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Methodology for this dissertation

This section explains and critiques the methodology used in the completion of this dissertation as opposed to the methodology applied in my practice. It begins with the philosophical and methodological approaches taken and the specific methods used to create the dissertation and discover my thesis.

Philosophical Approach – Pragmatism

The philosophical approach of Pragmatism - that the function of thought is as an instrument or tool for prediction, action, and problem solving (Peirce 1935James 1898) - has inspired my work and guided the production of the thesis. The analyses are essentially thoughts expressed in a form that enables them to guide action in the design process. An influentual development from Pragmatism that informed my approach is that of Symbolic Interactionism (Mead 1934) - that people act on things based on the meaning those things have for them; and these meanings are arrived at through social interaction and modified through interpretation. Mead proposed that the true test of any theory was that "It was useful in solving complex social problems" (Griffin 2006, 59) and this has guided me to develop and defend the analyses in my thesis by gathering my work practice, discovering those aspects which have made the greatest contribution and attempting to link them to the thesis through the development of a hypertextual dissertation web site, before creating the paper document.

Methodological Approach – Autoethnography

Although it is clear that the approach I have taken is of autoethnography, there are variants, and my approach has been closest to that defined by Ellis - “research, writing, story, and method that connect the autobiographical and personal to the cultural, social, and political” (Ellis 2004, xix). Although I set out to describe and look critically at my experience, there is also the deliberate attempt to find theory in this dissertation, and a move from my tacit theories to those articulated in the analyses, [A1], [A2] and [A3], published with this dissertation, where the intent is to provide reliable tools to other designers. I hope that this desire and the positive outcomes of much of the practice I have been engaged in will counter the criticisms levelled at auto-ethnographers as "unscientific, or only exploratory, or subjective" (Denzin and Lincoln 2005, 8).


Autoethnographic approaches are criticised:

for being biased, navel-gazing, self-absorbed, or emotionally incontinent, and for hijacking traditional ethnographic purposes and scholarly contributions
(Maréchal 2010, 45)

I would counter this concern with the observation that this dissertation is not concerned with simply depicting my practice, but with setting out an abstract and theoretical  thesis which is justified by the account of practice. In this sense, the autoethnographic approach recognises the capacity for bias, but is concerned to be faithful and productive to the author's thinking and experience. Triangulation of this account comes from the evidence cited in the Claim section.

Evaluating autoethnographic work

The five factors described by Richardson (2000, 15-16) for evaluating  such work are used here to justify my position, and for you the reader to judge my success as set out in table 3.

Table 3: Richardson's factors for evaluating autoethonographic work (Richardson 2000, 15-16)

FactorResponse for this dissertation

Substantive contribution

Does the piece contribute to our understanding of social life?


Taken as a whole, the portfolio explains the career of an individual (me) in times of change in education as technology matured and became ubiquitous, changing the face of education. I have related my development to the more influential people that I worked with, but recognise a huge number of others that made my work and learning possible.

Aesthetic merit

Does this piece succeed aesthetically? Is the text artistically shaped, satisfyingly complex, and not boring?


This dissertation is also presented as a designed web-site (, attempting to please aesthetically.


How did the author come to write this text? How has the author’s subjectivity been both a producer and a product of this text?


In reviewing all my professional practice to prepare for this dissertation, I have systematically developed reflective written material for the most significant events. I have constructed identity and place in my life's work through this process and this has made me a product of this text.


Does this affect me emotionally and/or intellectually? Does it generate new questions or move me to action?


The demand to articulate more clearly my theoretical perspectives and find coherence in them has provided many questions. Impact has also been seen in the outcomes of my practice.

Expresses a reality

Does this text embody a fleshed out sense of lived experience?


By including my employment, education and professional responsibilities I have tried to show a complete career. Although I could have included much more personal matters of family and relationship, the reflective section in my portfolio about people I have worked with will, I hope, illuminate how I have been humanly influenced.

Specific method used to develop the dissertation

Designing the dissertation web site

From the outset, the processes of gathering, categorising, reflecting, selecting and presenting were identified as knowledge and information management tasks, which from the author's perspective demanded the use of a content management system (CMS). The practice of designing using such a system was aligned with the author's experience and ambition, offering not only a vehicle for development but also dissemination and participation. The benefits of structuring, semantic tagging, work-flow, language translation, accessibility, visual design and multimedia features of the Plone CMS were seen as appropriate for the task based on experience using this CMS for the websites of key relevant professional organisations in recent years - Ultralab, Core Education UK and the National Archive of Educational Computing. These methods match digitally the way in which many dissertation writers will adopt a paper filing system using boxes, but permits greater flexibility of organisation and the potential for searching and sorting the data generated as the process unfolded. It ultimately offered me, as a designer of digital artefacts, the opportunity to use my online design knowledge and capacity to solve a challenging data handling problem as described in the following sections.

Gathering the evidence of practice

The first step was to enter the events in my practice using the 'Event' content type in Plone and collecting these in the Portfolio section. Each event consisted of a title, summary, description, start and end date for each of the elements of my practice. I chose to be broad in scope, creating an auto-biographical account which is more complete than required for this dissertation, but allowed decisions on relevance, importance and contribution to made through a second pass. An important consequence of this process was the positive effect of building a rounded account of my life experience leading to a holistic picture. The outcome is a list of around 400 items of practice.

Categorising the evidence

Each entry was tagged as belonging to one of seven categories that emerged from considering the kinds of practice I had engaged in:

  1. education - events in my formal lifelong education;
  2. employment - posts held;
  3. project - research and development projects undertaken;
  4. professional - positions of professional activity, e.g. societies, examination, advice;
  5. conference - participation in conferences;
  6. publication - papers and other media published formally;
  7. teaching - activity where my rôle was to teach others.

Adding reflections on practice and selecting key contributions to knowledge

To create a manageable portfolio for assessment of this dissertation, a selection of events was made that seemed to offer potential for the development of a doctoral thesis through a process of reflection (Dewey 1933Schön 1983), following the requirements for this kind of PhD. These events were edited to include a paragraph or more of reflective writing, identifying the key elements within them that influenced the development of my design practice and assessing the contribution made by me in what were frequently collaborative activities. As well as clarifying the nature of my contribution, I assessed the proportion of it by recalling the size of the team I worked with, the role I was playing and the quality of my involvement. This was reduced to a single percentage value (as the regulation expected) and then verified by consultation with the key team member.

From these items, a further selection was made to shorten the list to form the basis of a claim for examination. These items are tagged 'claim' and show with a white background and bold text in the portfolio timeline as shown in Figure 3.

Timeline with claims

Figure 3: Claim items highlighted in white on a timeline of my professional practice

Each of these items has been shared with the original key collaborators, where possible, and they have formally agreed to my judgment of contribution. The collaborators were sent an email invitation to confirm my judgement with a letter attached to sign and return to my director of studies.This process was followed as part of the conditions for registration for this degree and was submitted to the Board of Studies for Research Degrees and approved.
There are two areas for doubt in this case: firstly that the collaborators may have been influenced by personal relationship and thus unwilling to challenge the percentages proposed; secondly that the quantitative measure does not adequately portray the contribution made. Nevertheless this was the required method to indicate and confirm contribution as set out in the regulations:
" iv. Where any work has been published or carried out in collaboration with other persons, a statement signed by the candidate and co-authors or collaborators specifying the extent of the relative contributions of each to the work. (Note: the University reserves the right to consult with any of the co-authors or collaborators in respect of this statement)."
(Regulations and Procedures Governing the Award of the Degrees of: Doctor of Philosophy by Published Work and Doctor of Philosophy by Practice Approved by the Board of Studies for Research Degrees
Approved by the Academic Board, October 2008 Version 3 p5)

I was conscious of the limitations of such an approach in terms of my bias, and so deliberately determined a percentage contribution as low as seemed reasonable to me, for example usually not exceeding an equal contribution based on the number of members in the team and sometimes lower.

On reflection, I consider the requirement to estimate my contribution in percentage terms to be too limited, and in future would propose the regulations change to use more qualitative terms ranked as:

    • leader;
    • one of a pair;
    • member of small team;
    • critical friend and
    • member of large team.

Identifying originality, impact and importance in practice

A final process of identifying the originality, impact and importance of the items of practice on which I based the claim was undertaken and referenced to evidence to corroborate my judgement. In some cases the practice was very public and on the large (national and international) scale and may be readily judged for these factors by other academics and practitioners in the field.

The outcome of this process forms the basis of the Claim made in that section of this dissertation.


(Words: 2039 )

"The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

--Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster."

― One Art, Elizabeth Bishop, 1976