The panel experience and advice for future candidates
On June 22nd I presented my research proposal to the PhD panel with the title of my proposal being ‘Teachers in transition: a case study of EAP teachers’ applications of blended learning approaches before, during, and after a series of teacher training workshops.’ The research proposal itself was submitted to the panel on 11th June (eleven days in advance) and the presentation slides submitted on 21st June (day before). On the 21st I also had a mock panel with Julian Edge and Gary Motteram. I would suggest this to all prospective candidates as a very sensible measure. Sometimes we can get so deeply embroiled in our research that we fail to see the wood for the trees. Julian particularly came in with an outsider’s perspective and asked me a series of very thorough, probing questions, largely related to my terminology. The one drawback of a mock panel though can be the motivation factor because it is quite difficult to simulate the real energy and enthusiasm that comes about in the formal interview/discussion session on the day. Still I was given plenty of food for thought, as I had been in previous discussions with Gary and with my fellow PhD candidates who had gone through the panel process some months before me. Richard Fay also used an excellent analogy in a recent conversation where he said that facing the panel serves the same purpose as facing a medical consultation. The panel are there to look at the health of the proposal and its longevity. I was nervous about facing them, in case I did not do justice to my own proposal, but at the same time I was very keen to hear their opinions on the main aspects of my proposal. I would stress to all future candidates that it is important to be passionate about your research, to be thorough in all areas, to have covered all possible angles of inquiry, and to be honest and open about your own limitations, and the limitations of your research. The panel, like medical professionals, (returning to Richard’s analogy) are there to administer advice and offer ideas for treatment, rather than trying to find problems where none exist. It is important to be mature, honest, open minded, and professional in your preparation and carefully consider every word of your proposal, from the title right down to the concluding sentences.
On the day of the presentation I confess to being nervous and to being afraid, ironic or perhaps natural since I have spent so long teaching English for Academic Purposes courses in which presentation skills are an essential component and presentations themselves an assessed component worth up to a quarter of the final marks. Like my EAP students I followed the standard advice given in much of the literature. I prepared my slides well in advance, considered every term carefully, understood their content, and provided enough content without resorting to information overload. I always tell my students that they should never have slides that either distract the audience, confuse the audience, or give so much or little information that they are rendered worthless. I also went over my presentation in the mirror in my hotel room; something that many of my students find difficulty doing (in their bedrooms rather than hotel rooms usually I would imagine!) and concentrated on getting off to a good start. I am one of those people who is perhaps a little bit like many of the football teams at the recent World Cup tournament. If I get off to a good start and get into my rhythm I give a very good performance. If I fail to make a good start I never get going, in formal interview situations. I think it is important to reflect on your own presentation strengths and weaknesses not just for the panel but in the professional context as well.
In physical terms the room in which I faced the panel had a projector and a screen and an L shaped table around which four panel members were seated, along with my supervisor Gary Motteram. I was told that I could either sit or stand but I chose to stand for the presentation and then sit for the discussion afterwards. The reason that I am mentioning the physical layout of the room is that it will allow future research students to envision the physical environment in which the panel session takes place. It is a friendly, non-threatening environment where there is a formal, but naturalistic, atmosphere.
Starting off the presentation was easy because the technological side was set up well in advance. Thankfully I did get into my rhythm on the day and I was satisfied with my performance in the presentation. I did not stutter and wobble like certain football teams whose names I shall not mention. I explained that this was a piece of action research that would be reported in the form of a case study. I used the term ‘collaborative’ action research to describe the process of engagement with the participants or partners in my research. The aim of this research is to deepen understanding of EAP teachers’ interpretations and applications of blended learning (BL) approaches, and the changes that occur over the course of a teacher training programme. It will look at the decisions made by a select group of teachers with regard to their application of BL while developing academic literacy for students in an English Language Teaching (ELT) setting over the course of a training programme focusing on the integration of new technologies into traditional teaching methods. I explained how I would carry out this research; what role I would have in the research; what my research questions were; what my methods would be; the reasoning behind my choices with regard to data generation; my methods of data analysis; my approach with regards to ethics; my intended contribution to knowledge; and my reasons for choosing the case study approach as a means of delivering the final narrative.
When I had finished, the panel expressed their satisfaction at the delivery and one of the first comments from the panel was that they enjoyed it. Again this gave me a confidence boost, in advance of the questioning. They then opened the discussion with a question that was particularly poignant, and has been something I have considered at great length for a long period of time, engaging in deep discussions with my supervisors, work colleagues, and fellow PhD candidates. The question was worded along the lines of ‘Why have you chosen to focus on teachers alone when it may have been better to also take the student experience into account and synthesise both the teacher and student experience into one narrative?’ This was a question that engaged me almost immediately because it is one that I have considered at great length for some time, as mentioned before. I explained that one of the key reasons for not doing so was to make the overall research process easier to manage.I was then asked to describe what I meant by the key term ‘blended learning’ and I have to confess that this questioin surprised me somewhat because it was relatively straightforward to explain a concept that I have been working on and with since the time of my Masters in Education in ELT and Ed Tech, completed in 2006. I had anticipated a tougher question at the outset but those tougher questions came more gradually, including one about the exclusion of an obvious theoretical framework in the field of teacher education. It was suggested that I need to have a framework for teacher cognition and teacher developed in order to strengthen the theoretical basis of my research and also to question the terminology ‘collaborative action research’ more critically. Although the teacher training workshops may loosely be described as collaborative the research itself is not collaborative and this is an area that I am going to have to go back and examine in greater depth. I think, for future research students, this highlights the need to be very careful with choice of terminology. Although my work is a piece of action research, it does not fit the mould of collaborative action research and though that may now be obvious to me, from reviewing the literature, this misperception did not come about through lack of research and reading. It came about through reading into the literature assumptions and ideas that were not there. Considering that I got an ‘A’ grade in the Critical Reading and Writing module this shows that there can be no room for complacency at any stage of the process and that very often the areas that we think we are most fluent in may be the areas where the panel will find a flaw.
Despite finding the two ‘flaws’ the panel accepted my research proposal and agreed that I should progress with my research. As Gary, Diane, Richard, Julian, and others have told me they are there to help us as research students and set us on the right path. We need to be open to their ideas and humble enough to accept them. They are after all more experienced researchers than many of us may ever be. On the whole it was an extremly positive experience and one that has contributed hugely to my self confidence, my confidence in my research proposal, and my feeling of being part of a research team in the University of Manchester.