When is a theory really a model and who cares about either?

From Wikipedia
A theory makes generalizations about observations and consists of an interrelated, coherent set of ideas and models. In science, a theory is a proposed model, explanation or description of the manner of interaction of a set of natural phenomena, capable of predicting future occurences or observations of the same kind, and capable of being tested through experiment or otherwise verified through empirical observation. It follows from this, that for scientists “theory” and “fact” do not necessarily stand in opposition. For example, it is a fact that an apple dropped on earth has been observed to fall towards the center of the planet, and the theory which explains why the apple behaves so is the current theory of gravitation.

An abstract model (or conceptual model) is a theoretical construct that represents physical, biological or social processes, with a set of variables and a set of logical and quantitative relationships between them. Models in this sense are constructed to enable reasoning within an idealized logical framework about these processes and are an important component of scientific theories. Idealized here means that the model may make explicit assumptions that are known to be false in some detail. Such assumptions may be justified on the grounds that they simplify the model while, at the same time, allowing the production of acceptably accurate solutions.

So from these brief definitions models can be seen as particular kinds of theories–a theory about the components of a process for example– but in general both are attempts to explain something in a systematic way, and both can help us understand how something works by enabling predictions to be made. Then, one can test one or more components of a theory which can then be verified or refuted and reworked.
Without any theory of principled way of understanding phenomena, we can only describe what we see, but we don’t have a way of setting expectations or having useful heuristics or tools to understand what impedes or supports a learning process, for example. In education, simply having a list of say, best practices in online education, is helpful for an online educator, but less helpful for a researcher trying to explain why certain instructional practices work or fail to work.

Take collaboration as an example. It has now become part of received wisdom in education that collaboration is a “good thing”. But why is that the case? It has become trendy because constructivism has become trendy as a framework for looking at educational practice and collaboration and constructivism are often treated as synonymous. But how are those two concepts really connected?

In fact it is social constructivism which has its roots in Vygotskian ideas from Europe and Dewey in North America which emphasizes the importance of collaboration. Constructivism viewed from a Piagetian perspective is more about individual development–where the envirnment including other people is necessary for development but to a different level of emphasis and causality than when viewed through a Vygotskian lens. Through this lens, language is internalized thought–interacting socially is the actual process by which learning and development proceed. From this perspective, collaboration is not merely a useful instructional strategy, it is the engine of development.

From such a perspective, why collaboration might be effective instructionally can be linked back to a theory of how learning proceeds, but it doesn’t necessarily inform what kinds of collaborative learning situations or kinds of groups may be most effective for learning for particular groups. To inform this we look to more detailed theoretical components of learning theory, instructional theories and empirical, theory-based research of these issues in educational contexts.

ECOO 2006

Had a good day at ECOO http://www.ecoo.org on Friday. The presentation I gave called Why Reading is even more important in the Digital Age can be found here Download ppt file

I also met some people interested in developing a group to talk and think more about educational weblogs, including Konrad Glogowski and Quentin D’Souza. We are starting a group on ELGG http://elgg.net, and if anyone is interested in taking part in this, just leave a comment here.

Educational Technology Journals–reading and publishing

Some suggested Journals and Conferences relevant to Education and Technology

In North America, the conference and journals of the American Education Research Association (AERA) give you a finger on the pulse of where educational research as a field is heading. AERA recently published a draft document about standards for reviewing journal articles which I have enclosed here: AERAReview.pdf
This document outlines what is expected in an article submitted to an AERA journal, but is typical for all educational research journals and so is useful to read.

AERA has an annual conference and a number of associated journals:
American Education Research Association

Association for the Advancement of Computers in Education (AACE) Journals and Conferences. These are all mosre specifically technology related with various foci: teacher education, hypermedia, interactive learning research etc.

Journal of Interactive Learning Research

Journal of Educational Computing Research

American Journal of Distance Education

Canadian Journals and Associations

Canadian Association for the Study of Education (CSSE)

Canadian Association for Distance Education

European and International Journals

British Journal of Educational Technology

Computers and Education

International Journal on E-Learning

Education Links and Resources

How are journals ranked? How do people judge what is a more or less prestigious journal?

One way is to look at Journal Citation reports in the Social Sciences E-Index (the process of accessing this material is outlined below). These tables give you a calculation of different factors like impact (a measure of the frequency with which the “average article” in a journal has been cited in a particular year or period, a ratio between citations and recent citable items published) and immediacy (current material), total citations (widely read) and so on of the major journals in the field. You don’t have to only publish in the high ones (particularly as it takes a lot longer and usually involves a very substantial piece of research), but it is a useful way to keep track of an increasingly large group of journals. Each journal describes the kinds of articles it publishes, so it is important to look at that information and read some of the articles to develop a sense of whether your work would be a likely fit. This has to do with content, but also type of study, methodology, scope and so on.

How to find their rankings:
First sign on to your UT “my library” account. From there, you access the “Web of Science” from the E-Indexes.

When the “Web of Science” page appears, you should see a pop-down menu at the top centre of the screen that reads “Web of Science”. Click on the menu and change it to “Journal Citation Reports”. Then click on “Go”.

On the next page, click on the radio button “JCR Social Sciences Edition”. And click on the button “View a group of journals by Subject Category”. Click on “Submit”.

A new page will appear. Click on “Education and Educational Research” from the scrolling area on the right. Then click on “Submit”.

A long list of journals will appear. Use the “Sorted by” field to sort them using different criteria. Sort the journals by Impact Factor to determine the journal’s relative importance.

What is the dissertation for?

Simply put, the dissertation is a doctoral candidates’ most elaborate excursion into all the aspects of the research process. Each step is really important and refines and develops a range of research related skills: the development and refinement of a research question that identifies and investigates a knowledge gap in the related literature; the choice of an appropriate research methodology that allows the investigation of that question; the preparation of the raw data for whatever kind of analysis is required by the chosen methodology; the immersion in the data analysis process, checking, rechecking, interpreting, reanalyzing; writing and rewriting the text to clearly tell the emerging story of your particular data and so on.

Some considerations:
How exhaustive is your literature review? In the area of educational technology, for example, it is often tricky to find everything relevant. Much of this kind of research can be found in health care related journals, higher education journals, business and training, educational and psychological research journals as well as more obvious sources relating explicitly to technology. Additionally, many questions being considered in understanding learning within particular technological contexts have been explored earlier in face to face educational settings. Questions about curriculum, teacher knowledge and beliefs, epistemological questions and so on.

The best preparation for conceiving and writing a thesis is reading other doctoral dissertations and reading research articles in the area. Note the theoretic frameworks and methods they employ and the way the conclusions are framed. How general can you make your conclusions given the kind of method you used (ie. a case study); what claims can you make about your conclusions?

Resources for writing
How to keep yourself writing your thesis and books about writing style and other relevant issues: http://www.learnerassociates.net/dissthes/amazon.htm

Preparing yourself mentally Writing a thesis is different from doing other research studies. For most people it is a very intense, personal and dramatic experience with extreme highs and lows. One of the things that makes the dissertation often distinct from master’s or bachelor’s theses is that it is not merely a series of procedures or steps through a clearly laid out process. Rather it is an often circular and emergent process that often leaves people feeling panicky and incompetent–they believe that they should know where they are going. In fact learning to tolerate uncertainty is an important life skill–and you need to be patient with yourself and let yourself adapt to a more emergent experience than you might be comfortable with. You may notice faculty smiling indulgently when you first come up with a timetable for completing your thesis–it is not a comment on you, but a recognition of the emergent and somewhat unpredictable nature of thought.

So why is the disssertation so different? I think because it is an original piece of work–your committee can only help you so far–it is a piece of work that will define you as an independent researcher. As such is an identity-changing experience. You go deeper into those ideas than you may have ever gone before. Depth leads to confusion, to questions, to rethinking–that is normal and inevitable, but I don’t think anyone mentions this in the descriptions of graduate school!!

so remember:
–be kind to yourself
–expect to be confused and doubtful and know that incomprehension is part of the path to understanding!!
–WRITE: every day if you can–use a weblog for example!!
–make timelines, but don’t become paralysed if you can’t meet them.
–if you can’t write one part of your thesis, write an easier part–so if you are stuck on the lit review, start writing up the methods, then you can come back to the lit review after a break.

What is a PhD anyway?

It has been occurring to me that one of the myriad pieces of tacit knowledge graduate students are supposed to pick up while they wend their way through graduate school is exactly what it means to have a PhD. How is it different from a MEd or an EdD for example? and what do people expect you to be able to do at the end of it, apart from signing a different set of letters after your name?

My take on this, and the basis for the expectations I have about what constitutes an effective thesis is the following. Being granted a PhD means you are a professional, independent, academic researcher. You might not choose to work in academia, but your skills should allow you to generate well-designed original research relevant to solving problems and advancing the particular field you are in. You are expected to be an expert on the current and past state of research literature in that area; the various methodologies people use in that domain and why they use those: the current ‘hot’ topics of the area–for example in educational research in the US one is the implications of evidence-based approaches and whether that means ONLY traditional quantitative methods are ultimately counted as evidence of effectiveness.

How is all that different from say an EdD? Well, in CTL, there was sufficient concern about the nature of that difference that we chose to discontinue to the EdD until we come up with a clear rationale for the elements of a professional doctoral degree in Education (this discussion is ongoing at the moment). One could imagine it having elements such as a methods course that helped students become critical consumers and interpreters of research literature rather than focusing on being generators of it.

So what is the relationship between being an educator and getting or even having a PhD? I seen PhD work as being primarily about research, and research being about finding explanations for things–answering Why? questions. By contrast being an educator is usually focussed at a descriptive rather than an explanatory level and answering more procedural questions about How and What? Now, one can often happily integrate both of these elements–I do, for example in a lot of my own research, but it is important to recognize the difference.

That’s what theory is for–it organizes and systematizes our explanations of why things work the way they do. For example, collaboration is becming an increasingly important instructional strategy because it is a pepdagogical strategy that emerges from a constructivist rather than say, a behaviourist theory of learning, and constructivism as a theoretical framework is gaining in popularity within educational contexts.

Now no theory is complete, and they change as new findings emerge. They do however give us a principled way of thinking about a) why something works, and b) why it doesn’t c) some principled way of moving ahead. Perusing the following site: http://tip.psychology.org/ gives you an overview of a whole bunch of educational theories that are specifically related to learning and instruction and take a psychological (rather than say, sociological) approach. As such, they offer a particular set of perspectives–a focus on individuals and learning–rather than a focus on social structures that impact how schooling is organized for example.
In this breakdown of theories, by contrast http://www.funderstanding.com/theories.cfm
those theories of learning we just talked about occupy the first of the 5 categories they have there. Now, what actually constitutes a theory is a bigger question, and not to be tackled here!

But this entry is just a first take on the question of what a PhD really means.
I will follow up in later entries with: what role the dissertation plays in helping you along this path; perhaps more on what constitutes a theory as opposed to a set of instructional principles and so on; and something about research methods and their relation to asking specific kinds of research questions.

” Authors need content, and content needs authors”

so ends Stephen Downes'(@005) paper Semantic networks and social networks http://www.downes.ca/cgi-bin/page.cgi?post=31624 which was a really helpful paper in allowing me to connect up the value of social connections within a sematic or content-related context. He also points out the separated distinct nature of early instantiations of these technologies on the web: Flickr for pictures, Delicious for semantic tags etc, and it emphasized for me how critical the interconnection is between the ideas, the people, the people connected to those and related ideas and so on–a meaningful web, rather than one based on pattern-matching at a simple level.