By Maeve O’Regan
What’s it like to learn at a geographical, physical and social distance from the academic campus environment when you haven’t signed up for a distance-based educational course? The pandemic, of course, thrust many of us into this space in a rather dramatic way. But for some students – like the doctoral community I am interested in researching – their personal circumstances mean they already find themselves in this in-between space. More to the point, what does the current research tell us about this paradoxical space, and what theoretical tools might we use to explore its different dimensions?
One thing researchers suggest is that we need to move beyond human-centred theories which are prominent in much research on education, including doctoral education. Limiting our understanding of learners’ experiences of socialisation within research communities and within the physical campus setting may not reflect the reality of many learners’ lives. Part-time doctoral candidates are a case in point; they find themselves dancing a balancing act between employment, caring roles and their educational pursuits (Watts, 2008).
Earlier this year I posted a blog called Responding to the needs of the post-pandemic learner – Knowledge, Power and Politics. In this present post I want to put a case for why and how engaging Latour’s Actor Network Theory (2005), or ANT, in a conversation with Archer’s (2003) theory of agency might go some way to shedding light on the different environmental and personal dimensions of learners’ experiences. In doing so, it not only challenges the normative assumptions of the individual as located within the physical campus environment but pushes us to ask about how technologies themselves also mediate learning experiences.
Actor Network Theory (Latour, 2005) and Theories of Agency (Archer, 2003) could be considered ‘chalk and cheese’ by many researchers. Why? Because ANT acknowledges that both non-human (e.g., technology, documents and materials) and human actors contribute to knowledge generation. In general, in human-centred disciplines such as education, agency is understood solely as a human endeavour, yet this is a contentious aspect of Actor Network Theory (e.g., Fenwick and Edwards, 2012).However, Actor Network Theory has also been criticised for not differentiating between the contributions that humans make to generating knowledge (Doolin and Lowe, 2002) versus non-human actors (e.g., document-based, material and technological resources).
Yet, a valuable feature of Actor Network Theory is the ability to describe how non-human actants are constitutive of knowledge generation via new practices and processes. Actor Network Theory can also help identify the different resources and supports that a learner interacts with, for example documents, policies and procedures, student guidelines and face-to-face and online academic communities. Greater understanding of learners’ experiences of accessing academic supports (face-to-face and online) may lead to greater understanding of resources which potentially facilitate or impede advancement with studies.
So, what about the individual learner’s experience, I hear you ask? Archer’s theories of personal agency (2003) add the individual learner’s voice to our research lenses, both in terms of the position of the learner in relation to access to academic supports and resources (within and beyond the campus setting), and in the context of individual agency and help-seeking behaviour as influencing progression with studies. Chalk and cheese? I think not. A productive engagement of Actor Network Theory (Latour, 2005) with Theories of Agency (Archer, 2003) can help us to overcome the limitations that each bring with them to research. Isn’t it time to embrace new thinking and advance the possibilities of both, rather than let them sit as oppositional paradigms? I think so. What do you think?
Maeve is a part-time PhD candidate (2016-2022) in the School of Education Trinity College Dublin. She is a Chartered Occupational Psychologist with experience working as a Student Learning Advisor (Trinity College Dublin) and as a Careers Advisor (Dublin City University). Her PhD topic explores learners’ experiences of pursuing a PhD on a part-time basis, in the context of access to doctoral programme information and supportive networks (online and face-to-face) and the role of personal agency and help-seeking as influencing progression and completion of studies.