All entries for April 2016

April 25, 2016

Rambling Update On Progress!

The Trial Study Up And Running!

After gaining permissions from my supervisor and the admin of an online discussion forum, the discussion forum aspect of the trial study has begun! The aim of this aspect of the trial study is to determine the most suitable discussion activities for the main study and this is being determined through quantity of replies and extent to which the participants are taking part in the activities. The trial study has already indicated the topics that are worthy of pursuing further with the main study and also the topics that are not quite as popular and therefore not worth pursuing further, but even then this aspect is making an important contribution to the trial study.

What is most important is that I already have enough qualitative data for analysis and therefore to experiment with the developing Grounded Theory method. The qualitative data shall be used to experiment with this Grounded Theory method in order to assist with further developing the method ideas and to propose a Grounded Theory approach that is appropriate for the type of qualitative data being analysed. It shall no doubt be proven that you can read as many textbooks and papers on Grounded Theory as you desire, but you cannot actually beat being hands on with a method and really putting it through its paces with real, workable data. That is not to say that textbook reading is not important: this needs to be done in order to understand Grounded Theory at the Philosophical level, its place in the wider context of research methods, to understand its history and reasons of use, understand the processes and activities, and to understand its many critiques and debate points, but actually using it is just as important to your learning of Grounded Theory and any other research method.

The discussion trial is going well, and is due to carry on for a little while though since I already have the required data for the trial study I am likely to shut the trial down soon enough after finding out the results of interventions that I have made to spice up the activities that are lacking in use. Needless to say that I am pleased that it appears that the discussion trial’s aims and objectives so far is on track to being achieved.

In the meantime, I shall be working towards redeveloping the questionnaire and organise for a trial run for the questionnaire to take place.

The Upgrade Paper

Because the trial period has begun and all permissions granted I have been able to work on the Upgrade Paper through discussing the trial and its initial findings. I’ve also been rereading and reediting the paper particularly better describing the problem area and introducing the key authors and key literature referring to the phenomena of interest. I have also been introducing my own ideas and reasons why the phenomenon of interest needs to be investigated in a different way and in ways not presented in existing literature. Obviously I will be going into this further in the thesis, but for the upgrade paper I am trying to introduce my ideas and offer argumentation and reasons behind those ideas, based on existing literature.

Quite pleased with the paper so far. It is not allowed to go too far past four thousand words and that is going to be a challenge! Might sound like a lot of words to play with, but when you have a lot of ideas that you want to get across it is quite a challenge to explain everything in four thousand words. The core idea is to present key ideas, key authors, key basis of building the ideas, and the main aspects of the methodology, ethical issues, trial discussions, and anticipated findings and problems. Bit of a challenge trying to get all that into four thousand words (heck this post has just past six hundred words of waffle!) but it shall be done!

Critical Realism? Or not?

As some of you know, I did originally select critical realism as the philosophical basis of my mixed methods research, but I’m not a hundred percent sure now. The other philosophical perspectives are not suitable, therefore this does mean that I do like critical realism’s ontological and epistemological perspective of reality. Where there are problems now with the use of critical realism is its definition and focus on the relationship between structure and agent. From what I can currently understand (obviously need to do more reading, and learning is continuous) critical realism at the application level focusses on the relationship between a power structure (institution, policy, etc) and the agent (humans). From what I can understand at the moment there does not appear to be any literature that moves critical realism away from this idea of exploring the relationship between structure and agent, and focus on the specific aspects of my research because it is not being developed to explore such a relationship or to measure the impact that a structure has on an agent.

There appears to be however a main contributor of critical realism that does insist on the importance of moving away from power relations between structure and agent and focus more on aspects more appropriate for my research. But this I shall have to read further into.

What does all this mean? Well, given that the other philosophical perspectives of mixed methods are not really that suitable, if I cannot apply critical realism as defined by the main contributors I shall have to create a derivative of critical realism that better explores reality and learning context in the way that the research intends. I shall talk more about this in another blog post.

Making progress!

Which is the main thing, though I have to say that I didn’t expect to be challenged by critical realism in quite the way that I anticipated, but that really is the beauty of research and the Ph.D. in general: you are challenged to question your views of reality and find out if the way you think you view reality is really the way that you view reality. It’s all interesting and I shall be reading more into critical realism soon, as well as continuing with developing the questionnaire and continue to write the upgrade paper!

Till next time: keep it real(ism),or if not just keep it (critical) real(ism)!

April 11, 2016

Research Ethics: An Underdeveloped Discipline?

The discipline of research ethics is the study and application of research procedures in a way that promotes a moral obligation to protect the welfare of the participants, and in a way that identifies and manages their rights to privacy. This process begins the moment we make contact with an individual through the research process of interacting with them, though managing the data that we collect from them, and right the way through the reporting process. Ethics needs to be considered early into the research process and most definitely before you start developing your data collection and data analysis methods because ethics can influence the design of the methods and indeed your whole design. For example if you are developing a questionnaire you must make sure that your questions are not offensive and are carefully constructed in a way that does not identify the individual and does not manipulate the individual in giving a particular or desired answer. This can lead to a type of bias known as a methodological bias, but that is something to talk about at another time.

In general it can be stated that research ethics is a fairly stable and a fairly developed area of concern but in some ways it is quite underdeveloped particularly when it comes to research that involves participants interacting with technology; particularly when these participants shall be at a distance. An ethical problem has cropped up in my research in that I realised that there does not appear to be any strict ethical guidance on the way in which online groups should be dealt with. In general, ethics within Educational research is well defined in contexts where participants shall be dealt with face to face, but in online collaborative contexts it is quite different.

Many questions present themselves and these questions really revolve around the way in which participants are invited to take part in online research and therefore seek permission to use their data whilst respecting privacy. In the collaborative settings there appears to work ongoing as researchers strive to determine the best ways in which to contact and seek permission from online participants but there appears to be much to do. Therefore anything that I propose as a solution to current ethical problems could contribute towards the wider understanding and application of research ethics.

In a sense it is both a challenge and an opportunity: it is a challenge because if I cannot find anything suitable in relation to the context of research, I shall have to develop my own guidelines. These guidelines will obviously be based on existing educational research guidelines and existing educational research guidelines that involve technology, but will be an extension on these guidelines. This is a challenge but remember that with all challenges it should be viewed as an opportunity: an opportunity to contribute, an opportunity to develop, an opportunity to apply, and an opportunity to reflect on any mistakes that are made.

Of course it would be easier if there was a set of guidelines already in place but in another way it wouldn’t really make you learn anything. At Ph.D. level you have to be willing and ready to develop, apply, redevelop, reapply in a near constant cycle till a solution suits the context. It is not simply a case of developing a solution and then applying it: it is about thinking through several possible solutions and where possible using a solution to experiment with its suitability. This is an excellent opportunity to progress and develop. Obviously there is always a risk: when you are developing anything new there is a risk of things not working, but if you are clear with your agenda and clear with your direction, things should be alright. Just make sure you give yourself the time to think through what you are doing.

So, an opportunity to develop on an existing set of guidelines has presented itself and like with all opportunities for developing and contributing, this shall be welcomed with open arms!

Untill next time, thanks for reading!

Identity: who are we? Who are you?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines Identity as “the fact of being who or what a person or thing is.” So we already have ontological connotations with the term “identity” if it is remembered that ontology is a Philosophical study of the state of being or of existence. We exist and we know that we exist because we think or even doubt (I think; therefore, I am: Descartes!) although existence itself is a complex notion because there are questions about evidence that proves or disproves whether or not something either exists or not at a particular time. Identity itself is a definition of this existence that is contextual and situational and can change at any particular time, and it can be constructive: we can develop multiple identities and apply a particular identity at any given time depending on the circumstances.

But specifically, what does it mean to have an identity as a researcher? What does it mean to have an identity as a Ph.D. candidate and does this change depending on the research circumstances? What do we say when we are asked for an identity? Is this related to the discipline we identity with or a general research design? Are we attempting to limit ourselves if we define ourselves with a particular identity?

Is identity a product of the social, political and cultural influences of research and academia? If we define ourselves as a particular methodologist, are we really aligning our identity with our personal frameworks of research preferences, or are we aligning the definition of our own identity with the needs within and influences upon the academic sector?

I am beginning to think that as a researcher, as a Ph.D. candidate, our identities change as we further develop our research interests and really explore the methodologies and philosophies that can drive the design of our research. We can begin defining ourselves a particular way based on our understanding of the time but as we explore the literature and really get to grips with what is out there we can change our positions. Sometimes, as I found, we can incorrectly define ourselves in the conscious state of being based on our current understanding of ourselves, but in the subconscious we actually have another identity but we have not come to realise this yet. It kind of makes me think that we already have a definite identity but is hidden in the subconscious or the metaphysical part of our being and it takes something to bring this to the conscious level of understanding. But this brings up another question: in what way do we know that the identity we have at a particular time is our true identity? That’s a difficult question to answer and can really only be answered based on what we know and are aware of at a particular time.

Do we identify ourselves at the philosophical level or at a methodological level? Or at the level of discipline? If I say that I am an Educational Researcher what would that actually entail? What assumptions would people have? What assumptions would we have about ourselves? What if I was more specific and say that I am a Critical Realist Educational Researcher? Well that would suggest that I carry out research within the critical realist perspective and nothing else, but would that in itself provide as a limitation that I refuse to view the world in any other way? Would that mean an immediate dismissal of other perspectives such as Positivism? Relativism? Structuralism and Post Structuralism? Modernism and Post Modernism? Complexity Theory?

The problem with defining an identity is that it doesn’t actually represent who we are at that particular time. I could say that I am a Critical Realist Educational Researcher but who is to say this is definite? Complexity theory complements critical realism, so what if I find out that in the context of my research complexity theory complements critical realism? Would I define myself as a Complex Critical Realist Educational Researcher?

Let’s go outside of the context of research and pose other questions about identity. When a person says they are English and represent English values, what does that mean? Is that subjective or can what they represent be generalised across the entire English speaking population? What about those who say they are British? What does it mean to be British? When a person says they are British can they really represent English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish (and all points in between) traditions and values? What does it mean to have a value anyway and in what way is a value defined and represented?

When you really think about the idea of identity (specifically in the context of being a Ph.D. candidate) this isn’t an easy concept to define. But I think it needs to be thought about because I have the belief that there is a relationship between the way we define ourselves (our identity), the way that we understand the world and the state of being (ontology), the way that we come to know about the world and that state of being (epistemology) which therefore leads to the way that we explore the world and interact with the world (methodology).

Interesting stuff! There is much much more to identity than I have said here but I just wanted to touch on the subject in the context of being a Ph.D. researcher.

April 2016

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