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Stepping back

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I decided this week to take a step back from the research and wait and watch patiently. Doing research can overwhelm you and start to invade your every thought, and this is especially so when it overlaps with your practice. The first few weeks of the data collection was intensive, with sampling and invitation emails, planning and testing interview procedures and doing my first data collection, alongside my usual work commitments which included online tutorials, so I needed to make some space to reflect on what was happening. Besides which, my regular students need my help to settle into their modules and they are my priority. So I spent the week absorbed in forum discussions and communicating with students in tutorials and via email.

I'm happy about this. I am up to date with my teaching workload and feel that I am beginning to establish good relationships with my students. I have a clear and achievable plan of what needs to be done over the next few weeks, both from a work and research perspective. Next week I will review my recruitment approach and look at how I can make my research as flexible and inclusive as possible for my students with mental health challenges.

Annie

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Anxiety

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Edited by Annie Storkey, Friday, 8 Oct 2021, 15:20

I was quite unnecessarily anxious about doing my first interview, despite having been doing telephone tutorials for 14 years. As a manic-depressive, I am often anxious about new experiences but I also get anxiety prior to regular intense occurrences, like when I give an online tutorial (which I have also been doing for years) or start a batch of marking. This anxiety expressed itself in many ways, for instance, rechecking recording equipment to make sure it works and revising and practising my questions repeatedly. On the day it showed in a mild depression during my morning walk, a feeling of nausea and fear, and pacing around the house. I am used to managing anxiety on a daily basis so lots of deep breathing, CBT and positive thoughts and no attempt to avoid or delay the inevitable.

What I experienced can be similar to what students experience when invited for a telephone tutorial, with the anxiety of not knowing the person calling or what to expect, and the anticipation of the event. Some will overcome this and welcome the opportunity to share their experiences and support needs with their tutor whilst others will find the barrier more difficult to climb. What is important, then, is that tutors work to establish positive relationships with their students at the beginning of the module and that they keep that door open for communication. I think regular communication from a tutor is vital in this process, especially early in the module, and communication is one of the things I will be exploring in my research on how students with mental health challenges can be supported to reach their potential. This includes proactive support that intervenes before crisis point so that students are supported when they are at their most vulnerable.

These issues also have implications for my research study in that I am inviting participants to have telephone interviews and not everyone will be comfortable with this, especially at the beginning of the module. I hope that as my students get to know me better, several will have the confidence to come forward and volunteer so that their voices will be heard.

Annie


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Want to know more about my research?

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Edited by Annie Storkey, Friday, 8 Oct 2021, 11:02

A couple of students have enquired about my research so I thought I would share what it is about and what it will mean for my students.

I am currently doing a Professional Doctorate in Education, exploring how students with mental health challenges can be empowered to be independent learners in the online learning environment. My choice of investigation was prompted by reading the research of Richardson (2015) which found that distance learning students with mental health challenges were significantly less likely to complete and pass their modules than other students. This concerned me as an Associate Lecturer who wanted all her students to reach their full potential, but also as someone who has bipolar disorder; I, too, dropped out of my first degree when I had a mental health crisis 25 years ago. I want to understand the barriers these students face and how they might be overcome so that I can support my students in their learning journeys.

Whilst there is some research into the barriers faced by these students, there is also an assumption that it is up to academics to decide how to overcome the challenges. But my knowledge of health and social care tells me that we need to go to the service user for their expertise on their needs. I am doing emancipatory action research study with an emphasis on student voice to explore the lived experience of students with mental health challenges, using case study interviews to plan, implement, evaluate and reflect on the support needs of these students, alongside data analytics to identify students at risk and intervene as necesary. It uses the affirmative model of disability, an inclusive and collective approach emphasising positive social identities, to develop relationships and deliver individual and proactive support. Participants are offered an initial telephone interview to discuss their experiences of studying with mental health challenges, the barriers they face, the resilience they bring and to negotiate the support they would like to receive from their tutor. The follow up interview happens at the end of the module when we evaluate and reflect on the experience of studying and being supported.

Doing research with my own students brings up ethical dilemmas that needed addressing. For instance, my research needs to be fair to all my students so I am careful to reassure that any student can have an interview about their support needs; they don’t have to take part in my research to be supported in their studies and whether they take part or not will not influence their assessment. My sample of students also needed approving by the Student Research Project Panel to ensure that students who have opted out of research invitations or have recently been invited to take part in research were removed from the sample. This means that not all my students will have received an invitation to take part. Taking part is voluntary and all students who participate are provided with information about the study and are required to sign a consent form detailing the purpose of the research and the use of data. The issue of consent is revisited throughout the research.

What I hope to achieve from my research is a greater understanding of the experiences of students with mental health challenges and the support they would like in achieving their learning goals. This is an exciting opportunity to influence how student support is provided and I look forward to working with my participants in developing new knowledge.

Annie


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Research sample

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Edited by Annie Storkey, Tuesday, 5 Oct 2021, 12:57

Last week I got authorisation for my research sample and it was surprisingly straightforward, if somewhat nerve-racking.

To do research with OU students you need permission from the Student Research Project Panel (SRPP) and they will authorise a sample of participants. In many cases they will produce the original sample for the researcher but some researchers will request to draw their own sample, which needs approving. The latter is my situation as I want to research my own students so last Thursday I submitted a prospective sample for approval.

This process is necessary as some students may have opted out of contact about research and others would have already been involved in recent projects or even multiple studies. But it is anxiety inducing for the researcher when your initial sample is already very limited in scope. As it was, the process reduced my sample by a third. But I am glad to say that my response was positive and practical; the process is necessary and ethically right, and this is my sample and I am going to work with it. It is so nice to finally be contacting potential participants and to have the opportunity for 2 years of work to finally bear fruit.

Annie


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Nose in a good book

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This week I started reading Action Research in Teaching and Learning by Lin Norton. I’ve read a lot of books recently on action research and most have been very informative and provided helpful and stimulating advice that made me reflect on the theory and practice of my own research. Norton’s book is no exception but what I am really enjoying is the emphasis on reflective practice in, for want of a better word, ‘practical’ terms. For instance, Norton discusses including participants in reflective practice and the pitfalls of using reflective journals. I have had several people suggest that I should get my participants to keep reflective journals about their support needs and this approach was a key focus of my research when I first applied for my doctorate course. But I decided not to use this approach as I know that many students struggle with reflective writing and I did not want to put pressure on my participants to fulfil my expectations at the risk of them feeling inadequate; my research is about empowering students with mental health challenges not confining them. Reflective journals will be mentioned as a study aid (they are a component of one module I teach) but there will be no pressure from the perspective of my research. I want my student participants to explore what study approaches they think is helpful not what academics think they should do, and I will be using my regular email contact to encourage reflection with all my students as part of my proactive motivational support. Norton recognises that practitioner researcher needs to be aware of their students’ own experiences of learning.

The discussions on professionalism on career development have also been very useful and have given me ideas on developing my research career, including thoughts on how my current research might be expended in the future to look at specific interventions such as how I manage my tutor group forum in relation to mental health and wellbeing support. The book acknowledges that action research can be ‘messy’ and I’m looking forward to reading more.

Annie


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Prof Doc review – the story so far

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Edited by Annie Storkey, Friday, 12 Jun 2020, 12:00

Well, it has been a quick 2 months! I’ve done a residential weekend, two modules of study, two seminar forums and submitted a 500-word assignment on context and ethics. I admit the writing was a huge slog but I’m loving the doctorate programme; it’s such a great opportunity to explore a subject I'm passionate about.

So, what are the key things I’m taking from my studies so far?

The module on developing as a researching professional has given me the idea to write a chapter in my thesis on my own reflections as a researcher with mental health challenges, adding my own perspective to the student voices.

Looking at the context of my research has enabled me to reflect more on who else is involved in my research and at what stage. I have established contact with several stakeholders, and this has helped me to identify potential issues and priorities within my proposal and enabled me to clarify key issues within it, as well as opening opportunities to share my work with my colleagues. The chat with a member of the Learning Analytics Department has enhanced my perspective on the importance of data analytics in my research, and the resources available to support me.

The ethics section of the module has highlighted the need to communicate my research to my colleagues and answer any questions they may have as their students may be participants; I had previously focused my attention on ethics just in relation to participants and the research community. I have started to address this via forums and meetings.

I’m using this month to catch up on some reading, update my development plan and get to know some referencing tools ready for the literature review module in the new year. Scary but exciting.

Annie


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Reflection on the first month of the Prof Doc

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Edited by Annie Storkey, Friday, 12 Jun 2020, 12:01

This assignment is harder to complete than I thought, and not necessarily due to the content. November is a busy time for ALs, virtually all modules have assignments due then and it is a tough schedule to work with, despite planning ahead and only working part time.

In spite of this, I have really enjoyed this term. It has reinforced my identity as a researcher within my own field and helped me to clarify what I want to achieve from my research, enabling me to develop my ideas on how to achieve this. The professional framework plan has provided me with a structure in which to develop goals within a manageable timeframe.

The discussion on macro context made me explore further into the government’s influence on higher education provision. Obviously, I was aware of the impact of politics on curriculum from my Master in Ed studies but I hadn’t looked specifically at mental health. I was surprised that meso was considered a neglected context, as my meso context is a central part of my proposal, and this made me reflect more on how the OU is a very different environment to other places of higher education and how working for the OU reinforces my own values in education and forms its own ‘bubble’. I thought writing about the micro context would be easier, it is, after all, where I spend my working life. But in many ways this makes it more challenging as I realised a lot of what I do is not tangible. But that, obviously, is one of the reasons why I am doing my research.

Completing this assignment will feel like a firm step on the path to achieving my doctorate and it is good to get into the writing early.


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Down the rabbit hole

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Edited by Annie Storkey, Friday, 12 Jun 2020, 12:02

Last week I was completing the module on the context of research. What a rabbit hole the macro section turned out to be! I was aware of my need to discuss government frameworks and policy in my research, most specifically the emphasis on value for money and student outcomes but actually trawling through government websites trying to find it seems an endless task. I did find some useful documents on government aims, though these were usually on higher education as a whole rather than distance learning. But there were a few helpful ones on mental health provision and I was especially pleased to find a reference to the social model of disability as that will link well to my discussion on the context of disability in society. That was something I found missing in the module materials on context, that as well as professional and government frameworks there might also be societal ones. I intend to put my research into the experiences of students with mental health challenges within the emerging emancipatory model of disability and it was useful to note how government policy was influenced by disability theory.

I was also surprised to read that many education researchers neglect the meso context and I wonder if it because they consider their work environment to be a generic situation. Working for the OU means that I see my higher education institution as very different to others available, in structure, ethos and cohort. Perhaps it is because its values are very much apparent, even in its name, and in alignment with my own that I have a strong sense of identity with it? This ‘institutional bias’ will be something for me to stay aware of in my research.

Annie

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My research proposal

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Edited by Annie Storkey, Friday, 12 Jun 2020, 12:03

One of the tasks on the Prof doc programme was to write 300-500 describing your proposal. So here it is!

My research proposal has a working title of ‘How can students with mental health challenges be empowered to become independent learners within the technology-enhanced learning environment?’. It is emancipatory action research; emancipatory because it has an aim of giving a voice to a disadvantaged group, and action research because it will be undertaken as part of my work as an Associate Lecturer with the Open University.  The subject has a personal interest for me as I have bipolar disorder and have a strong sense of empathy for my students who are studying whilst experiencing mental health challenges.

Technology-enhanced learning has the potential to make distance learning more accessible to students with mental health challenges as it offers a flexible format where the student has control over their social engagement and schedule. Consequently, more Open University students disclose mental health challenges than any other UK university (The Open University, 2018). But research by Richardson (2015) shows that students with mental health challenges are less likely to complete and pass modules than non-disabled students, though they attain just as good grades when they do pass.  Distance learning can be isolating and people with mental health challenges may need extra support to maintain their studying progress and reach their goals. Developing the skills to become independent learners can empower students to take control of their learning, build self-confidence and achieve their potential.

Using a flexible and participatory voice-led approach within an emancipatory action research framework, my research will use case study interviews to investigate the learning experiences of students with mental health challenges, alongside individual study skills support which includes positive reflection. It will be collaborative, encouraging participation in decision making and seeking negotiated meanings, whilst empowering participants to take control of their learning and influence teaching with the aim of developing an inclusive distance learning approach which is beneficial for those with mental health challenges and potentially other students within the university.

I will use interpretative phenomenological analysis to interpret my results. This is a qualitative approach which examines and interprets how the individual makes sense of lived experience and is particularly helpful in examining complex and personal perspectives which are highly subjective. I will encourage students to review transcripts and my subsequent analysis, enabling them to participate in the research process as a form of transformatory critique to question knowledge and inform practice.

Whilst research into the technology-enhanced learning environment is a dynamic field, there is little research into how those with mental health challenges respond to and develop within this environment. By developing greater understanding of their learning needs, this research can influence educational policy and practice within the university, and in the wider academic sphere, so that module development and delivery is more inclusive and retention improved. As emancipatory action research, this research has application at grass roots level, providing the opportunity for students with mental health challenges to be empowered through participation whilst building on skills for independent learning.

The Open University (2018) ‘The OU has the highest number of students declaring a mental health condition in the UK’, University News, The Open University, Milton Keynes [Online] Available at: https://ounews.co/around-ou/university-news/the-ou-has-the-highest-number-of-students-declaring-a-mental-health-condition-in-the-uk/ (Accessed 14th October 2019)

Richardson, J. (2015) ‘Academic attainment in students with mental health difficulties in Distance Education’, International Journal of Mental Health, vol. 44, no. 3, pp.231-240. [Online] Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00207411.2015.1035084 (Accessed 29th November 2018)


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Reflecting on 2018

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Edited by Annie Storkey, Friday, 12 Jun 2020, 12:08

2018 was a turning point for me. It was the 20 year anniversary of my diagnosis with bipolar disorder, the year my life was turned upside down and which led me to give up my dream job as a university lecturer, move away from London and start again.

So, in 2018 the time was right to reclaim my academic career at the age of 49. I doubled my working hours from 13 to 26 and took on higher modules to teach. I became more active in the university online community, starting my blog and generally contributing more in forums and community discussions. I also became more vocal about health issues outside the university, giving a talk to my church about mental health (which has led to a higher profile of the needs of disabled members) and I’m in discussion with community leaders about starting a local death café. I planned and wrote a research proposal for a doctorate which I hope will benefit students with mental health challenges.

I used a year off from study to reflect on what I learnt on the Masters in Education and put new ideas into practice, including improving how I maintain dialogue with students via email and the PT3 form. I recommend the Masters programme to other ALs, I learnt so much from it, especially about conducting research and transforming practice, though it was very hard work.

2019? I want to write more about the experience of living with bipolar disorder and start my doctorate research. I know I go on about my future studies but I find studying truly exciting as I came from a working class background and never went to college; my life has been changed by the Open University in many ways.

Have a happy new year

Annie


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