November 07, 2019

Ph.D Update Of Work Part D: Future Work

A reason why I have not fully developed the philosophical and methodological arguments yet is simply because there is a lot here to consider. There are probably things that need considering that I have not even thought about yet, and there are probably things that I gave only a passing glance that need further thought (I’ve come across this several times!).


From what I can currently understand and from what I am currently considering, further thought needs to be given to how the multiple uses of methods is compatible with middle range philosophical positions. I also need to further consider how the approach is compatible with hermeneutical qualitative methodologies. I also have to consider further how thematic, basic quantitative and pattern-based approaches complement each other with respect to the philosophical and methodological positions. I also have to think further about these considerations with respect to the research question and research objectives.


This is all ongoing work and will take a number of months to fully realise and elaborate. This shall obviously lead to the continuous need to edit and probably rewrite the research design chapter sections as deemed necessary.


I am also considering carrying out extra analysis of the data. I have found the essentials of the process of social learning and have developed a better understanding of the process itself, but I have also begun to understand and explain in the thesis what factors inhibits the process of social learning. This needs further work because I am realising that I am developing claims and hypotheses that I am not able to answer, and I am thinking that these assumptions can become more reliable and validated if I carried out further data analysis. This will of course impact the content and ordering of the findings chapter and the discussions chapter. In what way this could happen, what extra content or discussions could be made, and the way that existing discussions shall be amended have not been fully considered yet and won’t be till I decided what other data analysis tasks are required, and to think about the way in which they could affect existing findings.


The coding framework, which is a key deliverable of the research, is now complete but I am also in the process of testing the framework within different contexts. The aim of this is to improve validity and reliability of the framework, and to show its possible areas of application, which might have a profound impact on what has already been discussed in the discussions chapter. The desire is to publish these findings in a research paper in the future.


I also have other ideas for research papers particularly method papers that contribute towards the discussions of ‘multi-methods’ approach particularly with respect to the specific learning context. Papers based on the findings are also planned and I have ideas to publish papers based on each type of method and also in combination, but I am not sure at this time the way this is going to come about and I am going to think about this more next year.
Lots going on! The key emphasis now is on the continuous development and redevelopment of thesis chapters from what I consider to be complete draft form to formal thesis form. Another key emphasis is on testing the analytical framework for validity, reliability and applicability. The other key emphasis is on publishing papers, but this is not an immediate concern and can be left to some point next year. In the meantime between now and Christmas the focus shall be placed on editing and rewriting the first literature review chapter.


What a journey and there’s more to come!


Ph.D Update Of Work Part C: Multiple Perspectives Of Data

Previously I had discussed the limitations of thematic analysis, and briefly indicated how these limitations could be addressed using quantitative and patterned based approaches with the aim of generating a better understanding of the process of social learning processes as well as its essentials or essences. Although, I could argue in the thesis that in order to understand the process itself it is important to understand the essentials of the process relative to the research question and research objectives. How can a process itself be understood if we do not know its essentials? This is a question I’m currently thinking about.


Going further into the discussions, what I had found with the combined use of thematic, quantitative, and patterned based approaches is a more effective understanding of the process of learning, but still not a complete picture of the phenomenon as a whole. I am in a better position to explain ‘what’ happens and possibly ‘how’ something happens, but not ‘why’ that particular learning event happens at a particular point because I would need access to resources that have been beyond the reach and purpose of the Ph.D. However, in the thesis I am explaining all of this as part of potential future work that could be carried out. As individual analytical methods, not only did each in part support the findings of each other, but each approach offered a different yet compatible perspective of the data.


I had not anticipated or expected such vastly different perspectives of the data, so this complexity had overwhelmed me for quite a while. It took a lot of working out of the meaning of each approach and the data that each produced in order to understand how each set complemented each other, and what exactly the data was trying to communicate (and, indeed, the way I was interpreting the meaning of each set of data relative to each other). This is still ongoing and, hence, provides a possible reason to edit the findings and discussion chapters.


Let’s take a closer look at some of the philosophical and methodological issues of the combined approach that I have been thinking about.


Methodologically, the inclusion of multiple analytical methods does not constitute a mixed methods approach. Briefly, a research project could be considered mixed methods if each method is used with different types of data (e.g., qualitative and quantitative) leading to the production of different sets of data that is to me merged or combined in some way. Within this research, the qualitative thematic, basic quantitative and patterned-based approaches are being used with the same type of data and within the same type of general methodology (hermeneutic qualitative). A key question that I am currently exploring is whether or not this sort of approach can be considered ‘methodological triangulation’ or ‘analytical triangulation,’ or ‘multi-mode’ or ‘multi-methods’ research. Regardless, philosophically the multiple uses of methods is arguably compatible with middle-range realist perspectives as it is to my understanding that subtle realism (considered a middle range philosophy, and is a realist position I draw upon within the research) support multiple different types of analytical approaches within the same project in order to enable understand of the complexity of a phenomenon. I am still fully working out the compatibility between middle range philosophies and multiple uses of analytical methods within the same project, though I am arriving at the point that middle-range philosophical positions supports multiple analytical methods.

What does all this mean? What does or could this mean for qualitative research? My methodological position is hermeneutical and whilst most literature I have come across focuses on how hermeneutics assists with the interpretations of text, I am not convinced that this excludes some form of basic quantitative analysis. I am currently developing explanations and ideas about this, but my current thinking here is that because hermeneutics is compatible with middle-range realism, and because middle range realism advocates reasonableness and rationale development of concepts, the interpretations that are hermeneutically constructed can be supplemented or supported in some way by a form of quantitative analysis. This, of course, depends very much on the context of what is being explored. Because I am exploring a process of learning through accessing the process directly and not through some mediated access through, for example, the perspectives of learners, I can ground the research within a particular form of objective reality that can be supported in some way by the use of the quantitative. Through thematic analysis I can present a series of themes and codes, and make assumptions about a process based on those codes and themes, and then use the quantitative to provide a form of validating the reasonableness of at least some of these assumptions and interpretations, in conjunction with the pattern-based approach. This is again something I am currently figuring out.


The pattern-based approach provided a perspective of the learning process that differed widely from the thematic and quantitative approaches, and provided insights into the patterns and processes of interactions among participants that I had not previously anticipated and considered. This, admittedly, completely overwhelmed me as mentioned and for a while I was stuck and muddled, but I persevered and slowly, progressively, sense and clarity was being made out of the uncertainty. I am not yet in a position where I can fully elaborate on the way that the different approaches complement each other and build on the findings of each other, and what I have already explained might need editing. But I do believe that my philosophical and methodological arguments are becoming clearer as my understanding grows, and I do feel much more clearer on the meaning of the findings and the purpose of each approach compared to a few months ago when I felt completely overwhelmed with the differences in the perspectives that were afforded by the different analytical methods.


I still feel I have a long way to go, yet I also feel I have come really far. It is very wrong to think at any time that you are absolutely correct and absolutely close to where you need to be, because you can never really fully tell the distance that you are at compared to the complete whole. All you can to is track and trace the distance you have travelled, and if you can observe real difference and real progress in your understanding of everything that you do, then you’re on the right track!


Ph.D Update Of Work Part B: A Shift In Data Analysis

Long term blog followers will probably remember my discussions about grounded theory and discourse analysis, and the reasons why I shifted towards thematic analysis following the identification of their unsuitability. Whilst thematic analysis has been very useful for achieving certain purposes of the research, thematic analysis had not provided a complete picture of the phenomena of research interest. In fact, I came to realise that some of the problems encountered with grounded theory were also encountered with thematic analysis.


Thematic analysis was used in this research to develop a coding framework that can be used to code for particular and similar patterns across the data with reference to specific characteristics of social learning processes. From the codes, themes have been developed that characterises the process of social learning. However, a problem that was encountered was that, similar to grounded theory, whilst thematic analysis was able to identify the key concepts and conceptualisations of social learning process, it could not enable a full understanding of the process of learning itself. In other words, thematic analysis can describe and present the key essences of social learning in accordance to the specifics of the research question and research objectives. It cannot, however, explain how learning takes place within the context of a social and cognitive process. In order to achieve this, I had to go deeper into not just the essences that describes and captures essential social learning, given particular conditions and contexts, but also deeper understanding of the process of learning itself. Learning is a process, not a product, regardless of the context of this learning and it is arguable that to understand learning within any context is to understand it as a social and cognitive process.


In order to achieve this level of understanding, along with thematic analysis I also used basic quantitative approaches, and patterned-based approaches. From the use of thematic analysis, I developed several assumptions about the process, but could not use thematic analysis to test these assumptions. The use of basic quantitative analysis and pattern-based analysis led to the testing of these assumptions and further explorations of the data in order to better understand social learning as a process and as a pattern between individuals. This has added considerably to the research not just in terms of better understanding the essences of the phenomenon, but also of understanding its process. The addition of multiple methods has, not surprisingly, also led to the need to rethink of some aspects the research design to ensure compatibility and cohesion between the research design components. These considerations are important, because without these careful considerations the research design is going to appear disjointed and illogical, with incompatible parts that could generate incorrect or inappropriate data leading to unreliable and unverifiable interpretations of the data.


What actually happened during this process is the observation and construction of insights of the learning process that I had not previously anticipated, and that which I had no idea I considered possible to perceive. I shall explain this further in the next blog post.


Ph.D Update Of Work Part A: Thesis And Analytical Framework

The Thesis


The thesis chapters are now complete, at least to the point that the foundations, the arguments, the insights, and all points of discussions have been laid out in a logical and progressive way across each chapter. I would not suggest that the thesis is complete as there is a need to edit and rewrite various chapters and chapter sections. The process of editing and rewriting aims to improve explanations of the research design and the recent amendments that have been made to it, as well as to aim to better explain and develop arguments and insights of the data that have been made since amending the research design.


To achieve this current status of the thesis has itself involved numerous rewrites of each chapter, but I am at a point now where I am not expecting a serious rewrite and reconstructions of each chapter. Of course I cannot make this an absolute claim, because what exactly I edit and the extent to which I edit depends on the way I make further sense of the research findings in accordance with the research question and the research objectives. The edits to all the chapters over the past few years, and the edits that are currently continuing, are as a result of my changing understanding and conceptualisations of the data, and of the phenomenon of interest, and of changes to how I explore and investigate the phenomenon of interest. The thesis has been and still is an evolving document that simply cannot be written ‘as is’ in any first setting, because it will go through as many changes as you consider best to reflect your changing understanding and changes of research approach. This continuous change and amendment is, in my experience, an integral part of engaging with qualitative research and writing a qualitative based research. This is because qualitative research is based around the understanding and interpretation of text based data, and our understanding and interpretation of the text changes continuously particularly though arguably this depends on our philosophical positions. Regardless of our Philosophical positions, it is impossible to identify all possible concepts at the initial stages of your research because concepts are interpreted and constructed during your research analysis process. As I have discussed several times throughout this blog, my conceptualisations of the qualitative data have changed numerous times, which impacted research interests and directions, which impacted the characteristics of the data considered most interesting, which impacted how the data were explored.


An interesting area of debate refers to the way that our conceptions of the data are formed, and the way that concepts of the data appear. This, again, depends on the philosophical position of the researcher because a concept can be argued to emerge from the data, be discovered or identified in the data, or be constructed through interpreting the data. Concepts that are constructed through interpretation can arguably be situated in the middle range position of philosophical stances where concepts are a construction through the process of interpretation, but the interpretations are considered reasonable and reliable. This is something that I am currently working on.

Analytical Framework


The analytical framework is complete and whole, and from my current understanding I do not need at this time to engage with any further developmental work. Again same as with the thesis, I cannot claim this as an absolute but I am fairly confident now that the framework is complete. The analytical framework consists of the codes, categorised into different themes, needed to assist with exploring specific social learning processes. Because it is complete, it needs testing, therefore a current task involves testing the coding framework within a different context from which it has been constructed.


I am in the early stages of testing the framework and I am not completely sure how I am to report on this in the findings and discussions chapters at this time. What I am thinking about is to test the framework within the context and to publish a paper on this testing, and to perhaps compare what shall be conceptualised with what had been conceptualised in the original research. This is ongoing work so I shall return to this at a later stage.


In addition to the testing of the framework, philosophical assumptions are also being developed, some of which are also being tested, as well as explanations of the different contexts within which the framework could be used. These assumptions and explanations are likely to be reshaped and altered as I go through the framework testing process, and as I engage with further literature.


July 08, 2019

Ph.D Update On The Thesis Work So Far, Part B

Progress On Data Analysis And Findings Chapter

Data analysis was completed earlier this year leading what I believe to be a complete set of codes, and a complete set of themes that forms the thematic framework. As per the requirements of thematic analysis, I have been able to identify how the themes relate to each other and as a result, I have been able to complete the findings chapter. There are various theses available that revolve around the use of thematic analysis, and these have assisted greatly with forming and shaping the structure of the findings chapter. Briefly, the findings chapter is where I describe and explain the meaning, description, and explanations of the functions and purposes and variation of each theme, with all claims of the data backed up using relevant extracts from the data that justifies the claims being made.

As a side note that relates to the findings chapter, but also the research design chapter, I very much recommend that you read other theses that apply the methods and methodologies that you use so that you can attain a sense of their functionality and use, and perhaps attain an understanding of the extent to which they have been used so far across different philosophical, theoretical and disciplinary contexts.

What you can state in your thesis is your observations of how the selected methodologies and methods have been used within different philosophical and theoretical positions, and if you can find approaches that match exactly what you are doing in terms of your research design that could be useful. However, this is not a guarantee as research design itself is an evolving field of research and practice. Sometimes, if you feel convicted in your beliefs and reason about your research design, you have to take a risk, but make sure that you clearly, comprehensively, meticulously, and considerable detail, explain, and justify the components of your design, and the way that they relate to each other. An interesting approach is to argue how your philosophical and theoretical positions could provide further insights into the characteristics and behaviour of the phenomenon that other philosophical positions would not be able to observe. I’m planning to write a paper on this subject.

Discussions Chapter

The discussions chapter is where the findings are situated within a more interpretive, theoretical level and situated within existing literature in order to provide reasoned validation to the themes, and to increase their reliability and validity in their ‘existence’ through their existence being perceived and interpreted by other authors across different contexts. The discussions chapter is being divided into a couple of parts. The first part simply discusses the key findings, the core themes, and how they relate to each other in order to address the research problem and answer the research question. It is in this chapter, therefore, that you strongly link your findings to the research question, how they are relevant to the research question, and the way that they connect with the research problem and offer a possible solution. Remember, because your framework is built on a set of reasoned and rationalised interpretations grounded in the data, you cannot be absolute and certain about the absolute validity of your interpretations. This is particularly the extent to which they are generalizable across multiple contexts. This is a big debate in literature.

The second part of the chapter revolves around situating my findings and the discussions of my findings in the context of the wider literature, and this is where I begin to compare my themes, claims, codes, observations, etc. to other research and literature. This is where I am reading literature that very closely matches my own in terms of naming themes and codes with very similar functions to my own in order to validate and verify my themes. Not only this, but I can use extant literature to explain how my thematic framework differs from what exists, why it is different, and why these differences are important. This is where the second literature review takes place, and is effectively embedded and integrated in with the discussions of the findings.

It can take a long time to work out the way that this second literature review shall be shaped. You won't really know till you have completed your data analysis and have, therefore, developed your themes. It is your themes, how you view your themes, and the context within which these themes have been developed, that guide your understanding of existing literature, and how you compare your themes to what already exists. This is why it is important to ensure that the literature you choose for both the first literature review chapter and the integrated literature review is correct and relevant for the purposes of (a) research contextualisation and (b) for the purposes of validating your themes. An incorrect approach to discussions can disjoint your literature reviews and qualitative thesis as a whole. It has taken me a long time to figure this out and, quite honestly, it wasn’t until I completed the data analysis that I was able to build that complete picture of how I am going to discuss my framework and the frameworks of others, and where in the thesis I can discuss them. I am still thinknig about the very fine details, it's an ongoing process.

Implications Chapter

Have literally just begun this chapter so a full vision of the chapter has yet to be developed. However this takes what has been discussed from the previous chapter, the critiques of the literature and the explanations of the findings, and situates these discussions in the broader and wider theoretical and disciplinary landscape of the research. Because the discipline of my research is Education, I would have to link these discussions to the broader practice of education e.g., how the findings impact teaching and learning practice, how does the framework assist with researchers in their explorations of online learning, how can the framework be used in different contexts, etc. Also link with the theories of learning and perhaps link with the general goals and purposes of Education in our society, I’m guessing, I am not fully sure but I might just go for it anyway…..

I remember writing lots about the goals and purposes of Education in the past as part of the role of Education in society, but I had archived those discussions because I didn’t think they were relevant. Thankfully, they are archived and not deleted completely so they might prove to be relevant after all!

Side Note

The previous couple of posts show where I am more or less up to at the moment! Still a fair way to go, but I have a vision that continues to unravel itself as time progresses and the more that I write. It is important to keep that vision and to keep that in focus because when you become overwhelmed, you have that to guide you. That, and the mindset that tells you that it is better to feel overwhelmed with so much to say, than to feel underwhelmed and feel devoid of anything to say.

‘till next time!


Ph.D. Update On The Thesis Work So Far, Part A

I apologise for not writing a blog post in quite a while! I noticed that the previous update was way back earlier this year. Admittedly, blogging was put aside for a while as I simply wanted to focus on writing the thesis and complete the data analysis with the intentions of returning to the blog when I had more time to spare to blog about what I have completed and where I am going with everything.


Since I wrote the previous update there have been times when I have felt overwhelmed not because I have struggled with knowing what to say, but knowing what to say where. This has not necessarily led to times of anxiety and paranoia, but of uncertainty. What carried me through the times that I have been overwhelmed and felt uncertain is this single thought: I’d rather feel overwhelmed due to having a lot to say, than to feel underwhelmed with nothing to say! It takes time, but persevere and make sure you are continuously writing. It doesn’t matter what form your ideas take on paper, just get them down on paper and sort out the edits and presentations afterwards.


The Literature Review


Much of the literature review has now been completed and it’s a case of editing what I have already written and complete and edit the critical summary section. A section that I have been working on during the past few months involves the critique of various analytical coding frameworks pertaining the exploration and analysis of the phenomenon of interest. This has not been an easy section to write because of the very nature of qualitative research and approaches needed to write qualitative theses. Briefly, the approach that I am adopting to handle and critique the literature more generally is to split the literature review in a couple of parts, each of which serving different purposes. The first literature review chapter contextualises the phenomenon of interest. By this, the first literature review refers to conceptualisation and definition: I am explaining and critiquing how the phenomenon of interest has been conceptualised in the literature, how the phenomenon has been identified and explored across different contexts, and to critique these approaches to exploring the phenomena in order to situate the need for my research within these critiques.


With the analytical models, in this first part of the overall review of the literature, I have to explain the models in a way that demonstrates how the phenomenon of interest has been analysed, and critique the general approach of the models. The second part of the review is integrated in with the discussions of the findings, and I shall explain this in the next blog post.


Research Design Chapter


This is more or less complete in various drafted forms, it’s just a matter of trying to put the whole chapter together. I have written the introduction section, explanations and descriptions of the research design itself, explanations of the research questions and objectives, my position as a researcher, my philosophical position, and the explanation and justification of the selection of the methodology and methods. Other sections I am working on include discussions about the sources of the data, the setting of the research, and detailing the process of coding and thematic development. Additionally, I am attempting to write justifications in terms of how the methodologies and methods have been used before so that I can attempt to verify the historical effectiveness of various aspects of the research design. Phew!


This has been another chapter that has received many edits and redesigns, but I am now happy with the chapter with the way it is and the way it is progressing. Still a fair bit to write, but everything is basically written in pre-draft form it’s just a matter of editing and putting the sections together so it shouldn’t be too bad. What has been the most challenging section, to be honest, has been the Philosophical section and then working out the way this relates to the methodology. It can take a long time to work out your philosophies, and even then they can change so try not to be too much of an absolutist no matter what your position you believe best matches your own. Be dynamic and be flexible.


In Part B, I shall discuss briefly where I am with the latter part of the thesis.


April 18, 2019

Research Design Chapter Philosophical Section: How Much Is Too Much? Part B

Philosophically, how much is too much? There is no definite answer here. I’ve spent the day editing the Philosophical section of my research design chapter following contact with my supervisor. This feedback is proving to be invaluable, because it has guided my editing and also consideration of the content.


Previously I wrote the philosophical section using a comparative, reflective approach. During my time on the Ph.D., I have engaged with a variety of different ontological and epistemological positions. As a result, this led to writing separate ontological and epistemological sections.


Within each section I have attempted to tell a progressive narrative of my engagement with different positions. I discussed how I previously conceived the existence of the phenomenon (ontology) and how I believed that we come to know this phenomenon (epistemology). This led to discussing and explaining how these conceptions changed over time, how this led to me oscillating between different positions, and finally, I explained how I selected the ideal position (with epistemological beliefs drawing from various positions), and offered a justification of their selection.

Why did I do this? I am fascinated with the Philosophical aspects of the research and of the phenomenon, and I also wanted to address concerns in methodological literature about the lack of philosophical discussions within theses.

Recently, I returned to available, relevant qualitative theses and read through their research design chapters again. Clearly, as mentioned in a previous post, there is great variety in the reporting of the philosophical stance with some conflating ontology with epistemology, which I do not agree with. A combination of supervisor feedback and rereading of the theses indicated that what I have produced could be better as future, publishable philosophical essays separate from the thesis, but still relevant in reporting my experiences of the Ph.D. journey. Additionally, these essays could contribute something useful or original to the general discussion of research Philosophy.

The essence of the research design chapter is to discuss specifically about what was actually carried out in the research, as well as developing the appropriate Philosophical, methodological and practical justifications. I find that a lot of theses tend to focus more on methodology and methods than the underlying philosophical stance that underpins or frames the methodology.

I have difficulties with lip service paid to the Philosophical section. Philosophy carries methodology and, therefore, is the foundation upon which methodologies and methods are placed upon. Philosophy provides the framework to how the methodology defines how phenomenon is to be investigated and understood, through the appropriate selection and definition of methods and procedures.

Lacklustre discussions of Philosophies, in my view, make it difficult to validate, authenticate, verify and contextualise the findings. It makes it difficult to understand where the researcher is coming from, and it makes it difficult to understand how the researcher perceives reality. It is difficult to assume, for example, if a theoretical framework is developed from a constructivist or interpretivist perspective unless this is explicitly stated within the research design section.

How much is too much? It depends. The thesis is the core of the Ph.D. It is the core, central artefact of the Ph.D. endeavour that communicates what you have done, how, why, where and when. The Philosophical aspect of your research design, therefore, has to relate very specifically to the ontological and epistemological positions that relate specifically and strongly to your design and to your conceptions of the phenomenon. How much is too much or too little depends on what you are exploring and perhaps arguably how much you value Philosophy, and are willing to engage with philosophical issues of your research. Regardless, however, nothing should lead to lip service being paid to philosophical issues.

The edited version of the chapter now doesn’t consist of extensive comparative discussions of different positions that have been critically and reflectively engaged with, nor is there any discussion of how I shifted and changed positions. Everything is now strictly and directly relative to what was actually carried out, how, and why, their impact on the research design, their impact on the research phenomenon, and the appropriate justification of ontological and epistemological beliefs and their position within existing theories and literature.

Where has all the comparative discussions gone? Where have all the discussions about how I have changed conceptions over time and how those changed entailed shifting between different positions been placed? Has all that been wasted?

Not at all, because now all of that detail can be taken out of the thesis and be turned into publishable, philosophical essays and that is something that I will be working towards! This reason alone made the process worthwhile. The process of engaging with different ontological and epistemological positions increased my understanding of how philosophy impacts methodology and of how I could have interpreted and explored the phenomena within different positions. This enriches knowledge about Philosophy, and empowers the researcher to contribute potentially to academic discourse and existing, unresolved issues.

That, folks, is the ultimate goal of academia, and the ultimate goal of who you are as a researcher. Write and contribute because you want to, not because you have to. If you’re not in the business to contribute in some way, then really, what’s the point?

‘till next time!


April 17, 2019

Research Design Chapter Philosophical Section: How Much Is Too Much? Part A

When writing the research design chapter, and indeed when engaging with postgraduate research, a key issue is Philosophy. Philosophical issues relating to the phenomenon of interest and the research context have to be acknowledged, identified, documented, critiqued, reflected upon, and strongly associated with the research methodology. Philosophy drives methodology, and the methodology provides the framework that guides the research methods and procedures. It is imperative to ensure that strong links, cohesiveness and cohesion exist between philosophy, methodology, methods and procedures of the research within your writings so that the design can stand up to academic scrutiny, and to ensure that findings are consistent, correct, appropriate, and suitable for the context and the main research objectives.


Those are separate topics for another time, but referring to writing the Philosophical section of the research design of a thesis a key question is, how much is too much? This is an interesting question that I continuously have asked myself when writing the philosophical section of the research design. I am of the firm belief that nothing is ever, and should ever, be wasted. Nothing you write on the Ph.D. is ever wasted as something can be turned into something else, even a publishable form of something else.


During my time on the Ph.D. I have written extensive notes on paper and in digital form about numerous philosophical, both ontological and epistemological, positions. Even back at this time I was questioning how I could apply what I was exploring to the methodology, how each position affected my perspective of the phenomenon, and the way I could best record and express the positions in the thesis. Whether you are writing in pre-draft form on paper or in digital form, don’t be afraid to ask yourself questions early, but don’t restrict your creativity and inquiry. Allow your thoughts to come out, to develop, and to become as complex as they are required to be. You know how complex your ideas should be, and you know how complex you want them to be to fit the context. But again, don’t reject anything. I have been writing the draft form of the research design chapter for quite a while. The Philosophical aspect has experienced a number of rewrites as my pre-draft form ideas matured further and as I engaged with more philosophical ideas and different philosophical authors.


Where to begin with this minefield? I began fairly early in thinking about research design to read the theses of other post graduates. It did not take long to find a stumbling block: there is no universal law or standard that appears to guide how much is too much or too little. The problem, and difficulty, is that theses, although they might focus on the same methodology, differ widely in their philosophical coverage. Some theses make a passing suggestion towards philosophy and include it in a discussion about methodology, whilst other theses provide more detail and include a separate Philosophical section followed by a discussion of methodology. Even the Philosophical section, however, differs with some making short references to ideas about reality and knowledge, whilst others talk about knowledge without referring to any sense of reality even though they reference an ontological position.


What is important to remember is that despite the diverse range of philosophical coverage, there is some sort of expectancy to ensure cohesiveness and consistency in your approach. You cannot, for example, say that you’re adopting constructivist ontology and an objectivist epistemology supporting an experimental methodology. You cannot, in my view, talk about epistemology and pay lip service to ontology if you’re making explicit statements about how you come to understand reality. If you are talking about reality, then you’re talking about ontology. If you’re talking about the nature, structure, limits and origins of your knowledge and of coming to know this reality, then that’s epistemology. If you’re talking about how you are to gain knowledge about reality, that’s methodology. It’s important to remember this.


Is it worth reading though these theses? Yes, it is. Engaging with other theses enables us to become more acquainted with the self or being as a researcher. It makes us question how we should present our philosophical stance, and to wonder why such diversity in Philosophical coverage exists.


Engaging with these theses has in party contributed to increasing the value and importance of acknowledging, recognising, critiquing and engaging with my own philosophical stance, and the way my stance could be communicated. There is no particularly strict guide, and it’s important to explore and experiment in order to find what is best. This takes many redrafts. I’m sure many of the longer term readers of this blog have followed my Philosophical battles as I oscillated between different positions in order to situate or locate my views of reality within the extended literature. One needs to be careful to not pigeon-hole their beliefs or to ‘stuff’ their beliefs within a particular position just to tick a box. Your beliefs need to be engaged with critically and reflectively. They need to be intellectualised, and to be intellectually engaged with, so that they can logically be applied to your research, be integrated cohesively within your research design, and communicated consistently within your writings.


How much is too much or too little? It simply depends on what is right for your research, and how you relate your philosophical position to your research, and how valuable discussing ontological and epistemological issues are in relation to your research, research question, and phenomena of interest.


I shall cover this more in the next blog post where I discuss and explain further my experiences so far!


February 21, 2019

Update On The Ph.D Work, Part B: Literature Positionality and Theoretical Framework

Literature Positionality


Because of the nature of inductive based qualitative research, different types of literature are positioned in different areas of the thesis. This took me a long time to understand and to understand where to position different types of literature in order to achieve different purposes, but things are getting there!


As has been mentioned, with the literature review chapter at the beginning of the thesis, literature is being used to develop a context within which I can justifiably place my research. This justifiable position comes as a result of critically analysing the way in which the social learning process and the technology of use has been defined, explored, and used before in various learning scenarios. This builds up a picture of the need to explore the specific social learning process within a particular learning scenario that is arguably unexplored or has not been yet fully explained, facilitated by particular technologies. This involves plenty of comparisons between different learning contexts and scenarios, and explorations and comparisons of the definitions, functionality and use of social learning processes and technologies within different learning contexts. That’s the aim of the earlier literature review in a nutshell. The type of literature therefore takes a broad view of the research context e.g., exploring the social learning process of interest within different technological contexts and learning contexts, and exploring the use of the technology of interest and its facilitation of social learning processes within different learning contexts. This gives weight to the justification of the research context of interest, because it indicates how the process and technology have been used and explored in different contexts, and can be used to explain how a different context can further explain aspects of the phenomenon of interest that arguably remains unexplored or / and unexplained.


Other types of literature shall be included in later thesis chapters specifically relating to the discussion of the themes. In a nutshell, the literature involved here shall involve literature that consist of similar themes to what I have found (if I did not do this, I would be falsifying findings, give misleading accounts, and would reduce the validity and verifiability of the themes), but I would use the discussions to show how I have explored the themes in a different way. This would include showing the differences in how I have explored the themes, the differences in context of theme construction, and the way in which my themes build upon what has already been discovered. The literature here is very specific and has a very specific purpose: to validate and verify the themes, and to provide a platform upon which I can build upon what already exists.


Thematic Framework


This is the core of the research and its development is a continuous and ongoing task and shall be right up to Easter and perhaps a bit beyond. However, feedback has suggested that I am nearly there! The themes appear to be fine and the codes themselves still need some work doing to them, but what I am finding is that changes to the codes do not necessarily mean changes to the theme, and indeed changes to the names of codes do not always necessitate changes to its meaning.


Meaning is a key word here and to write about the meaning of meaning (meta-meaning?) would take a thesis in its own right, but essentially because of the inductive nature I am applying meaning to what I interpret and perceive from the data (note that this does not reduce itself to relativist research as I am not adopting a relativist ontology). Themes and codes therefore capture the meaning that I am interpreting from the data, and together they describe and explain the phenomenon of interest: its behaviour, structure, impact, and existence.


In general I am getting happier with the way in which the thematic framework is going. There is still work to be done to it up to Easter and perhaps beyond, but I am pleased with where it’s going so far!


Update On The Ph.D Work, Part A: Literature Review

During the past few months I have come to grips with what should be included in the literature review, taking into account its nature as part of an inductive, thematic analysis approach that differs from that which can be found in quantitative based theses. With quantitative based literature reviews, the goal is, quite generally, to critically explore existing empirical literature to find a very specific theoretical or practical gap in the collective understanding of the phenomenon of interest. Typically, this gap is then addressed through building a testable theoretical framework that essentially frames the findings and associated discussions. In other words, the theoretical framework predefines data characteristics and findings that are of most interest and use to the research and in answering the research questions that derive from the framework. There is a very strict order here: the literature is explored first, and from the literature review comes the theoretical framework, from the theoretical framework comes the research questions, and as data is found relevant to the research questions their discussion context is framed by the theoretical framework. Every part of the research, as far as I can understand, is framed around the selected theories that guides data analysis.


Inductive based qualitative literature reviews are different in that there is no predefined theoretical framework that is developed, and, therefore, there is no need to test theories or have any discussions and findings framed around existing theories. The core aim of inductive based qualitative literature reviews, from my own understanding of them, is to establish the general overall context of the research and to justify why the research is being carried out. Arguably then where quantitative based literature reviews are used to develop a deductively testable theoretical framework, qualitative based literature reviews are used to establish a justifiable context for inductive analysis (though do note that the theoretical framework still needs justifying!).


With all that then, I am using the literature review to explore the broader questions. For example, with the specific technology I am using to facilitate social learning processes I am asking questions about how that piece of technology has been used more generally in Education. In what way has the technology of interest been used for so far within the context of social learning processes? What are the differences of use of these processes between different technologies and what makes a particular technology of interest more appropriate? What definitions have been provided regarding the particular social learning process? How have these social learning processes been realised in various learning scenarios through technological facilitation?


Questions like these assists with building a picture of what has been achieved before and be able to set the research within a justifiable context. For example, through asking how social learning processes have been realised and explored in various learning scenarios, you begin to understand how social learning processes have been approached, defined, and understood. From this understanding, you can begin to critically question this understanding and of what exists, and this in turn leads to locating your research within the existing literature with justifiable supports.


The literature review is still ongoing although much of it has now been completed. There is still a couple of concepts left to explain, but this can occur at a later time. The core of the literature review has now been completed!


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