Research, Academic Literacy
This #Take5 post is brought to you from Ed Bickle from the LDU at Bournemouth University and Ralitsa Kantcheva, a Study Skills Adviser at Bangor University. They are reflecting on their involvement in one of ALDinHE’s CoP (Community of Practice – see https://aldinhe.ac.uk/networking/communities-of-practice/): The Research CoP. The Research CoP is a group of LDers on diverse contracts who came together to support themselves as researchers in the field of Learning Development.
Key words: collaborative writing, learning development research, autoethnography, non-hierarchical
Reflecting on participation in our research collaborative writing project
This blog post offers the reflections of an academic non-hierarchical research collaborative writing experience from the perspective of two Learning Development (LD) professionals. Both are members of The Association for Learning Development in Higher Education (ALDinHE) Research Community of Practice.
Formed in 2020, the community of practice consists of Learning Developers geographically dispersed across Higher Education (HE) Institutions within England, Scotland, and Wales. The group meets virtually once a month to discuss research issues and topics relating to LD. Whilst brought together by their interest in developing their research profiles, their roles vary by institution. Some, for example, are on academic contracts and the need to engage in research activities is written into their job description, whilst for others there are no research expectations. Similarly, some members are situated within faculties whilst others work within central departments. This disparity is something that is acknowledged within the wider field of LD (Johnson 2018). Johnson provides the example of a small-scale study, noting that only around one in five LD respondents disclosed having a paid research component in their work.
As the group developed we began to consider its identity and the function it played within our own institutional roles, enabling us to begin to question whether the group was able to fill a space within our day to day experiences of being a learning developer. As part of this exploration, group members decided to capture their experiences using collaborative autoethnography. The benefit of an autoethnographic approach being the ability to “describe and systematically analyze personal experience in order to understand cultural experience” (Ellis et al. 2011, p. 273). Firstly, members completed a 30-minute synchronous writing exercise (using Google Docs) giving them an opportunity to reflect on a number of themes, as identified below:
Picture: Main themes group members reflected on during the first group writing task
The second exercise was an asynchronous self-reflection in which members shared anonymously their thoughts, experiences, and feelings about the synchronous writing exercise.
Using Thematic Analysis, the common themes within the two exercises were identified and the full write up has been published within the Journal of University Teaching and Learning Practice (https://ro.uow.edu.au/jutlp/vol18/iss7/09/).
By writing this blog we hope to encourage other groups of HE professionals to engage in similar collaborative writing activities that can create new insights into the HE landscape relevant to themselves (Bickle et al. 2021). In order to support such endeavours, we offer the following reflections on what we feel contributed to the success and the positive experience of this project for all involved. As one member wrote:
In my own view, this exercise has been a turning point in helping us, as a group, define who we are, what we want to do and what we are collectively interested in
Leaving the ego at the door to create a non hierarchical community
One of the most important factors that led to the success of the writing tasks was the genuine lack of hierarchy within the group. This meant that members felt empowered to offer their input, ideas, and suggestions without being reserved. This was despite the varied levels of experience within the group, both within the academic writing sphere but also in terms of job titles and responsibilities. As two members commented:
cultivated an atmosphere of genuine ‘collectivity and collaboration’
I didn’t feel I may be judged for my responses (or poor spelling/grammar)
In order for this to be achieved, each member of the group needed to ‘leave their ego at the door’ and approach the task with an open mind and adopt a truly collegiate approach to writing. This approach enabled the benefits of being in a community with like-minded professionals to be enhanced over time, with members stating:
I also find the community incredibly friendly and supportive – with lots of sharing of ideas and practice
I have gained much knowledge as a result of this community of practice and my confidence has grown.
A sense of shared ownership
Another key feature of this collaborative writing endeavour was the co-creation of the research dataset. Many authors in their reflections of the first co-writing task have shared how reading the answers of others to a question, while writing their own, has given them a sense of belonging and has encouraged them to share more about their experiences and views:
Seeing the words appear on the page where other people were writing had quite a magic effect. A bit like being in a running race, where you are inspired to achieve that little bit more that you can’t alone, just because of the sheer number of people around you doing the same. Quite amazing that the same thing can transfer to a virtual environment
I felt very connected to the other people in the group as I could see them writing their responses alongside mine
This led to a feeling that the dataset analysed in the co-written article belonged not to the individual authors, but to the community as a whole. Thus, none of the authors felt strongly possessive of the dataset and all authors were willing to discuss and explore new approaches to analysing the dataset and presenting the community’s findings.
Managing communication within a large group
With 10 learning developers in the community each with unique past professional experience, at a different stage in their professional life, and with a number of contradicting approaches to academic writing, it was challenging to ensure that a truly collaborative working space was created. As one member shared:
I suppose a perennial issue with getting together as a group of people is that not everyone will be able to attend all sessions, and therefore individuals will dip in and out of the shared writing activity.
One of the most challenging points was timely communication with all group members. To overcome this challenge we used both group wide emails and a shared online working space. E-mail communications to all group members were sent after a meeting to outline agreed key points and related actions. On a number of occasions, some group members would be able to respond immediately to such communications, while others could engage with such messages and respond only after their working day was complete. This lack of synchrony in communication was stressful for some authors, while for others it was reassuring, as they knew that the community valued their viewpoint and they were given a chance to share their input, as outlined below:
I very much welcomed and enjoyed the opportunity to contribute to the activity in this way [at a later date], and to know that my thoughts could be documented and included in the work
To counterbalance the lack of synchrony in email replies, a shared online working space was created. It was used to house a checklist with all needed writing tasks with responsible individuals and agreed completion deadlines. Further to that, asynchronous comments were used to draft and edit the collaboratively written article.
Agreeing upon collective practices
Another demanding characteristic of the collaborative writing process was following all pre-agreed procedures during synchronous meetings of the community at a later stage when authors worked asynchronously in small groups or individually, with a suggestion that:
I would imagine that as the group becomes more established the language, practices and how the group works will become more ‘practiced’ and maybe easier for us to communicate to others
To ensure that authors’ varied past writing and publishing experiences did not negatively affect the collaboratively writing process, the formatting and layout requirements of the journal the community aimed to publish in were shared and discussed during a meeting. This created a common vision of the final goal and streamlined the co-editing and co-proofreading processes.
I’m confident that it will be possible to pull the collective thoughts together to produce an article that truly reflects all the views in the group both areas of commonality and areas of difference.
Although it can be challenging to write collaboratively at times, it is a greatly rewarding process, and an efficient way to learn and develop writing skills in a supportive, non-hierarchical environment. We would like to leave readers with four thoughts to take away with them.
- To create an environment in which each member is able to thrive, members need to enter the process with an open-mind, a willingness to listen to others, and a true sense of collegiality.
- The success of the process was in part related to the sense of co-ownership of the data, and suggests that the use of approaches such as autoethnography may be particularly valuable when undertaking a collaborative writing exercise.
- Within a large group of geographically and institutionally dispersed individuals, it is important to establish communication channels early on in the process in order to create as seamless a process as possible.
- As well as communication, it is also important for the group to establish and agree upon collective processes and deadlines. As an example, members volunteered to undertake certain elements of the article write-up process such as proofreading and reference checking of the final text.
Bickle, E., Bishopp-Martin, S., Canton, U., Chin, P., Johnson, I., Kantcheva, R., Nodder, J., Rafferty, V., Sum,K., & Welton, K. 2021. Emerging from the third space chrysalis: Experiences in a non-hierarchical, collaborative research community of practice. Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice, 18(7), 135-158.
Ellis, C., Adams, T.E. & Bochner, A.P. 2011. Autoethnography: an overview. Historical Social Research, 36(4), 273-290.
Johnson, I., 2018. Driving learning development professionalism forward from within. Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education [online], Special Edition (ALDinHE Conference 2018).
About the authors
Dr Ed Bickle has been a Lecturer in Learning Development at Bournemouth University since 2017. He has extensive experience in widening participation research and his primary interests lie in the lived experiences of widening participation students, and phenomenological research methodologies.
Dr Ralitsa Kantcheva has been a Study Skills Adviser at Bangor University (Wales) since 2016. She has experience supporting students both through subject specific and generic provision of academic literacy skills. Her primary research interest is students’ understanding of threshold concepts embedded in academic writing and in scientific research procedures.