All entries for October 2015

October 23, 2015

Weekly Ramblings: making progress with reading the literature; proof of uniqueness!

“Literature, Literature, Literature, Literature!” No, that’s not a new Tony Blair mantra; that’s the mantra of the early aspects of the Ph.D., quite possibly the most important mantra! With that, I have been swift to follow up on the positive feedback that my supervisor provided regarding the set of literature that I explored and critiqued and offered a unique perspective of as part of the second assignment of the Advanced Research Methods course. Within that, I explored a set of literature referring to learner perceptions of a particular construct, critiqued the literature regarding the lack of conceptual definitions and what has yet to be explored, and therefore began showing the need for the questionnaire that is being developed. Again as I have said in previous blog posts, this was risky territory and it could have gone either way but with a sigh of relief the feedback was positive.

During the week therefore I have explored more literature in an attempt to determine the extent to which questionnaires have been used to explore learner perceptions of particular learning constructs. I have been amazed to find out that there is a lack of such research available according to the set of literature that has been explored so far although obviously I have not exhausted the literature within this area, and therefore the reading of the literature shall be continuous, but so far the findings suggest a serious lack of such research.

The existing findings of literature evidences the methodological need of the questionnaire that I am developing. The reading is beginning to shape the foundations of different parts of chapters of the Thesis including, and particularly, the literature review along with the methodology chapter, and, importantly for the shorter term goals, beginning to shape the foundations of the conference paper to be presented at next year’s Warwick Postgraduate Conference and then turned into a research paper. Obviously, this will be based on the findings of future, continuous reading, advice from the supervisor, and the way the conference paper shall be received at the conference.

It has not been easy though to get this far. No vision of research is developed immediately; this direction that I am going with the questionnaire is a result of months (months!) of continuous reading and understanding of what is being read, and a careful analysis of my own ideas and the relationship between those ideas and the context of existing literature. This is an ongoing process. This reading will be continuous and will no doubt lead to redeveloping the questionnaire to match what has been read since submitting it as part of the second assignment of the Advanced Research Methods course, as well as what shall be read in the future.

However, I am starting to develop that clear vision and direction of where the questionnaire is leading. Essentially, the first public tasting of this questionnaire will be the research conference, followed possibly by a further pilot study followed by presenting the questionnaire (and other aspects of the research and research design) at the upgrade presentation sometime possibly during the third year.

Plenty to be getting on with then!

October 15, 2015

Ph.D. research design: as it currently stands

If there is ever a time to really think about the research methodology, the research questions, and the compatibility between research methodology and research questions, it’s now early in the Ph.D. process. The first year was really more of an introduction to research methodologies and to give you a chance to explore various methodologies and methods, but the second year (of the part time version anyway) begins the nitty gritty of really thinking about your methodology and methods in preparation for collecting and analysing data and also in preparation of the Upgrade paper and presentation (not to mention the literature review and methodology chapters of the thesis). When I really think about the design that I am creating, it is fairly flexible: it needs to be, and it needs to be absolutely accurate and correct because the design advocates a theory building context so the validity, reliability, accuracy, compatibility, comparability, and the use and merging of different forms of data and methods are well thought out and documented otherwise the theory could simply fall apart.

Previously I had been thinking about combining quantitative and qualitative data in with Grounded Theory but I’m having difficulties in figuring out the way in which these very different forms of data could merge (even though there are some comments in literature that suggests that this is possible) given that Grounded Theory’s analytical processes really are designed for qualitative data. Even the Constructivist Grounded Theory from what I can currently understand (still learning about it) does not deal with quantitative data. I do understand though that Constructivist Grounded Theory does take into account the values, perspectives, and so on, of the participants and the researcher more so than previous versions of Grounded Theory when it comes to the development of a theory. A potential problem here that I can vision is that a lot of the perspectives of the participants are due to be collected using quantitative processes within a survey method: I might have to redo the design of the survey to increase compatibility but I will have to do more reading and thinking into this area of using surveys with Grounded Theory.

Alternatively, I might not need to alter anything too much as I have found an interesting paper that described its research methodology as a mix of Grounded Theory and other methods including a Survey not in a Mixed Methods context, but in a more flexible context. Further reading into such a design that accommodates both qualitative and quantitative data and the use of multiple methods and perspectives with the aim of developing a new theory has led to the finding of what could effectively and broadly conceptualise and explain my research design. What is it called? Drum roll please………..

A flexible, triangulated theory building design

Now then, obviously I am taking on a fair bit here because I am not planning, designing, developing and implementing a single method, single approach design: I am planning, designing, developing and implementing a multi-method, potentially multi-perspective, research design that aims to develop theory as reliability and valid as is possible.

The biggest challenge here for me is to design not only the individual methods, but to design the entire methodology in a way that the results from all methods can merge as cohesively, coherently, reliably, feasibly and validly as possible, in a way that can assist with effective theory building and a substantial understanding of what is really going on within the phenomenon of investigation.

This shall include very careful consideration of the design of each method, suitability of each method, and very carefully planning the merging of the data at analysis level. There are going to be lots of areas to address in particularly the possibility that the research shall contain both positivist and interpretivist paradigms. I am not sure if this really will occur but if so, given that I am a constructivist this might prove to be interesting. Also what needs addressing are the different arguments for and against different methods, and the problems associated with each method and a way that a cohesive and coherent plan and design can minimise or eliminate these problems and therefore generating more reliable and valid findings, leading to the development of theory that is grounded in research that is well designed.

Interesting times in the research design: lots to think about, lots to write about, lots to read about, and lots of planning, designing, experimenting and implementation! It all feels a little daunting, but I know that I am on the right track and the methodology that I propose is the right methodology for the context and phenomenon of exploration.

Obviously all this shall be in consultation with the supervisor and shall be assessed at the Upgrade presentation. In the meanwhile: strong hot chocolate and late nights!

Initial thoughts about Constructivist Grounded Theory

The more I consider my own perspectives of reality and the way that researchers acquire knowledge of reality, the more I lean towards Grounded Theory as part of my Ph.D. research design. Grounded Theory, regardless of its flavour, is a research methodology that guides the researcher into constructing a theory of a phenomenon from an interpretation of the data itself using a series of codes, concepts and categories. It is a method of abstract and conceptual thinking where theory is built from these codes, concepts and categories and relies on logical, reasonable interpretations of the data and extensive documentation (in my case, the Ph.D. thesis and probably some part of the appendices).

Grounded Theory was originally a marriage between two different perspectives of reality from two different sociologists: Barney Glaser and his stance on Positivism, and Anseim Strauss and his stance on a more interpretivist approach, and eventually because of these differing stances they both professionally separated and promoted their own versions of Grounded Theory in a series of their respective publications. However, despite various flavours of Grounded Theory the variety that is currently receiving a lot of attention from me, and therefore selected as the preferred flavour of Grounded Theory, is Constructivist Grounded Theory, whose Philosophical roots lie in Pragmatism and Relativism and is developed by a student of Glaser and Strauss called Kathy Charmaz.

I first came across Constructivist Grounded Theory right at the beginning of the Ph.D. over a year ago but had not given it much thought at the time: what attracted me initially at the beginning was the term “constructivism,” which immediately suggests that some sort of marriage between the researcher, the participants, and the construction of reality. Now that I have gone back to re-examining my research design, Constructivist Grounded Theory is my favourite type of Grounded Theory so far. There are arguments made by various authors, particularly Glaser, that suggests that Constructivist Grounded Theory goes against the principles behind the development of Grounded Theory, but it can also be suggested that Grounded Theory was originally conceived at the time when Positivism and Realism were the dominant philosophies of research. Constructivist Grounded Theory was developed in the 1990s at a time when Social Science research paradigms began to lean more towards Constructivism, Interpretivism and Relativism based Philosophies.

I shall be using Constructivist Grounded Theory as part of my research design to build a new theory of the phenomenon being investigated, primarily because of the social constructivist orientation and also because it encourages the development of a literature review prior to data collection whereas the other varieties of Grounded Theory advocates the development of a literature review after the data collection and analysis and I do not really agree with that perspective.

More ontological and epistemological considerations

I am beginning to reject the notion of an objective reality and the notion that researchers should be as objective as possible when considering their research design. That probably caught your attention, so I shall rephrase that: I am beginning to reject the notion that most people can reach objective truth of reality; objective reality exists, but in ideological form rather than a realised form that is easily accessible. I suggest that everything that we know about reality, the way we come to know reality and the processes involved in developing our knowledge and understanding of reality is subjective, contextual, temporary and situated. Objective truth and the development of objective knowledge of this reality is impossible to attain because no human being can possess the totality of human knowledge and if any human being were capable of doing so, the total amount of all knowledge that exists and can be known is nowhere near as much as what is yet to be known. What is yet to be known could be described as being infinite: we simply cannot predict what we could know in the future, both on a personal level and on a wider, social, communal, global level.

I am therefore beginning to come to understand and believe that there is more to our role as junior and senior researchers than passively standing “objectively” aside, observing reality and collecting data of this reality and its behaviours using whatever data collection techniques we choose and analysing this data using whatever analytical models and methods we choose. There appears to be arguments, especially in the Social Science areas, that support the notion that the researcher’s perspectives, beliefs of reality, perspectives of knowledge and of knowledge acquirement and development influence the design of the research.

I have held a constructivist perspective for many years: I believe that we as individuals construct our own reality and have our own ways of acquiring knowledge of this reality. Cognitive Constructivism, advocated by Piaget, explains this from an individualist perspective whilst Social Constructivism, with its roots in Vygotskian theory, involves the construction of meaning and awareness of this reality within a social setting and is a very common Philosophical perspective of researching social learning. A sense of building a common consensus of objective meaning and knowledge of reality could be possible within a social learning setting but this could also be classed as subjective because the group would only be working with firstly the amount of knowledge and awareness that currently exists within the group, and the amount of extra awareness and knowledge that is obtained throughout that group’s timeframe of existence.

The following questions I have been thinking about and might consider developing answers and arguments for within the Ph.D. thesis:

Could a researcher, even within a Social Science discipline, really be objective?

Is a researcher drawn towards research methodologies more so because that methodology and methods match their framework of perceptions, beliefs, perspectives, values and attitudes of and towards reality?

Are we as individuals within our society really be able to reach or understand objective truth about reality, or will people forever be led by their own preconceptions, perspectives, values and attitudes of and towards reality?

What should be the extent or role of a researcher’s subjective framework of beliefs of reality play on their role of being a researcher and the development of their research design?

October 11, 2015

Grounded Theory? Mixed Methods? Both? Current ponderings!

In a blog post yesterday I suggested that my research was going to be based on a Grounded Theory approach using Mixed Methods methodology. After spending till after midnight yesterday reading up on the subject and from what I have been reading this evening I can safely assume that I was talking complete nonsense. Well, possibly, but that's the beauty of learning: you think about things, and you develop your ideas and approaches based on your continuous learning and thinking, and the beauty of having a blog such as this is that the thinking, learning and development of ideas can be documented! So, where is my thinking at the moment? Methodologically speaking I can push the research in a couple of different ways: use a pure Grounded Theory approach, or used a Mixed Methods approach using Grounded Theory to explore qualitative data. That’s where my current thinking is: I know for sure that other types such an Ethnographic study, a Phenomenological study, an Action Research study, a Narrative Research study and so on are not appropriate for the aims of this research, and that is to develop a new theory that explains the relationship between constructs of a phenomenon of investigation.

I could use Grounded Theory and use quantitative and qualitative data to generate a new theory that explains this relationship among constructs, or I could develop a Mixed Methods study that initially uses Grounded Theory to develop a theory from qualitative data, and then collect and analyse quantitative data to experiment with this new theory. But I’m not sure at this time if I want to actually implement such a research design because the goal is to create a new theory and not to create and then experiment with the new theory: I’m not sure that there is enough time to create such a massive study and then having to write about everything that there is unless I am allowed to hand in a thesis that is a couple of hundred thousand words!

I’m quite happy that I’m really thinking about this because it shows engagement not just with the phenomenon of investigation but with the research methodology and the extent to which I can develop and push research methodologies and methods to really explore and acquire knowledge of that phenomenon. This refers to what I could class as the Philosophy of Research Methods and thinking about the research methods at this level includes the following questions in relation to my own research:

What extent could Mixed Methods methodology with Grounded Theory explore reality and the relationship between the constructs of the phenomenon that is being investigated?

What impact would the different Mixed Methods approaches have on the findings, and therefore on the development of the theory?

Comparing a pure Grounded Theory approach to a Mixed Methods approach, which method could really assist with contributing towards theoretical development?

What extent could Grounded Theory be pushed to explore the behaviour of a phenomenon of investigation?

Could Grounded Theory represent a more authentic reality and therefore provide the basis of a more convincing explanation of reality than Mixed Methods? Or vice versa?

The current contention is, I shall be using multiple methods within either methodology (Grounded Theory and Mixed Methods are known as methodologies although different authors have classed differently but they all have essentially the same meaning) so determining the answers to the questions asked might in part be answered by the way in which each methodology handles the multiple methods that I shall be using.

So, a lot of thinking to do! I shall be exploring both Mixed Methods and Grounded Theory methodologies over the next few weeks to really find out which would be most suitable for the aim of my research and the questions that I want to explore.

This shall also prove to be interesting for the Upgrade process because in the report and presentation a line of reasoning needs to be given as to why a certain methodology has been selected over other methodologies. Therefore, comparing Grounded Theory with Mixed Methods methodologies in the context of my research should provide plenty of material to work with!

October 09, 2015

Weekly ramblings: opportunities and getting settled on methodologies and methods!

Open Doors!

A big opportunity might have opened up during the past week regarding publication of a second research paper! This is because of the positive feedback I had regarding the second assignment of the Advanced Research Methods course that I did as part of the first year of the Ph.D. with regards to the literature that I had critically analysed and explained the need for the questionnaire instrument that I am developing.

The supervisor was pleased that I had explored the literature and offered a unique perspective, and in my opinion that opens the door now to convert and extend relevant discussions for the conference paper at next year’s Warwick University conference early in the Summer. Still early days as to the exact directions this shall take, but my initial thinking is the conference paper shall extend relevant discussions on the survey instrument that I am developing.

Deciding on the methodology!

The following quote from the research methodology book “Qualitative Research Designs: Selection and Implementation” sums up the sheer amount of approaches to qualitative research

“The qualitative researcher faces a baffling array of options for conducting qualitative research”

Phenomenology, Ethnography, Case Study, Grounded Theory, and Participant Research are all different types of qualitative methodologies, with the additional different types and variants of each qualitative methodology. Not only this, but there are also various quantitative research methodologies around and also there are mixed methods approaches where a variety of different methods are used to provide a richer set of data, as well as the many different Philosophical perspectives of research (mostly relating to ontological and epistemological perspectives of reality). To the junior researcher, it can turn into a baffling mixture therefore they need to carefully construct their questions and understand their own mind and perspectives of reality before they really tackle the selection of methodology and methods. Many research textbooks emphasise the relationship between perspectives of reality, methodology, methods, and research questions therefore all of this needs very careful consideration from the very beginning and the only real way this is going to be understood is to start reading and keep reading! Questions shall change as reading progresses and therefore it might be likely that methods shall change: I know that I have changed my research questions several times to explore the same phenomenon and probably will change some of the questions in the future with the aim of increasing compatibility between questions asked and methodology selected. The key thing to remember is never believe that this is a once only process: this is a continuous process during the early stages of the Ph.D. as the reading and your thinking progresses and develops.

With my own methodological considerations, I have always liked the idea of Mixed Methods research design to explore the phenomenon of investigation even before starting the Ph.D. and this is something that I have stuck with. I had also very early decided on using surveys as an approach to collecting both quantitative and qualitative data, but also required a pure qualitative method to analyse any interview transcripts or discussion transcripts. Following the reading of various chapters of research methodology books, I have now settled on Grounded Theory. This was fairly easy to decide once I started to compare different qualitative research designs as I have an interpretivist, constructivist perspective of reality and Grounded Theory is compatible with these perspectives.

However, I have not yet decided on the way that survey data is going to be analysed and also have not worked out the way in which cross comparative analysis shall also take place. That is going to take a little while to build (and hopefully another research paper!)

So is that it then? Now that I’ve settled on the majority of the data collection and analysis methods can I just get on with it? Not at all: this is only just the beginning!

What’s next? The following lists some of the activities during the next year or so as part of the upgrade process:

  • Develop extensive understanding about the flavours and approaches of Grounded Theory methodology

  • Complete the questionnaire method if possible in time for showcasing at the conference via a conference paper early next year

  • More extensive learning on Mixed Methods methodology: its many flavours and approaches to collecting and analysing data and choose that which is most relevant

  • Develop substantial argumentation that supports the overall research design, the relationships between selected methods, the way they have been integrated, and why certain methods and methodology have been selected over other methods and methodology

  • Panic

  • Drink strong coffee

  • Chant some mumble jumble telling myself that everything will be alright

  • Explore and choose most relevant quantitative data analysis methods

  • Remember why I’m doing a Ph.D.

  • Plan, Design and Develop quantitative and qualitative data analysis techniques

  • Figure out in what way this organised chaos of a research design is supposed to work

  • Panic again

  • Drink strong coffee again

  • Chant yet more mumble jumble

Sounds like a plan! Thanks for reading and shall post up more musings soon!

October 07, 2015

Discussing the Upgrade Process

The preliminary year (as I call it) of the part time Ph.D. has been completed and in all it has been a success, so it’s now time to move onto the Upgrade Process. The Upgrade Process is a key part of the earlier stages of the part time Ph.D. up to the early part of year three, or a time that is decided before the research data actually commences. The upgrade process is a formal, major, key opportunity to receive constructive feedback on the proposed research questions, methodology, general design and methods of the research; gives practice for the major Viva assessment at the conclusion of the Ph.D. and also is the stage where it is determined whether or not a Ph.D. candidate can transition from Master of Philosophy to Doctor of Philosophy.

It goes without saying therefore that it is going to be an extremely busy time, but thankfully as I have been reading through the Upgrade Process materials I realise that I have been working towards completing this process from the beginning because I have been continuously thinking about my methodology and methods. I have more or less settled on a general ontological perspective, a research methodology and the methods that shall be used to collect and analyse the data, so it is simply (or not so simply) a case of learning about them more extensively and develop convincing arguments as to their suitability over other research methodologies and methods. The materials that shall be completed during this process therefore include:

  • A completed first draft of the literature review

  • A completed first draft of the methodology chapter

  • A completed Upgrade report

  • A completed Upgrade presentation

  • A completed and approved Ethics form

  • Optionally: a conference paper and a published research paper

The culmination of the Upgrade process is the Upgrade presentation where I am expected to present an overview of my proposed methods, methodology, research questions, key issues and concepts (and so on) followed by a serious of questions from the expert assessment panel, which could take a fair amount of time. The result of the presentation, the Upgrade paper and assessment of all other documentation shall lead to either of the following outcomes:

  • Expert panel agree to upgrade from Masters of Philosophy to Doctor of Philosophy

  • Expert panel request a resubmission of the Upgrade paper so that upgrade can be reconsidered

  • Expert panel agree that the project is suitable for Master of Philosophy level

  • Expert panel advise that the project will not result in a research degree

According to the University materials, it is common for the expert panel to request a resubmission and some Ph.D. candidates have felt rather deflated at that point because they perceive it as some sort of a failure, but the advice is to treat this as a positive learning experience and practice for the main VIVA examination.

What do I feel about that? Honestly, I don’t know. I’m hoping that I don’t fail! I don’t think I will fail because I know that I will put all my effort into the Upgrade paper to ensure that I do upgrade successfully from Master of Philosophy to Doctor of Philosophy. Does it really matter to me if I do get upgraded? I would love to, and I will do everything that I can to be upgraded. My ideas and directions have not been criticised so far: the feedback has been generally positive and have been told that I am onto something.

I know that I will put as much effort as I can into being upgraded, and I know this because I have genuine passion and enjoyment of writing, the research process, of exploring and developing my own ideas and pushing this as far as I can, as well as having a genuine interest in research methods within Education.  I believe that this shall drive and maintain my motivation and enthusiasm over the next four years. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy; it won’t, and quite frankly, I would be a little disappointed if it were easy. I continuously want to improve and develop myself personally and professionally, and the Ph.D. offers the brilliant opportunity to do just that.

A decade ago I never thought it would be possible for me to have a published research paper, a Master’s Degree, and be working towards a Ph.D. Twenty years ago, I never thought I was capable of doing an undergraduate Degree! Sometimes, you just have to take that leap into the unknown and believe that you have what it takes to achieve and to be that success that you want to be, and have the faith that you have what it takes to achieve and enjoy the journey, and if other people feel inspired and encouraged by the journey that you take then that in part makes it all worth it!

Enjoy the Ph.D. ride!

October 2015

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