Archive for January, 2011

Social Regulation and Legitimacy in Doctoral Learning

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

We sense that the distinctions between formal and informal learning are becoming increasingly blurred, yet we still resort to using such terms. Within doctoral education – the focus of my thesis – the dichotomy is particularly ambiguous and unreliable.

Even if we think of formal and informal learning as a continuum, where do we place something like presenting at a conference, or publishing a paper? These are rarely formal requirements of a PhD, yet there is an expectation that a doctoral student actively pursues such opportunities. What about attending seminars, or taking on a teaching role? Where might we place these? And how do different disciplines, faculties and doctoral programmes determine the importance of these practices?

Universities assume the custodianship of doctoral learning through the formal induction and integration of PhD students within a supportive research environment; one that provides supervision, research training and facilities, and other support services, and fosters a mentor- and peer-based community of practice. Wenger (1998) describes practice as a dialectic relationship between participation and reification. A learner’s trajectory can therefore be understood in the interrelated dimensions of greater participation and engagement within an academic community and increased familiarity with the signs and discourses that reify that participation.

According to Davies and Mangan (2006), models such as communities of practice provide a social regulation of learning. Whilst the individual student develops a unique set of reference points to her learning process, these must attain legitimacy within the context of the community she is acting. Since communities derive their coherence from particular ways of practicing, they regulate how the student’s progress can be recognised as learning. This is usually manifest as curricula and the attainment of qualifications. In doctoral education, where there is far less of a structured programme, and a greater emphasis on student efficacy and negotiated study, this notion of legitimacy as a defining characteristic of the learning trajectory becomes particularly pertinent.

My own research and teaching indicate that the lack of recognition associated with the use of social media (and the ‘value’ of their related artefacts, such as blog posts) compared to established scholarly pursuits – getting a paper published or presenting at a conference – can be a major disincentive for postgraduate researchers. Yet in my own field of study, it is expected that I become familiar with, and actively engage in the social web, because of its elevated status as a legitimate academic practice within my research communities and networks.


Davies, P., & Mangan, J. (2006). Trajectories of students’ learning: threshold concepts and subject learning careers. Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Society for Research in Higher Education, University of Brighton.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of Practice: learning, meaning and identity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The world really is getting more colourful…

Friday, January 14th, 2011

Crayola Color Chronology 1903-2010

Discourse Communities

Sunday, January 9th, 2011

Virginia Yonkers’ latest blog post introduces a concept that is new to me, where membership of a community is legitimised predominantly by language. Reflecting on ongoing analysis of her research into distributed groups, she suggests expertise might be defined by profession, department or organisational power structures, and goes on to describe the tensions that arise when there is conflict between these different discourse communities, and how they might be resolved.

The Deadhead

Saturday, January 8th, 2011

“Yeah, I’m the deadhead. Here you go.”
“You’re a little late, but the jump seat is open.”
“You know. it’s been a while since I’ve done this. Which one’s the jump seat again?”
“Have a nice flight.”

“Are you my deadhead?”

“Frank, Captain Oliver, John Larkin, the copilot.”
“Fred Tulley, flight engineer.”
“Frank Taylor, Pan Am. Thanks for giving me a lift, boys.”
“Go ahead and take a seat, Frank. We’re about to push. What kind of equipment you on, DC-8?”
“Uh, 707.”
“You turning around on the redeye?”
“Uh, I’m jumping puddles for the next few months. Trying to earn my keep running leapfrogs for the weak and weary.”
“No shame in that. We all did it.”

Screenplay by Jeff Nathanson | Catch Me If You Can (2002)

In a recent response to an article by Stephen Downes, I briefly touched on the use of language within the context of practice and access to learning and professional environments.

This account of how real-life sixties fraudster and conman Frank Abagnale Jr. hitches a cockpit ride whilst posing as a Pan American World Airways pilot, may be fictitious, but it perfectly demonstrates how familiarisation with the jargon (along with a uniform and bags of confidence) was sufficient to convince professionals of his authenticity, despite not having the remotest idea of how to fly a plane.

Using CmapTools to Construct Activity Systems

Thursday, January 6th, 2011

I’ve recently got to the stage that will be recognisable to many researchers who are using 3rd generation Activity Theory in their research; that is, drawing activity system triangles at every available opportunity – notepads, backs of envelopes, beer mats, in my sleep etc.

However organic and spontaneous this approach might be, the need for consistency, and to communicate activity systems to participants, supervisors and wider audiences, invariably necessitates developing digital methods of construction. Furthermore, the fine-grained approach I am taking with my research requires constructing numerous interrelated activity systems to represent shifting patterns of practice across contexts and timeframes.

Whilst I looked into a range of drawing programmes for this task, I’ve actually ended up adopting the use of a concept mapping programme. A desktop-based freeware from the Institute of Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC), CmapTools was originally devised by concept mapping pioneers including Alberto J. Cañas and Joseph D. Novak around cognitive studies based primarily on Ausebal’s Assimilation Theory.

I’d be interested in hearing what other researchers use to draft their activity systems. In the meantime, here are some key tips on using CmapTools for this purpose:

Drafting the Activity System

By default, CmapTools automatically creates a link between two nodes to facilitate standard concept mapping notation. Override this by holding down the Shift key whilst dragging the link.

Applying Styles

Styles are applied to text, nodes and links (font, colour, shape, thicknesses etc.) A really useful feature is the ability to copy and paste styles (accessed through right clicking) to one or more components, enabling consistent design within and across different activity systems.

Nesting Nodes

Once a basic activity system is constructed, it’s useful to be able to group all components, through the nested node feature (Tools > Nested Nodes > Create). Once created, nested nodes can be collapsed into a single node, which is useful for copying and storing lots of Activity Systems in a single file. Nested nodes can be ‘un-nested’ at any time (Tools > Nested Nodes > Detach Children).

Developing the Activity System

I use nodes with and without links as labels to annotate the activity systems (the prompts shown here are based on Mwanza’s (2001) Eight-Step-Model). According to Yamagata-Lynch (2010), tensions and contradictions can occur at nodes and in the intersections between nodes. I find it useful to use colour codes to identify specific occurrences, though other styles could be applied.


Whilst CmapTools does not have transferability of a vector programme such as Adobe Illustrator, content can be printed directly from a file, or saved as image files and PDFs (click on the image above.)


Mwanza, D. (2001). Challenges of designing for collaborative learning in an organisation. International Conference on Computers and Learning 2001 (CAL 2001), 2-4 April 2001, University of Warwick.

Yamagata-Lynch, L. C. (2010). Activity Systems Analysis Methods: Understanding Complex Learning Environments. New York: Springer.

ePortfolio Development: A Sort of Art and Design Perspective

Monday, January 3rd, 2011

In my early days as an Art and Design student, I remember carrying my work around in one of those old black portfolio cases about the size of a small kitchen table. I went for my undergraduate interview at Blackpool and the Fylde College on a Monday morning in early summer. I remember getting to Blackpool North railway station early, so I hung around for a while and got a coffee. I was entertained by three guys from Glasgow who, having spent the weekend enjoying the earthly delights of the seaside resort, were heading home. It soon became apparent that they had been up all night drinking and were finishing off their last few cans of lager. After a few jokes at my expense, they were soon huddled round my portfolio with genuine interest. So there I was, critically disseminating my entire body of work to three Glaswegian drunks in a railway cafe. Suffice to say, my interview at the College an hour or so later was a doddle by comparison, and I was offered the degree place.

Even in the relatively few subsequent years of studying in Art and Design, my portfolio underwent significant changes, in both editorial and design contexts, and significantly, the very medium in which it was presented; the physical case was soon replaced by a CD, and then a HTML website, then a Flash movie etc.

ePortfolio development is not a focus of my current studies as an educational researcher, though immediately after my MA in Falmouth, I was involved in a small research project with Ana Carvalho and Oliver Scott promoting digital portfolio workshops for Art and Design students. This highlighted the importance of portfolios as documentation of process, and we therefore explored portfolio development in context with other artefacts of reflective practice such as (digital) sketchbooks and Personal Development Plans (PDP).

Whilst I recognise the unique and specialised role the portfolio plays within Art and Design, issues such as portability, ownership, customisation, accessibility and scalability are applicable to the wider academic field. My own experience has taught me that portfolios are never static, but require regular management and sometimes fundamental changes.

Chris Thomson discusses the current uncertainties surrounding Delicious to highlight the transiency of web 2.0 tools within the context of developing a distributed ePortfolio. As I noted in a recent post, successful adoption of social media – for whatever purposes – requires developing key critical and reflective practices. In the case of ePortfolios, this may necessitate the negotiation of messy interrelations between institutional, commercial and open source tools, and the development of multiple platforms and multiple versions for different roles and audiences.