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Posted by on Dec 19, 2013

Upgrading Notes from Institute of Education: Feedback, Terminology, and Shifts in Context

I will spare the suspense and lead in with the fact that I passed my upgrading session yesterday at the Institute of Education, which basically means I am officially a PhD student and am clear to compete my research study. My supervisors Dr. John Potter and Dr. Niall Winters organized it and asked Dr. Andrew Burn and Dr. Allison Gazzard to conduct the upgrading session. I was quite honored to have such distinguished academics (and media theorists as well) running my upgrade session.

I thought it might be useful for others who might be thinking of doing a PhD or in the midst of one who want to know a bit more about the upgrading process. It is called different things at different universities, but it basically is something akin to a mini-Viva. Questions are asked about the research study, the methodology, the theory, etc. and constructive criticism is provided that outlines the areas where it needs to be improved.  Then at the end, you are basically given approval (if you pass) to proceed with your research study. I am in the middle stages of the pilot (which is now picking up steam and can be expected to end sometime in mid-January) so the feedback from this upgrading comes at a particularly good time. My entire research study is open to analysis based on this feedback and the feedback I receive from the pilot.

So, I wanted to take a quick moment and mention some of the feedback I received as it was incredibly useful. I should start by linking to my upgrading document (a 10,000 word paper outlining my research study) and provide my research questions:

  1. How do graduate students in higher education in the humanities in South Korea use mobile technology to support their learning practices?
  2. What mobile artifacts (compositions of text or multimedia designed to make meaning for graduate students in their disciplines) are being produced in mobile technology in Korean higher education in the humanities?
  3. How do graduate students engage in the participatory process in the humanities in South Korean universities?

Participatory process

A very good question was how I am defining participatory process and what that might mean as situated in other fields of study. This is where I believe it was most useful having media theorists running my upgrade session as their questions forced me to step outside the purely learning theory/edtech world I had been inhabiting to consider the implications of terms like participatory process for other fields.

By way of an answer, I mentioned that I see participatory process as a continuum of activity from informal to formal, from individual to social, there and back again. I see the genesis of participation beginning in informal spaces (our understanding about a disciplinary concept emerging from our lived life activity in the informal space. So a see a reflective cycle of learning that freely and willfully moves between formal and informal spaces. A rough approximation is below. I believe this process is happening consistently, iteratively, and generally reflexively.

Informal and Formal Learning

After I proposed this definition, useful feedback included acknowledging the possibility that learning may or may not travel across the “porous membrane” between informal and formal learning. This is something I will need to be more explicit in visualizing in my methods.

Stronger focus on the Korean Context and Culture

There was very good feedback on more firmly establishing the particulars on the Korean context, how it is a product (my word) of the political/cultural landscape. This is again I think an instance where having media theorists giving feedback was quite useful. The farther I proceed through this study, the more I am realizing the influence of the Korean culture (however defined) on the data being generated. I will need to firmly situate the particulars of Korean higher education in a broader political and cultural landscape. Korea is an interesting case as it has a unique philosophical/theoretical approach to learning in the Humanities (less dialectic; much more a search for balance and completeness), yet it is being enacted in a higher education system imported almost wholesale from the West (particularly from the United States). Some universities have made English the language of instruction in their universities. This creates tension in the learner and their approach to their discipline and to higher education overall. It would be foolish of me to think their data wouldn’t reflect this tension so I will to give greater prominence in my thesis to establishing this.

A very good, very pointed question was “Can I get away without a definition or conception of culture?” I interpret that as meaning that beyond providing a definition, I will also need to situate this discussion within the Korean culture. Define it, present it, demonstrate how, at least partly, my results are influenced by that culture.

Greater Criticality in my Sources

This one was quite useful, especially for a novice researcher like me. They both mentioned they wanted me to be more critical of my sources, namely

  • Community of Practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991)
  • Multimodality (Kress, Bezemer, et al)
  • Mobile Learning (Sharples, Pachler et al)

This was welcome to hear as I am finding some of these theories to be lacking certain dimensions that are emerging from my data. So their advice was to be critical of these sources throughout the thesis, present them all as being useful in aggregations (i.e., there is no one theory to account for all of this) and do not be afraid to disagree with them. Very sound advice.

Habitus: Define it and Situate it

I use habitus as Kress & Pachler (2007) used it to define mobile learning. Habitus refers to the “the life world of the individual framed both as challenge and as an environment and a potential resource for learning” (2007). In viewing learning through habitus, every space has the potential to be a learning space when viewed appropriately. Within this transformation of space to learning space, we witness the mobility in mobile learning. In other words, “that which is mobile is not knowledge or information, but the learner’s habitus” (2007). Kress & Pachler would argue that habitus is being transformed constantly and therefore has left the learner “constantly mobile, which does not refer, necessarily, to a physical mobility at all but to a constant expectancy, a state of contingency, of incompletion, of moving toward completion, of waiting to be met and ‘made full’. The answer to ‘who is mobile?’ is therefore ‘everyone who inhabits the new habitus’” (2007). Mobile learning, when defined as a learning state of expectation, contingency, and approaching (but never reaching) completion, is useful for exploring the material and cognitive movements through a mobile context for disciplinary participation and understanding.

While I stand by all of this, especially this repositioning of mobile learning as less technologically deterministic and more cognitively transformative, the term habitus emerged elsewhere and needs to be referenced appropriately. Ie, I will need to position it in sociology, especially through the work of Bourdieu:

  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge University Press.

So a good reminder not to throw around that term willy-nilly. Actually answering many of these questions also made me realize that I will be using more and more of Sheller and Urry’s New Mobilities Paradigm. I am finding the sociological aspects of habitus and the socio-political landscape of Korea are lending themselves to this environment of mobility.

  • Hannam, K., Sheller, M., & Urry, J. (2006). Editorial: Mobilities, immobilities and moorings. Mobilities, 1(1), 1-22.
  • Sheller M, Urry J, 2006, “The new mobilities paradigm” Environment and Planning A 38(2) 207 – 226

Reading List

They also recommended some great sources which I wanted to share as well in case anyone found these useful.

  • Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence culture: Where old and new media collide. NYU press.
  • Jenkins, H. (2004). The cultural logic of media convergence. International journal of cultural studies, 7(1), 33-43.
  • Buckingham, D. (2012). Beyond technology. Polity.
  • Selwyn, N. (2013). Distrusting Educational Technology: Critical Questions for Changing Times. Routledge.
  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge University Press.
  • Bourdieu, Pierre and Loïc J.D. Wacquant. 1992. An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. The University of Chicago Press.

So many thanks to Dr. Burn and Dr. Gazzard (and Dr. Potter and Dr. Winters). For those of you who will be upgrading at some point, prepare, review, and take some notes, but see it as a great opportunity for feedback. It is one of those rare times in like when constructive feedback is so readily given.

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  1. Hi Michael and CONGRATULATIONS for your upgrade!!! Hip Hip Hurra!!!!

    I am following you since a while and more than that I get inspired with your work and the way you use this medium to share and learn from others.
    I am just starting my PhD in math education at Bath Spa University, so I am in a similar stage that you but one step earlier. Upgrading from the interview and initial proposal to the more formal proposal. I hope I get through it. I am working on personal learning environments in the learning of math in high school level. I was reading your reflections about technological determinism, the idea of context, meaning and habitus and I like them. I am myself trying to figure out many ideas that I had before, they are being transformed through reading and reflection. If you have some advice on good literature to understand more about it I would glad to take advice from you. I am looking at how such a space -that will be designed and build by students- will shape their learning of mathematics. What will mean for them to work with the affordances of the tools and the new ways that are there to work, share and communicate? I am still in my infancy and troubled with this first wave of ‘to much to many’ but I am enjoying so much the process as I perceive you are too! Well congratulations again and it came in good time as I suppose you are more relaxed and will enjoy the christmas holidays.

    CHEERS 🙂

    • Hello there, Caroline and many thanks for the comment! Good to hear that you are going through much the same situation. It is an exciting journey, isn’t it? I am more than happy to help, Caroline, if you think I can. Would you consider sending me what you have written so far and I can suggest some sources if I know of any? I love the fact that you are interested in having the students design it themselves; I believe that is the best strategy. I have a lot of sources for participatory design which might help you there.

      I think since you are focusing on tools and their effect on learning, I might suggest giving my upgrading document a read especially the Literature Review part on Saljo (1999) and Dourish (2004). Those two sources in particular might be very useful as they focus on coming to know and tool use; they avoid technological determinism altogether. But if you want, please do send me your writing and I would be happy to help! We are all in this together! My email address is gallagher.michaelsean at gmail dot com. Thanks!

    • Caroline,
      Have received your email, am reviewing it now, and will respond as soon as possible. Looks like an interesting study! Happy to help!

  2. Hi Mike and congrats!

    I’ve been many times since we met in Helsinki thought that a gibsonian concept of niche is a sort of counterpart for your habitat term. In a way habitat cannot be understood without a niche approach. The niche …

    “The concept of niche can be extended and generalized beyond the basic level of the life world of common sense also in other ways. A humanly extended niche might include, for example, the interior of a cockpit, the floor of a stock exchange or the environment of a keyboard and computer-screen; it might include a library or a highway system, or it might include the world of a scientific theory or of some other specialist activity (for example of measuring or legislating) in which a human being feels himself at home. For as Gibson himself intimated, and as Husserl argued in detail in the second book of his Ideas (Husserliana IV; see also the extremely provocative Katz 1987), the activity of scientific theorizing on the part of different specialist sciences can be compared in important respects to the behavior of animals and humans in their respective natural environments. There is a deep-rooted analogy between the relationship of animal or human behavior to niche or life world on the one hand, and the relationship of scientist (or of specialist community of scientists) to the corresponding scientific subject-matter on the other.” (From

    Still have to say that i’m not sure if this us relevant for your thesis research, but wanted to share my possible hunch here.

    • This is excellent, Pekka and a much needed, much appreciated addition. I like this idea of a niche and I like the idea of learners carving out niches amidst the habitus, or amidst the larger complex process of coming to know in these shifting environments. Niches also imply a sort of comfort of coziness or even ‘safe’ vantage point from which to make meaning amidst all the chaos. So this is greatly appreciated my friend. As always I rely on my networks and you are a huge part of that network.

    • Karl Popper in his book: In the search of a better world (I don’t know if this is the title in english since I have it in spanish) he talks about organism looking for better life conditions as a natural attitude towards natural selection, but Popper says it is a passive one because it is triggered from the outside.
      Whereas the same process in human being is moved from the inside (although I think it has from both), so its an active process. The human being looks for new possibilities and this search favor new or different ways of living, of being. In that sense he will discover or construct new ecological niche. This possibilities implies a choice among different alternatives, a broader freedom. This idea is still not well processed by me, but I do believe that the virtual space people construct with their mobil devices functions as an ecological niche that they see as a better place to be. It is a choice they make (driven by society of course, peer pressure, media, etc) is their choice for a better world. Here is a link to an article that talks about this idea of Popper. It is long, but going down to section 1.7 he touches the idea of ecological niche. I think it is powerful as a theoretical construct of personal virtual environments.

      It is just an idea complementing the one of habitat, which is like an ecological niche.
      Cheers 🙂

    • I send you a comment about Karl Popper and his idea of ecological niche. But I don’t know if you received it. It said that an error occured. So if not I will send you a link to an interesting article about this idea. It is long so scroll to section 1.7 to check the idea and see if it is helpful for your framework. I believe that personal virtual environment are ecological niche build by people. And it has to do in a sense with a kind of natural selection process (this last idea need more reflection but I am for know flirting with the concept
      Cheers 🙂

      • This is fantastic, Caroline and perfectly complements what Pekka is saying here as well about niche. I like this idea of a search for a better way of being, or living, and the mobile device (and your research on Personal Learning Environments) being a sort of ecological niche, a safe haven amidst all the change and motion. Adding this Popper source to my reading list so thanks for that, Caroline!

  3. aarrghh, meant habitus, not habitat!


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