1.0 Introduction

Dr. Stephen Powell PhD: Innovating the development of Work Focussed Learning in higher education

1.1 Section Summary

This section first explains the approach of Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) on the basis of practice including some of the methodological challenges it brings. I briefly outline my original contribution to knowledge that forms the basis for my claim for a PhD on the basis of practice with the title, ‘Innovating in the development of Work Focussed Learning in higher education’. The background to my practice is given, followed by a description of the context and narrative of my work and employment. I explain and justify my methodological approach and the basis of my claim for an original contribution to knowledge is introduced, and the further sections of my submission are outlined.

1.2 Approach of PhD by Practice

My choice of the PhD by Practice route was made possible by the validation in 2008 of Regulations and Procedures governing the award of the degrees of Doctor of Philosophy by Practice at the University of Bolton. The university is not alone in adopting new approaches; there is sector-wide interest in the development of new forms of doctorate as institutions seek to respond to external pressures for change by developing new routes and provision, albeit with slow sector-wide adoption (Park 2005, 201-202). Costley and Leicester (2011) review different types of PhD for professionals and identify different examples as work-based doctorates with particular characteristics:

Candidate-driven, emerges from context-based concerns, effects professional development for the candidate, and uses an (action-oriented) research perspective to create practical development and change (ibid., 259).

The above description could be applied equally well to the model of Work Focussed Learning that has been at the heart of my work in developing new courses. The learner in their work context is the starting point and it is they who identify their action-oriented learning needs that form the curriculum, rather than an academic discipline or professional subject.

Costley and Lester refer to a study based on a leading provider of work-based doctorates that examined the characteristics of the projects undertaken by students and from this identify four types. The fourth fits well with a PhD on the basis of practice:

A fourth group of outputs (18%) were essentially syntheses, taking collections of substantial work that ranged from closely-related projects to outputs over a substantial part of career [sic], and reflecting on them to produce material for dissemination or with which to take forward a development or agenda (2011, 262-263).

My own doctoral practice is summarised well by the above quote. In practical terms, the approach I took has involved me in assembling my past ten years of research and scholarly practice into a portfolio, and with this accompanying commentary I am seeking to bring coherence to the body of work. The portfolio includes peer-reviewed papers, internal documents, project reports and a reflective journal maintained as a blogs. In my claim, portfolio elements are identified by square brackets with a reference to the portfolio and page number thus, [P5 p33].

It is my intention that this PhD submission, based on my portfolio, is reflective and scholarly in nature to address the UoB criteria for PhD by practice in that it, “contextualises, analyses and discusses the portfolio and sets out the case for it to be considered an original and independent contribution to knowledge“ (UoB 2008, 3). The regulations require a minimum of 10,000 words for this form of PhD. This thesis has around 30,000, and it should be considered along with the portfolio of work that accompanies it.

I wish to make clear at the outset that in authoring my claim I encountered a significant methodological challenge that is probably inherent in all PhDs by Practice where the work was collaborative in nature. This difficulty lies in the identification of the extent of the contribution that I can claim to have made, and the nature of practice that makes, “an original and substantial contribution to knowledge” (ibid., 2), as they include contributions that were mine alone, as well as those that were shared and developed in collaboration with others. To partially address this, in the portfolio I have identified a percentage of the work that was mine and have agreed this with my collaborators. Another complication is that in some cases contributions were theoretical in nature, and in other cases resulted in the development of innovative practice.

1.3 My Original Contribution to Knowledge

My contributions to knowledge are explained and developed in chapters 3-7 of my thesis, which include, a description of my work practices that they are based upon. These are outlined in Section 1.7. It is probably helpful to outline my contribution at the outset:

  1. conceptual development of new working practices in higher education that delivered the model of Work Focussed Learning. This was developed through my work on the Ultraversity project, and is discussed in Section 3, Organisation of Teaching;
  2. the IDIBL Framework as a strategic mechanism to bring about cross institutional adoption of the model of Work Focussed Learning. This was developed through my work on the IDIBL project, and is discussed in Section 4, Innovative Curriculum Design;
  3. cybernetic analysis of the pedagogy of the model of Work Focussed Learning in delivering a personalised curriculum. This was developed through my work on the IDIBL project, and is discussed in Section 4, Innovative Curriculum Design;
  4. critical analysis of institutional barriers to adoption of the model of Work Focussed Learning. This was developed through my work on the IDIBL project and is discussed in Section 5, Collaborative Curriculum Change; and
  5. critical analysis of the challenges faced by radical curriculum innovation in higher education developed as a synthesis of the above contributions and is discussed in Section 6, Summary of Conclusions and Reflection.

In contribution 5, I am seeking to understand systemic change in complex human systems – why is it so hard? This is the culmination of this phase of my professional practice and is addressed in the concluding Section 6, Summary of Reflection and Conclusions.

1.4 Background

The background to my PhD by practice is outlined, including my recent employment history, motivation for undertaking this work, and the context and narrative that shows the progression between the projects I have worked on.

1.4.1 My Employment

I am currently employed as reader in Inquiry-based Learning in the Institute for Educational Cybernetics (IEC) at the University of Bolton. I have held this post since August 2007. Prior to that I was employed at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) between January 2000 and December 2006, working in the Ultralab research unit. My practice as an innovator in higher education (HE) spans these two institutions over the nine years from 2003 to the present. Both of these institutions have strong traditions of innovative curriculum developments for undergraduate provision, with ARU at the forefront of developing approaches to negotiated, practice-oriented curricula in the workplace through initiatives such as the ASSET programme (Dann 1990, 53; Winter and Maisch 1996).

1.4.2 My Motivation

In the work I have undertaken, my concern has been to develop new approaches in HE to meet the needs of learners not attended to or catered for. This general interest in providing educational opportunities has its roots in my teaching career in secondary schools, and is further informed by a belief that opportunity for education and personal growth is a right for all, as explained in the Prologue. Personally, I have been fortunate to be able to align my work with my values, and when the opportunity arose to develop these values in HE, I decided to pursue it.

1.5 Context and Narrative

A chronology of the three curriculum development, action research projects and the aspects of my practice that were developed in them are shown by Figure 1, The Doctoral Journey. Although there is some correlation between the practice aspects and individual projects, there is also significant overlap between theory, and reflective practice that is consistently present throughout each cycle of action research, each being informed by, and building on the preceding. The common thread running through the projects is the proposition that, ‘work can form the basis for learning, which can then be accredited by Higher Education’. This applies to the work of the projects and the creation of this PhD submission.

Figure 1 - The Doctoral Journey

Figure 1. The Doctoral Journey

This submission constitutes for me a cycle of reflection and a planning opportunity for my career next steps. In alignment with the action research approach I have pursued, for dissemination purposes, I have chosen to publish my PhD as a website. This approach has allowed me to ‘walk-the-talk’ by using an action research approach in my own work as the basis for my submission, in much the same way that projects I have worked on require learners to use an action research approach for their study.

Throughout this practice, I have often worked with like-minded others who challenged and debated not only the design of Work Focussed Learning, but also the development processes employed to achieve it and bring about a change in the system. This constituted a double-loop learning in my action research (Argyris and Schon 1978, 2-3) – hence the key verb in the title ‘innovating’ applies not only to the courses developed, but increasingly and consciously to the development processes applied to effect change.

1.6 Methodological Approach

My academic practice is described and my overall inquiry strategy set out, and this is followed by and explanation of how I constructed my PhD claim.

1.6.1 My Practice

The methodological approach for my PhD by professional practice has evolved as my academic practice has matured. In 2003, my experience of academic research was limited, and consequently I had contributed to only a few academic papers. At that time, I would describe myself as consciously working in a critically reflective way within a constructivist paradigm where the credibility of my interpretations to others and myself was the most important factor in my work. Over time, my competency as a researcher developed. I gained a Masters in Education that required significant engagement with methodological considerations. As I became the lead author for peer reviewed papers, the range of research methods for collecting data and research strategies that I used broadened. I took a pragmatic approach selecting the research tools and strategies to address the task at hand, taking the stance of the qualitative researcher as bricoleur (Denzin and Lincoln 2005, 4-5). My portfolio of publications in peer-reviewed journals, weblog entries, other published documents, conference presentations and reports demonstrate this.

1.6.2 Overarching Inquiry Strategy

In undertaking my work, I have been guided by the principles of action research (AR) as described by Kurt Lewin in a paper in 1946, Action Research and Minority Problems (Lewin 1973, 205-6), who gave momentum to the pivotal idea of planning cyclical interventions for improvement. This is based on initial fact finding around an idea, planning an overall strategy and identifying first steps, taking action and then evaluating the outcomes, and using this to inform modifications to the overall plan and informing next steps. In particular, in relation to my work practice, I subscribe to the notion that, “Research that produces nothing but books will not suffice” (ibid., 203). The action research approach has provided me with a way of establishing coherence in my work over time, with each new cycle of activity informing the planning of the next and so on.

I also subscribe to the idea that AR should be embarked upon as a “systematic enquiry undertaken to improve a social situation, then made public.” (McNiff and Whitehead 2009, 11), and this is evidenced by the online publication of this PhD claim. As a qualitative researcher, it is incumbent on me to make clear my own values that are a part and parcel of the research I have undertaken, determining the actions I took and colouring my evaluation of them. In the Prologue to my submission, these are further outlined and explained.

For the purpose of my thesis it is also my aim to develop theory, and the validity of the action research I have undertaken comes, in part, from the extensive collection and analysis of qualitative data including online surveys, questionnaires and semi-structured interviews that I have carried out as part of my work, but most importantly through the shared development of knowledge with critical collaborators. Throughout the period I have maintained an online reflective journal to note critical incidents for subsequent reflection and analysis. Reference to action research will be found throughout the portfolio accompanying this claim in relation to my practice and the curriculum that I designed for learners as students in HE. The implications of this approach are discussed below.

1.6.3 Locating my Inquiry Paradigm

Guba and Lincoln (1994,108), use three questions to identify the ‘basic beliefs’ that underpin different inquiry paradigms:

  1. The ontological question. What is the form and nature of reality and, therefore, what is there that can be known about it?
  2. The epistemological question. What is the nature of the relationship between the knower or would-be knower and what can be known?
  3. The methodological question. How can the inquirer (would-be knower) go about finding out whatever he or she believes can be known?

Based on these questions, Guba and Lincoln (ibid.) identify four paradigms: positivism; postpositivism; critical theory; and constructivism. In 2005 (195), based on the work of Heron and Reason (1997, 274-294), Guba and Lincoln adopted inquiry into their schema as a fifth paradigm. It is this inquiry paradigm that I identify as most relevant to the action-oriented work and research that I have undertaken. However, as pointed out by both sets of authors, there is much commonalty with the basic beliefs of the constructivist paradigm. Guba and Lincoln (2005, 192) point out that there has been a dramatic growth in practitioners who follow new paradigms, those that are non-positivist and further that these paradigms are beginning to “interbreed”.

In aligning myself with a particular inquiry paradigm, I am bound in my thesis to explain its relevance to the particular approach to research that I have undertaken. The implications of this for the nature of my contribution to knowledge are discussed below using the three questions identified by Guba and Lincoln as well as a fourth question of axiology, or values, added by Heron and Reason as part of their characterisation of an inquiry paradigm. I address each of these questions in turn.

  1. “Ontology: participative reality – subjective-objective reality, co-created by mind and given cosmos.” (Heron and Reason 1997, 289). I subscribe to the belief that it is our active participation in the world that, “is the ground of our being and knowing“ (ibid., 276), and that our understanding of this interaction is framed by our own prior experience. Thus, I believe that we learn and come to know through a process of ‘negotiation of meaning’ and that those I have worked with, give validity to knowledge created through their criticality and sense making of their actions. Although for the purpose of my thesis I am bound to express my knowing using propositional language.
  2. “Epistemology: critical subjectivity in participatory transaction with cosmos; extended epistemology of experimental, propositional, and practical knowing; co-created findings” (Ibid., 276). Heron and Reason (ibid., 280-283) identify for ways in which we articulate what we know about the world “experiential, presentational, propositional, and practical”. Their key argument is the importance of us recognising the interrelationships between the different ways of knowing and how at a given point in time, the way in which we know something. Their view of knowledge places the practical that is ‘knowing how to do something’, as the most substantial way of knowing, as it expresses itself by using the other three forms. As an action researcher, it is this ability to bring about positive change that had driven my work, and I would argue that my claim demonstrates this combination of forms of knowledge in that the nature of my original contribution to knowledge (portfolio section 1.3) was: developed from my experience; is presented through the artefacts in my portfolio, informed through the use of existing concepts and theories as well as making its own theoretical contribution to understanding curriculum design, curriculum change, and the organisation of teaching; and its value and significance is manifest through the practical actions I have taken with others. The evidence of the quality of this knowledge is demonstrated by the impact that transformed participants (teachers and students) experiences of higher education where it continues to be developed, refines and accumulated. I believe that in my thesis, I demonstrate the intrinsically collaborative nature of the work I have undertaken.
  3. “Methodology: political participation in collaborative action inquiry; primacy of the practical; use of language grounded in shared experiential context.” (Ibid.) There are many different approaches to action research. Broadly, I would argue that the work I have undertaken is best described as Cooperative Inquiry (Heron and Reason 2006, 144-152), although no one model was slavishly followed “grounded in our experience, expressed through our stories and images, understood through theories which make sense to us, and expressed in worthwhile action in our lives” (Ibid., 149). At its heart, Cooperative Inquiry recognises an approach where people with similar concerns work together to make sense of their world, develop creative ways of considering problems and learn how to bring about change in things that they want to do better. Heron and Reason (ibid.) identify two participatory principles: epistemic participation, “propositional knowledge that is the outcome of the research is grounded by the researchers in their own experiential knowledge”; and political participation, “research subjects have the basic human right to participate fully in designing the research that intends to gather knowledge about them.” This approach rejects the division of practitioner and researcher into different roles. Instead, it sees inquiry as social process that is emancipatory in that it tries to remove limiting constraints on those who participate as both researchers and themselves as the subject of the research. In the three projects that form the basis of my thesis, from the outset it was made clear that they were to follow an action research approach and that anyone who chose to join in did so on an equal footing with the existing project team, co-owning the inquiry being undertaken.
  4. “Axiology: practical knowing how to flourish with a balance of autonomy, co-operation and hierarchy in a culture is an end in itself, is intrinsically valuable” (Ibid.). Heron and Reason (1997, 288) express their view of axiology through a spiritual lens. However, for me the significant purpose of inquiry is a very practical one that is to engage in society to support the development of capabilities in those who are less able to take ownership and control of their own circumstances to develop the agency to so do.

1.6.4 Constructing my PhD Claim

In this submission, I attempt to demonstrate the achievements in my practice, and how this contributes to knowledge by generating explanatory theories and models. This is done with the aim of understanding what happened to inform future cycles of my action and as a source of inspiration for others.

In testing that the claims for knowledge stand up to scrutiny, I have extended the questions below, from McNiff and Whitehead (2009), as a robust set of criteria to help me judge the quality, validity and effectiveness of my submission:

  1. is the development of my practice clearly explained?
  2. am I confident in the interpretations I arrive at?
  3. are my explanations grounded in literature and thereby convincing to others? and
  4. have I made an original contribution to knowledge and practice?

Winter, Griffiths and Green (2000) suggest criteria, based on an empirical study, on “how to produce and judge practice-based PhDs”, motivated by their observation of the development and growth of practice-based doctorates and the challenge this posed for assessment. A minimum set of high level criteria are suggested for a practice based PhD:

  1. be a report of work others would want to read;
  2. tell a compelling story articulately whilst pre-empting inevitable critiques;
  3. carry the reader into complex realms, and inform and educate him/her;
  4. be sufficiently speculative or original to command respectful peer attention. (ibid., 36)

In addition, they indicate in a more prosaic additional list developed from their own experience:

  1. contains innovative insights into practice;
  2. of value to help other practitioners improve their performance;
  3. shows clear evidence of professional development and innovation;
  4. contains evocative, detailed description of a very high level of professional creativity, sensitivity and responsibility;
  5. articulates clearly the relationship between the research role and the practitioner role. (ibid., 32).

I suggest that these and similar criteria would be valuable to readers of this PhD claim when considering its worth.

1.7 Basis of my Claim

Three action research projects are outlined in Table 1 along with a brief description of my role in the projects and the practice that I developed that forms the basis of my PhD claim.

Project title My role and practice Project context
Ultraversity2003-2006 My role was as the director of the Ultraversity project leading a multidisciplinary team of 24 [P3; P4].   This included learning facilitators, software and media developers, and administrative support staff.My practice was managing the academic team (thesis Section 3) using an action research approach.   This approach helped the team respond effectively to the Ultraversity curriculum design and innovate on working practices, and supporting teaching, learning and assessment. The Ultraversity project was established to develop a new model for undergraduate HE to “reach the people that normal residential universities can’t” [P1]. To do this, a particular set of pedagogical and organisational arrangements were made: the course was delivered entirely online; day-to-day work is the focus of students learning, rather than a subject or academic disciplines; and the use of the action-inquiry process for teaching and learning. This approach makes it possible to work full-time and also gain academic credit at a full-time rate. The impact of this work came through the BA (Hons.) Learning, Technology and Research degree programme that graduated 140 students in its first full cohort [P16].   This approach later became labelled as Work Focussed Learning [P20], attracting media attention as ‘something’ different in HE [P7; P14; P15].
IDIBL2007-2011 My role was as an innovator and implementer of the Interdisciplinary, Inquiry-based (IDIBL) framework [P18; P25].My practice was the innovative curriculum design (thesis Section 4) of the IDIBL Framework as an approach to develop Work Focussed Learning courses across the institution. The Interdisciplinary Inquiry-based Learning project (IDIBL) was developed at the University of Bolton, and funded internally.   It was an institution wide change initiative for the development of new programmes that are based on the ideas of Work Focussed Learning developed by the Ultraversity project. A description of the pedagogical approach including module descriptions as part of a framework was developed and validated. The significance of this approach is that it offers a change mechanism that enables the agile development of new programmes in different faculties re-using the validation documentation including module specifications. In addition, it offers a solution to the problem of managing the wide variety in student needs who are studying in the work place [P21 p70; P23 p7; P33 p266-272].   The impact of this work has been felt across the institution as a stimulus to new programmes and ways of thinking about curriculum design.
Coeducate2008-2012 My role was as a project manager.My practice was collaborative curriculum change (thesis Section 5) activities and the evaluation and analysis of the implementation of the IDIBL Framework. The Coeducate Project sought to understand the nature of curriculum innovation and change across the university to improve the effectiveness and efficiency in developing provision. The need for such a project was made apparent by the IDIBL project, which encountered numerous barriers including structural, business processes, and culture and ways of working. The work included process redesign and staff capability building with the deployment of supportive technology to help achieve this.

Table 1. My Role, Practice, and Project Context

As I reflected on the different cycles of my practice as a part of the PhD application process, I have identified particular aspects of the work that I have undertaken, that I believe are original contributions to knowledge, and offer significant opportunity for further analysis and reflection for my PhD submission. These are discussed in Sections 3, 4 and 5 of this thesis.

1.7.1 Ten Years of Action Research

Figure 2 (PDF download) gives an action research overview of my inquiry over a ten-year period under the umbrella concept of work forming the basis for learning that can be accredited by higher education. It seeks to make the connections between the questions that drove the cycles of inquiry, indicate the propositional forms of knowledge that were used to support the planning and identifying the different types of learning or knowledge developed from the results and impacts of the actions and methods deployed. It is partial in nature, but is designed to make concrete the scope of the inquiry I have undertaken and point to the challenges and future challenges for the type of curriculum innovation I have developed.

Figure 2 - Action Research Overview

Figure 2. Action Research Overview

1.8 Organisation of PhD Sections

The PhD by practice route is in its infancy at the University of Bolton and as such there are few models to emulate. I have, therefore devised my own ‘architecture’ that meets the requirements of the regulations. I have briefly outlined the different sections below to indicate their purpose.

  1. A description of my journey from school teacher to Higher education curriculum developer. This section gives a pen portrait of myself to help the reader understand my motivation and experiences of learning and work.

Abstract. An outline of the thesis including context, methodology and findings.

Section 1 – Introduction. In this section, I give an overview of my thesis and prepare the ground for the reader to understand the following sections that make up the substantive part of my claim.

Section 2 – Conceptual and Theoretical Framework. In this section, I explain the key concepts that I have used to identify and reflect upon my practice and indicate the key theories that contribute to an explanation and understanding of them and how my work practice is tied together.

Section 3 – Organisation of Teaching. In this section, I reflect on the teaching practices and productivity arrangements developed to support the model of Work Focussed Learning in the Ultraversity project from the perspective of the manager of the academic team. To guide the development of an original contribution to knowledge, I have reflected on the question, what are the organisational implications for higher education institutions seeking to develop online, distance, learning? This led to contribution 1, identified on page 9.

Section 4 – Innovative Curriculum Design. In this section, I describe the IDIBL Framework and apply cybernetic thinking to analyse its pedagogical and organisational characteristics and evaluate it as an approach to organsiational wide curriculum development. To guide the development of an original contribution to knowledge, I have reflected on the question, what are the characteristics of the IDIBL Framework that make it a useful tool for bringing about institutional wide curriculum change? This led to contribution 2 and 3 identified on page 9.

Section 5Collaborative Curriculum Change. In this section, I identify the challenges faced when seeking to implement radically new curriculum in existing departments through my practice in collaborative curriculum change, supporting colleagues to develop their own programmes using the IDIBL Framework. To guide the development of an original contribution to knowledge, I have reflected on the question, what were the challenges when implementing radical curriculum innovation through the IDIBL Framework? This led to contribution 4, identified on page 9.

Section 6Summary of Conclusions and Reflection. This section draws together the previous sections and offers some explanations about why some practice was more successful than others and how to set up the conditions for radical and disruptive innovations. To guide the development of an original contribution to knowledge, I have reflected on the question, what are the strategic choices when implementing radical curriculum innovation in higher education? This led to contribution 5, identified on page 9.

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