PhD by Publication and Collaboration

A PhD is always (as far as I know) an individual piece of work. The point is to make and defend an individual contribution to knowledge in your given field.  This emphasis on an individual contribution can make doing a PhD a long, lonely, isolating route to the award, as evidenced by the stories of depression, mental illness, dropping out and associated long-term feelings of failure often reported in articles such as in the Times Higher Education.

Those who cope with this either relish working alone and don’t need to discuss what they are doing even with a supervisor, or, more likely, they have been proactive in nurturing a supportive network around them of family, friends and colleagues. My PhD was neither long, nor lonely; even so I benefitted from the support of many friends, colleagues and my family.

 Gilbert and George 1976 – MENTAL NO. 2, 314 x 264 cm (Source of Image)

Officially, there seems to be no such thing as a collaborative PhD (as in the style of the artists Gilbert and George, who work together to create their art), although PhDs may result from collaboratively funded projects between universities and outside organisations and who’s to say whether an individual PhD thesis has involved collaborative writing, but that seems unlikely. However, I do know of a Masters dissertation where, unbeknown to the marker, to meet the deadline one chapter was written entirely by the student’s father. This was not even collaborative.

My own PhD (by publication) required the submission of a selection of published papers together with a supporting statement which expounded the overall contribution to knowledge in my field. Whilst my PhD thesis (supporting statement) was written by me alone, and could only be written by me because it incorporates work with eleven different research teams (i.e. none of my collaborators have had the same overall experience), all my published papers have been written collaboratively. I consider this to be a strength of my research for the reasons I have stated in the thesis (see pages 48-50 – Jenny Mackness PhD (Pub) 2017).

At an early meeting with my supervisor, Paul Ashwin, we discussed whether all the papers to be submitted should indicate the percentage contribution of each author. Some PhDs by Publication do this, but I strongly resisted it. It seems to me that an attempt to measure a contribution in a collaborative project works against the spirit of collaboration. As I explained in my viva (I was challenged on this), a contribution might range from coming up with the one key idea or identifying the key research paper that changes the direction of the research, to hours of data analysis. How would you put a measurement figure against these different types of contribution each of which is essential to the successful outcome of the research? In addition, in most of my collaborative research the work has been conducted jointly, i.e. all the authors have been involved in the different aspects and phases of the research, framing the research questions, collecting and analysing the data, writing the paper and so on. Although the lead authors in my papers have been recognised as the person who has taken most responsibility for the research and the paper, in my research there has never been an author who didn’t merit having their name on the paper. We have been mutually accountable and the research has been enriched by the diversity of individual and alternative perspectives which have helped to guard against subjectivity and bias.

In my thesis, I argue that collaboration was central and essential to my research. Beyond the world of the individual PhD student, it also seems to be central and essential to many if not most research projects. Examination of my literature review reveals that the majority of peer-reviewed papers are co-authored (see p.56 -78, Jenny Mackness PhD (Pub) 2017). Only a third of the papers in my reference list were single authored. As I write in the thesis, there have been recent calls for more multi-disciplinary research, international and diverse teams (see p.52, Jenny Mackness PhD (Pub) 2017). This type of research requires considerable collaboration skills. These are not easy skills to acquire. I wrote about this in the early days of my research – Reflections on Collaborative research. The thoughts I had then still stand, but despite potential difficulties, I think I will always favour collaborative research over individual research.

My ongoing experience of collaborative research and reflection on my PhD by Publication has made me wonder again why any PhD student must endure years of working alone when the benefits of collaboration are not only obvious, but ultimately necessary for a career in academic research.

Reference
Mackness, J. (2017). Learners’ experiences in cMOOCs (2008-2016). PhD thesis. Jenny Mackness PhD (Pub) 2017

PhD by Publication – Making a Contribution

Earlier this year I was awarded a PhD by Publication from the University of Lancaster, UK.   The process is not quite finished yet. I still must submit a hard copy and electronic copy to the library and wear the floppy hat at a ceremony in December. But for all intents and purposes it is a done deed.

Of course, I know of the criticisms of a PhD by Publication and I suspect that several of my colleagues and friends wonder about whether this is a ‘proper’ PhD. In this video, Tara Brabazon states very clearly that a PhD by Publication is valuable, but is not equivalent to a traditional PhD and that she wouldn’t allow a PhD by Publication to examine one of her PhD students who has been down the traditional 3, 4 or more years research route.

This begs the question of whether any one PhD is equivalent to any other PhD. Is a taught PhD equivalent to a traditional research PhD? Is a science PhD equivalent to an Arts PhD? Is a PhD from one university equivalent to a PhD from another university? Is one examination experience (viva) equivalent to another? And following Tara Brabazon’s argument, should a PhD by Publication be examined by a person with a traditional PhD? Surely the measure of the value of a PhD is not the number of years it takes or a question of who examines it, but the contribution to knowledge that it makes. I have read some PhD theses that scarcely mention the contribution made by three or more years’ work. I can understand this. Claiming to have made an original contribution to knowledge felt like the height of arrogance to me knowing, as I do, the work of many, many authors in my field.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, to apply for this route to a PhD I was required to write a supporting statement which

  • summarised each publication submitted,
  • outlined their interrelationship,
  • critically reviewed the current state of knowledge and research in my field,
  • indicated how my work has contributed to the field, and
  • commented on the standing of any journals and the reception of the publications as indicated by citations and reviews

At my first meeting with Professor Paul Ashwin, who would be my supervisor (it was very good of him to check my application before officially being my supervisor) he said that I needed to develop a rigorous, reflexive argument for an original contribution which will endure beyond the individual papers. I wonder how often PhDs result in an enduring, original contribution. My first attempt at writing an application fell flat on its face. Paul said he couldn’t see my contribution in the pages and pages that I had written covering the above listed bullet points. I was therefore asked to write a summary contribution statement before continuing with my application.

This proved surprisingly difficult. What exactly is a contribution?

Do the published papers (21 of them) count as a contribution? – No

Does that fact that the published papers have been cited (one of them 440 times) count as a contribution? – No

Does the fact that my papers have been blind reviewed (in total) by more than 40 reviewers, and peer reviewed by many more, count as a contribution? – No

Do the early empirical papers on the MOOC learning experience, which were amongst the first ever published on MOOCs count as a contribution? – No. Paul’s response to this suggestion was ‘So what?’

Does the fact that some of the papers address (but don’t fill) identified gaps in the literature count as a contribution? – Only in part.

So what will ‘endure beyond the individual papers and is original’? After about six weeks of puzzling over this, feeling like a complete imposter, starting and restarting numerous drafts, I finally submitted a summary contribution statement to Paul Ashwin and received the feedback that ‘PhD shines through your contribution statement’. Phew! I was ready to apply and include this contribution statement – Jenny Mackness Contribution Statement 02-06-16

However this summary statement is not in the final thesis. Ultimately, to avoid repetition, I summarised my contribution further under these headings:

  • A contribution to the literature on learners’ experiences in MOOCs
  • A contribution to understanding complexity in cMOOCs
  • A contribution to changing research processes

I am now confident that my publications have made an original contribution to knowledge, but how enduring this contribution will be I wouldn’t like to say. That is the real test.

PhD by Publication – Selection of Papers

In her book, PhD by Published Work, Susan Smith writes that one of the disadvantages of this route to a PHD is that ‘it is tricky to retrospectively shoe-horn diverse papers into a post hoc theme’ (p.34).

This statement seems to suggest that researchers jump from project to project that have no direct links between them. Maybe this is the case for researchers, associated with universities, who may have to work on projects which are not their principal area of interest, either because these projects bring in funding, or because papers from these projects will contribute to their University’s research excellence framework (REF). I can see that this might lead to diverse papers that are difficult to pull together, but neither of these constraints applied to me, since I have always worked as an independent researcher.

Despite this, it wasn’t immediately apparent to me which papers I should select for this PhD by Publication or what the focus of my supporting statement should be. I think there were at least three possible routes I could have gone down, depending on which and how many papers I selected for submission and which papers I left out. As Ian McGilchrist says on p.133 of his book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World:

It is not just that what we find determines the nature of attention we accord to it, but that the attention we pay to anything also determines what it is we find.

Perhaps not surprisingly, in order to select papers, I first had to refresh my memory about these publications. Once a paper has been published I tend not to go back and reread it multiple times, but instead move on to the next research project. Although I knew the general gist of all the papers, I didn’t remember all the detail. So I started by working on a mini literature review of my own papers, critiquing them, summarising them, checking the number of citations and how and where the work has been disseminated. Looking back at my journal, I can see that I didn’t find this process particularly easy. It was time consuming and my first summaries were streams of consciousness rather than summaries. Ultimately, I ended up with the summaries of the papers I selected that are in Appendix 3 of the thesis – Jenny Mackness PhD (Pub) 2017.

To decide on which papers to select, I used Matthias Melcher’s Think Tool, which allows you to enter text into a mapping tool and look for links between the entered texts.

Since 2009, I have published 20 papers and one book chapter. I entered the Abstracts of all these publications into the Think Tool and as a result was able to create 6 groups of papers and identify cross-paper themes.

Interrelationships between all publications by group and keyword. (Figure 1 in the thesis, on p.16)

I blogged about this process at the time – A new mapping tool: useful for research purposes. From this process it became clear to me that whilst a large body of work was related to emergent learning, and I could have focussed solely on that, in fact even those papers resulted from participation in MOOCs and a deep interest in how learning occurs in these open environments at the level of the individual learner. I felt there was only one group of papers that diverged from this and that was the group that looks at whether and how learning design can be influenced by an embodied view of the world and a view of perception and action as enactive perception using all the senses, but even these papers originated from an interest in the design of learning environments.

Having decided on which groups to focus on there still remained the question of how many papers to select. For Lancaster University, there was no advice on the number of papers to be submitted other than that the material submitted must be “sufficiently extensive as to provide convincing evidence that the research constitutes a substantial contribution to knowledge or scholarship.” At this stage I went into the department to look at the PhDs by Published Work already awarded, to discover that there had only been three since 1999 (1999, 2003, 2010) and each of these was awarded to a member of staff in the department, who submitted 9, 11 and 10 published works respectively together with a supporting statement of around 40 pages, although I have seen other examples from Lancaster University considerably shorter than this. Ultimately, I submitted 13 papers and a supporting statement of 101 pages. I mention this not to suggest that the number of pages is in any way significant, but just to illustrate that it seems that at Lancaster University there is a wide variety of practice. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the case across universities. The uncertainty associated with this was not easy to work with, but on the other hand seemed to mirror the unpredictable learning environments I have researched, where I have worked with no externally imposed rules or expectations.

Throughout this process I felt I was working in the same way I have always worked, i.e. working it out as I went along, and letting the process and structure emerge. One of my ‘critical friends’ who gave me feedback on the thesis after I had submitted but before the viva thought that my important work was related to the ‘Footprints of Emergence’ framework and emergent learning rather than the empirical papers and I think that my colleague Roy Williams, probably thinks the same, although he hasn’t said this. But the analysis of my papers, using Matthias Melcher’s Think Tool,  revealed my ‘golden thread’ (as Susan Smith calls it) to be ‘learners’ experiences in cMOOCs’, so that is what I focussed on.

On reflection and given the open structure of the PhD by Publication, I can see that in different circumstances at a different time, I might have selected a different set of papers and ended up with a different thesis. Now there’s a thought! But I’m not going to test out this idea  🙂

Why do a PhD by Publication?

Why do a PhD at all?

I have considered this question many times since I completed my MA in 1997 when I was asked by the awarding University department to continue to do a PhD. I declined. My job at the time was demanding and the MA, despite having really enjoyed it, had been a strain on me and my family’s patience! But a PhD was always in the back of my mind. In 2010, I considered it again and rejected the idea once more . During these years, I continued to work as an independent researcher with a variety of colleagues, producing a number of papers. At the end of 2015 I didn’t have any more research projects planned, so my mind turned again to the possibility of doing a PhD. It seemed it was a niggle that just wouldn’t go away. My eldest son sent me an email saying, ‘For goodness sake Mum, you’ve been talking about it for years – just get on with it.’

Source of image 

(I didn’t discover this book until after I had submitted, but I wish I had discovered it earlier)

There are many reasons for doing a PhD. I have friends who have completed or are working on research PhDs, i.e. they research a topic of personal interest for three or more years, or taught PhDs, where six taught and assessed modules are completed over the first two years, before embarking on a shorter thesis which takes two years or more. Reasons seem to be a combination of personal interest in the chosen topic and career incentives/ambitions and from what I have seen the award of a PhD can lead to new career opportunities. My reasons did not relate to my career, but they did relate to changing personal circumstances.

I have recently reached my eighth decade (70 as of last November to be precise) so a PhD as a career move was not relevant for me. In fact, it might mark the end of my research career. I haven’t decided yet. I needed to do it for myself. Although I knew that it was possible to do a PhD by publication, I thought I probably wasn’t eligible. Many Universities will only take members of staff to do a PhD by Publication.   When I went to Lancaster University in January 2016 to enquire about doing a PhD, I went with the intention of starting a full research PhD. It was Professor Paul Ashwin, Head of Department, who ultimately became my supervisor, who asked me why I wasn’t considering a PhD by Publication. Interestingly the Educational Research Department at Lancaster University, which has awarded my PhD, has no mention of a PhD by Publication on its website , but Paul found out for me that I was eligible at Lancaster University to do this, since I am an alumna (my MA) and I worked for nine years for an associated institution.

I didn’t fully realise until well into my PhD that this was the perfect route for me. Not only was it a wonderful act of retrospective coherence, a pulling together of eight years’ work, but it also came at just the right time and only cost me £600, which now that I am rarely paid for work I do and am living off my pension, was an important consideration. On reflection, although this was not a consideration at the time, it was also important that it didn’t take as long (18 months in total); at my age time is short and I have a lot of things on my bucket list to fit in 🙂

So what did I have to do for this PhD?

PhDs by publication in the UK don’t seem to be very common – and I am not talking about the kind of PhD which is assessed by the papers that are written and published as part of the PhD study. That kind of PhD seems quite common in some countries in Europe and in Canada. My PhD by Publication was different. It involved drawing on existing published papers and making the case for a contribution to the body of knowledge in the field studied (in my case – learners’ experiences in connectivist MOOCs). This act of retrospective coherence was particularly apt for me, since a lot of my research has been into exploring how emergent learning occurs in complex adaptive systems – namely open online learning environments.

Different universities have different requirements both for entry and for the thesis submission, for a PhD by Publication. In my case the application was as much work as the thesis submission, although that was partly my own choice as I decided to try and do most of the work (i.e. the Literature Review and mapping analysis of papers) upfront, leaving me less to do after acceptance.

The application requirements for Lancaster University were as follows:

  • a list of the publications to be submitted: these may include refereed articles, authored chapters, authored books, and edited works. They may not include course readers, internally published material or unpublished seminar/conference papers, and 
  • a supporting paper: this should summarise each publication submitted, outline their interrelationship, give a critical review of the current state of knowledge and research in the applicant’s field and indicate how his or her work has contributed to the field.  It should also comment on the standing of any journals and the reception of the publications as indicated by citations and reviews

In relation to the length of the submission, there are no set word limits for the supporting paper which should accompany the submitted publications. The supporting paper must cover all the areas outlined in section 53(b) of the criteria (bullet points above) and the material submitted must be “sufficiently extensive as to provide convincing evidence that the research constitutes a substantial contribution to knowledge or scholarship.”  

If the application is successful, you would then work with an internal adviser to expand on the supporting paper, so this is not the final submission, basically it’s the starting point in order to ascertain if your work is at the appropriate level, i.e. PhD.

During the PhD I kept a comprehensive journal of all my thinking and progress on a private wiki which I only shared with Matthias Melcher, who was wonderfully critically supportive and encouraging throughout the whole process. What is so amazing about this is that we have never even met face-to-face. Matthias was there at the very start of my research into connectivist MOOCs. We ‘met’ in CCKO8 – the first ever MOOC.

Looking back at my wiki notes I see that I started to think about applying for a PhD in December 2015 and had my first meeting with Paul Ashwin at Lancaster University in January 2016. I submitted my application at the beginning of June 2016 and my thesis (supporting statement) at the beginning of December 2016. My viva was at the end of March 2017 and my final submission with minor revisions in May 2017. These were accepted June 2017. Through most of this time, I worked full time on the PhD.

Now that it is over, my family are proud but relieved that life can finally go back to normal. My eldest son’s response this time was, ‘Well who said you can’t teach an old dog new tricks!’

PhD by Publication

Today I can christen this mug which was sent to me by my friend and collaborator, Mariana Funes (herself a Dr of long-standing) at the end of March, when I was told by my examiners that I had been awarded a PhD subject to three minor revisions.

This evening I have heard that these revisions have been accepted. Here’s the proof:

I have viewed the revisions to Jenny’s thesis submission suggested by the examiners at her viva on the 30th of March. I can confirm that they have been undertaken thoroughly and the account and justification of her contribution to knowledge is clear. I recommend that she should now be awarded the degree of PhD.

Professor Murray Saunders, Internal Examiner, Lancaster University, UK

I have a lot to reflect on and say about this PhD, principally because it was a PhD by publication – a bit of a different animal. I still have to be formally awarded this PhD by submitting a bound hard copy to Lancaster University (UK) library and attending an award ceremony in December, but given the revisions have been accepted, I now feel I can add PhD to my signature and post my PhD here on my blog.

But most important for me at this stage is to acknowledge my collaborators, without whom this PhD would not have been possible – I will write more of this later – collaboration and PhD aren’t two words that normally go together. So here is a copy of the Acknowledgements section in my submission.

Acknowledgements

I have been encouraged and supported by many people since I started researching learners’ experiences in MOOCs in 2008. Everyone acknowledged here has played a significant role in the act of retrospective coherence that is this PhD submission.

John Mackness has been a staunch critical friend throughout this process. Matthias Melcher has also, over these years, been hugely supportive, challenging my thinking and broadening my perspectives through ongoing online discussion. Stephen Downes, Mariana Funes, Debbie Simpson and Roy Williams all provided comprehensive and very helpful comments on my final draft. Many thanks to you all.

All my work has been collaborative. I have learned so much from the generosity, friendship and expertise of my collaborators. Special thanks are due to Roy Williams, with whom I have collaborated on many papers, for his unerring courtesy and kindness and for introducing me to new ways of thinking. I am also indebted to all my other collaborators; Frances Bell, Mariana Funes, Karen Guldberg, Simone Gumtau, Regina Karousou, Liz Lovegrove, Sui Fai John Mak, Elpida Makriyannis, Matthias Melcher, Jutta Pauschenwein, George Roberts, Rhona Sharpe, Charlene Tait, Carmen Tschofen and Marion Waite. I consider myself very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with you all. It has been a privilege.

Thank you too to Allison Littlejohn for her timely advice on applying for a PhD by published work and to my supervisor Professor Paul Ashwin for encouraging and supporting my submission for this award and for his astute feedback on my drafts.

Final thanks are due to my External Examiners Professor Sian Bayne and Professor George Veletsianos and to my Internal Examiner, Professor Murray Saunders.

And here is the whole document – Jenny Mackness PhD (Pub) 2017

As with all PhDs the process has been a significant learning experience, which I have recorded as I have gone along, starting in December 2015. I will be writing more blog posts about this process as a PhD by publication is still not a very common route to this award and certainly not a PhD for which the papers have been written before applying.

 

Hand Cycling around Bali


Map of Bali

At the beginning of this month I joined a group of hand cyclists who were raising money for REGAIN  by cycling 320 km around Bali.

Photo by Liz Pardey, Volunteer at Bali Sports Foundation

(click on the photo to see it more clearly)

REGAIN is a charity that aims to support British men and women who have become tetraplegic as a result of a sports injury.  The charity provides many different types of support, but one of its activities is to arrange events which will help to improve the independence of people who have been seriously disabled by a sporting injury. In this case the event was hand-cycling around Bali. REGAIN organised this in conjunction with the Bali Sports Foundation – so we were joined by 7 disabled Indonesian riders. The route was organised by the Bali Sports Foundation.

Whilst I joined this ride in support of REGAIN, I was impressed by the Bali Sports Foundation and the work they are doing to promote sport for the disabled. It was wonderful to witness the stoicism and enthusiasm of the Bali cyclists.

Source of video: Bali Sports Foundation

14 people went to Bali from the UK including four tetraplegics and their carers. It’s interesting to reflect on how facilities for the disabled have improved. 50 years ago, which is when my husband (one of the four tetraplegics) suffered his spinal injury, an event such as this would have been impossible. How things have changed. Whilst facilities for the disabled could still be improved, some places needing more improvement than others, the intrepid tetraplegic can now get out and about as never before, taking on challenges that are daunting for the able-bodied, never mind those with a spinal injury.

Speaking from the perspective of an able-bodied partner of a disabled hand-cyclist, one of the wonderful things about a trip like this is how much you learn, not only about the country you are visiting, but even more from the people you meet and the experiences you share.

The Bali ride was definitely a challenge. Not only did we cycle 320 kms over four days, quite often in heavy traffic, but we also did this in 100 degrees heat. I have never taken in so much daily water; neither have I ever purposely ridden a bike soaking wet to the skin, which was the only way to keep cool. Keeping hydrated was essential for the tetraplegics who easily over-heated. I learned that a spray bottle is useful for cooling down tetraplegics without soaking them too much, but for myself, I simply poured ice cold water all over me! And of course, whilst you might want the best of suntans, Factor 50+ is a must.

Photo by Liz Pardey, Volunteer at Bali Sports Foundation

Perhaps the most wonderful thing about joining a REGAIN event is the friends you make and the amount of support you get, both from the able-bodied riders, but also from the tetraplegics who are always on hand with advice as to the best way of managing such a challenging ride (and life in general). The four tetraplegics on our trip, Dom, Tim, Piers and John, are inspiring, truly amazing people, all of whom meet life head on with humour and courage. And this account would be incomplete without a shout out to Dom, Tim and Piers’ amazing carers/partners, Daniela, Sarah and Erika, who are all equally inspiring.

If you are a hand cyclist looking for a new challenge, maybe these photos will be of interest.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/jennymackness/albums/72157680913131863

You can also have a look at  Liz Pardey’s photos:

https://1drv.ms/f/s!AnfMHZJyMQ0kkn44ueMTtQ1ayI4F. Liz is a volunteer with the Bali Sports Foundation and helped to organise the event.

The power of silent learners

 

This week I attended a webinar which focussed on silent learners. Thank you to Martina Emke for drawing this webinar to my attention. The title immediately resonated as recently I have found myself increasingly troubled by the constant noise of the online environment. This has been a growing awareness and I recognise it as a problem since I rely on the open web and my online network for the work I do as an independent education consultant and researcher. This has made me wonder to what extent open learning environments exclude those who find ‘noisy’ environments difficult.

The webinar was run as part of a Nordic Nordplus project, Silent learners – Is lurking working?,  investigating how silent or peripheral learners can be better understood even in courses where participation is the focus. It was organised by NVL Distans  (Nordic Network for Adult Education), EDEN (European Distance and E-learning Network) and the Swedish Network for IT in Higher Education (ITHU). (Source of information)

The webinar was very ably facilitated by Francisca Frenks, Alastair Creelman and Jan Willem Kemper  – more than ‘ably’ in fact. This was probably one of the best webinars I have attended (and over the years I have attended very many). It was extremely well structured and very interactive. I would like to spend a bit of time at the beginning of this post recording how it was run for future reference and as an example of good practice.  There were 72 people in the webinar – quite a big number to manage. Most participants were from Scandinavia, but some were from further afield.

These are the points that I think made it work so well.

  1. There were very good joining instructions and email reminders of the event.
  2. We were invited to log in half an hour early to check our connection. Microphones and videos were not enabled until the end of the webinar, but the opening screen invited us to interact by marking our location on the map and using the chat. Clear instructions were written on the screen and reiterated by the presenters.

The presenters were in the room with their microphones open and welcomed us both verbally and in the chat. Changing the layout of the screen by dragging and dropping boxes was either not enabled or is not a feature of Adobe Connect. If it had been I would have moved the chat to my second monitor – but it was not a problem. What I particularly liked about the whole webinar was that the presenters changed the layout of the screen according to the activities they had planned for us.

  1. After an introduction to the presenting team and the background to this webinar, interaction started almost immediately and we were asked ‘What brings you here? – a nice open, opening question. The chat box was enlarged to help us to follow it more easily.

  1. The focus of the webinar was then explained. Before the webinar we had been asked to watch Susan Cain’s well known video on introverts.
  1. We were told that when discussing silent learners in this webinar the focus would be on learners who are silent by nature rather than silent for other reasons.

  1. In particular the focus was on how silent leaners work in groups. Three questions were posed:
  • How do we recognise learners who are silent by nature?
  • What are their learning needs?
  • How can we empower the silent learner in the group context?

The focus for discussion was therefore made very clear.

  1. We were then asked the questions listed above and asked to respond to them in the chat, but before responding to each question Francisca interviewed Jan Willem, a self-professed ‘silent by nature learner’ about his experience in relation to the question.

  1. What was particularly effective was that we were asked to identify ourselves as a silent learner, a noisy learner, or something in between, by typing in a particular colour.

Finally we were asked to respond to some statements made by silent learners about their experience of group work. These had been collected from interviews conducted by Taru Kekkonen. How would we encourage the silent learners who made these statements to participate in groups? These were the statements:

‘It is simply easier to study independently at my own pace’.

‘I have no need to express myself loud among others’.

‘I hate spontaneous discussions because I don’t know what appropriate is to say’.

‘It is easier to join an online discussion, because the structure is more clear’.

All the questions and statements in the webinar promoted fast and furious typing in the chat box and although I have watched the recording it would take a while to go through it all and determine more fully how silent learners are perceived or perceive themselves.

I thoroughly enjoyed this webinar. The time flew by. Not only was it extremely well run, but also thought provoking.

The main thought I have come away with is to question whether it helps silent learners to focus on them in this way. Jan Willem felt it does, because he feels that there is not enough recognition of what silent learners can offer. For me the danger is that in doing this we may reinforce the view that somehow silent learners are a problem and that we need to solve this problem by enabling them, empowering them, to become a bit noisier. Personally, I don’t think that learners can be empowered by others. They empower themselves, although they can be supported in doing this.

In addition, I don’t believe that silent learners can be identified as a separate group, although they can, as we saw in the webinar, self-identify. Learners will be more or less silent/noisy as individuals and according to the context. Thinking of silent versus noisy is probably not helpful. There will be a spectrum of learners and perhaps diversity is best served by keeping groups as heterogeneous as possible and ensuring that multiple perspectives are always considered.

This webinar attracted a cross-section of silent and noisy learners and many in between and we were invited to identify ourselves as silent, noisy or in between learners. This showed that we were a diverse group, but the discussion focused on silent learners as a separate group. It would be interesting to go back through the chat and analyse whether silent learners are considered to be ‘a problem to be solved’ or whether they are considered to be necessary to a diverse community of learners, even though they are in the minority. Evidently only 20-25% of the population identify themselves as silent learners.

Thank you to Francisca, Alastair and Jan Willem for organizing this excellent and thought-provoking open webinar.

Update 18-03-17

For a more detailed account of the webinar see Alastair’s follow up blog post which also provides links to further information – https://silentlearnersblog.wordpress.com/2017/03/15/webinar-the-power-of-silent-learners-in-a-group-2/

Update 20-03-17

See also Lotte Christoff’s post – A Voice of a ‘Silent Learner’ – https://studyelearning.wordpress.com/2017/03/19/a-voice-of-a-silent-learner/  The post is written in Swedish, but translates well enough to follow the text.