Multiple ‘ologies…

mickey mouse and ghost image from

The spectre of the Phd has moved in. Taken up residence. Where I go it goes; car, office, home. There’s no escape. I’ve reached the stage the ‘DIY PhD’ books tell you about. I hate it! Last week I wrote about the funnel effect, the logistical nightmare of having too many words and not enough space. This week it’s been the question of validity or the doctoral dilemma – how do I know it’s any good? The sad answer is you don’t – not until someone else passes judgement.

Validity includes lots of positivist measure of excellence like reliability and replicability; the ‘integrity of the conclusions’ (Bryman 2003:30). But the concept of validity itself is contestable. In the red corner there’s the quantitative view of reality as observable, measurable and infinitely knowable while over in the blue corner qualitative reality is more vague, forever open-ended and uncertain.

The Methodology chapter is a challenge. This is where it all comes together or falls apart. It’s a matter of pinning yourself down philosophically – for the purpose of the dissertation at least. There are so many alternative constructions. They can’t all be wrong so it’s a bit of a winner for the blue corner although the reds won’t have it. To a positivist we’re all as predictable as time and tide. Richard Dawkins versus Karen Armstrong. I know who I’d rather have dinner with.

Taking up a position midway between the corners, with an ontological realism and epistemological constructivism (see, I’m learning the language), there is a critical realist approach where the world is knowable but knowledge is fallible. This suggests a possible answer the crisis of validity where ‘There is no single interpretive truth [only] multiple interpretative communities, each with its own criteria for evaluating and interpretation’ (Denzin and Lincoln, 2000:23). Which in itself is something of a certainty, because one thing you can be sure of, another new philosophical lens for viewing reality is likely to be coming along quite soon.

Terrible tangents or interesting times ahead?

ammonite spiral

What’s an ammonite got to do with it? I’m thinking about my pilot phd interviews and wondering about the process. As a research activity, my PhD offers the chance to explore the interview in more depth. I’m adopting a postmodern standpoint which challenges traditional ways of working. Opens up alternative possibilities. Nothing is fixed in postmodernism. I need to think spirals not squares. I don’t do numbers very well but I know the ammonite is formed in a Fibonacci spiral. As the developer of Walking the Labyrinth circular thinking suits me. My mind is an unfinished map full of links and connections. If I’m researching my practice in teaching online, maybe I should be researching the practice of interviews online too.

The word interview comes from early 16th century French entrevue, from s’entrevoir ‘see each other’, from voir ‘to see’, on the pattern of vue ‘a view’  Their face to face nature is implicit but this is the digital age as well as a postmodernetic one. What’s interesting is I’ve been here before.

In theory, a truly postmodernist researcher would probably talk themselves out of existence but I find the mental gymnastics useful. The bricolage of postmodern ideas matches the eclectic nature of my thinking. Linkages keep appearing. In the way Teaching and Learning in a Digital Age brings together my work on open education and digital inclusion so the phd is bringing together a decade of teaching ICT in adult and community education with widening participation and my first Masters degree. In 1999 I used the internet – via a dial-up modem, dot matrix printer and 5 and quarter inch floppy disk – to collect first person narratives for my MA dissertation. I didn’t know anyone else doing this at the time. It generated in depth responses from people across the world. It also created ready made transcripts in digital format ideal for analysis; when studying part-time the pragmatics become significant.

I want to get personal. I’m interested in attitudes to technology for education. Like it or not, virtual learning is the future and I want to find out how to do it better. Explore the relationships between individuals and their machines. It may have more influence on engagement than has previously been acknowledged. Online interviews are flexible in terms of time and distance and the process would be more manageable for me as the researcher. The key question – and I don’t yet have the answer – is how participation through technology might compare with participation away from it? Would an email interview dilute or enhance responses?

It’s no secret how my own relationship with technology is fractious. I’m convinced the network conspires against me. My computer behaves inexplicably. I log on and trigger a fault switch. Irrational but true.

computer error message

Computer error message  computer error message


Yet I value the capacity of digital education to create meaningful educational endeavour. Virtual reality has limitations but so does face to face. How effective is a 50 minute lecture? A seminar group where no one’s done the reading? Group work with variable degrees of interest? I meet with Mike most weeks for 30 minutes. I test my ideas. Say where I am and how I’ve got there. Most of the time we don’t agree but it doesn’t matter so long as I can theoretically ground myself. We swap readings. My head spins. If I could lie down afterwards in a darkened room I would. You don’t get that sort of experience online – but you get a different one – equally valid – just different.

When it comes to postmodern research method, writers like Scheurich, Stronach and MacLure have useful things to say but they predate the internet. Classic action research texts from McNiff, Whitehead, Reason and Bradbury are great for method but have a focus on face to face. Where newer editions of these and of qualitative research manuals address the digital there is less about the postmodern. I haven’t yet found the published research into the links between postmodern theory and contemporary online educational and research practice. Which intrigues me. I’m either going off on a terrible tangent or have interesting times ahead 🙂