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The journey so far

When I set up this blog, it was to support my DPhil studies. I knew that the process I was engaging with would be a journey. What I didn’t know was what the nature of the journey would turn out to be, but I knew the destination I had in mind was what my husband refers to as a “Big D”. I still have some way to go – all being well, I will submit my thesis towards the middle of next academic year – but a tweet has led me to reflect a little on the journey so far, with its various twists and turns. Rather than being a reflective essay, this had turned into more a narrative description of the this happened, then this, but so be it.

Jeffrey Keefer simply asked: “No CoP space in your research? Wonder why that may be the case….” Given that at one point, I had expected CoP, or communities of practice to be fairly centre stage, I also wondered why.

The seeds of my DPhil journey were almost certainly planted over a period of time and without my conscious awareness. If I think back about 6 years, my focus was probably on retirement preparation. Apart from a small tutoring contract with the Open University, I had given up my paid employment to sort out appropriate support for my son’s special educational needs. I was not really thinking of returning to work in any real sense, when the OU advertised consultancy posts with the Information, Advice and Guidance team of the Sussex Learning Network. Although I hadn’t worked directly in that area, I had relevant experience and the pay was attractive, so I put in an application and somewhat to my surprise was appointed. A few months later, consultancies also became available on the Sussex Learning Network e-learning team, and it was suggested I apply. This was a difficult decision, as it would mean moving to a situation of being in virtually full-time employment, but I grasped the nettle and again was appointed.

Becoming an elearning consultant was a turning point. Whereas, I was content to stay with the technology I had learned over the previous ten years, I was now introduced to the world of blogs and wikis and 3-D virtual worlds and social media more generally and found myself relating to people who were engaged in research in this area and had colleagues who were talking of doctoral study. I gently encouraged them, got involved in various projects, but was very clear that a research degree was not for me – it was for younger people. I got further OU contracts involving me in various research projects and found I was enjoying myself. In particular, I was enjoying being able to use skills from years ago, which I had considered I would never have the opportunity to use other than in voluntary capacities, but which I was using and which were being recognised by colleagues – perhaps retirement, endless cups of tea and making lace was not my only potential destination.

I still don’t really know how it happened! One of the areas I began to work in through the elearning consultancy was 3-D virtual worlds. I initiated a project with a colleague at the University of Sussex and one day found myself asking her whether there might be a doctorate in the work we were doing. At that point, my doctoral journey started as she responded positively to my query and a few months later, I found myself a registered student with the intention of doing some comparative work around learning in 3-D virtual environments and learning in the physical world. I can honestly say that doing a PhD was never part of my life plan, and was very surprised to find myself in that place, and although I am now very comfortable with what I am doing, I am still more than a little surprised to find how good the fit is.

Despite best intentions, the planned research didn’t quite work out, but my focus at the end of my first year as a research student was still firmly on learning in 3-D worlds. I was beginning to explore aspects of informal learning and the development of a sense of community. This fitted very much with my experience as a community development worker nearly forty years ago and an ongoing interest in how communities form and develop and how people learn in community. As the research design developed, it was clearly moving well beyond the bounds of Informatics, and my supervisor invited a colleague in the Sociology faculty to a consultation to assist in enabling me to determine the way forward. That meeting proved another turning point. Essentially, the message I took away was that the ideas I was exploring were interesting, but I was looking at a broad area and such work was best undertaken through the narrow lens of a domain I knew well.

Following that meeting, I rapidly re-scoped my research objectives. 3-D virtual worlds were no longer an appropriate domain, for what I wanted to explore as there was an area I knew far better, was much closer to my heart and where the ideas I was interested in were far more relevant. The focus of my research shifted to learning amongst professionals and other carers in the autistic spectrum domain. The central issue focused on learning and why it was that the learning of some professionals was privileged over that of parents and other carers. Policy in this area emphasised partnership, but the system was acknowledged to be adversarial. Was there any evidence of a community of practice embracing professionals from different disciplines? Why were parents included or excluded from this CoP?

So, to return to Jeffrey’s question, my research at that point did have CoP as a central theme.

However, as I began to interview people and to think about the theoretical context, and to refine further my research question, I was forced to accept that no matter how interesting CoPs were, there was a more fundamental question, which was why was the SEN system so adversarial anyway. Rather than looking for examples of co-operative practice, and there are many, it seemed that much of what I read and much of what participants told me used militaristic language to describe relationships within the system. Somewhat surprisingly, I could find little in the literature by way of explanation for why this might be the case. There appeared to be tacit acceptance that the system was adversarial. Even the Green Paper on SEN published 3 months ago, presents the adversarial nature of the system as a reason for change, but does not offer any suggestions as to how the proposed changes will alter this.

So thus far, my journey as taken me from positioning myself outside academic research, to tentative first steps in exploring learning in 3-D virtual worlds, to debates about the nature of learning and informal learning, to communities of practice, to why the SEN system is broke. On the way, I have learned about theories I had never heard of before, I have begun to understand things I would previously dismissed, I have questioned myself and my presuppositions, and I have begun to understand the relevance of theory to practical situations and the interplay of research and policy development. I have met and engaged with lots of interesting people and have begun to realise that what I have to say is probably no less worthy that what anybody else has to contribute to various debates.

Communities of practice are central to my thinking, and being part of a community of practice supports my research, but I have somewhat reluctantly had to accept that communities of practice, at this point in time, are not central to my research interests.

The journey continues.



  1. Liz, what a fascinating journey! I had not know some of these steps in your journey, and I find this helps me to fill in the gaps a bit more.

    I especially like that Twitter-sized statement near the end of your posting, “Communities of practice are central to my thinking, and being part of a community of practice supports my research, but I have somewhat reluctantly had to accept that communities of practice, at this point in time, are not central to my research interests.” I think that looking at CoPs as something that encourages and supports your work is an interesting twist, as it uses that about which you were initially interested in studying. Did you expect this to happen, or did you sort of fall into valuing community of practice participation, rather than just study?


  2. lizit says:

    I think I’ve always valued community of practice participation, but I haven’t always been aware of the terminology 🙂
    If I go right back to my youth, much of my learning was in a community of practice which happened to be called Girl Guides. As I look at my different life experiences, I can see how membership of CoPs has influenced me. As a beginning community development worker in the early 1970s, I learned from others who were also learning the trade – we had few experienced practitioners, but were effectively a group of apprentices learning from each other. In other professional areas collegial relationships have been essential. In my personal life, I learned more from other parents with children with SENs than I did from any professionals when seeking support for my son, and I facilitate a parent support group to enable others on that journey.
    What I have learned from study and reading is that there are theoretical explanations for what I had perceived as natural and essential.

  3. You know, Liz, in many ways this is just the opposite of my experience. I encountered this first from a theoretical perspective, and then spent time trying to see if this theory held water in practice! Glad your experience was a bit more organic.


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