Creating and Sustaining International Connections: exploring the learning opportunities for Studying Creative Understandings about Teaching and Research for Equity and Access

Data analysis and the problem of language

The third threat to validity of the project findings relates to the reporting of the analysis. The project - drawing on European funding – was contracted to produce a series of ‘work packages’, including reports on both the student and staff experience of widening participation strategies, and the factors identified that contributed to staying or leaving their programme or university. Between the Warwick partners, a framework for the reporting of their experiences had been agreed in terms of a series of subheadings. For me, this was an autoethnographic issue, because I came into the project late, after much of the data had already been collected, and my responsibility was to produce the reports on the staff and student experiences for the Warwickshire Partnership (Warwick, Kingston and Southampton Solent). This required me to make sense of someone else’s data collection, and to make the important data fit the report headings. On the whole, this was not too problematic. But, with one of the partner institutions, the agreed question on student support had not only no evidence of the effectiveness of the personal supervision system, but I could find no reference in the recorded evidence that this university had one at all. Fortunately, my predecessor was able to shed light on this matter, but it made me realise that using other researchers’ qualitative data, and using other researchers’ analytic frameworks is problematic, and worth reflecting upon. .

The data collected were a series of in-depth interviews with staff and students at the three universities over a three-year period. The transcripts of the interviews were produced by a professional transcriber, not the researcher who collected the data. It became clear very quickly that this transcriber had little background in higher education or lifelong learning. Nor was the transcriber familiar with government policies on access and retention. There were many errors apparent in the transcripts suggesting that the transcriber did not necessarily understand everything that had been recorded. This was my first ever experience of rigorously analysing someone else’s data from transcripts. The closest I had come to this before was working with graduate students to help them begin to make sense of their data that they had collected. In this situation, I was not expecting, nor expected, to undertake the definitive analysis, but merely suggest strategies for undertaking the task. Now, I was faced with a large amount of interview data from which I had to produce research reports.

Working with other people’s data

The distinctive nature of using qualitative research strategies has been well discussed. As with any methodologies as social scientists we have to be content with something less than proof, and talk instead of interpretation and understanding, or verstehen. One of the commonly perceived advantages of qualitative research is that the stages of research are not treated as sequential nor linear, and feels more like a process of ‘going around in circles’, though a more accurate metaphor might be that of a helix, given that offers a sense of development, and ‘getting further on’. In qualitative research, data analysis often takes place alongside data collection to allow questions to be refined and new avenues of inquiry to develop. Indeed, this often cited as one of the key advantages of taking a qualitative approach to data collection/analysis. This is quite a complex process of attempting to make sense of data, not merely be identifying themes in the data, but recognising the processes of inter-subjectivity as part of the interpretative processes. In short, data collection, analysis and interpretation are simultaneous processes, and reflecting on how this is happening during the research processes is essential for constructing methodological discussions. There are a range of strategies available to the qualitative researcher. For example, textual data are typically explored inductively using content analysis to generate categories and explanations, and now there are software packages available for help with analysis. But these can only offer suggestions to consider and reflect upon, and are not to be viewed as short cuts to rigorous and systematic analysis.

In using statistical data, the critically reflective researcher know the necessity for challenging assumptions about how the quantitative data has been constructed. The data used is often the result of a transparent system of categorisation, classification and enumeration. It can be explored and have its reliability and validity challenged. Treating qualitative data in the same way is problematic. Meta-research procedures requiring interviewing the qualitative researchers about their assumptions, decisions they made during the process, and the iterative processes through which data is constructed and meanings made is far more complex. And that complexity is compounded when not only is different academic discourse in use, but different languages are being used to communicate those constructed interpretations and meanings.

High quality analysis of qualitative data depends on the skill, vision, and integrity of the researcher. In this situation where there are at least two researchers involved, artificially separating data collection and data analysis, a more dialogical process is necessary to get behind the construction of the data and the interpretations of its meanings. The process is always complex, but the complexity is compounded by the fact that the data has been collected through a process of recording the spoken words, and typically this is not simply a series of questions and answers but a dialogue between the researcher and - in this example – the student or member of the staff who have been selected through a sampling process to offer ‘expert’ insights into issues around ‘access’, ‘retention’ and ‘completion’. The secondary researcher is required to work not with the audio recordings, but the transcriptions, which is yet another process transforming the nature of the data. The professional transcriber has had to learn a way of communicating through coding systems to represent talk as a series of words and symbols. At this point we are getting to the heart of our third ‘threat’ to the validity of communication and meaning construction in the research process. An essential strategy that is employed in interviewing is, of course listening skills. In qualitative research, the researcher ‘listens’ to the data, and is not only making sense, but making decisions as how to make sense of the data. The voice of the person being interviewed is in the head of the researcher. In reading the transcript, the researcher can ‘hear’ the voice of the person being interviewed, and though this can ignore the transcript codes, and humanise the discourse. However, in this case, the voice of the person being interviewed is coded, and cannot easily be humanised. I could not decode the signs and symbols of the processional coding. I tried reading the transcript aloud, but all I could hear was my voice, my interpretation, and was witnessing my reconstruction of the interviewee’s meanings.

My purpose is not to argue that this invalidates the data that has been collected, constructed and deconstructed, but merely is a hollow echo of the richness of qualitative data. One further point is worth making. Not only does this suggest the necessity of the researcher working with their own data, but where professional transcription are used, they are often full of language ‘errors’, words that are unfamiliar to the transcribe who is having to guess the word or concept, which can sometimes be amusing, but also worrying about the transcription as an accurate record of the conversations that had taken place between the researcher and the student or staff being interviewed.

We are told in the methodological literature (Davies, 2008; Hammersley and Atkinson, 2007; Pope et al.; Silverman, 2005; Silverman, 2006; West et al. 2007) that there are no ‘hard and fast rules’ concerning transcription. We know that it is quite time-consuming to have a verbatim transcript of an entire set of interviews from beginning to end, particularly if literally every word is transcribed for every interview. Typically, the researcher will have an eye on how the data is to be reported. Inevitably, only a small percentage is likely to be directly reported in the published reports and articles, as the very weight of evidence is more than sufficient, and that which is sufficient is more than is necessary. And how detailed need the transcription be? If discourse analysis is being employed, then the detail will need to be far greater than if a few ‘typical’ quotes are to be used to support a particular argument.


This paper has only just begun to point to the need to unravel some of the complexities of engaging in comparative research, which requires engagement in the negotiation, if not the construction of, shared meanings across many languages. It has noted that the comparative issues are not so great where there is shared disciplinary frameworks, using distinctive key concepts that are more often shared. There are a whole range of ethical issues that need consideration, especially around the student experience for those, maybe from ‘non-traditional students’, who gain access to higher education, but due to a wide range of reasons, not least the unfamiliar culture of higher education into which they are expected to assimilate increasingly diverse cohorts, whilst the institution takes on its responsibilities for putting in place strategies to accommodate students in what may be for them ‘unfamiliar cultures’ of higher education. ‘Taster days’, partnership arrangements with schools and further education, and many other strategies used to attract students into higher education, whilst at the same time shifting the financial burden – the debts – to the students will continue to raise questions about the purposes of higher education and/or lifelong learning, as well the ethics of so-called ‘widening participation’.


Armstrong, P. (2011) ‘Has the metaphor of ‘learning journey’ any value in the analysis of research data on access, retention and ‘drop-out’ in higher education?’ Paper delivered to RANLHE Dissemination Conference, University of Seville, April 2011

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Davidson, I. Murphy, D. and Piette, B. (eds) Speaking in Tongues: Languages of Lifelong Learning. Proceedings of the 33rd Annual Conference of SCUTREA. Bangor: 2003

Davies, C. A. (2008) Reflexive Ethnography: a guide to researching selves and others. 3rd ed. London: Routledge

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MORI (2005) Attitudes to Higher Education and Part-time Degrees among 16-18 Year Olds. Final Qualitative Report Commissioned by The Sutton Trust and Birkbeck College, University of London.

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Negotiating gaps: adult educators between policy and practices

Tannis Atkinson, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto, Canada

Over the past few decades international surveys conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)—including the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) and the current Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC)—have been primary mechanisms in constructing a new international consensus which ‘more strongly integrate[s] education into the core of labour market and economic agendas’ (Rubenson, 2008b, p. 257). Adult literacy policies based on the logic of the OECD surveys reinstate distinctions between vernacular and dominant literacies (Barton & Hamilton, 1998) and occlude processes through which ‘certain literacy practices are supported, controlled and legitimated… [and] others are de-valued’ (Hamilton, 2001, p. 179). In doing so these policies fail to address firmly ‘entrenched and intractable problems of inequality, social exclusion and social injustice’ (Hillier, 2009, p. 548) correlated to lack of fluency in dominant literacies. Rubenson (2006, 2008a) argues that the OECD has made an ideological choice in continuing to promote a market-logic story about ‘literacy’; he documents how the OECD has ignored research findings which indicate that countries in which adult education policies are informed by equity concerns have much more equitable outcomes than countries where policies are based on a market model. Growing evidence suggests that market-oriented policies may be ‘further deepening the gap between social groups whose unequal access to the knowledge economy has nothing to do with an ability to decode the alphabet’ (Hernandez-Zamora, 2010, p. 185). In this paper I reflect on what these changes mean for adult literacy educators.

Naming the gaps

The notion of a gap between policy and practice was introduced by Kell (2001b) in her description of how adult literacy work was reorganized in post-apartheid South Africa. Kell notes that informal programs that fostered competences were replaced by formal programs focused on asking learners to perform specific tasks. The educational middle class sponsors of literacy were supplanted by participants from the economic sector who relied heavily on ‘stale ‘bringing light to the darkness’ metaphors’ (p. 105). The newly-established ‘hyperpedagogised literacy’ drifted further and further from supporting learning related to ‘what goes on in [adult literacy learners’] everyday lives’ (p. 103), creating a widening gap between learners’ actual literacy practices and those provided for in policy. Practitioners are caught in this gap.

Similar changes occurred in Canada during the 1990s; educators argue that current policies overlook the range of barriers faced by students attending adult literacy programs (Carpenter & Readman, 2004; Hoddinnott, 1998; Horsman, 1999) and express dismay that current policies seem to place higher priority on accounting and financial tracking than on ‘delivering literacy services’ (Crooks et al., 2008; Woodrow, 2006). In England and Northern Ireland, Hamilton (2008) asserts that practitioners are frustrated because dominant, institutional definitions of literacy are turning them into technicians and robbing them of agency. She notes a difference between less experienced tutors, who feel the lack of agency as ‘paperwork overload and contradictory demands,’ and more experienced ones who ‘interpret it as a real ethical undermining of their role which traditionally has been characterized by large amounts of ‘gift-time’ a pride in making the most of resources in a marginalized field and a bedrock commitment to social justice and the human rights of learners’ (p. 5).

Jackson (2005) notes that OECD surveys influenced policy changes in England, Australia the United States and Canada, and focuses on how the gap between policy and practice is being produced. She uses institutional ethnography to map how ‘literacy work is defined, organized and coordinated’ (p. 770) through reporting processes that give funding bodies ‘a particular ‘slice’ of the lived reality of literacy teaching and learning’ (p. 773). Jackson argues that the gap between policy and practice is ‘a systematic feature of a textually mediated mode of governance’ that translates ‘the messy details of peoples’ lives and learning…into standardised and objectified categories through which they can be counted and made administerable’ (p. 774). By ignoring ‘messy reality’, policies and reporting procedures create dilemmas and frustrations for workers who are caught between the ‘competing and sometimes conflicting interests [of]…funders and users of literacy services’ (p. 775). Perhaps historicising the immense power differentials between vernacular and official literacies can shed light on how systemic inequities, a strong feature of current ‘messy realities’, are reproduced.

Historicizing the power differential between official and vernacular literacies

I understand literacy as a key technology of processes of ‘modernisation’ and I take the perspective that colonial relations—and the epistemological hierarchies used to justify them—did not end with the formal end of colonialism. From this theoretical position I understand that literacy education has routinely been implicated in processes whereby dominant practices are imposed upon vernacular ones. This is not to say that all literacy campaigns operate in this manner: there have been successful campaigns aimed at strengthening and renewing vernacular literacies and language communities. What I am arguing is that there are suggestive parallels between the OECD literacy surveys and past projects of ‘modernisation’ and ‘development’. In particular I note that the OECD literacy surveys assume that subjects require qualities similar to those that the civilizing mission aimed to develop in modern subjects, namely ‘hard work, discipline, curiosity, punctuality, honest dealing and taking control’ that can be used for the ‘accumulation and reinvestment of wealth…to anticipate and forecast future trends …[in] the drive for unbounded productivity and the provision of material abundance’ (Adas, 2004, p. 81).

In Canada, education was a key tool of colonization. Until the 1960s, indigenous children were removed from their families and communities and sent to residential schools where they were forbidden from speaking their languages and trained to become low-status workers in the emerging industrial economy (Battiste and Barman, 1995; George, 2001; Kempf, 2009). Dominant society has, very recently, begun to acknowledge the pivotal role of residential schools in colonization but public discussion of this history has not resulted in any structural changes. While adult educators stress the need to de-colonize understandings of indigenous literacies (Antone, Gamlin, & Provost-Turchetti, 2003; Balanoff & Chambers, 2005; George, 2001) the government continues to assert that too many indigenous people score below Level 3 in IALS terms and that indigenous people lack the ‘essential skills’ to thrive in the emerging knowledge economy. Analysis of income disparities between indigenous and non-indigenous people continue to focus on whether or not indigenous people are fluent in dominant literacy practices, even as reports acknowledge that close to ‘half of the wage gap’ is due to factors such as discrimination which ‘require further research’ (Kapsalis, 2006, p. 25).

In Canada, adult literacy policy is a relatively recent phenomenon: no jurisdiction had a strong history of supporting adult literacy work before the 1960s. Walter’s (2003) study of Frontier College, the longest-standing adult literacy program in Canada, revealed that Social Darwinism was central to its pedagogical approach in the nineteenth century. Decisions about which men were allowed to attend programs was based on racialized hierarchies of educable and uneducable ‘races’, and Frontier College instructors believed that their role was to ‘Christianize’ and ‘Canadianize’ students. Canada’s immigration policies historically encouraged immigration of low-status workers, and when immigration from non-European countries was expanded in the mid-twentieth century highly-educated racialized immigrants continued to be relegated to low-status, low-paying jobs. Current literacy policies based on the OECD survey findings may be operating as ‘racial projects’ (Shore, 2009) by carrying forward epistemological hierarchies from the colonial era and suppressing ‘recognition of the long arm of racialised phenotypes that anchor assumptions of competent citizenship’ (p. 93).

Between the 1960s and 1980s the federal government supported basic education up to secondary school equivalency as part of labour force training, prodded in part by findings that the Canadian labour force had a ‘low average education level…relative to other Western countries’ (Alden, 1982, p. 2). Support for the program ended in the mid-1970s when it became apparent that ‘training at the literacy level did not reliably lead to people getting jobs or taking further training, and therefore did not serve the federal mandate for job training’ (Darville, 1992, p. 16). In this period charitable and community organizations scattered around the country became increasingly active in advocating for literacy ‘as a right, and as a means of participation in society (p. 18). By the late 1980s most provinces had begun to fund adult literacy programs; policies were premised on liberal assumptions that saw ‘illiteracy as a primary cause of poverty and unemployment, and correspondingly, [saw] adult basic education as a particularly effective anti-poverty strategy’ (Alden, 1982, p. 1). But statistics continue to show that acquisition of dominant literacies does not translate into higher incomes for women (Shalla & Schellenberg, 1998), for indigenous people (Kapsalis, 2006) or for racialized subjects (Arat-Koç, 2010; Colour of Justice, 2007). Within the OECD discourse of literacy as skills, these systemic inequities are made to disappear.

The ‘doing good’ trap

Alden (1982) notes that adult educators played key roles in advocating for literacy programs as solutions for poverty and social exclusion; he is critical of the fact that they did not examine the structural causes of marginalization. I would like to carry forward his findings by asking how a commitment to ‘doing good’ gets constructed, and how that desire to ‘do good’ gets used. In asking these questions I draw on scholarship about how subjects are formed within networks of power and knowledge, using Spivak’s (1993) suggestion that we consider ourselves as ‘being able to do something—only as you are able to make sense of it’ (p. 34).

To consider these questions I turn a recent study of white women development workers in Canada. Heron (2007) builds on critiques of development that foreground global and historical contexts, particularly ‘modernity’s enduring idea of progress as universally valued and the purview of the West/North’ (p. 36). Heron notes that feeling ‘entitle[d] and oblig[ed] to intervene so as to ameliorate the Earth and the lives of its human inhabitants’ are ‘important, racialized and self-affirming relational aspects of white middle-classness in the late twentieth century’ (p. 37). She asserts that when white women describe their passion for development work as motivated by social justice, they ‘construct [them]selves as moral subjects’ (p. 134) and turn away from their own position in relations of global domination.

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