Thinking Aloud/Allowed


Thinking Aloud/Allowed

This paper attempts to connect a research project, concerning the development of blended learning activities for a first-year module on linguistics, to suitable theoretical frameworks of dealing with change, in particular change within Higher Education. Such musing is a necessary stage of researching, a kind of thinking aloud, and is not intended to be thought of as a finished piece. The innovation in question was a response to an institution-wide strategy which required staff to ‘redesign modules and programmes and reconceptualise learning and teaching practices in order to deliver an effective, tailored, learning experience through a blended mode of delivery’[1]. Blended learning in the QAA definition is: ‘​​​​​​Learning delivered by a number of different methods, usually including face-to-face and e-learning[2].  The anticipated outcomes of this strategic change can be summed up in the following aspirational sentence taken from an online presentation prepared by the Institute of Learning and Teaching at the University of Northampton: ‘In order to be a productive member of the group students will see the need and the benefit to engage with online tasks in advance’[3].  The members of this project team therefore became engaged in two simultaneous tasks: firstly to prepare a pilot set of blended learning materials, and secondly to research the acceptability of these materials for the students following the module. This second task can be seen as trying to test out the institutional aspiration mentioned above – ‘students will see the need and the benefit to engage with online tasks’ – in one specific module with one specific cohort of students.

Students as co-creators

In our initial bid we had identified projects where students had initially been seen as ‘pedagogic consultants’ to review course amendments proposed by academic staff (Money et al 2016), but who then became more proactively involved in the construction process. McPherson & Heggie (2015) stress that involvement of students in these ways makes them active agents, engaged as active learners, and pedagogic partners. The team were determined, when applying for research funding from the innovation fund managed by the Institute of Learning and Teaching, to ensure collaborative engagement of students not simply as a passive sample to respond to the experimental learning activities, but rather as agentive co-creators of the eventual redesigned module. Hence, in order to ensure full and frank reporting of the student experience, the project employed a postgraduate researcher to collect data, so placing a buffer of anonymity between the teachers and the students in order to comply with ethical considerations. From the outset, then, our image of the research relied on accessing the viewpoints of multiple stakeholders, yet over the period of delivering these learning activities our understanding of the full range of stakeholders has expanded considerably. This paper then, written at a time when the student engagement with the materials is complete but before receiving and analysing the anonymised data from the PG researcher, describes the search for suitable theoretical frameworks to use in the data analysis, in order to make sense of them.

Context of Situation

A key concept on sociolinguistics is ‘context of situation’ derived from Malinowski (1923/1994), which is used to explain that any analysis of language (in this case including the strategic directives emanating from the university centre, or the contributions of individual students to online discussions of acceptability of materials, or texts such as this written by academics trying to make sense of what is going on) is never in itself adequate to carry complete meaning: it is necessary to know what is going on around the specific use of language. ‘Context of situation refers to the whole set of external-world features considered to be relevant in the analysis of an utterance…’ (Crystal 2008).

Institutionally the ‘context of situation’ of this requirement for staff to redesign their learning & teaching activities is itself a corollary of the university preparing to move to a new campus, to be called Waterside, and hence this redesigning of learning materials is known within this university as ‘Waterside readiness’. This pedagogic requirement is but one of many facets of a much larger project involving major financial investments and implicating every aspect of the institution. It should be noted, though, that the impetus for this pedagogic change was from the institutional centre, yet the responsibility for compliance was placed on the finest grains within the academic framework: individual module leaders.

For academic teaching staff at least two other sets of constraints – beyond the institution itself – contribute to creating their professional ‘context of situation’; one is ‘The UK Professional Standards Framework for teaching and supporting learning in higher education’ led by the Higher Education Academy[4], the other is ‘The UK Quality Code for Higher Education’ led by the Quality Assurance Agency[5]. Although both of these are concerned with assuring the maintenance of quality in Higher Education, their interaction can place individual academics – in this case the module leaders charged with introducing changes in learning & teaching materials and approaches – on the horns of a dilemma.

The HEA framework intends to promote excellence amongst individual practitioners, for example it includes in ‘Areas of Activity’ to ‘Design and plan learning activities and/or programmes of study’ which is clearly relevant to the team’s materials development activity described above; and also to ‘Engage in continuing professional development in subjects/disciplines and their pedagogy, incorporating research, scholarship and the evaluation of professional practices,’ which is relevant to the project team’s researching the acceptability of the innovations. The overall ethos which this belongs to is that of reflective practice, and of continuing professional development, which can be thought of as outward-directed, entrepreneurial activities. These developments are encouraged and supported in this university by the Institute of Learning and Teaching, and described in this mission statement: ‘To enable transformational learning experiences through inspirational teaching. This is achieved by developing capability in learning design, innovation and excellent teaching practice, underpinned by the latest pedagogic research.[6]  The HEA framework also states that such activities, however, must also conform to ‘Professional Values’ including ‘Acknowledge the wider context in which higher education operates recognising the implications for professional practice,’ and an expected area of ‘Core Knowledge’ including ‘The implications of quality assurance and quality enhancement for academic and professional practice with a particular focus on teaching.’

This links directly to the other horn of the dilemma, the QAA quality code, which impacts on teaching staff by its application in rigorous procedures to be followed, in this case by a tightly prescribed process which must be followed prior to obtaining approval for any changes in teaching approaches. Although individual module leaders are following a directive to introduce such changes from the highest levels of management, they are still held accountable for the responsibility of ensuring compliance with quality assurance standards. This process necessitates consultation with a wide range of stakeholders including: colleagues, line managers, current students, prospective students, external examiners, collaborative partners, professional bodies, and benchmarking statements. The overall ethos of quality assurance processes, in contrast to that of continuing professional development, can be thought of as inward, as conserving, and as reluctant to change.

Learning organizations, Complex systems, & Systemic Change

One possible (positive) perspective for observing and reflecting on this situation is that of a ‘learning organization’, which has been advanced as an ideal to be emulated by organizations responding to changing situations. Features of learning organizations (firms / universities) include operating in situations of continuous change which need to managed and guided: ‘Learning organizations are characterized by total employee involvement in a process of collaboratively conducted, collectively accountable change directed towards shared values or principles’ (Smith 2001, 2007). This commonality and collectivity invokes a need for what are often referred to as systemic activities (systemic thinking, systemic change) which if achieved brings alignment and coherence throughout a complex organisation.

Looking specifically at Higher Education, a university is a complex system: ‘The core concept of a system is that it is composed of relationships among interdependent components that together comprise the whole’ (Watson & Watson 2013, p44). It can be understood that large-scale changes necessarily involve all component parts of the system, ideally acting in harmony but possibly at times conflicting and creating tensions. Watson & Watson (2013) propose that systemic change is a pre-requisite for universities to respond to current pressures to fit a new paradigm, and their description would seem to include the paradigm of Learning and Teaching described above as ‘Waterside readiness’: ‘Systemic change is a body of thinking concerned with the design of an entirely new system rather than trying to “fix” a system that was never designed to deal with the challenges and processes it currently faces (p43)’.

Researching complexity

Cohen et al (2007) describe one approach to educational research as coming from a ‘paradigm of complexity systems’ which has a focus on interconnections: and

complexity theory suggests the need for case study methodology, action research, and participatory forms of research, premised in many ways on interactionist, qualitative accounts, i.e. looking at situations through the eyes of as many participants or stakeholders as possible (p33).

Their description of research within this paradigm is dense with lexis which chimes with the intentions of this project team, who from the outset were determined to involve the students as active participants. They talk of ‘interconnected networks’, ‘necessary dynamic interaction of several parts’, ‘collaborative and multi-perspectival approaches’, ‘research to catch the deliberate, intentional, agentic actions of participants.

As stated earlier, this paper is akin to thinking aloud: we will shortly get our hands on the data collected by the research assistant from the student participants, and then our analysis, and importantly our plans for going forward, will need to acknowledge the constraints, contexts, and complexities we are in. Watch this space.


Cohen, L., Manion, L., & Morrison, K. (2007) Research Methods in Education 7th Ed. Abingdon: Routledge

Crystal, D. (2008), A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics 6th Edition. ISBN: 978-1-405-15296-9)

Malinowski, B. (1923/1994), The Problem of Meaning in Primitive Languages. In J. Maybin (Ed.) Language and Literacy in Social Practice. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters Ltd.

McPherson, N. G. & Heggie, G. (2015) Transitioning to Students as Partners, Producers, Collaborators and Co-creators. Are We Serious? Enhancement Themes: Researchgate.

Money, J., Dinning, T., Nixon, S., Walsh, B., & Magill, C. (2016). Co-Creating a Blended Learning Curriculum in Transition to Higher Education: A Student Viewpoint. Creative Education, 7, 1205-1213. 

Smith, M. K. (2001, 2007) ‘The learning organization’, the encyclopedia of informal education,

Watson, W.R. & Watson, S. L. (2013) Exploding the Ivory Tower: Systemic Change for Higher Education. TechTrends Vol 57 Number 5.







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