Thoughts on presenting a PhD proposal

The seminar room was filled with other PhD students and multiple professors. Presenting your work to an audience is not an easy task, especially if the audience consists of academics with much more experience than yourself. But today they were listening to my current research proposal. “It’s an informal setting”, my promotor said before the presentation. And even though he was right, being it the first time I presented something ‘academic’ in years made the setting appear more formal in my mind than it probably was. Nevertheless, this mind needed to present the research topic of the PhD project in a clear and appealing way under 15 minutes.

It thus needed to be clear because although the absolute majority of the room was more experienced than me, they didn’t necessarily have the same background in qualitative research. This made the task of introducing a topic like ‘open education’ from a qualitative perspective, and my particular interest in its ‘hidden curriculum’, much more challenging. Juggling with jargon like ‘material-semiotic lens’ or ‘critical discourse analysis’ without introduction seemed a poor idea. From an educational point of view, the opportunity to present ones work was invaluable since it forces the researcher to think about the content in a careful manner. I was encouraged to “go back in time”, so to speak, to that personal level of understanding where everything was more or less new. Time traveling was a way of imagining my former self as the audience to determine in the way and degree of complexity an audience should be addressed. This hopefully without dumbing down the information or, following Jaques Rancière, without making the a priori assumption that they will not comprehend (Rancière, 1991). If the introduction of a perhaps intimidating creature, such an ANT, or using the magical spells that we call scientific jargon in critical discourse analysis would have been too disordered for me six months ago,… it might be too much for an audience in that short time span. Therefore, in what follows I hope to illustrate my tentative approach to find a meaning full way to present unfamiliar content to a general audience.

On presenting open education: start with why

Instead of opening with a definition of what open education is, a more personal touch seemed opportune to start with something concrete that could appeal to others. Therefore, following Simon Sinek, I “started with why” as a first strategy of capturing the audience’s attention. Why do I research the things I do? It is something I like to hear in other’s presentations, and apparently it seems to appeal to people in a certain way (Sinek, 2011). Of course, it’s hit or miss with these kind of approaches and there is no way of knowing this stuff actually works. Here goes nothing.

For me, open education first appeared as a way to provide more educational opportunities to a broader audience that often experiences limitations regarding the accessibility of (higher) education. For example, typical boundaries that open education seeks to eliminate are procedural, temporal, and/or geographical; it aims to reduce admission requirements, offer classes online, and allows following them from home. Consequently, it claims to provide education for anyone, anytime and anyplace (Blessinger & Bliss, 2016), and the way the movement to provide these opportunities was different from the ones I myself received. I come from a vulnerable family background, where most members were confronted with many of the mentioned boundaries and didn’t attain a high school degree. Me being younger than my siblings, and given the current Belgian educational system, the government intervened to provide educational opportunities in the form of scholarships. Universities themselves also adapt their entrance fees depending on the student’s income, or the income of his/her parents, lowering the financial boundaries. And since I was raised in a city with one of those universities, it finally became possible to enrol. The difference between the two forms, traditional higher education and open education, are in that light quite interesting and It made me wonder what kind of possibilities my parents or siblings could have had. Although both forms are highly different in theory and practice, and it’s perhaps too straightforward put to next to each other here, it allowed for a more personal touch of the research topic and the problems with accessibility that open education hopes to tackle.

On gardens and curricula: finding a suitable metaphor

Getting an audience’s attention is one thing, keeping it is another. The second strategy involves using a metaphor to sharpen and present ideas. This was explored for two reasons. First, a metaphor works as a personal heuristic to sharpen both ideas and language that is often cultivated in the form of an essay (Verschaffel, 2008), and second, to present some theoretical aspects of the research project across without overburdening the audience with jargon.

The Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) are perhaps the most well-known form of open education and gained momentum due to the widespread use of the internet and digital devices, allowing initiatives to provide such education and users to access it. The notion ‘curriculum’ plays a key role in the research project on open education. Exploring this notion in this specific context seems opportune and is done by approaching some older academic work. The notion ‘curriculum’ is thus understood as “learning which is planned and guided by the school, whether it is carried on in groups or individually, inside or outside the school” (Kerr, 1968, p. 16). This definition is rather old, however, its simple and concise form allows for a more intuitive approach and adaptation than more complex quotes. This way, side marks were made during the presentation: “the curriculum is planned and guided by the school (or in this case, an institution for higher learning), whether is carried on in groups or individually (group discussions may occur within MOOCs), inside or outside the schools (or the walls of either the hosting university or MOOC platform).” It wasn’t perfect, but it opened the door for the introduction of a metaphor: the garden (Baptist, 2002).

Imagine yourself enrolling in a MOOC, an online class that offers various subjects during the upcoming weeks. Prior to the class, let’s say “Introduction to Health and Wellness”, addressed subjects are announced such as “assessment of one’s personal health” and “achieving and maintaining a healthy weight”. These indicate what is included in the MOOC curriculum, which in turn can be understood as a metaphorical garden with corresponding plants.

Following the metaphor, a path invites students to walk between the flora – here clearly indicated with separate labels. A trajectory is equally presented when visiting the MOOC platform which informs the students about the different subjects addressed in the mentioned class. Both pathways appear inside a controlled environment: the garden is walled from the outside, and the MOOC is behind the virtual wall of a login screen. Both the collective and individual aspects of curriculum are present: the garden path is wide enough to accommodate a fair number of visitors, and the MOOCs number of possible participants is almost indefinite. But, it’s not this modest translation from curriculum to garden that is interesting. On the contrary, the idea of picturing a garden is meaningful for a whole different reason.

In search of garbage bins?

If one were to ask the curriculum designer of a MOOC what it means to be an proclaimed ‘open course’, he or she might point to the above example: a well-organized and orderly course, where each topic is defined. To phrase it in garden terms, it shows a very specific configuration of a botanical garden where each plant is separate from the others and has its own label. Consequently, its design seems to follow a specific kind of logic, namely ‘order’. This makes me wonder. What logic is underlying the curriculum of a MOOC? What does ‘openness’ mean on the platforms that host these courses? What characteristics do designers have in mind, the first garden or the second one?

The notion ‘hidden curriculum’ further elaborates on the question at hand. The hidden curriculum can be understood as “(…) the norms and values that are implicit, but effectively, taught in schools and that are not usually talked about in teachers’ statements of end or goals”(Apple, 1979, p. 84). The logic that dictates how the garden is organized, or in this case the open education curriculum, may consist of implicit norms and values. In the previous example of the “Introduction to Health and Wellness”, there was an emphasis on “heavy weight” which appears quite “logical” in American society that struggles with this issue. However, psychological wellbeing is not mentioned, illustrating how a particular MOOC is presented. The question now raises: wat are the underlying norms or values when open education uses the notion ‘openness’? What gardens (form) and plants (content) do designers have in mind?

The proclaimed extent of openness in MOOCs can be problematized by arguing that ‘openness’ is always accompanied by some form of ‘closedness’ due to selection and exclusion procedures in both the curriculum and pedagogy (Edwards, 2015). Not everything is as open as it may seem, although many initiatives and platforms use the same term to describe their practices. To clarify this conceptual vagueness, the research scope should not be narrowed down to mere dichotomous concepts (e.g. open/closed) or already mentioned aims of ‘openness’ regarding accessibility (Knox, 2016). Instead, I would like to draw attention to other emerging concepts to move beyond the focus on ‘openness as accessibility’. In other words, I would like to look at the aspects that one might miss in the image of the first garden, and take into account the operations of totally different things. For example, those two garbage bins on the right side of the path in the second garden. A way of identifying and problematizing aspects of open education curriculum that otherwise might have been missed will be done by looking at how ‘openness’, ‘education’, ‘students’, and ‘educators’ appear in the way of speaking on MOOC platforms and educational policy.

Finally, using a ‘material-semiotic lens’ (Law, 2008), the scope is extended from mere descriptions of these terms (e.g. text on a website, or labels in the garden), but also takes into account the technical characteristics of the websites that display these descriptions (e.g. hyperlinks to a worst practice, or the garden garbage bins). The adoption of such a lens is done in the hope that the understanding of ‘openness’ will be more accurate when taking into account both aspects: the textual and the technical.

Did you like this article? Do you have other ways to formulate your new research idea’s? Feel free to leave a like or comment below.

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Apple, M. W. (1979). Ideology and curriculum. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Baptist, K. W. (2002). The garden as metaphor for curriculum. Teacher Education Quarterly29(4), 19–37.

Blessinger, P., & Bliss, T. J. (2016). Preface. In P. Blessinger & T. J. Bliss (Eds.), Open education: international perspectives in higher education (pp. 1–10). Camebridge: Open Book Publishers.

Edwards, R. (2015). Knowledge infrastructures and the inscrutability of openness in education. Learning, Media and Technology40(3), 251–264.

Knox, J. (2016). Posthumanism and the MOOC: opening the subject of digital education. Studies in Philosophy and Education35, 305–320.

Law, J. (2008). Actor network theory and material semiotics. In B. S. Turner (Ed.), The New Blackwell Companion to Social Theory (3rd ed., pp. 141–158). Oxford: Blackwell.

Rancière, J. (1991). The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. Stanford: Stanford university press.

Sinek, S. (2011). Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone To Take Action. London: Pinguin.

Verschaffel, B. (2008). Het essay als denkvorm. In Figuren / Essays (pp. 9–16). Leuven: Van Halewyck.

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