Round-Up Part 1: PhD

I’ve been feeling a little….. uncomfortable….. with what I have  been / should have been / tried to do over the last couple of months or so at the start of my PhD.

What I hadn’t realised was that there were going to be lots of things to do before even reaching that starting line (why does no-one tell you these things in advance?) such as an induction* into the new faculty (in my case, I got two inductions); a whole load of new courses on things like using referencing systems and presenting research; masses of on-line forms; and setting up a supervisor meeting.   Then there were exciting things like getting allocated a desk and ordering a new laptop; plus in my case being chosen to represent Southampton in China.

I’ve also spent quite a lot of hours doing paid work helping to administer an undergraduate course, including assessing students’ work.  This has been really interesting, as it basically addresses digital literacy and is very similar to the kind of work being undertaken in secondary schools now.  And no, kids today aren’t ‘digitally literate’.  Knowing how to use WhatsApp, post to Facebook, or whatever is not being digitally literate.  Being digitally literate means being aware of, and managing, your on-line profile; using the full range of digital tools to manage your workflow; basically taking ownership of and responsibility for the way you conduct yourself online, and using the tools at your disposal intelligently.  Surprisingly few students can do this.  I’ve loved being involved in this, and the extra money meant I could cover the cost of servicing my car, going to China, and Christmas.

What I haven’t had time to do is get down to some serious, focused study.  However, that doesn’t mean I haven’t done anything.  I’ve dipped into some on-line courses, played about with some useful bits of software that will really help with organisation once I get started, and experimented with writing more code.  I’ve skimmed over a few papers, gathered a load more to read, put together a flowchart to clarify my project, and talked to people.  I’ve made notes (online of course), and spent a lot of time just chewing over what exactly it is I want to do, and how I’m going to achieve it. Here’s where I am with it so far:

PhD Research Proposal: What do I want to find out?

We’re now firmly in what’s been labelled Web 3.0.  Very briefly, version 2.0 was characterised by social networking and similar applications that allowed users to create content, and interact with one-another in real time across the globe.  Web 3.0 is when things start to connect and the data generated by 2.0 can be gathered, and analysed, and used to observe (and possibly predict) human behaviour.  The virtual world is more connected than it’s ever been, so that it’s now possible to make accurate and insightful inferences based on data gathered from networks, search engines, and open data.  The web has, to use a popular term, become ‘intelligent’.

I mentioned people becoming members of social networks, and of course there are several to choose from.  People can also write blogs, which are read and commented on.  The commenters may themselves have their own blogs, and  be members of a social network that linked them up in the first place.  As an ex-teacher, I’m interested in the network of professionals that’s grown up in online social spaces.   Just taking Twitter as a starting point, if I could identify every teacher, and find out who they followed / were followed by / tweeted to and illustrate that network, what would it look like?  Would there be clusters of professionals who were more active within their own ‘group’ and only occasionally made contact with other professionals outside that group?  Graph theory (a branch of mathematics) applied via some clever software will allow me to create a model, and see how closely linked (or not) the community is.

This interests me because the web has made the job of connecting professionals so much easier.  Previously, teachers would only meet colleagues within their own school, or colleagues from other schools when they went on training courses or similar meetings.  The network was built up through face-to-face meetings (and telephone calls, although I’d suggest that the connection wasn’t ‘strong’ until a face-to-face meeting had taken place, which probably still holds true in the age of Twitter but I’d argue that the initial connection made online is stronger than the equivalent of the original phone call).  Now, it’s possible to be a member of a much larger network (Dunbar’s number notwithstanding) very quickly.

Being involved in delivering education to students has become highly politicised.  My personal experience is that teachers now get little or no say in how that process happens, and yet they’re blamed when outcomes are less than expected.  Given that the job has become all-consuming, and the opportunities to talk to colleagues within your own school, let alone fellow professionals from a different school, have dwindled to almost nothing, it would appear that teachers simply aren’t discussing the different theories regarding how education could be delivered in the classroom.  And yet some of them are.  On twitter.  In their own blogs.  A lot.  And the beauty of this is that where ten or so years you might get your letter published in the TES expressing your views on the latest educational initiative, which might have been read by a handful of people, today your views can be read by anyone who cares to take the time to do so.  And if you’re a teacher, active on a network like Twitter, you’ll be directed to read it by someone.  Of course, I’ll have to do some background research to verify all this, but my sense is that the web has made a real difference to the amount of debate going on between professionals.

So, I’d like to show that educational professionals are debating the important issues, and they’re doing it a lot.

Next, I’m interested in what they’re debating.  In fact, I’m interested in one aspect of the debate, and that focuses on precisely how best to deliver education in the classroom.  One the one hand, there’s the traditional teacher-as-source-of-knowledge approach with the model anyone my age will be familiar with:  I’ll tell you how it’s done, we’ll work through a question together on the board, and then you have a go independently. Explain – demonstrate – intervene – move on when everyone has mastered whatever it is they were learning.  Then there’s the opposite approach which basically says ‘here’s the problem, this is what I want you to investigate, how do you think you might go about that?’, with plenty of grouped work and much discussion between students before a solution is proposed.  Of course, I’m explaining this very, very simply, but the two approaches are very different, and this matters because at various times people in authority i.e. the government, via the minister for Education, and re-enforced by Ofsted, have tried to dictate one or the other method, and without consulting the professionals who actually have to implement whatever idea is suggested.

What I’d like to do is take what my professionals are saying in their relevant tweets, and blog posts, and comments, and plot where they are in this debate.  Who favours which model, and if we were to imagine a line drawn joining the two positions, where might they be along that line?

This is important, I think, because it would demonstrate that not only is there a debate going on around such a crucial issue, but that the debate itself is nuanced, varied, and rich.  The insight might be very useful for anyone involved in shaping the direction of education.  In particular, I’m thinking of new teachers who might be unaware of some of the ideas I see discussed.  I know I had absolutely no idea of this ‘bigger picture’ until I’d been teaching a good few years and started to question why I had been taught to teach in this particular way without even any acknowledgement that there was an alternative model.

Finally, I’d like to compare the network model with the information I can get as to where teachers stand vis-a-vis the traditional versus ‘progressive’ model.  Do ‘traditionalists’ cluster together on Twitter?  Or do professionals cluster according to other factors, and so include teachers who teach in very different ways?

How am I going to do it?

The tools I’m going to need to do all this have all come from computer science.  Software exists to enable me to model a network, and I can write code to gather data from the web.  The tricky bit will be working out where teachers sit on the pedagogical debate regarding teaching methods.  Sentiment analysis (also known as opinion mining) will be my friend here, as I can ‘train’ an algorithm to search for keywords and phrases connected with the two viewpoints, and produce a ‘score’ to show where the comment or content of the blog sits along the continuum.  Of course, I’m going to have to do some background reading myself so that I know what keywords and phrases to use.  Using machines to carry out tasks based on decoding language is still a very new area of research, and it’s especially difficult because, on the whole, teachers are well used to using aspects of language like metaphor, sarcasm and humour to explain the point they’re trying to make, all of which are still extremely difficult to ‘explain’ to a computer.

Some things I have decided, though, over the last few weeks:

  • I’m not a computer scientist.  It takes at least three years of degree-level work to become one of them, and I don’t have the time for that. I can use computer science tools without having an intricate knowledge of how they work.
  • I probably won’t be able to learn how to write all the code I need, so I’m going to have to ask other people to do some for me. Meh.
  • I need regular supervisor meetings, at least for the next six months, so that I stay focused.  With so much new ground to cover, I won’t be able to see the bigger picture.  They will.
  • Not really a decision so much as a realisation that this is really, really exciting and I just know I’m going to uncover more than I expected.
  • Oh, and if you’re one of my non-university friends, and this makes sense to you, then I’ve already succeeded in being able to communicate my ideas.  If any of it doesn’t, let me know.  It’s really helpful.


*as Web Science is inter-disciplinary, the main focus of research has taken most people out of computer science and put them in, for example, law or business.


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