Ed D Blog 4: Methodology to method – sketching out the research for pandemic and post-pandemic FE

Looking into the future?

View to the path ahead from a lockdown walk in Buckpool nature reserve. It is lit up, and the light obscures the path.

In the last blog in this sequence, I want to outline and assess what methods will best facilitate the research I want to do. There are a number of issues to consider here. The first set of issues are of context: what will be permitted, and what will be imagined, in terms of what research looks like post-pandemic? Secondly, how do I utilise the research process as something which feeds into the “something-to-be-done”, the reflexive collaboration which is a part of as well as a documentation of the contest over the borders of what FE of the future is, who has agency within it, and who it is available to? Thirdly, issues of power, agency and capital in knowledge production and distribution. How will my methods democratise the research relationship? How can I best establish participant agency in research decisions, and establish a critical framework and structure? What does ethical, emancipatory post-pandemic education research look like?

In terms of what fora a research space might operate in, face-to-face research is currently suspended. It seems sensible to assume that for at least the next year it may not be sanctioned and where it is, may still be unethical. Under lockdown, social distance is a capital: for retail workers, delivery drivers, care and NHS staff, air is a shared and therefore biologically uncertain commodity. In the continued supply and handover of goods, touch is too repetitive a part of the exchange process to be under control and barriers are placebo more than protection. In care, physical intimacy is sheathed by patchy PPE. The governmental messaging has identified work from home as a privilege for those who “can”: the wheels of the economy may crush thousands unable to work from home as part of the “return to normal”. This being the case, there is a responsibility to build virtual research space and think carefully about how safety beyond the physical can be accommodated. What platforms are likely to facilitate consensual and democratic research? How can participants and data be protected in uncertain online meeting spaces, where shadowy rumours of predatory intrusions, surveillance and breeches persist?

In this context, what does research-as-activism (as well as into-activism) look like? A key perspective to learn from in trying to frame this is decolonial intersectionality (Kurtis and Adams, 2017): being mindful that oppressed voices are a source of expertise rather than a victim/object for study within the research process; moving beyond “monolithic conceptions” (Kurtis and Adams, 2017) of experience to instead locate experience in a web of multiple, intersecting power relations. In researching the contested boundaries of FE, I hope to frame this within an understanding of power and agency as intersecting and multiple. As Dennis (2015) notes, in the context of FE research, online spaces have the capacity to nurture dissent but also to reproduce existing “silences” (or the performed absence of dissent?), and it can be hypothesised that as online spaces are colonised in a post-pandemic FE, these silences may broaden. There is a tension between facilitating dissent, and doing this in a way which is secure without being neutralising.

Blogging appears to allow a number of advantages as a method. In recounting research using critical story blogs, Luschen (2014) notes the opportunity this gives for participant exploration of “educational hopes and experiences” facilitating both personal reflection and collective interaction, giving insight into community and mutuality in learning spaces. Supplying what Luschen refers to as prompts for bloggers to respond to will mean, similar to this principle in physical listening rooms (Heron, 2018), that a loose structure can be crafted to facilitate a critical framework with inter-participant friendship rather than the researcher/subject relationship as a methodological driver.

There are a number of problems to consider here. In a developing context of digital capital, and reflecting on the principles of decolonial intersectionality (Kurtis and Adams, 2017), what work needs to be done to ensure that marginalised voices can be heard? If I think of the migrant low-paid worker student as a key feature but a muffled voice of FE, how do I amplify this voice in the context of the oppressive barriers of material, time and digital poverty this student faces? There is a need to recognise my privilege as a white academic, acknowledging and responding to being part of a system these students are excluded from. Luschen (2014) notes that the digital story brings its own vulnerabilities, encouraging disclosure and articulation of trauma. There is a need to plan for rather than react to this as a possibility, and work to be done as to how to amplify oppressive experiences without exploitation of participants for academia.

In terms of prompts, one possibility within the blog framework is the use of self-directed walking video interviews. For Evans and Jones (2011), walking interviews allow intimacy in looking into both place and self. Given my interest in how place and time figure in the borders of FE, walking interviews (albeit virtually facilitated?) may be useful in allowing participants to engage with learning environments. They may capture the developing arenas of FE post-pandemic: the domestic, the extended thought space, and dependent on how things develop, the physical learning spaces of institutions. There are a number of caveats, of course: as Evans and Jones identify, the use of video may pose technical complications, and the multiple work of walking, talking and using the camera may create visual and cognitive disorientation. Nevertheless, the method provides an opportunity to evoke and analyse how personal learning spaces feature in and map against the physical and ideological boundaries of FE.

Another possible prompt is the self-selected artefact. As Yang (2017) has demonstrated, participatory visual methods may be particularly useful in research into adult and continuing education. This approach mirrors the emancipatory pedagogy of Freire (1970) and hooks (2009) in facilitating agency in knowledge construction in a way that may be more accessible for than dense text. Facilitating participants in engagement with self-chosen physical artefacts may support valuable reflection on their historical experiences of the contested borders of FE, whether in terms of obstacles in accessing education, or the battles fought over the sector more broadly.

As government and education leaders push a return to a (new) normal where business as usual is prioritised and educational access is considered in the context of brand and recruitment, there is a counter-movement of marginalised voices calling loudly and clearly for space to speak and develop knowledge. This transcends the kyriarchal (Schussler-Fiorenza, 1995) forces which form the very structure of FE and HE. The methodology appropriate to this struggle over the boundaries of knowledge and education post-pandemic is in germination; politically, the appropriate action is to listen and amplify.

 

References

 

Dennis, C., 2015. Locating post-16 professionalism: public spaces as dissenting spaces. Research in Post-Compulsory Education, 20(1), pp.64-77.

Evans, J. and Jones, P., 2011. The walking interview: Methodology, mobility and place. Applied Geography, 31(2), pp.849-858.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. London: Continuum.

 

Heron, E., 2019. Friendship as method: reflections on a new approach to understanding student experiences in higher education. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 44(3), pp.393-407.

hooks, b. (2009). Teaching critical thinking: practical wisdom. Abingdon: Routledge.

Kurtis, T. and Adams, G., 2017. Decolonial intersectionality: implications for theory, research and pedagogy. In: K. Case, ed., Intersectional Pedagogy: complicating identity and social justice. London: Routledge.

Luschen, K., 2014. Exploring (Dis)Connections Through Digital Storytelling: Towards Pedagogies of Critical Co-Learning. In: K. Luschen, ed., Crafting Critical Stories: Towards Pedagogies and Methodologies of Collaboration, Inclusion and Voice. Oxford: Peter Lang.

Schüssler Fiorenza, E., 1995. Feminist studies in religion and a radical democratic ethos 1. Religion and Theology, 2(2), pp.122-144.

Yang, K., 2017. Situating Participatory Visual Methods in Adult Education. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 2017(154), pp.9-16.

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