Ph.D. Journey Beginnings

I’m two weeks into Ph.D. study thus far, and I’m surprisingly satisfied with the experience at this point. I’m taking two research classes, which is apparently a thing that is uncommon if I were to judge by the reactions of other students in my classes. So far, it’s not too overwhelming, although I’m sure my tune may change once the assignment deadlines start getting closer.

The first class that I have is Tuesday afternoons, and it’s about design based research, which is an emerging trend in education research that is defined by iterative intervention design, mixed methods, and attempts to study both design of intervention as well as contribute to theory that grounds the design. It is an effort to bridge the gap between lab and real-world education research. DBR is typically conducted on site, in collaboration with stakeholders including the instructor, and allows for adjustments in flight to better align to positive outcomes for students. This type of research is meant to address common issues that impacted traditional empirical education research in the past, such as lack of cooperation with school districts (because they didn’t want their students in the control group recieving no intervention). DBR also recognizes the researcher as having a role in the study design as opposed to traditional basic research which calls for the researcher to remove any bias and remain completely objective.

The other course I’m taking is qualitative research methods, which I have already fallen in nerd love with. As a former journalist, I like the idea of words as data, talking to the subjects of the research, and discussing aspects of the research question with the people who are impacted by it and then retelling that story with the subjects’ own words. In this flavor of qualitative research that the department is pushing, the researcher themself is a tool in the study. It’s through my lens/perspective that I am telling a story about a problem and the attempts to solve it, and the outcomes that came about as a result. We’ve really only scratched the surface of qualitative research in class, but I am currently leaning toward a qualitative study for my dissertation.

I also really like that our textbook for the course offers these reflective prompts to allow you to think on paper about your approach and beliefs. Our professor encouraged us to utilize the prompts to generate material that we can use in our “interpretive biography” assignments, and I plan to use them as fodder here in this blog. While I have many qualms about the teacher preparation experience I had as an undergrad at Penn State, one element that was heavily emphasized was reflective thinking. Every day of my student teaching experience, I was to write a one page reflection minimum for my “teaching journal” and add it to my binder of lesson plans. The idea was that I would plan my lessons and then reflect on how well they went. I loved my reflection time at the end of each school day - it was incredibly cathartic to let my anxieties and assessments of the day’s activities out onto paper and physically add them to a binder that was accessible to my cooperating teacher and my supervisor. I enjoyed the honesty of the process. The reflections were only graded for completeness, so we only got out of them what we put in, but since I did take the activity seriously I think my co-op and supervisor could really understand what I was thinking and feeling during my teaching experience. I like that the emphasis on reflective thinking continues in the graduate programs as well.

Both of these courses require me to put pen to paper (or fingers to keys, I suppose) and draft some elements of what will be an eventual dissertation. The qual class will give me three chapters, and the DBR class will give me a proposal and annotated bibliography of readings that ideally align to my topic. I’m hopeful that I can tweak aspects of my DBR proposal into a more qualitative-focused study (or perhaps just use one iteration of a DBR study) for my dissertation. I’m hoping to meet with my advisor soon to discuss some potential topics. At this point I am leaning toward learning analytics in service of user experience design, and I’d like to somehow align what the analytics show with what students/users are actually feeling and thinking during their interaction with a learning environment. I want to do this qualitatively, so I imagine interviews with users, developers, and other stakeholders will be a large part of it, as well as deploying analytics in a way that is easy to comprehend. At the end, I’d like to be able to write a dissertation that serves as an interpretive guide for faculty/designers doing homegrown analytics on their courses about what to watch for and what questions to ask, adjustments to make, and how to know they’re doing a good job. I would attempt to publish some papers in some practitioner focused journals that perhaps broke things down by discipline or specific outcome. Or at least that’s what I think I’d like to do at this point. The constant refrain at my new student orientation was that the Ph. D. process is journey, and that I may not end up where I think I’m going. Based on the first few weeks, I am excited to continue the journey and see where it takes me. I just hope it doesn’t cost me too much money.