PhD Studentships available in Edinburgh Napier’s School of Computing!

image1 (3)It was about this time last year when I found that my (now) supervisor, Hazel Hall, had just taken on a PhD student in an area that I wanted to research. I was gutted that I had missed the chance.

Well, guess what? One year later, the opportunity is here again and Edinburgh Napier’s School of Computing have FOUR studentships available. Apply now!!

Some of the opportunities are in the Centre for Social Informatics (CSI), the research group I am now part of and there are also great research areas too.

So if you think you can do it, or even have an interest… then apply. Apply now. If you don’t apply and you don’t try, how will the department see how fabulous you are and what you are made of?

You can find more information on my supervisor’s blog here: http://hazelhall.org/ and instructions on how to make your application.

From one of the newest recruits, it’s one of the smartest decisions I made when I had the opportunity and I hope you decide the same…

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Bringing research to life – Evidence Based Practice!

image1 (2)I have been a little preoccupied over the past couple of weeks with working through some reports that are a little difficult to digest. Part of my research will be making comparisons between Workplace Learning in Scotland, the UK and Europe, focusing their efforts to make Workplace Learning ‘fabulous’. I am not saying that it is not already fabulous (well okay, let’s say available and invested-in), but it does need some work, and I am going to explain some of the interesting things I have found out so far from reading some reports into different European and UK strategies. In this blog post I will focus on the UK reports, mainly as there are so many European reports that I think that deserves a post on its own!

Firstly, in the UK, workplace learning plays a major part in education. A report by the Open University (OU) explains just that. The Open University understands that those who create courses need some way to ensure that students are gaining transferable skills they can then use when going into employment. In their report on work-based learning models and approaches, The OU explained that their courses are designed with the aim of giving students an academic qualification in the area that they wish to work in as well as helping them develop that important skills-set. Often, this is the problem. Students attend university but have very little ‘transferable skills’ to show. Now for me, I understood this very quickly during my undergraduate degree and applied everywhere for some form some voluntary work so that I could build up my skills and have something to show for it. I knew that a degree in Psychology was very academic (and competitive in terms of graduate jobs) and although I had the option to gain some skills during a placement, this would probably not be enough in the world of work. I kept records of achievements and reflective diaries so that when it came to interviews I had kind of an evidence portfolio which was partly academic and significantly skills based.

Anyway, The Open University took this one step further. They understood that students need to be able to show what they have gotten out of their course and also be able to show this as part of transferable skills in employment situations. Each course is developed individually against Occupational Standards and are assessed according to its content to ensure the students are adequately qualified on completion. It explains that if a career path needs a lot of face to face contact and interaction, then more practice based observations need to be made to ensure the student meets these Occupational Standards. The example given is nursing or midwifery: every day a practitioner would have a lot of patient contact compared to someone who work in ICT for example, who may not see different people each day. To address this, the Open University ensures that each course has a suitable amount of placement or observable practice in order for students to demonstrate what they have learned. They also emphasise the importance of mentoring and support within this context so that students can be supported through their journey of learning, buy both academics and also professionals in the area. Something else is important too. Through combining academia and work based learning it then means that those who have completed a National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) or Scottish Vocational Qualifications (SVQ) at Level 3, which are competency assessed qualifications, can then have the opportunity to progress onto a higher education level by studying modules at the Open University. The benefit is that they do not need to be an academic high flyer!!

Higher Education institutions in England seem to follow this. A case study by Murdock (2004) explains that universities are now expected to show that their courses adhere to Codes of Practice for the Assurance of Academic Quality and Standards. So basically, if you are training in an area that needs work experience, the course had better have this included! Universities must provide their students with placement opportunities that are appropriate in terms of delivering a high standard of education and workplace learning all in one. As university fees are quite high anyway, more importance is being placed on gaining that vital learning in the workplace, and universities need to be able to identify and exemplify the value of such placements within their courses. This is what is often appealing to students.

The 2011 Workplace Employment Relations Study explains some of the benefits of having experience in the workplace and suggests that employees will contribute to innovation and improvement by connecting with what they do if they have further understanding of the workplace through learning. They will react to problems more effectively and contribute to the decision making of the organisation which in turn can help productivity of the organisation if the employees are involved. From 2004-2011 staff involvement increased, with more organisations using meeting style situations like staff and team briefings so that staff felt involved and would be able to contribute to the workings of the organisation.

One positive thing that I did read was that the UK government has pledged to increase apprenticeships as there are currently more applicants than vacancies – not surprising then. By 2020, according to the Apprenticeships Policy Document (December, 2015), the UK government want an additional three million apprenticeships available. Now in the UK, often incentives are needed to help facilitate the development of such apprenticeships. Organisations are given money if they employ an apprentice, particularly if it someone who is not currently working. Public sector bodies will now have new targets set in order to increase apprenticeships within their organisations.

Funnily enough there are organisations like the National Apprenticeship Service who help facilitate this and support the regulation of apprenticeships within organisations. The service has several advisers based in North East England who are there not only to support employers in terms of legal and formal aspects, but they are there to support the applicants to help them find an apprenticeship. The UK government has invested money into supporting apprentices and more importantly helping employers create those important vacancies for individuals to apply. This has been done by the Skills Funding Agency who fund training and skills development in the UK, and is the funding body of the National Apprenticeship Service and National Careers Service.

Now whilst plodding through these reports, I did find one most useful. A report was commissioned to review the European Social Fund (ESF) and its programme supporting In-Work Training In England and Gibraltar. Peter Dickson and Richard Lloyd produced the report to explore the effectiveness of the fund’s programmes (from 2007-2013), reviewing 41 projects by interviewing government officers, co-financing organisations, project leads, key partners and employers and employees. They discovered that the following factors were found to be success factors in effective practice:

  • Flexible provision –  it is important provide a range of items to adapt to the needs of the employees. These include delivering the programme close to learners in terms of travelling distance, varying ends dates of the course to take into consideration different abilities and unforeseen circumstances (illness, stress of work load on participants), using blended learning so part of the course is taught and part is available for online and distance learning.
  • Partnerships – help to engage employers and learners to build up a relationship, using sector and community based organisations to access and build up trust with target groups.
  • Committed and competent staff – high quality of staff through the journey, both delivery and management of that journey so that learners feel supported by those who know what they are doing.
  • Other factors: these include providing financial support to learners and employers, having firm foundations, having previous experience with ESF funding and having an effective assessment process.

So as you can see, there are some areas that the UK are focusing on, primarily education and apprenticeships. Some of the reports highlight important factors to consider when developing workplace learning and others exemplify what needs to be done. All in all, I think it is quite simple to say: workplace learning in the UK is complex and it is not perfect. However, making the right moves towards supporting learning in the workplace can benefit not only the organisations involved, but the individuals themselves who wish to take up the learning on order to develop their own employment and career prospects.

From a more personal perspective, a former Careers Adviser (based in England)… workplace learning is important. I have spoken to many callers (both adults and young people) who wonder why they cannot get job, why they are struggling to get experience or why they cannot get where they want to be. Quite often, there is a simple solution. In a career, if investment is put into workplace learning through things like apprenticeships, sandwich courses and training or development ‘on the job’, then the outcomes are often far better than the journey it took to get there. The person will never experience that journey unless they try. It only takes one simple thing to start – go out there, search and learn. If a person can evidence those transferable employability skills, whether they be specific to a certain sector or not, they will have a better chance of securing the career they want, that promotion or their own personal development at work that has been waiting for them to take a bite.

Murdoch, I. (2004). Developments in the evaluation of work-based learning: A UK perspective. Industry and Higher Education, 18(2), 121-124.

 

 

Literature searching (and writing) – the best and worst bits!

Blog 6

Over the past few weeks, I have been trying to narrow down my literature search to find journal articles that are meaningful to the research. For me, this meant that I wanted to find articles that I could eventually include and discuss and that would be relevant. However, I now understand that I may have misunderstood what the process actually is and that I am not just searching for relevant information, but information that is not. Some of the process is finding and reading (and annotating) all of the information that is also not relevant yet but some that might be in the future. During my research induction, one of the students explained that they felt they had wasted their time taking a whole day searching and reading for things that they found to be pointless. It’s not pointless. It is all part of finding what is right and definitely what is not. How else are we going to know what articles are more suitable if we have not read the ones we feel don’t match the criteria of our search, or the ones that we feel just aren’t right? If we spend a whole day searching databases, journals and catalogues for articles on a particular topic that we later find is not relevant, it is still not pointless. Its research. Did Jeske and Stamov Roßnagel (2015) just pick the first articles they found relevant when carrying out a conceptual literature review?…probably not. I’d assume they used a more systematic approach and had to narrow down what was best, most likely discarding pieces of research along the way that did not quite fit. But this is just me, that is just my opinion and the only way to know how it was done is to ask.

As research students we are learning from our literature searching that the articles may not fit, but we are also giving ourselves the opportunity to explore the literature a little further in doing this. What I find most interesting is that I have had several days like this, but I am yet to feel was pointless. Instead, I have reflected on it (albeit slowly) and come to realise that those articles I have found that are not yet relevant, may be useful for me later on or even to someone else who may be needing them in the future. It is the process of our own learning, or learning that everything does not run smoothly and everything does not happen in a linear fashion. We search as we want to find but what we find might not exactly match what we want to search and so on.

A good example of my ‘not so relevant’ searching becoming relevant was at a recent training event that I attended. The guy in charge, Fraser, just happened to be the Director of a training organisation who delivers external training on Project Management to whoever might need it, including organisations and universities. Fraser has made a career out of his passion and more recently decided to embark on the journey of a piece of doctoral research (I do believe he said he did a DBA). Now I did not get the opportunity to ask him about his research, but I most certainly wish I had – I really wish I had. It was not until I searched his LinkedIn profile that I found out that his piece of research was primarily concerned around the literature that I was current reading and writing about – bingo! So I emailed him and asked about it, you know, being the nosy person I am. He explained where I could find his research and even suggested parts that might be relevant. I found it really interesting that he mentioned a model by a researcher called Donald Kirkpatrick which I had just read about in my own literature searching just days before (WOW!). The article I had read was by Sacks and Burke (2012) who based their own research on Kirkpatrick’s model and evaluated training transfer in terms of the four criteria proposed by Kirkpatrick: reactions, learning, behaviour and results. Just like Fraser, they used this model in the study design and evidenced reasons for wanting to use it. So, although it is something that may not appear in my own research directly, it was beneficial for me to see how a piece of research I had read influenced my own understanding of another person’s research, as well as being able to see how research can be used in the more practical sense of training evaluation.

Something else I have noticed is that there are a LOT of articles in the workplace learning and knowledge management literature (that I have read so far) which seem to repeat what other authors have done and seem to say similar things. But there is one main difference. The main difference is what the authors get out of writing the article, their arguments and how they feel their research is relevant. This is what helped get the research published amongst various other things so I think it’s important to take this all on board. In a PhD (or in my case, working towards hopefully a PhD after my annual review decision), it is a journey, a journey of exploration and finding out why? Why do you want to do this research? Why does the research have importance and most importantly how can we back these claims up?

So this brings me onto the literature searching I have been doing over the past couple of weeks. After a brief discussion with one of my supervisors (who focuses a lot on employment, skills, training etc.), it became apparent that we were both starting to question more methodological issues, with focus on what we were trying to ‘measure’. Now from this conversation alone, it turns out that defining what you mean is difficult but by looking at my research, training and skills were one aspect that might come into play. So my task was as follows: do a brief literature review and find out what the meaning of training is, what we want to measure and how we can do this. It wasn’t as easy as you may think!

I started off with a brief plan of what I was looking for and parts on what I might want to say. Then I started my search. Firstly I did a general ‘key-term’ search on databases, Google Scholar and specific employment and training related journals themselves. This was great, I got loads of articles – none of which were relevant. Back to the drawing board. Secondly I then tried to narrow my search putting in key phrases and searching individual journals for recent publications. This highlighted a few articles but nothing of any significance to me just yet. Finally, I just started reading and it was from that reading that I found others. Researchers had mentioned other researchers and from this I was able to find some that were more relevant but still found that they all did not gel together. Now I did question why this had happened…

Firstly, training is HARD to define regardless of what you believe it is. So to start my search this is what I found:

Training is seen as a method for enhancing human performance. Whatever the individual and organisation feel they are lacking, whether it be knowledge on a certain topic, the inability to successfully complete a task or wanting to develop skills, training will be directed to help bridge this gap and provide the individual or groups with the necessary information to be able to work towards their goal (Silberman & Auerbach, 2006).

Quite frankly, training is hard to define as it is so individualistic and there are that many variables that we need to consider that there may never be one definite answer. It depends on what the organisation requires, who they are, how many people they need to train and so on… and after that, it depends on who delivers the training, what skill / quality you wish to train employees in etc etc. I could go on. For me, I felt that part of this searching and writing was a little off-topic but I could see where it was heading in terms of my research.

What I got from this “literature review” was something different altogether. I did not find that I had travelled leaps and bounds I searching for articles and writing about them, no. Although there were some interesting reads thrown in. What I did find out was that the feedback from my supervisors on my writing helped me the most. So although I may question why I wrote this piece of work and sometimes wonder what the purpose of it was, some things do stand out to me:

  1. Read as much as you can, write about it. Then side-line it is you need to. It’s not always about how relevant it is, it can also be about how relevant it’s not.
  2. Write, write and write some more. If you can give your supervisors work to mark and give you feedback, then do it. I found that this was really helpful to explore how my writing style / format needed to be tweaked and altered a little. This is normal. For me, I had not written academically for at least three years (give or take the little bit I wrote in my internship etc.) so I needed this to help shape my own writing. I needed my supervisor to tell me how she thought my writing was and how I could improve. And she did. That I respect.
  3. Nothing is pointless. It is a journey of discovery whether that be discovery and learning about your literature, your own writing style or even about what you feel you are capable of, it is all part of the process. You might sit back and think ‘what on earth have I been doing?!?’ but it is that process of reflection that is seen to be an important aspect in progress so if you are already doing that then good – you are learning!

Okay, I think I might have blabbed a little but I hope you get my point. My last and very final point of the blog post is this: if you get stuck, struggle or question ‘why?’ then tell you supervisor and your colleagues. They are there to help. So when you feel things are pointless, you are unsure of what you have done / are doing, or you just need to get it all out and cry – go to them. You don’t need to struggle along and most likely, they will have either done it themselves before or know someone who has so will be able to help to pick you up and help you get your confidence back to fly again.

 

Jeske, J., & Stamov Roßnagel, C. (2015). Learning capability and performance in later working life: towards a contextual view. Education + Training, 57(4), 378-391.

Sacks, A.M., & Burke, L.A. (2012). An investigation into the relationship between training evaluation and the transfer of training. International Journal of Training and Development, 16(2), 118-127.

Silberman, M., & Auerbach, C. (2006). Active Training: A Handbook of techniques, Designs, Case Examples and Tips (p.1). San Francisco: Pfeiffer.