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December 30, 2018

Ph.D Update: Up To Christmas 2018 Part B, The Literature Review

The other key task up to Christmas was the redrafting of the literature review. Whilst this redrafting is continuous, the literature review is really beginning to take shape where I believe that the structure and content of the chapter are aligning with the overall chapter goals and ambitions. I have increased discussions and expanded upon existing discussion directions in relation to social learning, relevant areas of technology enhanced learning, and concerns that are specific regarding the phenomenon of research interest. I am greatly expanding discussions to include not just formal learning pedagogies related to the phenomenon of interest, but also informal learning and informal learning approaches. I also continued, and continue, to check through to ensure that arguments and discussions flow logically, systematically, and are in an ordered fashion from general to more specific.

I think in all literature reviews it is important to discuss from the general to the more specific. This way, you can set the context layer by layer. Through this, you can help navigate your reader through the vast maze of concepts, characterisations, definitions, findings and perspectives in relation to your research project. Additionally, and further to the navigation of existing concepts, etc. you can introduce the reader to your critiques, leanings, characterisations and conceptualisations with reference to each layer, and integrate these across each layer to form a cohesive and coherent literature review.

The aim of the research itself is to create a new coding framework and to develop thematic understanding of the content and behaviour of the phenomena of interest. The literature review offers a context for the research; it offers a platform upon which I can explain what the current and relevant coding frames are, to offer critiques of these coding frames, and to explain why there is a need for a new coding framework to assist with the investigation and understanding of the phenomenon of interest. The literature review goes beyond the critiques and discussions of the coding frameworks, as the literature review shall explain, investigate, discuss and critique existing publications regarding the wider social learning and technological learning and communicative contexts within which the phenomenon of interest is being investigated. Further to all of this, I still have to explain why there is a need to further develop thematic understanding of relevant areas of the phenomenon. I still have to explain the aspects and characteristics of the phenomenon I am exploring, the context of this phenomenon, and why the aspects of the phenomena and its context of choice are valuable and important to explore.

I additionally have to explain the value and usefulness of the coding framework against other coding frameworks, and explain how and why it is different from other frameworks and to explain the way in which the coding framework can work with other frameworks. These discussions shall be left till later in the thesis.

At the moment, the word count of the literature review stands at over 10,000 words, though it is expected to have up to around 15.000 words by the time the final version is complete. Always remember though that quality is more important than quantity. With that, I aim to try to keep the first literature review chapter as short as I can whilst including all the meaningful arguments and discussions ordered in a logical fashion from the general to the specific.

In summary, the literature review work is ongoing but I am more confident in the direction that I am now taking the literature review, and the general plans that are in place to produce an engaging, cohesive and coherent chapter. At least, fingers crossed!

October 14, 2018

Ph.D Update: Late September till 5th October

During the first couple of weeks of returning to my Ph.D. following a summer break, marking the fifth and final year of the Ph.D., I engaged with qualitative methodological literature and continued to develop my philosophical beliefs and methodological approach. After a couple of weeks of reading through appropriate chapters of qualitative methodological textbooks, I have been inspired and fascinated by the fact that I am better able to understand qualitative research concepts and contexts presented compared to three or four years ago. This awareness has enabled me to better explain and argue the relevance of qualitative research for my Ph.D. project and indeed for the general research context and type of data I am exploring. As ever, as always, there is always a lot more to say and what can be said, but I do believe I am at the point where I can produce methodological arguments regarding the relationship between qualitative concepts and the general research context. These ideas can only be further improved and developed as I continue to write the research design chapter.

What is interesting is my developing understanding has occurred not necessarily through constant rereading of the qualitative textbook literature, which can help, but through active engagement with the data, through testing out various methodologies and methods, and documenting their effectiveness and comparisons in their effectiveness and usefulness in exploring the phenomena of interest. Perhaps more specifically and importantly, what has impacted my understanding the most is the active engagement through coding and really exploring the data: breaking data down into segments and giving them meaning (codes) and being able to visualise links between these segments. This has really helped me to understand more what my data is about; to think about the nature and context of the data and its characteristics; to think about the way in which the data represents the phenomenon of interest, and, therefore, has assisted in developing my understanding of the relevance of qualitative methodologies particularly the approach I am developing. It’s not just about active data engagement: you have to be able to provide methodological and philosophical reasoning and justifications of your approach and it has to make logical and reasonable sense. This is what I am continuing to strive and achieve. Not an easy task by all means, it can take a long, long time, but it can happen and you can achieve. You just have to believe!

It is engaging with the data and the phenomenon at an embedded, detailed level that has assisted with that understanding of qualitative concepts and methodology. It is like an evolving relationship: you read the methodology textbooks, you actively engage with the code for a period, and that in turn increases your understanding of the methodological textbooks. Additionally, being actively engaged with the data increases your understanding of the data and the way in which the data represents the phenomenon of interest. I realised that my engagement with the data increased my understanding of the data and its representation, but finding out that it helped significantly in developing my understanding of qualitative textbooks is an interesting observation. It’s impossible to claim to know everything, that is not possible, but in the thesis I can detail the way in which engaging with the data has enabled me to better understand the purposes and objectives of qualitative data, and the way that I can argue that qualitative data could serve another purpose relative to the data and context of my research. Fascinating!

The key message to take away from this blog is, sometimes you just have to jump in and engage with the data. If it takes weeks or months to really understand the data as it has done with me, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you are able to return to the textbooks and be able to better understand the concepts of qualitative research and be able to begin to argue the concepts most relevant to your own research, whilst being able to argue which are not, and perhaps attempt to extend the scope and definitions of qualitative research.
It’s a journey, and it’s a journey of continuous improvement.

Keep going! You can get there! Believe in yourself and your capacity and capability to produce your thesis and promote your research!

October 01, 2017

A Personal Insight Into Reworking Research Paper / Essay Ideas Into A Thesis

The Ph.D. journey is full of opportunities and experiences. Opportunities to showcase your research design and research findings in many diverse, creative, expressive and individual ways: setting up seminars, presenting at conferences, writing research papers, entering various video and poster based competitions, among many other opportunities. The thesis is obviously the key piece of work; the key outcome, of your Ph.D. and the journey to this outcome is beyond description! When you take part in other activities you have to balance out those activities with the thesis writing. Every opportunity that I listed is of some benefit, especially getting papers published and presenting at conferences, however you should not feel that you have to try to do absolutely everything: you don’t have the time for that. You have to choose carefully and make sure that what you do is not so distinct from your research that you cannot reuse it in some way in the future.

During the past few weeks I have been working on an essay referring to the Philosophy of Education but due to personal reasons (nothing terrible!) I had to forfeit the essay. One of the personal reasons was that I felt exhausted after completing and sending in the previous research paper that has now been accepted for publication. You know, it’s not just the act of writing and thinking (and thinking about what you are writing) that can tire you out, I can handle that, it’s the emotional side as well. Those feelings of doubt, of wondering if they are going to accept that paper, those slightly nervous feelings that can keep you on your toes. And then comes the feeling of elation and excitement that only academics can understand when they are told that their journal paper is to be published! Not to mention immense feelings of relief and personal satisfaction. All these mixed emotions can tire you out and that’s not including the fact that you are continuing to work on different aspects of the Ph.D. through these experiences (e.g., thesis chapters, and continuing to search for and evaluate different types of literature and determine their position within the thesis). This is the Ph.D: it’s the highest academic publically accessible award you can achieve (others such as Professorship and the Doctor of Letters or Doctor of Science are available to those ‘inside the circle’). It is challenging. It is an emotionally charged experience.

But I had to forfeit the essay, which wasn’t a formal requirement anyway just something else I would have liked to have published. I didn’t feel disappointed either, because I quickly realised that something more substantial was in the offering, only I just had to realise it………

Arise, Phoenix!

Greek Mythology aside, it’s been a couple of weeks since I made that decision and I’ve been going flat out in my attempt at reworking the essay into the thesis in some way, and then I came to a realisation. I could rework the essay to act as a foundation, or a backdrop, to my research problem, research design, and eventually the research findings. I have always known the research problem and the background to the research problem (e.g., the way I identified the problem, the genesis of the problem etc.) but I had no backdrop. You can describe the background to the research such as, what your research is about, what do you propose, what is the research problem etc. but I think a thesis can be further enhanced by using a backdrop that you can place the research on. This backdrop provides a clear relationship not only between research problem and research methodology, but relate both to a much wider, grander research context where you can fully contextualise your research proposal, your research design and, eventually, your research findings.

What this has led to me now proposing and developing are what I would call three separate but related literature reviews within the thesis. This reflects the general backdrop idea, the complexity of the research phenomena, the diverse types of literature that shall be used and continue to collect, and the diverse set of aims and purposes that I have of the literature. The use of the literature, in my opinion, is made more dynamic and complex because of grounded theory. Grounded theory utalises different sets of literature in ways that are much different to other research approaches. I shall be writing about this more in a future blog post.

Three different literature reviews (I call them literature reviews at the moment: I shall be giving them more formal names as the writing proceeds) are now being proposed and developed for the thesis after reading through various theses and realising that this is actually possible. I am obviously not going to go into too much detail of the content of the chapters on here, but it suffices to state that the first literature review chapter is based on providing a background. Here I shall be talking about the relationship between Society and Education and be detailing how contemporary society and Education demands particular understanding, perspectives and views of the way in which the world behaves, and of the characteristics and behaviours of modern classrooms and learners. The second literature review shall be much more specific to the phenomena of interest, identifying gaps in the literature and providing various philosophical and practical justifications for the need of my research and for understanding and exploring the phenomena of interest in a different way.

The third literature review shall then launch a series of critiques and explorations of, and comparisons between, different analytical models related to the phenomena and this shall provide the theoretical and practical foundations upon which I can argue the need for my research. These critical reviews of the literature shall then be followed by the methodology chapter, followed by the findings and discussion chapters, which shall emerge as the theory develops.

In summary:

The key message here is, don’t try to do everything and most importantly don’t throw away any ideas that you might have. I had to forfeit the essay but this turned out to be the best option because I was able to rework ideas of the essay into my thesis, from which three separate but related literature reviews have been generated. This I feel shall now provide a much richer reading experience of the thesis, and a more substantial and comprehensive understanding of the phenomena of interest. This has actually meant more to me than the actual essay, because, when all said and done, and as much as I will be writing more papers in the future, the thesis is the top priority!

Oh, and keeping your sanity is also important……..

March 12, 2017

Literature: changing perspectives and roles in a grounded theory project

Grounded theory research involves developing a theory or theoretical framework from the data using a series of coding procedures that differ depending on which authors and philosophical positions are adhered to. This approach is in contrast to the top down approach where an existing theoretical framework is applied to the data and therefore the data is “forced” to fit around pre-defined categories, which in itself, I shall further argue in the thesis, limits creativity and potentially unique insights. In the thesis I shall give various examples of coded data and apply existing frameworks to the data in order to demonstrate the unsuitability of the majority of existing theoretical frameworks for the aims and objectives of my research.

A key aspect of grounded theory and therefore to the development of the emerging theoretical framework is literature, and literature is important for many reasons. Initially I began reading the literature for the purposes of contextualisation and identification of knowledge gaps. Contextualisation means to determine where your research fits within the vast arena of published research literature in order to determine the way in which your research differs from or builds on existing research. Identification of knowledge gaps means to find out what knowledge might potentially be missing or what direction or aspects of the phenomenon of interest have not yet explored fully. I have found the knowledge gaps that I want to address and have situated my research within existing literature therefore this aim has been achieved. Now this has been achieved a part of the reading purposes is to develop philosophical and methodological justifications and arguments for why I want to explore particular phenomena of interest using the research design that I have created.

But that’s not all there is to literature, because more than any other method or methodology grounded theory commands a strong integrative relationship between the emerging theoretical framework and the literature. In other words, the role of existing literature particularly empirical literature (but any and all types of literature shall suffice) goes beyond merely supplying findings that are either in agreement with current research findings or not: it is tightly integrated with all aspects of the emerging theoretical framework and is therefore used to act as extra empirical evidence or data to confirm or disprove hypotheses that form a part of the emerging theoretical framework. Grounded theory advocates a strong relationship between analysis of data, data collection, and exploration of existing empirical literature, leading to findings of existing literature integrated with the emerging framework in order to achieve further theoretical development.

Ok, so, literature is really important to grounded theory research projects at all stages but in my experience this can really only be fully appreciated when you actually begin coding the data. I have coded about half of the first case so far although, and not to go too far off topic here, I’ve reread this first half several times because each time the data is reread, new insights and relationships between different codes and aspects of the data are identified but that is the nature of grounded theory: but more on this in later blog posts. Following the coding of half of the first case and constructed somewhat of a, admittedly rather crude, theoretical framework (crude and rather basic: but we all have to start somewhere!) based on some of the data, I began to reread the literature that I had already referenced in the upgrade paper’s literature review, and I am really starting to understand the way that existing findings might be able to integrate within the emerging theoretical framework in order to achieve further theoretical development.

What I have found, and what other Ph.D. candidates carrying out grounded theory projects might come across, is that perspectives of the literature changes. With me, specific to empirical findings, my perspective had changed from viewing empirical findings as an important measurement of determining what has been discovered and what has yet to be discovered, to an important part of possible theoretical development through proving and disproving hypotheses and relationships.

Going further into this, I am rereading the empirical findings and I can start to find similarities and differences between what has been published and what I have discovered in the data; what I have discovered in the data and my reasoning and philosophising of this data (including developing hypotheses and potential explanations for identified relationships and so on) is guiding my perspective of the literature. I am finding myself saying, “ah! I have identified that in the coded data!” or “oh! I have not thought about that idea before, I wonder in what way that might already confirm what I have already discovered, or in some way guide my thinking about and analysing of the data.”

Essentially, I have transitioned or am making the transition from reading the literature in order to identify methodological issues and knowledge gaps, to forming justifications for the proposed research design and to confirming and disconfirming what has so far been discovered in the data and documented in the form of relationships and hypotheses in the emerging theoretical framework. This is quite a revelation because I had not automatically realised this transition until I actually started rereading the literature following several rereads of the data (and several rewrites of relevant areas of the upgrade paper). It’s like as if I had subconsciously developed a framework in my mind of the data coded so far, and then subconsciously applied this framework to the literature and then came to an immediate realisation of this transition. But this is positive because it shows a progress, a shift, in reading intentions as the research continues to mature and continues to progress, and this can only be a positive thing.

But I have to be careful and approach everything with due caution. I must not and cannot take anything that I read in the literature or any reanalysis of the data as gospel and I cannot therefore immediately reject a hypothesis just because I have coded only half of the first case and have read several papers the offer empirical evidence for the rejection of this hypothesis. This is because as I code through the other half of the case and then several cases after that I might actually find more data that proves the hypothesis. This would actually give me excellent material and platform upon which I can argue for the relevancy and effectiveness of the theoretical framework. But as I say it’s very early in the development of the theoretical framework, and therefore at this moment in time I cannot accept the first set of rejections and confirmations as they come along. It’s better therefore to make notes of existing findings and constantly compare with emerging findings as more data is analysed and coded.

Therefore the hypotheses, relationships, concepts and aspects that have already been constructed as part of the emerging theoretical framework might be proven to be irrelevant and therefore rejected this time next year; or on the other hand be strengthened and confirmed. With grounded theory, you cannot predict at all what you are going to find and what might or might not be confirmed, but that’s the beauty of grounded theory. That’s what attracts me to grounded theory.

The key message from this blog post is this: within a grounded theory project your perspectives of the literature are likely to change as well the aims and objectives of your literature search and analysis of literature. This is fine because it indicates progress and research maturity and your own personal maturity of understanding and being aware of the way in which literature can be used within your research. But don’t take anything as certain and absolute, because later in the process you could come across more literature or more examples in the data that could defeat what you discovered earlier. Best thing is to make lots and lots of notes of everything that you read and observe in the data, and use these notes as reflective points when you are coding data or integrating data from multiple sources. Most of all: have fun! Grounded theory is challenging, but it is equally exciting!

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