OpenTEL Student of the month – July

July student of the month is Lesley Boyd:

I’ve just been walking in the Open University Legacy Garden, in the wonderful summer weather. It’s a sight to behold. I went there when I first started out on my research journey with the OU, now nearly four years ago. I was just about to embark on a full time studentship for an OpenTEL funded Masters in Research Skills, followed by the PhD.  As a mature student heading towards 55, it was a huge turning point in my life, and the culmination of a long and complicated trajectory to even get that far, but I was passionate about what I wanted to do. I am researching into how we can use collaborative learning technology, typically used for academic learning or professional development, in a different way. The technology affords the possibility to connect the geographically scattered and disparate practitioner stakeholders involved in distance learning module design and delivery, so that they can learn together about different aspects of complex learning design and delivery challenges, and collaboratively achieve practical improvements. My career had thus far been about facilitating groups of individuals in face-to-face environments to learn how to improve whatever it is they are doing. I was fascinated to know whether this type of ‘organisational’ learning, which so frequently transcends institutional boundaries and practice areas, can be facilitated using the technology that most universities are using anyway, which is freely available, secure and very familiar to use.

It would be fair to say that this drive – to see whether this type of learning is practicable – is a passion of mine. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs terminology, I do feel that I am self-actualising, although achieving the PhD is rarely the endpoint of the research. It’s backed up by quite a bit of practical experience over many years. However the challenges arising in a PhD – and they can be very different depending on what time of life you attempt it –  can take you literally across all the hierarchy levels, which can be quite profound as a life-changing experience!!

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Image credit: Saul Mcleod,
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Image credit: Saul Mcleod,

Whatever happens, and I cannot anticipate what this might be after my PhD is completed, I know I have been privileged to go along this journey. I have worked really hard for it over many years, but not everyone gets this opportunity. I’ve had the benefit of an immensely supportive cohort of fellow PhD students, and have been particularly steadied by the encouraging and respectful influence of my initial lead supervisor, Doug Clow. Doug has now left the Open University and I will never forget his “proud to be your supervisor” affirmation – it’s these type of sentiments that have kept me going, when the going has got particularly tough. Now I have a new lovely supervisory team led by Carina Bossu and joined by Julia Sargent, as we head out on the journey towards submission. I also have the vital support of my OU TPM (Third Party Monitor) in addition to the supervisory team, whenever I need it.

“A society grows great when we plant trees in whose shade we shall never sit”.
“A society grows great when we plant trees in whose shade we shall never sit”.

In terms of challenges, I am doing a PhD using an unusual combination of methodologies, namely insider action research (in the OU) underpinned by Grounded Theory Method (GTM), which is a theory building approach initially suggested by my second supervisor Anne Adams. Both of the approaches carry their own risks and rewards, and there are particular challenges in combining the two. That’s not to say I’m not up for it.  Conceptual frameworks in the field of learning networks and networked learning are still developing, and some of most seminal writers in the field describe ‘looking in vain’ for recent discussions of ‘theoretically and methodologically ambitious approaches’ of intervention research in major journals.  So here comes Lesley. At least giving a shot at it. And it has to be said, getting somewhere.

I really enjoy and am passionately driven by research methodologies which aim to achieve practical improvement outcomes or practical impact as part of their approach. Since embarking on this journey, I’ve also become intrigued and passionate about the process of conceptualisation inherent in GTM, in contrast to description.  My type of conceptualisation is that which can be assimilated by practitioners, and put to good and fairly immediate practical use.  In that sense I am very motivated to help close a perceived gap between ‘research’ and ‘scholarship’ activities, where scholarship is understood to be research into learning and teaching carried out by practitioners. I am co-leader of a funded scholarship project with an OU module chair, which has been an enormous source of practical, networking and financial support.

It’s well documented that novice researchers embarking on a GTM PhD have to navigate a less well‑travelled and often tortuous path, especially in the early stages as they are grappling with establishing their research projects whilst also accommodating the tensions and controversies in the GTM approach. There is a recognised dearth of knowledge and practical implementation experience in academia which doesn’t make this path any easier to navigate. However the rewards of doing just that – and making my contribution not only to the research dialogue, but also to measurable practical improvements and helping to develop organisational capabilities of learning collaboratively  to solve problems, are many. The road is not easy, but in the words of the famous Robert Frost poem, it’s the one less travelled by and it’s making all the difference.

I have made a wonderful network of contacts across the OU in my journey, and thrilled to be a part of a diverse cohort of PhD students, as I mentioned earlier. The support that I get from them, and am able to reciprocate, is a vital thread of being able to keep going. I have really enjoyed being a part of the CALRG (Computers and Learning Research Group), the OpenTEL ‘Show and TEL’ events, and the WELS faculty research days. The Doctoral Consortium was a rewarding addition to the last CALRG conference, including a fellow completed student shining her light on the end of the road!

I’ve also been especially supported by my colleagues and the doctoral training in the OU Graduate School in my earlier years. I have always tried to help out and give back as well. The OU Library is always there and has done a great job of getting hold of some tricky papers for me in the past. I’ve made some lovely contacts at OUSA (OU Students Association), in the OU Learning Design unit, and also particularly in the STEM faculty where my research project is focussed. I’m particularly thankful to Rob Janes, Module Chair, and Tom Olney, Senior Manager Teaching and Learning in STEM, and to the eSTEeM scholarship community, for supporting our joint scholarship project.

Having just returned from presenting at two external conferences, and with a work-in-progress paper accepted for a special doctoral collection in JIME (Journal of Interactive Media in Education), I’m cautiously optimistic that I’m building up a ‘head of steam’, and that the interest generated in the project so far will continue. I have to keep on travelling down the road, using all my significant support structures and contacts both internal and external to the OU. The final goal is in sight. Thank you to OpenTEL for giving me this opportunity.

Lesley Boyd
OpenTEL, PhD Student
Twitter: @lesleyboyd