PhD accepted for public defence

phd_frontIn November 2016, I finally managed to hand in my dissertation, and earlier this week I received the preliminary assessment, which was positive insofar as the assessment committee unanimously recommends that my dissertation should be accepted for public, oral defence – BIG YAY :-)

The defence will take place at Aalborg University in Copenhagen (AAU-CPH) on January 26th 2017 . The assessment committee consists of the following people:

My PhD-supervisor, Lone Dirckinck-Holmfeld (Aalborg University) will moderate the defence, which is set for three hours:


The abstract of my dissertation reads as follows:

The purpose of this study is to understand and conceptualize the transformation of a particular community of pedagogical practice based on the implementation of the 3D virtual world, Second Life™. The community setting is a course at the Danish online postgraduate Master’s programme on ICT and Learning, which is formally situated at Aalborg University. The study is guided by two research questions focusing on the participants’ responses to the avatar phenomenon and the design of the course.

In order to conduct and theorize about the transformation of this community of practice due to the 3D-remediation a research-led Action Research approach has been chosen to enable research with focus on both actions and critical reflections carried out in four consecutive research cycles from 2007-2011. 53 master students, one main teacher (the author), and several guest teachers have participated in the study. The findings are predominantly based on analysis of asynchronous student discussions in FirstClass™ (1.104 postings) and synchronous participant observation in Second Life (130 hours). A Grounded Theory-inspired approach has been used to generate and analyse the data in this study, meaning that no predefined theoretical framework was used to guide the design of the research cycles from the onset of the study. However, as the research progressed more and more elements from situated learning and the communities of practice theory influenced the design.

The study has demonstrated the importance of the avatar as pedagogical design element given that it is through the avatar the participants identify themselves and others, create meaning and experience learning in the virtual world. Furthermore, the findings show that the avatar cannot be understood devoid of context, devoid of other pedagogical design elements.

In summary, the study contributes with knowledge about 3D Virtual Worlds, the influence of the avatar phenomenon and the consequences of 3D-remediation in relation to teaching and learning in online education. Based on the findings, a conceptual design model, a set of design principles, and a design framework has been developed.

The preliminary assessment is 3 1/2 pages long and includes a summary and a critical evaluation of my dissertation. In my lecture, I will present my research while trying to address some of the critique given by the committee. Based on the evaluation, I anticipate a discussion of some of the following topics:

  • The concept of virtual/virtuality
  • My literature review strategy (State-of-the-art review)
  • My analytical strategy, Grounded Theory (GT) and the role of theory in GT
  • Insider research and positionality
  • The differences and similarities between Action Research (AR) and Design Based Research (DBR)
  • The Communities of Practice framework
  • The challenge of using learning theory for pedagogical design (and perhaps a discussion on the difference between anthropological and psychological perspectives on learning and education)
  • Socio-cultural vs. socio-material theories and approaches to understanding the world (of education)
  • The status and future of SL and other 3D virtual worlds in education

I’m currently in the process of preparing my defence, and I have to admit that I’m somewhat nervous. The main text of my dissertation is approx. 250 pages long, so there are a lot of issues to consider. I am, however, hoping that I will be able to put aside this nervousness and enjoy the whole thing. It truly is a unique opportunity to discuss some of the issues I care deeply about with some very clever people :-)


High student satisfaction in SL

On June 16th, 22 students graduated from the Master’s Program on ICT & Learning (MIL) at Aalborg University, and this is where I’ve been running courses on SL for my PhD-project since 2007. As always, graduation day was an exciting day combining student anxiety and great relief and joy. After all the exams, there was a reception where the Masters received their diplomas, the daily manager of MIL, Ulla Konnerup and the Dean of Humanities, Lone Dirckinck-Holmfeld spoke about the students’ achievements and their new roles as “ambassadors of ICT & Learning”. Finally, we finished off the day with a wonderful dinner/dance at the Utzon Center, downtown Aalborg.

22 very happy Masters of ICT & Learning 2011.

As something new, the steering committee behind the MIL Program had decided to award the Program’s “Teacher of the Year”. All courses/modules are anonymously evaluated by the students, and based on these evaluations; I was fortunate to receive this award :-)

1 happy Teacher of the Year 2011 and 1 happy Dean (right).

Ironically, I’ve not (yet) seen these particular students evaluations, however, based on the evaluations the students and I did as part of the SL course, I do have a few ideas as to why the students find teaching and learning in SL so satisfying. To understand this a little background information is necessary. In my PhD-project, I’ve conducted 4 research cycles, spanning from 2007-2010. Each cycle consisted of designing, implementing, and evaluating a 6-8 week online course on ICT and instructional design based in SL and a conventional 2D VLE. From a theoretical point of view, I’ve been inspired especially by Wenger’s (1998) social theory on learning as participation in Communities of Practice (CoP), Schroeder’s (2011) ideas on presence and co-presence, and Bolter & Grusin’s (1999) concept of remediation. From a methodological point of view, I’ve been inspired by Insider Action Research (Coghlan, 2007), and ethnographical methods such as longitude participant-observation (Boellstorff, 2008). 53 adult MIL-students (majority are educators) in total have participated in my study. The table below provides a brief overview of the research cycles.

PhD-overview – July 2011.

Based on my data, I’ve been able to identify 3 analytical units that will inform the answering of my research question; namely what it means to learn via 1) a new, virtual environment, via 2) a new, virtual body, and finally via 3) new, virtual activities. The picture below shows the 3 units and the related topics that emerged in all four research cycles.

3 analytical units; virtual environment, virtual body, and virtual activities.

In this short post, I will not go into details with the units, but my findings show that being remediated as avatars in a new, virtual environment where it is possible to participate in a variety of new virtual activities greatly influenced the students’ perceptions of presence and co-presence, and from a Distance Education perspective this is one of the most valuable contributions SL has to offer. Conveying a sense of “being there together” as Schroeder puts it, is essential in Distance Education, not only in terms of student satisfaction, but also in terms of learning outcome. Further, SL also provides the participants with unique opportunities of “doing things together”, and as such it is possible to attribute some of the students’ satisfaction to SL’s affordances. I would, however, like to stress that relevant affordances do not necessarily guaranty satisfaction, and though this holds true for all technology, especially in a complex system like SL, the instructional design becomes pertinent. Basically, my PhD-work has been about designing for optimal learning via SL, and in this respect, I’ve found great inspiration in Wenger’s four dimensions of learning;

  • Learning as a process of experiencing – outcome: changed meaning
  • Learning as a process of becoming – outcome: changed identity
  • Learning as a process of belonging – outcome: changed community
  • Learning as a process of doing – outcome: changed practice
Even though, I’ve not designed exclusively for the creation of a community of practice in SL, e.g. by solely using Wenger’s proposed design principles*, the ideas of the theory are part of my, and the MIL Program’s general pedagogical foundation, and I do believe that SL is a medium that offers very good opportunities for creation of communities of practice, both in educational and other settings. Looking at my data, I’ve found a distinct connection between elements from CoP-theory and presence/co-presence as shown in the figure below.

Connected elements of presence and CoP-theory in 3D-remediated learning.

In short, the figure shows how the sense of presence facilitates the creation of meaning and identity, while the sense of co-presence facilitates the creation of community and practice. In practice, the elements overlap, and it is in fact the oscillation between the elements, which constitutes the dynamics of SL as teaching and learning environment as seen from a CoP-perspective. Based on the findings from my study, I believe that the combination of a social pedagogical strategy and the use of a medium that affords a strong sense of presence/co-presence and which is rich in terms of co-creative possibilities, actually can promote student satisfaction. Evidently, this is a very brief description of my work … more details will follow in my forthcoming dissertation that is due in September.


*) For an excellent example of integrating Wenger’s principles and ideas in design for teacher development in an online community, please have a look at my (now former) colleague Dr. Mayela Coto’s PhD-work.

Dissertation time – time for final decisions

When I return from holidays by mid-August I’ll commence the final phase of my PhD-project, seeing that I’ll have to start writing my dissertation, which is due next summer. This means that I have to start making final decisions on what to include respectively exclude. To date I’ve completed four research cycles and I have the opportunity of running a fifth and final research cycle in December 2010 – February 2011, as I’ll be conducting yet another SL-course. However, I don’t have to include the fifth cycle in my PhD because I already have a LOT of data, and so inclusion will depend on how I’ll be doing on time. Now making decisions is difficult, but I find that sticking with them can be even more so! Fortunately a few important decisions have turned out to be long-standing.

From a methodological point of view I opted for an Action Research inspired approach from the beginning of my project and this has worked out very well giving me the data I’d hoped for through redesign/remediation, participant-observation, interviews and surveys.

I’m hoping to find the time to do a few follow-up interviews with former participants of my courses and perhaps with one of the methodological experts by who I’ve been greatly inspired, namely the anthropologist and author of “Coming of age in Second Life – An anthropologist explores the virtually human”, Tom Boellstorff of UC Irvine. As previously expressed in this post, Boellstorff advocates studying SL in its own rights, and in my opinion he’s the first anthropologist, who truly recognized how “real” the “virtual” can be, and I applaud his attempt to challenge old-school anthropology.

When it comes to other theories relevant for my work the decisions have been harder to come by, but that’s just part of the learning process. Just as it is sometimes necessary in life in general, I’ve had to make a few detours to find my way. Taking “the road less travelled by” has always been a credo of mine and I don’t expect that to change sometime soon.

Throughout my project I’ve been exploring different theories – especially within the field of teaching and learning, but lately also with regard to media theory. My affiliations with Aalborg University (AAU) and the Danish online Master Program on ICT and Learning (MIL) have nonetheless guaranteed a few fix points. At AAU the overall pedagogical framework is based on our local understanding of Problem-Based Learning (PBL) and at MIL we’ve tried to combine PBL with principles from a sociocultural-historical perspective most notably expressed by Lave & Wenger and Wenger and their ideas on Situated Learning and Communities of Practice (CoP).

While CoP-theory can help explain certain aspects of teaching and learning, it lacks the ability to explain others, and this is only logic since we’re dealing with very complex phenomena. When we combine these complex processes with the use of tools, I’ve found Vygotsky’s concept of mediation relevant and aligned with this I do believe that Bolter & Grusin’s concept of remediation contributes to a more specific understanding when the tools are identified as new, digital media. Engestrom has further developed Vygotsky’s and especially Leontjev’s ideas focusing on activity and conflicts (or even double binds) as motivation for change.  Combined with ideas of scaffolding through the zone of proximal development all of the above theories have the potential to illuminate the problems I’ve identified in my project.  The major challenge that lies ahead is trying to create a unified model that includes all of these important aspects – something that has caused me trouble, since these theorists work with different analytical units and attribute different meanings to similar or even the same concepts. Throughout my project I’ve been experimenting with using existing models and creating new ones, and even though it now seems that I will not be using any of them in my dissertation, they have served as important tools to sharpen my thinking. The most important outcome of this work has been the realization that none of the existing models satisfy my project’s need, and I therefore have to create my own model that also includes some of the aspects I’ve come to find pertinent in working with remediation in new media – i.e. time is rarely included in models depicting teaching and learning.

And so, as I’m getting ready to spend some much anticipated time AFK, I’m feeling quite confident about the next phase, even though I know that more decisions are needed and that that process will not end until I’ve Ph.inisheD. ;-)