thinking photoThis blog post is very different to ones I have written previously on this site. In those I have blogged on experiences in a Masters in Digital Education at Edinburgh University. This post is not just about the Masters; it is part of it, an assignment within an edX MOOC (Introduction to Social Research Methods) considering potential research topics for a dissertation. These are my thoughts so far on choosing a topic; the more I learn of research methodology, the more I see the gaps in my thinking. I trust that writing here helps with those.

What kind of topic am I interested in researching? I am interested in psychology of learning within digital contexts, in the area of meta-learning. As well as learning about subject content, we all also learn through how content is delivered. Meta-learning involves becoming aware of the latter aspect of learning, understanding it and adjusting it if needed. If learners are unaware of this and learning content is delivered in a top-down way, then they may also learn that acquiring knowledge is a passive activity and not to be questioned. Alternatively, collaborative learning can cause the opposite effect.

Yet I have seen how digital contexts that should encourage collaborative learning actually do the opposite. Facebook discussions can cause the positions of people with differing perspectives to close in rather than open up. On the other hand, creating entries for Wikipedia brings people together to create a shared story, and having different positions involved in creating them actually enriches this.

What initial research questions might be starting to emerge? I am interested in the area of interfaith training and in digital tools to help with that. If the aim is for those of different (and no) faiths to understand and respect each other better, can some digital tools do that better than others? What makes the difference? Should the meta-learning aspect be specifically discussed or do learners learn inherently just by using them?

What am I interested in researching – people, groups, communities, documents, images, organisations? My interest is in people and groups, although constraints come due to my working context. Digital training tools are only starting to be used in my work for interfaith learning so numbers of people and groups are still small. It is likely to stay a small part of the project for a while, with most of the learning coming from face-to-face interaction.

Do I have any initial ideas for the kinds of methods that might help to gather useful knowledge in this area of interest? Since amount of data is likely to be small, this points towards a qualitative approach, considering the quality of experience of using digital rather than a quantitative approach, counting or measuring large numbers in order to establish patterns. A survey or interview approach could be adopted using open ended questions to explore patterns.

What initial questions do I have about those methods? What don’t I understand yet? My initial questions are around where data is to be sourced from. The digital aspect of the project is at an early stage so it does not exist yet. Possibilities I see at this stage are either to wait until there is more data or to focus on research methods based on a qualitative approach, such as interview and survey.

thinking photoDo I perceive any potential challenges in my initial ideas? Yes, I see challenges in the area of timing, that the issues to address in a dissertation may not be apparent yet and that data with which to address them may not be enough yet.

10 thoughts on “Thoughts on Topic for Dissertation”

  1. Hello Peter, I enjoyed reading about your early research plans here: it’s really clearly laid out and gives a good insight into your early thinking.

    Bearing in mind your interest in communities of learners, as well as the possibility of understanding different approaches and experiences around digital resources, I wondered whether you had thought about ethnography (or particular digital ethnography) as an approach you might follow? For instance, could you try to explore the rituals of learners within a Facebook community (or other digital learning space that could act as a field site)? Ethnography is well suited to searching for an in-depth understanding of a small community, which seems to resonate with the way you describe your interest.

    I would also add that this wouldn’t exclude the possibility of also using interviews: ethnography is sufficiently broad (and differently used) to provide the flexibility to conduct interviews, for instance where you might follow up a period of observation by asking participants questions.

    Ethnography certainly wouldn’t be the only way of approaching your suggested topic, however if you haven’t had a chance to watch the Ethnography video yet (on this course site) it might help you decide whether it could work for you (or alternatively it might reaffirm your commitment to surveys and interviews).

    Thanks again for your post – I’m sure other members of the course will find it really helpful to see how you are thinking through your plans.

    1. Thanks for this idea James, it has given me a new idea to explore and certainly something that I had not thought of myself. I do feel that I am finding my way so any advice is appreciated. 🙂

  2. Yes, was also thinking about ethnography as a method, whilst reading your post Peter. If you are interested in the perspectives of people using the technology, it would seem a good option. If you are more interested in the affordances of the technology itself, other methods might be more appropriate.

    1. Thanks for that comment comcultgirl! My interests at this stage would certainly be in the perspectives of people, although I am just now designing some digital training using Google for Education and am becoming more aware of the affordances re designing learning tasks that have interaction and collaboration. But I don’t know at this stage how much I will need to consider the affordances of the technology. What approach were you considering for ethnography?

      1. Sorry, I should have been clearer – I was talking about *your* potential use of ethnography rather than mine! If you are interested in the perspectives of people then it strikes me that setting up some kind of feedback mechanism for your digital training might be a useful way of collecting data. You could also take part yourself, as a participant observer? When I was doing action ethnography for my research into Twitter as a learning network I took part in discussions on Twitter and noted the effect of my own participation on the community I was working with – it was interesting.

  3. Hi Peter

    This is a really interesting research topic, and I look forward to following your research design as well as the outcomes. I’m at the same point as you are with deciding on research methods, so I won’t step in there (though from a very unqualified position I’d second/third the ethnography suggestion).

    Your response to ‘What kind of topic am I interested in researching’ (and from the subsequent section: ‘can some digital tools do that better than others? What makes the difference?’) caught my attention, particularly the point about some forum environments shutting down conversation, while things like wikipedia seemingly open it up. For my IDEL final assignment, I did some fairly basic research into constructivist approaches and constructionist approaches in terms of their effects on community building and ‘student engagement’. One of the findings (primarily based on literature review, but confirmed by my very naive analysis of practice in my own context) was that co-construction of artefacts can build sense of community (Reeves & Gomm, 2015) – which is in line with your observation about co-construction through wikis. The paper also drew on work by Laurillard (the conversational framework) and Ackermann (who writes of the dual roles in learning of artefact creation and stepping back from this to the role of observer). It’s possible that I’ve totally misinterpreted your aims (if so, I apologise!), but these authors helped me to look at how the tools we use align with different pedagogical perspectives, and to somehow situate my expectations of produced learning based on those perspectives. They don’t, however, look at meta-discourses about learning specifically (hence my concern about possibly misunderstanding). If you’d like to see the paper I wrote, I’m happy to share – PM me in Moodle. I don’t expect my own analysis will be of particular interest, but perhaps the reference list might be (or not – no bother if so!).

    Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks for sharing this Renée, it sounds very relevant indeed. I would like to see your paper and reading list so I shall contact you in Moodle.
      Are you thinking along these lines at all for your future research project? If so, or if you wanted to talk around these areas, I would be very happy to connect in a MOOC discussion group…

      1. Hi again, Peter

        Sorry – I thought I’d left you a message here at the weekend after replying to your message in Moodle. My research interests for the dissertation are related to the interactions between academic literacies and digital technologies (I work in EAP). So… not quite the same, but I’m happy to talk round the ideas all the same.

        Like you (now, I think?) I’m also investigating ethnography, but because I’m interested in taking a sociomaterial approach, I’m looking at borrowing/adapting approaches from others working within that perspective. It could make for some interesting chats if you’re willing to ‘get messy’ with methods 😉


  4. I can see some resonance with my practice in training teachers. The focus seem to be on digital tools to support education, but the main message is in the shape of the tutorial, the way the tools are used, and how we create together the responses to the initial question of how to teach in online education.

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