Archive for September, 2013

Developing Online Resources for Postgrads: The Internal-External Binary

Tuesday, September 24th, 2013

This is my third post exploring key binaries that emerged whilst working on an initiative developing online facilities for postgraduate research students in the School of Education at the University of Nottingham. The project highlighted key sociocultural aspects of digitally mediated doctoral practice that have resonated with my PhD research. Following my two previous posts problematizing the student-staff binary and further student binaries, I focus here on the internal and external contexts that typically underpin this type of departmental online provision.

It is common for departments to provide doctoral students with opportunities such as student seminars and conferences to formally disseminate their research internally to peers and academic staff. These established procedures are an integral part of institutional postgraduate training programmes and can play a key role in the socialisation of students within their immediate disciplinary community. Many early-stage students in particular draw value in the opportunity to disseminate work in progress, participate in discussion and contribute ideas in a relatively ‘safe’, supportive and familiar environment, that helps build confidence and skills for subsequent engagement further afield.

We routinely associate similar activities in online environments – such as those facilitating social networking, forum-type discussions and blogging – with the social web. However, when these are incorporated into bounded, departmental and institutional platforms – which may or may not include staff moderation and participation – they can present opportunities for students to engage exclusively with in-house audiences. As such, these activities can replicate the type of benefits described above, and provide an anticipatory and exploratory stage to subsequent external-facing and externally hosted activities.

The internal-external binary also has some relevance to student profiles. It is increasingly common for institutions to provide students with an online platform to develop formal external-facing profiles. These can be particularly useful to later-stage students, and even more so to those who do not actively engage in developing their own web presence. However, given their typical focus on cultivated research interests and formal publication and affiliations, these may seem irrelevant, inappropriate or even intimidating to early-stage students. Internal platforms limited by departmental or institutional boundaries can present opportunities for more flexible, tentative and explorative approaches to developing profiles.

Further, even within a relatively small department or postgraduate community, we should not assume that campus-based students are aware of the research interests and work of all of their peers. An informed knowledge of other students’ research will tend to be limited to those close colleagues and critical friends that emerge through the regular and proximal physical engagement provided by shared offices and social cliques. Such conditions may exclude distance or part-time students entirely (see previous post). Therefore, internal-facing profiles that provide the opportunity to display more informal, expressive and convivial content can facilitate an increased visibility within the student community, with the potential for establishing peer support groups or collaborative partnerships around shared research interests, literatures or methodologies.

We should expect all doctoral students to be familiar with the key online publications and journal databases in their fields. However, there may be significant variation in their awareness and engagement with external web resources, either related to their specific research topics or more general academic and doctoral practice. Surprisingly few may be aware of the resources that other universities may provide (primarily for their own students, but openly accessible to others), the many independent academic websites and blogs, or the social networks that enable loosely-connected communities and networks such as #phdchat to regularly share resources and discuss ideas. Those students (and indeed, academic and administrative staff) who actively engage with these web environments often act as mediators between the external and internal domains, by sharing these externally-sourced links and resources with others within their departments. Whilst this tends to be done intermittently, through e-mail and other commonly used internal communication systems, dedicated online provision such as repositories, RSS and tagging systems can provide a more systematic and efficient way of peer resource sharing and management.

Additionally, it is possible to facilitate in-house recommendation and ratings systems. This raises the issue of how students prioritise internally and externally produced resources. Whilst assumptions based on the trustworthiness of their own departmental and institutional sources of knowledge, expertise and guidance are to be expected, how might students go about informally evaluating external resources? By the institution they are derived from? The credentials of individual academics or research groups? Recommendations from external sources? It’s an interesting area to explore.

Doctoral student identity is shaped by the process of familiarising and locating themselves within their (inter)disciplinary fields. Whilst this is partly undertaken through reviewing and synthesising key texts (Kamler & Thomson, 2007), student engagement with peers and experts both inside and outside faculty constitutes an additional dynamic, multimodal set of influential practices that are increasingly mediated by digitally networked environments. As students negotiate both internal and external communities (and their identifiable, invisible and imagined audiences), the boundaries that define them are becoming increasingly pervious and ambiguous.

Of course, the ‘internal’ exists on a number of institutional levels; i.e. within a department, a faculty and the institution itself, and can incorporate a number of discipline-specific and generic research and training programmes, such as those provided by a Graduate School. These and other initiatives (some of which may be student-led) provide opportunities for interaction and potential collaboration across and between formal cohorts and research groups. Likewise, the ‘external’ can be seen as a multidisciplinary and multicontextual landscape, incorporating sources of expertise, enterprise and funding both within and without academia. Collectively, these represent a number of different and potentially conflicting practice domains in which the student may need to engage to successfully complete their doctorate. Further, academic-based social and participatory media and online networks provide access to discourses that are increasingly complex, fragmented and democratised (to a degree) by academics – including PhD students themselves – acting individually and collectively inside and out of formal roles and professional duties.

In sum, a doctoral education is informally regulated by norms of opportunity and expectation that can be seen as broadly defining a graduated ‘internal to external’ trajectory. This, for some students at least, represents a reliable and trusted form of socialisation and enculturation in the academic domain. Yet in exploring and managing online resources, profiles and their own dissemination, PhD students often negotiate between the internal and external domains of their departmental and institutional affiliation concurrently, and with varying degrees of engagement and agency.

References

Kamler, B., & Thomson, P. (2007). Rethinking doctoral work as text work and identity work. In B. Somekh & T. Schwandt (Eds.), Knowledge production: research in interesting times. London: Routledge. 166–179.

Developing Online Resources for Postgrads: Student Binaries

Friday, September 6th, 2013

This is the second post reflecting on my involvement in an initiative developing online facilities for postgraduate research students in the School of Education at the University of Nottingham. The project has highlighted key sociocultural aspects of digitally mediated doctoral practice that have resonated with my PhD research, and here, I continue to explore the ‘taxonomy’ of binaries that emerged, describing some of the interrelated contexts that often underpin these types of initiatives. In challenging some of the common assumptions associated with the student-staff binary in the first post, a number of additional interrelated and equally messy student binaries also emerge, primarily associated with mode, location and stages of study.

Doctoral student experiences of departmental support vary considerably through factors that are both sociocultural and related to individual agency. Practice profiles and study routines are heavily dependent on the many complex issues surrounding identity development, socialisation and a whole range of external factors. PhD students have shown to be highly strategic in how they negotiate different peer groups, and appropriate them for social and professional purposes (Baker & Pifer, 2011). Yet despite the access to external and increasingly networked (inter-) disciplinary communities, most doctoral peer networks and collaborations occur within cohorts defined by the structural and proximal attributes of formal programmes and institutions (Pilbeam & Denyer, 2009). University departments therefore strive to maintain the identity and social cohesion of formal cohorts whilst encouraging interaction and socialisation within the wider doctoral student community.

The role of online provision in this is often primarily oriented towards the needs of distance students, partly in an attempt to somehow replicate the perceived social and cultural benefits of the campus-based experience. In particular, there is an overwhelming sense that distance students routinely miss out on the informal, everyday discussion and interaction associated with the campus environment. Clearly, such an environment is seen as enriching the general experience of studying. But we should not underestimate how important a role the regularity, informality and collegiality of everyday interaction plays in providing students with access to key information about contacts, resources and ‘academic hacks’ that can significantly influence student progression. Online environments such as social networks, forums and blogs can augment such activities. However, historical attempts at replicating the informal ‘in real life’ interaction and communication on online platforms have been mixed at best. Arguably, once any form of informal interaction becomes structured or decontextualised, there is a risk of loosing both the authenticity and informal spontaneity that sustain such processes.

Of course, we always run the risk of homogenising distance students, often – in the case of international students in particular – at the expense of recognising cultural diversity and local needs (Deem & Brehony, 2000; Goode, 2007). In reality, distance students will experience varying degrees of isolation, partly depending on location, digital access and ability to travel. Conversely, ‘campus-based’ students often choose not to fully utilise campus facilities for any number of professional and personal reasons. Often, the distinctions we make between formal full-time and part-time modes of study are similarly over-emphasised. In the lifespan of a doctoral programme, many full-time students will operate at part-time levels of study for significant periods of time, by necessity and by choice – often not fully disclosing ‘extra-curricula’ activities to supervisors or administrators for fear of compromising programme or funding requirements.

The study trajectories of doctoral students – at least within the Humanities and Social Sciences – are often characterised by a fragmentation of early-stage cohorts, as individuals disperse to do data collecting or engage in intensive solitary periods of analysis and writing up. For distance students – who may have had the opportunity to establish a short-term cohort through an initial campus-based foundational period of study – this might be even more pronounced. Students typically arrange to meet up with each other periodically, either on campus or elsewhere (distance students may be usefully located within ‘regional’ clusters), and generally, departmental activities and communications continue to serve as conduits, keeping them informed of research projects, events and training opportunities. But how can departments best utilise online provision to facilitate more systematic methods of continued peer support that maintains the identity and social cohesion of cohorts and provides students with the means to continue interacting with familiar and trusted colleagues?

The chance to engage across doctoral groups and cohorts is also valued, helping students establish useful connections and initiating opportunities for informal mentorship. Any opportunities for early- to mid-stage students to tap into the personal insights and experiences of late-stage students or recent graduates may be particularly valuable, as they share advice on finishing theses, negotiating vivas and career progression. On campus, internal events such as student seminars and conferences typically provide opportunities for interaction across cohorts, whilst special interest research / reading groups can cultivate sustainable networks within the student body, within and potentially across departments. Everyday campus-based interaction can provide the opportunity for less formal and loosely structured forms of mentorship to occur between students at different stages of their doctorate, though this is very dependent on the physical environment, and the configuration of both study and recreational areas (departments often purposely implement inter-cohort environments). Online provision can augment many of these activities; facilitating network and community development through shared research interests, maintaining communication between events or group meetings, and supporting other inter-cohort interactions that are also inclusive of distance students.

In the next post, I’ll be looking at the internal-external binary.

References

Baker, V. L., & Pifer, M. J. (2011). The role of relationships in the transition from doctoral student to independent scholar. Studies in Continuing Education. 33(1), 5-17.

Deem, R. & Brehony, K. J. (2000). Doctoral students’ access to research cultures – are some more unequal than others? Studies in Higher Education, 25(2), 149-165.

Goode, J. (2007). Empowering or disempowering the international Ph.D. student? Constructions of the dependent and independent learner. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 28(5), 589-603.

Pilbeam, C. & Denyer, D. (2009). Lone scholar or community member? The role of student networks in doctoral education in a UK management school. Studies in Higher Education, 34(3), 301-318.