Extending my security practitioner online learning communities research

I recently posted about my pilot study, but I have now received Research Ethics approval to move into the main study. The first phase is observations, and I will start within a number of LinkedIn discussion groups or forums. There are different ways to approach research in such groups. I chose to be open and transparent about what I am doing, requesting support from the forum owner, manager, or administrator, and posting a message for all group members. I await responses from some of the forum leaders, but the largest group/forum, with over 45,000 members, was one of the first to concur. The message pasted below is what I have posted, adding to one to clearly state that the study was not one endorsed by them. In other words, as with all of the groups associated with organisations, they were not involved in the design or approval of the research.

I look welcome any comments or questions about this approach.



Dear forum members,

This message has been approved by the group owner.

I am conducting a PhD in eLearning and Learning Technologies through the Institute of Learning Innovation at the University of Leicester (http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/beyond-distance-research-alliance). In the fall of 2012, I conducted a pilot study of the use of online personal learning environments and digital literacy skills by security management and investigation professionals for work-based learning and continuing professional development. (https://beyonddistance.wordpress.com/2013/03/11/update-on-my-research-pilot-study-completed/). By posting a message in different discussion groups, I received a global response from practitioners in 17 different countries who completed the online questionnaire. A number subsequently spoke with me in an individual interview. The results of the study allowed me to continue to my main study.

For my main study, I want to give full and transparent disclosure of my research intentions. While I anticipate this will not cause any discomfort, I welcome your feedback or questions. This study will focus on the actual collaborative learning activities and the digital literacy skills demonstrated.

I will visit forums in which I am a member, or I will join with acceptance of the administrator/manager. My primary research activity in the forums will be to observe the learning activities taking place within the online space. This may lead me to other online resources, and I will identify members that I may wish to contact for individual interviews or to participate in a focus group. Others may also refer me to potential study participants, or you may self-identify to me. No forum comments will be used without the consent of the one making the comments, and anonymity and confidentiality will be maintained.

An Information Sheet and Informed Consent will be provided to anyone who considers participation in an individual interview or focus group, or upon request. Interviews are anticipated to take between 30 and 60 minutes.

My research approach does not preclude me from participating in discussions, as may be appropriate.

I am a member of security and investigation related forums due to my affiliations with the field. For a number of years, I have been a member of ASIS International and the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners. More detail is available in my LinkedIn profile (http://linkedin.com/in/tonyratcliffe).

This study has received Research Ethics approval from the University of Leicester and will continue throughout 2013.

A.E. (Tony) Ratcliffe, M.Ed., CFE, P.Mgr.
PhD Student
Institute of Learning Innovation, School of Education
University of Leicester
Tel:       +1 780 756 4354, Edmonton, Canada
+44 (0)116 318 3840, Leicester, UK
+44 (0)20 3286 4354, London, UK
Email:  aer15@leicester.ac.uk

Leave a comment


  1. Hi Tony,

    You say that your “primary research activity in the forums will be to observe the learning activities taking place within the online space.” How do you intend to do that? Could you please elaborate?

    • Hi Ahmad. Thanks for the question.

      I will be in an “observer and participant” stance/role (Kawulick, 2005; Nørskov & Rask, 2011). While most activities will be observational, some participation in discussions may occur. I will make observations that include the following:

      1. Interactions that provide evidence of scaffolding and ‘more knowledgeable other’ (MKO)
      2. Types of postings
      3. Interesting things
      4. Types of interactions between members that exemplify learning, mentoring, scaffolding, and other types of building communities
      5. Behaviours related to community engagement and learning
      6. Issues regularly addressed
      7. Issues of the day
      8. Scope, content, and frequency of discussions

      Does that help? Do you have any thoughts on this method?


      • Thanks Tony … a couple of more questions:

        1. Are you going to use LinkedIn to conduct these discussions, or will LinkedIn be used just for recruiting participants?

        2. If using LinkedIn, will these discussions be opened and accessible to all Group members or only to those who will agree to participate?

        3. Will you be starting new discussion threads by asking new questions? Or will you just observe the discussions that are already going on?

      • HI Ahmad,

        If I have questions or input directly relating to the discussion thread, and if it appears appropriate, I will likely add to the discussion. I am also likely to add a note that I am a researcher, or even state that my input is not related to the research. I realise that such disclosures can stifle conversation, so each time will be assessed (including whether I should even say anything). My input is likely to be minimal, but the method allows me the option.

        Beyond any participation in a discussion thread, which would be as open as the group is, LinkedIn is to lead me to potential study participants and other resources to observe. Contact with these participants will be made privately by LinkedIn mail mail or email, and interviews will be conducted by Skype or telephone.

        I do not intend to start new discussion threads for purposes of the research, as that would change the approach and raise new ethical considerations (such as informed consent). However, that is something else to consider for later. I had a previous thought of potentially using a questionnaire to validate findings, at some point in the future. That same approach might also be used in a discussion thread. Both would require discussion with my supervisor and the research ethics officer if I head that way. Right now, I plan to observe the discussions.

  2. I think the problem is with the term learning activity. I’d opt for a more anthropoligcal approach – what on earth is going on here. Do away with all the old tired (rearview mirrorist) education boxes/labels like learning, innovation, teaching etc. and try and describe just what folk do. Making assumptions about what is going on between their ears is dodgy turf even if you had a spare fMRI machine to hand. 🙂

    • @ cj13 Perhaps your comments are not far off from what has been considered. The plan for the interviews is to interpret what is happening, and why, using Interpretive Description. The observations are to help set up the interviews. Still, you provide some thoughts for consideration.

  3. Tony,

    Thanks for the detailed response. I truly appreciate researchers who adopt innovative approches in their research. In this age of technological explosion, I think scholars need to take advantage of available technologies. And that’s exactly what you’re doing.

    I used email interviews in my doctoral study to explore middle managers’ perspectives on strategy implementation. Initially, the purpose was to break geographical barriers. But as the project progressed and as I started analyzing the interview data, I realized I probably couldn’t have obtained such rich data had I conducted the interviews face-to-face (synchronous). It was important for me that the participants took the time to reflect on their experiences before answering my questions. Email interviewing allowed me to achieve that goal.

    All the best and please keep us posted.


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