Archive for April, 2011

Peer Networks

Monday, April 25th, 2011

A number of PhD students participating in my research have discussed how they became aware that there is a finite number of peers operating within their academic field or specialism, and even less (if any) researching within their specific research foci. This might seem fairly obvious, but this realisation appears to be a revelatory moment for some – representing a small but significant point in the doctoral learning trajectory, as they negotiate the transition from anonymous student to independent researcher becoming increasingly participative and visible within the academic community. Perceptions of peer groups can be realised through a range of activities and environments, but how reliable might these be?

The literature review partly represents the mapping of established researchers and recognised ‘experts’ in a particular research field, but few PhD students will be considered for inclusion here. Web-based academic networks can provide cues to help identify peers – both nationally and internationally – as well as developing sustainable links and trusting relationships, whilst the conference circuit and summer schools provide valuable opportunities for face-to-face interaction. But what of those PhD students who may be marginalised by any or all of these activities; who may not be able to access such opportunities, or who may be yet to publish, or have the skills or inclination to develop significant online profiles?

Furthermore, how does academic recognition through traditional means of research dissemination and informal networking compare with those increasingly enacted within digital environments? How do we reconcile narratives of professional networking and identity production with micro-celebrity cultures in social media?

“It’s the best thing I ever read, I didn’t understand one word…”

Friday, April 15th, 2011

George Cukor | Born Yesterday (1950)

Conceptualising Doctoral Practices

Tuesday, April 12th, 2011

My thesis is examining how PhD students’ academic practices are facilitated by the adoption and use of social media. In attempting to develop a conceptual model of doctoral practices, it has been useful to look at similar examples in the literature.

From the outset, I have adopted a holistic perspective of what constitutes doctoral study, looking beyond those activities that only support thesis-development. I’ve therefore been particularly impressed with some of Jim Cumming’s writing. His integrative model (2010) incorporates four mutually inclusive doctoral practices that describe curricular, pedagogical, research and work-based activities. These are, he suggests, in a constant state of flux, and embedded within a diverse range of relations, networks and cultures that orient around several key doctoral ‘arrangements,’ which he defines as participants, the academy, and the community.

Integrative model of doctoral enterprise (Cumming, 2010; 31)

Cumming (2010) also highlights a number of previous conceptual models. Though slightly dated, Holdaway’s (1996) framework of activities and foci is the most comprehensive.

A conceptual framework of activities and foci of graduate education (Holdaway, 1996; 52)

His distinction between ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ foci relates closely with a coding model proposed by McAlpine et al. (2009), in which activities are designated ‘doctoral-specific’ or ‘academic-general.’ These are mapped across 3 levels (formal, semi-formal and informal) to form a matrix of six activity clusters. This categorisation of formality seem somewhat arbitrary to me. And what do we mean by formal anyway? Is it an indicator of importance, or is it something that is scheduled, rather than spontaneous? Does formality distinguish whether an activity is optional or mandatory, or whether it has some assessment criteria? I’ve discussed the problem of ‘formality’ in doctoral education in a previous post. Even if some agreed definition is established, I think the formality of individual activities should be thought of as being highly contested (by the PhD student, supervisor(s), Faculty etc.), and as such, constitute potential sources of tension.

The conceptual model I am developing from my empirical work is no more than a useful heuristic with which to guide my analysis, which – as I’m using an activity theory-based approach – is essentially to inform the various components of the activity systems I am developing.

As such, general academic activities are of limited use. But dig deeper, and they each encompass a wide range of academic and social processes. Take conferences, for example, and you’re looking at information sourcing (call for papers), writing (proposals, abstracts, papers), disseminating (presenting), making contacts (networking), giving and receiving critical feedback, gaining recognition in the research field etc. Each of these processes (along with many others) permeates the various interrelated activities that each of my participants are engaged in. Throw social media (the focus of my research) into the mix, and you can start to build a picture of where and how they are influential, disruptive and transformative.

Multiple occurrences of these activities coalesce into a highly complex analytical framework (for each participant), but this ensures that a qualitative analysis of each of their social media experiences is highly situated and contextualised within the various practices and stages of their doctoral studies.


Cumming, J. (2010). Doctoral enterprise: A holistic conception of evolving practices and arrangements. Studies in Higher Education, 35(1), 25-39.

Holdaway, E. A. (1996). Current issues in graduate education. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 18(1), 59–74.

McAlpine, L., Jazvac-Martek, M., & Hopwood, N. (2009). Doctoral student experience: Activities and difficulties influencing identity development. International Journal for Researcher Development, 1(1). 97-109.

Open Nottingham

Friday, April 8th, 2011

Thanks to everyone who organised and contributed to yesterday’s Open Nottingham Seminar. Whilst Open Education Resources (OER) are on the periphery of my own research focus, the event provided a useful overview of current initiatives and some of the key issues and challenges. The University of Nottingham’s activities in OER were briefly showcased alongside several case studies of adoption at Faculty level. Wyn Morgan, Director of Teaching and Learning, gave an honest appraisal of the University’s “social corporate” agenda for open education, as one that values promotional and cost efficiency benefits as highly as any related to pedagogy or widening participation.

Earlier in the day, the University had finally made the inevitable announcement that it is to charge the maximum £9,000 undergraduate fees in 2012. In response to Dave White’s ‘tumbleweed’ question, Morgan suggested that attending a University like Nottingham provides a richer learning experience, enabling access to resources and expertise.

In a previous post, I wrote how Weller and Dalziel (2007) identify the key functions of universities as providing:

  • Structured learning frameworks (i.e. curricula)
  • Access to resources and educators
  • Social learning environments
  • Formal accreditation

This corresponds closely with David Wiley’s categorisation of the universities’ role as an aggregation of:

  • Content
  • Support Services
  • Social Life
  • Degrees

Wiley argues that the development of OER supported by an increasingly social web represents a potential ‘dissagregation’ of these categories, and suggests universities need to present clear arguments for the value of their continued monopoly.

The issue of institutional accreditation of OER was central to the following presentation, an inspiring talk by Wayne Mackintosh, founder of WikiEducator, who described how OER can provide learning opportunities for students underserved by formal education, and the role of the OER University (OERu) in developing pathways to quality assurance for accreditation and assessment services.


Weller, M. J. & Dalziel, J. (2007). On-line Teaching: Suggestions for Instructors. In L. Cameron & J. Dalziel (Eds.), 2nd International LAMS Conference: Practical Benefits of Learning Design, 26 November. Sydney: LAMS Foundation (76-82).

Retro Tweeting

Wednesday, April 6th, 2011

Whilst browsing Twitter late last night, it suddenly occurred to me that the interface had reverted to it’s old design. A retweet indicated there was a temporary fault, and sure enough this morning everything was back to normal. It’s like when your shiny black digital widescreen TV breaks down, and you dig out the old yellowing, boxy analogue telly from the attic (“I knew it would come in handy.”) Timeframes in the retrograding of  technology are rapid in social media. My experience of this brief flirtation was a mix of slight disorientation, a twinge of nostalgia, and that self-satisfying smugness that comes with the illusion of technological progress.

Image: Moma Propoganda | MaxiMídia