Monday, July 11, 2011

Notes on Philippa Levy's methodological framework for practice-based research in networked learning

Project Vortex. Dimmitt Tornado by Harald RIchter
I've just finished reading Philippa Levy's Methodological Framework for Practice-Based Research in Networked Learning. I was looking for ideas and directions for my own work in progress, Networked learning a biomass heat transfer system, and was recommended Philippa's paper, along with several others included in Advances in Research on Networked Learning.

Philippa's paper is academically dense, and is careful to demonstrate her understanding of qualitative research traditions and frameworks, and where her work fits in. This in itself is a massive undertaking, suggesting months if not years of very specific reading.

To make such a comprehensive undertaking sound even more foreboding, a friend and reviewer of my work - Russell Butson (from the University of Otago) gives such foundational understanding of research some very heavy weighting:
All research is pivotal on methods – which requires sound alignment between:
  1. World view (philosophical framework)
  2. Methodical approach (methodical framework)
  3. Methods (operational framework – including the definition of what is data and how it is appraised/analysed).
You need to be clear on all of the above before you undertake research (empirical or theoretical). It’s easy to pick when a writer doesn’t have sound alignment between philosophy-methodology-methods-conclusions (it’s a measure of researcher honesty) 
All of this comes down to being honest as a researcher and therefore it’s about justice: justice regarding the topic, the participants, methods, the outcomes and mostly – the subsequent conversations (publications). Most research is dishonest breaking the rules of social justice. Publishing is seen as a private good (promotion – personal self-esteem) rather than a public good (the advancement of honesty knowledge).
I went back country skiing with Thor on the weekend.
We took a bottle of Tawny Port.
I agree with this principle.. although I have some reservations when it comes to what I see as the use of needlessly impenetrable language being used by academics who seek to demonstrate such an understanding. Essentially they render their work inaccessible to people who neither have the expertise, or the time to study up on the meanings of every second word. So, I'd take Russell's advice further, and suggest that an honest researcher is one who has come to terms with the specialist language, and is able to use plain language to convey the same meanings.

Philippa explains her approach to research, as being based in the ideas of constructivism, which is to say people develop their understanding of the world through their experiences, and through interactions with others - their knowledge is constructed (Chet Bowers has a few interesting things to say about constructivism however). Philippa cites action research as her general approach (although I think she meant Participatory Action Research, where action research is predominantly a work in progress, and knowledge emerges from that process, and participatory action research involves the people who are being researched, involved in the research process itself. It's a very democratic framework and approach, and with this as the basis, Philippa specifically uses practice-based research as her method, where she is using a case study of an educational course she was instrumental in running, for her study of people engaged in networked learning.

So, if I'm right, the framework for Philppa's research method can be summarised as follows:

Worldview = Constructivism, and related to that is relativism
Approach = Action research
Method = Practice based research through a case study

Philippa goes into much more depth and detail though, both to describe and to justify where she is coming from, and it is worth the read for that alone. Attempting to simplify her language is a useful exercise in testing your understanding of her framework too. I hope I got it right...

Unfortunately, Philippa's paper doesn't go into much depth with regard to the case study itself, which I think would have been useful for understanding the appropriateness of her over all worldview, approach and method.

Her case study is set within a university, and the people included in the study were all taking part in a course in that setting. Right at the outset then, I can see a potential problem - relating to the definition of networked learning (as I'm debating Chris Jones over on the discussion page of the Wikipedia entry of Networked Learning, which is easier to follow in the comments to a recent post on my blog). Philippa herself acknowledges some of the problems with this setting, but only in as much as it relates to her research framework:

One obvious structural dimension of the research relationship between myself and other participants in my project was my status as course leader, referred to in retrospect - albeit humorously – by one participant when she characterised me as “[like] the Vice-Chancellor – you were in charge!\

But I would take this issue further, and argue that the setting of Philippa's case study appears not to be networked learning, but online learning, or online education, where the structures and power dynamics remain mostly unchanged from how they would be in a formal education setting, where learning networks are arguably difficult to establish due to the artificial constraints of institutionalised learning practice.

It was a course, delivered in sequence by a 'teacher', to a cohort of people called students or learners, who can usually be identified as a class, determined by economic status, profession, age, gender, or sometimes even religion, managed in an administrative system, where the 'teacher' prescribes 'constructivist' learning activities, despite probably identifying as a facilitator, and involving some form of assignment and assessment process. And on the critique of institutionalised learning goes (see Deconstructing Behaviorism within Social Contructivism and To Facilitate or to Teach). I can't know this for sure, but if Philippa is using this 1999 example of Internet-based continuing professional development: Perspectives on course design and participation, then it appears to be the case.

I don't accept such settings as being places of networked learning - enough to find anything particularly useful in research at least. But my definition is at odds with what Chris Jones asserts is the authoritative definition, where the use of computer networks is what distinguishes networked learning from other forms of learning. That authority to a definition is also drawing from research almost exclusively dealing within university settings. I'm at pretty extreme odds to the establishment it seems...

In the process of looking for Philippa's work, I came across a paper that supports my position in its introduction at least, that networked learning is not limited to computer based networks. It's by Benjamin Kehrwald from the University of Southern Queensland, in the Faculty of Education, and its called: Learner Support in Networked Learning Communities: Opportunities and Challenges. Benjamin's introduces his paper with:

"The network component of networked learning refers not only to technology, but also to particular social structures (networks) in which relationships are structured by networked logic and the accompanying notions of culture, power relations, production and experience ( Castells, M. (1996). The information age: ecomony, society and culture volume 1. Oxford: Blackwell.)."

The Castells reference lead me to this book: The Rise of the Networked Society (2009), with chapter 3 devoted to, The Networked Enterprise: the Culture, Institutions, and Organisations of the Information Economy.

As with my challenge to the definition that Chris Jones is defending, Benjamin is using Castells to point to a wider understanding of networks and networked learning. With this wider appreciation, the likes of Philippa Levy's work, indeed all the papers in the book I found her paper in, (Advances in Research on Networked Learning, edited by Goodyear and others), are bound by the more restricted definition of networked learning, not just determined by computer networks, but by institutionalised settings for learning. Even Benjamin, who acknowledges the wider scope of it, limits his work to university staged courses.

What a shame universities, the places where most commercial free research and theorising can afford to go on these days, appears so consistently limited in its outlook with regard to networked learning theories and research. This partly explains why technology like Learning Management Systems have survived as long as they have - because so much of the research that relates to questions of learning, online learning, open and distance learning, and even networked learning, have referred back onto their own institutional settings, inside very limited frameworks for learning, such as coursework for classes. How this has gone on for so long in the face of popular referencing of Lave and Wenger's Situated Learning and Communities of Practice, and unjustly scant references to Illich's Learning Webs and Conviviality, remains a mystery to me, accept that it is further evidence of the university based education researcher being far too introspective.

I'm becoming more confident that I've found a significant gap in the literature around networked learning, and sincerely hope that if those mentioned above come across this post, they will enter into a discussion with me, in the spirit and tone I've established here - which is I hope, not one of outright hostility or disrespect, but admittedly one of significant challenge, and one I think is needing a defense.

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