28th July 2019

9. Reflections on doing research ‘in’, ‘on’, and ‘as’ practice: doing educational research in teaching and learning in HE


Image by Juanita Mulder from Pixabay

The tangled web of research ‘in’ and ‘on’ practice

All things come to an end and so has been the case for the TECH4All project. It started almost a year ago when the call for the Learning Enhancement and Innovation Bids 2018-19 was made public. It went through a first submission and then a revised proposal and final approval with a project start in November 2018. Getting the project going was not easy going and straightforward especially in the year when we moved to a new campus. The first term of the new academic year was spent getting to know our place, literally and figuratively. The second term was spent hiring and training the students as researchers, design the tools for the data collection, start the first phase of data collection, data analysis, and finally writing the project report.

Yet, this account is rather unsatisfactory. It portrays research as a neat process, with a clear start and a definite end, and a well-trodden path in between with its well known pit stops, phases and stages. This is of course a mythological fantasy, a useful device which, unfortunately, bears little resemblance to the reality of doing research ‘on‘ and ‘in‘ practice. Research is more akin to a tangled web of competing, overlapping and at times divergent tasks, interests, and obligations. While we try to limit the confusion by determining from the start the ‘problem’, in reality it is the myriad of problems we encounter on the way which demand time, creativity, flexibility and adaptability. And because research tends to be a collaborative effort, doing research also requires leadership and management capabilities located within a specific but ever-changing context. It requires what, in the context of major educational changes,  Outram and Parkin (submitted) call a ‘tailored approach’, that is an approach which enables us,                            

to reflect both the context and the powerful cultural dimensions that sit beneath the surface of everything we do and say in organisations.

TECH4All might have been a very small scale research, but it tried by choice or design to tailor its approach to the circumstances it found itself in without losing sight of its aims and vision.

Yet, this is not a simple task. Doing research ‘on‘ practice, in general, and educational practice, in particular, is researching a living organism which obeys its own rules and floats in and out of chaos while trying to find a stable order. Practice drives on the fast lane of change while research slowly climbs the hill, takes a few pit stops to reflect, and inevitably tries to catch up. Research ‘in‘ practice is a different enterprise. While no less changeable and chaotic, research ‘as’ a practice does not obey the rules of the fast lane.


Research ‘as‘ practice or the ‘The Three Realms of Research in Education

In his Presidential address to the British Educational Research Association on 29 September 1991, Michael Bassey (1992) reflected on the nature of educational research. Under siege then and not entirely in good health now, educational research has suffered from its main strength and fundamental weakness, what Bridges (2006) call the fact that it serves ‘an undisciplined discipline’. Education as a discipline and educational research as a practice are by nature multidisciplinary. They borrow from other disciplines’ ways of thinking, doing and understanding and while asked to search for universal truths about teaching and learning, they are drawn to focus on singularities, on the ‘here’ and ‘now’ of what practice pragmatically demands us to do. Its history has therefore been marred by the never ending ‘paradigm war’ (Guba and Lincoln, 1994), only to succumb to the revival of the preeminence of Randomised Control Trials and a more positivistic and deterministic view of what we can and must know. It is not the place of this blog to provide an in depth account of the current debates however timely they are. Rather, it would be more useful to go back to Bassey’s Presidential Address and draw from his outline of the three realms of educational research. These, I feel, would be more helpful to sketch a framework for the small scale research which is currently carried out in universities to understand, improve, and change, if necessary, teaching and learning practices. The three realms he identified are: empirical, reflective and creative research. He defines them as:

– ‘By empirical research I mean the kind of research where data collection is centre stage; where data is systematically collected by strict procedures, critically analysed, interpreted and conclusions drawn. There is a tendency to see this as the only form of research …’ (5).

– ‘Reflective research is the term I use to describe systematic and critical thinking in which the findings of empirical research are the starting point for review and argument about educational issues. Many articles in the literature are of this form. Fieldworkers in the sweat and toil of data collecting may castigate these writings as the work of armchair theorists, but this is no more than a replay of the age-old battle between doers and thinkers: both are needed.’ (6)

– ‘By creative research I mean the devising of new systems, the development of novel solutions, and the formulation of new ideas, by systematic and critical enquiry. This is a realm of enquiry which is often excluded from research listings, but in my view, provided that it is carried out with system and criticism, it can justly be described as research.’ (6)

If this was the view of educational research at the beginning of the 1990s, there are a number of questions we should ask: where is educational research now? and how should we think of educational research carried out in higher education by higher education practitioners on matters related to their professional role to support teaching and learning?

My contention is that research ‘as’ practice in higher education is straddling across the three realms in search of its own identity. Here is my take and suggestions:

Empirical realm – While we do not see empirical research as ‘the only form of research’ any longer, there is a need to ground practice on evidence which is ‘systematically collected’. To do this, the sector will do well in training academics and student support professionals in doing educational research, something which is not currently a must in training provision.

Reflective realm – We are all accustomed to the notion of the reflective practitioner and failing to show our reflections is now deemed as tantamount to a professional failure. Yet, reflections which are not based on, as Bassey warns us, ‘systematic and critical thinking’ of empirical findings can dangerously lead to anecdotal hear-say or navel-gazing. Individual self-reflection while a valuable and necessary start to help us improve our practice, is also prone to individual and confirmatory bias. We see only what we want and can see. To overcome these limitations, the sector should create opportunities for the reflective realm to be an ongoing, matter of fact shared space of and for practice where ideas are adopted, adapted but also challenged.

Creative realm – This is the realm where most development has taken place in policy and organisational practice and which would demand a closer attention than the one I can master in a short blog. It is a realm where a top-down discursive practice of change as inevitable and desirable is painted on a backdrop of competition, and scarcity of resources. It is also the realm where creativity is seen as the solution, as a pragmatic and empowering tool which starts as a bottom-up approach to change. It shifts our attention, language and practice from practitioners-as-researchers to practitioners-as-entrepreneurs. I am aware though that the term entrepreneur is not necessarily one which is entirely welcome and which will merit a post all for itself.


TECH4All: next steps

Image from https://pixabay.com/

TECH4All is not finished. It might not continue as a funded project, but what we have found out and the lessons we have learned in doing so will remain. One way or the other, the team is planning to move forward and make something of our efforts so that they can have a positive impact. Here are some ideas:

  • Doing research ‘in’, ‘on’ and ‘as’ practice – TECH4All straddled all three modes of practice-based research, Although it started with a detailed plan, doing research ‘in’ practice meant that achieving the empirical goal meant we have to do research ‘on’ practice. We had to reflect as we went along, think and rethink our steps and decisions so that, independently of whether the challenges we faced were taking us off-course, we could stay on-course. In this sense, we became researchers-as-entrepreneurs as our research ‘as’ practice had to be creative, risk taking and pragmatically focused.
  • Doing something with the findings – TECH4All has been and will remain a timely piece of research. For now, though, we will concentrate on making sure that what we have learned would be useful to others within our institution. The following are planned:
      • sharing findings with colleagues, such as librarians and learning developers;
      • contributing to training and professional development of academics and student support colleagues;
      • Involve more students in gaining a better, more detailed and in-depth understanding of how technology is used in practice;
      • Collaborate with colleagues at putting forward ideas and solution at our SANDPIT event, in September.

With all the above in place for the academic year 2019-20, it is useful to add one more idea about what research and teaching are. They are both a Craft and and an Art. They require technical expertise, attention to details and a systematic approach, but they also thrive because they are creative, intuitive, and innovative.



Bassey, M. (1992) Creating education through research. British Educational Research Journal, 18(1), 3-16

Bridges, D. (2006) The disciplines and discipline of educational research. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 40(2), 259-272

Guba, E. G. and Lincoln, E. S. (1994) Handbook of Qualitative Research. Thousands Oak, CA: Sage

Outram, S. and Parkin, D. (Submitted) A Tailored undertaking: the challenge of context and culture doe developing transformation leadership and change agency. In J. Potter and C. Devecchi (Eds.) Delivering Educational Change in HE: A tranformative approach for leaders and practitioners. London: Routledge

Cristina Devecchi


14th July 2019

8. A Personal Reflection on Technology and Privilege

Neill Friedman @NeillFriedmanPT   shares with us his reflections about technology and privilege by reflecting on his life history.


At its heart, the TECH4ALL project looks to examine if using technology to offer support to students is in fact fully inclusive. Does, for example,  a person’s socioeconomic background or age determine the level at which they are able or willing to engage with technology to seek out help? Being a part of the project over the last few weeks has giving me cause to reflect on my own past and I have decided to share some of this personal reflection.

Who am I?

I was born to a white Jewish family in South Africa in 1966. I am not sure when I became aware of politics, but I assume it must have been in the late ’70s, early ’80s. I was always aware however that I came from a family that was struggling financially.

My family were always trying to keep up with the Jones’s or in our case the Cohen’s, but we were never able to. As a kid, I always felt that I did not have access to the same things my friends, or rather the children of my parents’ friends, appeared to have. I think my childhood may have been dominated by hearing “sorry, we can’t afford it”.

I went to an all Jewish private school which we could not afford. However, there is a policy in the Jewish community that no Jewish child should be deprived of a Jewish education, so there was a subsidy scheme that made sure families like ours could get their children into the school. As a pupil however, I always felt like I did not quite belong, and I certainly felt on the wrong side of the economic divide every day.

Peaceful Revolution

Being a maturing teenager in South Africa in the late 70’s early 80’s meant I matured through two of the most extraordinary peaceful revaluations of all time. The first was the end of Apartheid in South Africa and the second was the sudden arrival of digital technology into the home.

My family were always on the liberal side of South African politics and despite the fear that there would be a violent change, were excited to see the liberation of Nelson Mandela and the path that the country took to its first fully democratic election in 1994. As a rugby fanatic, the Rugby World Cup of 1995 will always be remembered as the most exciting extraordinary time of my life. Not just the fact that the Springboks won, but the incredible feeling of unity in the way that Madiba managed to leverage the world cup to heal a nation. For a while, we really were The Rainbow Nation, and I still get goosebumps when I think of the time or watch the Invictus move made about this event.

Pictured below on the left my mother and father with Nelson Mandela. In the second photo, my parents standing on either side of Thabo Mbeki, and the bottom picture my father with F.W. De Klerk. These are my parents standing with the architects of peaceful change in our country.


The tech revaluation was somewhat subtler. In early 1980 a few of my classmates arrived at school with a Sharp pc1211. The first programmable home device I had seen.


I begged my parents to get me one but of course we could not afford it. So, while I could not get the device, they could afford to buy me a book on how to program in “Basic”, the language used to program the device. I very quickly taught myself not just how to use Basic but the logic principles for coding and every now and then at school I got to try my skills on a classmates device.

I enter the world of home computing

Then later that year Sinclair brought out the ZX80 and after much begging my parents bought me one. Looking back, I have no idea how my father had afforded it. I remember plugging it into the back of the family telly and impressing the hell out of my family by quickly writing some code for a very simple game. I got the ZX80 to randomly select a number between one and six and then asked the player to guess the number telling you weather you had successfully guessed the correct number. Not a big deal you may think, but enough to convince my parents that they had seen my future and that I was going to change the world.



A year later when Sinclair brought out the ZX81 my folks splashed out and got me the upgraded version. Rather privileged you may think, but not to me. My  ZX81 needed to be plugged into the family TV and stored its data on a cassette tape which was highly unreliable and slow. My friends on the other hand had the Apple ii Euro+. Now, that was a home computer, it had its own monochrome screen and used faster more reliable Floppy disks for storing games and data.

Professional development

Fast forward to 2005/6 and after a wonderfully misspent youth which included playing drums in bands and being in the circus, I find I am in the midst of a mildly successful career in the Telecoms industry, a sector I fell into quite by accident in 1996. I have successfully worked my way in the industry and now own my own business. I have not only developed the sales skills needed but also have a gift for the technical side of the industry, and it turns out I have a flair for doing my own public relations, making sure the business got a lot more press than it deserved, allowing it to appear far bigger than it was. Naturally, I have all the IT skills to run the admin from building financial spreadsheets to being able to produce brochures, press releases and sales materials.

The politics of privilege

Behind all of this however is the political sound-scape of the New South Africa telling me that I was able to do this because I had grown up benefitting from “white Privilege”. I really resented the implications of this, after all my parents had always struggled. They had made no finance available to me to build a business, though I bet they would have if they had been able to. I had not gone to university because academia was not my thing, I had hated my schooling and when it was done wanted nothing to do with formal education.


By July 2006 I was fed up with the New South Africa, I was fed up with having to give more and more of my business away in order to keep up with the equity demands required for government contracts, but most importantly I did not see a proper future for my children in the country. When given the opportunity to migrate and work in the UK, my family packed our lives into a container and moved to the UK where my carrier in Telecoms continued untill I got made redundant in 2013.

All Change

By this stage in my life I had lost interest in not just the Telecoms industry but in all aspects of the corporate world, having gone through a life changing weight loss journey I had started studying nutrition which progressed into me qualifying as a personal trainer. Last year, at the age of 52, my journey took me back to university with a desire to complete an undergraduate degree then push on to postgraduate studies, with my end goal to be a Research Scientist examining and understanding how the world of sport can benefit health outcomes for all.


Having just completed my first year I found I had an advantage over most of my fellow students. At first, I thought it was just my age and maturity and having experienced many years in the working world, but my advantage was far more fundamental than can just be attributed to my age.

It turns out my ability to easily navigate my way round all the different technologies that are the front line of every aspect of the university experience, from applying on-line via UCAS, to accessing the full spectrum of financial, educational and practical support, is because I in fact had a very privileged upbringing.

Whilst I did not appreciate or take advantage of it at the time, I was exposed to a very high level of school education, not readily available to most and certainly not available to the vast majority of South Africans.

It turns out that the reason I and my family could not keep up with the Jones’s was not so much due to being poor but rather the result of the economic status of the Jones’s we were trying to keep up with. When you grow up frustrated that you do not have access to an Apple ii Euro+ but do not realise that the Sinclair ZX81 that you do have is out of reach to over 90% of the other kids in your country, that’s privilege.

The advantages my upbringing has provided me is not described by stuff; it’s described by the high level of education I was exposed to. The benefit of owning a home computing device at age 15 is not measured by the make and model of the device, but, rather, by the fact that I entered the home digital age ahead of most, and was able to build a very strong foundation at a very early age on which I could grow the skills that are now vital for success in the 21st century. My family struggled to keep up with the Jones but made me aspirational. It gave me a desire to strive for more even if my priorities where somewhat skewed.

What now?

I cannot change the fact that I benefitted from the chance luck of the family I was born into, but I can choose what I do with the advantage I have been given. The starting point for this is first and foremost for me to acknowledge that I did have a privileged childhood, and this is something I have only recently come to understand. Secondly, I now believe I have a responsibility not to waste my advantage but to use it to make a positive difference in any way that I am able to.

At 53 years of age, I believe I am only just starting to understand my place in the world and to understand that I can play a positive role in it. Working on the TECH4All project is just a small step along this path. I can draw a straight line from my parents back in South Africa in 1980 being able to buy me a Sinclair ZX80, to me being part of a project in the U.K in 2019 to make on-line support more accessible to all.

14th July 2019

7. Learning and Teaching Conference: The TECH4All’s contribution to the idea of learning ecologies


The annual Learning and Teaching conference took place on 18 June, in the The Leathersellers Hide (4th floor of Learning Hub), Waterside Campus. The theme for this year was ‘Reflections on Active Blended Learning in Practice’ and the TECH4All team contributed one workshop, in the morning, and a student-led Cracker Barrel session in the afternoon. This blog reports and reflects on the workshop only.

Why a workshop?

The conference call allowed a choice between running a workshop and hosting a Cracker Barrel session. Given that TECH4All was a team made up of academics and students, we took the opportunity to share the load and, at the same time, give the students the chance to learn how to write an abstract for a conference, design their contribution and deliver it. I took responsibility for the workshop, while the students dealt with the Cracker Barrel session.

There were three key reasons why we wanted to run a workshop. The first one was to share with colleagues the TECH4All project and its findings. The second one was to create an opportunity for all to reflect on the findings and draw ideas for their own practice. The third reason was to use the workshop as a further means to collect evidence on colleagues used technology to support learning.

To achieve all three aims the workshop was designed in three distinct parts as outlined in the figure below.

As a result of the workshop, we now have an even bigger list that lecturers and colleagues from library and student services use. it includes many of the technological tools used by students (e.g, Blackboard, emails, Google Scholar, library databases), but it brings something new as well. Lecturers, in particular, have been using and experimenting with videos or audio recorded feedback, with Whats App  and/or Facebook to build online communities. Other more specialised technologies were used as well to address the specific learning of students in discrete courses and disciplines.


Ideas we are ‘playing’ with

The evidence we collected is still limited, particularly in regard to the number of participants. Yet, and despite this, it is enough to give us a sense of what technology is used and how.

A first idea we are playing with is that the evidence shows the list of technologies used by staff and students do not entirely match. There is an agreement on technologies used for communication (e.g., emails), for research (e.g., Library search tools) and for storing materials (Blackboard NILE). Lecturers have a broader list of technologies whose aim is to support teaching, but students’ account paint a different picture.

Students seem to inhabit a more fluid, dynamic and only partly visible, and mostly tacit environment with overlapping learning contexts. A first conceptualisation pointed us to the idea that the move to Active Blended Learning (ABL) has given rise to three spaces of learning: formal, informal and non-formal.

There is, however, much that we don’t know and which was put forward to the colleagues participating in the workshop (see figure below).



Points for reflection, learning ecologies and future research

The questions raised by the TECH4All project made us reflect on one particular aspect of technology: the power of communication.



Yet, communication, as important as it is, is not enough to explain our findings. In the spirit of the overlapping spaces for learning, it was through Facebook that I came across the British Journal of Educational Technologies’ special issue on ‘lifelong learning ecologies’. In particular I found the article ‘Learning ecologies through a lens: Ontological, methodological and applicative issues. A systematic review of the literature‘ by Sangra, Raffaghelli and Guitert-Catasus (2019) very interesting and thought-provoking. This was followed by reading more of the articles in the special issue, downloading other papers and finally asking colleagues on Twitter what else they would suggest.

I am now wondering whether my students walk through these technological spaces as well. I wonder which learning ecologies which Barron (2006: 195) describes as

‘the set of contexts found in physical or virtual spaces that provide opportunities for learning’

they inhabit and what these ecologies look like and how they work. Thank you to my colleagues Sue Watling, @suewatling, Sue Beckingham, @suebecks  and Santanu Vasant, @santanuvasant for responding to my call on a Sunday morning and for directing me to the work of Norman Jackson .

More reading, more thinking and more research in the near future.


Cristina Devecchi

PS: all picture are slides from the workshop presentation


12th April 2019

6. My first Focus Group, the next step on my personal development pathway

Photo: https://pixabay.com/photos/workplace-team-business-meeting-1245776/


I have recently had the opportunity to conduct my first ever focus group, as a member of the TECH4ALL team.  Helping with collecting evidence is one of my roles as a Research Assistant on the project. I am a Foundation Year student studying exercise and sports science with a long-term ambition to complete my BSc and continue to achieve a PhD and produce research in my chosen field.

With my ultimate ambition being to produce research, I am looking to develop my skills by participating as an assistant on research projects across a broad spectrum. The TECH4ALL project has provided me with the first opportunity to do this and I believe I have been very fortunate to collaborate with both Dr Cristina Devecchi and Charlotte Brookes, who have provided training on the roles, methodologies and data protection aspects of working on research projects as well as the skills required to work successfully as part of an academic team.

Recruiting participants

The first task I needed to perform on the project was to conduct and moderate a focus group made up of other foundation students, to establish how they have used technology to interact with and receive support from the University of Northampton (UoN) and how the technology aligns with how they engage with technology in other aspects of their lives. We also wanted to find out how they believed UoN could improve their offering to make it easier for all students irrespective of background to be able to seek out support online.

The first challenge of running a focus group was recruiting participants. An invitation to participate was produced and shared via social media as well as by email.  I shared the email with my classmates and my tutor also shared the mail with her student groups. I was able to recruit four participants from my classmates but received no response from the wider audience. This may have been due to timing in that it was very close to the end of the term, but I suspect that it is more likely that there is just a general apathy amongst foundation and first-year students to participate in non-social extracurricular activities. A lesson I would take from this is that in future when recruiting from this population it may be best to focus efforts on recruiting participants through one to one connections and direct relationships.

Agreeing a date and time from those who had agreed to participate was a painless experience as was using the UoN technology for booking a room.  Getting access to the required technology for securely recording the session was more challenging. However, a solution was found through the connections of another one of the research assistants on the team.

Conducting the focus group

I had received training on my role as a moderator and how the focus group was to be conducted from the opening brief, through the guided discussion and to closing brief. Despite this, as this was my first-time conducting a focus group in an academic environment, I felt slightly out of my comfort zone. A benefit however of recruiting participants that I was familiar with, was that I soon felt at ease once we started as we were able to have some general chit chat before formally starting.

A major concern I had prior to starting was the fear that my group would not actively partake in the conversation and that I would need to continuously prompt them for responses leading to a short session with no real data gathered. I needn’t have worried, my group were eager participants and were happy to engage in conversation and reveal their opinions and experiences. I simply needed to guide the conversation to keep it on track and lead each topic by asking an open question, exactly as per the training received. Having Charlotte in the session with me in a supporting role was also a great help.

At the end of the session, we had gathered a lot of useful and very insightful data relevant to the TECH4ALL project, the participants expressed that they were glad to have provided input into the project and both Charlotte and I viewed the focus group as a success. 

Personal development and learning

I have learnt from this opportunity and am looking forward to my next chance to implement the new skills I have acquired through this experience as well as my future participation in this project.  All of which is helping me to develop towards the future I have chosen for myself.

Neil Friedman

Research Assistant

19th March 2019

4. The lull before the storm: empathising and recruiting research assistants

The month of February was spent recruiting the four undergraduate students who will help us run  focus group swith other undergraduate students. The aim of the focus groups is to find out which technologies students use to seek and receive support, to what extent they work, what challenges they face and what suggestions they have.

Recruiting the students required to engage with different people in different departments and to use a variety of technological means to do so. Besides the ubiquitous email and the traditional phone call, Charlotte and I also made use of Skype for online meetings and Trello to keep abreast with tasks and their deadlines. Anonymized candidates’ CVs were uploaded on OneDrive.

Working remotely sharpened my imagination of how I could make both materials, such as the CVs, and my own ideas about the recruitment process clear and practical. More than that, I also wanted to ensure that the process of recruitment was an opportunity for Charlotte to learn the ‘in and outs’ of being a research assistant so as to ensure that, as part of the project, she would gain valuable future employability skills.

Juggling balls: technology with empathy

Juggling balls – Pixabay images

The process was time consuming and more so than I expected. While the administrative aspects took time, they could have been done in a rather mechanical way. It would have been a matter of ticking boxes by comparing the CVs and cover letters with the job specifications. I could have made the decision of whom to invite alone and saved time. I could have, but I did not. Upon reflection, I did not because the point was not just to recruit students as research assistants. The point was to use the opportunity to create a ‘learning by doing’ opportunity so as to give my research assistant a chance to learn about doing a project. And doing this meant to think how that learning could be facilitated in a situation in which face to face was not always the most suitable option.

Again, I could have done it in a technical and mechanical way. I could have simply clicked on the ‘forward’ button and sent the CVs. Yet, as a teacher, this was not a satisfying way to proceed. As a teacher I had to imagine what my learner needed to know to help her make the decisions in a collaborative way.

I had to empathise.

‘Being in the world’ as someone else

I had to go back 15 years when I was working as research assistant and re-imagine what helped me and what would have helped Charlotte. While of course we can never truly be someone else, we can relate. We can use our ‘being in the world’ to strive to view the world from the perspective of the other. This ‘being in the world as someone else’ is pivotal to good teaching, but even more so for good inclusive teaching.

Technology can indeed help. It helps to reach someone out across physical distances. It allows to work flexibly so that we are not bound by the 9-5 working hours. It helps to manage information.

but …

it does not help us being more humane. That we have to do ourselves. ‘Being in the world’ as someone else is the true added value of our being human.

And to end the story, we now have 4 research assistants and we are ready to recruit the students for our focus groups.

1st February 2019

3. On the journey and in need of support: setting up a team of researchers

Pixabay https://pixabay.com/en/human-hand-company-paper-solutions-3131802/

What has taken the longest time in this project has been dealing with various admin tasks related to hiring the undergraduate and graduate students who would be working with TECH4All. On the old campus, I would have simply walked to the office of the colleague in HR and my doubts would have been dealt with in a few minutes. Doing things on the new campus, however, has been more tricky and I found getting things done more of a struggle.

First of all, all those involved in the task of hiring students are dispersed over 3 different locations. Even colleagues can be now working from anywhere and therefore even the day-today support from them had become more elusive.

To compensate for the lack of face-to-face encounters, we all resorted to more and more emails, adding of course to the burgeoning number of other emails required to compensate for the same problem over a number of other projects and every day teaching responsibilities. The unfortunate outcome of this state of affairs is that it is easy to overlook one email, respond late, receive an even later reply and thus accumulating delays. It made me wonder whether this is also how students and staff feel when trying to set up meetings. We shall find out.

A third issue was the changes to how research assistants are hired. It is now a lengthier, more systematic and thorough, but also time consuming approach. On the positive side of things, using standard RA job specifications is a way to teach students about important future employability skills. On the negative side, it required me to think hard about what skills were required and what I would have helped the student to acquire as part of the project. Three drafts were required before submitting the job applications to the hiring department.

In addition to the task of writing the job specifications, there was also the need to raise a PO which needed to be raised twice as there was some misalignment between my costings and those of the hiring department.

While all this was happening, I started looking for the PhD student who would have supported me the most throughout the project. We are now ready to start with a Research assistant Grade 6 in place and the hiring of 4 undergraduate students in the next 2 weeks.

Looking back: using one’s experience to empathise

On this journey through this aspect of the administration – not something that I am used to – I relied on the good will, professionalism and support of many colleagues, some whom I have never seen and would not be able to thank in person.

The readers might wonder why I decided to write a blog of my tribulations. After all, I am an adult, a professional and I should have just been more efficient, more knowledgeable, more attentive to possible institutional updates. And yet, going through the starts and stops, the blind alleys, the moment of success and the long periods of failures made me wonder how our students feel trying to get to grips with a system which is new to them. While we assume they don’t engage or we assume that they should have read this and that where detailed explanations were provided, the sense of being lost and unable to access the support might still be there. And so would be the feeling of shame and self-blame for not having done what was expected of you. And so, if the first step to an inclusive practice is to withhold judgement, the second is to empathise.

1st February 2019

2. Beyond just support

The literature and practice in the field of inclusion and special needs has much to say about support. Support is an essential principle of ensuring students have access to education, can participate fully and gained benefits from their experience. But one does not need research literature to appreciate, at a very human level, that we all need support, at times, to achieve our best. Yet, this common sense understanding belies all sort of complexities and hidden perils.

In preparation for the first phase of the study which would involve asking students what technology they think would help to ask and receive support, I have spent time revising the literature on inclusive pedagogy, first, and the literature on student engagement, second. This blog is reflection about the former while a further blog will look at the latter. Both would form the conceptual background onto which TECH4All will develop.

What does it take to be supportive? More than just good will

Support is more than just an act of kindness for those in need, whether the need is physical, psychological, or intellectual. In the context of teaching and learning, support is more than just designing the right instructional strategy to meet the personal needs of individual students.

Support would be better understood as a holistic, and complex set of integrated activities and resources, rather than the act of a single individual, as important as that can at times be.

One, none and everyone: what support and for whom?

The notion of support is closely linked to that of needs and needs tend to be understood as specific to an individual. While ‘personalisation’ is important, Lewis and Norwich (2007) remind us that  a truly inclusive and supportive pedagogy should take into account:

  • Needs that are specific to the individual
  • Needs that are specific to a group
  • Needs that are general to all learners

This categorisation of needs does not preclude possible variants and combinations but warns us about labelling students based on categories, such as their ethnicity, disability or socio-economic status and using them as the only tools to design supportive practices.

Rather, it forces us to stop, think and reflect. It forces us to know more about the individual student, but also to examine our own teaching and the web of support we think is available. It forces us to acknowledge that being supportive is not only a technical matter, but one which requires our practical wisdom, that is our collective professional judgment, to design and implement the support which is needed.

The need to know: enabling communication

“You can take a horse to water but you cannot make it drink”

These were the words of a colleague, a teaching assistant, during a periodic child review. With these words she vented her frustration with the child who refused all support and made no improvement, or what now we call a ‘learning gain’.

The incident is a reminder that the biggest mistake we can all make is to assume that we know what others need and to assume that we know how help them. While professional practice can indeed help us spot students who might benefit from support, our own view of the world and understanding of it might also lull us into reaching false and incorrect conclusions. We might, for example, assume that a student who attends every lecture and submits on time does not require support. We might assume that those with specific ethnic or social backgrounds do more than others. And of course we might assume the opposite. We might also assume that what worked the last time round, would work this time also.

Yet, this is not how inclusive pedagogy works. It works by the principle of ‘withholding judgment’. It forces us to almost leave, for a time, what we think we know by the door and enter a new space we don’t know and might feel uncomfortable with. By withholding judgment we enter a space of dialogue we share with the students. We enter not as teachers but as learners, willing to deal with the ambiguity of not-knowing the other and the uncertainty of not having pre-planned solutions.

Building a supportive practice is therefore a search for a shared solution, the drawing of a roadmap for a journey of mutual trust. The use of technology is one of the many ways in which we can enter the space of dialogue and one of the many ways in which we can provide support for access and participation.

Norwich, B. & Lewis, A. (2007) How specialized is teaching children with disabilities and difficulties?, Journal of Curriculum Studies, 39:2, 127-150, DOI: 10.1080/00220270601161667

17th November 2018

1. Being inclusive in the brave new world of technology

On the road to becoming ‘digital’

Artificial Intelligence – Pixabay Image

To say that technology is here would be both true and false. It is false because technology has been with us from the dawn of time, from the moment human kind discovered the usefulness of tools. And yet, it is also true because there is something different about the technology which is already, unknowingly to many, shaping our lives. I am talking here about the digital transformation, a term which I use in its broadest sense and which includes an array of other terms now freely being used, such as: industrial revolution 4.0, digitalisation, automation, robotics and many more.

Sophie Laidler identifies 3 different stages of digital transformation which I report here in full because they would be central to the TECH4All project:

  • Digital Optimisation: the adoption and use of digital tools to change the nature of a process/service. Digitising analogue processes or optimising existing services will help a company remain competitive. It doesn’t fundamentally change the business model, but allows modification and efficiency. The outcome of optimisation is often not particularly exciting, but can help a company stay afloat in a new world. 

  • Digital Transformation: utilising digital tools through changing ways of working. It also doesn’t change the business model, but changes the way the business operates and makes new things possible. It expands the definition of digital to include structure, culture and leadership styles. 
  • Digital Innovation: utilising digital tools and new ways of working to completely change the business model. It opens up possibilities for a different set of products/services or modifies the company’s value chain. 

While TECH4All is open to explore various types of technology and by all means not all digital, there remains the need to explore how digitalisation, in any of the 3 forms Laidler cites, can be used to support all HE students and the staff that works with and for them. In this context of continuous change and relentless adaptation, we must acknowledge that for students and staff alike coming to terms with a digital world is not always easy. The ‘struggle’ but also innovation and achievements are well documented by Sue Watling’s blog Digital Academic

Friend or foe? The digital turn of inclusion

While there is a rich history of researching and implementing inclusive practices in schools, universities have just started exploring how they can create inclusive environments by removing barriers to learning and participation. The inclusive turn has been long coming and it is still fraught with the same paradoxes which have mired inclusion in schools. Among them, the fact that inclusion is both an end in itself and a means to achieve other ends, not all necessarily inclusive. But inclusion, most of all, has become a remedy to mend a system that, by raising the stakes of performance and performativity, has created an individualistic competitive environment.  In such a context, the positive discourse of achievement hides, within itself, the dark side of failure.  

Being inclusive therefore has become essential both in relation to providing ‘value for money’, but also to ensure that universities are ‘value for students’, that is, they create the supportive environment necessary to enable a more diverse student population to succeed.

Alongside the need to be inclusive universities are also competing to make technology a means to develop a valued and value added student experience, while providing students with the digital skills they need for the future economy (JISC, 2017).

An inclusive Future Focused university: technology for all

UoN revised Strategy- copyright University of Northampton

As part of the drive to become an exemplary digital university which is future focused and inclusive, the University of Northampton (UoN) has responded to the above challenges by embedding digital skills within a number of policies and practices, such as the Changemaker  Graduate Attributes, and developing inclusive practices through the New Learner Support Model as part of the Integrated Learner Support approach. In addition, the TECH4All research team was also successful in establishing the Future Focused Lab (FUNLab) whose key aims are to work in partnership with colleagues and students to:

  • Establish UoN at the forefront of technological and digital development;
  • Create an institutional single point of reference for the implementation of the Future Focused strategy with regard to Learning and Teaching, R&D, and Social Impact

Among the FUNLab’s objectives are to support:

  • the practical applications, feasibility and viability of technology for teaching and research;
  • the development of employability-related skills, and competencies fit for the Industrial Strategy and the Knowledge Economy, and
  • raise awareness of the moral considerations about #digitalidentity and #digitalcitizenship

TECH4All is therefore both timely and strategically important in helping UoN during the period of transition and innovation towards becoming a super supportive but also future focused digital university. In the light of innovation and co-creation at the heart of the Lab approach, and within the premises of Inclusive support based on collaboration, participation and achievement (Devecchi, 2007; Devecchi, 2018), TECH4All offers staff a non-partisan and safe opportunity to identify, create and experiment how technology can enable them to be support supportive.