OpenTEL Academic of the month – May

Our academic of the month is Andy Lane Professor of Environmental Systems, Qualification Lead for BSc Environmental Management and Technology, Academic Director for TIDE project and member of our steering group committee.

Relationships, perspectives and boundary judgements – a way of life for this engaged researcher

I have been at the Open University for 35 years. In that time I have had many different roles and been involved in many different teaching, scholarship and research projects. As a Professor of Environmental Systems I have authored or co-authored many teaching texts, research papers and other publications dealing with systems thinking and environmental management; the use of diagramming to aid systems thinking and learning; and systems of open education, especially the use of open educational resources. This praxis of braiding of using my research to inform my teaching and of researching what and how I and others teach is a product of an action research philosophy operating through system thinking principles.

Essentially systems thinking in practice involves three key activities:

  1. Understanding inter-relationships
  2. Engaging with multiple perspectives
  3. Reflecting on boundary judgements

While my take on action research is where the researcher is a co-researcher, placing themselves within the system of interest and working with the people. In this way learning is assumed to continue once the researcher leaves the system of interest.

Praxis, in turn, is the braiding of thinking and practice, the process by which knowledge, understanding, concepts and theories are enacted, embodied, or realized. Thinking is how I, or others, view the world from my (our) experiences and traditions while practice is where I (or others) habitually or constantly perform or carry out an action or actions, informing and informed by my (our) thinking and together these help define our personal and our ‘given’ identities as (professional) practitioners. The notion of praxis and practitioner as a varied and variable set of paths/profiles/journeys/trajectories to enhanced personal (and collective) learning is clearly a central part of higher education and what universities specialize in.

So what does all this mean for my researching?

First of all it means that I pay attention to what others I meet and talk to are doing as (action) researchers to see if it may have some relationship with what I am doing. In some cases these are formal relationships within a community of practice, such as OpenTEL within the OU. In others it may be more of a network of practice that extends around the world such as the open education community.

Second it means looking at concepts and theories developed or deployed in one domain and seeing how they might be applied to another domain. My main research work on communities and networks of practice was done as part of a project looking at farmers’ understanding of GM crops. But I have applied those same concepts to activities that have happened within the open education community. Equally, I first used the concepts of open innovation within systems of open education but have also used it within my environmental management writings. The diversity of the people and projects within OpenTEL makes this engaging with multiple perspectives much easier to initiate although it does also require reading quite widely across different literatures. I have been fortunate that by default rather than design I have been asked to review articles from over 20 journals, including Geoforum, Journal of Rural Studies, Distance Education, Journal of Learning for Development, Studies in Higher Education, Systems Practice and Action Research and the International Journal of Technology, Knowledge and Society, to name but a few.

Third, this range of journals and possible topics implies that making judgments about the boundaries between them is important to negotiate. In systems thinking in practice this is often framed as defining your system of interest and then deciding how you act within that system of interest and what it is you are trying to change that system of interest in some way.

This can be exemplified by a current action research project. This is an UKAid funded international development project called Transformation through Innovation in Distance Education (TIDE), working in Myanmar. It is an action project first and foremost but it is also important that we research what we do in the project and that we connect in the best of OU research where appropriate. Thus one strand of the project is about the professional development of University academics in educational practices in general and distance education in particular. As it happens one contact made through OpenTEL was with Anne Adams and colleagues and their research work on Tricky Topics’. They are going to give in country seminars as well as getting the university academics to study the Badged Open Course on the same topic. Not only does this provide additional impact for this area of research it may also lead to some additional research. This is but one example and some of these contacts may have been made without OpenTEL but the networking and many events that OpenTEL run provides a ready-made way to understand inter-relationships, engage with multiple perspectives and reflect on boundary judgements when it comes to my own researching.

Andy Lane