Welcome to YourLearning.com

   Home | Online Learning | Churchill Fellowship
PhD Research | My Resume | Contact|


PhD Research

Methodology & Results



My Resume

Research Methodology & Results

The Research Paradigm

Our preference for what we want to know is influenced by our view of the world. Our worldview also determines how we choose to understand the world around us (Cohen et al 2001, 3; Strauss & Corbin 1998, 28). A paradigm or worldview is the hypothesis we develop to understand our social reality. Our experiences are central to how we see the world, how we settle on that view and how we define and address the problems we see. Kuhn (1977) states that scientific theories and views about social reality are constructed around a dominant paradigm. This paradigm may not answer all questions but may be open enough to have issues addressed by future scientists.

 In scientific research, a paradigm provides epistemological foundations for the research question and influences the choices of research methods (Guba 1990). It is important to surface these foundations, to justify the choice of research methods. In this research the main question was to explore how active, moderate and silent online discussion participants engaged and constructed meaning in online and blended formal education courses. So, what was the epistemological basis for this question?

 When a research question is posed, it is acknowledging one paradigm and challenging another (Guba 1990). The discussions in Chapter Two illustrated the contention between the objectivist and constructivist paradigms affecting the online learning pedagogy. The analysis in the previous chapter highlighted the dominance of the objectivist worldview in formal education that has led to political and pedagogical assumptions about what contemporary use of technology might do for different learners’ ways of knowing. This worldview of contemporary online learning practice expects all learners to conform to the defined learning processes and overlooks individual differences. It emphasizes visible learning processes and outcomes as evidence for engagement and knowledge construction. In contrast, the research questions acknowledged and assumed the possibility of learning beyond visible participation in online discussions. Silence was hypothesized as a role that learners might adopt for constructing meaning, and possibly as an alternative process for learning engagement. These questions aimed to challenge the objectivist assumptions that silence in online discussions implied no learning.

In the objectivist paradigm the research methodologies take a mechanistic view of learning and look for measurable and observable discussion participation data (Cohen et al 2001, 17). The research studies situated in this paradigm may be valuable to understand some learning differences, but they may ignore the unseen individual differences in learning. They may leave the notion of silence in online discussions unexamined. The questions posed in this research called for an alternative paradigm and methodology to examine the unexamined (Eisner 1990, 89) silence in online discussions. Such a paradigm needed to allow open-mindedness to examine engagement for active, moderate and silent learners.

The methodology for this research was therefore situated in the constructivist worldview. Constructivism accepts multiple realities (Phillips 2000). The paradigm suggests these realities are understood with reference to the theories or mental frameworks that individuals hold about the world (Guba 1990, 25). According to Guba (1990, 26) if reality is subjective and individual, then subjective interaction is the main way to understand the multiple realities and individual mental frameworks. Therefore the chosen research methods needed to involve interactivity between the researcher and the participant (Schwandt 1990, 272). The research techniques also needed to allow participants the space to re-conceptualise and reconstruct learning experiences during online and blended courses (Giddens 1997). Within this paradigm the research results could not be assumed as absolute truths. Instead they were interpretations subject to change as the participants tested old constructions in light of the new learning experiences and learning designs (Kelly 1970, 11). 

Repertory Grid Method

 The research employed an interview technique called the Repertory Grid Method designed by George Kelly  (1970). He based this method on his theory of personality called the Personal Construct Theory (PCT). The PCT philosophy is in parallel with the constructivist paradigm and encapsulates the basic postulate, “a person’s processes are psychologically channelised by the ways in which he anticipates events” (Kelly 1970, 9). The theory acknowledges both social and individual ways of understanding the world. Ways of knowing can be understood as interdependent on each other as well as independent of each other, depending on individuals and their context.

 According to Kelly (1970) no two events in any individuals’ life are the same. When faced with new events or experiences, one devises theories or hypotheses from past experiences and uses those theories to anticipate new experiences. Thus, different viewpoints and behaviours correspond to different theories of one’s world created from past encounters. These theories are called personal constructs abstracted by differentiating experienced events into two homogeneous groups (Kelly 1970). The theories held by individuals are not permanent. As one encounters new experiences, they use their previous constructions to choose how they respond or behave. New experiences will also help either to re-confirm previous constructions or deconstruct old constructions and reconstruct new ones. This ongoing deconstruction and reconstruction is what Kelly (1970) calls learning.

 The Repertory Grid Method based on the PCT provided a systematic and rigorous method to explore the behaviours (such as ‘active’ or ‘silent’ participation) learners chose. The method has been used in different disciplines. In this research the method employed qualitative and quantitative tools including two qualitative interviews to elicit learning experiences and their constructions, factor analysis of the repertory grid and qualitative analysis of transcribed and graphical data.

 The first interview involved open questioning to elicit contextual information about the study participants including their employment status, past education experiences, information technology skills, domestic and employment responsibilities, and financial and situational support for learning. This followed the main part of the interview that asked each participant to list 10-15 learning experiences during their online and blended courses. The experiences included online discussion participation. The experiences were noted on separate cards labelled E1, E2, E3, E4,… Participants were asked to look at a random combination of three experiences to describe which two experiences were more similar as compared to the third and why. This is called the triad method (Kelly 1970). The comparisons helped to elicit a pair personal constructs that were noted on another set of cards labelled, PC1a, PC1b; PC2a, PC2b; PC3a, PC3b…

 After the participants had considered each experience in at least one triad and had exhausted their personal constructs, they used a scaled of 1 to 5 to rate each experience against each pair of personal constructs. This resulted in a Repertory Grid for each participant that was analyzed using SPSS factor analysis function. The principal components or factors were extracted that showed the multiple correlations between different experiences and personal constructs, for each participant. The principal components with correlated experiences and constructs were represented as graphical axis and used for further qualitative analysis with the participant in the second interview.

 During the second interview participants were asked to consider each principal component (represented as a graphical axis). The participants gave labels for each axis describing it as a learning dimension in their knowledge construction process. The second interview also allowed further questioning of the learners engagement processes and reasons for their chosen level of participation in online discussions.

 All audio interviews were transcribed. The transcriptions and labelled graphical representations were imported into the qualitative data analysis software, ATLAS.ti (version 5). The data were coded using open coding and analyzed using the principles of grounded theory. The results below report on the analysis results for eleven overseas learners who volunteered to take part in the study.

Research sample

 The final research sample included a heterogeneous group of volunteer twenty-nine learners. They included post-graduate and post-registration learners studying for online or blended courses at one Higher Education Institute (HEI) in the UK. Some variation within this population group was important to allow for broader explanatory power and precision of the emerging themes and theory (Strauss and Corbin 1998). This variation was enabled through inclusion of a heterogeneous group of learners from different disciplines that used online discussion as the popular online pedagogical practice. The group also included home and overseas learners studying in and outside the UK.


The research analysis revealed that all twenty-nine study participants engaged in a range of online and offline individual and social activities. In this small-scale the learners identified themselves as active, moderate or silent discussion participants in online discussions during their online or blended learning courses. The following only represents a snapshot of research results, in particular from the view that examines differences between home and overseas learners' knowledge construction. The analysis offered various other perspectives that can be accessed in the thesis. 

The learners identified similar and different learning processes explaining their reasons for active, moderate and silent participation. Yet the silent overseas learners for whom English was not the first language also identified language and cultural differences as reasons for reduced control and negative emotional response that led to non-participation in online discussions.

A small number of home and overseas participants identified preference for social learning over individual learning. The preference for social learning did not imply preference for participation in online discussions. Another small number of learners stated preference for individual learning. These participants did not gain from online discussion participation but did desire the feeling of being in a learning community. Majority home and overseas learners identified the need for a balance between individual and social learning activities for knowledge construction, feedback and validation of developing personal knowledge. The study participants who were in full-time working positions also identified the importance of professional relevance to participate in online discussions.

All study participants preferred learning experiences that helped them to gain control over what was accepted as personal knowledge. Personal control and emotional engagement during social and individual learning activities emerged as the super-ordinate construct or lens into participants’ learning worlds and their ways of knowing.

Emotional connectedness

Irrespective of social and individual learning preferences all study participants identified the importance of emotions during online discussions. Knowledge of others and a feeling of connectedness were repeatedly identified as significant for support and social learning during online and blended courses. The feeling of connectedness was perceived to be important for social engagement, control and emotional satisfaction. Feeling part of a group helped online learners to know that they were not alone but part of a cohort that aspired to similar goals and shared emotions. It also assisted participants in establishing a comfort zone where they could trust others and share ideas and discussions.

A small group of learners who were confident in their online communication skills and English language writing experienced this connectedness. The majority home and overseas learners who had limited experience in online communication in the UK academic context identified the limitations of online discussion space to build a feeling of closeness and a team spirit that acknowledged individual goals for social attraction to a group.

“It was quiet a challenging activity having to construct a problem at work and having other people contribute to it. But the immediate assumption to this was that because we hadn't really established a group identity or a single purpose, and we hadn't consolidated that each person was coming in with a particular problem and our own work experience. Because we hadn't established that group identity, there was lack of motivation, lack of interest in seeing a potential solution emerge. It was the case of whatever, when it comes down to it I am not going to see you again. So consequently I found that that I struggled to engage with them.” (Carl Int 1)

As demonstrated in the proceeding sections the lack of emotional connectedness had a significant impact on overseas social and language identity construction.

Social identity construction

 All participants initially tried to participate in online discussions. They also indicated that online acknowledgment by others helped them to experience a sense of social presence and construct an online social identity. The active online participants, who were usually amongst the first to contribute, experienced this sense of social presence. When learners’ online contributions remained unacknowledged they felt ignored. The lack of response to online postings led individuals to question how others perceived them. Home and overseas learners, who described themselves as silent or moderate participants in online discussions, described non-response as a suggestion that their contribution may have been judged as incompetent or deficient in some way.

“It was quiet a disconcerting feeling, that they are already judging my work and thinking ‘oh I don’t know what do I say about that’, because I didn’t know what they were thinking. And this is like two days before the presentation, I had nothing, right.” (Kay Int 1) (home learner)

The lack of acknowledgement made home and overseas participants feel inadequate, particularly when active participants seemed engaged in a discussion that seemed too complex or advanced for their comprehension. For some moderate and silent participants these feelings led to a sense of isolation. Silent participants identified personal constructs such as ‘feeling isolated in a bubble’ (Kay Int2) and ‘I feel isolated in a group’ (Jaya Int 1) suggesting feelings of separation from the rest of the group. These emotions further contributed to their sense of social absence from online discussions.

 In addition, for overseas learners like Karan lack of reply and feeling of isolation also brought to question the language aspect of his online social identity.

“If I am not getting feedback then its difficult for me to interact with them, because of this particular reason may be what do they think about that, why they haven’t feedback, why they haven’t replied me. May be my language I use may be quiet difficult, or something they may find wrong, so they don’t think they are going to reply for that. So lot of points, a lot of thoughts are going in my mind. This affects my studies.” (Karan Int 2)

The lack of reply to his message did not only lowered Karan’s confidence in English language writing but also lowered his confidence in the subject. English language competence surfaced as a significant factor for Karan that led him to feel isolated and separate from the online group.

The home and overseas participants who did not experience an emotional and cognitive connection with others also found their social control diminished when others did not appear to value their thinking. The lack of sense of involvement led to silence or disengagement from online discussions.

Online language socialisation

Language learning is the part of the enculturation process that begins in early years of human life. It aids the awareness and consciousness of self and others. These are characteristics that are peculiar to human cognition and development (Vygotsky 1978). The overseas study participants for whom English was not their first language experienced difficulties in language socialisation using the online discussion spaces. Like the home learners, overseas participants also sought positive online social identities. They wanted to be seen in a positive light by their colleagues and tutor. In addition they wanted to improve their English language skills and wanted to establish new social-linguistic identities as overseas learners in the UK. Belz (2003, 209) confirms learning a second language is a process of “identity construction as individuals try to align themselves with groups, communities and/or sets of interests, values and beliefs”. The overseas participants were seeking new learner and language identities through active socialisation with others in the UK based courses.

The deconstruction of these learners’ experiences suggested that online discussion spaces did not acknowledge diverse language abilities and cultural identities. Overseas participants identified the differences between English language use in the UK academic contexts and the English language they used and learned in their home countries. They revealed that online course discussions did not provide the space, opportunity, freedom and safety to scaffold English language identity as overseas learners in the UK. The formality of online discourse was either beyond participants understanding or it provided limited opportunities to socialise with the aim to practice academic and cultural use of English language. It was not a space where participants felt free to deconstruct their existing language competence and reconstruct new ones.

“Because I mean, frankly, before I say something I always think about twice, thrice… what is going to be the fact of what I am going to tell them. Because they are PhDs and so, then kind of thinking that if I put like this way, because you know the thing is that because I am international student, I just came over here eight months ago. Initially I don’t know how to interact with them, the communication they use, so sometimes, because the language we use in India and over here, both are very different. Even common terms we need talk with them its also very different. So that also hinders me to talk with them freely” (Karan Int 1)

 Although the overseas learners had fulfilled the course entry requirements for English language competency (e.g. TEFOL and IETS exams), they did not feel confident in academic use of the language particularly in written online discussions. They compared their incompetence in English grammar with the English-speaking learners in the academic online discussion space. Their complex about English language competency contributed to feeling less free and to risk incorrect grammar usage in online discussions.

“When you have to write you have to think how and the grammar. All the things that is quite difficult. Its not just I write and it sounds good. But I have to go and see if it is correct. Sometimes it sounds good but its not correct… I am very, very disappointed ... It is more like the skill of the language than the knowledge.” (Jose’ Int 1)

“I don’t think my English is very well because sometimes it is hard to think how to translate it properly in academic language and also tutor is reading it. Language is an issue because sometime you know (pause) it is an issue because you have to think if you are making sense in English. If you talk to a Filipino we can just speak our language and we understand. You have to put it on a scratch paper first and think if it is appropriate and think if you have used proper translation.” (Carmel Int 1)

These overseas learners wanted to develop competence as English speakers through socialisation with experts in the language. The latter included peers and tutors. Yet they discovered limited opportunities for this form of socialisation in their courses emphasising participation in online discussions. 

 The second speakers of English language also identified their slow reading speed in the second language as one of the reasons for not contributing to online discussions, because like home learners they also wanted to know what they were talking about and create a positive social identity. They stated that writing in English with good grammar was time consuming and contributed to the reasons why they did not prioritise online discussion participation. The time commitment for writing a competent message also led overseas learners in employment to state their external commitments as reason not prioritising online participation.

 These overseas participants felt face-to-face social space was more conducive for socialisation and language identity with expert speakers of English language. Face-to-face interactions guaranteed a verbal response, which engendered confidence in the language and learning content. Face-to-face interactions allowed them opportunities for enculturation to develop a sense of identity as an overseas learner in the UK. They acknowledged that participation in online discussions might be good practice to improve written English. Yet they did not use online discussion boards in this way because like home learners they wanted to control and portray positive self-presentation in tutor-monitored online space.

Shared language identities

 Further analysis demonstrated that presence of other overseas learners, who demonstrated varying English language competency, supported some overseas learners social identity construction. Two overseas learners Lucy from China and Fiona from Vietnam (in the blended business management course) highlighted the positive influence on their language confidence due to multiple backgrounds and language skills of other learners. The knowledge of multiple language skills and context backgrounds in their cohort allowed these two learners to feel safe and confident in their online English usage despite imperfections in grammar.

 Likewise, Jose’, Karan and their multi-national peers on the blended version of the geographic information science course shared a sense of identity due to their English language variety. They suggested their multi-lingual and multi-ethnic identities were accepted in their blended version of the course because they felt free to try out their English language skills in face-to-face environments. They used informal face-to-face and email interactions with their overseas colleagues to build a sense of identity. These spaces allowed them a shared identity where their less than perfect grammar was acceptable. Whereas confident English usage by competent online discussions participants’ (who were mostly English speaking home learners on the online version of the course), may have led these overseas learners to feel out of place and less competent in English language usage.

 Carmel was another overseas learner from a nursing course who also desired a more competent English-speaking identity for her nursing role in the UK, but found online space ineffective. Carmel stated that online interactions in English language did “not feel close” (Carmel Int 2) to her and the experience did not “become a part of” (Carmel Int 2) her. These personal constructs were located on the construct dimension she labelled ‘deeper learning face to face versus surface learning online’. Face-to-face discussions with others who shared her cultural and language identity made her feel part of the group and represented her personal and social learning control. Despite her preference for active involvement in social learning Carmel experienced limitations in constructing a positive online social identity through active participation in written English language.

 Lam (2004) observed a similar affect of collective identities in a study of second language socialisation in a bilingual chat room by two Cantonese speaking Chinese students in America. Lam’s (2004) study demonstrated that using English for communicating on the Internet involved constructing new identities for conversing in English language. The social identities construed between two Chinese speakers emerged due to a mixed-variety of English used to form relationships with each other, and also to develop a level of efficiency in English language. Their use of English on the Internet distinguished Lam’s study participants from both monolingual English speakers and monolingual Cantonese speakers (Lam 2004).

 In a literature review of language practices and identity in virtual communities, Lam (2004) concluded that online language use is influenced by the socially dominant cultural representations and collective identities. In the present study, overseas learners speculated that the home (UK) English-speaking learners populated the online discussion board. It is possible that the discussion space was socially dominated by well-written English language and individuals who had shared cultural and language identities. The dominance of competent English-speaking identities may have led the less confident overseas learners, who did not receive active acknowledgement of messages, not to pursue online social identities.

Academic cultural context

 As overseas participants sought to construct positive social identities in the UK academic context they identified differences in academic and cultural use of academic English language. They also identified differences in teaching practices between their home countries and the UK. For overseas learners learning in the British academic context also meant learning about different social and cultural practices. They had to consciously change their ways of knowing. Some overseas learners expressed this change as part of the cultural shift in their way of thinking. For example, Karan stated

“My way of answering in India was different. We describe. But they want critical reflection language here. But in India you mostly describe. So that was the main reason I did not get very well marks. I have changed my pattern now, but I don’t think I am still writing what they want here. It is difficult to change and it is difficult to change what you have built up in your style over the whole life.” (Karan Int 1)


Similar experiences were also evident among overseas learners from English-speaking countries. The two Australasian and one American learner identified initial challenges in learning about the British higher education system and its expectations during their online courses.

“I am from New Zealand… I am here just over a year… Its alright. I mean any change is frustrating and it takes time, because you don’t understand. I am still not familiar with all the British terminology…We have all got different ways of saying the same thing isn’t it. It is more difficult online because you cannot easily talk to the British people who have experienced it before.” (Cassie Int 1)

“And, another learning experience has been understanding the British university system because I have had Australian and American experiences. So, its quiet fascinating. That is an overall experience...I have done some work for UK universities but as an external person I didn’t see the true light. But coming into a British University as a student is quite a shock to an Australian.” (Carl Int 1)

The above statements indicate the importance of language and social enculturation for learning in higher education for overseas learners on the UK-based online and blended courses. For overseas learners, enrolling on formal education courses in the UK might involve learning about different ways of learning, language and cultural norms and academic expectations in a different country.

Power discourses in online message writing

Written language in online discussions was an important device for social construction not only for overseas learners but also for home learners who used English as their first language. It was central not only to convey messages but also to share emotions in an online or blended course. Online writing, communication, language skills and etiquette were important for relationship building, gaining a sense of connectedness and feeling a sense of control.

The variation in online communication, language skills and etiquette created power differentials for overseas and home English speaking learners. These inequities meant some participants’ were competent and confident in online discussion participation and others were not. Learners who identified past experiences in using email for work and past online or blended experiences were more active in online discussions, despite their stated preference for individual learning. The power differences due to varying online communication skills and past online experience also meant some participants were more equipped to use online discussions as a beneficial tool for social construction than others. These power differences led the majority home and overseas participants, who were new to online learning, to disengage from online discussions.

Thus online communication and English language writing skills were not a neutral phenomenon. All study participants identified the use of formal online language to create positive self-presentations. The formal online language use coupled with past experiences and context empowered some participants but dis-empowered others. Likewise, good English language skills represented greater power and control over engagement in online discussions. Those with lower levels of English language ability, less confidence in e-writing and less time construct to clear, concise and accurate messages with no grammatical errors identified lesser control. They were also less effective in using the online space to build a sense of connectedness with others through two-way interactions.

For references and further discussion of the findings, please feel free to contact me.

Copyright © 2006- Shalni Gulati
All Rights Reserved