“I offer this to you”

Last week I shared a post that followed from a comment made by a colleague share some ideas on research. She began her presentation saying “I offer this to you…”, which I thought was a wonderful way of sharing her thoughts. Here are the notes I took during the session.

Research is not linear, clean or tidy. Research is iterative. Research is private, personal, individual. It is about exploring a “personal trouble” that we ultimately make public. It is about something that ignites a passion within us, something that can sustain the research. If there is no passion, the process cannot be sustained.

“Teaching students” is different to “producing knowledge”

As teachers, we are often perceived to have the “answers” (or, this is something that we believe ourselves). When you come in with the answers, you close yourself off to the possibility that you may be wrong. When you have the answer, you are not open to new things. Not open to learning.

When conducting research, resist the temptation to create the title first. How can you have a title when you don’t yet know what the research will find?

Grey literature (media, reports, policy) is normative and not about the production of new knowledge. It belongs in the Background. Other people’s research belongs in the Literature review. Journals are where the debates take place. This may have been true in the past. Maybe now we can say that this is where formal debate takes place?

The canon is a key text that frames the literature review.

The method is the framework you will use to connect the different parts of the study.

“Paradigm”: How will your values influence your interpretation of the study?

How will you present your data in relation to the question? It is reasonable to change your question (within limits) after analysing and interpreting the results.

Think of the reference list as an “engagement with other authors”. Use the reference list as a way to conceptualise the conversation you’re having with other researchers.

Try to think of writing your research as a story – a structured narrative that has a plot, the unfolding of a story.

Come to the abstract at the end. Think of it as a “lifting out”. The ideas are there in the paper, waiting to be lifted out. The abstract is often written as a descriptive summary – which is acceptable – but is it ideal? How else could it be written?

The research process is not about meeting the bureaucratic needs of the system because this doesn’t allow for an organic evolution and growth.

conference education learning research technology

HELTASA conference, 2011 – day 2


Explaining, naming and crossing border in Southern African higher education
Prof Piet Naude

This was one of the most challenging presentations I’ve ever listened to. I didn’t agree with a lot of what Prof Naude said, but he made me question my own beliefs and biases.

Ontology: language is the house of reality (language shapes reality)
In political discourse, language precedes actual violent acts. In Rwanda, people called each other “cockroaches”, and it’s much easier to kill a cockroach than to kill a human being.

Crossing interpretive borders in higher education:

  • Utilitarianism: views universities as vehicles for the promotion of sectarian interests e.g. religious, political, economic → doctrines dictate the boundaries of science and denies the search for truth without fear nor favour (religious language abundant in university e.g. professor, sabatical, rector). University as a vehicle to continue the doctrine or belief e.g. when universities in South Africa advanced the notion of Apartheid in different fields (biology, politics, religion, etc.). “Truth” would be based on doctrine.
  • Scientism: views “real knowledge” on the basis of empiricist, quantitative assumptions and a correspondent theory of truth. Science is the future, Humanities is the past. Some scientists are blind to the social construction of scientific paradigms. Blind to the link between science and the power or use of science. Blind to the complexity of personal and societal development.
  • Liberalism: rests on presumed a-contextual and unversalist assumptions about the human person, rationality and knowledge whist actually reflecting post-Enlightenment, Western thinking. “Professional training is vicious”. I think therefore I am vs. ubuntu = I am who I am because of who we all are. “Vicious ideological nature of Western scientific thinking”. Are there non-empirical forms of validation that are equally valid as scientific ones? Are all forms of non-Western knowledge subject to verfication by Western evaluation practices?

If universities don’t exist for the public good, they become playgrounds for the rich. Commercial language can change the direction of education e.g. when a “vice chancellor” becomes a “CEO”

Crossing 5 metaphorical boundaries

  • Centre – periphery: where you are born will determine your ability to succeed in the world / geographical (in)justice
  • Conceptual – technical / applied (epistemic justice). People who work with their hands are not as “smart” as people who can “think”. In South Africa, we need a greater emphasis on technical / applied knowledge. More colleges, fewer universities.
  • Uniformity (globalism) – plurarility (glo-cality) (cultural justice): where everyone wears jeans, watches BBC and speaks English. Emphasise a system where I can function at a global level but remain true to my local context. What is the impact on language / culture of the homogenising effect of university?
  • Anthropocentrism – cosmocentric thinking (ecological justice): it’s a problem when science and technology seeks only to improve the lot of human beings at the expense of everything else.
  • Past / present – future (noogenic justice): the world is in a mess, we need to prepare students to improve the future. Challenge students to imagine a future that does not exist, and give them the knowledge and skills to create it.


Perceptions of PBL group effectiveness in a diverse pharmacy student population
Lindi Mabope

Study set out to evaluate student perceptions of differences in plenary vs small group work in a PBL context

4th years have better experiences with groups than 3rd years

Some students prepare only what THEY need to present in plenary sessions, whereas small groups mean that students must prepare better and more broadly

Students generally feel that the plenary sessions aren’t a “good way of learning”

Most students agree that working in small groups helps develop tolerance for language and cultural difference

Most students agreed that small group working helped them to work effectively

Cases in small groups helped students to clarify areas of difficulty

PBL seemed to work well across a diverse student group, perceptions were generally positive

Confusing / difficult conceptual work required the development of certain attributes e.g. communication, self-directed learning, tolerance

Some students found the small groupwork sessions frustrating and challening

Groups demand a large investment in time and energy, from students and staff

Problems must be resolved very early on

Continuous monitoring and evaluation of the PBL process is essential

Facilitators must pay regular attention of the changing needs of the students (students change and develop as part of the process, as do their needs, so facilitators must be aware of the changes and change the programme accordingly)

Use the positive benefits of diversity, rather than merely work around it (how can student diversity actually feed into the programme, encourage students to bring themselves into the cases, share their own life experiences in order to enrich the module)

Supporting and enabling PG success: building strategies for empowerment, emotional resilience and conceptual critical work
Gina Wisker

What are the links between students’ development and experiences: ontology (their sense of being in the world) and epistemology (how they construct knowledge)
Why do students undertake doctorates and what happens during their studies to help / hinder them?

Conceptual threshold crossing (Meyer & Land): the moments when you know that you’re being cleverer than you thought you were 🙂

What can staff do to enhance and safeguard research student wellbeing and nudge conceptual threshold crossing?

Building emotional resilience and wellbeing

Students kept learning journals for a duration of 3 years and included interviews during that period

“Troublesome encounters” (Morris & Wisker, 2011)

Doctoral learning journeys are multi-dimensional:

  • Meeting course requirements (instrumental)
  • Professional dimension
  • Intellectual / cognitive development
  • Ontological (how does it change the person?)
  • Personal / emotional

How do doctoral students signify their awareness of working conceptually?

How do supervisors recognise students’ conceptual grasp of research (this applies equally well to UGs conceptual grasp of the discipline)

Conceptual crossing is evidenced by:

  • Troublesome knowledge
  • Movements on from stuck places through liminal spaces into new understanding
  • Transformations (Meyer & Land)

Ontological change: seeing the self and the world differently and you can’t go back
Epistemological contribution: making new contributions to understanding and meaning

You have to find your own way, otherwise it’s a mechanistic process

Threshold concepts are:

  • Transformative: developing an academic identity
  • Irreversible: when you change how you perceive the world, you can’t go back
  • Integrative: forming relationships between what seemed previously to be disparate ideas
  • Troublesome knowledge: dealing with complexity

Learning moments that may indicate threshold crossings:

  • Coming up with research questions
  • Determining relationships between existing theory and own work
  • Device methods and engage with methods
  • Deal with surprises and mistakes
  • Analsyse and interpret data

There needs to be a number of conceptual leaps, otherwise the thesis is a box-ticking exercise

Make sure that the doctoral project has boundaries. The work is part of a greater whole, and the more focused the work, the easier it is to define the boundaries

Research is a journey (risks, surprises, deviations, even though it looks mapped), but a thesis is a building (ordered, coherent, organised, linked)

Constructive, intellectually challenging relationships

Student wellbeing is essential for postgraduate success:

  • Academic
  • Personal
  • Financial

There are factors in the learning environment that pose challenges to student wellbeing

What are the wellbeing issues for our research students?

Negative impacts cripples creativity and encourages you to take the path of least resistance, where the project is more about a qualification and less about innovation

Important to switch off from the process and engage in the world in different ways, as a coping strategy when experiencing difficulty


Crossing borders between face-to-face and online learning: the evaluation of an online tutoring initiative
Sanet Snoer

Collaborative learning has as its main feature a structure that encourages students to talk

Created an online module because student numbers increased, shortages of venues and tutors, timetable clashes, changing student profile and needs

Blended approach could help with logistical problems, expose students to a new way of learning, more challenging activities, develop wide variety of skills

Uses Gilly Salmon’s model for teaching and learning online as a point of departure, provides scaffolding to take students through a process of familiarising students with the environment

Students’ perceptions of online components were generally positive. However, students reported challenges with effective textual communication and typing, time management (which seems odd, since blended learning seeks to help with time issues), self-expression, understanding of concepts that are read rather than heard, poor familiarity with computers and the internet → disadvantage, feedback is immediate with face-to-face, relationships → face-to-face is a more personal interaction

Used Community of Inquiry framework to develop good online teaching practices (see Kleimola & Leppisaari, 2008 for breakdown of different “presences”)


  • Needs to be agreement about turnaround time for feedback from facilitators
  • Purpose of each activity should be clear
  • Understand the benefits of the activities
  • Must model effective online behaviour
  • Communicate expecations clearly
  • Promote the mind shift that needs to take place
  • Create a non-threatening environment
  • Don’t assume students are familiar with the environment
  • Explain the role of face-to-face and online activities

Was there integration of online and offline activities? Used real-world examples to develop conversation around activities


Students’ learning satisfaction from a blended learning environment for physiology
Saramarie Eagleton

What aspects of technology provide benefits / advantages to the learning process. NOT whether technology is inherently good or bad


How collaborative groupwork affects students’ writing
Shena Lamb-du Plessis, Laetitia Radder

Aim was to get the students to write in as many different ways, and as regularly as possible during the course

Used group journal reflections and group progress reports

Peer feedback is valuable when students know from the start that they will be sharing their work with others

Developing a writing identity means pushing students to think for themselves and to imagine themselves as writers

A process of developing and clarifying thoughts by sharing them with an audience

Groupwork can shape the meaning of the work

Group dialogue helped to define / outline the writing requirements

Students felt that personal expression validated their viewpoints

Helped to develop self-confidence when they realised that others shared their experiences

Must introduce conflict management strategies, orient students to role allocation, discuss writing tasks to restructure meaning


Exploring the tension between institutional learning management systems and emergent technologies: staff perspectives at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology
Daniela Gachago, Eunice Ivala, Agne Chigona

What are “emerging technologies” and can they disrupt teaching practice?

The impact of technologies in education falls short of the rhetoric:

  • They are used to support and improve current teaching practices
  • Teachers and students use a limited range of technologies
  • Used to reproduce existing practice, as opposed to transforming practice
  • Supports passive, teacher-centred and didactic instruction

Need to redefine e-learning: “can no longer be viewed as a purely institutionally based or narrowly defined set of activities” (HEFCE paper, 2009, 5). Difficult because institutions are reluctant to give up their power and control

There is a shift of the locus on control:

  • Control moves to students and lecturers
  • Transfer of authority of knowledge and ownership of technology

Type I technologies replicate existing practices, Type II technologies allow students and lecturers to do things that they couldn’t do before

In complex-adaptive domains, knowledge doesn’t provide prospective predictability but rather, retrospective coherence. Learning should be self-organised and collaborative (Williams, Karousou, Macness, 2011)

“Hard” technologies: constraining and limiting, stifles creativity e.g. LMS
“Soft” technologies: freedom to play

Soft technologies require skill and artistry. It’s not just what you do but how you do it.

Qualities of disruptive technologies (Meyer, 2010):

  • Student-centred
  • Designed to offer options, motivate students, provide connections to the lives, jobs and communities of students
  • Capitalise on willingness of students to experiment and fail, to improve, and to keep at problems until solutions are crafted

Laurillard (2002, 141): We’re playing with digital tools but with an approach still born in the transmission model. There is no progress therefore, in how we teach, despite what is possible with the new technology

Laurillard’s conversational framework: there’s no escape from the need for dialogue, there is a constant exchange between teacher and student:

  • Discursive
  • Interactive
  • Adaptive
  • Reflective

Laurillard (2002). Rethinking university teaching.

No one approach is better than the other. We need to have a mix of approaches to get the maximum benefit of using different tools

“It’s a way of doing life. It’s not about computers. It’s not about mobile learning. It’s just learning – it’s just life”


Analysing teaching and learning at five comprehensive universities
Sioux McKenna

What are the mechanisms in the world that exist in order for us to have the experiences that we do?

Move beyond the statistics of higher education, and ask what must the institution be like in order for this to be (im)possible?

What is the role of Culture (ideas), Structure (process), and Agency (people)?

Most institutions continue to reflect their individual histories as rural/urban, disadvantaged/advantaged, traditional/university of technology. There seemed to be little cohesion in terms of what it means to be a comprehensive university.

Comprehensive universities emphasise the management discourse that focuses on the “complexity to be managed” rather than a “knowledge discourse” i.e. what is knowledge / research, etc.

There are implications for academic identify and research output

“Powerful ways of knowing”

Often students are constructed as deficits i.e. they are deficit in language, life skills, motivation, etc.


The semantic desktop and research papers

I’ve been following the idea of a semantic desktop for a few years now, waiting for someone to implement a framework that enables a user to actually do something that’s useful.  I think that time has come.  It seems as if KDE has managed to integrate the Networked Environment for Personalized, Ontology-based Management of Unified Knowledge (Nepomuk) into their new 4.0 release, and while it’s far from perfect (not least because of the hideous name), it seems at least to be a usable solution and manages to give us a glimpse of the power of the semantic desktop.

So, what’s a semantic desktop and why is it cool?  First, we have to understand why current filesystem managers aren’t cool.  The file/folder hierarchy has been around since the first graphical user interface and for the most part, has handled the task of providing users with a visual of the filesystem in an easy to understand way.  Of course, it’s only a metaphor and “files” and “folders” are actually scattered all over the disk.  The interface presents the information in a hierarchical and linear fashion, which is not even close to how we think about and organise information, and this is where we can start to see the system breaking down.  The metaphor of files and folders that we use for managing information on a computer has worked reasonably well until now.  What’s changed?

When I only had a few thousand files on my computer, it was pretty simple to put them into folders and more or less remember where they were.  Over time, I had to start using dates or descriptions in the files and folder names to give me more information about what it’s contents were.  Again, this served me well until I began my masters thesis and had to start working with large numbers of large documents.  Now, not only did I need to know where I could find certain information (eg. what folder a file was in), I needed to know “deeper” information, such as author, publication and perhaps most importantly, what ideas were in that document (remember, that “document” could include videos and audio files).  The default search application could only index the name and type of the file, so if my document name wasn’t descriptive enough (i.e. have author, title and main idea in it), it’d sometimes take ages to find what I was looking for just by searching.

This was partly solved with Desktop Search, which indexed not only the document location, name and type, but also all the text within the document (if it was supported).  Now we could search by keywords within documents.  Awesome.  Except sometimes ideas are not articulated using the same words across documents.  Or the ideas are related but not the same.  Or you could spell the word/s incorrectly and now your keywords don’t match the keywords in the database.  Besides, Desktop Search couldn’t index the text within an image or the ideas within a video.  So it was a great temporary solution but still not good enough.

It’s a big problem, especially for me.  I can name a file using  author and title, and if I have a good memory (which I don’t), I can maybe remember the gist of the ideas in the document with a few keywords included in the name of the file.  However, try doing that with a 150 page White paper or thesis that contains many different ideas or themes.  It gets worse.  Suppose I have multiple documents, all with different main themes but related subthemes (for example, contradictions of the same idea), or with the same ideas framed in different ways.  Suppose those documents actually deal with different topics in general but each comes to a similar conclusion and I’ve filed them according to the main idea in different folders.  Now I have to remember not only the author, title and main theme of the document, but also the subthemes and their relationships to other documents, in different folders, by different authors, with different titles.  What if their are multiple ideas relating to multiple other documents, as their often are?

As you can see, once you start dealing with large numbers of large documents, multiple themes or ideas and different relationships between all of these things, the file/folder metaphor breaks down pretty quickly.  So, what’s the solution?

The semantic desktop is an idea that has been around for a while but has taken a long time to bear fruit (I’m not sure why, although possibly because there’s not enough demand or because technology limited development).  It suggests that with the huge proliferation of content we store locally (photos, emails, music, text documents and everything else we hoard), finding information and remembering the relationships between that information is going to become increasingly difficult.  An example given often includes trying to remember who emailed you that image you want to show someone, but don’t remember where it is or what it’s called.  It’s the same idea as trying to find that article by that author who had that great idea (we find it easier to recall ideas, rather than specific information like author and location).

So, the semantic desktop is a framework that exists as a data layer within the operating system that “remembers” not only the relationships between objects on your computer (for example, the email address and name of the person who sent a photo) but can also store any metadata you ascribe to it.  Metadata is data about data, so the date information that’s encoded into your photo or the ID3 tag you apply to an MP3 is all metadata.  What if we could ascribe metadata to articles?

We can.  The good people at KDE (there may be others, although I’m not familiar with them) have implemented the Nepomuk framework into KDE 4.0 (another article here) and it seems to be working OK, although right now it’s quite limited.  At this point you can only apply tags to a document, provide a description and rate it.  While that doesn’t sound terribly exciting, think of the possibilities.  Now I can design textual Tags to loosely describe the main themes or ideas within a document (of course, multiple tags are possible, which means describing multiple ideas), as well as use the Description component to highlight the key features of the article, as well as any other information that might be useful.  The rating system could be used to define the strength of an article, for example, newspaper articles might get one star, while systematic reviews could be given 4 stars.

Now it’s possible to search through hundreds of documents in multiple folders (or all thrown together in the same document) by themes or ideas (tags) and quickly establish which of the documents dealing with those themes contain the key points (description) I want to review, as well as determine the strength of the article (ratings).

This is just the beginning of the potential that Nepomuk will bring to the desktop.  It’ll also create a system that will allow people to decide what information (and ideas) to share across distributed environments.  So for example, researchers on the same team can each have access to everyone’s information dealing with that project but not everyone’s personal data.  Sounds pretty cool to me.

Note: Nepomuk and KDE only run on Linux at this point.  However, Qt4 can be compiled to run on Windows, so the coolness could theoretically be coming to you soon.