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PhD Research

Methodology & Results


My Resume

Learning during online and blended courses

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 October 2005.

Research Question, 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.

The 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. 

The prevailing 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.


The 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 question was:

č    How do learners engage and construct meaning during online and blended learning courses that require and encourage participation in online discussions?

In the 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 blended courses:

č    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:

č    Are silent learners or ‘lurkers’, who do not actively contribute in online course discussions, learning?

The intention 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:

č    What are the implications for practice?

The understanding 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. 


The above justification and research questions generated the following research aim:

č    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 objectives:

  1. To use the Personal Construct Theory and employ the Repertory Grid Method embedded in the constructivist paradigm to answer the above questions

  2. 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

  3. To statistically analyse the Repertory Grids developed by individual learners to rate experiences and personal constructions and identify the main learning dimensions for each learner

  4. To qualitatively analyse interview data and learning dimensions and identify the main themes and different ways of knowing for individual learners

  5. To qualitatively analyse data and identify reasons for different levels of online discussion participation by silent, moderate and active participants

  6. To deconstruct silent learners data and identify evidence for knowledge construction

  7. 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


It 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 discussions.

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