How am I developing and sustaining the use of collaborative online learning environments in higher education through a web of betweenness and a pedagogy of the unique?


Margaret Farren,

Dublin City University,





In 1995, Schön advocated the need for a new epistemology of practice (Schön, 1995) and suggested that this new scholarship would take the form of action research. A new epistemology requires new living standards of judgment. Multimedia explanations for educational influences in learning will be used to show how e-media can be used to contribute to the creation of new living standards of judgement of ‘pedagogies of the unique’ and ‘webs of betweenness’. Pedagogies of the unique involve systematic processes of action and reflection. Webs of betweenness draw on ideas of Celtic spirituality to emphasise a relational dynamic of the various contributions from practitioner-researchers in which individuals recognise the humanity of the other.




For today’s teachers, new technologies allow for new ways of doing things. E-media

hold out much promise. With developments in bandwidth, learners can communicate different forms of representation, in the form of multimedia. There is also the opportunity to move beyond the walls of the classroom and opportunities for collaboration with others. ICT is constantly shifting and developing and we can feel we are moving and exploring unknown terrains. Early computers laboured over tasks that are now done in nanoseconds.


The context of my enquiry is the M.Sc E-Learning in Education and Training Management at Dublin City University, where I investigate what counts as valid educational theory in the Irish academy and elsewhere. There is an omission in the literature on higher education pedagogy about the nature of knowledge and who is involved in the production and analysis of pedagogic knowledge (Zukas and Malcolm, 2002). Drawing on Whitehead’s and McNiff’s (2006) views of the need to reconceptualise educational theory, the focus of my enquiry becomes the generation of my own living educational theory, as I support practitioner researchers in developing their living educational theories which forms a knowledge base of practice through online learning environments. Learning is essentially a human, creative and dynamic exploration.





As Schön points out:

It is rare that the designer has the design all in her head in advance, and then merely translates it. Most of the time, she is in a kind of progressive relationship as she goes along, she is making judgements. Sometimes, the designer’s judgements have the intimacy of a conversational relationship. Where she is getting some response back from the medium, she is seeing what is happening – what it is that she has created – and she is making judgements about it at that level.

                                                            (Schön, cited in Winograd, 1996: 176)


Practitioner-researchers on the M.Sc. E-Learning programme bring their embodied knowledge and values into the public domain through designing, developing and evaluating multimedia and web based artefacts for use in their practice contexts.

In my practice-based research, I demonstrate how I am contributing to a knowledge base of practice by creating my ‘living educational theory’ (Whitehead, 1989, 2004). The accounts of learning that constitute the living educational theories of practitioners refer to the use and development of an action research methodology in which individuals express their concerns when their values are not being lived as fully as possible. A way forward is imagined in an action plan, data is gathered in the action and evaluations made of the effectiveness of the actions in living the values more fully. Concerns, plans and actions are modified in the light of the evaluations. An account of the learning is produced that is submitted to a validation group in order to strengthen the validity of the account and to benefit from the ideas of others on ways in which the enquiry could move forward.

This use of action research methodology is part of a process of clarifying the meanings of the embodied values that form explanatory principles in the account of learning. In the process of clarifying the values in the course of their emergence in practice, they are transformed into living epistemological standards of judgement that can be used to evaluate the validity of the account of the learning. The purpose of the presentation is to show how ontological values have been clarified in the course of their emergence in practice and have been transformed into communicable standards of judgement – this is fundamental to the creation of a new epistemology of educational knowledge.

Theoretical framework of pedagogies of the unique and webs of betweenness


Freire believes that the openness of the dialogical educator to his or her own relearning gives dialogue a democratic character. He believes that through dialogue, “we each stimulate the other to think, and to re-think the former’s thoughts”. Furthermore, he points out that “dialogue belongs to the nature of human beings, as beings of communications” (Shor & Freire, 1987, p. 3).  Shor contends that critical education has to integrate the students and the teachers into a mutual creation and re-creation of knowledge (ibid).  To return from Freire’s seminal insights to Barnett’s study of the present plight of higher education, Barnett claims that professional life is now becoming more than the handling of complexity i.e. managing overwhelming data and theories, it is also about handling multiple frames of reference – a condition he calls supercomplexity. Supercomplexity arises when we are faced with conflicting frameworks with which to understand a situation. Barnett asserts that the main pedagogical task of a university is not to transmit knowledge but to develop in human beings the attributes appropriate to conditions of supercomplexity (Barnett, 2000, p. 164).  In order for this to become a reality, he claims that a ‘higher education’ must embrace three dimensions of being: knowledge, self-identity and action, in its pedagogies. In other words, new modes of teaching have to be developed in higher education. An educational requirement of supercomplexity is that the student should have the space to develop her own voice. Barnett regrets that lecturers often have an idea of teaching that puts the students in a subservient position. The followers of such an approach see students as recipients of a curriculum instead of largely choosing and/or making it themselves (Barnett, 2000, p. 163). The main values inherent in the approaches taken by those with a critical stance on the other hand are participation and dialogue.


The ‘web of betweenness’ refers to how we learn in relation to one another and how e-media can enable us to get closer to the meanings of our embodied values as they emerge in practice (Farren, 2005a). The idea of individuality and originality enriching self and others highlights the uniqueness of the individual and the embrace and belonging to a community. O’ Donohue (2003) suggests that in the folk culture of the Celtic Imagination, experience was understood as being much more than the private product and property of an individual (O’ Donohue, 2003). O’ Donohue’s conviction that a ‘web of betweenness’ generated a collective bonus is reminiscent of the economists’ notion of ‘total factor productivity’ – the unexplained residual productivity created by a combination of favourable factors. His idea of community however extends beyond the social community to the idea of a community of spirit and relates more strongly to the educational values I discuss than the economists’ residuals: “The human self is not a finished thing, it is constantly unfolding” (O’ Donohue, 2003, p. 142).  I seek to suggest that the communications rich characteristics of ICT can re-create in new forms the powerfully interactive traditional world whose passing O Donohue laments and justify applying O Donohue’s term.


Rigour and validity in self-study research

For many years epistemology took the position that any claim to know must be justified on the basis of how the claim was arrived at. In many research fields, the  ‘good grounds’ for judging the validity of knowledge claims was that the researcher was ‘objective’, i.e. the researcher took an observer role, using the methods of natural science. Research conducted along these lines entails an epistemology heavily laden with positivist and empiricist notions. Scientific method, so constructed, could be seen as the way to guarantee "true and certain knowledge" (Usher, 1996, p. 26).

Usher’s reservations about what is often described as ‘scientific methods’ are echoed by Bertrand (1998, p. 117) who claims that knowledge comes first out of uncertainty or a question: “ Knowledge is the opposite of the demonstration of a rule and it has nothing to do with the bureaucratisation of ideas. It is an awareness, a sensitivity to life, to things that cannot be known, to uncertainty" (Bertrand, 1998, p. 117). He believes that we have to rely on our imagination, or we risk believing that textbooks, and the media, such as TV and movies show us real life. Sparkes (2002) is likewise concerned about the excessive claims made by adherents to the traditional view of scientific research with its commitment to rationality, objectivity, and a range of dualisms that include subject/other.  Sparkes makes reference to the work of Schwandt who proposes that social inquiry be redefined through the application of practical philosophy, which involves challenging the ideology of ‘epistemic criteria’, that  focuses on fixed and predetermined rules. In this way, he envisages a new moral and political framework would be invoked wherein values and concerns could be addressed through open dialogue, critical reflection, and a willingness to change (Schwandt, 1996). 


I believe that ontology and epistemology are inextricably linked in self-study research.  Research can be seen not as abstract but as involving interactions with others. As a higher education educator, I believe that my learners and I co-construct knowledge together, and this is a knowledge creation process. In exploring the different views of reality, I take the view that reality is constructed in collaboration with my students and that I construct meanings in relation to others.  This has implications for the methodology of my research as I do not see knowledge as a fixed quantum but as an ongoing activity. In other words, social reality is constructed through interaction with others and so the observer’s exchanges with the observed, and the wider outcomes of these exchanges through these connections, represent a vital element in this form of research. Whitehead (2004) suggests that action research involves a self-study because the practitioner-researcher is studying his or her own practice. He does not believe that self-study necessarily involves action research. One can study the self without focusing on improving one’s practice. The emphasis in this enquiry is self-study within an action research approach.


A self-study must also answer the question of what makes it valid.  Feldman defines validity as the “degree to which a study accurately reflects or assesses the specific topic that the research is attempting” (Feldman, 2003, p. 26).  In self-study we need to show that our self-study as teacher educators is making a difference and bringing about improvement in practice. This then raises the questions of how we know that we have changed our ways of being and how we convince others not only that the change has occurred but also that it has value (Feldman, 2003, p. 27).  Qualitative research has few measurements and researchers have developed other criteria to judge the validity of qualitative research. 

Feldman (2003) suggests the following ways to increase the validity of self-studies:

i). Provide a clear and detailed description of how we collect data and make explicit what counts as data in our work  i.e. provide the details of the research methods used.

ii). Provide clear and detailed descriptions of how we constructed the representation for our data.

iii). Extend triangulation beyond multiple sources of data to include explorations of multiple ways to represent the same self-study.

iv). Provide evidence of the value of the changes in our ways of being teacher-educators.



In assessing the quality of my practice based research, I focus on embodied values and living standards of judgement that have emerged in the course of practice.  These living standards of judgement include a ‘pedagogy of the unique’ and a ‘web of betweenness’. I provide evidence to show my educational influence in my learning, in the learning of others, and in the education of social formations through e-media accounts of learning.  The methods used to validate my claims include:

·        Living educational theory action research cycles;

·        Winter’s  six criteria of rigour;

·        Social validation meetings.

Living educational theory action research accounts of learning methodology involve expressing concerns when educational values are not lived in practice, imagining a way forward, gathering data, evaluating practice on effectiveness of actions, modifying plans in light of the evaluation.

Winter’s six criteria of rigour include dialectics, reflexivity, collaborative resource, risk, plurality, theory, practice and transformation.

Habermas’s criteria of validity include four criteria of social validity, i.e. comprehensibility, truth, rightness and authenticity.

Educational and scientific importance of my work

The scientific importance of this research is in the use of an online learning environment, to support the development of web based artefacts and visual narratives using digital video. The facilitating potential of the online learning environment is demonstrated as participants explore the values that emerge in the course of their practice and for generating peer support. The educational significance of an action research approach is that validity is redefined in terms of the efficacy of the research in relation to changing relevant social practice (Sparkes, 2002).


Another part of the educational significance is how e-media accounts are now validated in the academy. From 2006, practitioner-researchers on the M.Sc. E-Learning have a choice with regard to the direction of their dissertation.


Choice One:  Complete a traditional research-based 20,000 word dissertation on a relevant topic. 

Choice Two:  Complete a practicum which provides an opportunity to apply new concepts and skills from the programme modules and consequently reflect on individual learning. The completed practicum will consist of any artifact (product) prepared (e.g. interactive software, online educational resources or any artefact that uses electronic technology to support and enhance learning) and a written report of not more than 10,000 words.


The use of technology is embedded into the action research approach of the E-learning programme.  Participants bring their experiences to the programme for examination and discussion with their peers.  This is done through use of the Moodle online learning environment, e-media, such as web based artefacts and digital video. This approach is designed to create a community of learners who are engaged in developing their critical thinking and professional skills. It is this way that participants can move back and forth between theory and practice, exploring such concepts as "self as practitioner" and applying knowledge and skills to practice settings. The use of the Moodle online learning environment is essential for facilitating programme participants to explore their beliefs and values related to practice and for generating peer support. These reflective processes help deepen student understanding of the complex issues involved in their individual area of study.


My work has significant implications for national and international policy formation and implementation, in terms of the reconceptualisation of educational theory for developing international understanding through educational research. By explaining how I encourage practitioners to set up and use their own on-line learning environments, and produce their explanatory accounts of practice, I am demonstrating the potentials of practitioner-based action research for sustainable human practices that have deep implications for how social interactions can be improved through the education of social formations with a web of betweenness and a pedagogy of the unique (Farren, 2005b).




It is important for me as a higher education educator to strive to articulate and live my educational values and to give form and shape to them in my practice. In the presentation, I intend to demonstrate how I have successfully achieved my goal of developing the capacity of participants to be proactive in developing their knowledge.  In the context of my ‘pedagogy of the unique’ these dialogic processes reflect my growing openness to learning and relearning with others, and reveal that I believe that education should be a democratic process that gives adequate “space to each participant to contribute to the development of new knowledge, to develop their own voice, to make their own offerings, insights, to engage in their own actions, as well as to create their own products” (Barnett, 2000).


I offer new living standards of judgement of a ‘pedagogy of the unique’ and a ‘web of betweenness’ for higher education. By this I see learning as relational and ICT as a way of bringing us closer to the meanings of our embodied knowledge.




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