My Masters Dissertation

I’m on the home straight with my MA in Education, and I found some helpful questions in the dissertation bumpf that I thought I’d better ask myself:

What is my dissertation about (what’s my research question)?
Can regular peer- and self-assessed learning activities, completed through the medium of weblogs, encourage constructive collaboration between learners and associative thinking, increase understanding of assessment criteria and the benefits and challenges of peer assessment, and improve aspects of participants’ digital literacy?

Why is my topic interesting?
The use of blog-based learning activities has been trialled by a number of educators since the mid 2000’s. Like many educational technologies, blogging has weathered a period of hype and a subsequent backlash from users whose inflated expectations were not met. As educators’ collective understanding of the affordances and limitations of this technology improves, its use is now beginning to move into the mainstream, particularly in the professional and creative education sectors.

Key challenges and questions remain about the use of blogs in education; for example their limitations as a tool for facilitating discussion and the technical barriers to their use. Some (e.g. O’Donnell 2006, p8) have have made particular recommendations for their effective use. However, the question I am posing is not merely about the use of blogs in learning; it is also about the value of engaging learners with peer assessment and the selection and use of assessment criteria; teaching practices that are generally thought of as highly desirable for effective learning, but difficult to manage efficiently.

Is my research question a single question?
I have phrased it as such, but the current question specifies five different outcomes that I feel are worth measuring;

  • constructive collaboration between learners
  • associative thinking
  • understanding of assessment criteria
  • appreciation of benefits and challenges of peer assessment
  • aspects of digital literacy

This question requires me to research and present a hypothesis for each outcome. Evaluating each outcome will not be so much of a problem as I would be gathering data for each outcome from the same sources; the work produced by students through the blog-based learning activities and the final assessment task, and the results of focus groups, interviews and questionnaires.

Is my research question manageable within the time and word constraints of this dissertation?
I don’t think the range of outcomes being measured will make much of a difference to the time this study will take; however attempting to hypothesise and measure all five outcomes within 15,000 words may restrict the depth of the analysis.

An alternative I am considering is to focus purely on the digital literacy issue. I am currently closely involved in our institution’s JISC-funded Developing Digital Literacies project. In collaboration with the PG Cert participants I will be carrying out baselining of existing digital literacies, interventions to develop digital literacy (such as the introduction of the aforementioned blogging activities!), and evaluating the impact of these interventions on participants’ digital literacy. Documenting and discussing these activities and findings rigorously under the banner of a Masters’ dissertation, in addition to the report and resources that will be produced as outputs of the JISC-funded project, may add depth and purpose to the activity.

How is my topic related to gaps I am finding in the literature?
A sense that there is currently a gap in the pedagogic research literature is what is prompting me to study the combination of blog-based learning activities in distributed online environments with peer and self assessment. There are more and more studies beginning to emerge that deal with either one or the other. I recently spoke with Dr Jennie Paterson about her study at the University of Edinburgh where they have utilised blog-based learning activities across several programmes but not (yet) attempted to combine this with peer and self assessment. It may be the case that such studies are often initiated – and at least strongly supported – by e-learning developers and learning technologists, who are more likely to be exploring or evaluating a particular tool or technology, rather than taking a broader approach to the design of learning activities and assessment.

There is an argument that if I were to focus on the digital literacy issue, this would also serve to fill a gap in the literature; digital literacy is a relatively young topic of research, with arguably the most significant body of research emerging in 2009 out of the JISC-funded LLiDA (Learning Literacies in a Digital Age) project. The current Developing Digital Literacies project strand, also funded by JISC and involving 12 HEIs, and other professional bodies such as SEDA, is running from 2011-2013. The fact that the JISC is investing a significant amount of funding into these projects is an indicator of the value this authoritative body places on further research and development in this area.

How might my research be unique in its contribution?
In answering this question, I find myself returning back to my original idea to plan, execute and evaluate a particular series of activities against five desired outcomes. I feel that this approach is perhaps a little unusual (hopefully not unique!) in its thoughtful learning design that utilises appropriate technologies without being preoccupied with the technologies used, or aiming to attribute particular qualities or benefits to the technologies themselves. Many learning and teaching departments consist of two halves; e-learning development and academic staff development, which I have observed in several cases as working side by side rather than truly together. I’m not going to claim that academic staff developers are generally backwards in using technology – I know a few who are very much ahead of the game – but my position as a Lecturer in Learning and Teaching who has moved across from e-learning is fairly rare. When I worked at the University of Bath I found it frustrating that the PGCAPP did not put learning technologies to any significant use across the units of study, apart from the (optional) e-learning unit, which was led and taught by members of the e-learning team. I was concerned about the message that gives to participants; that teaching and learning with technology is not only optional, but something that regular teachers – in fact, even those whose job it is to teach teachers – don’t engage with. What I want to do with this research is to apply a range of principles of good practice in teaching and learning, facilitated with appropriate technologies, to improve the alignment of learning and assessment activities with desired learning outcomes. Nothing flashy – and arguably nothing unique – but potentially very useful.

Who is this research for and what it will it provide them?
This research is primarily for the participants and course teams of academic staff development programmes. I want to show how a joined-up approach to course design – utilising key principles such as constructive alignment and peer assessment, and appropriate technologies – can achieve a variety of desirable outcomes, to identify where the approaches used fall short of achieving their potential, and what may be done differently in order to improve matters.

This research is also for me; to put into practice many of the lessons I have learned throughout my studies on the Masters in Education programme and to show a culmination of my own development from understanding how people learn, to good assessment design, technologies for learning, executing educational change and undertaking educational research.

How practical is my research – will I have enough time to carry out my research?
This is something I would be doing anyway; I will just be evaluating it more rigorously than I may have otherwise done.

How is my research linked with ‘great debates’ and/or major schools of thought?
I think the ‘great debate’ that is going to be most relevant here is the value of online reflection and communication versus ‘traditional’ or ‘analogue’ means. A significant proportion of the teachers on our PG Cert programme work in very hands-on craft disciplines such as painting, drawing, bookbinding, etc., and I have sensed a perception, particularly among new entrants to the programme, of a debate about whether digital technologies are inherently ‘good’ or ‘evil’. I expect – and hope – such ideas and perceptions will surface in the conversations I have with participants throughout the various stages of this project, because they are very interesting and relevant to all disciplines. The exciting aspect about working with Art and Design teachers is that the debate feels more polarised than, for example, in the social sciences.

Another ‘great debate’ that this project is relevant to is the question so many e-learning and educational developers are currently asking (and have been for the last few years); how do we get more teachers using appropriate technologies for learning and teaching? I firmly believe, and will tell anyone willing to listen, that the answer lies in providing teachers with a positive learning experience of their own, within which such technologies are embedded. Maybe this should be my research question?!

How is my methodological framework the best for my research question?
I am proposing to use an action research methodology; it is the methodology I am the most familiar with, and I feel that it is appropriate to this study as I am executing an intervention in my own teaching practice.

Is my dissertation going to be a literature review or an empirical-based research study?
It’s going to be an Action Research study. Is that the same as an empirical-based research study? (I should probably know the answer to that, shouldn’t I!)

What philosophical and epistemological frameworks are guiding my research question and methodological framework and for what reasons?
That’s a lot of long words. Crumbs, these questions are getting difficult…

What are the potential limitations of my research?
The research will be situated in my own context of a blended Academic Practice PG Cert programme in a collegiate Art and Design focused HEI. I fully intend to frame my conclusions in a way that is useful to others and I hope that the discipline-specific nature of the programme and the institution will not be a significant limitation to wider relevance; my own teaching background is in secondary science and as yet I have not come across any aspects of teaching and learning in Art & Design that are not relevant to a range of other disciplines.

Phew… all comments, questions hugely welcomed…