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Posted by on Oct 8, 2012

PhD Research Proposal: Full Disclosure

Zanizbar, Tanzania

As seen in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

To make my doctoral experience as transparent as possible for documentation purposes (myself) and to provide a record of my experiences, pitfalls, etc. (for others), I will be posting things like this from time to time. I will try and make these posts easy to spot in case anyone isn’t interested (more than likely by having PhD in the title of the post). Below I am providing a shortened version (heavily shortened) of my research proposal as it stands to date. This was condensed for the purposes of a course I am taking at the Institute of Education, an experience I hope will force me to sharpen this research focus even more. Some of these activities I have listed are ridiculously ambitious and collecting so much qualitative and quantitative data might be a bit of overkill, but this is where is stands at the present time, warts and all.

Truth be told, I have a parallel research proposal focusing on Mongolia as I haven’t quite decided which geographical region to be working with. Mongolia is a fascinating case study as well due to their high rates of mobile ownership, their relatively high rates of literacy (88%), and their highly (still to this day) nomadic lifestyle. But for the time being, I am presenting Tanzania.


Mobile-based Communities of Practice for History in Higher Education in the Universities of Zanzibar and the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania


This research will investigate, prototype, and disseminate the findings of a mobile-based community of practice for History in higher education in the universities of Zanzibar and the University of Dar es Salaam. The purpose of this research is to not only analyze and document requirements on the impact of mobile-based environments for disciplinary practice, but to determine if these environments can support the reflective, multimodal, and collaborative knowledge construction demanded by the practice of History in higher education.

Research Questions

  • Are mobile-based communities of practice able to meet the disciplinary processes for collaboration, reflection, knowledge production and dissemination for the practice of History in higher education in Tanzania?
  • What effect does a mobile-based community of practice for History in higher education in Tanzania have on the production and dissemination of disciplinary knowledge (journals, monographs, posts, interaction, etc.)?
  • Can any developed mobile-based community of practice that meets these disciplinary needs be community organized and designed in Tanzania?

Background to the Research

It is the intended goal of this research to critically explore the potential of constructing a community of practice (History) in higher education in Tanzania based primarily in a mobile environment. This goal is based on the assumption that the most commonly available mobile technology in the target area in question are SMS-enabled phones. Therefore, this research will investigate SMS-based services for creating mobile communities of practice.

In keeping with what Goodyear (2004) refers to as networked learning, a mobile-based community of practice is used to promote connections between learners and foster communities which make efficient use of their resources. The establishment of a community of History in a mobile environment is intended to serve the disciplinary practices of History in higher education by being collaborative in knowledge discussion, reflective in knowledge construction, and authoritative in knowledge dissemination. As such, this mobile community of practice will target practitioners of History (either faculty, or graduate level students) in higher education in the University of Dar es Salaam and the universities of Zanzibar.

History is chosen primarily due to the absence of expert-level mobile learning frameworks and applications for university level education in both developed and developing nations. In short, very little research has been conducted to determine whether mobile learning in History is a suitable vehicle for higher education in developing nations; a framework will be applied to assess whether this is indeed possible, whether a mobile-based community of interest in History can support reflective and collaborative knowledge construction consistent with the disciplinary practices of History. There are several reasons for this choice of location (Tanzania), including the following:

  • History as contested knowledge (relationship between Zanzibar and Tanzania; post-colonialism and national identity: What does it mean to be Tanzanian?
  • Gap (economically, politically, and culturally) between Zanzibar and mainland Tanzania and the potential for mobile networks to bridge these divides
  • Tanzania’s presence within the East African Community (EAC).

It is my belief that mobile environments for disciplinary practice in higher education in Zanzibar and throughout Tanzania can serve to explore and potentially mitigate the gap between Zanzibar and mainland Tanzania through renewed dialogue and networking practitioners of History; through this renewed dialogue, history as a contested subject will be explored leading, potentially, to a renewed focus on post-colonialism and national identity. National identity, in particular, represents a developmental need as both Zanzibar and Tanzania explore the efficiency and long-term future of their political union. This research explicitly attempts to network the community of practice for History in higher education in Zanzibar with that of the leading university on the Tanzanian mainland, the University of Dar es Salaam.


Much instructional pedagogy in History in higher education is constructivist in nature. Constructivist frameworks of instruction stress the role of context and social negotiation of knowledge in instruction (Savery, Duffy, 1996). History establishes context through its pursuit of knowledge claims, their validation, and the manner of practices associated with this process. The social negotiation of knowledge is established through the apprenticeship model in higher education, namely the pairing of a student (apprenticing historian) with a mentor (practicing historian). Mobile learning’s affordance for this context and social negotiation will be analyzed to determine its applicability to the practice of History in higher education.

Building on this constructivist pedagogy, the work of Meyer and Land in regards to threshold concepts offers considerable insight into the practice of History in higher education (2005). Meyer and Land’s analysis of the role of ‘thresholds’ in developing “pedagogically fertile” and role-defining shifts in learner’s understanding of their place as active members of the discipline has great application for History as the vehicle for disciplinary understanding (Meyer, Land, 374). All of the participants in this research are active members of the History discipline, at varying stages of development (student vs. faculty, university vs. research organization) and at varying degrees of affiliation with their institution and their profession.

This self-perception of thinking “like a historian” has value pedagogically as an instrument that motivates participation and collaboration (Enwistle, 2005, 8). The experience of ‘legitimate peripheral participation’ in the work of the professional historian” is constructivist in nature, emphasizing as it does collaborative knowledge construction; it further is identity forming by establishing etiquette for “communicating ideas in academically acceptable forms of expression and argument” (2005, 8). Students are taught to act, argue, participate, and express themselves as historians. The pedagogical importance placed on disciplinary participatory identity in History emphasizes the importance of establishing the level of receptiveness to mobile learning on a disciplinary level. With so much emphasis placed on identity as a historian, viewing their receptiveness to mobile learning as partly influenced by disciplinary norms is prudent.

“Towards a Theory of Mobile Learning” provides a useful mediation between learning and technology and will be used to analyze mobile learning for History (Sharples, 2005). Sharples builds on the work of Pask (Conversation Theory) and Engestrom (expansive activity model) by establishing mobile learning as an engagement with technology, “in which tools such as computers and mobile phones function as interactive agents in the process of coming to know, creating a human-technology system to communicate, to mediate agreements between learners and to aid recall and reflection” (Sharples, 2005, 7). Further, the work of Sharples, Taylor, and Vavoula offers an evaluation of any potential mobile learning solution, an additional framework that can be applied to this research (2007). This work posits mobile learning in terms of its affordance for mobility, its identification of learning as a constructive and social process, and the role of situated activity mediated by technology (Sharples, Taylor, Vavoula, 2007, 225). Any potential mobile environment derived from this research will be gauged based on its ability to satisfy these facets of mobile learning. Sharples’ work will be used as an instrument to determine whether mobile learning for History creates control (both the community of learners and their association with higher education), context (in terms of the learning activities and objects) and communication (in mobile learning’s ability to allow for communication both within the learning community and the ability to disseminate communication to the greater academic community)


The participant group will be drawn from faculty and graduate students in the departments of History at the following universities. The potential size of a participant group will range from 30 to 60 participants, depending on willingness to participate.

  • Zanzibar Univeristy (Private)
  • State University of Zanzibar-SUZA (Private)
  • University of Dar es Salaam (Public)


The research methods used for this exploration of mobile communities of practice for History in higher education in Tanzania will involve both quantitative and qualitative elements. The research will begin with communication with select faculty and students at the two selected universities in Zanzibar to determine the validity of disciplinary assumptions put forth in this research proposal. This communication will be used to reconfigure disciplinary practice for History in Tanzania if necessary.

Based on this initial feedback, a participatory design process will be employed with participants to determine the needs, requirements, and cultural, emotional, or social variables that might affect participation in any mobile community of practice. This participatory design process will inform a conceptual design of a mobile environment for the practice of History in higher education. Subsequent assessment of this design will be tied to fulfilling the needs of disciplinary practice in History (epistemology, ontology, knowledge construction, collaboration, reflection, and dissemination) as well as the ability of the design to assist “in the process of coming to know, creating a human-technology system to communicate, to mediate agreements between learners and to aid recall and reflection” (Sharples, 2005).


This research will employ a mixed-methods approach. Quantitative elements will involve analysis of participant demographic and technological use information, as well as communication patterns within and without their respective Departments of History. Qualitative facets will involve interviews and their subsequent narrative analysis, as well as the participatory design process sessions, which will be recorded and subjected to a narrative analysis as well. This combination of qualitative and quantitative aspects is intended to determine disciplinary process, represent that disciplinary process in a designed mobile environment, and to gauge potential impact of such an environment on disciplinary knowledge production.

Data Analysis

Quantitative data collected from communication, surveys, and participatory design phases will be analyzed to determine quantity of communication within respective departments of History at the three focus universities, and across these departments. Quantitative data will be analyzed to determine number of collaborative interactions amongst participants towards knowledge production. Further, a prototype will be evaluated to determine its satisfaction of design requirements and disciplinary process. Qualitative data will be collected from preliminary communication, interview transcripts, and recorded transcripts from participatory design sessions; these will be subjected to a narrative analysis. Narrative analysis is an attempt to follow the participants “down their trails”, to give participants an authentic voice in dictating their own receptiveness to mobile communities of practice (Riessman 2008). This authenticity helps elicit the autobiographical-self (2008). This narrative empowerment will hopefully reveal elements of autonomy and investment in the mobile environment that would have otherwise gone unnoticed.

Task Description Timeframe

  1. Preliminary communication: identify/communicate with faculty and students in History Identify sample group, collect participant information, areas of research expertise, levels of communication with historical community, commitment to this project -2 months
  2. Survey *- Survey designed to collect information on technology use, gauge the validity of assumptions on the disciplinary practices- 1month
  3. Interviews-assess the validity of the disciplinary practices of History, modes of collaboration and knowledge production- 3 months
  4. Narrative Analysis of Interview Transcripts- conduct narrative analysis on interview transcripts to gauge narrative of professional interaction and satisfaction-3 months
  5. Participatory Design and Conceptual Prototyping Multiple (on-site) sessions to develop needs assessments, requirements, and prototype mobile environment-3-6 months
  6. Assessment of Mobile Environments for the practice of History in higher education in Tanzania- Dissertation writing phase-12 months


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Sign at University of Dar es Salaam Library

Sign at University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

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