Search strategy

searching the literature
flickr photo by malik ml williams shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

Yesterday’s workshop, ‘Literature searching for researchers’ delivered by members of our library team provided the kick in the pants I needed to fettle my approach to literature searching. Until now, I’ve never had any trouble finding literature; rather it’s more a case of finding ways to manage the vast quantities which have emerged. What became clear to me during the session however was that I need to develop a more systematic strategy; one which is planned, clearly articulated and open to scrutiny. I haven’t been worried that I’ll not have covered sufficient ground to bring the significant themes and important issues to the surface with my ad hoc, piecemeal literature searching. However, at this level, I need to be sure that there’s not something I might have missed which might come back to bite me during and future presentations I might give, or worse still, during a viva.

This post will begin the process of thinking about my strategy and documenting how that unfolds so I have a reference point to which I can return. This should be framed quite naturally by my area of research and the questions I want to answer. The main themes centre on teacher professional learning and Twitter, but this will be undertaken using an actor-network theory approach. In a loose way I’ve already begun that process when moments have arisen; if a particular article or reference within it caught my attention, I’d follow that up through our Library Gateway or using Google Scholar, then the search process would capture my attention for a while and I’d spend a brief period extending the parameters. However, I never documented those forays, so found myself repeating them, either intentionally in order to explore the areas more thoroughly, or unintentionally because I simply forgot that I’d done it previously. One thing the workshop helped with was how you might combine and adjust your search terms to return more meaningful results, achieve a greater breadth, or target a particular area more precisely. Importantly, you should then record your activity, both for your own needs, but also since it is sometimes a requirement that you provide details of your search strategy in work that you publish.

I’m no stranger to using boolean search terms, but again, being more strategic and thoughtful about combinations of search terms is likely to yield more reliable and valid results. Having established my starting point, I then need to establish the most appropriate databases and finally devote a good chunk of time to conducting the search thoroughly. By knowing in advance what the parameters of my search will be, I can ensure that the searches I conduct in different platforms will be consistent and that if I need to retrace my steps later, I can do so. Importantly this also speaks to some on the principles of research integrity; laying your research techniques open to scrutiny, but also making the steps you took clear to anyone who may wish to replicate or extend your research in the future.

Our Library Gateway search facility casts its net widely amongst other databases; a sort of meta-search if you will. This will provide the more general point of departure for the search expedition, but be followed up by more narrowly focused locations to hone in on the specifics. This means working down through multidisciplinary databases like Web of Science, Directory of Published Papers and Google Scholar; through databases more closely associated with my field of interest like ERIC, the British Education Index or filtered versions of targeted databases like ScienceDirect; then into specific journals like The Journal of Educational Research or the International Journal of Actor-Network Theory. Although often unpublished, another particularly useful source I’m keen not to neglect are theses and dissertations. I can search for these through EThOS or Proquest, not least because the final product of other peer’s labours will also help provide a sense of the standard and quality to which I ought to aspire.

Having now established where I’ll be roaming, I now need to consider for what I’ll be searching. My springboard will be the three themes of professional learning, Twitter and actor-network theory, so the search terms I’ll start with are:

  • “professional learning” OR “professional development” OR “CPD”
  • “twitter” OR “social media” OR “microblog*”
  • “actor network theory” OR “sociomaterial*” OR “ANT”

(I’ve not tried this yet, but since actor-network theory is commonly known by its acronym ANT, I need to allow for that, but am not sure whether I might end up with a lot of results discussing the Formicidae family!)

I’ll begin by combining all three sections with AND, then take each of the three pairs separately and finally each one individually. Undoubtedly as the searching and research unfolds, It’s likely that those terms will need adjusting, so where allowed, I’ll save the searches so I can simply update them in the future, rather than having to recreate them. Additionally, given that research is an ongoing process, and to avoid missing out on work published subsequent to my search, I’ll take advantage of the alerts feature that most of the aforementioned databases provide. This will email me details of newly produced work associated with those searches. An alternative that some databases provide is an RSS feed for your search; RSS is a technology I’ve been using fruitfully to keep informed for a long while now. Since I already have an RSS reader set up to bring me content from a variety of different areas, I could incorporate my research searching into that.

One strategy I’ve continually made use of is the snowballing technique where having found a particularly significant paper, you follow up the pertinent references contained within, then from those new sources do the same until you’re not unearthing any new materials. Another useful tip I learned in the workshop is citation searching. This involves deploying your usual search terms, but sorting the results (where the database allows) on the number of times cited. Hopefully the significant papers bubble to the top, then the ‘Cited by’ function can be used to spread out to related or connected research.

The final step is to document the research you have undertaken. This if for your own benefit to ensure you are not duplicating your efforts and retrace your steps; for your supervisors so they can keep track of your progress (and be able to highlight any areas for further development?); and for others who may wish to benefit from, or build on your research. The University of Leeds has produced some helpful guidance, including templates and examples of documents you could use.

So that’s it. Plan begun. Now for the execution …

“Theories of Professional Learning”

flickr photo by ianguest shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

Aimed at teacher educators, this guide is intended to support those involved in Initial Teacher Education (ITE) by providing a critical overview of some theories of professional learning that influence ITE. Those chosen include some with which I’m acquainted (experiential learning, pedagogical content knowledge, communities of practice), some I’ve merely heard of (cultural history activity theory) and other which are new to me (clinical practice models, craft knowledge and apprentice models). Although the title offers us ‘Theories’, we clearly have some models in here, though in describing learning, perhaps they perform similar functions? (What precisely is the difference between a theory and a model anyway? My feeling is that the former provides a more robust description/explanation of a set of circumstances, supported by systematically gained empirical evidence)

As the author points out, the different theories can be classified according to their focus:

  • On the individual mental processes which learners use or the social context within which the learning occurs.
  • How we learn or what we need to learn.
  • Those driven by empirical evidence and those built from theoretical models.

Might another distinction be the degree to which the learning is externally mandated by our circumstances (professional development?) or internally driven as a result of our passion and desire for self-improvement (professional learning?). In each chapter Philpott considers the implications of each theory for ITE and in some instances we see a degree of tension where the theory has arisen to explain an informal situation (e.g. communities of practice), but is being deployed to design learning opportunities. All of which encourages me to ruminate whether theories/models which have descriptive or explanatory power can be used to design learning.

The one chapter I didn’t mention above is that given over to the work of Michael Eraut and how people learn in workplace settings. Eraut sees the knowledge that people bring to their professional practice being formed from different constituent parts which are developed in different ways. One significant aspect of this is how knowledge is transferred between practitioners and the circumstances needed to facilitate that. This might have something to offer in interrogating what is happening when teachers say they’re learning from each other on Twitter. I definitely want to follow up the Eraut references and explore his work more deeply. (Anyone who uses wave-particle duality as an analogy for knowledge has to be worth reading!)

In bringing the book to a close, the author acknowledges how complex a process professional learning is and contends that

To maximise the value of professional learning opportunities, we need to carefully design them and actively facilitate them.

Which generated in me a degree of tension I need to resolve. I have always associated professional learning as a less formal, more user-driven process, so when I see opportunities being designed or facilitated, that feels to me more like professional development. Either this is a manifestation of a bias I need to acknowledge, or I need greater clarity in distinguishing between professional learning and professional development … or the most likely scenario, I misinterpreted what Philpott is saying!

Philpott, C., 2014. Theories of Professional Learning: A Critical Guide for Teacher Educators. Critical Publishing Ltd, Northwich.


flickr photo by ianguest shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

Until one of my supervisors pointed me towards ‘Researching language and social media’ (Page et al, 2014), I hadn’t spared a great deal of thought towards a linguistic perspective. After reading this however, I now find myself with yet another lens through which to view my study and I’m increasingly appreciating that different perspectives might allow different interpretations and enrich the findings.

This post was provoked by Page et al’s discussion (2014:32) of text and context when adopting a linguistic approach to analysis. In particular I’m drawn to the parallels that a consideration of context has with exploring the boundaries within an ethnographic study and whether an ANT approach might help … or hinder.

Text, especially in social media, is neither read nor written in a vacuum. Communications and exchanges involve not only text, but sub-text, para-text, co-text or meta data which affect (and may even effect) interpretation and meaning. As a consequence, identifying the boundaries of the textual units can be quite a challenge requiring us to consider both the text itself and the context within which it was generated. What other elements surround the text, which are inherent in the environment and which are intentionally (or unintentionally) introduced by the author? And of course, what part might they play within the discourse? Can or should they be considered ‘actors’ or mediators accompanying the text? If these additional elements were removed, would the interchange become completely different and result in a different outcome? In Twitter, some of the context might indeed be internal to the environment, but inevitably the external world will play a role. That context might consist of the online or offline; it might be outward-facing or drawing from the outside. Contextual factors within social media might include participants, technology (both as a constraint and facilitator), behaviour, text (connected or related texts) and the medium itself (constraints like functions and features, T&C etc). This is where Latour’s  (2005:12) exhortation to ‘follow the actors’ might prove illuminating, or alternately might result in continually chasing shadows. (Note to self: I feel I need some concrete examples of how others have addressed these challenges)

With context being so multi-layered and fluid, establishing where it begins and ends clearly presents challenges. Considering context then is similar to bounding the ‘site’ within which an ethnography might take place; the text or site might initially be Twitter, but as soon as observation or analysis commences, the world beyond immediately comes into play.

Page et al write that others contend that unless you know everything about context, you can’t undertake an analysis. This provides further support for gaining intimate knowledge through immersion in the field, rather attempting an outsider perspective.

Latour, B., 2005. Reassembling the social: an introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford University Press, Oxford; New York.
Page, R., Barton, D., Unger, J.W., Zappavigna, M., 2014. Researching language and social media: a student guide. Routledge.

“Bowling Alone,” Robert D. Puttnam

flickr photo by ianguest shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

I’m not sure what I was reading when I caught a reference to Bowling Alone, but it piqued my interest sufficiently for me to take out a copy. Sub-titled ‘The Collapse and Revival of American Community,’ it explores in a rigorous way that sense we have of people becoming disengaged with society, of a loss of community and reduction in civic participation.

The reference point Puttnam (2001) uses is social capital; the value we accrue from and provide towards other members of society through the interconnections we share. Across a range of indicators (political, civic and religious participation; workplace and social connections; volunteering and philanthropy; reciprocity, honesty and trust), he notes a rising trend of improved social capital through the first six decades of the 20th century, then from there, an inexorable decline. He considers several factors likely to be responsible for the recent downward trend, including increased pressures on our time, financial anxiety, residential mobility and suburban sprawl, electronic communications, changes in family make-up, generational changes. Although he concedes it is only his finger-in-the-wind sense of what the data say, but the most powerful factors appear to be advent of television and the slow replacement of the ‘long-civic generation’ born in the early part of the century with their less involved children and grandchildren. In conclusion, he suggests what the potential social, political and economic consequences might be, then offers some tentative, rather general suggestions as to what might be done.

The expression ‘tour de force’ is commonly used by reviewers, but the book, like the preceding research (Puttnam, 1995) also attracted considerable critique. Some was aimed at methodology, some at either choice of data sets or the analysis thereof, some at the underpinning theory and some intimated the book was rather lightweight or populist. It seems that any academic attempting to write an accessible volume treads a fine line between being sufficiently detailed to satisfy robust scrutiny, whilst taking care to provide a readable narrative. Tough to cover all the bases. Perhaps there was also an issue because of the extent that Bowling Alone and Puttnam were picked up by the press and the political classes as a rallying point.

For me, social capital was another area with which I had little more than a passing acquaintance, so I was grateful for how far the book reached, especial thanks being due to the digestible form. I appreciated being provided with both micro- and macro-perspectives; how the behaviour and attitudes of individuals have effects on society as a whole, but also how global events have an impact on the same individuals. The causality arrow shifts back and forth it seems.

I’m not sure however how well social capital was defined; it all seemed rather … fuzzy! In addition, the metrics for changes in social capital were (perhaps as a consequence?) proxies, rather than direct measures, though Puttnam acknowledges this. (Puttnam provides useful supplementary resources and further discussion on social capital through the ‘The Saguaro Seminars‘ site)

Given my area of interest, it will come as no surprise that I thought that the digital received too little attention, but in all fairness, at the time of the research, penetration into the average household was still minimal. In the intervening fifteen years and with the advent of mobile personal technologies, I wonder whether the downwards trend in social capital has been further exacerbated? Looking at fellow bus travellers with earphones plugged in, listening to their personalised choice of music, or friends sitting together in a bar, yet all hunched over their individual mobile (cell) phones, it would be easy to take a pessimistic view. How interesting it would be to track each of Puttnam’s many trendlines forward to 2015 and see what the data have to say now. In the following video, Cook has indeed brought forward a couple of the metrics, though it’s interesting to speculate what the data are actually showing.

Since Bowling Alone was published, we’ve experienced major world events which might have had an impact on the trends Puttnam proposed. I wonder about the effects of the economic crash of 2008, the ongoing financial crisis in many countries and the effects of austerity measures. What will have been the impact of the major terror attacks and the rise in jihadist groups? As social media penetrate further into broader society, especially into the millennials group, will the outcome be positive or negative?

So what implications does what I learned from Bowling Alone have for my study? Many of the formative terms used in the book resonate with what might be occurring when teachers are using social media for their professional learning. The notions of reciprocity, trust, participation, community, culture and networks are doubtless concepts which will be of significance, though in what ways and to what extents? Are there metrics which could be conceived, similar to those in the book, which might make a quantitative aspect to my study appropriate? This is something I’d not really considered, but undoubtedly different individuals within Twitter will have different amounts of social capital, so what does that mean? Can we conceive of a topographical landscape of social capital overlaid on a social network? Is there such a thing as a social capital gradient between individuals? Can social capital flow uphill? Does it redistribute at all?!
Just mentally riffing, but definitely a few more new directions to consider

Putnam, R.D., 1995. Bowling alone: America’s declining social capital. Journal of democracy 6, 65–78.
Putnam, R.D., 2001. Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. Simon and Schuster.

Recording your reading

flickr photo by Bernie Goldbach shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

One of the many tips from my preliminary supervisory meeting was to check Pat Thompson’s blog for advice, amongst many things, on academic writing. Being familiar with Pat’s work, I needed no further encouragement and in retrieving the url of her blog, her most recent post jumped of the (digital) page – ‘Making a Summary.‘ Pat outlines how important it is to write summaries of the articles, papers and books you read, so that two years down the line you’re able to bring to mind the salient points from each of the many sources on which you might need to draw.
We’re encouraged to ask three questions as we read:

  1. What is the purpose of the paper/book?
  2. What is the main evidence?
  3. How does the evidence contribute to or support the main proposition?

…with our answers forming the summary. Any quotations or observations can be added as a footnote. The metadata for the text can be held in a reference manager, which for me has always been Zotero.

This was a good lesson for me as this is an area I could have previously managed better. In the past I’ve tended to pull out significant quotes which illustrate the thrust of the text and couple them with sufficient metadata to allow me return to the original piece when I need to. I gathered the quotes as I read, arranging them under emerging themes within a single document. This just about did the job, but I never really had a feel for each of the texts; the quotes tended to sit in isolation, divorced in my mind from the big picture of each article. Pat’s advice will help here.

The area Pat doesn’t explore in her post however, is how to store these summaries. I suspect that over the three years, there will be somewhat more than a handful, so I need to find an efficient way of storing them in such a way that makes them easily accessible, searchable and … filterable?! I can see all those of you from an IT background shooting up your hands and spitting, “Sir! Sir!” Yes a database might make the most sense, but let’s face it, it’s the micrometer in the toolbox. Precise, incredibly useful for the specific task, but ease of use is not its strong suit. What I really want is the pliers; a simple tool, quick to deploy and sufficiently flexible and adaptable to be put to many purposes.

Here’s are a few initial thoughts:

  • A document. Extend what I was doing previously to include the advice from Pat in terms of content, but perhaps use styles and a TOC to provide indexing. Searchable keywords/hashtags could be used, which, when plugged into the ‘Find’ feature, could locate sections on a specific theme.
  • This blog. Each summary would form a post, then categories and tags could be used to order and filter them based on different criteria. I like the idea of being public, which in addition to encouraging me to be more thoughtful in what I write, there is the possibility that the posts might attract comments to help refine my thinking.
  • A (digital) pinboard. Also offering a public audience, pinboard applications like Padlet allow rudimentary tagging and subsequent filtering, but offer the additional feature that the summaries could be arranged and grouped visually, perhaps allowing patterns to emerge which might not otherwise be apparent.
  • A concept map. Another visual way of arranging these snippets of information whilst forming links and connections. Again this could be online and public, and again tagging, filtering and commenting are possible options.

The visual element and capability to physically rearrange information offered by the final pair perhaps lend themselves better to theme-building, analysis and interpretation, whereas when text needs to be shunted around from place to place, the first two make life easier. To paraphrase the quiz show Countdown, perhaps I need one from the bottom and one from the top?
If you’ve found an efficacious way of doing this and would care to share, do please add a comment.


flickr photo by WSDOT shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

Enjoyed my first meeting with my supervisory team who were kind enough to spare a few minutes to say hello and open proceedings. Nothing formal; just a chance to meet, answer any questions I had and offer initial advice and encouragement. (It is after all three months until I begin!).

In discussing potential areas (and authors) to read, it was pointed out that although my research proposal was necessarily tight and focused, there is some latitude in the direction it might take … provided of course it is within the field of teacher professional learning, that being the reason the studentship award was made. From there, the focus might be on Twitter as outlined in my research proposal, or social media more generally. Within that, I could explore the phenomenon of the ‘big hitters’ – those educationalists who seem to carry some sway and who attract considerable followership. How and why has that happened and what effects do they have. Or on a similar theme, those people who have used Twitter almost as a stepping stone into other areas of expertise such as lead practitioners, Advanced Skills Teachers and professional development leaders. It might be that I approach this through Actor-Network Theory as in my proposal, use social network analysis or take a more generalist network view – more reading needed here! And that was made clear; that what I find from the literature might change the emphasis of my study, perhaps because one avenue might offer a more interesting or informative set of possibilities, or another might be either more fruitful or manageable.

The last point was quite significant and introduced a shot of realism. This is a study which is time-bound and as such what can be achieved within the time frame needs to be borne in mind. Whilst the normal way to design a research project is from the research question(s) to the methodology and methods, whilst accounting for what can be accomplished within the time span, curiously it’s also appropriate to flip that completely, start with the time available, think about the methods which will be employed, then that might actually influence the question(s) you are capable of addressing.

I managed to couple the visit with a visit to the University Library where I was able to set up Associate Membership. A limited account only in that I can only borrow up to three books at a time and not allowing access to the online repositories, nevertheless at the moment, that’s perfectly acceptable.

The work of some of the authors I’ve been pointed towards is familiar, but it’s clear I need to become much more intimate with it. Other authors are new to me. My reading list will include:

  • Davis (for a discussion of ‘complexity’)
  • Thompson (for advice on academic writing)
  • Law (for ANT)
  • Opfer and Peddar, Clarke and Hollingsworth, Timperley, Evans, Guskey, Desimone, Vermunt, Van Driel, Sachs (for professional learning/development)
  • Stoll (for communities)
  • Jopling, McCormick, (for networks)

Interesting too that I received further encouragement to write, mirroring the advice provided by Jonathan at the SIoE 2015 conference. In discussing the scope and form of that writing, the subject of digital scholarship rose to the surface, as did the ethical issues that are bound with that. This is another area of the literature to explore and to discuss at greater length later. Digital scholarship might not be the focus of my investigation, but it perhaps illustrates one of those areas that facilitate your studies that you need to be aware of and be comfortable with.

We also briefly touched on conferences which might be appropriate; the International Professional Development Association Conference in November might provide a supportive and somewhat less-pressured atmosphere for one’s inaugural conference experience. A potential place to lay out for comment, the direction your research is likely to be taking, perhaps through a poster or fringe(?) workshop. I’ll get that in the diary then!

Appetite suitably whetted.

Reflection about discussing authors

Having authors mentioned by surname, rather than their research is nothing new of course, however , now in the position of undertaking more reading than ever before, I’m minded to consider the consequences. Some of the authors listed are doubtless prolific, so a search may return multiple hits; is the first listed likely to be the most significant? Most pertinent? As a research student however, I should have the capability to scan their body of work and filter the articles of most significance for more detailed consideration. That’s fine … but there’s a ‘but.’ Quoting authors might be appropriate within a research or higher education context, but what impediments might that introduce when working with colleagues from other educational sectors who may be less familiar with that convention? If I’m ever in the position of needing to refer someone to a specific article/paper, ought I to do them the courtesy of providing the title with the author(s)? Would they find it less intimidating to hear “You would find ‘The Lost Promise of Teacher Professional Development’ by Opfer and Pedder really helpful here,” rather than “You would find Opfer and Pedder really informative”?

Getting stuck in

flickr photo by ironypoisoning shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

Although there’s a little over three months before my official start date, I’m keen to get out of the blocks and see no reason not begin reading. Actually I guess that process already began during the preparation of the research proposal, where some of the areas with which I needed to become intimate revealed themselves. The areas which currently appear to be high on the agenda include:

  • actor-network theory
  • sociomaterial approaches
  • social media in general and twitter more specifically
  • social network analysis
  • teacher professional learning and professional development, from both structured, formal fields and more ad hoc, informal
  • digital ethnography

Some of the above will frame the theoretical aspects of this research, some guide the methodology and some will perhaps span both. “The literature” to which I will turn will inevitably include books and chapters therein (foundations), journal articles which may be theoretical, empirical, meta-studies (the state of play), conference papers, but also theses and dissertations written within the field (to suggest what I’m aiming for). I find great enjoyment chaining from the references in the initial texts to new ones, finding new avenues and perhaps different perspectives. Until I’m on roll at SHU and have access through the institutional repository however some of those avenues may be blocked by paywalls and may have to wait until the barrier is raised.

Given the time frame and that I’m currently still in full-time employment, I suspect I’m likely to only scratch the surface, but my intentions are that I’ll be able to explore boundaries within which the study will take place, have read some of the seminal works from the field and begun to read more critically, analytically and reflectively. What I definitely need to do is create a mechanism for capturing interesting nuggets to which I might wish to return or that I consider to be particularly significant. In the past, I simply copied and pasted them into a document, together with a link back to the source. EverNote and OneNote immediately spring to mind, though I’d rather go less proprietary if possible. Simplenote perhaps offers an alternative, is free, cross-platform and offers various apps. Maybe I need to think more about the platform in which I’ll be undertaking the majority of my serious writing and look for a link with the notetaking application. (Think a future post will need to consider the IT aspects)

In conclusion, I’m currently reading Sociological Theory (Ritzer & Goodman, 2003). Recognising that my background is in the physical sciences, rather than social, I suspect have a bit of catching up to do.

Ritzer, G., Goodman, D., 2003. Sociological Theory. McGraw-Hill Companies,Incorporated.