Category Archives: Reflection

I’m off…

Leargan August 2010

Originally uploaded by Enda P

Time for a little closure.

As of last week, I’m no longer formally involved in academia. A week ago I submitted my final assignment for the Open University so fingers crossed I’ll shortly have a Higher Diploma in Online and Distance Education.

Just a year ago, I took special incentivised leave from NUI Maynooth for a whopping three years and this allowed me to be in London full time.

When I began here, blogging was the way to reach out to peers, experts and those who just appeared through serendipity. I think it has, for my purposes, been very much superseded by Twitter.

So, time to put this poor neglected blog out of its misery.

For the next couple of years I’ll be exploring some creative pursuits. I’ll probably not stray a million miles away from learning, particularly technology-enhanced learning (not that I could seeing as so many fellow tech travellers are with me on Twitter!).

To all who commented, shared and encouraged, thank you very much.

You can find me at my popculture blog as Daddy or Chips? or join me on Twitter.

“Developing an online identity is a crucial part of being an academic”?

 Jump on the social media bandwagon

'Jump on the social media bandwagon'

I always find something valuable in Martin Weller‘s postings, and taken as a whole, they represent the academic embrace of 2.0: enthusiastic, tentative, exploratory, playful and somewhat laden with tension.

He is particularly good at reflection on academic identity, something I (and proably many of us) have been/are grappling with. His post celebrating his third year of blogging is an excellently concise examination of how blogging has not only informed his academic practice but also his academic identity.

This is interesting, particularly when we consider the validity of this new medium, Arguably, posts such as The VLE/LMS is dead will be (are being) referenced as much or more than the peer-reviewed journal articles that will appear 12-15 months from now at the earliest.

All of which makes me reflect on my own practice here, and I feel somewhat split. I (more) actively blog elsewhere on utterly frivolous matters; I have prescences on Twitter, YouTube, flickr,, delicious, etc etc, but I have parallel versions of many of these that are more professional/academic. Yet these are less fun (see how infrequently I have updated this blog?).

Should I merge my identities? My Twitter account is already somewhat merged with a mishmash of professionals, personal friends, popstars and random spamladies following me. Each time I tweet, I consider how this looks to all of these groups (except the random spamladies). That tension is a little uncomfortable, even if it is part of the value of Twitter.

Martin says

But I would argue that developing an online identity is a crucial part of being an academic (or maybe just being a citizen) – there is an online identity for you out there somewhere, you just need to find it. And when you do, nothing will be the same again.

As I contemplate my online identity (and that of those that connect with me), I wonder if I need to ‘merge and dilute’ or maintain distinct personas. Whatever the choice, nothing indeed is the same.

Supporting students with disabilities in university examinations


by dullhunk on flickr

by dullhunk on flickr

It’s exam time at NUIM, and so thoughts go to supporting candidates with disabilities in their examinations.


We currently have about 40 different configurations of examination accommodations in our system. These include

  • Extra Time: The vast majority of candidates require additional time only, generally 10 minutes per hour. These students are generally those with specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia.
  • Smaller Venue: Many candidates benefit from taking their examinations in smaller rooms as opposed to the large exam halls. This group can include those who are easily distracted, require rest breaks or use computers.
  • Readers and Scribes: A reader is someone who reads the paper and script to the candidate. A scribe writes down what a candidate dictates. I’ll come back to these later.
  • Use of a PC: Candidates with visual difficulties, specific learning difficulties (e.g. dyspraxia) or physical conditions that make writing by hand impractical can use a computer to write their answers.
  • Other supports include enlarged papers, coloured papers, different furniture, separate venues. 

With almost three hundred candidates to accommodate, you can appreciate that there needs to be a good relationship between the Disability Office, Computer Services and most importantly, the Examinations Office. This solid relationship is in place now, but some years ago, it wasn’t the case. Some years ago, NUIM was faced with rising numbers of students with disabilities who needed to be supported in their examinations. The need to have additional rooms, invigilators, computers and support for these candidates puts strain on existing services and the three offices found they needed to communicate more much earlier.

While it seems very obvious in retrospect, having the three offices talking, sharing expertise and solutions has rsulted in a successful and suatainable model of supporting students in examinations.

  • The Disability Office with the student identifies what accomodations are required. An accomodation (or more likely a combination of accomodations) is represented by a code, and the candidate is tagged with this code on our University system. The student signs off on this accommodation.
  • The Examinations Office can read this code in the system and they run off a report by an agreed date. The Disability Office and the student need to have signed off on the supports by that date. This allows the Examinations Office to begin thinking about the resources (buildings, staff etc) that will be needed. Note that the Disability Office does not provide or organise resources for the examinations; this is squarely the remit of the Examinations Office. After all, the Examinations Office are best-placed to ensure the integrity of the examinations.
  • If computer equipment is needed, the Computer Centre makes arrangements for this. They configure, test and support candidates using standard equipment and software throughout the examinations. If a candidate needs assistive technology such as JAWS or ZoomText, the Disability Office works with the Computer Centre to ensure that this is available and functioning on the exam setup. The Disability Office are on call when assistive technology is being used.

All of this is achieved through early and open conversation. Now in our third year, I’m pleased to report that we have had no ‘crisis calls’ on the BatPhone (so far) this January. The system is working.

Our next step is to see if we can replace human readers and scribes with technology. But that’s a whole other post…

And let’s not get started on promoting alternative forms of assessment (yet).


September and October are the busiest times for those of us in Disability services in higher education establishments, and these months have been B.U.S.Y.

This is a very positive thing of course and the intake of students is wonderful, getting us ever-closer to the levels we should be at.

On the downside, I’ve got no time to blog about the less-pressing matters!

Normal service shall be restored as soon as all these needs assessments, form-filling, box-ticking, rationale creating, everything in triplicate stuff is done with.

But maybe then I’ll want a holiday!

PS: The winner of the name our new home competition was Ann O’Brien, my boss, whose suggestion ‘MAP Lodge’ emerged victorious from an intriguing selection! Thanks to all who made suggestions!

Quick thought on cyberethnography

If someone searches for you on the Web and comes up empty-handed, do you exist?

Mary Brandel,

Fragmented mirror by ArielPSo, ethnography seems to be having somewhat of an identity crisis partially inspired by the massive migration online and the various affordances of technological data-collection techniques. Plus ça change perhaps, as Ira reminds us of the lack of consistency of ‘traditional’ ethnography (cf the oddly different “Slim’s Table” vs. “There Are No Children Here” studies from 1991/2).

So, some cast doubt on the validity of online ethnography because, well, anyone can be or say anything online can’t they? But could this not be part of identity – a distributed identity no less valid than that presented face-to-face or through techniques using Relational Frame Theory (whatever that is)?

Image: Untitled by ArielP

H809: Reading 21 Hammersley (2006) Ethnography: Problems and prospects

Some people in Second LifeI came to this paper not knowing anything about ethnography, and, while Hammersley writes clearly and gives a useful overview of the area, I get the impression that it’s one of those ‘everything-you-know-is-wrong’ topics!

We are reading this with a view to exploring the notion of ‘virtual ethnography’, which appears to be the poor sister of ‘real’ ethnography, but Hammersley’s paper shows that much current debate on ethnography is centred on working out just what ethnography is. And this reflection suggests that a redefinition taking into account the blurring boundaries between online and offline activity.

Hammersley rounds up some of the debates within and about ethnography and helpfully offers a definition that is broad enough to be representative while being succinct enough for newbies to understand:

[It is] a form of social and educational research that emphasises the importance of studying at first hand what people do and say in certain contexts. (p4).

It usually involves ‘fairly lengthy contact, through participant observation in relevant settings, and/or through relatively open-ended interviews designed to understand people’s perspectives’. Thus far, I see no great issue with applying this to participants engaged in online activities, although ‘fairly lengthy’ is a problematic term (I note that there has been a shift towards shorter studies given the changing cultures in universities).

I digress (one of the affordances of a blog is the way it allows one to think out loud. I’m writing this not as a means of sharing so much as a way of constructing my own knowledge. Sorry. 🙂  ) We H809 students have our instructions!

13.5: Ethnographic understandings of context

Hammersley describes the tension between observations made at a micro level which are held up to represent a big picture. There is this ‘holistic’ location of the thing being studied but perhaps the thing should be studies in greater detail but at a more local level (micro-ethnography). 

We then have the difficulty of determining whether context is ‘discovered or constructed’. It’s at this stage that I began to remember the discussions of deconstruction and post-modernism from my undergrad years and I also recalled the Sokal Affair. Take this point of view: ‘any attempt by an analyst to place actors and their activities in a different ‘external’, context can only be an imposition, a matter of analytic act, perhaps even an act of symbolic violence‘ [my italics]. Hammersley doesn’t endorse this view, but he does say there is a ‘grain of truth’ in it. My fellow H809 student, John Kuti, sums things up far more succinctly than I do.

13.6: Virtual context

Hammersley points out that in traditional ethnography, great emphasis is placed on ‘the researcher’s participation in, and first-hand observation of, the culture being investigated’. Internet ethnography, however, involves no face-to-face communication, collecting the data online instead. I’m not quite sure again why this is problematic, as I don’t see why physical presence is so vital. With the increasing ubiquity of powerful audio/visual communications technology, surely there is nothing inherent to f2f that wouldin itself devalue online research?*

* As a total newbie to ethnography, I’m aware that I could be in dangerous territory here. Please Prof. Ethnography, don’t hurt me!

Another difficulty of online ethnography for traditionalists is the problem of not knowing what online contributors say ‘beyond what they tell us’ [his italics]. But, as he points out, this is something of a straw man as most online interaction ‘operates in an orderly fashion’ and that ‘participants obviously display enough about themselves through their contributions to be able to understand one another’.

When I think of the amount of data that is freely-available about me online, the relationships that exist only online and the traceable interplay between my profession and recreation, I’d imagine a face-to-face interview would be redundant!

Reflection on H809 progress

Erik Estrada & Larry Wilcox from ChiPsAfter the frantic rush to complete TMA01, I swore I would never fall behind again. Of course a two week holiday put paid to all of that despite my diligence in packing some work to do by the pool (some hope!). I now find myself pretty much three weeks behind target. 

The anxiety about this state of affairs has been building steadily and has combined with H809 subject matter that holds little instant appeal for me: conceptual frameworks and their applications. That said, one of the reasons I’m taking this course was to engage with this very material and ill the gaps in my thus-far practitioner-only career.

So, I find myself looking at some of the few discussions in the forums and struggling to make sense of what is being said. I’ve finally worked out what this ‘CoP’ thing is (nothing to do with Erik Estrada, it seems. Damn.) but I’m bewildered and feeling rather challenged.

Despite this, I have the consolations of knowing that:

a) I’m certainly not alone – a quick glance at the three tutorial groups suggests that things have quietened down substantially (Rhona‘s group is very actively attempting to make sense of TMA02 though and it makes for engaging (read: terrifying) reading). A few lurkers have made themselves known, perhaps as a cry for help!

b) We’ve been here before. And we make effective use of terror and adrenaline to cut through the digital mountain and get things done. And in getting things done, it generally means having epiphanies. (And then swearing never to fall behind again, and so the cycle begins anew – is there a conceptual framework for this sequence? “Yes, it’s called Cramming”).

Flippancy aside, I had hoped to make far more use of the blogs. I really wanted them to work, but found that, while I like using them as a reflective tool, as perhaps I”m doing now, I’m not really using them to comment on other learners’ contributions. Same with the wiki. I advocate the adoption of these tools at work, and yet I’m not making use of them properly in a course on Online Learning. This is somewhat disheartening, but a healthy dose of realism in the sense that these tools are not inherently amazing, but our experience here will better prepare us for advocating their effective use elsewhere.

What worked very well, I thought, in H808, was when we were put into smaller groups of three or four and given tasks. Perhaps future incarnations of H809 could consider multi-author blogs. It might help foster a team/community spirit which spills over then into other areas. Entries get comments at least from the other authors, helping to keep the blog dynamic; my perception of the many of the current H809 blogs (including mine) is a reluctance of participants to ‘risk’ making assertions which can be publicly scrutinised – multi-author blogs could help alleviate this.

Ok, I may be getting m OU mojo back now, so I’ll surrender myself to the CoPs again.

H809 Activity 2.4


1. Why is transcript data to be preferred to the video data for such a visual task?

They did use video, so the question I presume is why did they not present video as evidence in their findings?

  • Practicality
    • Academic research is distributed through text (especially in 1997)
  • Ethics
    • Anonymity and the protection of these children can be better maintained with textual descriptions. Non-verbal, facial methods of communication can be shown on video, but this raises difficult questions technically and ethically.
  • Software analysis text
    • Their chosen software analyses text, which is based on quick searching. To date, a reliable method of searching video has yet to be developed.

2. Is it possible to avoid the use of preconceived categories when analysing this data?

This is a question of linguistics and epistemology. The research is investigating the significance or not of certain linguistic utterances. All language is made of signifiers (as opposed to the signified), and is, therefore, always at some remove from the original thing (emotion, idea, physical thing). Others must attempt to interpret linguistic utterances based on context and knowledge of systems such as languages.

Whenever any form of interpretation in executed, there is a risk of misinterpretation. It is unlikely that this ‘ambiguity’ can ever be fully removed, so it seems a little pointless to do too much second guessing. We could say that these researchers are rational, educated people and as such we can trust their interpretations of the children’s utterances in the contexts in which they were made.
3. What evidence might support this claim?: “In the context of John’s vocal objections to previous assertions made by his two partners his silence at this point implies a tacit agreement with their decision.”

The fact that these are educated, rational academics who are unlikely to wish to mislead or deceive is the strongest point for me.

  • If they have observed that in the previous instances, John objected, and that in this third situation – with all other variables being equal – he remained silent, then their claim is reasonable.
  • However, if they neglected to mention that John was chewing a lollipop, distracted by something else or some other difference, then we could challenge their interpretation.

4. Did you ask yourself if this was true of the control group?

No, because I didn’t think of that. And this is not just because I’m new to this area, but also because one assumes that in a peer-reviewed report/article, such fundamental parts of a piece of research would need to be present in order to be credible.

5. Lack of unambiguous word – how can this be dealt with?

  • Analyse the contextual data
    • Can we identify from intonation, facial expression, physical gestures?
  • Analyse the participant’s linguistic style in similar contexts.
    • Does he frequently leave out these words even though it is clear that he means them?

6. Are you convinced that the study effectively demonstrates the authors’ case that the software gets over the qualitative/quantitative distinction?

I don’t feel confident that I actually understand the way the technology works here. I can see how it could be effective with quantitative data (which needs to be identified by someone), but I’m not entirely certain how it works with qualitative data. OK, one can switch rapidly from, say, a mention of the number of occurrences of a keyword to the specific usage of that word in the context of the transcript, but to my mind this is not qualitative data; it’s raw data. Could one say that this transcript needs some degree of evaluation/processing before it is qualitative?

7. What does the computer add to the analysis?

A way to quantify and categorise data. In this case, as I understand it, the authors identify phrases/linguistic occurrences and these are sorted by the software. The software can count occurrences, place them in context (concordance) and allow fast switching between ‘levels of abstraction’.

Apart from efficiency, one assumes that the computer adds some degree of objectivity to the quantitative data.

8. Computer-based analysis 10 years on?

With the relative ubiquity of electronic texts, the term ‘computer-based’ has become redundant. Similarly, just mining a document for text is not as meaningful as searching for ‘content’, so the name has changed a little.

  • It is used to evaluate documents, especially for presentation by a search engine such as Google Scholar.
  • The commercial potential appears to have been harnessed, with the technique seemingly widely used in Public Relations.

9. How does this paper compare with Reading 1?

Reading 1 was concerned with the effectiveness of technology in learning, particularly the methods of interaction made possible by technology. Reading 2 is more concerned with the use of a technology to enhance the quality of research. So, reading 1 is investigating the effectiveness of a tool while reading 2 is investigating a hypothesis using a tool.

H809 begins

Back to the grindstone with the OU. With H808 put to bed, I had hoped for a less frantic run of things. Alas NUIM got in the way and I had to write up a presentation I gave in Greece a couple of years ago at the European Access Network‘s Annual Conference in gorgeous Thessaloniki.

H809 has, of course, been busily getting about its business for the last three weeks and I’ve not been able to engage as I had wanted to. The first week was OK as it was largely making ourselves familiar with the technology as well as one reading. Happily all the struggle with H808 was at least worth it as one was already au fait with FirstClass, wikis, blogs and podcasts etc.

H809 seems to based around a weekly reading, each illustrating some important aspect of research that us budding research professionals should know. The first reading, by Hiltz and Meinke, dates back to 1989 and tests the merits of using a ‘virtual classroom’ to teach Sociology. I was struck less by the outcomes of the research (both virtual and physical are pretty much the same with some benefits to one over the other here and there) than by the fact that these discussions are still taking place twenty years on. “Is elearning as effective as face-to-face learning?” is the contemporary language, but the song remains the same (especially in my institution).

Anyway, I’m on a major catch up these next few days, so expect a glut of blog entries! Another feature of this module is the expectation that we keep a blog and interact with those of others before bringing our observations back to FirstClass. H809 is a first run module, so it will be interesting if this system works. In H808, when faced with the pressures of the TMAs and the ECA, learners abandoned any optional activities very quickly, so we’ll see how this module copes!

6.1 Thoughts on Warrior

Warrior argues that ‘professionalism [in teaching] is synonymous with quality and the current practices relating to maintaining and monitoring standards are issues of contentious debate’. While I found her round up of the definitions of professionalism illuminating, I was particularly interested in the ‘contentious debate’ connected with the attempts to raise teaching to professional level by applying standards but how this trend may adversely affect practitioners.

Professionalism can be defined as being ‘not amateur’ (Lindrop 1982). In that sense, it involves being paid, often highly paid, and making a career out of pursuing an activity. It involves pursuing a career, one that has distinguishing characteristics and ‘an element of intellectual training’. Warrior lists two sets of characteristics of professionals, from 1964 and 1982. Both make reference to having a responsibility to serving the public either through having codes of conduct or ‘minimum standards’.

Interestingly, the later definition lists the professional’s claim to ‘exercising personal judgement’. When she examines the teaching profession, she notes that this characteristic is significantly lessened by the impact of external and rigidly enforced standards of quality. These ‘bureaucratic rules and managerial controls’ can be ‘intrusive’ and may result in ‘a severe loss in professional autonomy’. Sometimes this can result in teachers suffering from stress and seeking help for depressive disorders in disproportionate numbers.

Two years ago, I got a new colleague who set about restructuring our department. To my mind, she injected some badly needed systems, procedures and record-keeping which had the result of my feeling more professional and competent. With her backing, I sought and got a regrading of my post with the resultant (dramatic!) increase in salary. The trade off was an enormous increase in bureaucracy and occasional delays in service provision as a result of ensuring the paperwork is in order. I have sometimes decided to turn a blind eye to the threat of an external audit in order to ensure that a student receives urgently-needed support.

All of which suggests that a certain baseline of accountability is required in order to establish standards that can be adhered to and compared. After all, quality does not exist in a vacuum; it is only meaningful as a concept when two or more things are examined using the same criteria.But this need not be restrictive. Once the baseline is reached, they must be room for discretion and rule-bending.

And indeed, both she and I have formally chosen to break the ‘rules’ imposed on us from government agencies. We were upfront about our rationale and unapologetic about our decision. Far from being reprimanded, the new path that we beat was formally incorporated by the government agency the following year. This suggests that, while standards are imposed from without, the expertise of the professional is always within.