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'potential learners'

By Holly Riley,2014-03-23 19:43
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'potential learners'

Problematising research with ‘potential learners’:

    tales from the field

Kim Slack and Katy Vigurs

    Institute for Access Studies Staffordshire University

Leek Road

    Stoke-on-Trent

    ST4 2DF

    01782 295731

    email: k.vigurs@staffs.ac.uk

     k.b.slack@staffs.ac.uk

Higher Education Close Up 3 24 - 26 July 2006

    Abstract

    Researchers working in the field of widening participation and lifelong learning are working with a diverse range of research participants in an equally diverse range of research contexts. Such research frequently involves attempts to establish contact and engage with marginalised groups and individuals (often labelled as „hard to reach‟ and „excluded‟) so as to explore their experiences and

    perceptions of education. This can be problematic in practice as such groups and individuals may be vulnerable (e.g. care-leavers, homeless people, those living with mental health issues), and/or reluctant to become involved in research which may be perceived as being an alien and meaningless process with little relevance to their lives.

    This paper focuses on the methodological approaches developed in order to try to engage with „potential learners‟ (defined as „non-learners‟ in the call for

    proposals) as research participants, as part of a recent research project funded by the Learning and Skills Research Centre (LSRC) to explore the concept of learning brokerage (Thomas et al, 2005). Our discussion will focus on methodological insights drawn from trying to engage potential learners as research participants in relation to four case studies. This paper will draw upon tales from the field to highlight some of the issues involved in developing and conducting qualitative research with potential learners in different contexts, pointing to the strengths and limitations of the different approaches.

Introduction

    Widening participation in higher education and lifelong learning is at the forefront of much public policy both nationally and internationally. As a result there is a strong policy focus on involving non-traditional learners in formal and informal learning, as Reay argues “No longer limited to the advantaged few, education is increasingly positioned within dominant discourses as the new panacea for the masses (2001: p336). Researchers working in the field of widening participation and lifelong learning, therefore, are working with a diverse

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Higher Education Close Up 3 24 - 26 July 2006

    range of research participants in an equally diverse range of research contexts. Such research frequently involves attempts to establish contact and engage with marginalised groups and individuals (often labelled as „hard to reach‟ and „excluded‟) so as to explore their experiences and perceptions of education. This can be problematic in practice as such groups and individuals may be vulnerable (i.e. we have worked with care-leavers, homeless people, those living with mental health issues), and/or reluctant to become involved in research which may be perceived as being an alien and meaningless process with little relevance to their lives.

    This paper focuses on the methodological approaches developed in order to try to engage with „potential learners‟ (defined as „non-learners‟ in the call for

    proposals) as research participants, as part of a recent research project funded by the Learning and Skills Research Centre (LSRC) to explore the concept of learning brokerage (Thomas et al, 2005). Our discussion will focus on methodological insights drawn from trying to engage potential learners as research participants in relation to the following case studies:

    1. A university-led learning project in Scotland that involved learners and potential learners who had experienced mental health problems

    2. A further education-led project in the East Midlands region of the UK that engaged Asian factory workers in an ESOL-IT initiative.

    3. A community learning project set in a disadvantaged area of North East England.

    4. A learning project working with homeless people in an inner city area of England.

    This paper draws upon tales from the field to highlight some of the issues involved in developing and conducting qualitative research with potential learners in different contexts, pointing to the strengths and limitations of the different approaches.

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Higher Education Close Up 3 24 - 26 July 2006

    Thoughts on methodology

    As a research institute we are committed to trying to engage with participants in meaningful ways. This reflects a concern to move away from the notion of traditional research where researchers „parachute in and parachute out‟ towards more reflective, participative approaches. However, carrying out good participatory approaches in practice can be difficult. Attempting to render the research process meaningful and relevant for participants requires consideration of issues of power, reflexivity, trust and valuing individuals‟ participation (see

    Johnson and Mayoux, 1998). Ideally, a participatory research process promotes the reversal of traditional relations between researcher and participant, encouraging rapport and involvement rather than reserve and distance. It should also promote the reversal of traditional power relations between researcher and participant, allowing participants to develop their own skills and knowledge through involvement in the research process, rather than the researcher merely extracting information from participants (Chamber, 1994).

    However, adopting this approach can highlight other tensions within the research process. As Johnson and Mayoux (1998) point out, power relations exist not only between researchers and researched, but also between researchers and those who commission them, all of which affect the process and outcomes of investigations. Research sponsors can affect the conceptualisation, design, methodology, interpretation and uses of fieldwork. It is not unusual for the sponsor to choose the research topic, and more often than not, the basic concept and design of the research has been established before an external research team is commissioned (Gibbon, 2002). Externally funded research frequently imposes constraints in terms of time and funding, which often have implications for the way in which research is conducted with participants. This raises questions around who defines the pace, content and timing of research and how different research interests can be reconciled. In practice, we found it difficult to conduct „meaningful‟ participatory research with potential learners, and found

    ourselves having to compromise our principles and adapt our processes. This

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    paper reflects on research design (and adaptation) and the fieldwork process in a bid to stimulate debate around how „potential learners‟ might have been better engaged in this research project.

The research project

    One of the main themes of the research was to explore the experiences of non-traditional learners who were currently taking part in some form of learning via an organisational intervention, however, the tender also required us to elicit the views of individuals who were not and had not participated in organised learning (other than compulsory education). Our understanding was that the funding body wanted to us obtain the views of „non-learners‟ in order to explore

    reasons for non-involvement in organised learning (we felt the term „non-learner‟

    was problematic so we decided to use the term „potential learner‟ instead).

    When it came to designing research methods that would allow us to access potential learners the initial idea was to perform „street corner‟ research in the same geographic area as each case study. However, this approach was felt to be an inappropriate way to gather the views of individuals not involved in organised learning; it was too random, not to mention potentially unsettling and intrusive for participants and possibly unsafe for the research team. As alluded to

    under „thoughts on methodology‟ we aspire to practice research that moves away

    from researchers „parachuting in and parachuting out‟, instead trying to, where possible, conduct research that is meaningful and appropriate to participants.

    The first phase of our research had already noted the importance of the context in which learning is brokered (i.e. via a community-based initiative, a work-based intervention, a FE college, a HE institution, etc.); we had specifically chosen case studies that targeted certain groups in relation to stimulating participation in learning. It therefore seemed appropriate to design research that would identify and involve „potential learners‟ that reflected the same groups

    being targeted by the different case study organisations. We tried to develop strategies for identifying and engaging “relevant” individuals who were not

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    participating in organised learning, using a range of methods in each case study,

    although some methods were more successful than others.

    Targeting and involving 4 different groups of „potential learners‟: approaches and limitations

1) Involving ‘potential learners’ with mental health issues

    One of the case studies involved a university-led learning programme specifically designed for individuals recovering from mental health problems. The programme tutors worked closely with a broad range of referral agencies, which in turn brokered the programme‟s courses to their clients. The programme provided a series of courses that enabled participants to build their self-confidence and develop their skills in order to return to work, education or training. The programme was primarily taught in the university and was specifically designed to provide a link between community, social and medical services.

    As the course tutors had close links with the referral agencies, we decided to use this relationship between the tutors and the referral agencies as a route to access the views of „potential learners‟. The tutors were happy to act as facilitators, giving us access to a list of individuals (which they had received from the referral agencies) who were yet to be contacted about future participation in the programme. The tutors assumed these individuals would be willing to take part as they had expressed an interest in the programme, via the referral agencies, and were therefore seen as being potentially willing to participate in the research. The tutors contacted the individuals on the list and a small number agreed to come to the university to talk to the research team about their views on learning, however, on the day no-one turned up.

    With hindsight, the approach adopted reflected a lack of understanding of some of the barriers facing these particular „potential learners‟. For example, asking them to travel to a relatively new environment to meet us may have been too daunting; we later found out that one participant had difficult travelling to the

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    university because of anxiety over using public transport. Unfortunately, the time constraints of the project meant that there was not enough time for us to visit outlying areas, as it may have been more appropriate for us to visit them instead of expecting the participants to come to us. Similarly, because this case study was located in Scotland, budget had to be taken into account and financial constraints meant that a second visit, to specifically meet with the potential learners, was impossible.

    As a result, the individuals that did not turn up were re-contacted by the tutors and gave their consent to be telephoned by a researcher to take part in a structured but informal interview. However, when the first of these telephone interviews took place the participant became very anxious and frequently expressed concern that they could be giving the wrong answers. The researcher assured the individual that this was not the case, but following the interview, the researcher was so concerned that she contacted the programme tutor to ask him to offer support and reassurance to the participant. Following this interview a decision was made that no further telephone interviews would be attempted as it was felt that this method was not suitable or ethical for use with this particular target group.

    Looking back we felt that because the programme tutors were very happy to act as gatekeepers for us, we did not actually question whether the tutors were appropriate gatekeepers. It was not the case that the tutors were deliberately preventing us from meeting potential learners; they were trying to be helpful, but we may have misjudged their position and capacity to help us appropriately access the potential learners with mental health issues. It may have been more appropriate for us to work directly with the referral agencies in regard to carrying out research with potential learners. The potential learners may also have responded more positively if the interviews had been carried out by the referral agencies rather than by „unknown‟ researchers. However, going

    down this route would have meant addressing the following issues:

    ; Weighing up how important it was it to gather the views of potential

    learners in the grand scheme of the wider case study.

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    ; What incentives were there for the gatekeepers to carry out research on

    our behalf?

    ; How much time would be required to organise such an approach?

    ; Would releasing research responsibility to others cause any problems for

    the research?

    2) Involving ‘potential learners’ from minority ethnic groups in disadvantaged areas

    This initiative was created by a further education college in response to the learning needs of Asian factory workers in Leicester. The college received funding from the local Learning Partnership to put on ESOL courses, which were free of charge to students (a big incentive). However, the college learnt via the factory‟s union representative that the employees were more interested in learning IT skills and as a result a free course was developed which incorporated both IT and ESOL objectives.

    The approach to involving potential learners in the research was developed in collaboration with the course tutor who acted as our gatekeeper,

    and with whom we had built trust and rapport. Between the researchers and the tutor a short work-shop on interview techniques was designed that could be incorporated into one of the lesson plans; this would then enable the learners to interview a selection of their friends and family not currently involved in learning. This was judged to be an appropriate approach to gathering the views of non-

    learners who were a similar target group to the ESOL-IT learners on two main counts:

    ; It involved current learners in carrying out research with their friends,

    family and colleagues in a way that fitted with their learning objectives as

    well as our research objectives.

    ; It enabled the learners to participate in the research process rather than

    just passively contributing to it. It was almost „stealth research‟ as the

    learners were happy to participate once they realised it was part of their

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    course. I am not convinced that they would have agreed to take part

    otherwise.

     The researchers arranged to run the brief research methods workshop during one of the learners‟ timetabled lessons. This was intended to create less

    inconvenience to the learners, but it is acknowledged that there was a fine line between ensuring their participation and hi-jacking their lesson time. The design of the workshop ensured that the learners were using their English language skills (both verbal and written) and their computer skills. The learners were fully appraised of the research prior to our visit by the course tutor, and their permission was a condition of the colleges involvement in the research.

    During the first session the group were given a short presentation about the aims of the research and how we hoped they would be involved in the

    process and the value of their contribution. The researchers then worked with the group to develop a number of questions they could ask their friends, factory colleagues and relatives. We then discussed how they could record the responses gathered and feed back their findings to us. The women produced and printed copies of interview sheets which they took away with them. They were encouraged to interview at least 2 people within a week.

    One researcher then returned to the same lesson the following week (the learners‟ last teaching session before the summer holidays) to hear the feedback

    and collect the completed sheets. This session, however, did not go as well as the previous session. The learners seemed uncomfortable feeding back in a group; they appeared to feel they had completed their „work‟ and simply wanted to hand in the sheets rather than to discuss what they had found out. It is possible that this could have been because:

    ; It was their last lesson before summer.

    ; It could have related to a lack of confidence in their English speaking skills.

    ; Alternatively, it may have been that this task was less meaningful for them:

    they may have felt that they had given us the information we had asked for

    in a written format, and did not understand why wanted them to discuss

    their findings.

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    Overall, however, the approach adopted in this case study was felt to have been a positive way in which to engage with potential learners. Working within the learner‟s agenda meant that there was an incentive for them to participate. More time was also given to reaching and working with the learners themselves. The whole process was facilitated by having a single point of contact, the tutor, who was able to see the benefits for the learners in being involved in the research and was prepared to be flexible in order to bring this about. Other „gatekeepers‟ may not have been so willing or able to spend time thinking about the best approach to reaching and engaging non-learners.

3) Involving ‘potential learners’ from a disadvantaged local community

    Jointly led by a FEC and HEI and funded by HEFCE, this was a major initiative to widen participation that ran for three years in the North East of England. The project involved a broad range of partners working together in order to develop progression routes for local people, particularly those from marginalised groups. The project was based on three key strands: mapping progression routes among learning providers in the region; outreach work in the community; and identification and investigation of education advice and guidance locally.

    The original intention was to access „non-learners‟ via a local mother and

    toddler group located in one of the outreach community centres involved in the project. The idea behind this was that although the mother and toddler meeting took place in the centre, the majority of the participants were not involved in any of the learning opportunities available there. However, when the visit to the centre took place, the people visiting the centre on that day were all involved in some sort of learning. A second visit took place in an outreach centre, where the people present were not taking part in learning. These potential learners had

    been asked to come along to talk to us by a tutor who lived in the community and knew the participants personally.

    All the participants were women who lived locally. The centre had initiated a number of schemes to try to get local people accessing the centre even if not

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