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October 05, 2017
There are no formally set “terms” or “semesters” on a Ph.D. You are responsible for organising your holiday periods and this should be based on the status of your work. The nature of the Ph.D. entails difficulty in planning exactly when to organise time off (if you wanted to plan a while ahead) because you cannot tell what leads and possible directions that shall come about because of your reading, experimenting and analysis of the data. This is both exciting and challenging: challenging because some people cannot handle uncertainty and the relative academic freedom that a Ph.D. entails, but exciting because those who can handle uncertainty and relative academic freedom shall feel energised and determined.
It is usually around this time I have a short amount of time off from the Ph.D. to recharge my batteries. I try to keep it around August / September time but it has been a little late this year because I really wanted to complete the outlining, structuring and drafting of the literature reviews and the methodology chapter as much as can be achieved at this point in time. I also wanted to update the searching, selecting and sorting of literature as much as can be completed at this point in time. Evaluation of the literature shall take place following the short time off. Plenty of blog post material here!
Before I take some time off I usually enter a period of reflecting and planning. It has been quite a year between the previous September to this September (traditionally defined as the academic year) with various important milestones achieved:
Successfully Passed Upgrade Stage
When you first begin the Ph.D., you are not immediately placed on the Ph.D. course but are enrolled on the Master of Philosophy. Some people can get confused with the terminology here when referring to the term “Philosophy” in this context.
The term “Philosophy” in this context does not refer to you actually engaging with the academic discipline of Philosophy, but in my view (and many people will have other ideas) the philosophical aspects refer to the requirement of engaging your philosophical thinking. This engagement is at both the ontological and epistemological levels and such questions you might ask are: “what do I know?” “What can I know?” “How can I know?” “What are the limits to what I can know?” “How do I know what I know?” “What does it mean to know anything?” “Is knowing anything even possible?” “Can we acquire knowledge?” “How do we acquire knowledge?” “Does reality exist?” “How can we know reality?” The answer to these questions, and many others, form a part of the development of your research design, because how you answer these questions can determine the methodologies and methods that you can use in your research project. That being said, it’s not quite as straightforward and linear as what some introductory textbooks suggest as there is much fluidity depending on your discipline, your background, your research interests, and the problem context.
Transitioning from the Masters level to Ph.D. level involves writing what is known as an “upgrade paper” where you outline the background, provide some form of literature review, and be descriptive and explanatory of your research methodology and methods along with providing some initial research findings that you might have obtained through a trial study. I have talked much about this at significant length throughout the past year and a half on this blog, but it suffices to say that the upgrade paper eventually reached seven thousand words! And following changes that I knew I had to make, the University passed me through. I’ve been upgraded from Master of Philosophy to Doctor of Philosophy and this in my view is a defining moment. I was shocked and happy to receive the news. This does not mean, however, that I have or will actually receive a Ph.D., only that I am working at Ph.D. level.
Successful Conference Attendance and a subsequent Published Research Paper
These two are separate but related key achievements for me personally. Again I have written vastly on my conference experiences earlier this year on this blog, but it suffices to say that this really has been a milestone. Presenting at the conference has been beneficial for me personally as I feel more confident with presenting my own ideas and methodologies to a wider audience, and it has been beneficial academically as it has changed the structure of my thesis (shall discuss this more in part two), leading to what I think shall be a more detailed and comprehensive thesis. It really was an incredible experience and I am excited about any future conferences that I attend!
Relating to the conference is the publication of my second journal paper. This research paper was written as a critical review of my attendance and presentation experiences of the University of Warwick’s Centre of Educational Studies’ Fifth Annual Postgraduate Conference. Writing this paper was itself a beneficial experience for me personally and professionally. In the paper, I presented my ideas and arguments about the way in which attending conferences can be a positive experience in terms of thesis development and professional development. I also presented arguments about the existence of a relationship between our epistemological beliefs and the way that we perceive reality, and the way that we therefore engage with conferences. I am suggesting that our philosophical beliefs directly influence the way that we perceive and engage with conferences. I was pleased to have written this paper, and pleased that the editorial board accepted it for publication.
Part B is coming up!
June 18, 2017
Confirmation arrived by email earlier the previous week, confirming that my research work has been successfully upgraded to Ph.D. level! The successful confirmation has been met with surprise and feelings of relief, as the confirmation is the result of a reassessment of my work following the upgrade presentation that took place a few months ago, where my work at the time nearly matched Ph.D. level but had to make a few alterations to the research design. These alterations initially came about as doubts that I had about the suitability of my own research design subsequent to first submission of the upgrade paper, but before the upgrade presentation and these doubts were confirmed during the presentation.
As has been detailed and heavily documented in my previous blog posts, the Mixed Methods approach was dropped in favour of a Case Study Grounded Theory research design and the rewritten upgrade paper, which increased in word count from three thousand words to between six to seven thousand words, was based around this research design. The literature review, methodology, trial study and discussion chapters were significantly revamped to reflect updated readings, changes in methodological directions, thoughts about the phenomena of interest, initial data findings, hypotheses and thoughts about the data.
Eventually I was happy to send it in for reassessment, and led to my research upgraded to Ph.D. level!
Current Status Of Research
But even now I’m debating my research design as I am beginning to feel that a case study design is no longer appropriate, as a characteristic of a case study design is its suitability for research where the boundaries of the context and phenomena of interest are not clearly defined.
What this means is, a case study design is most suitable in situations where the boundary definitions of the phenomena of interest (I am taking this to mean contextual, research environment and situational boundaries) are not clearly understood or are clear. However, as I come to know and understand my own philosophical beliefs and read intensely about them, along with analysing and thinking about the data relating to the phenomena, the more I am beginning to realise that there are situational and contextual boundaries and that I am able to clearly define these boundaries. Therefore, the case study option might be dropped. I shall explore this more though and write a blog post in the future when I am fully convinced this is the case, and no pun intended!
Doubts are also beginning to come about regarding the possible use of interviews in the research. The idea of using interviews came about when I followed a more constructivist epistemological approach, but having really analysed the situational context of my research a few months ago I shifted away from constructivist epistemology to constructionist epistemology. Basically, the type of interviews I wanted to carry out are known as semi-structured interviews, which enable co-construction of meaning and knowledge about concepts of reality to take place between the interviewer and the interviewee; also, the research interviews could be taken into different directions depending on the answers given by the interviewee in order to enable myself as the researcher to explore specific thoughts further. This is a sign of a constructivist approach therefore I am not entirely convinced this is achievable with a constructionist epistemology. This is something I need to look at further in the future.
Apart from those two concerns, everything else is more or less decided upon: an ontological realist approach, a social constructionist epistemology, and the possibility of dropping the case study methodology and upgrade grounded theory to a full methodological approach therefore in a sense the grounded theory shall be situated within a realist-constructionist paradigm.
What is the current focus? Where to next?
I have made tentative plans up to around the middle to the end of August where I am planning to take my annual summer time off before the long autumn and winter stretch towards Christmas. The plans, put in place about a month or so ago following the successful Warwick University conference, revolve around developing philosophical justifications for my research design, and to attempt to argue the case for a realist-constructionist paradigm as most suitable for exploring the phenomena of interest, as opposed to a positivist paradigm or a relativist paradigm.
Essentially, the main current focus is to begin drafting the initial sections of the methodological chapter of the thesis. The initial sections of the methodology chapter aim to explain and explore my ontological and epistemological beliefs, and therefore reflexivity, reflectively, and critically analyse and acknowledge any personal biases and the way that these biases might have affected the implementation of the research design, and the development of the theory. Obviously I will have to edit the methodology chapter to include such reflexivity, reflections and critical analysis in the future as I have not fully applied the research design.
However, the main focus at the moment is to develop philosophical justifications of the research design: I need to explain what my ontological and epistemological beliefs are; justify and explain why the phenomenon of interest is being explored from a realist, constructionist perspective; compare to other perspectives that other researchers have considered in the past; and to explain in detail the relationship between ontology (realism), epistemology (social constructionism) and methodology (grounded theory).
Some might consider this as a little odd because I am writing the early chapters of the thesis in somewhat of a reverse order, as I am writing the methodological chapter, or at least the beginning of it, before fully drafting the literature review. But this approach makes sense to me. I’m leaning more heavily towards philosophy compared to a couple of years ago, and I feel that a full understanding of the philosophical aspects of my research design shall put me in a better position to fully critique and analysis the ways in which the phenomenon of interest has been explored, from both philosophical and methodological perspectives.
There are various ways in which a thesis can be completed and a qualitative, grounded theory thesis does not have to be completed in a set order of literature review – methodology – results – discussion chapters and so on (I’m simplifying the structure of a thesis here) but it can be completed in whatever way a researcher feels the need to complete it. The key is not the order in which the chapters are written, but that throughout the thesis there is a clear, identifiable, observable, and engaging narrative and relationship between the chapters.
Being upgraded to Ph.D. level is half a surprising outcome but definitely a relief! The current work leading up to around the middle to end of August, possibly, is the drafting of the initial sections of the methodology chapter that refers specifically to documenting and exploring my ontological and epistemological beliefs, argue their relevance to the research phenomena and context, and explain the relationship between my ontological and epistemological beliefs, and the methodological approach.
February 12, 2017
Changes to Thesis, Upgrade Paper, and the Influence of Research Directions
Both the thesis and the upgrade paper have had significant changes made during the year so far in terms of their structure, particularly the thesis, and their content, particularly the upgrade paper. As I mentioned in the previous blog post the fact that a document has been rewritten several times shows progress of ideas and research directions, and different versions can act as a means of reflecting on the journey that has been made and the distance that the research has come. What’s useful is the continuous rewriting and editing efforts of the upgrade paper have acted as a guide for editing the structure and planned content of the thesis, particularly its literature review and background chapters. As a result all previous planned versions of the background and literature review chapters have been binned.
The change to both documents has come about through a more detailed exploration of a particular learning process that resulted in identification of a specific sub-process that appears to act as the backbone to many other sub-processes to a certain extent, as well as generating more concepts from existing literature that shall contribute towards contextualising the research in the literature review. The specific sub-process remains under researched: there are models and theories available that explain this particular process but I don’t think they are adequate or substantial enough to really explain what is going on within this process and its relationship with other sub-processes. That’s not to say that these models and theories should be considered no longer important: they are in particular contexts depending on the purpose and aim of the research, but for me they don’t explain the process in a particular way that I think is important and I think has been largely neglected.
All these changes to the research directions since the upgrade presentation have entailed the discussed changes to the thesis and the upgrade paper. The aim of the upgrade paper is still to prove the worth of my research, whereas the aim of the thesis is to communicate the completed research and its outcomes. An aim of the literature review now is to contextualise my own research through evaluating and critiquing the existing models and theories (as well as introducing relevant philosophical, theoretical, psychological and empirical concepts and literature) therefore identifying gaps within current research, and explain the way in which my research shall contribute towards solving identified issues.
The key here is to know where to start: and that is the challenge! Developing the structure however is helping me to know where to start, because structuring a literature review or any other chapter of the thesis or any other academic document means setting a structure for ideas. But this is in a non-regimented way: structuring ideas does not entail strict adherence therefore sections of each chapter can be chopped or changed around. It is up to you to decide the way in which your own literature review is structured, based on what you have read, the concepts you have developed from the literature, the critiques and evaluations of existing theories and models, and the categories within which you have placed the concepts you have developed as well as other thoughts, notes and analysis of the literature you have carried out. This is an ongoing and continuous task.
The more I read into philosophical ideas the more that I am beginning to be convinced of an ontological realism and epistemological relativism as being appropriate for my research, but it’s important to note that these are not exactly strictly adhered to. It has to be noted that I am not claiming to be a strict ontological realist and a strict epistemological relativist: these points are acting as a starting base for the research. Both points are the foundations for more substantial explorations into philosophical thinking and theories about the research design.
Currently, there are various philosophical writers that I am currently taking an interest in and are currently influencing my philosophical understanding of reality, and these are: Nietzsche’s Perspectivism, Popper’s Critical Rationalism, Hume and Kant’s discussions on causality, and various writings on fallibility, defeasibility, and social constructivism. From my current understanding all these different concepts of our understanding of reality is compatible with variants of realism and variants of relativism. Variants that recognise whilst there are aspects of reality that exist independent of our minds, not everything is independent; and, whilst objective knowledge and truth of reality might exist, attaining objective truth and knowledge of reality is difficult to achieve. I am beginning to form the belief that we will never achieve fully objective truth as our perspectives are all subjective to some extent. The best that can be achieved is to edge closer towards the truth and knowledge of reality.
Building the starting platform around ontological realism and epistemological relativism enables the beginnings of a philosophical justification for the research design, which is in addition to the methodological justifications built from knowledge gaps identified through analysing and synthesising research findings and the methodological approaches behind these findings.
The thesis is said to include several pages of philosophical insights therefore it is likely that an argument or even a small series of arguments shall be provided and fully elaborated upon, linking to the case study methodology and the grounded theory and interview methods. Providing a philosophical justification as well as a methodological (e.g., why is a particular research design use? Why are various components being used and in what way are they related through philosophy? Etc.), and practical justifications (e.g., why should the particular phenomenon be of interest? Why is the phenomenon of interested being explored using a particular research design?) That way, the thesis shall present cohesive, well structured, well grounded and logically and significantly elaborated research.
Upgrade paper has more or less been completed and was sent earlier the previous week for feedback, whilst the thesis is ongoing, as are therefore philosophical considerations. I am pleased with the progress that I have made, and moving forwards now it’s just a continuous case of developing the structure of the background and literature review chapters, as well as the methodology chapter, continue to code the data, continue to evaluate and synthesise existing literature, and continue to build a philosophical justification as well as fully elaborate on methodological and phenomena based justifications.
February 10, 2017
The upgrade paper is no doubt met with a diverse range of opinions and experiences of both writing and presenting the paper, and it’s probably safe to say that more times than not there are Ph.D. candidates who begin to bang their heads on the keyboard as they attempt to unravel the mysteries of the upgrade process, nevermind the mysteries of their own research. But does it have to be so much of a mystery? The upgrade process is an academic process by which it is expected that an academic document, the upgrade paper, is produced along with a presentation but it’s also an emotional process. Doing a Ph.D. itself is not devoid of all human emotion and it does play on your emotions: happiness, sadness, anxiety, doubt, elation, depression, it’s an utter mixed bag relative to the mindset and perspectives of the individual. There is no getting away from that, hence why Universities have a set of student support services that are available for both undergraduates and postgraduates to use when they need. If you ever need them, use them!
Anyway, I am going off topic. I have been asked a question recently as to whether or not I view the rewrites of the upgrade paper as an unneeded distraction from the core of the research work that needs to be completed. It did not take me long to reach the conclusion that I do not find the rewrites and edits annoying at all, nor do I find that it distracts me. Why is this? Each rewrite and edit demonstrates further progression of the research and pushes and stretches my ideas into new directions I had not previously thought about whether that be philosophical, methodological, conceptual understanding of the phenomena of interest, or the structure and content of the earlier chapters of the thesis and potential, indicative ideas for the later results and discussion chapters though obviously it’s too early to determine those chapters.
Although, is the process of research development directly because of the process of actually writing the upgrade paper, or is it directly from my continuous reading and thinking about the subject? In a sense it can be a mixture: I am thinking about the subject as I am reading, and I am thinking about the subject as I am writing therefore the processes of reading, writing and thinking are all interlinked. As I am reading about the subject, my thoughts are linking together and as I am writing about the subject the ideas can forge new relationships with other ideas I never thought possible, and this can set up a whole new chain of thinking and reading requirements, and the cycle continues and the reedits flow. I do find this to be a positive process as my ideas progress, the directions of the research and of the thesis become clearer, arguments improve, and abstract relationships between concepts are established and recorded in each edit of the upgrade paper. I have a stack of digital copies of previously amended upgrade papers, which really only serve the purpose of demonstrating and tracking the development of my research. If you read the latest version of the upgrade paper that I have sent earlier for feedback, it looks near enough completely different to the first draft that I wrote. The original version is not even recognisable and I don’t even recognise it as my upgrade paper: but just the first draft that was completed in late summer.
What has proven to be of key importance with the process is that, in addition to an internal dialogue between my thinking and thought development, it has led to an effective, open, honest and productive dialogue between myself and my supervisor where we are really becoming acquainted with each other’s ideas and where we are coming from, and this I think is healthy and productive. I have stacks of emails sent between us as we discuss and debate different aspects of not only the upgrade paper but also of different aspects of my research and we have really engaged in that effective dialogue of thought development, and has helped to create new ideas and directions and upon researching these further, further ideas and directions have developed.
Do I find the process distracting? Not at all: the mixture of rewriting and reediting the upgrade paper, the internal dialogue between my thinking and thought processing, the dialogue between myself and the supervisor, and the almost you could call the general triangulation of thought development between thinking, reading and writing is a really beneficial experience. But it is important that this relationship between reading, writing and thinking go beyond the upgrade paper and onto the thesis.
Some Ph.D. candidates might become frustrated with the upgrade process, but stick with it and think of it as a means to opening an effective dialogue between yourself and your supervisor, and the internal dialogue as mentioned earlier. Think of it as a positive, beneficial experience of enhancing your research ideas, enhancing the directions, and a process that can take your ideas to places you never thought possible and relationships between ideas you never imagined existed.
Most importantly: be happy, be humble and feel blessed in that you have the ability and capability to enhance your thoughts and thinking, and to take your research to directions you never imagined possible and relationships established between ideas you never even considered at the beginning of your Ph.D. journey.
It’s a long journey: buckle up and enjoy the ride!
December 16, 2016
During the period between submitting the original upgrade paper and attending the upgrade presentation I developed concerns about my own research design, and, during the further use of grounded theory, discovered insights that was causing a change to what I really wanted to explore. However, it was too late to change the upgrade paper to reflect my new thoughts so it was left to the upgrade presentation to discuss the new ideas. During the presentation it was thankfully and surprisingly realised that the concerns and ideas that I had were aligned with the concerns and ideas of the assessors. Since that time, I have been pushing further the development of my ideas and therefore reconstructing certain sections of the upgrade paper to reflect these changes. The methodology section in particular has been completely changed with the mixed methods design dropped in favour of a grounded theory case study approach. The trial study report has also been updated to reflect upon the new insights from grounded theory, and expanded on existing discussions through providing extra literature analysis to justify the change of approach, though obviously relevant concepts shall be explored further in the thesis.
The result is a much clearer vision of what I want to achieve with the research and that is to develop a new theoretical framework of a certain collaborative learning process that shall explain the structure and sequences of that process, and to compare that process between differing contexts. Ideas are currently being passed between me and my supervisor, but at each stage the research is becoming clearer and the upgrade paper is becoming a more precise, explanatory document. It’s a document that in time that I shall be pleased with, because the upgrade paper and indeed the whole upgrade process has enabled me to really question what I really want to do, where I want to go with what I want to do, and in what way. It’s certainly been and still is a learning process, which I feel I will benefit from in the months to come as I embark on the next stage of the journey and that is the full application of the research methods
Once the upgrade paper has been completed, the assessors shall make their decision in January as to the suitability of the research. The only difference now is, it’s a research project that I feel more confident in and more able to complete to a Ph.D. level. That’s not to say that before I didn’t have this confidence, but I did have doubts creeping in which proved to be true, realised doubts and not just confidence issues creeping in.
It’s getting there, and if things go to plan as in the assessors giving my work the approval that is needed then I can get on with the extremely busy and challenging business of writing the thesis, and constructing the new theoretical framework!
I don’t intend on writing any further blog posts between now and the New Year as I am now winding down for Christmas, so if I don’t write any further blog posts this year then have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
December 04, 2016
The mixed methods methodology has been dropped due to reasons outlined in the previous blog post. I am now taking the research back to my original idea of using just a grounded theory approach, underpinned by guidance from Strauss and Corbin along with possibly other authors as time progresses but this shall be determined in time. What does this mean exactly for my research? What does this change of methodology mean now? Changes might now occur at three different levels:
A philosophical question now is whether or not I can proceed with the research using a critical realist philosophy. This will need a great deal of thought beyond the second upgrade paper, but at the moment I am not sure. The idea of critical realism is that ontologically there are events and activities that occur outside of our own thinking and perceiving of them, whilst epistemologically our understanding of these events and activities are continuously fallible and we can never really fully know the truth behind, for example, a process, and why a process occurs.
Perhaps using multiple observations or “cases” of phenomena along with using other methods contained within a grounded theory analysis could promote a critical realist perspective, because whilst the researcher is allowed under grounded theory to generate their thoughts and theorising during coding ultimately all thoughts must be grounded within the data. The theory emerges not from our thoughts and thinking, and perceiving, but from the grounded theory data. A question here though is that it could still be subjective: my grounding of my own thoughts and thinking within the data could still simply be based on the way in which I interpret the data. If this is a case, are there any events and activities that occur outside of our perceiving or thinking of them? If so, what? And how, and why?
Critical realism’s ontology is based on post positivism or empiricism; epistemologically, it subscribes to interpretivism or relativism. Is this really the right way? Do I have to rethink the ontological and epistemological aspects? I am not totally sure at this time; however, philosophically speaking grounded theory is somewhat pragmatic in that it can neatly fit within near any philosophical orientation as long as this is fully understood and justified.
Lots of questions have risen since the trial study particularly with regards to the relationship between the researcher and the participant. From what I can currently understand, philosophical orientations describe the relationship between the researcher and the participant, but what about relationships between researcher and the data where there is a sense of detachment between researcher and participant? What then? Challenging, but exciting, and will be exploring this much more.
Obvious and clear changes: the mixed methods methodology has been dropped. The research design is now based on a grounded theory approach possibly centred on critical realism. I am not sure about adopting a full case study approach due to analytical incompatibilities between case study, critical realism, and grounded theory, but this might be something that I shall have to revisit in the future. It is possible to do a grounded theory within a case study, but then critical realism would have to be dropped.
The methodology now is grounded theory based on principles from Strauss and Corbin and perhaps other grounded theory authors. Potentially, some amendments might be made to grounded theory in order to represent the exact context of the research. These amendments might be based on resolving the philosophical issues some of which have been outlined in the previous section.
A question that has come to me due to potential philosophical issues is deciding whether or not qualitative is the correct term to use to describe grounded theory, because of the relationship between the researcher, the participant and the grounded theory data. This is something that I shall be exploring further.
In more practical terms, the change of methodology will enable me to focus on mastering a single methodology, a single set of methods within grounded theory methodology, and be able to channel my thoughts towards resolving existing philosophical issues either in general, specific to the context of my work, or a mixture of both. Not to mention being able to fully comprehend and propose ways in which existing reliability and validity issues can be resolved.
Placing grounded theory at the level of methodology was the original proposal before I latched onto mixed methods methodology. But interestingly I did not realise or was aware of the practical benefits of using only a grounded theory approach for my research, but now I do realise these benefits, and therefore happy to drop the mixed methods approach.
A key feature of my previous methodology was theory testing and refinement through the use of quantitative findings. This might still occur within qualitative grounded theory through ideas based on theoretical sampling method in order to test the emerging theory, and also use constant comparisons between each case in order to identify similarities and important differences in order to refine the theory. However, should these really be classed as approaches to theory refinement, or simply refining the validity and reliability of qualitative, grounded theory findings?
Plenty of philosophical and methodological challenges are no doubt ahead, but my passion and enthusiasm of philosophy and of grounded theory methodology will no doubt be able to carry me through, resolving any problems that come along, and form solutions that are workable, practical, and lead onto contributing new knowledge and understanding of resolving existing problems that have not yet been resolved, or even identified in the first place.
A while after the submission of the original upgrade paper, I had concerns about my own methodological approach. The sequential exploratory mixed methods design, which I thought was faultless, was being questioned by my own thoughts and increasing awareness of potential problems. The concerns that were raised and discussed with regards to the questionnaire approach were as follows:
Literature shows that response rates to online questionnaires, no matter their quality, is usually fairly low and usually does not meet the requirements of the researcher or the general requirements to reach data levels needed to produce a quality set of results and a quality set of insights based on these results. I did express my concerns about not reaching these levels and I did say that if I did not reach the required levels I would be disappointed. On this fact alone the assessors advised me to drop the questionnaire approach and just use the grounded theory approach as I would be able to attain and analyse much more data.
Precisely Measuring Phenomena
Construct validity is a key issue in questionnaire design. Given that new insights have been found after the submission of the upgrade paper questions were being asked from myself about whether or not I could really capture what I really wanted to capture. Could the questionnaire capture all that I really wanted to capture? Would it be even able to measure what I want to measure? The problem I had at the upgrade presentation was I could not present a questionnaire nor give much in the way of what could be on the questionnaire because the entire design would be based the findings of grounded theory. This point was appreciated. But even so, even if it were not mentioned I would have still had my own concerns of my own approaches.
This wasn’t mentioned at the presentation, but a key issue here is time. It takes time to develop a grounded theory, convert it into a format suitable for the development of the questionnaire, trial and deploy the questionnaire, wait for the appropriate responses, and then analyse the data using various appropriate quantitative measurements. Not to mention writing an eighty thousand word thesis and writing various conference and research papers in between all that. Again although this wasn’t mentioned, I do wonder if time factored into the advice to drop the mixed methods approach and stay with grounded theory.
Sometimes I wonder if there really was a secret message underneath all this. Something along the lines of, “listen, we know you are enthusiastic about this and we don’t doubt your ability to do what you propose but you have to think about the practical aspects such as time, and whether or not you can do everything that you plan to do within the time allocated to complete a Ph.D.” Which is, obviously, a fair assessment to make as I was questioning myself about the element of time. It’s all fine and dandy producing a research design that is workable, but really pointless in an administrative sense if it cannot be completed within the allocated time and also if there is a chance that some aspects of the Ph.D. could remain uncompleted at the time of the need to write the rest of the thesis.
Perhaps a sequential, exploratory mixed methods approach would take too long to do for a Ph.D. project; perhaps sometimes playing it “safe” is the best option. I say “safe” in quotation marks because whilst the approach might appear to be safe in terms of own ability to do the work in the allotted time, it doesn’t mean that it’ll be easy!
The upgrade presentation, including the subsequent time spent with the supervisor, took up about four hours. Reflecting back that might appear like a long time, but this was a crucial time where my own concerns were confirmed leading to a change in methodology and explorations of the phenomenon of interest. This blog post highlights the key insights of the upgrade presentation:
Revert Methodology Back To Grounded Theory
Methodological concerns that I had realised and had been playing on my mind since submitting the original upgrade paper, and therefore was too late to do anything about these concerns, were confirmed. As I personally predicted, and hoping for, the grounded theory aspects were well received and my passion for the grounded theory appreciated, but the questionnaire and general mixed methods methodology were dropped as a result of the assessors confirming my own concerns.
Whilst I appreciate that some Ph.D. researchers would view this as a negative outcome; for me, this was a positive outcome. The fact that I realised concerns about the questionnaire aspect before being told by Professors simply builds my confidence in my own ability to identify methodological faults before being told by those far more qualified. Plus, a little while before the presentation began I told myself that as long as I can continue with the grounded theory research that is all that really matters from a methodological perspective. This has been achieved, and therefore I consider this a positive outcome.
Update Upgrade Paper With New Insights
Since the completion of the upgrade paper, I have had new insights and ideas into what exactly I am exploring. Aspects of the upgrade paper are therefore to be rewritten, whilst other aspects (namely the literature review and all references to grounded theory) are to be left as they are. The methodological section is to go through a near complete rewrite in order to completely remove all references to mixed methods and replace with grounded theory. Objectives, research questions, discussions of anticipated findings, and the introduction aspects of the grounded theory trial are to be updated to reflect insights and directions that I have considered since the completion of the upgrade paper.
This is the way the Ph.D. works: you cannot submit a certain paper then stop work till you receive feedback or attend a presentation. The work simply continues at the regular pace. As I explored the data and continued to code data during the trial study, the need to perhaps redefine phenomenon of interest started to emerge during the data coding, and became obvious during the upgrade presentation. Again, this confirmed my own ideas and concerns that I had about my own approaches. Again, a positive outcome.
Use Of Literature And Critique Of Literature
The literature review aspect of the upgrade paper is to be left as it is as the literature review approach impressed the assessors from what I could make out, including the analysis and synthesis of literature and the use of literature to evidence the need for my research. Additionally, the assessors do not appear to have any concerns about my writing and my ability to write a thesis: my supervisor has even encouraged me to write conference and research papers as soon as I am in the position to do so. This is obviously a key, important outcome of the upgrade paper because if they had concerns about my writing and my ability to write a thesis then it would be just silly to continue it.
I personally feel that I can write a thesis. I personally feel that I can write conference and research papers; if anything, the upgrade presentation has simply boosted my confidence in my ability to do so. That’s not to say that I think I know everything: there is still much to learn about constructing a thesis but I am learning and refining my skills all the time. Reading theses certainly has helped.
I have started some literature review work, but will have to put most of the work towards it on hold whilst I update the upgrade paper.
In all however, this was a key, positive outcome!
Use Of Grounded Theory
Assessors appeared to have no problems with my use and understanding of grounded theory nor did they appear to have any problems with the way that I explained the use of grounded theory in the upgrade paper. Although, personally, I might make some changes to relevant aspects of the upgrade paper to upgrade my thoughts of grounded theory that have developed since the original submission of the upgrade paper.
Personally I think I did alright. Could have been better I suppose but the supervisor said that I performed and came across well with what I was saying. What was interesting was the background of the assessors background: they had a background in language (Professorships) and discourse, and were viewing my research from a discursive, linguistic perspective rather than my own technical, process based approach. Never actually thought about what I am doing from a discourse, linguistic approach and I appreciated their insights, and might be something to consider more significantly whilst developing the theory.
What I am particularly pleased about with my own general approach was having my own concerns about my own methodology confirmed, along with being offered the chance to update the paper with insights and ideas that I have developed since the submission of the upgrade paper.
August 21, 2016
Research designs and research activities need to be trialled before they are deemed appropriate for full research implementation to ensure their validity, fitness for task, fitness for purpose, and their reliability, and to make any amendments. Research activity within educational research is the task that research participants interact with, and the interaction between participants and task is the object of investigation. The trail study is effectively ensuring a fit between the activity and the design as best as possible so that the interactions between participants and tasks are captured as effectively as possible relative to the research problem and research questions.
In what way does the activity match the research problem? In what way will the activity facilitate the needed interactions between it and the participants in order to produce suitable data for analysis relevant to the research questions? There are no easy answers due to the dynamism of the human subjects. Even in experimental designs (to some extent depending on the specific design type), famed for allowing the researcher to have freedom of manipulation of the environment and variables, it is difficult to predict exactly what kind of interaction shall occur between participant and activity. An important objective of a trial study therefore is to ensure the activity is suitable and interesting enough to sustain interaction and generate enough data for analysis.
The activity of my research is collaborative therefore it was important to carry out a trial study to ensure interest among the participants and therefore their interactions with the activity is sustainable to the point where enough data can be generated for suitable analysis. Success criteria of any research activity varies widely depending on its type and the way in which it is used to assist with resolving a particular research problem, and can be determined therefore through understanding your research problem, your research questions and your research design.
I considered the trial of the activity a success not in terms of the quantity of participants but the quantity of the data: the activity was able to hold the attention of the participants to the point where enough data had been collected. The nature of the research design enabled this success due to its focus on the importance of the content of the activity and not the quantity of participants. Other research methods using the same activity would likely emphasise quantity of the participants.
Research design trial
Following the activity, the design was then trialled. It has to be emphasised that depending on the design, either a part or the whole design can be testable. Again, because of the nature of my research design only a part of the design is trialled at this time for the purpose of fulfilling the requirements of the upgrade paper, and also obviously because I want to make sure that it works! The other half of the design shall be trialled at a later time with that trial discussed in the thesis.
Essentially, in a sequential exploratory mixed method approach the qualitative phase occurs first followed by the quantitative phase. The findings from the qualitative phase, which in this case is based on grounded theory, shall be used to develop the methods of the quantitative phase. Reasons why are extensive and are beyond the point of this blog post, but essentially because of the nature of this design the grounded theory approach is being trialled first.
Are you still with me? Yes? Brilliant, if any person could explain to me what the heck I am talking about, answers on a post card to………
The first part of the research design trial, the grounded theory trial, is currently ongoing but initial thoughts and findings suggest that the grounded theory aspect is working and has really helped me to understand mixed methods research more to the point that I have altered the mixed methods variety for this research.
There has been a lot to understand and process regarding this trial study especially considering that now the trial study can actually turn into a case study as part of the multiple case study approach of the research. It has been, and is, challenging because I am not just doing the trail study as a slap on attachment to the upgrade paper. This has been and continues to be a serious, detailed, reflective exercise of my research design and research activity and has helped a lot with my understanding of the activity data, ways to approach the analysis and understand the data, and understand the effectiveness of the research approach.
The trail study has evidenced the fact that whilst it is extremely important to read the relevant literature around your research design for academic argumentation for and against (and with just grounded theory alone there is a wide variety of different arguments), it is just as important to simply try it out. It is because of this trying out of the design that I figured out a potential fault with the previous favoured mixed method variety, concurrent triangulation, fixable only through switching to another mixed method variety, the sequential explorative variety.
August 20, 2016
Been quite a while since I have written a blog post on here as there have been plenty of things going on to distract me, but now is time for a series of blog updates! The following is a brief overview of the key areas of activity, with further blog posts following that explore these in more detail.
Update on the Trial study
The trial study is based on trialling a collaborative activity and trialling a grounded theory approach adapted from the ideas of Strauss and Corbin. I say adapted because there are a variety of authors suggesting Strauss and Corbin’s version is too regimented and difficult to follow, but Strauss and Corbin did respond by suggesting their procedures for coding do not have to be followed through strictly, therefore researchers should logically and constructively apply grounded theory procedures relevant to the research context. I might alter aspects of the approach as the trail and the main thesis study continues.
The trial appears to be coming along well. As reported in earlier posts I managed to successfully carry out the trail activity so it is now the case of continuing to use grounded theory to learn about it more, and to learn about the data that I have collected. I am fascinated with grounded theory! Lots of information on grounded theory online but for now it suffices to say that grounded theory is a key methodology (or method: it can be viewed both ways depending on its purpose and position within the research design) in developing new conceptualisations, a new theory, or new theorising of the phenomenon of interest. This is challenging and I have the belief that in order to really be successful at this you have to be quite creative and able to think about data, events, observations and aspects of reality at an abstract level. You begin with exploring the data but you have to think about the data at a higher, abstract level. It’s about interpreting the data based on your observations, though the validity of these interpretations can be increased depending on the research design and the way in which existing literature is used. But despite it being challenging it is an exciting approach to exploring data.
Trial Study as the Thesis Study
The most significant feedback and conversations during the past month or so has been the idea of using the trail study as a thesis study, or acting as a case within the thesis study. This was and still is huge, because it effectively means that when I am exploring and coding the data not only am I exploring data to benefit the production of the upgrade paper but also to benefit the thesis and the research itself. This has been deemed feasible therefore I shall be using the activity as part of the thesis and also explore other activities, known in the thesis as cases, in order to locate differences and similarities, which shall increase the validity of the theorising and theory development.
Change of Research Design
This change has actually come about through working through the trial study. Previously I had mentioned about adopting a critical realist, concurrent triangulation variety of mixed methods where the quantitative and qualitative aspects of the study would be carried out at the same time. In other words, I would have been carrying out grounded theory analysis of the activity whilst collecting thoughts and beliefs of the learners at the same time and then integrate the findings and discussions.
The only aspect that has changed is the mixed methods variety: I’ve ditched the concurrent triangulation and adopted the sequential, exploratory variety. Briefly, during the trail study I was struggling with the way in which data from the grounded theory findings and questionnaire findings could merge due to the abstractness of grounded theory. There would have been a chance of new concepts and new conceptualisations emerging from the data but exploring them via quantitative measures would not have been possible because the quantitative phase would have started at the same time, or in other words concurrently.
Using a sequential exploratory approach enables the constructions and conceptualisations, the theory, to emerge first and then test these out using the questionnaire and generalise across a wider population. This makes a lot more sense than to carry out both threads concurrently given the potential for extra insights that would not have been possible to explore had the mixed methods approach remained unchanged.
I’ve also encapsulated the research into a multiple case study, therefore the research design is now a critical realist multiple case based sequential exploratory mixed methods design.
Progress on the Upgrade Paper
This has been rewritten more times than I care to remember and will be reread and edited in various places before actually handing it in. When I rewrite each section I ask myself why did I not think about things in a particular way and communicate in a particular way before. But that is the beauty of re editing: it makes you think and contemplate more as you go through the document and think if you can explain anything in a more concise, or more sophisticated way without dropping the meaning behind the text. I know this, but still, sometimes it takes me by surprise at the differences that are found between each modified version of a particular document.
Most of the sections are now complete. Only sections that need to be completed are the trial study section, and talk a bit more about potential problems and possible outcomes.
That’s the brief overview of the main things that have been going on during the past month or so!