sorting out the purpose

I have spent two years writing the first chapter of my dissertation. With each draft I have articulated a different issue that might form the basis for the purpose of the research. My problem started on my first day of my PhD program, which also coincided with the start of data collection for this study. I was still finishing up my Master’s thesis, madly writing every evening from 5 to 11 pm. I was attending my first year PhD courses, and getting briefed on the data collection protocols for the new study. In that the new study was an extension of the pilot study for my masters, I had some ideas about how to design the data collection system, so I was also involved in that. I hadn’t written the original grant proposal for either study, I was working as a graduate research assistant. I knew what I was doing was important, but I didn’t really understand why.

My PhD study ended in June 2010. I was writing book chapters and conference papers, thinking this production would ultimately end up in my dissertation. I saw myself as killing two birds with one stone (NOT BIG BIRD). Throughout these various writing projects I was also compiling the data, indexing it into a database, designing the database, and transcribing interviews. The sheer volume of data was overwhelming, and it took time to organize it, and understand the relationships between the phases of the research, and the data clusters.

Throughout this time, I repeatedly wrote the first three or four paragraphs of chapter one. Each time I tackled them, I would conduct another literature review, to organize my argument and learn more about the issue I was tackling. The chapter kept growing. The last full draft of chapter one I submitted to my advisor was 36 pages, not including references. And each time I would submit my latest effort, my advisor would gently encourage me to go back to the original study proposal and use that as the basis for my chapter one. The hard truth was that I was actually trying to write the findings into chapter one, because they were upmost in my mind. But I need to ignore all that data, and focus on the purpose of the study.

Well, I finally have sorted out the purpose. All those aspects of the study that I have investigated, they lead to the purpose, but they really are topical possibilities for later explication. Since I went back and did a close reading of the original grant proposal I have gotten the clarity of thought that has been eluding me all  this time, when I thought I had to invent my own purpose for a study that I did not originally design. At the same time, I downloaded the suggested format for writing up a dissertation thesis. I spent about a month writing the contents of the original grant proposal into the suggested dissertation thesis format. It was a hard, slogging push.

This week, I finally stopped outlining, I stopped making notes, and I settled down to actually write the chapter from my new outline in my new structure. All of a sudden, all this content from the study that I have wondered where it should go, fell into place. And once again, I was facing my old nemesis, the purpose of the research. I panicked, I cried, I threw up my hands, but I stuck with the outline and battled my way through.

Huh. There is a central purpose – the need for social learning processes for teachers to facilitate their own evolving technological cultures. Educational institutions need to be at the forefront of evolving technological cultural change in society, they need to lead, not follow, the evolution of the knowledge age. This central purpose leads to a second purpose. Educators need to re-conceive the position of  information and communication technologies (ICT) in educational philosophy and practice. Given the cognitive, cultural and technological significance of our human involvements and dependence on ICT, we must consider replacing simplistic arguments about use-value with a more sophisticated, nuanced conversation.

So there is a third purpose, which underlies changes associated with the first and second purpose. Educators and educational institutions must abandon the failed philosophy of Cartesian dualism and human transcendence. It is time we examined all the ways this fallacious philosophical approach to education has actually served to divide, privilege, and promote subordinate/dominate relationships in society. We make this change quite simply, when we consider ourselves as living organisms first, with particular characteristics of consciousness second. We need to adopt an ecological paradigm to correctly position our humanity within systems of life, rather than above it. What purpose does this change entail?

For the purposes of this study, it means we must consider the complex web of relationships that are constantly forming and evolving when  teachers teach, and students learn, in educational institutions. We must consider the role technology plays in human survival, and the evolution of human cognitive, cultural, and technological capabilities. We must position technology, not as a learning aid to teach specific curriculum, nor as a technique to enable particular pedagogy. We must position technology as essential to human life, and engage, with our students, in the difficult conversations about the meanings associated with using different forms of technology for different purposes. Technology is no longer an add-on to an existing teaching practice. It is an integral part of what and how we learn. It is part of our social ecologies of cognition. Educators, and educational institutions, must take responsibility for providing leadership in the ways we interact with technology, the purposes we put it to, and the kinds of relationships we form as a consequence of these activities.

Our human survival depends on our relationship to technology. It is time we engaged in critical discussions about what that means, rather than reducing all technologies to either “good” or “bad” classifications.

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