Can a PhD (in Education) be about creating something?

Can a PhD (in Education) be about creating something?

I’m just wondering, can a PhD in education be about building something? If not, is there another field where a PhD is about building things? Creating things that were not there before? Rather than about analyzing things that already exist?

I guess I’m just trying to explore the different ideas, and trying to figure out my paradigms. I am a designer, and was drawn to design-based research because I like building things. The focus, in theory anyways, is on the creation of something through iterations. However, I found that I was pushed always to answer the questions about what variables I was measuring? What was I trying to analyze? There was always a difficulty with the act of creating something new.

Part of my problem was in program fit – but I still wonder – if part of it is in field fit. I wonder if the PhD is the right thing for me – because I want a large part of my dissertation to be about creating something new, not looking at nuances behind it. I don’t want to dismiss the creation as the bi-product of the data collection, rather I want to highlight the creation as the value in the research process itself.

What do you think? Can and education PhD be about creating something?

12 Replies to “Can a PhD (in Education) be about creating something?”

    1. Hi Penny, Thanks. My original thesis project uses educational design research. Tom actually advised me to write a series of blog posts on what I have learned regarding the pitfalls of EDR for PhD Thesis projects (I’m hoping to turn it into a journal article) – the things to watch out for – because of some of the problems I had with my research. He has been an amazing resource when I blogged about things like the ethical issues in EDR – see

  1. For you to be asking such a question suggests we live in very different worlds. For myself, a PhD in engineering almost exclusively means changing the way one thinks about an engineering problem, largely by building something new. So, yes, PhD can very regularly mean creating something. I don’t have experience with PhDs in education, but certainly PhDs in engineering largely fall in that category.

    1. Richard, I think that is part of why I am questioning. I live between worlds. I do educational technology – so I’m a little bit familiar with the technology aspect – and I recall from my Comp Sci days that grad school was always about building something that had not been built before, about finding novel solutions to problems. Where in education, that act of creating something new can be questioned as “practice” rather than research. In education practice, we alway create new things as the context is always different. No two classrooms are the same. I think perhaps part of my challenge was being at a university that did very little in educational technology – so their focus was more on evaluation or critical theory (analyzing education for injustice) – in which case, the act of creating something was never seen as the primary ‘focus’ of the research, just a bi-product of it. The focus was always on evaluating the educational interaction, rather than what we learn through the act of creating it.

  2. In the abstract that seems possible as in an actiom Research project: you design a course, teach it, evaluate it, reflect
    But you may be thinking something totally different from this, can you give an example?
    In my mind, you could do an edu PhD that creates sthg but u’d need to do some sort of evaluation of the experience: can be reflecting on ur process not necessarily just the product.

    Tell us a bit more?

    1. This is actually what I want to suggest to my own dissertation advisor(s) at Athabasca. I have a course I’ve been teachings as a “regular” online course for the past 2 years (if all goes as expected, I will have taught it 4 more times before I start my dissertation). The course does have theoretical underpinnings as it is. What I want to do is design, develop, and teach the course as as MOOC (the type of MOOC TBD, I don’t want to call it a pMOOC yet, I may use Rebecca’s framework to describe it.)

      Then, run the course (similar to what Siemens and Downes did with CCK08 – some for-credit students and the rest open), and see what I get. Who knows, this might be considered too pedestrian, but I am in a position to observe the current condition (and collect some data while I am at it in the traditional course…oh… IRB…how I look forward to you :p) and then do the same with the MOOC.

      1. AK, I think what you want to look at is Design-Based Research. Your project would fit perfectly within that paradigm. I can send you a paper I wrote about it. It would work well because you have enough to start with. The challenge is in the iteration – but you could propose your MOOC version as a new iteration of an existing course, and your dissertation could be based upon the single new iteration – applying new theories to an existing course.
        Part of my challenge is that I don’t have that existing course to start from. Creating an entire project from scratch and using DBR is a challenge. I’ve seen that most DBR thesis projects are single iteration and start with something that already exists … so they start with a solid needs analysis already … I tried to do it all, which didn’t work, because the rigid PHD system needed an “initial design” before the needs analysis was done – so it locked me into a design that didn’t work. Since you have enough previous experience with the other course, you at least are starting from a working prototype, and can then design to the new requirements.

  3. For what it’s worth, I think PhDs (or EdDs) in Education can be about building something. Heck, have a look at this MOOC thing, someone built the initial concept, tested it, and others have picked it up (for better or for worse). LAK has undergone a number of transformations – from Moodle with I took it in 2011, to Canvas, to using Edx this coming fall. It is a design challenge to think about offering a course in an open way using the tools you have on hand (and how you might build tools that you don’t have).

    From my informal survey of PhDs I think that there is a folly with positivism going on. I don’t think that every aspect of humans can be neatly measured by modifying variables. There are a lot of unknowns out there that affect our results. This is one of the reasons I like corpus linguistics and discourse analysis. I can take a corpus of language and analyze it for patterns. There may be something there, there may not be, but you don’t know what’s there going in. Sometimes you need to approach a problem with a loose set of criteria in mind (or no criteria at all) and see where it takes you. I know that most “serious scientists” may not feel comfortable with this, but it is a valid approach to inquiry (at least as far as I am concerned).

    Now the question is, do potential dissertation advisors agree to supervise someone undertaking this?

    1. The UK educational discourse is very non-positivist. My Phd supervisors always told me not to care that I didn’t develop quantitative skills

      1. I am not all that familiar with the UK ๐Ÿ™‚ In the US there seems (to me anyway) to be a Napoleonic complex among some of my colleagues (doctors in some education field) in the US because they seem to not get the same respect as those in the hard science where everything is measured and calculated. It seems that people aren’t comfortable with the answer “it depends” ๐Ÿ™‚

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