Hello all – and please accept my apologies for being away from here for a little while. “No problem”, I can hear you all saying, “we understand that you’ve been working hard on your dissertation, reading research papers, collecting data and transcribing interviews, analysing it all and making astounding discoveries.”
Well, the truth is rather more prosaic I’m afraid.
Yes, I have been getting on with my dissertation and doing all of those good things, but possibly not with quite the vigour I really should be. That’s for this month I’ve been promising myself. Instead, I’ve been finding lots of ways to procrastinate, while telling myself that a bit of physical exertion is good for the analysis process, especially as I’m undertaking a qualitative (and largely inductive) approach to it.
My car has never been cleaner.
The garage has never been tidier.
I demolished a rotten shed that had stood by the side of my house for more than twenty years …
… and built a new one twice its size. I’ve named it Sheddy McShedface …
… and filled it with all of the things that were in the garage that should have been in the old shed but wouldn’t fit.
I’ve even cut the grass (the elephant is called ‘Steve’ by the way).
I think these are pretty impressive lengths to go to as far as procrastination is concerned. I’ve awarded myself a distinction, but you may be able to do better perhaps? Do let me know – it will help keep me away from Seale’s book on qualitative research for another evening if you do.
I’ve now completed my pilot research interview, transcribed the resulting audio and conducted a very brief analysis of the data. These are six of the more important things the pilot has taught me.
I was accurate at estimating how long the interview would take. I recorded just over 46 minutes of audio, having initially estimated 45-60 minutes. This is good as, if the interview had gone on for longer, it would have become too difficult for me and the interviewee to concentrate.
When listening back to the audio, it became apparent that some of the questions I asked were too long, too rambling, and in some cases were confusing, because I was asking for 2 or 3 things at the same time. A bit like that last sentence really. I’ve gone back through my interview schedule and revised the questions into what I hope are shorter, pithier and better phrased questions that will be easier for my participants to answer.
I was reasonably accurate at predicting how long an interview takes to transcribe. My original expectation was around an hour’s effort to transcribe between 5 and 7 minutes of speech. That turned out to be about right. Just as importantly, I’ve now discovered that it’s much easier to transcribe an interview if I don’t interrupt too often and try not to speak over my interviewee.
I was able to gather data that suggests I’ll be able to answer my research question. Hurrah! However, I’ve also realised that some of the questions I asked can be replaced by ones which more closely align to it. My supervisor agrees, so I’ve submitted a revised interview schedule that I believe will work better.
I have no shortage of willing participants. However, scheduling an interview is a little trickier than I first anticipated. Having a ‘plan B’ is useful when real life means that a participant can’t make it at short notice.
Qualitative studies produce lots of rich data and there isn’t enough time in the day to be able to analyse it from every possible angle. Having a well-defined set of methodological tools to start the analysis from is definitely useful, but to get the best out of the data you need to go beyond them – or at least, I need to use them in more depth than I did on the pilot interview data.
Oh, and number seven – never do a piece of qualitative research without piloting it! I’m certain that without the pilot session I would have ended up with poorer data to analyse in respect of my research question and the job of transcribing it would have become much harder. My golden rule (and note) from last time therefore still applies:
If you’ve conducted a research interview, what’s your formula for success?
On Monday I will start to feel like a ‘proper’ researcher. That’s because I’ve reached the stage in my dissertation when I can conduct a pilot interview. The aim of piloting the interview is to make sure that the questions I’m asking can be understood by the actual group of participants I’ll be working with in April and that the answers to the questions generate data which can be analysed in such a way that it helps me to address my research question.
The picture shows the things that I’ll be taking along to the pilot interview session I’ve arranged. The items are:
A participant consent form. This is vital, as without it being signed by the participant to signal that they’re giving me their informed consent to take part in the research, I’d be breaking the ethical code of conduct of both the university and the British Psychological Society.
Briefing notes and my interview question guide. Before I start the interview, I need to let my participants know a little of what I’ll be asking them about. So that the interview doesn’t turn into some kind of unstructured chat, I have the key questions linked to the research models that I’m trying to test, written in a table form for me to refer to throughout the session.
A participant information sheet. This is so that my interviewees will be able to understand what will happen next in the research process (transcription, checking and analysis), how they can get in contact with me again if they have concerns, and to remind them of their right to withdraw their data up until the point at which I’ve conducted the analysis.
Pens to write some brief notes with during the interview. These notes will help me to quickly find parts of the interview that strike me as being particularly important, as well as being able to record other aspects of what happens during each session that can’t be retrieved from an audio recording alone.
My trusty digital voice recorder. This is purpose-built for the job and produces extremely good quality audio – essential for the transcription process. It’s also easy to transfer recordings from it onto my encrypted laptop and then wipe its entire memory – essential for protecting participant privacy. I’ve tested it again this morning, making sure that the batteries are up to scratch and that I also have spares – just in case, you understand.
The hardest part for me during the interviews will be to do more listening than talking. I’m expected to talk a lot (some would say far too much) for my day job, so I’m going to be taking this little note along with me too.
Last night I submitted the final module assignment for my MSc occupational psychology qualification at the University of Leicester – hurrah!
It’s now just the small matter of restarting the dissertation process (which I’m ashamed to admit that I almost entirely neglected during February), working out the questions I need to ask my participants when I interview them, having them approved by my supervisor before I start to ask them and then, well, getting on with it I suppose. September 15th seems very close all of a sudden.
But before I finally knuckle down, I thought I’d look back at a blog post that I wrote in August 2013, just before I started the course and see how each of the six modules has lived up (or not!) to my expectations.
Research Methods: This looks like a sensible start to the course and I hope it’s going to be relatively straightforward. I doubt if there are any statistical techniques it will throw at me that I won’t be able to get my head around having wrestled with the “fish” book and SPSS on the OU psychology degree. There’s also coverage of qualitative methods – I wonder if Q will get a mention?
It was a good start to the course. Q doesn’t get a mention, the stats weren’t any more difficult than those I was already used to and there was a qualitative method – interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) that I hadn’t used before. There was also an ‘early assignment’ of 1,000 words that we had to submit within a few (I think it was 4) weeks of starting, which was good for blowing the academic cobwebs away after taking a couple of years out after finishing my BSc.
Personnel Selection and Assessment: I’ve been involved in this aspect of work, on and off, for about the last 20 years. I’d like to think that I’m a better interviewer and selector than most, but who knows. Psychometrics rears its ugly little head in this module, so I’m looking forward to unleashing some critical arguments from DD307(*)!
All kinds of selection techniques were covered, including some that I hadn’t come across (for example, situational judgement tests). Psychometrics do rear their head and while I’m still far from convinced of their utility, I at least now understand why other people are.
Ergonomics: Looks interesting. I wonder whether the vogue for open plan offices and hot desks is more to do with the desire to exert power over subordinates by senior management than as a way of ensuring a productive workforce or reducing overhead costs?
Though I had no way of knowing it at the time, the words that I wrote in August 2013 were more or less how I concluded the second module assignment (but with a cost-benefit analysis accompanying it to demonstrate my point). The first module assignment was great fun and involved me spending a Sunday morning taking photographs (like the one below) inside my car. This was probably the module that I’ve enjoyed the most.
The Psychology of Organising: I really hope this isn’t going to be an attempt to fit most of an MBA into 12 weeks – but the description of the module makes it potentially seem like the most interesting of the course. I’m looking forward to getting my teeth into this one.
It wasn’t an MBA in 12 weeks (thank goodness!), but it was interesting. The two module assignments were interesting too – one broadly covering the area of change management & resistance to change (very useful in providing me with material that I now use to support my ‘proper’ job) with the other introducing me to the positive psychology concept of authentic leadership, which I greatly enjoyed critiquing!
Psychology of Occupational Training and Learning: I’m definitely not sure about this module. It sounds a little dull to be honest.
Definitely not my favourite module, but not dull either. It does what it says on the tin!
The Individual at Work: The module description makes it sound all lovely and fluffy (work-life balance, diversity, workplace counselling and the like) – but I have this nagging feeling that it’s aimed squarely at HR professionals who want to know how far they can push people before they start to fight back. I’m hoping that the module hasn’t been written by Catbert – but if it is, at least I should end up with a better understanding of what motivates people to become HR managers.
The module description is correct, rather than my paranoid interpretation of it from August 2013. It’s too close to me having finished it for me to review it entirely dispassionately, but I struggled with the assignment and, all in all, found it to be the least interesting of the six modules. However, I suspect that this might be because I came to view it as an annoyance – something that was standing in the way of me getting on with my dissertation.
Talking of which, I guess I have no more excuses left not to get on with it. Now, where did I put my copy of Seale’s “The Quality of Qualitative Research” again … ?
(*) DD307 was the Open University’s critical social psychology module (now discontinued), which gave me nightmares at the time, but made far more of a lasting impact on the way I think about psychological issues than any other module I took at undergraduate level.
I can understand why some people say that education is a treadmill that you get on as soon as you’re born and eventually fall off, presumably when the speed of the belt goes beyond your capacity to keep up. There’s a brilliantly amusing and thought-provoking post over at Jo Sandelson’s Heir Raising blog which makes this point.
I find myself agreeing with a lot of what Jo writes. Play is important and we need to make time for it. Hot-housing students does no-one any good. Much of the over-testing that successive governments have introduced in schools is counterproductive. All of us (children and adults alike) need to be free to explore and follow our passions, whether that’s racing cars, looking after pigs or becoming a priest. Working for a software company is perhaps an even weirder choice, but that’s a different blog post.
But (and there’s always a but) some of us rather like the challenge that formal education provides. When I was young (a long, long time ago) nothing horrified me more than being forced outside to play, especially if team games were involved. The more academic stuff I could do, the better. In sixth form I willingly gave up my Wednesday afternoons on the football pitch to spend a few more hours in the strange little storeroom between the physics labs. There were four or five of us in there, working towards getting an additional qualification in electronics.
An education system without examinations or assessment seems utterly pointless to me. They need to be viewed positively as the chance to get recognition for all of the work that goes into study. We have to encourage children and adults to think of examinations and assessments like that. Tackling the fear that assessments are a nasty, stressful hurdle to get over with negative consequences if you fail is therefore really important. It’s up to all of us to change that discourse, to take the pressure off, one child, one subject, one assessment at a time. (Now, I’m well aware that the former education secretary, Michael ‘loose lips’ Gove, did much to set this more enlightened view back several decades when he removed resits at the same time as denigrating vocational subjects, piling yet more unwanted pressure on students. Hopefully however, after his alleged leaking and misreporting of a conversation he heard someone else having with the Queen, he’ll be off to the tower soon).
If you want to be happy in life with a comfortable standard of living, education is essential. A good education, with the certificates and grades to prove it remains the most important enabler of social mobility. While we should encourage everyone to follow their dreams – I have two amazingly talented daughters doing exactly that in the precarious world of writing and acting – it’s much easier to do that if you have qualifications to fall back on. I see very few happy people who have none at all … they’re probably even rarer than people like me who have always enjoyed study.
So how can we help to alleviate some of the pressure that children feel and make education seem less like a treadmill? In my view, education is so important that there needs to be a way for people to take second, third, fourth … or any number of chances to succeed. Sadly, recent governments have unthinkingly dismantled much of the support for ‘second’ chances by slashing further education budgets and forcing up the price of higher education – putting many mature and part-timers off.
Providing ways to ensure that adults can access FE and HE at any point during their lives is needed to break the tyranny of the treadmill. However, it’s only if people value education (academic and vocational), focus on the positive joys of learning and the benefits that a good education brings longer-term (socially and financially) that this type of provision will become a political spending priority again. It isn’t at the moment, and a sea-change in attitudes is required.
Education, examinations and assessments – not a treadmill, but a gateway to a happier future.
Someone in the occupational psychology course team clearly has a sense of humour. Having finally squeaked my way around the ethical approval process a couple of weeks ago and having recovered from the scars inflicted by the online submission process (cake is still on offer by the way) I’ve been working on my final module assignment. It’s on … stress.
The topic is fascinating as even though most people can tell you what it feels like for them to be experiencing stress at work (or anywhere else for that matter), there’s little agreement on definitions, theories and models. There are huge problems in making valid stress assessments – yet without them, the interventions that counsellors try probably won’t work – and if they do, their success won’t necessarily be because of the method they used. As some Norwegian researchers (*) observed at the turn of the century, “the process [of making an occupational stress and health intervention] can be as important as the content of the occupational stress intervention itself.” Well, quite.
However, it’s the challenges to “commonsense” from psychological research, such as those seen in the literature on workplace stress, that continue to excite me as a student. It’s just a shame that the amount of time that it’s taking me to come to terms with the issue and write the module assignment feels like a distraction from what I’d rather be doing, which is making progress with my own research for my dissertation. I’ve always been a procrastinator, but my tendencies to procrastinate spiral out of all control when I’m faced with such an intellectually stimulating topic.
This leads me to a question that I’m genuinely interested in hearing your answers to. I know that I’ll eventually break out of my procrastination spiral as the deadline for the module assignment approaches, but at the moment, as I’m not quite close enough to 3rd March for this to happen, my levels of stress are increasing. I know that if I could start to make rapid progress I’d feel better about this assignment – as well as feel better about the nagging certainty that I really do need to start making some rapid progress with the dissertation itself. What should I do?
(*) I’d normally put the reference in here, but trying to use Norwegian characters in WordPress is far too stressful a process for this time on a Sunday evening.
It’s Sunday morning. I’m currently surrounded by books, academic papers, highlighter pens and lots of scrappy notes. I’m ploughing my way through the individual at work module in an attempt to start the last assignment of the course, excluding the dissertation. It’s been hard to concentrate on this module during January, partly because of work commitments, partly because of a stinking cold I’ve had for the last week, but also because of the wrestling match I ended up having with the newly-automated ethical approval process.
Some hints for future students (based on my experience of the process in January 2016):
Your dissertation supervisor is actually your co-researcher as far as the ethical approval process is concerned.
The departmental ethics officer (DEO) that you’ve been assigned (by dint of the first letter of your surname) is your ‘module leader or authorising supervisor’. Providing the details of the actual module leader or your actual dissertation supervisor is definitely the wrong thing to do.
If you get this step wrong, it appears that there’s no way that anyone can re-route your application to the correct place, so you have to start the process again.
It’s (at least) a two-step submission process. Once your supervisor (co-researcher) has approved the application it ends up back with you to submit manually to the DEO. Unless you remember to check your emails and hit the submit button again, the DEO won’t see your application. I’m unsure as to why this is the case – all of the routing information has to be provided up-front by the applicant – so it simply seems to introduce an unnecessary time-lag into the process.
Once you’ve made a mistake and you (reluctantly) decide that the best course of action is to start again, the system won’t allow you to clone or cut and paste information from a ‘stuck’ application into a new one (well, unless you know how to use the ‘view source’ option in a web browser of course …).
In conclusion – don’t fall off the ethical approval process happy path – it’s frustrating if you do. But given how easy it is to make mistakes, my professional persona would love to spend some time with the designer of this system to help them make it just a little more robust. So here’s my offer – if you’d like to get in touch with me, I’ll happily come and spend a couple of hours with you in Leicester, free of charge, to help you improve the experience for future students and researchers. I’ll also bring cake.
Which takes me back to my current module assignment – it focuses on ways of dealing with stress at work. Given the month that I’ve just had (and I don’t mean dealing with the frustrations of the ethical approval process – they were the least of my worries), it couldn’t have come at a better time.
Eating cake while working on improving things would seem to be an excellent way of reducing stress, but sadly, there doesn’t appear to be any research evidence out there to suggest that it would be effective. Unless, of course, you know differently …
Last week, the House of Lords debated the current state of adult education and lifelong learning. I’ve now taken some time to read through the transcript and I’ve picked out a number of highlights from the excellent contribution made by Baroness Sharp. The debate was also notable for providing a vehicle for the farewell speech of Baroness Williams to be delivered, which was well reported on Liberal Democrat Voice.
That aside, the motion debated (and agreed) was:
That this House takes note of the role of adult education and lifelong learning and the need to develop the skills needed to strengthen the United Kingdom economy.
and was moved by the Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Sharp of Guildford. In opening the debate, she said:
The trends [concerning adult education] are not good at present. Since the introduction of the full-cost £9,000 fee at universities in 2012, while the number of full-time undergraduates has increased, part-time numbers have plummeted by 58%. Today, there are 244,000 fewer part-time students studying at our universities than in 2010-11. This has hit the Open University and Birkbeck hard, but it has also led to course closures elsewhere because part-time courses become unviable. We know from the research undertaken by Universities UK that part-time students are indeed a somewhat mixed bunch, but we also know that a large number of them are mature students, many from disadvantaged homes and often with existing debt and family obligations, which makes them much more wary than their younger counterparts of taking on the debt obligations. Part-time study has been a powerful access tool. For those wishing to retrain and take up a new career, the ELQ rule, which excludes those who already have an equivalent level of qualification from getting grants and loans, has proved a substantial barrier to course take-up.
Yes, we’re definitely a “mixed bunch”! Baroness Sharp made a very pertinent observation about ensuring that the provision of adult education opportunities isn’t solely employer-led, but also considered the needs of individual learners.
I am calling for a more comprehensive skills strategy which addresses helping the over-24s improve their lot if they want to. What happens now if you are made redundant and cannot find an employer who will offer you an apprenticeship? What if you are self-employed, the fastest growing sector in the labour market at present? Who is responsible for training you if you are one of the army of people working as agency staff in one of the many areas in both the public and private sectors where work is now subcontracted out? If you are on a zero-hours contract, who is responsible for your training? There has been much talk about training needing to be demand-led, but demand in this case is always referred to as employer demand. I argue that the individual is an important part of demand.
In concluding, Baroness Sharp made three recommendations:
First and foremost, we need a more comprehensive approach that pulls together adult education and skills. This requires much closer working between colleges, universities, the independent training providers and not just employers but the local authorities and other public sector organisations, such as the NHS and DWP, as partners at a local level.
Secondly, we need to empower the individual to take more control over their own training. … given the risk-aversion shown by many mature students to loans, how about allowing 40 year-olds to draw down a proportion of their pension funds to meet training costs?
Thirdly, we need some incentive for the individual to invest in themselves. It is time, I believe, to look again at the idea of individual learning accounts … At the very least, it would be good to allow the individual to claim tax relief on the money that they invest on bona fides education and training courses.
The response from the government at the end of the debate came from Baroness Evans of Bowes Park. It was interesting that significant chunks of her response focused on pre-21 education, training and the provision of full-time apprenticeships, perhaps showing that despite the encouraging noises being made by her, there is still a failure at the heart of government to understand the needs of part-time, mature adult learners. She did, however, conclude that:
The Government recognise that there is more to be done to ensure that the UK has the skills and flexibility it needs to grow in the global economy and that all people in this country have the skills they need to do what they would like to in life.
… which is encouraging, but fine words butter no parsnips. Until there is a greater focus by government and politicians of all parties on the needs of part-time, mature students and an understanding of the value generated by people treading this path, then the decline in this sector can only continue.
The number of students studying at The Open University has fallen for the 5th consecutive year, according to figures released by The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).
Data for student enrolments in 2014/15 were published a few days ago. It makes dismal reading for HE part-timers. Overall, the number of part-time students fell 6%, to below 600,000. This compares to the 800,000 recorded in 2010/11. Chart 1 of HESA’s analysis provides the details.
The 6% fall is concerning enough, but the decline in Open University student numbers has been even more dramatic. Overall, across the OU in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, HESA reports total student numbers at 132,365. This is 18,470 (12.2%) fewer than reported in 2013/14.
The data shows that 11.4% fewer students are Open University undergraduates, making a total of 122,805. Postgraduate numbers have sunk to 9,560, down 21.8% on 2013/14. The full breakdown of figures across all UK HE providers can be found in Table 3 (Microsoft .xlsx format).
I’ve added this data onto the chart that I’ve been keeping for the last few years and it’s – well – terrifying.
I continue to fear for the future of part-time education under the Conservatives. However, no political party is blameless in this unfolding scandal. Labour damaged the sector by withdrawing ELQ funding. The coalition rarely acknowledged that the sector existed. They understood it even less. They were particularly bad at recognising that the needs of mature, part-timers are very different from those of young, full-time students.
We’re still a little way from the end of OU transitional fees in England. The majority of Open University undergraduates live there, so I expect that the next couple of years will be equally tough. I hope the Open University survives. I hope that part-time education as a whole survives too! There’s no doubt that it is a significant enabler of social mobility. But as the Conservatives continue their relentless attack on aspiration elsewhere, I’m not confident that my hope is rational.
This week I’ve had the pleasure of spending three days at the British Psychological Society’s Division of Occupational Psychology annual conference, held at the East Midlands Conference Centre in Nottingham. It’s the first time that I’ve attended and it was fascinating to listen to the breadth of the research being presented. It was also good to meet up with a number of past and present Leicester students as being on a distance learning course you don’t really get much of a chance to do this otherwise. Even more encouraging was that three recently graduated Leicester MSc students presented the results of their dissertation research to the conference, reinforcing the value of the course. Hopefully I’ll be able to do the same at some point in the future – if I manage to execute my own dissertation research well enough.
In the end, I managed to attend around 25-30 different sessions, with the highlights for me including:
The keynote presentation from Professor Steve Peters on optimising the performance of the human mind. In recent years, Steve has worked with a number of high-profile sportspeople, but freely admits that he isn’t really all that interested in sport. Instead, he’s able to help them understand the way that their minds work, enabling them to cope with the irrational and fast acting ‘inner chimp’ that he claims is inside us all. While the keynote wasn’t filmed, he has previously presented a 10 minute summary of his ideas in a TEDx talk from 2012.
The symposium of five papers on the impact of technology on work-life balance, which provided some very useful material for thinking about my current module assignment as well as complementing the material in the paper presented by The Future Work Centre on the impact of email pressure. You might have seen Richard MacKinnon, one of its authors, on television or in the press talking about their research early in January.
The fringe event delivered by Rob Bailey on the secret science of mind reading. I now know that I’m just as blind to really obvious changes in the environment as everyone else is. I also picked up a couple of tricks that I might be able to impress my work colleagues with – if I can get a large enough group of them together!
… and of course, being able to successfully navigate my way around the huge agenda and conference centre to see a couple of the Leicester MSc student presentations – thank you Karen and Melvyn for sharing your research into teacher wellbeing and workplace bullying respectively, and my apologies to Melissa for somehow managing to miss yours.
If you’d like to see what others thought of the conference, searching through the #dopconf hashtag on twitter will give you a good impression of the event.
It was definitely one of the friendliest conferences that I’ve attended and the ambassador programme they run for first time attendees like me was a great way to break the ice and meet new people (Thanks Angie!).
Next year’s conference is in Liverpool between 4th – 6th January and I certainly hope to be there.