Defending my work or being defensive?

Photo by Zen Chung:

I recently practised a presentation in front of my daughter; I’d asked her to say what she thought. She commented: “I think you should begin by explaining what you are doing.” I replied abruptly that no, I wanted this to emerge as I talked. 

 “It’s confusing.” 

“I don’t think so.” 

“Well, if you’re not going to take any notice of what I think, I’m going.”  She went. 

The boundary between defending my ideas and taking on board constructive criticism constructively is one I have needed to learn to identify along my research journey. I recognise a similar uncertainty between defending and being defensive amongst some students as I provide feedback on their assessed writing. 

A particular student on a first-level English language module was doing very well, gaining distinctions for almost all assignments, but they questioned most of the minimal (in my view) criticisms within my written feedback. I realised their persistent questioning resulted from an assumption that I had misunderstood their intentions; therefore, they felt they needed to explain their rationale whilst not contesting my grading of their finished assignment. Their questioning was the result of a concern for mutual understanding; yet, for a student achieving consistently in the nineties, this could be seen as defensive. 

I consider that this need to explain, to discuss, and for dialogue with an assessor/evaluator/supervisor/mentor is crucial in our feedback processes at all academic levels. As tutors, I think that we need to recognise the inherent power of our evaluative comments. Criticism – especially that which is not mitigated by dialogue – was shown to have a powerful impact amongst students in my research into multiple viewpoints around feedback practices, with one tutor commenting that a lot of students “see the feedback as a list of errors”. Young (2010), researching self-esteem and mature students’ feelings on assignment feedback, reports that feedback comments affected some students’ “whole sense of self” (page 409). Young’s article is entitled aptly, “I Might as Well Give Up”. 

However, a student, too, can be viewed as having inherent power within a different feedback context, such as when completing formal evaluations of their tutor’s practice. Macfadyen et al. (2016:821), in their multi-level analysis of the evaluation of teaching by students, note the extent of the rapid “emotional debate” that student evaluation evokes. Indeed, an experienced tutor in my research commented that a student’s criticism of their tutoring “sticks in your mind…and you can’t get rid of”. No talkback no dialogue, means the opportunity for both defending and mutual understanding is lost, and the negativity “sticks”. 

Therefore, in attempting to identify a boundary between defending my own work and being defensive, my emerging recommendations to myself are twofold. Firstly, allow time to digest evaluative comments, re-read, and attempt to understand where the other is coming from. Secondly, take any opportunity to engage in dialogue with the other – via whatever medium is available – to continually strive towards mutual understanding.   

My daughter was right about my presentation. My way was confusing. I had not taken time to listen to the listener, my audience, to acknowledge their opinion and allow it to negotiate with my own. If I had, I might have had the opportunity for an ongoing dialogue to defend my own rationale whilst not shutting out defensively the view of the other. 

This value of the joint construction of meaning is explained by Halasek (1999) in her book,  A Pedagogy of Possibility. Halasek presents a perspective on composition studies which adopts Bakhtin’s concept of the dialogic, seeing the relationship between participants in an evaluative process as a constant search for meaning. Halasek echoes Bakhtin’s emphasis on the importance of the audience, that “through the discourse, the audience constructs the author” (page 62). 

However, that opportunity to think then respond, question, and discuss is sometimes unavailable – perhaps following a final, summative assessment, feedback on an article submitted for publication or a formal complaint or evaluation, as in the example above. In such cases, when an opportunity for dialogue with the evaluator who possesses inherent power is shut off, how is the boundary between being defensive and defending our work and ideas to be navigated? Young (see above) finds that variations in reactions to tutor feedback are linked to self-esteem. So, is acknowledgement and moving forward – despite the inevitability of undefended, one-way criticism – perhaps what we mean by having academic confidence? 

I have been an Associate Lecturer at the Open University since 2002, tutoring mainly English language modules.  I live in Stourbridge in the West Midlands with my husband, two adult children and three Romanian rescue (street) dogs.  My recent EdD and my current research interests concern the multiple perspectives around feedback practices around assessed writing in HE.  This is my first venture into blogging, and I am looking forward to this creative space, where colleagues can share, debate, and discuss issues arising around their research.

Self-reflecting on approaches to self-reflection.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

As an experienced social worker and lecturer in social work education, I am very comfortable with the requirement of both self-reflection (asking thoughtful questions about self) and reflexivity (asking thoughtful questions about self and others) (Finlay in Kalu 2019:97). Indeed, to some degree the process of considering my practice and how it impacts others feels like a skill that is built-in to who I am – I am a deep thinker who considers what something might mean for me or someone else.  

Problem: the risk of a tick-box approach to self-reflection using known theories 

Due to the familiarity of self-reflection, I was blasé about what it would mean for myself as a researcher. The requirement didn’t faze me; it all seemed routine because I have practised and taught it many times! Donald Schön talks about reflection ‘in-action’ and ‘on-action’, and reflection ‘for-action’ has been added more recently. I was happy to engage in this reflective process – before, during and after my research. 

Kolb’s model provides a helpful reflective cycle which moves from concrete experience, reflective observation and abstract conceptualisation to active experimentation (Kolb 1984). Yet, often, students inaccurately apply this model to their practice; they aren’t specific enough with the experience and then spill off in different directions, possibly because they have more to say than the confinements of this logical model. Neither practice nor research is neatly cyclical, and a more honest illustration of self-reflection might be a page of colourful scribble or a tangled ball of wool.  

My preference is to use Gibbs’ reflective model (1998). Although still cyclical, it points explicitly to considering personal feelings as a discreet element, and it is accessible and straightforward: description, feelings, evaluation, analysis, conclusion, and action plan. However, these approaches didn’t inspire me. Therefore, in my methodology section, I felt I was simply responding to a requirement to cover these topic areas rather than investing in the process. That is until I found Peshkin… 

Solution: an alternative approach to self-reflection 

Peshkin’s article is worth a read (Peshkin 1988). He explains how he, as a researcher, could personally impact the research process and outcomes in different ways and moments. He documents his ‘subjectivity audit’ and coins the term ‘Subjective-I’ to describe how different elements of his ‘self’ impacted his research (Simons 2009: 81).  

I allowed my self-reflection to be guided by Peshkin: to look for the ‘warm and cool spots, the emergence of positive and negative feelings’ (Peshkin 1988: 18) and to honestly connect with my personal qualities which may have the capacity to ‘filter, skew, shape, block, transform, construe and misconstrue what transpires from the outset of a research project to its culmination in a written statement’ (Peshkin 1988: 17). This approach seemed simple and honest: 

  • Embrace the gut reaction and follow the physical sensations to locate positive and negative feelings; 
  • Consider what these feelings might mean for me as the researcher; 
  • Consider what these subjective elements might mean for my research process, participants, and outcomes.  

Solution: examples of Subjective-I’s in practice 

Two articles assisted my understanding of Peshkin’s approach to reflexivity, particularly as a practitioner-researcher. As a physiotherapist researcher, Kalu shares his ‘multicultural-I’, ‘holistic-I’ and ‘professional-advocates-I’ (Kalu 201). His article is helpful because he considers his research interest, theoretical approach and research question (Kalu 2019: 99). Secondly, Bradbury-Jones et al. (2009) present a collaborative study between lecturer and nursing students, providing excerpts from student reflective diaries which include illustrations explaining the ‘angry-I’, ‘impatient-I’, ‘invisible-I’ and ‘passionate-I’.  

As a practitioner-researcher planning to offer a series of workshops to social work students to introduce them to a self-help tool called Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT), this new find appeared as a good fit for my developing research. It allowed me to own my feelings, and I soon had to start my own ‘subjectivity audit’: ‘overwhelmed-I’, ‘responsible-I’, ‘vulnerable-I’, ‘creative-I’, ‘collaborative-I’. Rather than keep a reflective diary, I decided to chronicle my research journey using this audit tool, which I could add to as my research evolved. 

“Question: How important is it to align your method of self-reflection with your research topic area and your attributes as a researcher? I am pleased to have come across a process that is a good fit for my research topic and design, but I wouldn’t have consciously thought to look for a sense of alignment.”

Blog written by: 

Jo Strang is a Staff Tutor in Social Work at the OU and a second year EdD student. Jo is qualified as a social worker, reflexologist and Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) practitioner and has worked in Higher Education as a lecturer since 2010. Her research combines her professional interests and aims to explore social work students’ experiences of learning about EFT, a self-help tool often more easily referred to as ‘acupuncture without needles’. This simple tapping technique can reduce the fight-flight response to situations we experience as challenging and assist in processing a variety of emotions.

Generative AI: Friend or Foe? 

image by Emiliano Vittoriosi on unspalsh

During a meeting in July of this year, we, the editing team of this blog, discussed the topic of generative AI in education. We all had completely different perspectives. Jane and Azumah were wary. Jonathon was interested, but I loved it because it made my professional life much easier (I recently read that other teachers felt the same (BBC News). So, we decided to each write a blog post to report our viewpoints and to start a conversation. So, six months after our original discussion, I would like to add to and respond to Jonathon and Jane’s blog questions: ‘What is all the fuss about?’ (Hughes, 2023) and ‘How far is AI plagiarism?’ (Cobb, 2023). 

How far is AI plagiarism? 

We cannot possibly know where generative AI models such as ChatCPT are getting their information from (Pride, 2023). However, as academics, we must acknowledge the information we obtain from any source. Most guidelines, including the OU, advise scholars to cite and reference the material they use from generative AI. Additionally, various AI plagiarism detectors, such as AI Content Detector, can help teachers detect the use of AI tools in assignments or tests, but they are often inefficient. On the other hand, plagiarism detectors are not always necessary because research has shown that students choose not to use AI tools in essay writing because they not only waste a lot of time producing good prompts, but they waste even more time reworking the essay, making the language neutral and believable (Alexander et al., 2023).  

What is all the fuss about? 

Although generative AI models afford considerable advantages to the world of education for English-speaking users, non-English users are underprovided. This fact could potentially widen the education gap. Therefore, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) (Fengchun & Wayne, 2023) urges responsible and fair access to AI technology to limit educational divides within and among countries. Moreover, many communities lack the resources and infrastructure to access AI, resulting in increased AI data wealth over the past few years, primarily concentrated in the global north. This growing divide could significantly disadvantage data-poor communities, who ‘have been further excluded and put at long-term risk of being colonised by the standards embedded in the GPT models.’ (Fengchun & Wayne, 2023, p.14). Therefore, we must know how these powerful tools can benefit our professional practices. Additionally, guidance and training are needed regarding how AI uses our data and its effects on other social and cultural communities.  

Using AI  

My respect for AI developed from how much it relieved my workload. For example, I am an English teacher working in Italy, and I often use ChatCPT to correct my writing in Italian, which is not my mother tongue. Before I discovered this tool, I would have to ask a friend to check my writing, but ChatCPT does it in a split second and helps language learning. However, generative AI has no concept of social and cultural contexts, so the user needs to keep that in mind. Nevertheless, Kasneci et al. (2023) claim that generative AI can revolutionise language learning and teaching. Apps such as Memrise already offer one-to-one conversation lessons with ‘virtual’ teachers. However, there is still much work to be done. 

 Zhai (2022) points out that the language ability of AI far exceeds a human being’s proficiency in a foreign language. But AI models cannot yet think critically or be creative in the same way as humans. So, to take advantage of generative AI in the classroom, we need to improve our students’ critical thinking and creativity skills. Until now, the attraction for AI has been mainly superficial, but there is a growing awareness of some of the complexities involved. 

In conclusion, generative AI tools might not be as damaging to our practices as initially thought, but they could be harmful on a much deeper level. We need to rethink our curricula as educators to favour creativity and raise awareness of how the data we feed into AI models is used. In light of these reflections, if you are a PG student, how aware are you of generative AI tools? Do you use any in your professional practice, and what advantages do they bring? 

by Lesley Fearn

Dr Lesley June Fearn is a secondary school English teacher in southern Italy. She is also an affiliate researcher at the Open University’s (UK) Faculty of Well-being, Education, and Language Studies (WELS), where her research centres on linguistics and sociocultural theory. 

AI for academic writing – to plagiarise or not to plagiarise?

Artificial Intelligence (AI), notably Chat GPT, as a language model, can potentially be misused for plagiarism due to its ability to generate coherent and contextually relevant text. While it’s a powerful tool for various legitimate purposes, there is a risk that unethical users may employ it to produce content without proper attribution or originality.

This was my belief last summer when I flagged several final-year scripts for potential plagiarism for unethical use of Chat GPT. Jonathan, in his recent blog, refers to my explanation of why I suspected students’ use of AI because their work seemed too perfect.

By ‘perfect’, I meant, as I wrote in the paragraph above, ‘coherent and contextually relevant text’. Actually, I did not write that first paragraph (only!); rather, it was provided for me by Chat GPT. (I doubt I could have expressed so accurately the way I had felt about AI.)  So, have I committed plagiarism?

I become unsure when I turn for help to The Open University’s Plagiarism Policy:  Plagiarism is using, without acknowledgement, someone else’s words, ideas or work.   How far can we reasonably describe a robot as ‘someone else’? Was I unethical to use an expression I had commissioned framed? Would it have been less unethical if I had edited Chat GPT’s text, or acknowledged its use, or have supplemented the text Chat GPT provided with appropriately referenced academic sources – my students did?

Further, what of our writing is totally original in any case? Bakhtin ([1952-3]1994) tells us, “Each utterance is filled with the echoes and reverberations of other utterances” (page 291). We continually adapt and adopt snippets of text from elsewhere and present them as our own. It is acceptable to consult a dictionary, a thesaurus or a Google search to help us write that coherent and contextually relevant text. Jonathan, in his recent blog post, asks what all the fuss is about regarding AI, and I wonder, should we be making a fuss?

Jonathan cites “Can IT think?” by Philip Ball (2023), who argues that AI should be treated with great caution. and I have come across descriptions of widespread exploitation of AI  with dubious results, such as the use of a Chatbot as a therapist – but is employing AI to aid our academic writing unethical?

Returning to Chat GPT for inspiration, it continued to advise (or followed my instruction to do so) about the existence of Open AI, their research company, which states their belief that “AI should be an extension of individual human wills” – an extension, not a replacement, then for human endeavour. This approach seems to resonate with Simpson (2023), a clinical teaching fellow, who advocates reframing the way (medical) students think about AI “not as an academic shortcut but as more of a companion”.   I like the idea of “companion” – like a dictionary or thesaurus – I also appreciate the concept of “shortcut” as a contested one.

Might we ask, in our potentially fraught, busy, complex lives, why we should not look for shortcuts in our academic life besides our everyday existence? And how much of that endeavour that AI use shortcuts form part of a valued academic activity? It’s saving thinking and editing time and providing that springboard to develop discussion, as it has for me above. Daher (2023) in Will Chat GPT be the disrupter academia needs? seems to cautiously embrace AI as “the spark that will change education for the better“, a means to reframe what we value in academic writing and to turn our focus towards critically evaluating sources.

I do not understand that argument. Surely critical evaluation already forms a key part of being an academic. And I do value that time of thinking, crossing out, rewriting, checking and editing; it’s part of the process that makes writing my own. I’m not looking for shortcuts, and I don’t plan to continue to make significant use of AI in my own work. But I don’t now think using AI in academic writing is necessarily unethical, and how far it is plagiarism is a discussion we need to have.

Chat GPT finished the 200 words I’d requested with a bland reassurance:  Encouraging responsible AI use can help ensure that the technology benefits society positively without contributing to plagiarism issues. (Chat GPT)

AI, then, is just another tool in our digital repertoire, and, as Jonathan asked, What is all the fuss about? I am still not sure…

by Jane Cobb

I have been an Associate Lecturer at the Open University since 2002, tutoring mainly English Language modules.  I live in Stourbridge in the West Midlands with my husband, two adult children and three Romanian rescue (street) dogs.  My recent EdD and my current research interests concern the multiple perspectives around feedback practices around assessed writing in HE.  This is my first venture into blogging, and I am looking forward to this creative space, where colleagues can share, debate, and discuss issues arising around their research.

AI – What’s all the fuss about? 

For me, it started one Friday in July (2023) when I joined a Teams meeting with three OU colleagues who organised the WELS PGR Blog. We got talking about Artificial Intelligence (AI). One of the three colleagues thought it was ‘great’ and told us that she uses AI all the time and has been reading articles to get more information. A second colleague, an OU AL, said that she finds many of her students are using ChatGPT in their assignments and that she is beginning to get a sense of what AI-generated writing sounds like; it is often a little bit too perfect, in her view. The third colleague contrasted this experience to her own as she finds that there are some students who have never heard of ChaptGPT or AI.  

At this point, I felt that I had to confess that while I had heard a lot in the media about the risks of AI and rather less about its benefits, I had never actually engaged with it. The colleague who likes AI gave me the link for ChatGPT.  

Once the Teams meeting was over, I signed up for ChatGPT. There, I was faced with the front page giving some examples of possible enquiries ranging from creative ideas for a birthday party to explaining quantum computing. The same screen also outlines the capabilities of Chat. GPT. It is ‘trained’ to “decline inappropriate requests”. It then admits that its limitations include ‘occasionally’ generating “incorrect information”, “harmful instructions or biased content”. 

It then invites you to “Send a message”.  

I do not know if it was these limitations that made me stare blankly at the send-a-message request. Wouldn’t it be awful if my first message was deemed inappropriate? Would I know if I was sent harmful instructions or incorrect or biased information?  

As the English Men’s Cricket team was engaged in a test match against Australia, I thought I would start by asking about the names of fielding positions which, beyond wicketkeeper and slips, I have a very tenuous grip on. Immediately, ChatGPT presented me with a list of these positions. Very impressive. 

Emboldened, it occurred to me that I had had a supervision session with one of my EdD students. I had been trying to suggest that what she had been talking about in her most recent piece of writing could be related to Foucualt’s ideas about micropower and the role of ‘examination’ in disciplining populations. So, I asked about this. ChatGPT responded, saying these sorts of ideas were implicit in much of Foucault’s work. So, I asked for some examples. One of these was Discipline and Punish (Foucault, 199). I have a copy of this, so I found an example of where Foucault talks about how examinations are used. ChapGPT thought I was quite right!  

Coincidentally, shortly afterwards, I read an article by Philip Ball, “Can IT think?” (Ball, 2023), which not only outlines how AI uses algorithms to scan “vast banks of online data”  but also discusses the arguments for and against a possible ‘robot apocalypse’ and the dangers of AI being used to increase cybercrime and terrorism. Ball concludes by siding with experts who suggest that AI should be treated in the same way as new drugs and licensed for public use only after careful testing. Ball concludes:  

“ … in seeking solutions, we are to some extent flying blind because we do not know what kinds of minds these machines have- and because, in the absence of that knowledge, our impulse is to presume that they are minds like ours. They are not. It is time to take machine psychology seriously.” (Ball, 2023, p. 33). 

This made me sit up and take notice. I had quite enjoyed what seemed like a pleasant chat with Chat GPT about Foucault and was thinking that this was not that different from interrogating other sources of information. In a way, I had moved through a cycle starting with ‘What’s all the fuss about?’ (I don’t know) to ‘What’s all the fuss about?’ (It’s just a quick way to access information.) to return to What’s all the fuss about? (Does anybody know?) 

Jonathan Hughes

Image: Photo by Aleksandar Pasaric from Pexels:

Jonathan is a member of the PGR Blogger editorial team.  Lecturer (access and curriculum) at the Open University’s Centre for Inclusion and Collaborative Partnerships, where I am also the Academic Conduct Officer and Assessment Lead. I am the Academic Lead for the Open University Badging Project which is developing the first university badged open courses outside the USA. I have been working as skills lead, author and critical reader on Open University Health and Social Care modules.

My research interests include widening participation and learning in later life, as well as later life sexuality. I am the chair of the Association of Education and Ageing.

In June 2014, I became a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.

Second-order researchers within education: challenges and tensions

tug of war
Photo by RUDI GUZTI from Pexels

This post responds to questions raised previously within this blog, which focus on the challenges faced by second-order researchers. Fearn (2023) suggests that within the field of education, second-order researchers (also named practitioner-researchers) “do not share their expertise through publication”, in part due to a lack of “adequate training in enquiry” (Fearn, 2023, drawing on Davis, 2019).   

Although it may be true that adequate training is not provided, this post will suggest that 

a lack of training is not the primary barrier preventing teachers from sharing their knowledge through publication.

Within the Scottish educational context, practitioner enquiry – the term commonly used to describe practitioner research in education – is an important part of professional learning (see General Teaching Council for Scotland, n.d.). This post suggests that it is not the act of enquiry that is the primary challenge but the act of publication following that enquiry.   

The literature tells us that practitioners engaging in research are insider researchers, party to “valuable insights” that other researchers “would admire” (Punch and Rodgers 2022, p. 278). But when considering the results and/or impact of practitioner enquiry, those judging the quality of the research (understandably) want the research to be reported with a full explanation of its context. Insider researchers can feel torn between the responsibilities they have to the academic community who will be reading their published work – who want as much context as possible – and the responsibility they feel towards their learning community; they can experience “feelings of loyalty to the group and even uneasiness during analysis” (Punch and Rodgers, 2022, p. 278), which would perhaps not be felt by researchers who are external to the learning community.   

It could be suggested that this tension would be felt by any practitioner-researcher in any field of practice. But, within the field of education, there is a growing recognition of the extent to which learning and teaching strategies must be adapted for and informed by the “unique circumstances of the learning community” (Education Scotland, 2022). If insider researchers have access to “valuable insights” that are inaccessible to other researchers, as Punch and Rodgers (2022, p. 278) suggest, practitioner researchers in education could provide increased detail regarding the ‘unique circumstances’ of their research situation. The tension described above, between the responsibilities felt towards the academic community and those felt towards the community being researched, can therefore be particularly problematic for second-order researchers within the field of education, given their increased access to information about that learning community and the emphasis on the importance of context within education.   

Interrogating the purpose of publication, and the purpose of practitioner enquiry itself, could support practitioner researchers in education to overcome this issue. Given Education Scotland’s (2022) emphasis on the need to adapt learning and teaching to the “unique circumstances” of a learning situation, we could question whether the results of practitioner enquiry need to be accompanied by detailed contextual information: would any practitioner reading such publications not have to adapt the outcomes anyway, to meet the needs of their own ‘unique circumstances’? Boland and Doherty (2020, p. 45) support this view by asserting that the contextualised learning one gains through practitioner enquiry cannot be used as a resource for other practitioners. They argue that the “small scale and the particularity of context” (2020, p. 45) reduce the extent to which the outcomes of practitioner enquiry can be used elsewhere but stress that the publication of practitioner enquiry is useful to demonstrate “how particular ideas provoke enquiry”. Elsewhere within the literature, Wall also emphasises the importance of the results of practitioner enquiry – but not necessarily in terms of the sharing of “the endpoint” – for Wall (2023), drawing on Stenhouse, 1981), it is the sharing of the research process “when the actual learning about pedagogy and research is happening” that is important.    

This post does not wish to question the importance of practitioner research within the field of education – nor does it question the importance of publishing such research. It does, however, wish to highlight the tensions that may prevent practitioner researchers within education from publishing their enquiries. It hopes to stimulate conversation about how published practitioner research within this field can be used – and therefore encourage consideration of the content we should expect within published practitioner research reports.  

by Sussana Wilson 

I am in the final year of my EdD studies, focusing on lecturers’ professional learning within the Scottish FE contextIn my day-job, I teach within Further and Higher Education, predominantly on teacher and lecturer education programmes 

Professionalism and Posthumanism in Early Years Practice

The OU’s conference on professionalism and posthumanism fascinated me as someone who has worked in campaigning around literacy and education in England and Scotland. I now work in early years practice while pursuing an education doctorate. During this time, I have witnessed policy changes come and go. Despite the frustrations of governments and institutions, I remain optimistic that we can work through them because we have to, especially with the looming challenges of the climate crisis. In my experience, the short-term illusion that the neo-liberal world offers can be alluring, but there is no silver bullet to anything. I have been influenced by Vivian Gussin Paley’s (reference) storytelling approach to literacy, which is subtle and complex and has stayed with me much longer than England’s national literacy hour policy. Therefore, the problem I focus on is balancing the demands of professionalism and posthumanism in the early years’ sector.

Solution 1: Use the principles of posthumanism to unite concerns for eco and social justice and inspire us to be direct yet positive and affirmative in conversations with colleagues, children, and their parents. My current work with posthumanism has revitalized and challenged me in equal measure. It has inspired me to keep questioning, unite eco and social justice concerns, and be more direct yet positive and affirmative in conversations with colleagues, children, and their parents. I used to take pride in NOT being a teacher, but I have learned to be careful not to seek to belong through an anti-identity. As someone who has chosen to take the ‘many-jobs’ and ‘multiple-identities’ route, I have gained freedom of thinking but also experienced disconnection and a lack of confidence. But it has been an overall positive experience because it has made me find ways of being optimistic rather than just becoming a grumpy, dissatisfied, or burnt-out employee (past experiences!). This session gave me a new perspective on nomadism.

Solution 2: Develop a nuanced understanding of professionalism that values the personal, bodies, and emotions in caring professions like working in the early years. I appreciate that professionalism is a lifelong pursuit (Wall, 2014), having values and striving to be the best version of oneself in any situation, whether paid or not. However, I resist the terminology because it opposes the personal bodies and emotions central to caring professions like working in the early years. I wonder why we worry so much about the word or concept of professionalism and whether it is only because the early years’ sector is often left out of it. Nevertheless, I happily embrace different words to describe my job and use my energies elsewhere. While I am currently employed in a role that I enjoy, I have experienced the fragility of my identity when it is too connected with jobs and employment. Therefore, I try to think of myself as a professional while at the same time concentrating on significant values in my life, not just the parts that provide income and status through paid work. I also wonder how those I teach or spend time with think of me and whether it matters. Parents may have a consumerist view of the early years’ experience (May-Yin Lim, 2015), but I try to understand it rather than feel overwhelmed.

In conclusion, my reflections on professionalism and posthumanism have made me question the language and concepts used to describe our work and identities. As we face more significant challenges in the future, it is essential to remain optimistic, keep questioning, and prioritize the values that guide our work and lives.

So, my question is – what does professionalism mean to you

by Sarah Barton

Sara Barton AL @ OU




Sarah Barton works in early years practice in Edinburgh and as an associate lecturer with The Open University. She is also a part-time professional doctorate student with the OU, researching the experience of young children with additional support needs and/or disabilities in early years forest and nature settings.

My unexpected neurodivergent learning journey 


I am now at the end of Year 2 of my Professional Doctorate, and whilst I have learned loads about methodology, methods, literature searches, alongside this has been a very significant personal learning journey. I realised in the October of my first year, because of many posts on Facebook for ADHD awareness week, that I had an ADHD brain. An absolute clanger at the age of 48 years, but all suddenly made sense! Time blindness, executive functioning difficulties, procrastination, emotional dysregulation, poor working memory were all things I could identify with and the descriptions of women with ADHD resonated strongly with me. I am the type of A-grade student who is also ditsy, extremely untidy and very disorganised. I knew my brain could cope with doctorate studies, but I was instantly in overwhelm at the advanced level of juggling skills that would be required alongside being a full-time working parent.  

The challenges of being an ADHD learner 

The first year was awful, highly stressful – I was often anxious and in constant fear that I would not meet the deadlines. At home I became shouty, forgetful, misplacing items and any routines and sleep pattern went out the window. I fall into the category of student that works right up to the deadline, submits just in time and often knowing just a couple more hours would have made for a better piece of work. Sometimes I fear that students like myself are perceived as not caring or not capable. Yet, I really do care and I spend huge amounts of time worrying about the deadlines because I know that paralysing procrastination can strike at unpredictable times. I cannot guarantee that my brain will function on the day I put in my diary as a study day, so time available for study never feels guaranteed. 

What has worked 

Self-awareness has been key and as a result I have coped better with the requirements of year 2. As readers will likely be aware, there are a diverse array of experiences linked to ADHD, just as there are with the spectrum of autism. I share these reflections of what has helped me, in case they help others, but in knowing that we are all different and the best we can really do for ourselves is explore what works for us as individual learners.  

  • No WhatsApp 

I worried that I would be isolated, but I made the decision to remove myself from the student WhatsApp group and decrease what to me felt like constant noise. I found other people’s comments overwhelming and instead selected key people who would support me as study buddies. This has allowed me ongoing support but planned by me, rather than always feeling interrupted by messages pinging through. 

  • Pretend deadlines 

Whilst I can’t submit a full draft of something, sharing ‘where I have got to so far’ for an agreed deadline set with my supervisors several weeks prior to the actual deadline has helped me considerably. This doesn’t work if I set myself goals, nor if I put pressure on myself that the draft will be complete. But because I respect my supervisors and I don’t want to impact their workload by messing them around, I can commit to earlier dates. These help me keep on track better than just the assignment deadline and allow time for helpful feedback. 

  • Trusting that my own style can work 

This has been a hard lesson to learn but has paid-off. I sometimes start late at night and work well into the early hours, but I have got better at trying to factor in quieter days and time to catch-up on sleep later in the week. I never follow the module materials in a methodical way but start from the assignment task and select my own route through regarding what I need to learn and what my brain is ready to cope with. Single days of study are rarely helpful, and I now plan out blocks of time, preferably 3-4 days and often away from my family home. This way I know that even if I procrastinate sometimes, I can be completely immersed in my studies and embrace my dream-like state of hyperfocus.  

I have no doubt that I have far more to learn about myself as well as my research. But I now feel more accepting of my learning style and hope that others might learn to know that it is OK to have different ways of learning.


Jo Strang is a Staff Tutor in Social Work at the OU and a second year EdD student. Jo is qualified as a social worker, reflexologist and Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) practitioner and has worked in Higher Education as a lecturer since 2010. Her research combines her professional interests and aims to explore social work students’ experiences of learning about EFT, a self-help tool often more easily referred to as ‘acupuncture without needles’. This simple tapping technique can reduce the fight-flight response to situations we experience as challenging and assist in processing a variety of emotions.

Journey or quest, a simple option or ongoing challenge? 

I was warned in the initial weeks of my doctoral programme, during induction, that my research title would inevitably change over time. Especially in the first few months. This was reassuring as moving from a research proposal into the serious business of being a postgraduate research (PGR) student is a whole new territory. My original title, and therefore my focus changed massively once I began the literature review process. It followed new directions, took on wider views before returning close to my original plan. I now had fewer travel bags, but each was much heavier. 

The role of PGR students is to create their own ‘new certainties’ and make a sound contribution to an existing body of knowledge. But choices need to be made. To seek out new pathways through a familiar landscape, striking out in a new direction? But familiar landscapes may turn out to be well-travelled lanes with few opportunities for new explorations apart from rutted and stony tracks. Or to venture into unknown, unmapped territory where progress may be exacting, even overwhelming.  

Choice, problems and implications: 

  • Could the route we take affect how we benefit ourselves as researchers? 
  • Could choosing between familiar or unexplored territory shift the benefit focus from our ‘research’ to ‘ourselves as researchers’? 
  • Developing ourselves as researchers enhances our research abilities. 
  • Developing our research skills improves our standing as researchers. 
  • Is choice dependent on our career path or our research specialism? On our own image of ourselves as researchers? Or our research stakeholders? 

Setting out and views from established researchers  

Postgraduate research is about action rather than attitude. Its nature is to review current belief or knowledge and to uncover the gaps that will determine our position for new study. But is this realistic? Brunet argues that the journey “has important consequences on a student’s current and future professional life”, (Brunet, 2022, p. 1032), and active journeying towards a professional goal is sufficient. For Leshem the journey is a “transition phase of developing new roles” (Cast, 2003, cited in Lesham, 2020, p. 170), and underscores a fundamental characteristic as “identity construction, rites of passage, tensions and resolutions” (Wisker et al., 2010, quoted in Lesham, 2020, p. 170). It is much more about attitude, building a research identity as the ‘student’ transitions into ‘research student’ and emerges as ‘researcher’. 

PGR students have charge of their research because ultimately the prize at journey’s end is theirs. To be accepted into the PhD programme there is an expectation that your title and research questions are decided prior to your ‘upgrade’ assessment. You’ve scoured the literature, submitted your report, and perhaps presented your research to fellow academics before the upgrade viva.  My understanding is of a finality, a shutting of the gate to further exploration just as your doctoral journey is confirmed. An expectation to keep to a focus that is largely uninformed at this stage, is a big ask. 

Owens, et al. (2019) found that many doctoral students remain unclear about the outcomes from these deciding way-markers and recommend “providing opportunities for the development of a number of personal qualities as well as the professional profile of the students” (Owens, et al., 2019, p. 109). 

Where next? 

Continuing literature reviews is a doctoral research requirement and over the following two to six years there may be new avenues of exploration and new knowledge in our field. We may have new questions, a new focus.   

Perhaps your doctoral journey is towards becoming a professional academic, treating the process as a project in your career development (Brunet, 2022). You’ve maintained your focus, followed the guidebooks, and avoiding unmapped paths. You arrive satisfied, having achieved your quest. You might explore or relax by the pool? Is this enough? 

Perhaps your drive for research and to develop yourself personally and professionally is powered by a passion for learning (Mantai, 2019). Taking detours made your journey more challenging yet rewarding. Reaching your destination only leaves much more to explore. Will you be satisfied? 

Quest or journey? Answers on a postcard. 

As novice researchers is there intrinsic value in a quest that benefits a professional goal? Can a doctoral journey conceived from a desire for new knowledge, sharing insights, and challenging established perceptions succeed? 

Should the choice be polarised when, ultimately, the doctoral research goal is to avoid stepping into others’ footprints, to face the challenge of discovery head-on, and to offer inspiration to those who follow?  

(Words, 745) 


Brunet, M. (2022) ‘Conducting a PhD as a project: sharing insights from my doctoral journey’, International journal of managing projects in business, 15(7), pp. 1032–1047. Available at: 

Leshem, S. (2020) ‘Identity formations of doctoral students on the route to achieving their doctorate’, Issues in educational research, 30(1), p. 169-182. Available at:  

Mantai, L. (2019) ‘“Feeling more academic now”: Doctoral stories of becoming an academic’, The Australian Educational Researcher (2019) 46:137–153. Available at:  

Owens, A. et al. (2020) ‘Student reflections on doctoral learning: challenges and breakthroughs’, Studies in graduate and postdoctoral education, 11(1), pp. 107–122. Available at:  

Marilyn Long

I am a first year, full-time PGR student in the IET school. I am an autistic researcher, and my focus is to investigate inclusive provision and support for autistic students in higher education. I first studied with the OU in 1980 and since then gained my B.Ed degree and worked as a Primary school teacher, Early years co-ordinator, and staff development manager. After a gap of almost 20 years I enrolled for PG study with the OU in online and distance education before applying for a place as a PGR student.

EdD Thesis – another success: Investigating the Efficacy of Online Text Reconstruction Exercises

Congratulations to PostGraduate Researcher,  David Gann (2023) for the successful completion of his EdD thesis.

Investigating the Efficacy of Online Text Reconstruction Exercises for Facilitating the Use of Metadiscourse Markers in First-Year Japanese University Students’ Argumentative Writing. EdD thesis The Open University.


Photo by <a href="">Max Chen</a> on <a href="">Unsplash</a>
  This thesis examines pedagogical merits of online text reconstruction exercises (OTREs) and examines their efficacy in teaching argumentative writing (AW) and students’ experience of learning through them. It looks at a specific type of OTRE called WebSequiturs and that application’s unique pedagogical affordances. Key research questions ask to what extent OTREs can influence EFL university students to use select metadiscourse markers (MDMs)
in written argument; and to what extent those exercises can guide students to use those MDMs appropriately. A third research question asks about students’ perceptions of their experiences completing OTREs. This study was conducted at Tokyo University of Science and involved nine students in a first-year undergraduate compulsory English course. This study strives for an interpretive understanding of participants’ experiences. Hence, I pursue this topic through action research. I also take a mixed-methods approach, using both quantitative and qualitative data. Quantitative data shows that following OTRE sessions, frequency of the use of selected MDMs in participants’ writing increased. The variety of MDMs having similar meanings likewise increased. There was also an increase in the range of communicative functions across which MDMs were used. Moreover, the unique uses of select MDMs also increased. Finally, there was an increase in appropriacy of use. Qualitative data showed that during the OTREs participants sometimes reached metalinguistic levels of awareness, as evidenced by their utterances. These utterances were frequently followed by increased levels of appropriacy of MDM use in participants’ writing. During semi-structured interviews, participants responded, evincing the view that OTREs had played an important role in their developing use of MDMs in their AW. The findings of this study suggest that OTREs are helpful in influencing English learners to become autonomous users of selected MDMs and that they can also guide learners to use MDMs appropriately. The findings also show that participants understood the purpose of the OTREs and valued the exercises for their linguistic instruction and for their collaborative qualities. In my conclusion, I recommend that universities implement programs using similar OTREs and train their teachers in how to maximise their efficacy in teaching.

You can read David’s abstract here: THESIS(GANN)C8846053.pdf (