My PhD research was based at the Department of
Education and Lifelong Learning, City University. London. My supervisors
were Dr. Yvonne Hillier (School of Arts) and Professor Sally Glen (School of Nursing and Midwifery). The work began in October 2002. I spent the first year reading and learning from the existing literature in the field of higher education, social policy and online learning.
The literature review was carried out alongside meetings with academics involved in online learning developments, with reflection on my experiences as an online learner and tutor. These processes together helped me to identify the main research question. The resultant aim of the study
was to understand how adult learners, who participate in web-based and web-enhanced courses that encourage learners to collaborate in online discussions, engage in learning.
The second year was focused on gathering and analyzing data. The third year was
spent interpreting and synthesizing.
The PhD thesis was
submitted for examination in
Aims and Objectives
The focus of the question
was to challenge the prevailing dominant discourses that are driving the related educational practices in web-based courses. On one hand, pedagogy in these courses suggests that the use of technology in learning will make learning more flexible, accessible and informal, particularly for those who have previously been excluded from formal education. In the same discourse, the emerging formal educational practices require monitored learner participation in tutor-defined web-based discussions. The latter discourse may not consider the different ways in which individuals may participate, and how their individual learning contexts influence different forms of participation and engagement in learning.
research objective was to move beyond the non-critical adoption of technology
for learning. It aimed to investigate learning engagement and knowledge
construction for adult learners in higher education online and blended courses
that required and encouraged online discussion participation.
online learning practices perceive an individual learner as someone who will
adopt and respond to social and formal expectations of the course design. These
practices advocate online discussion participation along the lines of the
behaviourist learning theory. It is assumed that learners will respond to the
course design stimulus for online participation. The perspective adopted in this
study did not exclusively focus on participatory behaviour in online
discussions. The research was not a controlled experimental analysis of the
'active' versus 'silent' behaviours in response to different online activity
stimuli. Instead, the research maintained a constructivist view and considered
engagement in learning as more than just observable participation in online
discussions. The research was driven by the underlying philosophy that learning
is influenced by individual constructions and views self and others.
Personal Construct Theory (PCT) developed by George Kelly (1970, 9) was used
with the basic postulate that states, “a person is never inert”. With
this view in mind the research assumed that learning is a process of conceptual
and cognitive change, and individuals play dynamic roles in constructing and
re-constructing their interpretations and representations (Bezzi 1996, 180).
This view also assumed the learners may adopt ‘active’, ‘moderate’ or
‘silent’ roles in an online discussion context to understand others outlooks
and concepts (Kelly 1970, 25). This lead to the following research questions.
The main research
How do learners engage and
construct meaning during online and blended learning courses that require and
encourage participation in online discussions?
constructivist paradigm learners with different levels of online participation
might have different or similar ways of engagement. The aim was to interrogate
and deconstruct these differences in knowledge construction processes. This aim
guided the second research question that intended to look for differences
between active, moderate and silent online discussion participants in online and
Are there differences between how active, moderate and silent discussion
participants construct meaning? What are these differences?
In exploring the
differences this question also aimed to understand why some learners were more
active and participatory in online discussions as compared to others. This
comparison led to the third question:
Are silent learners or ‘lurkers’, who do not actively contribute in
online course discussions, learning?
behind this question was to challenge or validate the assumption of popular
online pedagogy that silent learners are not engaged in learning. The
constructivist paradigm suggests that silent participants may have alternate
ways of knowing which may not include online discussion participation. The above
question would help to gather empirical research evidence to qualify or reject
this suggestion, for a small group of learners.
Finally, if the
above questions found that different learners were engaging in different or
similar ways, how might this impact current and future online learning practice?
This led to the final research question:
What are the implications for practice?
of individual learning process would provide practical implications for the role
of online course designers and facilitators. It would provide a means to situate
the research findings back into the wider context of e-learning in higher
education for future research and practice.
justification and research questions generated the following research aim:
To surface and build evidence on the different ways of knowing for
active, moderate and silent learners engaged in higher education courses that
encourage online discussion participation.
The above research
hypothesis, questions and aim were addressed through the following research
To use the Personal Construct
Theory and employ the Repertory Grid Method embedded in the constructivist
paradigm to answer the above questions
To interview a sample of
postgraduate learners, who were studying on online and blended learning
courses that encouraged participation in online discussions, to elicit key
learning experiences and their constructions
To statistically analyse the
Repertory Grids developed by individual learners to rate experiences and
personal constructions and identify the main learning dimensions for each
To qualitatively analyse
interview data and learning dimensions and identify the main themes and
different ways of knowing for individual learners
To qualitatively analyse data
and identify reasons for different levels of online discussion participation
by silent, moderate and active participants
To deconstruct silent learners
data and identify evidence for knowledge construction
To draw on data analysis and
synthesize key influences on online knowledge construction and identify
areas of developments for future practice for post-graduate courses
is important to state that I did not reject the potential benefits of
information technology in learning. Nevertheless, I did aim to critically
analyse the affect of the prevailing dominant formal educational discourses that
assumed straightforward benefits from visible participation in online