Thesis ephemera

Thesis ephemera

I am just going to start overtly labeling these posts on anything to do with my thesis “Research Notes” to spare friends and family the pain of reading about these mechanisms of shifting research focus and/or byzantine theory. And yes, I have been dying to use the term byzantine and so I did. Anywho, this is a post about doctoral research and the newest twist in this journey, so if this doesn’t interest you then no worries about just skipping right over it.

Elements of Research

Essentially, I have always known I would be pursuing the use of mobile technology in Humanities practice in higher education. I started with Humanities practice in developing nations, but switched from that development focus early on for a few, very logistically pragmatic reasons. And I wanted to push on the limits of what could be done with mobile technology in academic practice, rather than develop workarounds based on technological restrictions. This isn’t a knock against development work; I love it and will return to it. But this is my chance to push on the edges of what is possible a bit and I wanted to grasp that opportunity. So now the focus is on Korea, where a lack of technological infrastructure is most certainly not the problem.

Within that focus, it became clear that I would have to develop a detailed understanding (and exposition) of what Humanities practice looked like in higher education. What are their collaborative processes? What does knowledge construction and dissemination look like? What sort of roles exist and how might these effect engagement with technology and engagement with novels forms of writing and output? And on and on. So I am in the process of developing those ‘buckets’ of activity now, sequencing them, and generally seeing how and where technology is engaged to meet Humanities needs. From there, a clearer understanding of how mobile is being used and where it might be used for optimal effect should (please) present itself. I have chosen to maintain a broader vantage point at this stage (Humanities as opposed to any particular discipline) to look for commonalities in their respective workflows, to see some general patterns in how they approach writing, technology, collaboration and output.

So after all of this work (still ongoing), I began to zero in on writing (however defined) through mobile technology, how Humanities students and faculty have approached and can approach mobile technology towards new/novel modes of writing. This writing can involve (and more than likely, due to the nature of the technology, does involve) different forms of media (text, image, video, audio), different constructions and representations (what does an essay look like?), different modes of collaboration (social media, sharing, shared workspaces, etc.) and dissemination (different mechanisms for blogging, publication, etc.).


This is where the vocabulary began to blow up on me. What does one call a work constructed for academic/research purpose on mobile technology using different forms of media? So far, I have toggled through (and have seen evidence to support these terms) the following:

  • digital essay
  • material text
  • multimodal essay
  • multimodal knowledge constructions
  • mobile material texts
  • hypertext essays
  • hypertext writing

None of them just roll off the tongue. My supervisor has pointed me towards ‘mobile material texts’ and my former supervisor, from my MSc in Elearning, pointed me towards digital essay. I think I might combine the two into mobile material essays, just because I can. Soon, it will be an acronym (MMEs) so just say you heard it here first. Knowing the rhetoric around educational technology and the lasting impact of memes, I imagine that MMEs will be reviled by the time I post this. Either way, I am leaning towards this phrase. At some point, I have to name the ‘thing’ that is being produced in this exercise, so one just needs to make sure it means something.

Thesis ephemera


Now I am incredibly interested in the creative potential of these mobile material texts; some real potential for novel representations of learning and research. Ones that stress layout and design, simultaneous and occasionally conflicted presentation of meaning, and, I think, help transform the liberal arts into something being performed as liberal artists. Learning as creation, research as art. I think there is real potential for expanding the scope of these disciplines through these novel constructions and I believe mobile technology, being so ubiquitous is a good place to start.

But I have to center this discussion in theory and these activities in context. I can’t just situate my gaze on the development of ‘cool things I can do with mobile technology’ (much to my chagrin). This is rather straightforward as the context is fairly well articulated; Humanities practice in higher education is a relatively formalized community of practice. So, naturally enough, I chose Lave/Wenger’s Community of Practice theory to guide this exploration. Most notably, I will be focusing my attention on the following aspects of this community practice:

  1. How is engagement with this Community of Practice (Humanities in higher education in Korea) signalled by use of technology? What does engagement with mobile technology signal about participation in this community?
  2. How are novel modes of writing received? What does the construction of novel texts (mobile material essays!) signal about participation in the community?
  3. What are the salient features of mobile material texts as made evident by multimodality (the theory, Kress)? What do these features demonstrate about the mechanisms of community practice?
  4. How is this process mediated by community interaction, particularly how do faculty validate/legitimize (or not) these mobile material essays for their students (apprentices)?

So, Community of Practice theory (with perhaps some additional community and disciplinary-based theories and approaches) with multimodality used to identify, rather than interpret, the salient features of mobile material texts and what they signal about community practice. So, less interpretation, more identification.

What We Lost in the Fire; Who We Said Goodbye To (ie, what has been cut to maintain a manageable focus)

Not surprisingly, quite a bit of what you originally intend to do gets cut. Like a movie, these things are assembled through editing. But I still felt pangs of muted sadness watching each of them go as, at different stages of my academic development, they meant the world to me. None of these are gone forever and I fully intend to return to them at later stages of my career, but as Frost says “…knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.” I, being who I am, rarely come back. Most of us don’t. But you never know.

In the grand scheme of things, these are trivial concerns. But they are bits of yourself that you invested time in. You labored with and occasionally produced something worthwhile. So this is my version of those end of the year specials where we recount who we have lost in the last year. I lost these bits from my research

  1. Developing nations focus (as stated above)-Tanzania quickly became Korea, as much to do with logistical limitations as research scope. My heart was torn here. I love Tanzania, but Korea is my home, as much as any place has been over the last 15 years.
  2. Participatory Design-I had hoped and intended to identify community need, execute a participatory design process, prototype the ‘solution’, and then outsource its development. All on the cheap. I still think I will do this, but more than likely after or outside this doctoral process. At heart, I am still happiest when I am making things, so this one was hard to let go.
  3. Vygotsky-nobody, working with language and learning, can avoid getting engaged with Vygotsky, but I had to drop most of what I had planned to use in this respect. I refer to his theory only in parallel to some of the social elements of community practice and in some of the elements of mobile essay construction. I felt like I was letting go of a good friend.
  4. Fluid spaces (Mor, Law)/Troublesome knowledge & Threshold learning (Land, Meyer)-these two works (more than two really) were introduced by my wonderful supervisor at the University of Edinburgh, Dr. Sian Bayne, and I have never forgotten them (nor her supervision). I fully had hoped to incorporate them both into my doctoral work with much more prominence especially as they might relate to mobile interactions and community. Alas, they have been regulated to appearing only in the development of some sort of context. I feel like they deserved a greater spotlight. Maybe next time. I still take with me the idea from threshold knowledge that there are ” core concepts that once understood, transform perception of a given subject.” This dovetails nicely with Vygotsky and his writings on language and trasformative effect. I think we are seeing this same development with multimedia and potentially these mobile material texts I have been hearing so much about. As a vehicle with much threshold learning potential. Once seen or visualized, they cannot be unseen, unlearned, unused as artifacts. They transform merely by being.

In case you are interested in learning more, they are quite interesting concepts and fairly well-written by academic standards. I am sorry to have to part with them.

  • Mol, A. & Law, J. (1994). Regions, Networks and Fluids: Anaemia and Social Topology. Social Studies of Science, Vol. 24, No. 4 (Nov., 1994), pp. 641-671. .
  • Meyer J H F and Land R 2003 “Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge – Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practising” in Improving Student Learning – Ten Years On. C.Rust (Ed), OCSLD, Oxford.
  • Threshold Concepts within the Disciplines, edited by Ray Land, Jan H. F. Meyer and Jan Smith Sense Publishers, Rotterdam, 2008 [Educational Futures: Rethinking Theory and Practice, Michael Peters (Ed.), volume 16] ISBN 978−90−8790−267−4 (paperback), ISBN 978−90−8790−268−1 (hardback).
  • Meyer JHF, Land R (2005). “Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (2): Epistemological considerations and a conceptual framework for teaching and learning” Higher Education, 49 (3), pp. 373-388.

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By Michael Gallagher

My name is Michael Sean Gallagher. I am a Lecturer in Digital Education at the Centre for Research in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh. I am Co-Founder and Director of Panoply Digital, a consultancy dedicated to ICT and mobile for development (M4D); we have worked with USAID, GSMA, UN Habitat, Cambridge University and more on education and development projects. I was a researcher on the Near Futures Teaching project, a project that explores how teaching at The University of Edinburgh unfold over the coming decades, as technology, social trends, patterns of mobility, new methods and new media continue to shift what it means to be at university. Previously, I was the Research Associate on the NERC, ESRC, and AHRC Global Challenges Research Fund sponsored GCRF Research for Emergency Aftershock Forecasting (REAR) project. I was an Assistant Professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (한국외국어대학교) in Seoul, Korea. I have also completed a doctorate at University College London (formerly the independent Institute of Education, University of London) on mobile learning in the humanities in Korea.

One thought on “Research Notes: Shifting focus to Community of Practice, multimodality, mobile, cutting and sighing”
  1. […] In my last post, I discussed a bit the new direction my doctoral research is taking towards a focus on the production of mobile material essays (basically, digital essays constructed entirely in mobile technology) as they reveal community practice. In this case, the community practice is that of the Humanities in higher education, their shared repertoire of processes, their norms, their roles and legitimate peripheral points of participation (Lave, Wenger, 1991). My doctoral research assumes (blindly assumes) that these kinds of essays, essays composed via mobile technology (indeed, even in motion) are a thing, will become more of a thing, and will reposition academic ‘writing’ as a multitude of modes, a multitude of acceptable compositions and presentations, and as conflict between linear and non-linear exposition. […]

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