The Evaluation of Learners’ Experiences of e-learning Special Interest Group (ELESIG) invited Brett Bligh to speak at the ALT Winter Conference, 2020. In the past, Brett was a learning technology officer, with a growing role in evaluating and researching large institutional projects. Since 2013, Bligh has worked at the Centre for Technology Enhanced Learning Department of Educational at the University of Lancaster where he teaches PhD students. He recalls the frustration of trying to balance the worlds of research and outcome-focused projects and sees this confusion in his students.
Here is a brief summary of his talk, and a few reflections.
Our collective TEL community
Brett began with a very upbeat description of our community as being populated ‘highly motivated’ and ‘capable’ people, caught between many different competing worlds, despite all that we create a strong sense of our own shared professional identities. As a community we should research; we know stuff, stuff that would be useful to share and develop. Although, as Brett pointed out, most of us are in positions and institutions that make this difficult to develop the skills, find the time and focus on the task.
Research contributes new knowledge
Most institutional projects are looking for a positive outcome and certainty, to justify a cost or external expectation – ‘does this works or doesn’t it?’. Research offers a level of certainty, but its primary aim is to seek new knowledge. A ‘bad’ result is still new knowledge. Our nature is to solve problems and do a good job, and this can be difficult to take on board when projects go wrong or we uncover things that aren’t immediately purposeful. It might lead us to change aspects of the project as we go, which might conflict with the method of research or hide what is there to be uncovered. In essence, research is not always solution-based in the short term.
Getting started in research is helped by reorganising you’re thinking around the main aim of the research, which is to contribute new knowledge. This sounds simple but it takes a while to master. Brett sees research as focused on and emerging from the knowledge in a particular area, filling in a gap or seeking to clarify thereby contributing new knowledge. It looks to the literature to formulate its next steps, for its meaning and purpose. Whereas institutional projects address a specific policy or practice problem, research will tend to address an aspect over different contexts, – institutional projects mostly cover many issues, aspects, and perspectives in one context. I have experienced this short-sighted approach as probably many of you have – projects are driven not only by timescales but also by developing understanding, and meaningful change always seems to take longer. In addition to this, research usually has something more universal about it – institutional projects usually report on one context, which limits its universality.
Don’t get fixated on the technology
Obviously, technology will play a big part in our roles and interests. Brett urges us to be careful of how this shapes our thinking in terms of research. We need to go beyond establishing the impact new technology has on a particular context and learn more about the context and how it responds to change. This requires us to be more critical, more of an outsider to the process, which can be difficult as we are usually asked to demonstrate that something works or not.
Take care referencing research findings
Brett asks us to be careful how we use other people’s research in our work. One of the problems with TEL is that the burden of proof to show that technology can work has been placed on us. Perhaps this has changed as more academics have gained experiences of teaching and learning using technology. But I have been in so many meetings with staff where I have been asked to prove that a certain thing will work and to what level of improvement. This can lead to the use of research as a kind of weapon in the fight to develop and change practice. It is rare that research will prove this; the most we can hope for is that it shows or gives an indication.
Engage in research for the long haul and focus
Brett talked about timescales, that institutional projects usually have quick turnaround times and research usually takes around 2 to 3 years to complete. One of the frustrations I feel towards research is the possible time I can reasonably allocate to it. This reassures me that things do take time but also not to try and do too many things at once.
Brett also highlighted that a research project is never completed until it is published, that the process of writing up and peer review helps us to improve our understanding of the research, its significance and to improve our research skills and approaches. Perhaps there is a need for institutions to think more long term about the significance of the projects and changes they make in order to understand the impact they are having.
Data is not a starting point
Brett has seen many PhD project proposals emerge from projects that have gathered a large amount of data. We all have systems that are gathering data, and all these interactions must indicate and tell us something of value. There is a danger here, going back to research that starts with the literature, that it’s all about formulating a theory and question, then identifying what is useful to collect. Research is a process, and the collection of data sits somewhere in the middle of that process rather than at the beginning. Institutional projects see data collection as gathering evidence, this can distort how we are thinking about what to collect and what is significant.
Find your community
The educational technology research area is “strange and complex”. It involves so many perspectives, disciplines, and professions which makes it exciting and dynamic but easy to get lost in and confuse yourself in. This is not helped by the way we have to integrate this within our own roles, and the differences between institutions in the way they support us. Normally, research is carried out within a supportive community, but my experiences are that it is difficult to find that community and be accepted within it. This could be making the problem worse, creating more fragmentation rather than developing shared tools, methods, and theories, leading to greater complexity.
Developing our use of research and our research skills is not going to be easy. There are so many competing demands and priorities. There have been many attempts to try.
When asked Brett said that he thought ELESIG’s new mentoring pilot scheme could really help bridge the divide and support each other. The Scholar Scheme (pilot) will be 6 months in duration, commencing in February 2021, and completing in July 2021. The scheme is seeking both scholar applicants and scholar advisors. Each scholar will be matched with an advisor and engage with them over the duration of the scheme. There will be opportunities to engage with other scholars at particular times during the scheme.
You can learn more about the scheme here – https://altc.alt.ac.uk/elesig/2020/12/alt-elesig-scholar-scheme-pilot-2021/.
Best of luck on your research journey.
Dr Jim Turner is a Senior Learning Technology Office at Liverpool John Moores University.
If you enjoyed reading this article we invite you to join the Association for Learning Technology (ALT) as an individual member, and to encourage your own organisation to join ALT as an organisational or sponsoring member.