenging in some way. So I did a sort of flipped talked. I was willing to explore what the audience thought about the data I have collected. To do this I gave each group (3 groups of ± 6 participants). Luckily enough 2 members of the #go_gn were in the groups which allowed me to have a more detail view of what was discussed in each group.

In this Padlet wall you can see what each group thought was the data about. The stories are short but I am working with some participants to get more details and have a more detailed version of what was discussed in each table. This work has resulted in amazing and unexpected answers!

Overall the experience in Cape Town was one of the best I have had so far and I have assisted to many of them as part of my development as a researcher. I am really grateful for the generosity not only of the organiser, the GOER_GN but also of all the participants that made the work so joyful and intellectually productive. And some dancing did also happen there 🙂


The power of narrative research in #OER17

Last week the yearly OER conference took place in London. The title, the Politics of Open, and the themes can give a sense of the depth and breadth of the event.  A great experience where different scholars from around the Globe, and this is really AROUND THE GLOBE, we had people from South Africa, Chile, USA, Egypt, Europe, UK, Colombia, and maybe more, gathered together to share their thoughts, findings and new ideas about different elements of the politics of open education. If you want to have an idea of all what was happening during and after take a look at the blog post roundup #OER17

Much of the conversation in OER17 was about care (The refugee situation in Europe demands attention), inclusion (The MOONLITE project), social justice (Critical pragmatism and critical advocacy) and in general, the bigger conversation was about the need to be critical when researching about open. In his talkOpenness and Ethics: a provocation, Rob Farrow said something very relevant

As ‘open’ is becoming mainstream, more radical aspirations of the open movement are becoming secondary!

This cannot be allowed, radical aspirations need to be kept alive and the conference was a place to make this possible!

The experience was not only intellectually challenging but also emotionally moving. I felt immersed in a space of care and social justice, of women wanting to make a difference with their discourses and actions, of art wanting to find its place in open education, of open projects like Wikipedia wanting, among other things, to bridge the gender gap… A special place, for sure! And it is in that special place where we, Catherine Cronin and Caroline Kuhn, gave a workshop to stress the power of narrative research and storytelling to uncover the nuances of students’ digital practices and daily entanglements with digital technologies as well as the struggles and negotiation practitioners face when thinking about the open as a way to embrace their teaching practice. There is an inner story for this workshop and I (Caroline) want to share it with you. Catherine and I, are without planning it, doing a very similar research –not only regarding the topic we are exploring but also how we are exploring it. We are interested in the idea of understanding, through exploration, the daily experience of individuals (practitioners, in the case of Catherine and students in my case) with open practice and digital practice, respectively. Both are using constructive grounded theory (Charmaz, 2006). This mutual interest is in students and practitioner’s experiences and meaning-making.

The aim of our workshop was twofold: challenging participant’s beliefs about young people being ‘digital natives’ and not-so-young people being digital immigrants. This idea of youth being digitally fluent and versed in the digital world is a limitation when it comes to HEI policy and other initiatives to educate students digitally.  In this part of the workshop, we shared part of our data with asked participants to create a tentative profile for that group. We used a Padlet wall (link) so that participants could write and share their stories. Then participants related those stories to their own experiences, both professional and personal, recognising themselves in some of the data they worked with. The workshop ended with a rich discussion about participants’ own experience.

It is rewarding to read what participants thought and felt after the workshop; all the work is worth this! Thank you to all who participated, assisted and made the workshop possible


Open from different perspective: OEP as boundary crossing and OEP as open educational practice

Just assisted to a webinar with @weller and @AlgersAnne, from the University of Gothenburg.

Both speakers focused on OEP and OER, but from very different perspectives. Martin Weller a Professor of Educational Technology at the Open University  (UK) tackled the issue of open more from a pedagogical standpoint, what does it mean for academics to be open and how they have to face many different challenges in the open. He also mentioned that in times of Trump and Brexit it is important to reflect critically.

Martin Weller also talked about the American view on open which is much more focused on OpenText, it is more about costs, the motivation of students, retention, and so on. He also mentioned the various challenges that are in the open space related with aggressive discourses, anger, and the difficulty in interacting in such a dangerous space at the moment.

I ask myself, could ‘intra-action’ happen in the open wild web?

Anne Algers, Senior Lecturer in Higher Education Pedagogy at the University of Gothenburg instead, focused on OER more as an intellectual artefact. She called them boundary objects, objects that are created in the process of finding a common space, a common voice, in a particular situation that is affecting both spaces. Boundary objects are created at the intersection of two different, parallel spaces, i.e. academia and NGOs. There are tensions between the two and boundary objects and practice aims to ease those tensions finding a more productive and constructive intersection between them.

This idea of OER as boundary objects and OEP as boundary practice comes from or is influenced by Engeström’s idea  (1995) of boundary crossing also addressed by Akkerman and Bakker (2011). I remember @catherinecronin @francesbell @GoogleGuacamole in their presentation at NLC2016: Synergies, differences, and bridges between Network Learning, connected learning, and open education #NLbridge they used this framework.

Boundary crossing, @AlgersAnne explained, is when the issue at stake is happening between two spaces -academia and citizens in society (farmers). Horizontal movements of knowledge in two parallel worlds. Now the word parallel has an implication of disjoint, of non-crossing.  In geometry, parallel lines are those who never coincide. This is interesting because as I understood Anne, the idea is exactly the opposite, to cross those boundaries through OERs. And it is precisely the object or the practice the materialisation of that crossing, which happens as a product of trying to solve the tensions that are between the two ‘parallel’ worlds.  And it is precisely in that crossing where the power resides. Once that crossing has been made changes will materialise and both spaces would have been transformed. They have expanded, in Engeström words. I believe will then not be parallel worlds anymore but coincident places at some point of their trajectory. 

This idea is powerful! I am using it for my study. It fosters constructive conversation, it encourages actions of reconciliation, it looks at common voices in parallel spaces with the aim to change the geometry of that space to a more coincidental one, a more inclusive space where at some point, that which was created through the intervention has more common elements with the two worlds.

Anne presented a case study she just finished, about (if I understood it well) an NGO representing farmers (?) and academia. And one of the things that came out of the focus group was the need for a common forum for discussion where participants truly hear to one another and try to find commonalities and solutions that suit both worlds.

She said, on the one hand, we have academia, and on the other we have society but we have to reconcile the two. How can we find a more united world? She asked. 

There is a need to give citizens access to information, empowerment and awareness raising their agency to act critically for the bigger good of the world. Academia has a responsibility in this! That is my take on my own study.

I believe students need to be empowered, need to enact agency over the open space, the open wild web, so they can participate fully in an open practice and shape the culture to a more open and inclusive one where asymmetry and parallelism are less present. 

NGOs, animal protection organisations, communities, don’t get to be heard in the corridors of academia, many don’t have access to that space. But academia needs to talk with them, understand their needs and their ethos, and in doing so, producing a more sensitive research agendas that serve them and the greater good.  It is a very contested area. She said that a change in the attitude and values of academia could increase trust in science through inclusion. 

The creation of OERs from both perspectives is a complex endeavour, there are different views and conflicting perspectives. How to question and problematize knowledge among two different worlds? Researchers need to argue what they have open to the public. 

This webinar was excellent food for thought about open as pedagogical practices and as boundary objects. Both of them stressed the many paradoxes that are still to address in the hope of creating coincidental spaces instead of parallel worlds.

Thank you @weller and @AlgersAnne!!  And sorry if I have misunderstood any of your ideas. I hope not but if, there is always place for change and expansion 🙂

an ethics of analysis and writing

How do you work ethically with material generated in an interview? I’ve been pondering this question recently as part of a more general think about ethical research practice*. Research ethics are c…

Source: an ethics of analysis and writing

  • How do we record and then analyse the important sensory elements of interviews? What does it mean to leave them out?
  • Does our desire to find patterns (themes) lead us to skip over important tensions and individual idiosyncrasies? What does it mean to leave them out?
  • Does the use of particular forms of software accentuate our gaze on broad themes rather than emergent narratives and subtle underpinning metaphors? What does it mean to leave them out?
  • Do the ways in which we transcribe recordings pay sufficient attention to silences, stumbles, awkwardness, intonations, irony, sarcasm and so on? What does it mean to leave them out?

This post, in particular, the questions I have cited above, has helped my thinking process about the data analysis. I have been struggling to write what my interviewees have said in the focus groups in form of general themes. I haven’t found yet ‘themes’ that make justice to what they feel about the use of digital tools in the university. How they struggle, how they feel so upset with how this element has been addressed in the academic context. I think I fear, in words of Patt, to leave out important tensions, I don’t want to miss any ‘sensory elements of the interviews’.

I have analysed the data with such care, I have read through it so many times, but it is hard to find a sensible way, the right words to make justice to their feelings.

I think about this on a daily basis, I can not, not think about it, but every time I try to generate the themes I feel uncomfortable, not at ease with my participants and with myself, and I think it has to do with what Patt says in this post.

With this insight and the advice I recently got from a scholar to create my own categories, I will return to my data analysis, my transcriptions, the most precious bit of text I have in my whole thesis, and dare to be creative not feeling an impostor, and make justice to what I think is fundamental in any research, the inner world of the participants 🙂

The Gutenberg Parenthesis


Watching this video, made me think the value of having constructive and humble scholarly discussions. How Pettitt hears attentively and takes note of questions, he is asked, considering how the insights of others can shed light on his not fully formed ideas about what is writing and thinking. The penny fall when I saw how the crafting of an idea is an ongoing process and although we have some of those thoughts, some are just not fully formed. Having these scholarly conversations is such an important thing when one is forging one’s own ideas at the start of an academic career. Conversation with interested people that engage in your research is vital for one’s development. Humbleness and wisdom shall go together and guide us through a better understanding of our own idea.

I am writing up the things I will be sharing in South Africa in the OEGlobal conference and a seminar organised by the Global OER Graduate Network in the hope that the conversation I will have will shed some light on my still a-morphs ideas.

Things like performativity, what does intra-action means, what are the implications for practice, the role of language and technology in students’ development, the way to explain the relation between the subject and the object, how not to stay critical and open; reflecting on technological determinism. How can we separate language from the phenomena it is describing, is language an instrument that brings the phenomenon into existence, or is the event happening independent of the instrument we use to re-present it, and so many assumptions I am not yet able to explain. The keel is under construction hence the boat is still in the harbour not ready to depart.