Identifying a Research Problem

Research Query

Identifying a research problem consists of specifying an issue to study, developing a justification for studying it, and suggesting the importance of the study for select audiences that will read the report. 

John W. Creswell

While it acknowledges that “Participating in elections is the essential starting point of any democratic system,” Elections Canada’s own working paper on the Electoral Participation of Young Canadians cites a characterization of the nation’s youth as “political dropouts,” building on the depressing findings of Ottilia Chareka and Alan Sears, that even though

“Youth understand voting as a key element of democratic governance, a hard won democratic right, and a duty of democratic citizenship […], most indicate they do not plan to vote because voting does not make a difference.”

Additionally, the perils of such a disinterest threaten the creation of a trend Gilens and Page have identified in the United States as having transformed the country [back] into an oligarchy, wherein “mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

Taken together the two ideas present the nexus of an area of research my recent work and experience lead me to consider, as it offers a unique insight into a vital phenomenon. As the author of the Elections Canada working paper, Paul Howe observes that “a lower voting level among the young could simply represent an increase in the number of intermittent non-voters and/or a decrease in the incidence of voting among young, intermittent non-voters.”MA Doodles

He adds,

“The notion that today’s young people need particular support and encouragement to take up the habit of voting is an important one. To better understand these processes, further research focusing on political socialization dynamics in late adolescence (when young people are approaching or reaching voting age) would be valuable.”

In the last many months, I have considered the problem of my upcoming graduate inquiry as an opportunity to explore this application of public education, sensing the intersection (though perhaps collision would be more appropriate) of Canada’s democratic traditions with the lauded Digital Age and the school curriculum itself. Working as I have (and continue to) with various unique cohorts in blended digital and face-to-face environments, as well as beyond formal instruction in a variety of informal or extra-curricular settings, my spheres of interaction with young people presents what Howe describes as an area for future research:

“Conducting research in the high school setting has the advantage of providing access to all segments of youth society, including the most marginalized, indifferent and/or disaffected, who often cannot be effectively targeted once they have left school.”

Something I’ve quoted often as a guiding principle in my work over the last many years is Gert Biesta’s notion that

“Young people learn at least as much about democracy and citizenship – including their own citizenship – through their participation in a range of different practices that make up their lives, as they learn from that which is officially prescribed and formally taught.”

In his graduate work [highlighted recently on CBC’s IdeasDavid Moscrop highlights a problem in applying the workings of the “lizard brain” to the complexities of modern democracy: “It’s about messaging and name familiarity. And it reflects our MA Doodlesown vulnerability to being manipulated — which is why attack ads work and sound bites work.” Such a revelation echoes Habermas, who described a degraded public sphere as one co-opted by media and political elites who manipulate public opinion to their own ends.

In confronting this emerging civic reality, my own interest in curriculum adjoins the prospect of critical pedagogy as a means of instilling young people with an emancipatory praxis that allows them to enact and create their own freedom. This tradition of scholarship includes the likes of John Dewey, Paulo Freire, as well as Michel Foucault and Gregory Bateson, but also recent the recent theorizing of Stephen Downes, Bonnie Stewart, Jesse Stommel and Gardner Campbell.

Following from Freire, a critical perspective on one’s “generative theme” is central to an emancipatory education:

“To investigate the generative theme is to investigate the people’s thinking about reality an people’s action upon reality, which is their praxis. For precisely this reason, the methodology proposed requires that the investigators and the people (who would normally be considered objects of that investigation) should act as co-investigators. The more active an attitude men and women take in regard to the exploration of their thematics, the more they deepen their critical awareness of reality and, in spelling out those thematics, take possession of that reality.”

When broadened to include the evolution of the public sphere presented by the burgeoning Digital Age, the means by which these themes and power-relationships are forged has expanded beyond traditional print and broadcast media to include a panoply of personal publishing technologies that continues to mediate power relationships in new and daunting ways. It is a time fraught with both possibility and peril.

So we can see that as Gardner Campbell posits the creation of personal cyberinfrastructure, Audrey Watters wonders about the peril of bringing our face-to-face cultural inequalities online:

“What percentage of education technologists are men? What percentage of “education technology leaders” are men? What percentage of education technology consultants? What percentage of those on the education technology speaking circuit? What percentage of education CIOs and CTOs; what percentage of ed-tech CEOs?

“Again: How do these bodies — in turn, their privileges, ideologies, expectations, values — influence our education technologies?”

In my work with young people I strive to create learning opportunities meant to instill a reflective critical praxis emblematic of the type of citizenship engagement necessary for democracy to exist. Many of these learning opportunities are conducted in a blended digital and face-to-face environment, and utilize open digital practices intended to leverage the participatory practices essential to both the success of the web, as well as democracy itself.

MA Doodles

In two cohorts of identified gifted learners in the Coquitlam School District’s T.A.L.O.N.S. Program, each of our 56 students charts the course of their development in an experiential, interdisciplinary learning environment through an individual blog, and a variety of digital artifacts shared and archived across a class-wide network of posts.

For the last three years, I have taught a Philosophy 12 class which has operated as an open online course for non-credit participants that have variously contributed to the course community by submitting their own assignments, offering feedback or dialogue in the form of comments on the course site, or by extending the reach of the class’ discussions on social media.

In each of these communities, the creation of learning artifacts on class sites provides the current students the opportunity for reflection and synthesis of their learning, as well as a lasting example of socially documented inquiry for future cohorts, and those beyond the community itself on the open web. This principle comes into clearer relief in an Introduction to Guitar 11 course I’ve taught for several years that has evolved over time to provide an opportunity for open online participants to join and contribute to and learn along with a class of musical beginners. It is, in the words of open online stalwart Alan Levine “not a class that teaches guitar, but one where you can learn guitar.”

By examining the generative themes brought about through the reflective practices afforded in these various learning spaces, I am hopeful that my inquiry might offer a meaningful contribution to the body of knowledge concerning young people’s emergent sense of their own citizenship and agency in our democracy.

Social Science and Catching Light

Webs

The other night in #tiegrad we found ourselves discussing the different paths of the graduate student in the so-called ‘hard’ and more social sciences. Our instructor – while extremely reluctant to paint with a broad brush, so leave the pitchforks where they are – noted that the ‘hard’ or natural sciences tend to direct their students’ reading and research toward the topic or question to be examined, whereas the social sciences (and perhaps education especially) encourage students to engage this process for themselves, charting their own course toward a unique research question.

Naturally there will be exceptions to either case, but the observation raised for me a tension in epistemology we have been looking at in Philosophy 12 this semester, between knowledge which can be discovered and knowledge that is created.

Again offering something of an oversimplification, the (applied) mathematician strives to explain the natural world by introducing theorems which correspond to observable phenomena. Engaged with Plato’s world of things, the classical “hard” scientist similarly seeks to discover knowledge about the world outside of the mind. While a total objectivity may be elusive, the general type of knowledge sought in these disciplines is viewed with a more objective air, in which case the tendency for graduate students – themselves looking to create knew knowledge in these fields with the publication of theses and dissertations – to be guided up to the edge of the gap needing to be crossed before being let loose on their own studies.

The social scientist, whose own subjectivity is impossible to separate from the phenomena being studied, attempts to bring an unbiased and unique eye to their field of research, and thus may benefit from supervising professors who are reluctant to guide ‘too much.’ Knowledge about poetry and history or economics and education cannot be considered neutral, and as such may be more willing to see its field of understanding as knowledge (or meaning) created rather than discovered. 

Now, this is all as I have tried to qualify a grossly oversimplified and binary view of a philosophy of science that may not hold much water beyond the sense of understanding it grants me for the moment. But the idea presented itself in a few-weeks old post from Alan Levine, who likes to take pictures:

But I’d been thinking about something I probably operate at a more instinctual level, from experience with the camera, there is a feeling when I am in certain places, or noticing the way light is highlighting vividly, or when it is absent, or when shadows and light have interplay. I cannot pinpoint it, but its a gut feeling in those moments that there is interesting light at work. And that means I then amplify my awareness and look more intently as to where I might find it.

You see, most of photography is done by figuring out how to remove most of what you see, that is composition by cropping out with just the camera view finder.

The idea of “composition by cropping” speaks to (my crude interpretation of) the social-scientist’s endeavour, to interpret a signal in the noise, something potentially made all the more difficult by the advent of “social scholarship,” which Kris Shaffer describes in a recent post:

But for me lately, Twitter has more specific problems. The signal-to-noise ratio is far from optimal: it’s becoming harder to sift through the stream to find the really good stuff. The trolls are also multiplying — even within communities that have for many years been quite amicable places to inhabit. Harassment and threats are headlining. And users are discovering the horror of trying to report (and have removed) illicit and violent materials that victimize children.[…]

Maybe this is just the world. Maybe wherever people are, both the best and the worst will come out. Maybe we were lucky for a few years as social-media-inclined academics breathed the fresh air of the “open” Web 2.0, while the trollish members of the academic breed fought their last vitriolic battles on email listservs. Now that the trolls found Twitter, and Twitter wants (needs) to monetize us all, the party’s over. I hope not, but maybe that’s just how it is.

I don’t want to discount the rest of the argument Kris makes, or drastically repurpose his words here for my own ends, as I find myself sympathetic to not only his sentiments but his solution, to write “in more open, more user-controlled domains, as well as in critiquing the corporate tools that we do make use of.”

But I do want to return to Alan’s idea of cropping, and catching light:

I have been noodling if there is a similar process at work when swimming among the firehose of information in a space like Connected Courses or the whole damn web in general. Is there a sense you get when just scanning, of something like “good” or “interesting” light in photography that takes you to interesting ideas?

Is it a clever title? a turn of a phrase? a provocative link? a vague link that does not indicate where it goes? The familiarity of the source url or the curiousness of it? What are the suggestions in the flow that help you clue in to what tends to be more interesting than not?

Because, I conjecture, if you can hone your senses for seeing nuanced suggestions of good/worthy/intriguing ideas out there in the information flow, you can get much more out of it than just getting soaked.

While I’ll leave it to the physicists to argue with their own supervisors about what their lit reviews need contain, I think this approach is what makes our grad work in education so equally baffling and beautiful. What is true of photography is also true of meaning made and knowledge constructed. To return once more to Alan’s post:

the approach of thinking about my photo approach, and then thinking about it again in reflection works as a process to refine my ideas. It’s not a matter of being “right” on a subject or touting your book/article/etc, it’s about a practice of the mind.

Because apart from the discovery of nature, the pursuit of mind is indeed a process to be engaged, and engaged again, in solitude and company.

Then engaged again.

Amazing Stories of Openness on the Web

It was a pleasure to share this story of openness that came out of #philosophy12 with Alan Levine‘s (aka @cogdog) newest incarnation of True Stories of Openness on the Web

We all start out in our educational careers (meaning when we were in kindergarten) knowing intrinsically the value of sharing. Somewhere between there and graduate school, we lose track of this simple concept, be it worrying about intellectual property rights or fearing theft.

The open ecology of the internet can undermine this learned and limiting stinginess. In this session we want to celebrate the True Stories of things that happen to educators when they share something openly on the web. We asked colleagues to share with us a video of their own stories of something surprising, valuable, powerful, or just plain inspiring that happened when that piece of media, that document, that video, that blog post, became valuable to someone they did not know before.

 It was cool to see Inquiry Hub principal Dave Truss’ story of connectedness inspire Shawn White to share his own Open moment in a video, and I’m looking forward to seeing what others might contribute to this year’s collection.

You can share your own Amazing Story of Openness by recording a quick video and filling out the form here.

Web Radio in the K12 Classroom

Digital Storytelling

Giulia Forsythe's Digital Campfire

I’ve had the good pleasure the last few years to have been able to enrich my personal learning network, as well as add to the constellation of thoughtful individuals that interact with my classroom(s) through the DIY magic of distributed web radio. Even casual readers of this blog will recognize the religious fervour that has often attended to my posts about the magic of #ds106radio, an organic offshoot of the Digital Storytelling course DS106 run out of (originally) the University of Mary Washington, in Virginia, as well as (these days) a host of other institutions around the world. In addition to becoming at various times my own open-mic coffee shop, where I’ve written, rehearsed and workshopped almost every song I’ve ever written, DS106Radio has also played frequent host to many a TALONS lesson, field trip, celebration, and a regular spate of Gleneagle’s Music Department showcases.

In the last week, I have been talking to a few of the administrators in our district about the how and what of distributed web radio, and in an effort to collect some of the power and relevance to K12 learning such a setup could offer us, I wanted to share some of what I’ve been able to be a part of because of this wonderfully easy, open-source technology solution to building community and communion around shared sound. 

But first, a little history.

The following audio documentary was recorded with a few of the people who had seen DS106Radio grow out of a conversation around a dinner table into a powerful node in each of our networks. Here you’ll hear GNA Garcia interviewing Grant Potter, Guilia Forsythe, Alan Levine and myself about how we’ve seen the radio evolve and effect our lives and professional practices. Alan points out near the end that without the inception of the radio, we wouldn’t even know each other, which, given the amount of time, face-to-face or otherwise, we’ve spent revelling in one another’s company over the past two years, is a humbling thought. (That’s Zack Dowell providing the acoustic musical bed; Jason Toal provided the actual bed.)

Listen to a mini – DS106Radio Rockumentary

But without veering too wildly into my own personal affections for the station, I want to focus here on sharing the ways I’ve explored in bringing my various classroom spaces, and beyond, to the web, often using free software on my laptop, or a $6 app on my phone. It is my hope that with a few examples to get things rolling, we might see some momentum around sharing audio in Coquitlam classrooms.Lunchtime Jams on #DS106Radio

Lunchtime Jams

Almost as soon as we figured out how to ‘go live’ from my laptop and iPhone, my music classroom became a regular performance space for my guitar students, and then a host of other interested individuals to share informal jams, songs and laughter with an audience that just as quickly fell into the habit of tuning into the sounds of the school’s music wing.

An early hit:

Concerts Live Streamed Around the World

It seemed a natural experiment to try running an evening broadcast of our school’s Spring Concert, in 2011, complete with student DJ’s to narrate the evening’s activities, backstage interviews with performers, archived recordings of the Music Department’s tour to Cuba, and even a request by an Internet listener for the in-house crowd to shout, “DS106 Radio For Life” (the station’s immortal tag line).

Since then we’ve broadcast almost every one of the concerts at Gleneagle live onto DS106radio, sharing the ephemeral sounds of the performing arts with an international audience who can recognize our lead trumpet players and vocalists by the tenor of their solos, and who know that in Coquitlam, there are some crazy-talented kids that love to share their art. How many schools or districts can claim the same notoriety? (If they can, I would bet they’re spending more on marketing than we are.)

Class Activity as Public Learning Project 

Last spring, a guitar class I was teaching took on the grandiose endeavour to convert itself into a Thirty Person Rock Band, a process that in addition to being shared on Youtube and Instagram, was conducted almost entirely live on the #ds106radio air, where people were able to tune in and play along with our rehearsals, band meetings, and triumphant last day of school show in the Gleneagle foyer. Our listening audience served as mentors, cheerleaders, and a reflection of the raw energy the creation of live music can bring to a community, and shared in the celebrations at the end of the term.

You can see how it all unfolded on Storify, here.

Sharing our Classrooms with Specific Audiences


It was a great pleasure last year to share in a day of #RadioforLearning with #ds106radio K12 sister-station 105theHive, where my guitar class joined in a day of cross-country broadcasting with classrooms in Ontario and northern Manitoba. As the Hive’s rolling live broadcast took reading exercises from rural Ontario north toward Hudson’s Bay, Gleneagle’s Music Department shared its guitar presentations with an audience that wound up reaching listeners in South America, as well as Hawaii.

Essay Feedback as Podcast

Back in 2011, I brought the audio elements of DS106 into the TALONS classroom as part of our This I Believe essay unit where, in addition to submitting individual essays as recorded spoken word pieces, the class collaborated to remix and synthesize the different threads into larger audio compositions.

In an attempt to fold my essay feedback into the process I had asked the class to engage in, I created my own synthesis of the collective learning into a twenty minute radio show of my own to serve as feedback and commentary on the larger lessons of writing and storytelling that I saw in the group’s essays.

Field Reports & Outdoor Education

Some of the most powerful learning opportunities we bring to our students happen outside of the classroom, on field trips or other opportunities for place-based learning that are effectively captured in photographs and videos, perhaps; but these events and experiential learning also opportunities for capturing vital audio artifacts that might otherwise disappear into the ether.

Remixing the Class Discussion

Just this past semester, one of the #Philosophy12 students recorded a few days’ worth of investigating Epistemology, and the notions of Opinions, Beliefs, and Truth, and posted the files for download on Soundcloud. As a possible extension of these open educational resources, I thought I would try my hand at remixing the contents using the GarageBand app on my iPad. The cognitive value in sifting through an hour of recorded audio to pull together a narrative, or logical argument is something that I found both incredibly challenging, and entirely relevant given the emerging digital landscape of the read-write-sing-remix web, where the original artifact of learning is further-evolved to include new reflective perspectives.

Everything above is just the beginning… 

I’ve tried to pull together as many different examples as I could over the course of a few days, but there may be a few notable broadcasts or events that I’ve neglected to include here. GNA Garcia used to broadcast concerts and conversations from her job at a highschool in Philadelphia. And the Hive folks have been creating live and canned shows for almost a year now (!). Matt Henderson started a terrestrial radio station with his kids in Winnipeg, and I’m sure there are other folks out there podcasting, sharing Audioboos, and finding other ways to explore the power of audio in their classrooms.

But I hope what I’ve shared here can serve as a catalyst and motivation for folks in my own back yard who may want to jump into an experiment with a Coquitlam branch of web radio over the course of the next semester. I’m hoping that local English, Music, Journalism, and other teachers start getting their phones out, warming up their GarageBands and Audacities, and seeing where our own digital campfire might take us as a learning community.

For life.