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Lesley's scenarios: Research, publication and other roads to dissemination

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Lesley Shield
25 January 2013

I found it very difficult to write a scenario that included just one 'learner' - I felt I needed to look at a wider picture in order to avoid falling into the trap of stereotyping. This activity certainly made me question whether there's a 'typical' learner or whether we might tend to make assumptions that are not necessarily valid. And that led me to ask how to design a module that allows for a degree of personalisation but doesn't require a separate course for each participant...

The brainstorm got a bit unwieldy - I think I got the initial overview and the narrative a bit mixed up, but I felt I needed this degree of detail to understand myself what I was aiming for - so this is a longer post than I would like (no post should be longer than a screenful is advice that rings in my ears!) but I'm totally paranoid about placing documents in the really public domain... So, apologies for the length, but that's my paranoia for you.

I can see all sorts of links to areas such as academic writing, ICT skills, study skills, information skills, etc. The question really is how these all fit together (at least that's the question for me!).

Any (constructive!!) thoughts welcomed ;-)


Extra content

Research, publication and other roads to dissemination

1) Brainstorm components of your scenario

Actors: (who is involved?)

Valda-Mae, a 30-something secondary school teacher of Mathematics, has enrolled in a part time master’s degree. She hasn’t taken part in formal study since she graduated more than 10 years ago.

Mehitabel, an academic in her mid-50s is preparing a paper for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.

Akseli, a new researcher who graduated last year, has been given funding for a PhD examining the use of social networks to support learning in primary schools.

Stig is an artist and lecturer in Fine Art. He has been invited to submit a proposal to a prestigious international conference. If accepted, this will be his first conference.

Goals: (why?)

Valda-Mae is concerned about her ability to design and carry out small scale, collaborative research projects which form part of the course assessment strategy.

Mehitabel is a visiting scholar at a UK university. She wants her research paper to be accepted for publication, unlike the many previous unsuccessful submissions she’s made.

Akseli wants to develop ‘good’ research habits so that he can progress towards his PhD without needing to redesign his research or rewrite his thesis unnecessarily.

Stig wants to write a conference proposal that will be accepted.

I want to design research training that will allow learners with such diverse needs to identify their learning goals and to choose a route through the course, at a pace of their choosing, that will support them in achieving those goals.

Settings: (where & when?)

The course will take place entirely online so will be accessed from whatever location the learner chooses and via whichever device they prefer to use. As it is an international course, it will be available 24/7/365(6), so participants will be able to access it whenever they wish. The self study material will be available constantly, but the collaboration may require more careful timing.

Objects: (what things are involved?)

Internet-enabled device (it will be necessary to design mobile-enabled modules as well as ‘standard’ and accessible versions), internet access, range of web-based tools such as social bookmarking sites, curation sites, research training sites, course/module web pages, blogs, wikis, other Web 2.0 tools as required. The course  will be modular, each module addressing a different topic related to research/publication/dissemination. Participants will be able to work through any module or selection of modules at their own pace and at a time of their choosing, though there will be synchronous, live events as well as recorded presentations and asynchronous communication.

Actions:  (what do actors do?)

Valda-Mae discusses her concerns with her peer group of learners at her face-to-face university and, on the recommendation of one of them, contacts her course tutor to discuss these concerns. As a result, she follows his advice and examines the online research/publication course outline the university encourages students to join, identifying which modules she wants to take. She is pleased to see that she’ll be able to communicate with others in a similar situation and to practise using on-line collaboration tools such as forums, wikis and cloud-based tools as she wants to improve her online communication as well as her research skills.

Mehitabel receives yet another rejection from a peer-reviewed journal. The feedback doesn’t really help her to understand why her paper is not acceptable. She decides to consult the course outline and to enrol for any modules that appear to provide advice on how to present research to improve its chances of acceptance for publication. The fact that she’ll have the opportunity to attend webinars given by journal editors is very attractive to her.

Akseli is attending the face-to-face lectures and workshops for new PhD students at his institution, but he doesn’t feel that the content is giving him sufficient practice in the skills he’s going to need to complete his PhD as the majority of his peers are studying more ‘traditional’ subjects such as Old Norse literature, naval architecture or agriculture. In discussion with his module tutor, he identifies that he would like to spend more time investigating research methodologies before committing himself to his research design. He agrees to examine the course outline and decides to participate in two of the modules. He is encouraged to see that he will be able to discuss his concerns and experiences with other module participants.

Stig is very concerned about writing his conference abstract. He’s never done this before and he isn’t really sure what abstract-writing entails. He knows one of his colleagues submitted a conference abstract recently and was accepted, but another colleague was rejected. He’s seen both abstracts and doesn’t understand why this happened as they look the same to him. He wants to improve his chances of going to the conference (he won’t get funding if he isn’t presenting there), so he selects some relevant modules from the course. He’s pleased it’s all online because he can work from anywhere he chooses and he won’t have to interact with others if he chooses not to do so (which is very likely).

Events: (what happens to actors?)

Life intervenes for Valda-Mae when she has to spend time visiting a close relative in the local hospital’s intensive care unit. She finds it difficult to make time to study and begins to fall behind. She is encouraged, though, to find that if she can’t complete her chosen modules immediately, she’ll be able to join another iteration and to pick up where she left off when she’s able to do so.

Mehitabel starts the module full of confidence that she really just needs to learn a few ‘tricks’ to get published. Then she comes across some advice that causes her to realise that the way in which she’s been presenting her work may be culturally inappropriate for her chosen journals. She feels deflated and believes that she’s lost face. She contemplates giving up and not trying to publish in her chosen peer-reviewed journals again. The course has, however, given her a support group in terms of other participants and her tutor. A bond of trust has been established during the introductory activities and Mehitabel is able to talk through her worries with her online co-learners. She is amazed to find that they, too, were unaware of cultural differences of this sort and she decides to continue towards her goal of publication, realising that she hasn’t lost face but has, instead, identified a very important issue that will be of value to everyone in the group.

Akseli finds that he prefers the online course to the face-to-face one and ‘forgets’ to go to some of his lectures and workshops, putting additional time into the online course and building up an international academic and social network to support him in his research design. His face-to-face tutor contacts him to remind him that he won’t be able to continue in his goal towards writing his PhD if he doesn’t complete the training course. This reminds him that he needs to organise his work/life balance more effectively.

Stig, to his surprise, is pleased to be able to communicate with others who are experiencing the same doubts and concerns as he is. The support of his online community of co-learners encourages him to take risks when writing his abstract that he would avoid with his colleagues; there is a much less competitive atmosphere in the online group as they aren’t all hoping for funding from the same source.

Results: (what is achieved?)

Valda-Mae is able to postpone her postrgraduate course for a year but, once her hospital visiting is over, she is able to continue to prepare and develop her collaborative research skills by participating in the ongoing online module. As a result, she begins her postgraduate course feeling confident about her research skills.

Mehitabel completes the course and submits her completely rewritten paper to a journal of her choice. Although it isn’t immediately accepted, she is delighted to be told that with some minor revisions, the journal will publish it.

Akseli returns to his face-to-face course while continuing to participate in the online modules. He is able to transfer the skills he’s learned online to the face-to-face environment and feels much more confident that he will be able to identify and justify an appropriate research design than he would, had he only attended the face-to-face course.

Stig finds that writing abstracts is something he quite enjoys doing. He feels his communication skills have benefitted from participation in the module and that he now understands the purpose of an abstract. An unanticipated benefit is that he also feels much more able to provide a constructive critique and feels that he will be able to apply this skill to critiquing his students’ work so that they feel supported rather than criticised.
The design: The course I want to design will provide a flexible structure that allows learners from a wide range of backgrounds and with a diverse set of needs to select their own route through the materials to meet their study skills’ or CPD needs. It will also offer support in the form of online communities and, for those who would prefer to work individually, self study with a very limited amount of individual tutor support (for a small fee).

2) Develop a narrative, scenario/s

Because this is quite time-taking, I’m focusing on only two scenarios from the four contexts above. I’ve chosen these two because Scenario 1 is an amalgamation of different real people and Scenario 2 is a retelling of the story of a real student in the days before the internet (obviously, the times have changed so I’ve updated the story by introducing an online support module).

Scenario 1

Valda-Mae lives in a small market town in the north of England with her partner, two teenaged children and a house rabbit. There is one computer for the whole family, although the children tend to use their mobile phones for social networking and web-browsing, so Valda-Mae is able to use the laptop whenever she wishes. She has been working at the local secondary school for six years and has been told that in order to progress, she needs to get a master’s degree in education. She hopes that doing so will result in promotion fairly quickly, but as it’s slightly more than a decade since her last formal educational experience, she is concerned that she won’t be able to keep up with other students. The cost of the degree is worrying her; she hasn’t been able to obtain any funding, but her partner is helping her with her fees. Although Valda-Mae is finding the going tough, she’s keeping up with the course and her study of the online research/publication course has increased her confidence. Then, suddenly, everything stops while she spends several weeks with her mother in the intensive care unit at the local hospital. She’s very close to her mother and spending time with her is now her priority. Although she realises her promotion prospects will be affected, she stops studying and focuses her attention on her mother who is in the final stages of her life. Her partner is very supportive and contacts the university where Valda-Mae is studying to find out her options. She is able to defer for a year without losing any money and it also becomes clear that she can rejoin the research/publication course whenever she’s ready. After her mother’s death, she takes some time out to recover before rejoining the online course and the next intake of participants. She’s able to repeat what she’s already done, should she feel the need for a ‘refresher’, but she can also rejoin at the point she left, if she prefers to do that.

The flexibility of the course, and having a supportive group of co-learners (she has had emails from those she ‘met’ when she first joined, enquiring how she is) help Valda-Mae to prepare to return to her postgraduate course and to develop her confidence about her research capabilities.

Scenario 2

Mehitabel is a visiting scholar in an Anglo-American tertiary education institution. Her first language is not English. She is well-published at home, but she’s had real difficulty having any of her research published in her journals of choice now that she’s moved to the Anglo-American research tradition. She is embarrassed to admit to her home institution that this is the case, as she feels she would lose face. She really doesn’t understand why her work isn’t being accepted as she makes sure that an educated speaker of English as a first language checks her drafts for language errors and she’s received many rejections which mention how interesting and worthwhile her research topic is. When she receives yet another rejection, it’s the final straw. She’s ready to give up and go home, but that would mean another loss of face and she doesn’t know what to do. She overhears her students discussing a research training website that advises on publication and decides to look at it – after all, if it looks interesting, she could always sign up with a pseudonym; it’s online and ‘on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog’. She finds some of the modules particularly relevant to her situation and signs up for them. As time progresses, she starts to apply what she’s learning to her own, rejected publication and she realises slowly that the way she writes and structures her work is very different from the way research papers are presented in the Anglo-American tradition. She is mortified and becomes very depressed. Some of the study group notice that she’s no longer participating so contact her to ask whether they can help. She is touched by their concern and realises that although she is horribly embarrassed by her realisation, this is a valuable learning experience that she will be able to apply to her work. She will also be able to advise her colleagues in her home institution when they prepare to be visiting scholars the Anglo-American academic tradition. She continues with her chosen modules, finding her co-learners to be tremendously supportive, and her next submission to a peer-reviewed journal is accepted after she has carried out minor revisions to the text.

3) Scrutinize your scenario & revise as necessary

Reflecting on the design the day after brainstorming it (this is the second version), I note that it makes several main assumptions, all of which would need to be tested:

1)    The design will be flexible enough to support participants with a range of needs.

Why? a) Many universities now offer research training courses; indeed, many of these are compulsory and must be completed successfully before work on a thesis can begin. While some institutions offer faculty-specific research training, others only provide institution-wide training, and this may be too broad for some students or may not offer sufficient practice in areas that are of most relevance to them. b) Older researchers may also benefit from refreshing their knowledge of research skills, particularly if they have little experience of using the internet and Web for research purposes. c) For those who want to publish or present at conferences, working with peers to critique and develop papers and abstracts can be beneficial, since this, along with appropriate support materials, can reveal where presentation and/or communication can be improved or even where research methodologies might be revisited (perhaps leading to participation in additional research training modules).

How? I've assumed that it'll be possible to set up a 'rolling' course/series of modules comprising both self-study and collaborative materials. The timing of the collaborations may need to be very carefully scheduled to ensure participants are from different backgrounds and locations (a USP, so it needs to be addressed).

2)    While it may be difficult to build in sufficient flexibility to allow for research skills development for students and CPD to occur simultaneously, I’m also assuming that the opportunity to develop and participate in communities of practice with participants from around the world is likely to be attractive and will allow for a range of backgrounds and needs to be catered to.

3)    The design will support both those participants who wish to work collaboratively/develop a community of practice and those who prefer to work individually. The cost of this would need to be factored into any development. The first option – collaborative working – would see learners supporting each other and possibly even forming communities of practice, perhaps using a MOOC-like approach while the latter would require self study and a very small amount of tutor support for those who preferred individual working; this would be much more expensive to produce and support, so might not be a viable option.

There is an extremely important underlying assumption here; namely that participants will be willing and/or able to put in the time needed to develop a level of trust that will allow them to support and be supported by their co-learners in the online environment. This is a not insignificant issue and needs to be considered further; how could they develop confidence in communicating with a group of others they have never met in person, particularly if they are less than confident about their ICT and/or communication skills anyway. It may be necessary to offer some ‘ice-breaker’ activities for all before they move on to their selected modules

4)    Participants will have sufficiently-developed ICT skills to cope with any technical hitches or/and know where to find or get help if they can’t solve it themselves. This is a big assumption, and is not borne out by my experience of online modules. Here, a ‘pre-requisites for online study’ course might be useful as well as the inclusion of a discussion forum where problems can be shared/solved.

Lesley Shield
15:33 on 25 January 2013

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