For me, and in this thesis I do intend to use the personal pronoun, this is a lived thesis. It has been so intertwined with my life and thinking for the last few years that I cannot consider it in a detached, abstract and purely academic way. Researching, writing and debating the ideas contained in the 60,000 words contained here began at a time when I had just begun my teaching career. Now, at the time of finishing this thesis, I have worked in three different schools, experienced Senior Management, subsequently left the teaching profession, and now work in Further and Higher Education. Along the way, the time I have devoted to my doctoral studies have caused me intense pleasure, changed my worldview, and helped me reflect on what it is that I do (and want to do) for a living. It has also meant periods of time away from my wife and the two children that were born to us during the time I have been working on this thesis. The following words have therefore caused me both pleasure and pain.
I had never intended to become a teacher. My father was Deputy Headmaster of the school I attended between the ages of 13 and 18. We moved up to Northumberland when I was four years old and he spent the evenings whilst my sister and I were young to work on both his Diploma in Educational Management and MA through the Open University; I saw the amount of work he (had to) put into his occupation. But, at the end of my third year studying Philosophy at the University of Sheffield (a revelatory experience after my retrospectively-disappointing schooling), my father counseled me to undertake a PGCE (Post Graduate Certificate in Education). His advice was that I could always ‘fall back on teaching’ my other plans did not come to fruition. It was good advice: I loved it.
A degree in Philosophy does not grant one access to a History PGCE at Durham University, meaning that I had (in the year before I was married) to undertake a self-funded MA in Modern History. This entitled me to access onto the PGCE in Secondary History course at Durham which, as it turned out, counted as the first year of an MA in Education. I decided to continue this Masters into my first year of teaching. Being, perhaps, somewhat naïve, I ended up at a school that merged with one in Special Measures at the beginning of my NQT (Newly Qualified Teacher) year. By the end of that first year, the stress and lack of support I received meant I approached Durham University to discontinue my MA studies.
Thankfully, I was persuaded otherwise. My grades were sufficiently high to warrant transferring onto the Ed.D. Doing so, I was informed, would ease my short-term workload. I acquiesced, and caught up with the required modules in the following year at the International Summer School (itself a fantastic experience). It was around this time that my interest in digital literacy was piqued. From the beginning I have shared my work online, first through blogging and then at a dedicated website. I am committed to open educational practice after being inspired by the continuing generosity of educators such as Stephen Downes who make their work available online in a free and openly-licensed way.
Being open and transparent in life is a luxury. It is dependent upon so many factors that I often take for granted. The first aspect of my life and recent years I have too often taken for granted is my family. My parents, in particular, have been my biggest cheerleaders over the years, both towards my academic and ‘extra-curricular’ achievements. Without their encouragement, as well as their emotional and financial support, I would not have completed this thesis. Although my wife found it difficult in the early years of our marriage to understand why I would want to carry on studying, she has (especially since the birth of our first child) given me space to research, think and write. Without being afforded this space I could not have written anything of value that may be found in the following. You can understand, therefore, why it is not merely for reasons of tradition that I dedicate this thesis to my family.
It is not, however, just my family to whom I would wish to pay tribute. First, and although I dislike the term I know of no better to adequately describe it, I’d like to thank my ‘PLN’ (Personal Learning Network). The people who support and interact with me daily through social networks such as Twitter really do make a difference to my life.
Secondly, and although effectively anonymous, I would like to acknowledge in some way the unknown people who have made my life easier as my academic studies have progressed. Researching and writing in 1999 was a very different experience to doing so in 2011. I can remember being introduced to ‘the stacks’ in the Main Library at the University of Sheffield (1999-2002) where, by the time I got to the third year, I was having to spend a good deal of time hunting out journal articles. JSTOR was the only real option for electronic journals, but unfortunately the majority of those I wanted or needed were not available through this service.
During the time I worked on my MA in Modern History (2002-3) the situation had improved slightly, although the majority of work for that degree involved digging into archives in Newcastle getting my first taste of original research. I rarely visited Durham due to inter-library agreements instead spending my time with a newly-purchased laptop in the Robinson Library at the University of Newcastle. This was a turning-point. By the time I started working on my MA in Education as a continuation of my PGCE (2004 onwards) it became less and less likely that I needed to be physically present in a university library to do my work. Apart from the demands of my first Ed.D. supervisor meaning I had to travel up to Durham for our tutorials, I could research and write from my home in Doncaster with little more than a laptop, an internet connection, and my Durham University user ID.
The situation in higher education as I write (2011) is, to my mind, extremely conducive to high-quality, collaborative and open work. There has been a rise in open-access journals, and video conferencing facilities such as Skype mean I have not met Steve Higgins, my current (extremely accommodating, encouraging and flexible) supervisor face-to-face for more than two years. Battery life on laptops and tablets, 3G data connections, and software to organise both research and writing make working from anywhere not just a possibility but an everyday reality. I have worked hard on this thesis over a sustained period of time. If and when I am successful in submitting this thesis and satisfy the requirements of my viva voce I will, indeed, have ‘earned’ my doctorate. But there are tens of thousands of people in this country, and millions more all over the world, for whom working hard isn’t enough to be successful in life. I am fortunate. I am fortunate that the poor decisions I have made in life have not had serious repercussions. Others are not so fortunate. I want to use this preface as a marker to my future self not to forget that. To a great extent I can be considered the product of my environment(s).
I am, then, ultimately scaffolded in my research and writing by a whole system that I have only recently come to recognise and value. I think the African humanist philosophy of ‘Ubuntu’ sums this up well, “I am what I am because of who we all are.” Long may that last.
Douglas A.J. Belshaw