On 2 November 2019 I attended a couple of seminars from the second EdD residential school programme which took place in Milton Keynes. I’ve made these notes for the student that I am co-supervising, my co-supervisor, and for any other EdD student who might (potentially) find them useful. I have previously blogged about the first EdD residential school I attended.
At this point in their studies EdD students would have completed an initial study and have submitted some reports. A study and a research project should now be starting to take shape. It was suggested, however, that things are going to get tougher, and students will continue to refine and develop their ideas, plans and projects.
To support students who begin the second year, the EdD group offers a number of online seminars for the second year. Topics include: explaining your ethical approach to your research, demonstrating criticality (which sounds really useful), interviews (and interviewing), and being systematic in your literature review. These sessions are to help students clarify their theoretical approach, understand research methods, reflect on ethics, practice academic writing and to reflect on their development as researchers.
What follows is a summary of the two sessions that I attended. During each talk, I tried to make some rough notes, which I’ve transcribed and edited. Since these are notes, there may well be errors and omissions. I also expect slides and handouts to be made available to students after the event. This blog post complements an earlier post I made about the first EdD residential school that I attended.
Epistemology and Ontology in Educational Research
The first seminar was by Kieron Sheehy, Professor of Education. Kieron’s presentation was said to draw on slides that were originally created by John Richardson, and a paper that had been written by Peter Twining, a former OU colleague.
Ontology is the study of beliefs about the nature of reality. This connects to the question of whether there can be an objective reality. Epistemology is the study of how we go about finding stuff out. Unpacking this further, this is about what can be known, and how we might come to find out about the world. The question of ‘what counts for knowledge’ drives the research.
When discussing these things, a really important point to take on board is that not everyone thinks the same way. To demonstrate this point, we were asked to complete a short exercise where we were asked to respond to a series of statements about how we viewed research and learning.
If we agreed with a statement, we were asked to put an outstretched hand up in the air. If we disagreed with the statement, we put a fist in the air. If we held a position that was in between, we could choose to present a number of fingers, depending on how we felt about something.
In terms of differences, on one hand there was a view where experiments are important (a positivist approach) versus a view where meaning is created through social interaction, and those meaning can be subjective and different. Another point was that your own epistemological beliefs can influence what you do as a researcher. A later point was that examiners also read a dissertation or research report using their own epistemological beliefs.
A related question was: why is all this stuff important? From a very practical perspective of being a doctoral student, it is important since a common viva question might be “can you explain your position?” along with “why have you chosen the methods that you have chosen, and how do these relate to your beliefs?” Answering these questions enable you to do your research well and having a stance enables you to tackle issues. An epistemological position directly affects your methods. If you choose a qualitative method, different people may have different realities (understand things in different ways), and meaning can be culturally defined.
Kieron presented one of John’s slides that tried to cover all these different issues in one go. There were a number of different approaches: positivist, interpretive, critical and pragmatic. A critical approach is where you consider injustices and try to enact change. A pragmatic approach is the application of whatever methods and approaches that may be useful to solve a problem or explore a subject. A positivist approach is where you hold the view that there is an objective reality (and you can observe things), whereas an interpretivist approach means that you try to interpret the subject perspectives and understandings of others.
It was then onto another task. We were asked to work in pairs to answer the question: ‘what is your position?’ and ‘what are you doing in your research?’ During the discussions I noted down the point that a research design, choice of methods, and ethics must all align to each other. A further point was that if we’re carrying out research into a social world, a reflexive approach is important; we need to ask ourselves how our own position has influenced the research. Similarly, it’s important to be critical and ask: are there other explanations or counter examples? Different perspectives can also be used.
During the session, I examined my own epistemology. I’m a computer scientist who sometimes gets involved in social science and education research. My background means that I’m familiar with the idea of creating systems, or employing an engineering method to solve problems. I asked myself the question: how can an engineering approach fit into the view that knowledge can either be objective (explored using a positivist approach) or subjective (explored using an interpretive approach)?
There’s an answer for this. The engineered artefacts can be studied using a positivist (experimental) approach to answer the question of: ‘does it solve the problem it sets out to solve?’ If we’re thinking about computer software (or, for that matter, any engineered or created product), the produce is used by people, and has been created by people, and people start to use, build and interact with products, all starting with different perspectives. Both epistemological perspectives are necessary to understand the full picture (which is a point which connect to the subject of mixed methods).
Keeping your promises? A focus on anonymisation
The second seminar was about ethics and was presented by Alison Fox, Senior Lecturer in Teaching and Learning. Early on during Alison’s presentation she referred to the ethical protocols that were put in place during a study. An accompanying question was: can you always keep your promises (regarding anonymisation)?
I made a note of the concept of internal versus external anonymisation. Consider the situation of where a study was described in an academic article or report, where the action of participants is described. That paper could be read by different groups of people: those people who know nothing of the group that was a focus of the study, or it could be read by members of the group that was the focus of the study. In some cases, participants may be able to recognise both themselves and others from descriptions. It must be asked: would this be acceptable?
CERD is an ethical appraisal framework, which is an abbreviation for Consequential, Ecological, Relational and Deontological.
Consequential relates to a utilitarian perspective, and this involves the importance of gathering of informed consent, and the avoidance of harm. I also noted down some questions, such as: what do you hope to get from a study? Also, what is the impact in practice? Put another way, what are the consequences of a study?
Ecological relates to all the people affected by the study. This requires the researcher to consider the ‘ecology’ of a group of people, and involves considering the power dynamics, sponsors, leaders and audiences.
Relational is about making ethical decisions to maintain harmonious relations with different people. Another note I made was the importance of showing respect to everyone.
Deontological is about not treating people as tools or subject. Another note I made was that this bit of the framework refers to “necessity of obligation”, or “duties and obligations”. It’s also important to think about how to maximise benefits from a study, who to tell about your study, and how to report your data. This idea can link back to the earlier example where participants may potentially be identified within their own context.
During Alison’s talk, I also made down a note to dig out the British Educational Research Association, Ethical Guidelines for Educational research (website).
For students who are studying on the EdD programme, I also note that Alison has made a recorded of a tutorial entitled ‘A walk through the CERD ethical appraisal framework’ which is available through the EDD-PW online room.
A brief aside (and a further resource)
As well as being an EdD supervisor, I’m current also an MA Education student with the OU.
I decided to study education (specifically higher education management and leadership) for the reason that I thought that it might help me in my day job (as a middle manager). I’m currently towards the end of my studies, having enrolled in EE813 (module description), a dissertation module, where I’ve got to carry a small amount of educational research.
To prepare students to carry out the MA level research, like EdD students, MA students are also introduced to the ideas of ontology, epistemology, methodology and paradigm. During a recent tutorial, my MA tutor mentioned a really useful video that was contained within the module materials: David James: How to get clear about method, methodology, epistemology and ontology, once and for all (YouTube).
If you’re interested in research methods and these different ‘ologies’ I do recommend the video. James presents everything through a simple iceberg metaphor. The tip of the iceberg are the methods that you use. Just below the surface (setting the foundation of the methods) is the methodology. The ‘ology’ means that there has been a study of the methods, i.e. choices have been made, leading towards giving an approach. Then there’s epistemology: “what is knowable and worth knowing”; the ‘ology’ of knowledge (or, the debate about what knowledge is).
An interesting example was given where different ways of finding things out can lead to different conclusions, since the research methods begin with different underlying assumptions. Whilst listening to the video, the following phrase struck me: “ontology is simply any debate about being; what it is to be; what it is to exist”. A point was made that this question exists, in different forms, within any discipline.
I really like this video, since it breaks things down really simply and carefully. Towards the end of the video there is a reference to the idea of “the position from which you speak” (which links to the idea of reflexivity and the activity which Kieron asked us to complete), and the term ‘paradigm’.
Through repeated exposure to all these ‘ologies’ I’m developing a more nuanced view of research methods. One thing that really struck me was the commonalities between what was discussed in the higher level EdD programme residential school, and what was taught in in the MA in education programme. The MA programme seems to do a really good job at preparing students for the EdD. (My next task is to write about ontology and epistemology in my next MA assessment)
One thing that is coming up in my MA studies is a section on Ethics, but it’ll take me a couple of months to get there. It’ll be interesting to see whether the approach that Alison mentioned will also feature in the MA materials. I found Alison’s description of the CRED framework useful, since it clearly encourages students to ask some important and searching questions about how to approach ethics when carrying out research.