Posts Tagged ‘e-learning’

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.


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.


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.

Developing Online Resources for Postgrads: The Student-Staff Binary

Thursday, August 22nd, 2013

Over the last few months, I’ve been working on the initial stages of an initiative to develop online facilities for postgraduate research students in the School of Education at the University of Nottingham. After reviewing existing provision within the School, meeting staff and interviewing students, we are currently in the process of implementing a number of design ideas. Whilst this is not a research project as such, it has been interesting to note how it has highlighted key sociocultural aspects of digitally mediated doctoral practice, which have resonated with my PhD research.

Among other things, the work has thrown up some prominent yet problematic binaries. These are nothing new, but it is useful to challenge some of the common assumptions associated with them. Collectively, these binaries represent a taxonomy of sorts, describing the interrelated contexts that often underpin these types of initiatives. I’m kicking off here with a look at the student-staff binary.

At departmental level, academic staff contribute to the doctoral student community through supervision, teaching and, to a lesser extent, dissemination of their own research. However, given the heterogeneity of the staff body, the interrelationship between individual job descriptions, formal affiliations within and across faculties, and doctoral training roles and policy agendas is seemingly a complex one. We should also acknowledge the important role that research administrators and support staff play in updating students on events and funding opportunities etc., whilst contributing to the maintenance of protocols and documentation related to programme requirements.

Individual academics will draw on diverse experiences, perceptions and incentives when engaging in new online environments. This may however, provide an opportunity to develop more visible profiles within the department generally, and be seen as being more ‘accessible’ to the student community. Collectively, staff participation in online provision can provide doctoral students with additional perspectives, expertise and knowledge. But whilst this may help address inconsistencies in supervisor provision, is this disruptive or complimentary to the student-supervisor relationship? To what degree might the increased diversity of (potentially conflicting) ideas and perspectives compromise or even undermine the specific and informed authority, trust, guidance and integrity of supervisors?

This draws into focus the tension between the interpersonal context of the student-supervisor contract, and the environmental context of student socialisation. It’s a complex relationship, and as Green (2005) suggests, supervision is often ‘representational’ in nature (of both the department and the academic discipline). Whilst Batchelor and Di Napoli (2005) argue the student-supervisor relationship should be “devoid of too many unwanted interferences from the other people and structures,” it is becoming increasingly compromised by supervisor workloads and the rise of generic, centralised training agendas. So whilst the supervisor relationship constitutes a huge intellectual investment, student agency and self-efficacy are partly defined by the ability to tap into the academic capital of the department as a whole.

Within the online context, this invariably depends on the nature and depth of the staff interaction or contribution, and the type of knowledge generated. Often, this will be limited to providing additional taught materials or supplementing other ‘on campus’ activities (such as online resources related to a seminar). However, more invested or responsive activities – such as participating in online discussions, blogging or sharing extra-curricula resources – may constitute a significant shift towards cultivating a more immediate and collegial relationship between the student and staff communities.

Again, it is interesting to consider this within the socialisation frame, as the student is expected to become increasingly participative and integrated in the academic activities of the department. That said, it may be the students themselves who are most keen to maintain clear distinctions between the two groups, as they will often privilege staff contributions above those from their peers. Secondly, dedicated ‘student-only’ spaces for dissemination, discussion and resource sharing may prove a more effective environment to encourage student engagement and confidence building, and cultivate sharing and experimentation. Early stage students in particular may be reluctant to raise concerns or reveal knowledge deficits in a more integrated staff-student environment.

Further binaries also exist within the student community itself, and I’ll be looking at these in the next post.


Batchelor, D., & Di Napoli, R. (2005). The doctoral journey: perspectives. Educate, 6(1), 13-24.

Green, B. (2005). Unfinished business: subjectivity and supervision. Higher Education Research and Development, 24(2), 151–63.

Site Building, Sample Content and Cultural Bias

Monday, July 29th, 2013

Recent work (in Moodle) has got me thinking about the role of sample content when developing online participatory sites/platforms. The inclusion of initial content (text, images, links, resources etc.) helps kick-start a new site – contextualising the functionality of specific components (such as a blog, a forum thread or a repository) and acting as exemplars for subsequent use. However, should we assume that what we choose to add, and how we add it, is neutral, or is it inherently biased? How much do we – intentionally or unintentionally – influence and potentially determine parameters for continued practice? It seems to me, there are a number of interrelated factors worth considering here:

Default vs. Bespoke
Platforms may incorporate default content added by the developer (think of a ‘sample post’ on a new blog), but creating bespoke sample content allows it to be relevant to the specific context of the site. However, it might sometimes be considered advantageous to fall back on ‘decontextualised’ content, to reduce risks associated with establishing cultural norms.

A single sample of content may be sufficient to demonstrate the functional role of any given component but fundamentally constrains the cultural diversity that multiple samples will enable. However, multiple samples that are similar or repetitive can serve to emphasise cultural norms by their uniformity.

The identity and the number of contributors is a related factor here. Sample content is often added to a new site by a single contributor, whereas multiple contributors will promote diversity. But how representative will they (choose to) be of the intended user group? This raises issues of authenticity. It is possible for a single contributor to fabricate multiple users and aliases.

If the site is intending to facilitate activities or resources that are replacing or updating current practice, sample content may be transferrable from existing sources.

As exemplars, sample content may be temporary; to be deleted at a further date in time once subsequent (and more contextually pertinent) content has been added.

The design and customisability of the platform will to an extent determine opportunities for creating sample content. Some platforms may have well-established norms of use that one may want to either reinforce or challenge. In addition, one has to be aware of the potential influence of participants’ familiarity with a specific platform – or with a similar site in another context – in engendering habitual practice.

There is a danger of launching and promoting a new site with minimal content and then sitting back and expecting things to happen. A more sustained timescale, in which sample content is added continually, might better create the appearance of an active, dynamic site.

Sample content is typically utilised in the components, processes and scenarios explored during prototyping or initial design stages, and helps facilitate decisions related to functionality, navigation and layout etc. Therefore the above factors are determined, to an extent, by the design process or framework one chooses to adopt. In particular, a participatory design model may involve participants in the selection and/or production of sample content. Indeed, beyond initial prototyping and the ‘launch’ of a new site, they may continue – either informally as ‘early adopters,’ or through formal ‘mentorship or stewardship’ roles – to be the principal content managers, maintaining the momentum of the site’s activity, and influencing cultural norms to the extent that they establish best practices.