Interviewing students on their (blended) learning experience

“It is crucial to keep uppermost in one’s mind the fact that the interview is a social, interpersonal encounter, not merely a data collection exercise”.
John Creswell (2012)


I’ve just completed the fifth of five student interviews as part of my doctoral studies into the student experience of blended learning. I hope to do a couple more, but this being the end of the academic year, my emails to students inviting them to join me for a chat are not finding a response. So I may have done all of my data collection. Time to think about how this part of the data collection has gone.

All my interviews have been semi-structured. I’ll possibly go into the reasons for that elsewhere. It’s been like going for a walk in the woods, hoping that of the different tracks criss-crossing the forest floor in different conversations there may be convergences, clearings where the light is a little brighter. Hoping that by keeping a record of the journeys, each with a different partner, a pattern may emerge which is worth mapping for other travellers looking to venture this way.

The semi-structured approach meant that the interviews were loose enough for us to explore themes as they arose, with me using a list of questions to steer us towards my research focus if I felt we had wandered too far. The wandering itself was engaging and at times beguiling.  I found the process of mentally widening my focus from the conversation to my research question to check whether this might or might not be a fruitful direction difficult, perhaps rude. I imagine it’s something that feels less mechanical and gets easier with practice.

Having a list of questions to refer to certainly helped with this and as the interviews went on, I got a sense for which questions would work best at a certain times. Sometimes the questions served to return to a topic we had already touched on to elaborate or add to or think again about what had already been said and I would introduce them as such: “I think we’ve talked about this already….”.

It’s been hugely enjoyable and illuminating. I guess students won’t volunteer to be interviewed about their learning unless they think they might have something to say and feel fairly comfortable about saying it. I was struck throughout by their generosity and willingness to respond to my nudging towards the specific area of their experience concerning the “blend” where online and face-to-face experience blurs into one learning experience. At times participants have expressed their experience with such clarity and originality that I’ve wanted to cheer and punch the air. Presuming this not to be appropriate, I refrained. Maybe I shouldn’t have. Instead I thanked them and promised to send a draft of how I use their interview before I present my thesis.

Faking reflection

I’ve had the good fortune to assist, in a legitimate peripheral participation kind of way, on a couple of teacher training programmes over the last few weeks. Reflection as a tool for critical thinking on practice, leading to a deepening of theoretical understanding, or at least to preparing the ground for theoretical exploration has been an important theme. So this seems like a good moment to think about my experience of reflection.

2 Rocks and Their Reflection
Photo by Stanley Zimny (Thank You for 20 Million views) on Flickr

I am an occasional reflector and serial counsellee. Professionally I’ve found reflection useful in various roles: first as an advice worker, then as a teacher, lately as a someone who is obliged to write as part of a doctoral programme.

Generally I dip in and out of reflection. Usually an experience or thought causes me to feel particularly anxious, enthusiastic or curious and (but usually anxious) and I write to get the thing into perspective, see whether I can or should do something about it, what I can learn and what I can do. Invariably this leads to some reading and to writing and thinking that is incomplete but still serves its purpose. Reflection is my own, usually private, sometimes not read back even by me.

I have only ever been obliged to reflect while on teacher training programmes: a CertTESOL and a PGCE. Neither were really satisfying.

On the CertTESOL I wrote my entire journal on the night before submission, plundering a colleague’s journal for useful ideas and desperately trying to remember lessons from my plans. I got a better grade than my colleague did, which perhaps shows that even bodged fake reflection can do the job of meeting tutors’ expectations very effectively.

I entitled my PGCE journal “Don’t look back in anger”, which was in the charts at the time. I felt that we were being trained in portfolio assembly, not helped to become teachers who could inspire our students and do work we loved. I was summoned to explain myself to the course director.

Student reactions ranging from ambivalence to irritation and resentment are well documented by Valerie Hobbs in “Faking it or hating it: can reflective practice be forced?” (2007). Hobbs enrolled on a CertTESOL course, similar to the one I did, in order to undertake an ethnographic study of course participants’ attitudes to reflection. Students were obliged to reflect on every lesson and to follow particular prompts to guide this. The prompts suggested certain expectations, anticipated particular modes of thinking and teaching. These expectations may not have been explicit in tutors’ minds, they may not have been in tutors’ minds at all, but they were keenly felt by the students.  A requirement to explain how activities were connected would mean that students post-facto would invent connections, areas of difficulty in early lessons would appear in later journal posts as freshly won competences. This grim revisionism is a particularly soul-destroying pursuit and a reversal of the point of reflection. When learning outcomes are sliced together with reflection, the result can be a performative blancmange. People will hate you for wasting their time by making them serve it to you.

I am happy to report that this is not the nature of reflection on the courses I am assisting with at the moment. A colleague who is undertaking teacher training elsewhere has found that blancmange remains a popular dish.


It’s two weeks today since I joined #humanMOOC. I have enjoyed it perhaps as a course and definitely as conversations on twitter – hence the hashtag. It’s been great to deepen my acquaintance with people I knew already, to meet new people and to chew the fat on the subject of how we learn online, how we think we can help students learn online and the connection between the two. It’s been enjoyable and useful to think about the place of instructor video in establishing teacher presence with Laura Gibbs and Andy Nobes.

Any exploration of learning inevitably moves to meta-levels. Considering learning with technology particularly involves a reflexive element due to recurring novelty. This is exciting and can become distracting.

I never really committed time to the stream mode to the course, instead I found myself stepping through the hashtag into the garden and the course fading out of view except as a clearing in social media for conversations. Those conversations and connections draw me back to the course, to ask what it is that has brought us together and what we’re trying to learn.

Friday Find

So, it’s been a year exactly since my last post. Ho hum. Never mind. The glossary of terms for the EdD could still happen, the logging of what’s going on in my work and my studies should still happen. But it’s hard to find what I write good enough to share (I know, you wouldn’t guess from what did make it onto here).

In the light of this, I was interested in a post on Harold Jarche’s blog called “Friday Find” where he explains that in a move to reflect and make something of the information he finds and shares on Twitter, he summarises the best of it every couple of weeks.

Summarizing what I see on Twitter is probably beyond me right now (I have an assignment due in a month and a half), so for the same reasons as Jarche but with less ambition, I offer the first of my Friday Finds – something I ran across this week on Twitter which excited my interest and got me thinking about education, teaching and technology.

This first week I’m going with a Stephen Downes slideshare:

In particular, I’m taken with a couple of aphorisms here that are I suppose obvious but easy to forget:

To teeach is to model and to demonstrate

To learn is practice and reflect


This is a partial account of both learning and teaching but it emphasises teachers as models of learning behaviour and facilitators of student practice and reflection over say as assessors or holders of knowledge.

I really liked this slide: Reclaiming_Personal_Learning
I’m not sure what Downes means by it at all. But what I like is that ‘personal’ is about connections to other people, it is emotional, multifaceted, difficult, compelling. For me, most of the best moments in education and in life are about personal connections. Personalized is something that machines do to us using our data, like the Amazon “people who bought this item also bought” algorithm or the soup that Facebook serves up. It is interesting but it is not as thrilling as somebody going to the trouble to suggest we look at something, to disagree with us, tell us we can do better or make us laugh.

This reminded me of another Twitter find this week: Mark Barnes talking about the importance of encouraging learners to engage in discussion and try again as part of work towards learning rather than be handed a score for assignments.

With both Downes and Barnes there is a distinction between learning as data and learning as a process between people. I think both are useful, but technology can allow us to focus on one at the risk of undervaluing the other.


The first of a series of provisional descriptions in a personal glossary of terms to help me with my EdD.

Inductivism is the view that causation or at least significant connection can be drawn from observation of data. Furthermore, this connection can be tested by the observation of additional data by other researchers.

This is the scientific approach. It assumes that there is an objective reality, that we can measure aspects of this reality, that we can correlate these measurements in consistent and meaningful ways and then draw useful conclusions from them for predicting future events or situations.