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.

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.

How security management and investigation professionals use online learning environments

Now in the third year, part-time, toward my PhD at the University of Leicester, I am about to embark on my main study. This is likely a good time to give a brief report on the pilot study that I conducted in the latter part of 2012. The purpose was to study how security management and investigation professionals use online learning environments for their work-based learning and continuing professional development. I was also interested in the digital literacy skills that may be possessed or required by these professionals.

There were two phases in the study: a questionnaire followed by personal interviews. I initially posted a request for study participants in 14 discussion groups. Sixty-seven people in 17 different countries completed the questionnaire, and 35 indicated they would participate in an interview. I conducted 10 interviews by Skype or telephone, as well as 1 by email. These interviews involved participants in Canada, the USA, the UK, Lithuania, and South Africa. The response was encouraging, and it permitted me to gain a view of the field and what might be expected in the main study.

My early findings have been that, beyond face-to-face, using the telephone and email were the most common ways to connect with contacts for learning-related questions, although online discussion groups or forums are a popular way to collaborate for problem-solving and learning. However, many more participants tend to read (consume) the resources than actively engage in discussions on a regular basis. The reasons for not being more involved included concerns with sharing publicly and the need to determine the credibility of information posted.

I am preparing a paper about the pilot study that I hope to present in July in Berlin. This report will provide more analysis of the findings. The main study will include observations of online learning activities along with interviews. I hope to complete the thesis by December 2014.

A.E. (Tony) Ratcliffe
PhD Student, Institute of Learning Innovation
University of Leicester

New Skills for Learning Professionals

"In a Learning 2.0 world, where learning and performance solutions take on a wider variety of forms and where churn happens at a much more rapid pace, what new skills and knowledge are required for learning professionals?"

"In a Learning 2.0 world, where learning and performance solutions take on a wider variety of forms and where churn happens at a much more rapid pace, what new skills and knowledge are required for learning professionals?"

This month’s Big Question posed on the Learning Circuits blog asks us to consider what new skills are needed for learning professionals. A bit of context here: Learning Circuits is Tony Karrer’s blog for the ASTD (American Society for Training and Development), and is aimed at ‘workplace learning and performance professionals’. There is a very rich discussion taking place around this question, mostly from a corporate training perspective, although the issues are not too different in higher education.

What follows is my own motley list, along with comments from others who have responded so far. By the way, no-one has yet defined ‘learning professional’ in the discussion. I’m reading it as ‘someone who helps other people learn for a living’. (Keeping it nice and broad… 🙂 )

OK, so here’s the list:

1. Reflect on how learning happens.

With Web 2.0, we have the technologies at our disposal to provide highly collaborative or hugely personalised learning experiences, or mass-scale, standardised, content-driven education. I expect we will see more of all of these in time to come. In all cases, learning professionals will need to approach their job reflectively. Mohammed Amine Chatti‘s description of double loop learning is a nice model, and Nancy White emphasises the value of shared reflection through blogging and conversations with peers.

2. Keep learning – and networking.

Harold Jarche writes about the importance of making your learning process publicly visible, for example through blogging, participating in online networks, and building up a trusted – and trusting – base of followers on Twitter. He says: ‘It’s not just an advantage to belong to diverse professional networks, but… it is now a significant disadvantage to not actively participate in social learning networks.’ This explicit linking of social networking with professional development is a thread running through almost all of the responses to the Big Question.

3. And nurturing…

Clark Quinn points to the need for learning facilitators to understand ‘how to nurture groups into cohesion, communication and collaboration.’ I love the word ‘nurture’ there – it’s so exquisitely non-technical!

Nancy White deals briefly with the question of community leadership and facilitation in her third post, and distinguishes between the concept of ‘community’ and ‘network’. (At the risk of oversimplifying: a community is a more ‘bounded’ group; a network has fuzzier edges.) The skills for facilitating both are different, and those of us in the business of helping people learn need to know when to use which kinds of skills.

4. Share your knowledge

Karyn Romeis challenges learning professionals to help shape their organisation’s learning strategy by contributing their knowledge from a grassroots perspective. She gives a great anecdote from her own experience, which is followed by some interesting comments from readers on the ethics of sharing/ withholding knowledge from one’s employer.

5. Manage that information flow!

Nancy White’s second post contains a fabulous set of guidelines for managing the ‘river’ of information that is hurtling  past us at such speed. She talks about the need for scanning skills, filtering skills, synthesising and sense-making skills, as well as the ability to ask good questions. She also mentions the role of the technology steward, which is next on my list…

6. Engaging with emerging technologies is no longer optional.

Clive Shepherd notes that many learning and development professionals ‘have fallen behind in their continuing professional development’. He says: ‘I can’t see a future for those [learning and development] professionals currently in denial and just hoping all this [proliferation of new learning media] will just blow over. I can’t imagine who will want to employ them.’

Jay Cross believes that learning professionals need to be proactive with regard to emerging technologies, and points to the importance of the ‘community technology steward’ – described in the forthcoming book by Etienne Wenger, Nancy White and John Smith, Digital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities. Technology stewards are ‘people with enough experience of the workings of a community to understand its technology needs and enough experience with technology to take leadership in addressing those needs’. I agree with Cross’ prediction of ‘job enrichment and greater responsibilities for learning professionals who take on the challenge.’

7. Open Educational Resources (OERs) are here to stay: don’t reinvent when you can repurpose.

Something that has not received much attention in the discussion so far is the role of OERs in teaching and learning today. Thank you to self-confessed vegan geek, Victoria MacArthur, for telling us about the Irish National Digital Learning Repository. (See also Leicester’s OTTER project, which is part of the broader JISC-funded UK OER initiative.) The proliferation of OERs provides opportunities for learning design by ‘mashup’ rather than starting from scratch, requiring at least a different approach, if not new skills.

8. Be a mensch!

Finally, what better way to end than with Nancy White’s four meta skills for learning professionals. This was in the first of her four posts, and it’s a wonderful list, which puts the whole discussion into perspective: learning professionals need to have self-awareness, generosity, humility and willingness to risk. All the qualities valued in the old Yiddish concept of a mensch. A learning professional (however defined) is first and foremost a human being.

Gabi Witthaus

A meeting about podcasts

Encontro sobre podcasts
8 – 9 July 2009, University of Minho, Braga, Portugal.

I was fortunate to attend a two-day conference on podcasting organised by my colleague Dr Ana Amelia Amorim Carvalho. There were more than 100 delegates from different parts of Portugal representing all areas of education – primary, secondary, higher, and non-formal educational institutions, all having different levels of expertise in podcasting and other web 2.0 technologies for learning.

The first day was devoted to presentations by delegates – teachers from schools and lecturers from universities – reporting their own experiences of developing podcasts, and their students’ experiences of creating (yes – students creating podcasts) and learning from podcasts. Thanks to Joanna, who translated the proceedings, I was able to understand most of the presentations and discussions at the conference.

The teachers’ and students’ approaches to podcasting deserve a longer, in-depth report, but here I’ll summarise some of the stories that I won’t forget.

  • Primary school children creating podcasts of the books that they studied with their parents. The teacher gives each child (6 year olds) a book to take home, and then parents read stories (from the book) to their child. The teacher gets groups of 3 children to create podcasts based on the stories that they learned at home. The children create podcasts themselves – that means, outlining what they are going to record, doing the actual recording, selecting which bits of recording to go into podcasts, and finally editing (with some help from the teacher).
  • High school students creating video podcasts related to literature classes. Students study literature texts and record what they learned and discussions as podcasts. These podcasts are made available on a public website where anyone can listen and view them and make comments.
  • High school children learning maths using podcasts. Their teacher was looking for a way of providing additional maths support for her students. She was delighted when she found out about podcasts. She has created a large number of podcasts describing various mathematical formulas and solving mathematical problems. Students report that they can now learn and revise at home as if the teacher were with them.

I sat through 11 presentations: each deserves a longer treatment. If you can read Portuguese, visit the conference website at: to know more about the approaches to using podcasts.

Finally, thanks to Ana for inviting me to the conference and asking me to share our own experience of developing and researching podcasts at Leicester and at Impala ( partner institutions.

Palitha Edirisingha

What are you doing about TWITTER and learning?

Twitter enables social networking, live searching and link-sharing that appeals to many young people and those at work because it has a ‘right now’ feel to it. In 12 months (between April 2008-09) user numbers increased by 1,298% and now stands at 17.1 million users.

Twitter is a free, readily accessible, very easy to use, web 2.0 platform that limits each message to brief posts (‘tweets’), i.e. maximum 140 characters long. They can be received and sent by computer or mobile.

These tweets are received only by those who have chosen to receive them (called ‘followers’) or by those in a Twitter ‘group’. They are used for reporting on activity, exchanging ideas by people who are not together but also to provide a ‘back channel’ during more formal proceedings such as a conference.

Now where is the use for learning. Isn’t tweeting knowledge sharing???

This week’s issue of TIME magazine addressed the Twitter issue – demonstrating embryonic uses in wide scale news sharing, the growing value of searching, and advertising.

At Leicester, we’re planning to have a go and test out tweeting as a pedagogical process.

What are you doing about it right now?

Gilly Salmon

Learning through off-the-wall conversations

The Open University hosted a ‘CAMEL’ workshop last week for a cluster of participants in JISC-funded projects. (CAMEL is a great community of practice model for e-learning management. See Theo’s blog for a nice succinct description or the CAMEL website for more info on this.) Ming and I attended from Beyond Distance in our capacity as researchers on the Beyond Distance DUCKLING project.

It was a hugely inspiring day for me – there was a kind of energy and warmth in this group of people who had been thrown together for the day that is usually only found amongst friends who have known each other for years. Full marks to Peter Chatterton and Steve Garner for setting up this wonderfully nourishing event. (And the Chinese dinner afterwards played no small part in the day’s success!)

Andy Bardill and Bob Fields from Middlesex University set the scene for the day by telling us about a fascinating project they are doing with their Interaction Design students. Imagine a design studio in a well-equipped university, with a lecturer and six to eight students sitting around a large table, and one student showing his or her photos or drawings to the group for critique. The conventional way to do this is to have each student projecting his or her work onto the wall using a data projector, while the rest of the students comment and take notes.

Andy and Bob are not conventional teachers, though, and they felt frustrated at the limited interaction, as most of the students sat with their heads bowed taking notes on their laptops. Their solution was to ban laptops from the classroom (an initially unpopular decision), and to project each student’s work from a ceiling-mounted projector onto the table (an accidental, but very exciting discovery, as it happened) instead of the wall… They covered the table with flipchart paper to provide a sort of screen for the projected image.

The side-effect (literally!) was that students started writing their notes on the table around the edges of the projected image, instead of typing on their disallowed laptops. This immediately had the effect of making previously private notes public, and catapulted the group into deeper conversation. At the end of each session, students started spontaneously taking photos of the conversation on the table as a record of their ‘notes’. You can see some of these intriguing photos on Andy Bardill’s Flickr page.

The next development was to video the unfolding conversation on the table with a ceiling-mounted video camera, in order to have a record for later analysis of the learning process. No doubt we’ll hear more from Andy and Bob about what they’ve learnt from this as the project progresses.

In the meantime, it is worth noting that the simple act of moving the focus from the wall (‘out there/ away from us’) to the table (‘in here/ amongst us’) resulted in a change of perspective for the whole group. It enabled people to physically move around the image. Their interactions became focused on the centre of the table, as they gestured towards the central image while discussing it. A bit like the hub of a wheel that keeps the spokes together, this central point kept the participants connected in a way that a projected image on a wall cannot easily do. The popular literature from neurolinguistic programming also tells us that when we look down, we are drawing more on the emotional part of our brain. Perhaps there’s something in that too.

Thanks, Bob and Andy, for reminding us that technology on the sidelines (and on the ceiling) can sometimes be much more effective than technology on our laps or in-our-faces. We’ll be watching this space for more off-the-wall inspiration. (Just let us know which space, so we don’t get left behind staring at the table while you’ve moved onto the floor… or underground…)

Gabi Witthaus

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