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Posted by on Oct 23, 2012

Research Construction for MLearning in the Humanities: Serving Two Masters

Institute of Education, University of London: October 2012

So, things are proceeding (relatively) nicely at the Institute of Education as I push through the first round of courses, meetings, administrative duties, and supervisory consultations. Some of these are proceeding as expected (particularly the supervisory relationships), some I look at quizzically as they seem rooted in another (far less urgent) time, and some seem fine for the purpose they are serving. This is to be expected and no terrible surprises there. I suspect at some point I will write a post or two on the university as cultural activity system full of artefacts and antiquation (but with perpetual flow of participants and activity) later, but for now I find myself pondering the applicability of my research questions. In short, I might have painted myself into a corner in regards to my research questions.

Research Questions as Originally Constructed

  • 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 quantity of knowledge production?
  • Can any developed mobile-based community of practice that meets these disciplinary needs be community organized and designed in Tanzania?

The subquestion can’t really be answered during the course of this research project, but that isn’t the major flaw. A good conversation with my doctoral supervisors (at the impressive London Knowledge Lab) revealed what two years of toying and tinkering with my research proposal (I originally wrote it in early 2010) in isolation had done. I had zeroed in past the point of scope straight to overwhelming granularity. This granularity, besides producing a sample size that was minuscule (even with 50% + participation rates) was latching onto a community of practice that may or may not exist. So, extreme granularity +a potentially non-existent (or mildly productive) community of practice + an existing technology used in novel ways=a particularly difficult research project to execute. To paraphrase one of my supervisors, one must be wary of more than one novel variable in a research project (as in having to create it from scratch). I had a potentially novel community of practice and a certainly novel mode of interaction (mobile for formal practice), which introduced a third novel variable of sustainability. If by some Herculean effort, I was able to identify a community of practice (or expedite the generation of one, more than likely), then design a mobile environment in which to work, I would have an ethical responsibility to sustain such an effort past the course of the research project.

So, based on their astute feedback I have done the following:

  • increased the scope from the practice of History to the practice of the Humanities
  • given Humanities practice a quick cycle through the theories of socio development (I Vygotskied it), activity theory (I Engestromed it), situated learning/community of practice (I Lave and Wengered the heck out of it), and am now mapping it out based on the work of Kress and Multimodality. Identified agents, actors, artefacts, activity structures, etc.
  • broadened the geographical scope to include other developing nations (which relates to the serving of two masters)
  • researched potential communities of practice in formal education elsewhere (there are many)
  • researched application of mobile learning to formal learning communities (preferably at higher education levels)-not many

This exploration and rewriting (a very healthy process) has brought me to a bit of a conundrum. Not exactly an irreconcilable difference, but slightly conflicting motivations for this research.

Development or the Humanities?

This isn’t an either/or scenario, but one does greatly affect the practice of the other. Essentially, based on the rich presentation (and expectation of discussion and presentation-I would describe as an expectation of practice) of multimodality in the Humanities as practiced in ‘developed’ regions, can the following research question be answered in regards to the larger Humanities community:

  • Are mobile-based communities of practice able to meet the disciplinary processes for collaboration, reflection, knowledge production and dissemination for the practice of the Humanities in higher education in Tanzania?

If I focus on Tanzania (and I couldn’t avoid zeroing in on a particular region at some point), does this research provide any application to the larger Humanities community? Will anyone benefit aside from the universities I work with in Tanzania? Are the technological restrictions (ie, SMS-based mobile services) incompatible with multimodal expression (which is, by most accounts, an expectation held by the larger community)?

Perhaps most importantly, my research is not convincing me there is an active community of practice at work now in the chosen target area (the particular universities I had identified in Tanzania). This is the most problematic variable here as technology is most effective, in my opinion, is most effective when latching onto a particular social structure. It can augment and reinforce the nodes and flows of participation in a community, but it generally (some exceptions) doesn’t create the community from scratch.

All that leads me to believe that I am serving a few different masters with these research questions and will need to

  • identify an area (developing or not) that has an existing community of practice (a relatively active one) within the Humanities (or perhaps just the Humanities overall) to observe and identify areas where technological intervention might augment existing practice. I think I have found a few, but they may or may not be developing.
  • identify the importance (the absolute necessity?) of multimodal knowledge construction to the practice of the Humanities overall.
  • determine whether I am most interested in determining the applicability of mobile learning for Humanities practice overall (more than likely) or whether I am interested in augmenting existing Humanities practice in a developing nations context using mobile technology. I love both, but those are the two masters I am attempting to serve.
  • determine how much a focus the actual participatory design stage will take as all of the above will be greatly affected by it. I do believe that I want to work towards a participatory design structure, rather than a straight comparative or case study.

My supervisor has me writing 10,000 words every few weeks, so I am guessing I will be resolving these issues in the next few iterations. Some of the above might prove embarrassing or clumsy the farther I proceed through this process of doctoral research, but I want this to be an authentic, honest record of how this research came to be (and how my identity as a researcher came to be along side of it). Warts and all.

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  1. Redefining my research focus: multimodality, role augmentation, and Korea « Michael Sean Gallagher - [...] from my supervisors, much of which has caused me to rework my original research proposal. I wrote about this…

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