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


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.

My seminar at NUIGalway

The picture is part of the art festival happening in Galway last week. The “sky whale” is a piece of art made to an aerostatic balloon 🙂 it flew over Galway while I was there! (The picture was taken in Australia, the first time it flew)
Here my talk at CELT in NUIGalway
I received interesting feedback from the people in the seminar which shed light to the next steps I need to take in my research.
The quotes are referring to what the participant said to me at the end of the presentation

You start you PhD trying to answer a particular question and you end realising what the question should be!

This is so true. Indeed it was one of the things that was stopping me to move forward. I knew and I still know that my question is not a good question, that it is an ordinary question, but I also know that to generate a good and fruitful question there is much more knowledge needed, not only theoretical knowledge but also research knowledge and skills, research literacy? I made the analogy with driving a car. Once you master some of the basic driving skills (changing gear, the breaks, the signs outside, the rules, the dynamics of highways or dual carriage roads and so on) is that you can get better at the art of driving. In the research field I believe the same happens, once we master the basic skills (read academic papers critically, write sharp comments, understand the deep relationship between the research question and the design, learn how to do interviews, surveys, focus group, etc) then we can start to become creative in the research arena. I am not very patient in that respect, particularly because I want to do good research, which I don’t think is what I will do in my PhD, but it is the first stage, and there is no chance to jump over it if I want to be solid and excellent in the future.

Is this why you are focusing now more on phase I, which is about understanding students’ existing digital practice where they might have already a ‘PLE’ (personal learning environment) in place but they might not call it a PLE but it works as that.

Providing a thoroughly ‘state of the actual’  of students’ digital practice in words of Selwyn (2007) and Oliver (2011), can be very valuable to the university in order to map and understand how students engage with different platforms and technologies and what are the underlying motivations they have when engaging online. In this way the institution might be able to set the scene and improve the settings (if needed) of the digital landscape and make the necessary adjustments to meet students expectations and level of digital practice. Phase I will unlock the door for me. Maybe it won’t be needed to work on a PLE because they already have one in place, maybe the need resides in something different that Phase I will tell me. On the other hand doing so is more in line with the basic principles of critical theory, in particular in relation to address the ‘digital disconnect’ between the enthusiastic rhetoric and the mundane reality of digital technology use at the university (Selwyn, 2007).

Maybe phase 2 is not to ‘create’ a PLE but more to expand or develop the existing PLE or informal systems they already have in place.If you recognize there is already one going on instead of bringing it like a totally new thing there be less resistance from the side of the student

In my experience students are reluctant to use digital technology for their academic tasks. They tend to go for the least effort and if the university don’t put in place the conditions for students to feel the need of working in a different way that they have been doing until know, there is no case in trying. If the university is happy with an essay in a word document I am sure that none of the students will come with something different as it implies more work, struggle thus resilience. It would be the exception. They like the easy way and they are used to be spoon fed. So if there is struggle and extra effort implied in designing a PLE and for the university it will make no difference it will be very difficult to get students to overcome the struggle and difficulties implied in the task.

I think that students are quite passive in relation with technologies. The longer students stay at the university the more strategic they become (Deep, surface and strategic learning).

What is your aim for the students? Are you thinking to getting every one to a certain level of digital literacy? Getting the average up or focus on the more brilliant ones? Maybe how to manage 5 tools to do research? If you want to use the personal part as the motivator, you get a conflict if you want to give them the tools or let them to choose. Choosing will be part of the motivation, I think.

She also made a good point about working with tools and the ‘ideal idea’ that we know why we are going to choose this or that tool for a particular task. She said that many times we make decisions without knowing very much about it, we just make them because we have to. So maybe this could be a good point to try to find out in the research. Asking for reasons why students choose a particular tool.

Don’t you think that last year undergraduate is already to late? Why don’t you work with younger students and ask them why are they choosing a particular tool or a particular device. When they first used the device or when they first encounter the technology why is it the one they want to use?

The group you have chosen is a very strategic and important group, many of them are going to be teachers. There is a strong rational as they are going to teach younger students and they will need to be digital literate. I could think in a bigger set, all students of ED6014 and then the subset of the potential PGCE students.

Indeed the idea to work with last year Ed Studies pupils is inspired by the fact (at least it is my believe)  that they will favour from having guidance in relation to the engagement, more over, the effective engagement with digital media and the web as the majority of them are going into the PGCE programme to become qualified teachers.
The main space in which the majority of the interaction with tools happens is the Web, and it is in this space where we and particularly future teachers, need to move confidently. It is understanding how the Web works, what is the logic of the dynamics that happens in that space and in the many sub-spaces we dive in when we are doing particular tasks, how can we navigate the complexity of abundance without getting lost and sometimes overwhelmed, that we can become real agents in this social and hyper-connected age in which we are living in. The idea is to address these challenges and build students’ digital expertise for the ‘near’ future.
This need is very well documented through out many institutions and government agencies in the UK and around Europe. Indeed it is part of the overall strategy for Europe and the UK for 2020; i.e DIGICOMP, DISE, Make or break: The UK’s digital future, The future of learning: Preparing for change, Connected Minds: Technology and today’s learners (OECD), UCISA Digital Capability report, Jisc project: Enhancing the students’ digital experience, All Aboard, NUI open project to map digital literacy in HE, just to mention a few.

Phase I unlocks the door for you, because in studying their existing practice you will understand better what needs to come next. Maybe there is no need to work with them or maybe it is that their PLE is defined in a different way. It will be a phase that grounds your work in real needs within your institutional context.

That is why research is time consuming, you have to go through all the stages and it requieres time to give proper attention to each stage.

What you are really looking at is to their existing PLEs although they might not be perfect PLEs (if that exists). They do have a PLE even if they do not know it. So maybe stage II is not about how to create a PLE but how to expand and develop the one they already have in place.
(…) I think for students to work with their PLE…is like alcoholics, first you have to recognize you have one! I mean if you bring it in as a new concept “now you have to create a PLE” it all gets a bit strange, they will maybe say: what the hell is that? How do I get one? This is all to complicated and I don’t know what Flickr is nor what is? Curating, what??
Many of the work I have seen is that participants map out their PLEs and it is a way to get to see their blank spots being this a motivation to start the work. It is different if the work is seen as improving what I already have than starting from scratch. It can be felt that what they have done by themselves has no value at all.

Me: Do you think that working within the dissertation module could be limiting, as I am just researching the state of their actual practice?

Ian: That module is where students are supposed to bring in all the knowledge they have been gathering through out their course and they need to go “outside” the university to explore something, so it is the ideal space to work with as you can look how they explore, what tools they use? The other modules are very constraint and well structured in relation to activities, etc. In this module they are getting some freedom in relation to what to explore and how they want to explore it, they can choose what resources they will use for that, what tools can help them to get those resources and how they will present their findings.

My conclusions:

  • It is necessary to ground my research within the actual digital practice students have. Understanding what those practices look like, how they engage with the media, the web and other digital spaces is key to know what do they need to move on and improve in this regards, This landscape will be the key to open the next door in my research.
  • The starting point of the next stage (supposing it will be working towards a PLE) will be based on their existing practice. Usually what we see nowadays is that everyone has a system of tools and resources already in place but they may not be called PLE, nevertheless depending on how I will define it [and maybe it is here when I can use Engestroem’s idea of expansive concepts. In his theory we need to work with complex concepts which he argues are best understood as tools and products of collective activity that evolve historically. Thus the concept of PLE will evolve in the collective activity of educational research. They are inherently polyvalent, contested and dynamic. “Every local action of diagnosis destabilises the concept and potentially contributes to its evolution” (link) ] student may or may not feel identified with the idea of calling what they have a PLE.
  • Next will be the design of the instrument to collect the data that will allow me to map and further understand their digital practice. One of the tools I will use for this is the mapping exercise David White proposes using his visitor-resident framework. I will also do focus group and open interviews. I am also thinking about the possibility to use their mobile devices to answer some questions in situs. I will also carry out some workshops asking students to map a life space (Kurt Lewin, 1936).
  • Once the data is analyzed decisions will be made as where to go next.