Confessions of a PhD student (15): “I feel a bit empty inside as my PhD is ending”

I have recently submitted my PhD thesis. After almost 4 years, it is ready. I finished. The literature review, the methodology, the data collection and analysis, the discussion, the conclusions, everything, it is done. Long hours of hard work have culminated in a 266-page long document.

It felt strange handing it in. It is not the final step of this journey, as I still have to wait for my viva voce presentation. But it is so close to the end that I cannot help but feeling a bit empty inside. An important period of my life is ending. My stay in the United Kingdom is almost over.

BCPR Thesis

This is my most liked picture on Facebook. I was impressed by the amount of support and good wishes I received.

It is time to look back and reflect on what I have learned. Throughout my studies, I have met many interesting people, who have shared with me their experience and knowledge. I have learned about technologies, pedagogical practices, research methodologies and more.

Unquestionably, the person that has contributed the most to my academic development has been my supervisor. We have worked together in a weekly basis. He is one of the most intelligent people I have ever met. I am grateful to have him as my mentor, my academic father. From him I have learned many lessons, including:

  1. Write properly. I knew this one before starting my PhD. But now I am better at it. A great idea/finding is nothing if expressed blandly.
  2. Use diagrams. Figures give readers a break from the text. They help those who just want to skim through your writing learn your main points.
  3. Choose your fights. I hate it when someone wants to use their “authority” to make me do something I do not want to do (e.g., unnecessary changes in my work). When I am in a situation like that, my first impulse is to argue and stand my ground. My supervisor taught me to keep calm and find the easiest way to solve the problem. Is it worthwhile to spend time discussing trifles? Usually, it is not. I have learned that now.

Is this really over? I want to think that this is not the end, but a new beginning. I will continue doing research, writing, learning… I will keep in contact with the people I have met and maybe even collaborate with them. New projects await. A new path lies ahead.  A new journey will start.

Confessions of a PhD student (14): I am a MOOC dropout.

A couple of months ago I participated in a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) for the first time. I was intrigued about the MOOC movement. I only had a general idea: free courses, prestigious universities, thousands of students, access to anyone with an Internet connection… I wanted to know more about the learning design, the interactions between participants, the assessment processes, the challenges …

I signed up in Coursera and enrolled in a course on information and communication technologies in education. I had 18,000 fellow course mates. The course consisted of activities based on independent study and self-evaluation surveys. There were some synchronous sessions, which in practice were mere videos of the teachers. Interactions were fostered through a Twitter hashtag and a number of discussion forums.

My first impression was: Chaos. Instructions were not clear for everyone. Different resources had inconsistent information. There were lots of questions. Some people seemed to have no experience with communicating online. A thread about a technical problem could have a random post of someone introducing themselves (?!). This is not an issue with a small group of participants… but when you have a group of 18k… It is overwhelming…

I dropped out after a couple of days. I am not proud of it. I am part of the statistics, of those who failed to complete the course. However, I also think it was the best decision for me at the time. I had four main reasons to stop:

  1. I felt lost in a sea of chaos. The large number of students with different skill levels derived in an overwhelming amount of messages being sent without following a coherent structure. I could not keep up with that.
  2. Course content was not completely self-explanatory. Some instructions were confusing. Different resources had inconsistent information. The teachers could not answer all the questions. Again, I felt lost.
  3. It was a free course. Dropping out had no significant consequence.
  4. The time and effort needed to make sense of the MOOC seemed to exceed the expected benefits. For me, it was not worth it.

Are all MOOCs the same? Is it only a matter of enduring the beginning?  Maybe after a while it improves? I do not know, but I will soon start another MOOC. Hopefully I will obtain some answers.

***

Why do people drop out of MOOCs?

  • Overwhelming chaos
  • Unclear guidance
  • No losses or significant consequences
  • Efforts to succeed exceed expected benefits

Confessions of a PhD Student (13): “Positivist? Interpretivist? Neither. I am a pragmatist”

In science there are different paradigms which attempt to explain the world. Is there a single reality, one that is out there, available for anyone who looks for it? Or is it something more variable, something internal, something we create and modify? Positivism views reality as objective, fixed. Interpretivism considers it subjective, depending on relevant actors.

Positivists tend to use quantitative methods to study phenomena; interpretivists prefer a more qualitative approach. Both have limitations. Positivists identify statistical trends, but their findings lack depth. Researchers may fail to fully appreciate the context and the voices of participants. Interpretivists seek an in-depth understanding of the matter of study, but their results lack breadth. Researchers’ personal interpretations are subject to bias, and generalising is complicated due to a small number of participants.

Imagine a company wanting to know if employees are satisfied with a course. A positivist applies a survey to all participants, and finds that 80% report liking the training and would recommend it. An interpretivist conducts interviews to a sample of students, and finds a tendency to provide positive comments about the training and praise the collaborative activities embedded in the course. While both approaches have the described limitations, both yield valuable information, and their conclusions are rather similar.

Me, I like statistics. I also like tangible, observable things. I like operationalising variables. I like making sure we are talking about the same thing. More than once I have been called a positivist. However, I do not consider myself a positivist. I do not like labels, as they tend to imply characteristics that may or may not apply. If I call myself a positivist, then people might expect me to only look for the objective reality, only look at numbers and statistical trends and miss the beauty of the detail. And I also believe that truth is socially constructed. People’s subjective perceptions are a valuable source of information, not only to themselves but to the world. Personal accounts of phenomena help to obtain explanations. Yet, I do not consider myself an interpretivist either.

I am a pragmatist. I focus on what works. I do research using mixed methods (both quantitative and qualitative). I can see the value of objective and subjective knowledge. I understand truth as a tentative, evolving entity. I believe that different situations could (and should!) be studied in different ways. I reject the idea that there are two options, positivism or interpretivism, white or black. I see a world full of colors. Understanding this world requires openness to different ideas, approaches and explanations. How could I discard a paradigm that works? Both positivism and interpretivism can work. Pragmatism for the win.

—-

For further readings, please see:

Creswell, J. W. & Plano Clark, V. L. (2007). Designing and conducting mixed methods research. California, USA: Sage Publications.

Teddlie, C. & Tashakkori, A. (2009). Foundations of Mixed Methods Research: Integrating quantitative and qualitative approaches in the social and behavioural sciences. USA: SAGE Publications.

What if…?

I recently attended a workshop on the use of comics to communicate research findings. Images can reach a wider audience and explain complex concepts in a simple way. Thinking about my work from such a different perspective helped me create the following comic (I barely know how to draw).

What if… we decided to get out of the box? What if… we used everyday technologies for learning purposes? What if… we moved away from online courses that look like content repositories and we designed collaborative activities? What if… we accepted the challenge of innovating? Education could be so different…

What if Comic

This comic is also available in Spanish.

Confessions of a PhD Student (12): I need a wow factor

So… I have finished my data collection and analysis. Or so I want to believe. I have interesting information that enables me to answer my research questions. I have identified key conclusions. I also have lots of extra data that I can use for other studies. It seems that I am all set to write my thesis, have my Viva, and get my PhD… But why do I feel that something is still missing?

I cannot shake away that feeling… A PhD is supposed to provide a meaningful contribution to the academic community. Are my findings meaningful enough? How can I know? Meaningful for whom? Who is the academic community? Me? My participants? You?

I would not be worried if I had a wow factor. A wow factor is very useful in academic writings. It is something that makes the audience think: Wow. I hadn’t thought of that before. If you have a wow factor, it is highly likely that your contribution is meaningful, or at least, that it will be regarded as such.

Unfortunately, I do not have a wow factor. I need one. Does it have to do with the actual data or with the way of presenting the data? That is a tricky question. I am not sure. I want to say: Both. You need to have something new and present it in an engaging way. We could even represent the wow factor using the following equation:

exciting data + exciting presentation = wow factor

But honestly, I think that you could have quite a boring finding (my intervention was unsuccessful), present it in an original way (today I will show you how to ruin an intervention) and achieve a wow factor (wow; what an interesting, insightful presentation). So our equation is simply:

|data| + exciting presentation = wow factor

Is achieving the wow factor manipulation or effective communication? That is another tricky question. And again, I am not sure what the answer is. I want to say: It is effective communication. And since that sounds nicer, that is my answer. But let me know if you disagree. I would love to know your reasons.

Meanwhile I will look for my wow factor. I think my findings are interesting enough (but I am passionate about my work, so what else could I say?). I just need an effective way of communicating them and thus, making a meaningful contribution for the academic community.

When online tutoring makes a difference

I am a full-time PhD student. Most of my studies revolve around my thesis. I don’t have any formal classes, but I do have weekly supervisions. These help me organize my ideas, identify new paths, ask questions and set deadlines. I plan each meeting beforehand and keep a record of everything, organized by achievements (yes, I chose that word merely to motivate myself), issues and next steps (when applicable). Usually my tutorials last one hour and take place face-to-face.

However, throughout my studies I have travelled often, mostly to Mexico where I collaborate with different institutions. I have been gone up to 5 consecutive months. During these periods I have continued with my weekly supervisions, online. This is called online tutoring or e-tutoring.

Sometimes the 6-hour difference between Mexico and the UK makes it too complicated to find a suitable time for both me and my supervisor to meet synchronously. When that happens, we turn to emails to communicate asynchronously. I try to be very succinct and use bullet points. Being clear is crucial. My key question for myself is: What do I really want to know from my supervisor? And that’s exactly what I ask for.

I know that if I am vague, I might get a reply with a question, instead of an answer (e.g., what do you mean?). If I have limited time to make a decision, I need timely feedback. I can’t risk wasting time in avoidable explanations. On the other hand, I can afford to be chattier (and more ambiguous) when the tutorial is synchronous because I will have several opportunities to explain myself and ask further questions.

I do have my supervisor on Gmail chat. Theoretically, if I saw him online, I could send him a message at any time to sort any quick issue. It would be a bit like knocking on his office door and interrupting him briefly. However, I try not to do so, unless it’s an emergency. While technology is great for helping people contact each other, regardless of times and places, I think it would be intrusive to try to chat with my supervisor past office hours. Tutorials should stick to formally allocated times and means.

Online tutoring can use several tools apart from emails. Those that integrate voice and text communications (e.g., Skype, Adobe Connect) are particularly useful for synchronous sessions. Choosing the best one depends on the context and the needs. The technology should be available for both the student and the tutor, and they should feel comfortable using it.  When I am in Mexico, connection speed is regularly an issue, which translates into broken sound, echo and disconnections. My supervisor and I always have a plan B (and C). We start with Skype and switch to Gmail chat if necessary. If both options fail, we talk on the phone.

Mexico: Internet speed at a private university

UK: Internet speed at my home


Due to the technical limitations, we rarely use video. I don’t really think I am missing out on much. Maybe if I was a full-time distance student, I would need more of the non-verbal cues that video can offer, but I am not. I have met my supervisor face-to-face enough times to adequately interpret his messages. Plus, it’s actually quite comfortable to be able to have a tutorial in pyjamas…

Another great tool for online tutorials (and collaborative work in general) is Google Docs (now Google Drive). It is great for sharing files and editing them simultaneously with others. I also use it to keep a backup of my work. Perhaps its best feature is the chat box, which enables you to talk about the document without actually editing it.

The communication is very efficient when using Skype and Google Docs at the same time. I can discuss a document with my supervisor while looking at it. We can see in real-time the changes we are doing. AND if the sound breaks, we can turn to the Google Doc chat to keep the conversation flowing.


Sample Google Doc with chat box


Irrespective of its format (synchronous or asynchronous), online tutoring has made a difference for me. It provided me timely support in a flexible way. It is also useful for my peace of mind. I know I can be wherever and keep moving forward in my studies. Place and time are no issues. For people interested in engaging in online tutoring, I recommend it. I think it is a great way of helping distance learners.

FAQ of Online Tutoring

What is online tutoring?

It is supporting students’ learning process via the Internet.

Who can benefit from online tutoring?

Students working on projects abroad, distance students and supervisors with tight schedules.

Why is online tutoring useful?

Because timely support can be provided in a flexible way.

When is online tutoring useful?

When it is complicated to meet face-to-face due to time or geographic constraints.

What do I need to do online tutoring?

You need to know how to communicate online (e.g., be clear and brief) and to feel comfortable using your chosen tool.

What is the best tool for online tutoring?

It is one easily available to the student and the tutor, one that both feel comfortable using. In my case, it is a combination of Skype, GMail chat and Google Docs .

What are some suggestions for people interested in engaging in online tutoring?

  1. Have formally allocated times and means for tutorials.
  2. Plan the tutorials beforehand.
  3. Keep asynchronous communications brief and clear.
  4. Consider technological limitations, like connection speed, when selecting the communication tool.
  5. Have a plan B (and C) in case the technology fails.

While this is the way I have experienced it, the potential of online tutoring is greater. For example, it could also benefit small groups of students at a time. Although  finding a suitable time to meet synchronously and organizing tutorials in such a way that they are meaningful for all participants might be challenging, once that is sorted, group online tutoring can help optimize supervisors’ time and create a support network for learners.

What has been your experience?

Starting a Twitter chat

Two months ago I became the manager of the Twitter account of the Mexican chapter of an international society. It has been a fun experience. I actually read the tweets of our followers, most of whom I follow back.

One day I posted an article (in Spanish) about one of our youngest members, who is 6 years old and has an IQ of 150. It included a video in which the boy answers questions. Someone replied, arguing that the boy was not a genius, that he was merely showing good memorization skills. I disagreed with his comment. However, instead of starting an argument with him, I conceded that intelligence is more than just memorizing. After that, I tweeted a question: What defines a genius?

I got lots of replies. Several interesting discussions arose from that simple question. Considering that one of the objectives of the group is to promote stimulating intellectual and social opportunities for its members, it was a great activity.

And so I decided to start a Twitter chat. While I am familiar with some Twitter chats (e.g., #phdchat), there are not many in Spanish (none that I know of, actually). I had never moderated a Twitter chat before. Getting ready was a challenge.

Fortunately, I had help. I got some advice from Terese Bird (@tbirdcymru), Tony Ratcliffe (@AERatcliffe), and Nasima Riazat (@NSRiazat). I defined some steps to follow:

  1. Decide the basics. The goal of the chat is to generate intellectually stimulating discussions between members and the general community. I set up a hashtag (#mensachat) and tweeted about it.
  2. Get people involved. I asked our Twitter followers for schedule and topic suggestions.
  3. Make sure the conversation can get going. I got a small core group together, members who agreed to participate.
  4. Explain the procedure. I didn’t expect any of our followers to be familiar with a Twitter chat. As I said, there are not many in Spanish (maybe none). I started by asking them to include the hashtag #mensachat in their tweets.
  5. Ask the question. I have a list of recommended topics to choose from.
  6. Moderate. This implies asking follow-up questions, making summaries of what is being said and answering when needed.
  7. Finish. I thought it would be good to end with a reminder of the next chat and with a tweet saying that the conversation would be saved. People can keep chatting if they want after the moderated session is over.

Last Monday was the first #mensachat. Twelve people participated and shared 79 posts in 1 hour. At first, I retweeted their replies to the question. I did some follow-up questions as well, when I felt the conversation was slowing down… Instead of just tweeting using the hashtag, they kept replying to the account of the group (fortunately, they did use the hashtag). I assumed that they were not searching the hashtag, but only reading their usual feed. By the end, they got it and were talking between themselves. I did a couple of summaries to update latecomers. Lots of interesting ideas were dicussed.

At some point I thought they were straying away from the original topic, but before I had to do anything about it, someone did. He brought everyone back. It was a really great experience. 🙂

After it had ended I got a tweet from a lurker: “It was a pleasure to read you”. He has no idea of how much his tweet means to me. It gives evidence of a small success. I will accept that I was worried that the Twitter chat wouldn’t work, but it did. I am happy.

This chat takes place every Monday at 8 pm (Mexico time, which is 2 am UK time; I know, I know). If you speak Spanish and would like to join, please do so! The more, the merrier!

– Brenda Padilla

Confessions of a PhD Student (11): “Things didn’t go as planned”

Mexican Flags

I recently came back to Leicester after five months in Mexico, where I was doing fieldwork. Before my trip, I had a plan and a timetable. … Sometimes things don’t go as planned. This was one of those times. I wanted to do lots of things, but I needed the help of potential participants. I soon realized that some people agree to collaborate but then don’t. Some wouldn’t even answer my emails right after looking for me to participate! I couldn’t understand… I also had a hard time finding an organization to do my research with. It took two months longer than planned. Fortunately, I eventually got a great company on board.

While I had a number of drawbacks, my time in Mexico was productive. I learned about risk analysis. I gave two conferences and two workshops. I finished writing an article, which I sent for review to a journal. I organized an international Symposium of Education and Technology.  I collected data for my thesis. I networked. Maybe I didn’t follow my original plan, but it went well. Activities and times changed, but the goal remained the same. I’m still on track and will return to Mexico in April to complete my fieldwork.

– Brenda Padilla

Confessions of a PhD Student (10): “I question authorities”

Have you ever noticed how some gurus in your field are never questioned? Have you ever noticed how some blindly accept as truth whatever authorities in your field say?

Dr. X is the director of the Super Great Institute and a professor at a very important university. He has a PhD in Y and has done research for a zillion years. His studies, experience and reputation back him up.

You probably know someone that fits this description. Have you ever got a chance to talk to this person? I have. And I know I am supposed to feel honored that I am being the recipient of such wisdom…

I do enjoy talking with academics in my area. I love it. I love sharing ideas. But I do question authorities if I do not agree with their ideas. They could be wrong, couldn’t they?

When my parents finished their PhDs, they told me something they had learned: A PhD does not make you any less stupid.

I have found this to be very true. Having academic credentials and lots of research experience can help people to stay closer to the truth. But it is no guarantee of anything. People are bound to make mistakes. I can make mistakes. Dr. X can make mistakes.

I have found that some gurus feel uncomfortable when I do not immediately accept their ideas and instead, I ask for the evidence that supports them. Some even get upset if I am not convinced by their arguments…

However, others do not mind being questioned, challenged. They even enjoy it! It can result in great academic conversations.

Even if it might be annoying for some, I think that questioning authorities is ok, whether you are a colleague of Dr. X or a simple PhD student.

– Brenda Padilla

Confessions of a PhD Student (9): “I created a monster”

Doing my PhD has been an adventure. I began with a very general idea of what I wanted to do. My work was fuzzy, vague. I was lost in a labyrinth of information. After doing a literature review and having several discussions with my supervisor, I was able to narrow down my topic to something specific and manageable… or so I thought.

 

Based on my research questions, I worked on ways of getting some answers. I chose a mixed approach. I included different instruments and methods to triangulate the information: interviews, surveys, document analysis, business metrics and more. I decided to consider the perspectives of all relevant stakeholders to obtain a more thorough understanding: students, teachers, course designers and managers. To organize myself, I divided the data collection in several stages, each of which could be considered an independent study…

 

…And my project grew out of proportions. One day I looked at my methodology chapter and thought: “I created a monster.”

 

My supervisor once told me that I want to fix the world. I do, one research project at a time… But maybe I exaggerated with my thesis… I had heard it before: “You want to do too much”. They told me a couple of times. Ok, ok. They told me LOTS of times.

 

I didn’t really understand it until I saw my plan written down and got scared by its monstrous dimensions. I can now accept that it encompasses too much. I do want to fix the world. But I cannot study everything right now. I have human, resource and time constraints.

 

So I will take control and narrow down my methodology.

 

I will fight and conquer my research.

No more monsters for me.

– Brenda Padilla

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