Mundane practicalities of thesis writing

Having now submitted my first full draft, it became apparent how MS Word was stepping up to the mark as a tool to make life easier.  When producing a document approaching 100k words spread over 250 pages (at the moment!), swift and efficient navigation become so important. I’ve always used the navigation pane to jump between sections, even in more modest documents, but there were other aspects which also required attention.  A ‘Table of Contents’ and a ‘Table of Figures’ will also be needed to provide navigation in the printed version, then there’s page numbers, layout, styles, and bevy of other considerations. As a Microsoft Office Specialist Master, albeit one from an earlier era, I’m at least aware of where these features can be found and how they can be applied. PhD colleagues who have preceded me through the system and asked if I knew ‘how to …’ were less fortunate. Having manually numbered chapters and subsections, or tables of contents, friends were surprised to find some of the things Word could do, and somewhat shocked how much effort they could have saved.Read More »

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Further Flânerie on Twitter

In a previous post, I outlined how creating an image, initially for a competition, also illustrated how that visualisation process often became an analytical (flânalytical?) technique. Having been inspired by the @metropologeny city maps, as I began planning the vis, it always struck me that tweets seemed to naturally fit the mainly rectangular shapes of the buildings on the map. In being drawn towards the tweets however, I wondered about the other data sources which were part of my study, but temporarily parked that aspect until I’d resolved the technical aspects of producing the image. Now, with that task completed and the image submitted for the competition, I now turned back to the other data. How might blog posts or interviews also contribute to the vis?

Before delving into how I moved forward, perhaps it might help to rewind somewhat and look at how the map was built in the first place. This animation shows the different stages

“Animated composite” flickr photo by IaninSheffield https://flickr.com/photos/ianinsheffield/41631862981 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

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Quite a week

“Stourton Junction” flickr photo by IaninSheffield https://flickr.com/photos/ianinsheffield/40588261534 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

I knew that a week away with friends at Easter would help to recharge the batteries, but was conscious that I had impending deadlines. I’d also narrowly missed my target deadline of Easter to get the first full draft of my thesis in to my supervisors, but that was my target. Last week then was all hands on deck to get a poster for the follow-up SHU SIPS doctoral poster event handed in for printing. That was followed by a concentrated effort to complete the last few thesis sections, whilst simultaneously gathering the elements I needed to assemble the image I would be handing in for the Doctoral Research Image Competition … which brings me to this week.Read More »

Visualising Flânerie on Twitter

“Doctoral Research Image” flickr photo by IaninSheffield https://flickr.com/photos/ianinsheffield/40631136105 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

Here at SHU there’s a couple of PhD researcher competitions on at the moment as part of the forthcoming Doctoral Showcase series. There’s the ‘Three Minute Thesis’ heats and local final, but the one that attracted my interest was the ‘SHU Doctoral Research Image Competition 2018.’ I’ve been producing visualisations throughout my study and I had in mind one I wanted to produce, but hadn’t because I knew it would suck up time. The competition provided the final impetus and although I suspect from the information and instructions, the organisers are expecting photographic images, I thought I’d have a shot at pushing the boundaries.

We welcome attention-grabbing images to intrigue, inform or excite a lay/non-specialist research audience about your research. Images may be arresting, beautiful, moving or even amusing but they must relate to your doctoral research project.

Entrants are also allowed 150 words of accompanying text; here are mine:

The flâneur of 19th Century Paris was an observer and chronicler of city life. In exploring the bold claims some teachers make that ‘Twitter is the best PD ever!’, I called on the spirit of the flâneur to guide my ethnographic approach.

One of several methods I employed in the study was participant observation; this image is formed from tweets collected during that process. Each of the districts or ‘quartiers’ contains tweets on one of the emerging themes, each typified by a magnified example.

Since flânerie inspired my approach to observation, analysis of the data, and presentation of the findings, I sought an image which spoke to that activity. Although somewhat playful, creating this image, and other visualisations during the study, was more than simple representation. On each occasion I found the attention to compositional detail which was demanded also yielded additional analytical insights.

 

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‘Our’ positionality?

“Staggered” flickr photo by Jingles the Pirate https://flickr.com/photos/jinglesthepirate/2886174816 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-ND) license

Statements of researcher positionality are often more closely associated with qualitative studies, which, by their nature, may not have complete objectivity as a primary goal. Recognising that the researcher is bound up within the study, rather than separate and viewing it dispassionately from the sidelines, it is important to acknowledge what baggage they bring to the study. This requires acknowledging amongst other factors, one’s gender, race, beliefs, socioeconomic status, age, cultural background, political views, and how they might influence the research as it unfolds. Though important, this is not merely a matter of what effects these factors have on participants, but since the researcher as the primary instrument of data collection, what effects they also have on how findings are presented and interpreted. It’s important to remember too, that reaching the position of interacting with participants only comes after the research has been designed and planned; one’s beliefs and background will also have an influence here too.

This post then is my first attempt to pull together the foundations of the positionality statement which will eventually find its way into my thesis. A first draft, which will be improved by your feedback 😉

Bringing a sociomaterial sensibility built on actor-network theory to this study positions me in a particular way. This eschews the notion of a pre-existent reality ‘out-there’ waiting for the knowing subject to discover and explain it. Nor is reality constructed by the distant researcher through a set of discursive practices. Instead, reality is performative, brought into being as a result of the relationships which form and reform when actors, both human and nonhuman, intra-act. As a researcher of and with teachers using Twitter then, I am entangled with a heterogenous mix of educators, software platforms, digital devices, terms of service, time zones, screens, hashtags and notifications. What emerges from the study depends on the knowledge practices which are brought to bear, but these do not solely involve a researcher, research participants and standard qualitative methods, but also an eclectic mix of other nonhuman actors. Together their relational performances constitute ‘methods assemblage’ (Law, 2004), where different realities become enacted depending on the actors which participate. One implication might be that this should not be statement of my positionality, but of ours.

In acknowledging that, for example, the interview might produce different knowledge than participant observation, by using NVivo rather than coloured sticky notes, scissors and highlighter pens, might also do the same. Collecting a bunch of tweets using DataMiner, TAGS, NCapture or Storify will produce different sets of data, will offer different manipulation tools and analysis support, and will consequently perform different knowledge. All software is ‘opinionated’ in that ‘… it encourages (and discourages) certain ways of thinking, of solving problems, of structuring ideas. Software embodies a vision of the world’ (Raymond, 2007, p. 11) and as a consequence. It too has a positionality. Unfortunately, the commercial nature of much of the software that is involved in the research endeavour means that those ‘opinions’ may be buried within the hidden algorithms and code. I think it might helpful to produce an appendix which provides an account of the different applications which participated in this study, and discuss their role in more detail as they make appearances within the thesis. I’ll be guided by Adams and Thompson (2016: 89) who remind me that:

Situating the researcher as the sole arbiter in how a research project ultimately unfolds, while superficially correct, overlooks entirely the many subtle, but sometimes profound knowledge and practice implications at stake in digital technology integration.

Bio_positionality

Although the positionality of Twitter or Google or Skype might be challenging for me to render, my own positionality ought to present fewer problems, so it is to that that I now turn. I am a white, middle-class, male from the north of England in the UK and am nearing retirement age. I am fluent in English as my first language and have only an A2/B1 CEF level of competence in French, Dutch and German. The first half of my career (twenty years) was spent teaching Physics in the English state secondary system, and the second half in various roles supporting schools and teachers in implementing digital technologies. During this second phase, as my interest in and enthusiasm for digital technologies grew, I became increasingly interested in furthering my understanding, so completed certifications Masters level (Technology Enhanced Learning, Innovation and Change) and in vendor qualifications (e.g. Microsoft Office Specialist Master). Towards the end of this period I also achieved Certified Member of the Association for Learning Technologies status.

Within the research environment, this positions me as an experienced (but former) teacher, with specialism in Physics, who is now a researcher. Anyone checking my bio before interacting will find themselves reacting differently depending on their own positionality. They might see me as more experienced or from a lower hierarchical position, as from the same phase of education or not, as having teacher status or not, as having similar subject interests or not, or as having a similar cultural background or not. My positionality is therefore both relational and contingent on the circumstances. It is dynamic and the effects it produces shift from one encounter to the next.

Whilst all of the aforementioned factors which contribute to my positionality will influence the nature of this study, arguably, the one which requires closest scrutiny is my interest in, and predisposition towards digital technologies. By way of illustration, let me provide one example. In 2011 I was keen to take part in a 365 Project, however, as I often do, I was also keen to riff on that idea rather than use it as is. Instead I elected to produce a short podcast each day for a year, with each episode introducing a different Web2.0 tool.

I set up a blog through which they were delivered, tweeted a link each day and successfully completed the project on the 31st December 2012. With each five to ten minute episode taking at least half an hour to produce, in total the project took over two hundred hours during the year. This was unpaid and just for my interest, pleasure and the challenge, but also to make a contribution to the edtech circles within which I was involved. That’s what seemed to be the norm, as I saw it; people produced things they thought might be of use or of interest to others.

The above example and other (somewhat less time-consuming) activity also positions me as a ‘prosumer’ (Toffler, 1980: 265). As someone who is not simply a consumer of what the community produces, but who contributes to that economy. This once again presents me as one thing to those who might be familiar with my activity, and may even have benefitted from it, but perhaps as something else to those who aren’t aware of that activity. The follower-followee relationship might have a part to play here, with those who follow me on Twitter being more likely to be aware of my activity than those who don’t. Whether that translates into a greater or lesser likelihood that they might participate in the research is of course debatable. For Kristian, one of my interview participants, this had a positive effect:

…you’ve been on Twitter a lot and you’ve always been pretty [pause] a positive contributor, and that’s how this conversation came about.

In other situations, the reverse might have been true, but whatever the case, the data which form part of the study have been generated in a particular way as a result of my history.

With an ostensibly positive bias towards digital technologies, it would be natural to assume that I would be predisposed towards portraying the contribution of Twitter in a positive light. I have attempted however, to build research questions which are sufficiently neutral so as not to require either a positive or negative outcome. Given the posts I wrote back in the day, I shall nevertheless need to guard against the possibility of presenting an uncritical rendering of the data and what they suggest. Through the thesis, and previously through the reflexive blog posts here on my research blog, I have endeavoured to be as open as possible in providing a commentary on the decisions I made and the directions they took the research. Such reflexivity is not to forestall or counter accusations of bias, but to make plain the ways in which my research may have been affected.

Adams, C., & Thompson, T. (2016). Researching a posthuman world : Interviews with digital objects. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Raymond, S. (2006). Ajax on rails. Sebastopol, Calif.: O’Reilly.
Toffler, A. (1980). The Third wave. Pan in association with Collins.

Interviewing the nonhumans

“Researching a Posthuman World” flickr photo by IaninSheffield https://flickr.com/photos/ianinsheffield/39930805522 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

Choosing to approach my research with a sociomaterial sensibility requires me to challenge the division between the human and material elements I encounter and with which I work. Since Twitter and the online world is highly mediated, it would be remiss, I’d argue, to fail to adequately account for the material actors. Bringing actor-network theory (ANT) to bear does not, however, mean that I should consider the social and then the material. Instead they are completely entangled and mutually constitutive (Fenwick, 2014), so what they are and what they do is not in isolation, but co-constituted. Herein lies somewhat of a dilemma, since at some points it might be necessary to talk about the effect of particular practice on a teacher or what a specific aspect of materiality (like a hashtag) achieves. What’s important though is not to forget that both of these are themselves actor-networks, or assemblages, and are also part of other actor-networks. For the purposes of analysis, it is sometimes necessary to narrow the focus to a single entity, provided we don’t forget the assemblage that is also being performed.

In the methods section of my thesis I’ve discussed the semi-structured in depth interviews, participant observation (as it is manifest in this context), the blog posts I read and the exchanges with their authors. In reviewing this section and how it fits into the thesis as a whole, it’s clear how anthropocentric my writing was. The transcripts, blogs and even tweets were the words of the human participants … but where was the materiality? To be fair, I hope I’ve managed to surface some of that as a result of my observations and ‘following the actors,’ but once more it’s the (my) human voice that is privileged. How then to do justice to the nonhumans? How to give them a voice?Read More »

The path to Twitter is paved with …

Clearly no marks for originality, but there’s my first tweet. Those which followed illustrate that Twitter for me was more about learning with and from other educators. It still is … but I digress. As I’ve been analysing the data from my research, the routes by which people come to Twitter to support their learning are rather different. My tweet above was at 18:33 on the 19th February 2009, and was prompted by a fellow Master’s course member, Geoff, who suggested I might find Twitter interesting. The path for me then began with a course (Technology Enhanced Learning, Innovation and Change), followed by a nudge from someone whose opinion mattered. Can you remember the route by which you came to use Twitter to support your professional learning?Read More »

Never mind the quality, feel the width…

“integrity” flickr photo by drumminhands https://flickr.com/photos/drumminhands/7114464945 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

In preparing for a forthcoming supervisory meeting, I’ve been asked to share what I felt were the standout insights from my empirical observations, but for each one explain how I know, how I convinced myself of that, and how I can convince others. I guess what I’m being asked here is to justify my claims to knowledge; how do I assert that my interpretations are plausible? Lincoln and Guba (1985:290) phrase it as follows:

“How can an inquirer persuade his or her audiences (including self) that the findings of an inquiry are worth  paying attention to, worth taking account of?”

For them it is about trustworthiness and the arguments which can be mounted to make the case, however, assessing the quality of research findings is far from straightforward and is contested in a number of ways. Traditionally, research quality has been judged on the criteria of validity, reliability, generalisability, and objectivity. Validity, simply put, is the extent to which an account adequately represents the phenomenon it purports to. Reliability is related to the replicability of the data generation and analysis; if different people conducted the same study, or the same person on different occasions, would the outcomes be the same? Generalisability refers to the extent what has been learned can be extended to wider populations and objectivity, to how the biases and interests of researcher and researched have been reduced or accounted for.Read More »

What do teachers do on Twitter? Emerging findings.

“Sharing” flickr photo by bengrey https://flickr.com/photos/ben_grey/4582294721 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

When teachers are active on Twitter, they participate in a wide range of practices. From the outset it is important to state how their activity is underpinned by the principle of reciprocity. When one teacher claims that Twitter helps them keep abreast of current educational research, it follows that at some point, someone else must have contributed that information. When teachers describe how they contribute ideas, share experiences and signpost resources, that might not immediately appear to be enhancing their learning. However, when taken in the round, at some point the same teachers will have benefited from others having done the same. Professional practice within this communal space is based on exchange, both giving and receiving.Read More »

Connecting

One of the most frequently mentioned activities when teachers discuss their use of Twitter is ‘connecting,’ and the purpose of connecting is in order to learn. Principally, they’re seeking connections with other people, but also in order to link between different spaces, for example between Twitter and blog posts. Some of the most important connections they’re seeking to make are with other teachers, especially those who share similar interests, passions, and are of a ‘like-mind.’

Whilst connecting with specific individuals can lead to strong and trusting relationships forming and reforming, there’s a recognition that by doing so, you’re also connecting with the whole network of other connections that person benefits from; it’s a cumulative or even exponential process. Knowing the importance of making and maintaining connections, some act as brokers in bringing together people and things they think would interest or assist one another.

…or seeing someone tweeting about some subject and you think, well you need to speak to this person; those sorts of connections I think are incredibly important and that’s not really to do with the technology, it’s just about being a nice person …
(J Dale)

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