As I look back on Academic Writing Month, I reflect on what went well, what I could have done better and what I will try to carry on. For those who do not know, Academic Writing Month (or #AcWriMo) is held annually in November and gives academics and doctoral students the permission and focus to concentrate their efforts on academic writing in whatever form that may take.
I am a Senior Lecturer Practitioner in Education and also completing my EdD part-time, so it always a challenge trying to balance teaching and research commitments. Over the summer, I had managed to find some time to write, but with a busy term starting in September I really struggled to find the time for the academic writing I knew I needed to do. I was getting worried that I would only be able to find time to write in the summer and my EdD would never be finished!
The SRHE sent out a newsletter which mentioned Academic Writing Month activities they were organising over the month of November. I thought I would give it a try and see if it could help me develop some better writing habits.
I joined the first online session organised by the SRHE and run by Gillian Chu (who also blogged for SRHE recently) which I found to be really useful. We talked about what #AcWriMo and the importance of setting targets, both on a weekly basis in terms of either words or time spent writing and outputs I would like to achieve by the end of the month. I was also introduced to a shared Excel document where I could record my targets and the number of words I had written. The session also had time for attendees to work on some academic writing. Earlier in the year, I had attended some SRHE Power Hour of Writing sessions. I find this sort of online writing session really useful as I tend to find writing a solitary task and that I benefit from writing with other people in a community.
Over the month, I managed to get some writing for my EdD – I managed to write a positionality statement and part of my literature review. I really benefited from having some clear targets and some for how much I wanted to write each week. For a few weeks over the month, my aims were far too optimistic! However, taking part in #AcWriMo got me writing again and not worrying about when I was going to find time to write.
Overall, I found it really useful to participate in #AcWriMo. It managed to get me doing some academic writing this academic year and helped me carve out time to do this. If I can manage to do it for a month, then I feel more optimistic I can find time during the rest of the year too. I am looking forward to joining other SRHE writing events in the future such as the Power Hour of Writing. Having tried #AcWriMo for the first time, I will definitely be doing it next year as well!
John Parkin is a Senior Lecturer Practitioner in Education at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) in Peterborough. He is also the Course Leader of the BA Primary Education Studies course. Before becoming an academic in 2018, John was an assistant headteacher and primary teacher. Most of his teaching experience has been as an Early Years teacher. John is also a doctoral researcher exploring the experiences of men training to become primary teachers.
I have been using a design-based implementation approach to co-creating educational research since 2019 at Canterbury Christ Church University, where a cross-institutional team of teachers, researchers, and school senior leaders grapples with where and how to provide opportunities for students to become ‘epistemically insightful’ (equipped with an understanding of the nature of knowledge within disciplines and across disciplinary boundaries). Previous research by the Centre discovered that pressures within schools dampen students’ expressed curiosity in questions about the nature of reality and human personhood and limit the development of their epistemic insight into how science, religion and the wider humanities relate. We developed the Epistemic Insight Initiative to understand the kinds of interventions, tools, and pedagogies that would address the current challenges posed by a compartmentalised curriculum. The challenge we faced was how we could transform whole-school curriculum practice without removing teacher agency. We wanted to ensure that the intervention(s) met the needs and experiences of each school community, without becoming so contextualised that that the findings and approaches couldn’t be generalised to have wider applicability (and ultimately impact).
Part of our role as universities is to produce (and facilitate the production of) knowledge. As the REF puts it we should be “illustrating the benefits research delivers beyond academia, including how it brings tangible changes to aspects of society and life, and the public value it delivers”. Yet within educational research there is a perceived disjunct between the research undertaken by universities (or professional research organisations) and the research used and undertaken by teachers and practitioners in schools and other educational settings. This is highlighted in practitioner-focused literature where evidence-informed practice is often divided between desk based ‘research’ by teachers as separate from ‘academic research’ conducted by universities or research organisations – a model which emphasises the teachers’ role as a consumer rather than creator of research (Nelson and Sharples, 2017). This divide can also border on a dismissal of teachers’ ability to engage with academic research, by insisting for example that we shouldn’t “expect teachers to learn to read research” and our role as researchers should be to create “teacher-friendly research”, with the implication that this is somehow ‘less than’ academic research (Miller et al, 2010). Why is this divide important for SRHE? We are after all focused on higher education so, apart from a call to consider broader dissemination avenues for our research, why does it matter?
My answer is impact. Not solely, or even primarily, in terms of a ‘REF-able’ impact, but because we know that education research has the power to transform students’ experiences of learning and thus broaden their aspirations for higher education. Whilst there is a wealth of literature on the importance of research engagement within initial teacher education and professional development (for example see Hine, 2013; Hagger and Mcintyre, 2000; Murray et al, 2009), the question of how to ensure that the research ecosystem is reciprocal (i.e. that teachers/practitioners are viewed as knowledge producers not just consumers) is still relatively under discussed. A research ecosystem can be seen as analogous to a natural ecosystem where knowledge is transferred between stakeholders in a process that leads to the emergence of systemic change. The current challenge is to ensure that knowledge flows from teachers/practitioners into the system; Pandey and Pattnaik (2015) discuss this within a university and Godfrey and Brown (2019) within a school but there is less research on bringing these “micro-systems” together into a mutually enriching “macro-system” (although research by Connelly et al (2021) in the Irish context is promising). Educational research is about improving the opportunities and outcomes for those in education. For this to happen the change/intervention must continue to be implemented beyond an individual project, and often within the constraints of existing curricula and assessment frameworks. This means that teachers and educators need to be seen not as a resource for ‘local expertise’ but as a crucial part of the research ecosystem.
The establishment and development of a co-creation relationship across a diverse group of primary and secondary schools has taken about three years and has been led by both teachers and school senior leaders. The linchpin for these relationships has been a shared recognition of the challenges identified within the previous research, and an interest in examining how school students can be better equipped to navigate disciplinary and curricula boundaries. This shared goal means that the school and research centre aims are aligned and therefore the core data collected can be standardised across the schools, but with the addition of contextualised questions that address the specific questions of each school. These local questions alongside school-level data for the core questions are shared with the school to support their practice and development plans. As a research centre we analyse data from across the partner schools, with the advantage that, as the research addresses shared concerns, teacher engagement with the research is high. This ensures a 95% plus response rate across multiple data collection points for each cohort. Teachers and school leaders receive training on the philosophical framework underpinning the research and the learning tools but work in collaboration with the centre to develop lessons and curricula that meet the aims of the research. As researchers we act in a quality assurance role during the intervention development, which means that the teachers are at the forefront of shaping the intervention for their students and within their institutional constraints. This close collaboration means that we address two of the key features required in building research in schools (a) “a willingness to embed the research activity into existing school systems” and (b) “access to sources of expertise and advice” (Sanders et al, 2009). In one school this saw a movement from 10 teachers being involved in the initial curriculum design (plus delivery by 7 members of the senior team) to, in the second year, the entire professional development programme being restructured around research-engaged Professional Learning Communities, where staff undertook their own action-research projects. Now, in the third year, all staff including support staff are in mixed research teams as part of their professional development.
Sharp et alidentify a range of benefits to schools in being research engaged, including teacher retention, raised standards and school development. The biggest impact we have noticed, shared by our partner schools, has been the combined impacts on teacher development/practice and their epistemic agency to investigate the educational questions that matter to them, empowered by an ethos that acknowledges that not every intervention will succeed. 80% of participating teachers in one school agreed that it has improved their understanding of disciplinary methods of their own discipline in relation to one they don’t teach. Across the schools, teachers have changed practice within their teaching and have been empowered to signpost students better to links with other subjects. As researchers, we have seen our work embedded in ways and places that we could not have envisioned and seen a genuine interest from schools to engage in research that required the time and expertise of sometimes the whole staff body (particularly in primary schools). This kind of impact with whole year groups, even whole schools, taking part in research-engaged curriculum interventions and redevelopment would not be possible were we using a ‘traditional’ research model that excluded co-creation. The power of co-creation is that these ‘interventions’, if they can still be called that, will continue far beyond the directly funded projects that started them, because those involved have ownership of what is taking place.
Our role now, outside the continued partnership, is to understand how we, in HE, can use our position to amplify practitioner voices, to share this practitioner research widely within the research landscape. We are still looking for the best way to support those teachers to share their research-engaged practice into teacher education directly (through knowledge exchange opportunities with students on QTS programmes) and with educational researchers. In placing practitioner research within the research landscape, we truly recognise its value within the research ecosystem and can share how generalised interventions/findings can be implemented in practice, in schools or other settings every day. We must ensure that our HE practice includes acting as a knowledge broker, supporting, and enabling the production of knowledge by the communities which HE serves and feeding that back into the wider research environment.
Finley Lawson is the Lead Research Fellow for Outreach and Schools’ Partnership, at the LASAR (Learning about Science and Religion) Research Centre at Canterbury Christ Church University, Kent. His recently-submitted PhD examines the implication of scientific metaphysics for incarnational theology (Christ, Creation, and The World of Science: Beyond Paradox). He is interested in the dialogue between STEM, Religion, and the wider humanities, and how this can be fostered in school curricula. Finley is the Lead Researcher on the OfS-funded Inspiring Minds Project. The co-created research with schools discussed here has been funded by the Templeton World Charitable Foundation and forms part of the wider Epistemic Insight Initiative. As a centre we would like to thank all the schools who have been actively involved in our research but in particular the staff and students at Astor School, Bromstone Primary School, and Wilmington Grammar School for Girls, who have been case study schools during the project and have been involved in publicly sharing their work and experiences.
by Jenna Mittelmeier, Sylvie Lomer, and Kalyani Unkule
We were pleased to lead a symposium of international authors at the 2022 SRHE conference, focusing on Research with International Students: Conceptual and Methodological Considerations. This was an early session linked for our upcoming open access book of the same name, which we aim to publish in late 2023. This book, as well as our research resource website which led to it, focuses on developing critical considerations for researchers who focus their work on international students and their experiences in higher education.
Research with international students is a significant and growing area of research about higher education. This coincides with and derives from the exponential growth in international student numbers worldwide, making more visible an interest in their lived academic and social experiences. This is also an area that continues to attract newer researchers, particularly doctoral and student researchers who may have a vested interest in this topic as current or former international students themselves, and practitioner researchers who teach and support international students in their professional roles. Research on this topic is interdisciplinary (as with most other higher education research topics), attracting researchers from disciplines including education, sociology, psychology, human geography, business, and beyond.
Despite this growing interest, we note that there have been limited conversations about developing research with international students as a distinct interdisciplinary subfield. Similarly, there have been limited methodological guidance and considerations for how research might critically approach the wide-ranging topics that are being researched in this area. We have written previously about how these omissions perpetuate problems for this subfield and, ultimately, diminish the potential impact of research.
The most significant problem with research in this area is that it tends to frame international students through a deficit lens, depicting them as lower quality students who ‘lack’ skills necessary for success. This is seen through the large numbers of studies which attempt to ‘fix’ or ‘integrate’ international students into expected norms of study in their host institutions, making assumptions about their perceived lack of skills in areas such as critical thinking, language, or writing. International students are also often depicted through research as only experiencing challenges or problems, frequently described as vulnerable rather than capable, managing, or coping. At the same time, research tends to homogenise international students as a collective group or deduce their diversity only to nationality and macro-level cultures. These are among other conceptual concerns we have previously highlighted, which are rooted in limited criticality and nuance through research.
With these issues in mind, our aim in the symposium, as well as through our website and book, was to start a conversation about how research with international students might be designed better, more critically, and more ethically. In particular, we considered the nexus between conceptual criticality and practical methodological designs which can reposition and encourage new discourses about international students. Each of the four presentations highlighted how, within the book, we encourage researchers to develop stronger research designs in the future.
The first paper in the symposium was by Kalyani Unkule, whose presentation represented chapters in our upcoming book where authors re-conceptualise an idea or term that is often taken for granted in research with international students. Here, we argue for the ways that certain ideas within this research topic are often assumed to have a shared, collective meaning, which actually might be more nuanced or complex. Kalyani reflected on the meaning of the word ‘global’ and the tendency for binaries of local and global to limit our thinking in research and practice about international higher education. This is an important critique about the ways that ‘home’ and ‘international’ are seen as opposing binaries in research with international students, ultimately limiting the conceptual nuance of where students’ experiences and histories might intersect these two areas and be more ‘glocal’ in nature.
The second paper was by Tang Heng, whose presentation represented chapters which highlight problematic discourses that shape and frame research with international students. Her chapter focuses on stereotyping and how stereotypes about international students, often through methodological nationalism, are endemic in the ways that research is developed and designed. Tang focused particularly on how theoretical frameworks can perpetuate or relate to stereotyping, but in the book we also focus on other problematic threads through research on this topic: othering, dehumanisation, coloniality, and deficit narratives, among others. This highlights the issues that hold the research subfield back and represent areas for more critical development and reflection in future research.
This was followed by a paper from Vijay Ramjattan, whose presentation represented chapters in the book which show how common stereotypes and discourses about international students might be shifted away from individual deficiencies towards recognition of structural inequalities. Vijay’s presentation focused on deficit framings of language, where international students are often positioned as ‘lacking’ linguistic skills. However, this might be shifted instead to focus on structural oppression of multilingualism and multiple Englishes within institutions. This gives us one example of how researchers can conceptually move away from issues like biases, stereotyping, and deficit narratives by centring the structural roots that cause them.
Finally, the presentation by Samridhi Gupta and Thuy-Anh Nguyen shifted the focus towards practical research designs, demonstrating the section in our book which focuses on how research design choices can purposefully resist existing problems in knowledge creation with (rather than on or about) international students. Their presentation focused on co-designing research with international students, giving practical examples of two research methods which can be designed with students as partners. This demonstrates the ways that methodological choices are fundamentally intertwined with conceptual criticality, highlighting how the method we choose can resist and deconstruct the existing problems set out by previous presenters.
Together, our symposium aimed to open up new reflections and considerations for the historical trajectory of research with international students, considering new ways forward for the research subfield. Both the symposium and our upcoming book aims not to give answers for how to move that path forward, though, but rather to open up questions for individual researchers and the research community more broadly about where we might like to go from here. We ask, then: what should the epistemic space of research with international students look like?
More research resources on this topic can be found at https://researchintlstudents.com/. ‘Research with international students: Critical conceptual and methodological considerations’ will be published open access by Routledge, aiming for late 2023.
Jenna Mittelmeier is Senior Lecturer in International Education at the University of Manchester, in the Manchester Institute of Education (MIE). Her research expertise focuses on the experiences and treatment of international students within the broader internationalisation of higher education.
Sylvie Lomer is Senior Lecturer in Policy and Practice at the University of Manchester, in the Manchester Institute of Education (MIE). Her previous research focused on policies on international students in the UK, and now focuses more broadly on internationalisation in policy and practice in higher education, with a critical approach to pedagogy and policy enactment.
Kalyani Unkule is Associate Professor at OP Jindal Global University in India. Her research complements her practice in intercultural dialogue and impact-driven projects in higher education internationalisation and spiritual learning.
There are good reasons why institutional human research ethics committees (RECs) or research ethics boards (REBs) are needed in higher education institutions – namely, to ensure research participants are treated in accordance with a set of agreed standards and principles. This includes, for example, avoiding harm, ensuring informed consent, clarifying how any data collected will be stored and used, and ensuring transparency in relation to gaining access to participants through gatekeepers. There is also an ethical imperative to ensure a certain level of quality so that research has the potential to be of benefit to individuals, and society.
There has been growing concern over the last twenty years, however, that some RECs have become such powerful regulatory bodies that they have almost complete control over what institutional research is conducted, as well as how and where it is undertaken. The ways in which RECs approach the approval of research ethics can seem antithetical to many of the other prevailing discourses of higher education (in the UK in particular), such as the need to decolonise research, the commitment to enhancing equity and inclusion, the focus on the co-creation of knowledge, and the push for greater co-collaboration with external stakeholders.
In 2004, Haggerty drew attention to the worrying trend of what he coined ‘ethics creep’, where ethics committees have been afforded significant levels of institutional power above and beyond that for which they were initially tasked – including bringing within their scope and oversight those forms of activity which were historically not considered research, such as on-campus surveys, or in-class student research. Moreover, concerns have been levelled at RECs for being secretive in the ways in which they work, inconsistent in their approach to applying their own guidelines, and prioritising a box-ticking approach over any exploration of more meaningful ethical considerations (see Allen, 2008 for an overview).
A further concern for many educational researchers is that approaches to ethical review, initially developed in relation to biomedical sciences, have largely been positivist. Such approaches can be detrimental to more qualitative research – particularly research which is collaborative in nature, involves participatory methodologies, or is exploratory in approach – where methods may evolve over time (Guta, Nixon and Wilson, 2013). This, as we have written elsewhere, has implications for empowerment and equitable participation, and limits possibilities for challenging the power, dominance, and colonial practices of the global north (Fox and Busher, 2022) .
Such concerns about the ways in which RECs operate are not, for us, purely hypothetical. We have each grappled with the complexities, vagaries, frustrations and ‘emotional vicissitudes’ (Monaghan, O’Dwyer and Gabe, 2013) of gaining ethical approval. We have done this as educational researchers, as members of RECs trying to influence our own ethics committees, and as supervisors supporting doctoral researchers, including those raising concerns at the SRHE’s professional development events about their struggles to gain ethical approval for planned projects. This is particularly problematic since the “de-risking” of research plans can stifle innovation, limiting possible contributions to existing knowledge and the development of new knowledges.
The privileging of research ethics approvals for projects which are quasi-scientific in approach, rather than those that draw on innovative qualitative methodologies, can significantly limit our understanding of the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ and not just the ‘what’ of global concerns, such as educational disadvantage, poverty, climate change, or global health issues.
It is eminently possible, however, for RECs to approve projects which are methodologically innovative, participatory in nature, collaborative in approach, and which involve external stakeholders – including from countries where approaches to research ethics may be thought of differently to how they are thought about in the global north. To do so, however, requires RECs to accept a significant level of trust in their academic researchers. Such trust is demonstrated by some RECs but is by no means universal.
Despite these complexities we recently gained ethical approval for the 3MPower (Mobile Learning for the Empowerment of Marginalised Mathematics Educators) project at The Open University, UK, achieving an outcome which may not only offer hope to other researchers of what is possible, but which might also act as an exemplar to other research ethics committees of what can be achieved if they are prepared to put faith in their own researchers.
The 3MPower project, funded by the EdTech hub, is a collaborative project generating evidence on technology use for Teacher Professional Development in Bangladesh, with a particular focus on children’s foundation numeracy skills in schools serving marginalised, low-income, rural communities. The project brings together researchers from the Open University and Dhaka University, Bangladesh, and involves a broad range of national stakeholders including government policymakers, policy implementers, teacher educators, rural education officers, and rural teachers. It also enables early career researchers working with PEER (Participatory Ethnographic Evaluation Research) researchers in Bangladesh to elicit the voices and experiences of marginalised teachers in rural communities.
Inherent in the methodology are several approaches which are at odds with the normal requirements of RECs.
First is the commitment of the project team to empower all those involved in the research, and to share power equitably between and across both researchers and other stakeholders. This has required institutional acceptance that the locus of control over the research activities cannot rest solely with The Open University and that research approaches need to reflect both the global north and the global south.
Second is the commitment to trusting researchers in the field to behave with appropriate respect, integrity, and trustworthiness without the need for written information sheets to be provided to research participants or to have written consent elicited from them (these were considered both epistemologically or culturally inappropriate and thus a barrier to participation).
Third, although the project’s broad methodological approach had been explicated in the ethics application, the methods being used are organic and constantly evolving dependent upon emerging findings from the field. For this reason, specifying detailed interview or survey questions was accepted as not possible before the research started.
The REC was therefore required to trust its researchers to act with integrity. However, it is important to note that the researchers were also required to keep the REC updated about the developing research by submitting amendments to the REC application in response to iterations of the collaborative design. This allows ongoing dialogue between the research team and the REC – ensuring that the processes of ethical approval go beyond the ‘tick box’ activity critiqued above.
In short, the REC agreed to the team delivering a research project underpinned by a set of principles which are at the heart of all good educational research! These include empowerment and power sharing; decolonising research by recognising and valuing the experiences, voices, and knowledges of others, especially those from the global south; and trusting in the skills and experiences of others, including those working in different countries and with different cultural beliefs. However, because the project team could not specify and submit all the artefacts normally required by a REC at the outset (consent forms, information sheets, survey tools, interview protocols), it is likely that the project would have not gained approval in many other HEIs – or certainly not in the form it has done.
The 3MPower project team had several advantages. Not only did Tom, as the Principal Investigator, have extensive experience of working on similar projects but all of the research leadership team had prior research experience in Bangladesh. Moreover, as the then Deputy Chair of the Human Research Ethics Committee Alison had extensive understanding of qualitative, education-related research ethics, drawn not only from her institutional experiences but also from work reviewing and developing research ethics frameworks including with the British Educational Research Association (BERA). The project team therefore had a key advocate and a team of researchers who were already trusted.
So, with support and through dialogue, ethical approval was granted, and the door was opened for ongoing support and mutual learning between the research team and REC about what is considered worthwhile and culturally appropriate research in Bangladesh. This is likely to be different for researchers in a less privileged position or where those involved in RECs have less experience (and this is often the case). Certainly, those PhD students who attend our SRHE professional development events tell a very different story.
If we are to respond to society’s key challenges then it is time for RECs to become more risk-tolerant rather than risk-averse. This might involve re-evaluating risk through the eyes of gatekeepers and participants in the research context, giving greater weight to their voice during the ethics approval processes. RECs need to enable and not suppress innovation, and to both empower and trust higher education researchers and their research teams. This requires a rethinking of positionality, perspective, and philosophical beliefs about the way in which research can be conducted.
Such rethinking of ethical practices can disrupt prior assumptions and contribute to learning about other ways of knowing and valuing within RECs. However, change needs to take place more broadly and more consistently across the sector. This needs to be done and done soon. The SRHE can, and should, be a key driver in pushing for change.
Jacqueline Stevenson is a research associate on the 3MPower project at the Open University, visiting professor of Sociology of Education at the University of Leeds, and chair of the SRHE’s Research and Development Committee.
Tom Power is the Principal Investigator of the 3MPower project, a member of the Edtech Hub’s Building EdTech Evidence and Research (BETER) advisory group, and a Deputy Associate Dean for Knowledge Exchange at the Open University.
Alison Fox is Associate Head of School for Research and Knowledge Exchange for the School of Education, Childhood, Youth and Sport, Chair of The Open University Human Research Ethics Committee and a member of British Educational Research Association Council.