Open University Phd Dissertations On Teaching

A feature of the work in CREET is the breadth of research interests, ranging from applied linguistics, leadership and management, studies of schools and classrooms to the use of technology in education or developing pedagogies for distance settings.

This range of research interests gives rise to a wealth of research projects that would welcome the input of enthusiastic, budding researchers.  The examples below of postgraduate doctoral projects can only give you a first idea of the kinds of doctoral research that can be undertaken within CREET.

If you would like to discuss an idea that you may have for postgraduate research before submitting an application then please follow the procedure laid out on the How to Apply page.

Examples of current and recently completed PhD doctoral research

Education, Childhood, Youth and Sport

Jiniya Afroze. PhD thesis title:
Subhi Ashour. PhD thesis title: An Exploration of Teachers' Learning and Professional Development Through Action Research.  Supervisors: Dr Steve Hutchinson and Dr Maria Leedham
Cathy Baldwin. PhD thesis title:
Namrita Batra. PhD thesis title: How do Teachers of  X State Understand the Language TDU(s) that they have Undertaken? Supervisors: Dr Steve Hutchinson and Dr Prithvi Shrestha
Marion Cartwright. PhD thesis title: A Historical Thematic Exploration of the Development of a Business Orientation to Managing FE Post Incorporation during a Period of Structural and Cultural Change with Reference to Biographical Professional Cultural Influences. Supervisors: Professor john Richardson, Dr Fiona Reeve and Dr David Plowright
Natalie Canning.  PhD thesis title:  Children’s Empowerment in Play. Supervisors: Mr John Oates, Dr Dorothy Faulkner and Dr Rosie Flewitt
Joseph De Lappe. PhD thesis title: Just a Friend: Newer Sexual & Gender Social Movements.  Supervisors: Professor Mary Jane Kehily and Mr Roger Harrison
Dame Diop. PhD thesis title:
Alice Gathoni. PhD thesis title:
Jen Kearvell-White. PhD thesis title: Executive Function in Younger Adolescents with Special Educational Needs. Supervisors: Professor David Messer and Dr Dorothy Faulkner
Natalia Kucirkova. PhD thesis title: Personalisation and Early Literacy. Supervisors: Professor David Messer and Dr Kieron Sheehy
Memory Malibha-Pinchbeck. PhD thesis title: Music listening, educational exclusion and habitus: a mixed methods study of FE students in London. Supervisors: Dr Daniel Allington, Dr Byron Dueck, Dr Janet Soler
Linda Plowright. PhD thesis title: What do boys and girls in England, say about being physically active? Supervisors: Dr Grace Clifton, Mr Ben Oakley, Dr Kieron Sheehy
Sumita Sarkar. PhD thesis title: Developing Guidelines and a Framework for Teacher Educators. Supervisors: dr Steve Hutchinson and dr Alison Buckler
Cordelia Sutton. PhD thesis title: What Counts as Happiness for Young People? Supervisors: Professor Mary Jane Kehily, Dr Kieron Sheehy and Dr Heather Montgomery
Sion Tetlow. PhD thesis title: Violent Boyhoods? An Ethnography of Emerging Pre-Teen (11-13) Masculinities in a Post Industrial South Wales School and Locality.  Supervisors: Professor Mary Jane Kehily and Dr Peter Redman
Sion Tetlow. PhD thesis title: Violent Boyhoods? An Ethnography of Emerging Pre-Teen (11-13) Masculinities in a Post Industrial South Wales School and Locality. Supervisors: Professor Mary Jane Kehily, Dr Peter Redman
David Scott. PhD thesis title: The Significance of Sports Leadership Training on Personal and Professional Identity. Supervisors: Mr Ben Oakley, Dr Kath Woodward and Dr Christine Wise

Language and Applied Linguistics

Claire Acevedo. PhD thesis title:
Amy Brown. PhD thesis title: Discourses of the English Language in the Japanese Twitter Community.  Supervisors: Dr Philip Seargeant and Dr Ann Hewings
Saraswati Dawadi. PhD thesis title: Investigating the Reading Strategies in the School Leaving Certificate Exam of Nepal: Establishing one part of a Validity Argument. Supervisors: Dr Prithvi Shrestha, Dr Steve Hutchinson and Dr Maria Fernandez-Toro
Shi Min Chua. PhD thesis title:
Saraswati Dawadi. PhD thesis title:
Johanna Hall. PhD thesis title:
Betul Khalil. PhD title: Exploring how the Concept of Teacher Autonomy is Understood in Lower Secondary Schools in Turkey with Respect to English Language Teaching.  Supervisors: Dr Tim Lewis and Dr Uwe Baumann
Shazad Khan. PhD thesis title:
Alex Laffer. PhD thesis title: The Poetics of Empathy: How does Popular Fiction Influence Attitudes across Social Group Differences?  Supervisors: Professor Lynne Cameron and Dr Daniel Allington
Helen Lee. PhD thesis title: How Do Language Learners Exploit Gesture in Multimodal Interactional Meaning- Making in MALL? Supervisors: Professor Regine Hampel, Professor Agnes Kukulska-Hulme
Chenxi (Cecilia) Li.  PhD thesis title: Toward an Integrated Distance Language Learning Community (IDLLC). Supervisors: Dr Tim Lewis and Dr Uwe Baumann
Mair Lloyd. PhD thesis title: Technology-Assisted Learning for Ancient Languages.  Supervisors: Dr Regine Hampel and Dr Uschi Stickler
Jenny McMullan. PhD thesis title: Gender in a Study of Academic Writing? An Exploration into the Writing Practices and Experiences of Sixteen Women Enrolled in Research Courses in a UK University.  Supervisors: Professor Theresa Lillis, Dr Lucy Rai and Dr Maria Leedham
Sarah Mukherjee. PhD thesis title: A Systemic Functional Linguistic Investigation into Children’s Meaning Making in Classroom Role-Play.  Supervisors: Dr Caroline Coffin and Dr Janet Maybin
Theron Muller. PhD thesis title: Experiences and reflections of emerging scholars pursuing academic publication.  Supervisors: Professor Theresa Lillis and Dr Ann Hewings
Csaba Szabo. PhD thesis title: Testing Vocabulary and the Influence of the Second Language on Third Language Vocabulary Acquisition. Supervisors: Dr Lina Adinolfi, Dr Lluisa Astruc and Dr Uschi Stickler

Technology Enhanced Learning

George Alain. PhD thesis title:
Popi Anastasiou. PhD thesis title:
Maria Aristeidou. PhD thesis title: Citizen Inquiry: A synergy of Inquiry Learning, Online Social Networking and Citizen Science.  Supervisors: Professor Eileen Scanlon and Professor Mike Sharples
Sian Beavers. PhD thesis title:
Lesley Boyd. PhD thesis title:
Jessica Carr. PhD thesis title:
Vasudha Chaudhari. PhD thesis title:
Helen Crump. PhD thesis title:
De Waard. PhD thesis title: An Investigation of Self-Directed Learning among Adult Participants using Multiple Devices in a MOOC..  Supervisors: Professor Mike Sharples and Professor Agnes Kukulska-Hulme
Jamie Dorey. PhD thesis title: Exploring Digital Scholarship within a Climate of Openness and Transparency: Promoting the Large Hadron Collider and High-Energy Physics.  Supervisors: Professor Eileen Scanlon and Dr Rick Holliman
Stephen Foster. PhD thesis title:
Garron Hillaire. PhD thesis title:
Jake Hilliard. PhD thesis title:
Paco Iniesto. PhD thesis title:
Katy Jordan. PhD thesis title: Reshaping the Higher Education network? Analysis of an Academic Social Networking Site.  Supervisors: Professor Martin Weller and Dr Canan Blake
Jenna Mittelmeier. PhD thesis title: Using Learning Analytics to Implement Evidence-Based Interventions to Drive Ethnic Minority and International Student Success. Supervisors: Dr Bart Rienties and Professor Denise Whitelock
Tina Papathoma. PhD thesis titleL Digital Wisdom: How Web 2.0 Practices Influence Student Communities and Identities in Higher Education. Supervisors: Dr Ann Jones, Dr Canan Blake and Professor Eileen Scanlon
Janesh Sanzgiri. PhD thesis title: A Comparative Study of OER Usage in Non-formal Learning. Supervisors: Professor Martin Weller, Dr Leigh-Anne Perryman, Dr Rob Farrow

John Cowan has been working in engineering education since the 1960s, focusing on developing engineering students’ capabilities and working internationally to help engineering educators make innovative changes in their programs.

The profile below was authored by Cheryl Allendoerfer, University of Washington, based on an interview with Dr. Cowan in 2014.

John Cowan
Emeritus Professor of Learning Development
UK Open University

B.A. (First Class Honours), Social Sciences, Open University, 1994
D.Eng. (by thesis): “Education for Capability,” Heriot-Watt University, 1987
Ph.D., Engineering Education, “The Feasibility of Resource-Based Learning in Civil Engineering Education,” Heriot-Watt University, 1975
Diploma in Adult Christian Education (with distinction), University of Edinburgh, 1974
M.Sc., “Stresses in Glued Timber Joints,” Heriot-Watt University, 1967
B.Sc. (First Class Honours), Civil Engineering, University of Edinburgh, 1952.


Individualizing Instruction

In the 1960s, I had been working as a senior structural engineering designer for several years, and then I thought I would like have a try at teaching, because I had done a little night-class tutoring and found it fulfilling. I applied for a post at Heriot-Watt University, I was appointed, and I gave myself five years. I thought, “I want to be able to teach better than the people who taught me.” At the end of five years, I wasn’t very convinced that I was really teaching as well as I wanted to. I felt that I should go back to industry, but there was a course advertised for training university teachers. I decided to enroll and give myself another chance. I went to this course, came home, and tore up all my lecture notes, having decided that I wasn’t in the business of teaching any more— I was in the business of learning. Also about that time, Carl Rogers published Freedom to Learn, and that had a powerful influence on me as well. So that was how I started off.

I realized that if I wanted my students to learn, I had to do something that wasn’t done in engineering education in the U.K. at that time. I had to individualize it. I had to shift the responsibility to them to decide what they would learn and how they would learn. During that time, I was kind of on my own, but I was finding people who had concentrated on learning in other disciplines, a fragment of this in one place and a fragment of it another. I’m a great pillager. If somebody else has had a good idea, why can I not steal it and use it? In 1975, I got my Ph.D. in engineering education, and people began to invite me to go around the U.K. to talk about individualizing engineering education. That was very useful, because out of that, I formed a network of connections.

Then I suppose I began to become a bit radical. It was unusual, in those days, to let students design their own courses and decide what they should learn. I did that even with first-year students. This didn’t go down awfully well with my conventional colleagues. I found it best to do that kind of thing silently, behind closed doors, with my students. But I was beginning now to get invitations not just from the U.K., but also from the British Council to go abroad. So I went to a number of countries abroad where people really wanted to improve engineering education. I got to work with really talented people who were prepared to try out things and take big risks.

Teaching to Develop Students’ Abilities

By the 1980s my profession needed graduate engineers who had developed the ability to be analytical and creative problem solvers, and to make judgments, and to relate to other people. We needed an education that was about developing abilities, not just knowing things. So I moved into developing abilities by training reflective practitioners. I guess I must have been one of the very first people who asked first year civil engineers to keep reflective learning journals, based on what the feminist literature told me. I just didn’t tell them it came from the feminist literature, because we were mainly men in structural engineering at that time. Reflective learning journals were very effective for me and my students, and that was a developmental stage for me, too.

Around that time, there was a Royal Society of Arts scheme in the U.K., called “Education for Capability,” and you could apply for an award if “capability” was an educational priority for you. I thought I would apply for an award, because I didn’t know of anybody who had been doing my kind of thing. They fixed a date for a visit by the panel to come and see what we’d been doing. I said, “Well, that’s all right. I’m going to be doing some work in Colombia then, but the students will all be here.” The people from the panel said, “But if you’re not there, who are going to answer our questions?” I replied, “Well, if you want to find out about student learning, you should just come and talk to my students.” They seemed to think that was a radical idea, but it was in accordance with my philosophy, which was that education is not about teaching— it’s about learning. So they came, the students were absolutely wonderful, the panel were very enthusiastic, and we got the award. That kind of thing made a big difference. What subsequently made a difference with my colleagues was when people visiting the department would say, “Wait a minute. This is where John Cowan works. I’d quite like to meet him and find out what he’s doing.” Because visitors wanted to see our Learning Unit, my colleagues started to act as if they were doing that kind of thing too, and so gradually my approach began to spread at home, too.

In 1985 or ’86 I had to spend time in hospital in Sri Lanka. You can’t just lie in hospital and do nothing, so I thought I would begin to write what in Britain is a Doctor of Engineering thesis. I wanted to write a thesis for the few people who might want to know about developments in both engineering and education. Then when I got out of the hospital and came home, I pushed myself to write a page a day. So I gained a higher doctorate in education for capability out of that, because I’d been concentrating on this business of the development of abilities, which to me, is what it’s all about in higher education in this era.

In 1987 I went to the Open University in Scotland while continuing my active engagement with engineering education through my professional body. The Open University had 13 regions in the United Kingdom, and the regional directors came from being administrators in traditional universities. They interviewed me, even though I wasn’t an administrator. At the interview, the then Vice-Chancellor of the O.U. said, “Professor Cowan, you don’t seem to appreciate that we’re looking for a manager who’ll live above the shop 350 days of the year.” And, because I’m a passionate Scot, I said frankly, “Well, I thought you were looking for someone whose primary concern would be the quality of the learning experience for the students in Scotland. But obviously you’re not, so I’m not your man.” The interview finished shortly after that. But by the time I got home, they’d phoned me and offered me the job.

Toward a Qualitative Understanding of Engineering Behavior

For years, I grappled with a major challenge in the broader context of engineering education. One of the problems in structural engineering education is that students are taught to do careful calculations rather than understand behaviour. They look at a structure, for example a bridge structure, and somebody tells them the loads being applied to it. They do calculations and they work out the force on this member and the force on that member. Now, if they get wrong answers, then they’ve got a wrong understanding of how the structure behaves. What I wanted to do was to educate engineers who could look at a structure and, without doing little calculations, could see where the highest stresses were. They could appreciate what was happening in the structure. I called that qualitative understanding of engineering behavior; in other words, understanding the nature of how a structure behaved, rather than quantitative understanding, which was mere number crunching. There was far too much in engineering education at that time which was number crunching. So, I produced materials and innovative activities and so on to promote qualitative understanding. Then, eventually, I wound up collaborating with another engineer called David Brohn. We pushed the Institution of Structural Engineers to stress that qualitative understanding of how structures behave was more important than the traditional quantitative understanding through number crunching. That’s well established now. I got an award from the structurals for that work. It was a radical change in what it is that we want engineers to learn. I wanted students to learn how structures behaved, not how to do calculations. This linked with my efforts for many years to enhance the already effective practice-based assessment for candidates. As special advisor on assessment, I was one of a team which, over the years, further enhanced an assessment scheme leading to professional status, of which my Institution is rightly very proud.

Machiavellian Tactics and Grassroots Involvement

I think what I’ve learned about making change is that I can be most effective by getting into the midst of the action, and so can actually have a real feeling for what it’s like to be in there as a learner and as a teacher; and to break up and build up my ideas from there. It worked for me, but I don’t say it’s what everyone should do, or that it’s the only way.

Bringing about changes is also about being tactical. When I went to the Open University, my deputy there, who was a classicist, gave me a copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince. I don’t normally deface books, but I went through it, and I intentionally underlined quotations that would be very useful if you were talking about how to achieve educational development for engineering. I used to say that Machiavelli was a man who had educational innovation in mind, and he disguised it as a political theory. You’ve got to be Machiavellian to bring about educational change. You’ve often got to be devious. For example, we had a visiting panel that came for a site visit, and my colleagues expected them to be very dubious about me and my self-directed and self-assessed courses in design. I said to the visiting panel, “I expect this concerns you.” They said, “Oh yes, it certainly does concern us.” I said, “Would you like someone to find out what the students have learned and how well they’ve learned?” “Yes, we would,” they said. I said, “And you would like that someone to be somebody independent, who can reach a judgment that you value?” “Yes, we would,” they said, anticipating that this was something that was going to happen in the future. However, I had already secured such a judgment. I went to my briefcase, pulled out a report, and told them, “Well, it just so happens that I arranged with former members of your panel to come and examine my students.” And the judgment they produced was that the students had learnt to a high standard, conventionally and otherwise. So, that was me being Machiavellian. I was anticipating that they would have concerns, and I was ready for it. I think people who want to be innovative have got to be tactical, if they want the innovations to happen.

The Value of Practical Experience and Networking Broadly

The opening advice I would give to new engineering education scholars would be to first gain considerable experience as an engineer, not as a teacher of engineering. One of the things that the profession suffers from— more nowadays than 40 years ago— are people who have come straight through to a graduate degree and then a Ph.D., and then they start teaching and doing research, and they’ve not practiced engineering. Nowadays, the trouble is that we’ve got too many theoretical engineers around. I mean, engineering is about being practical. It’s about dealing with real problems, and dealing with real people. Until you’ve learned in the field and had the experience of dealing with people and with problems that arise in the field, you don’t really know what engineering is about.

The second advice I would offer is to get together with your students and make teaching and learning a joint activity. Become a teacher who’s got a relationship with your students, within which teaching and learning happen, and sometimes they’re teaching you and you’re learning with joy with them. And sometimes you’re teaching them, as well. That’s the vision I would have. There are a lot of people doing that now, but there weren’t too many doing that in 1967.

I would also advise new recruits to get into networks, and not necessarily in engineering. Some of the best ideas that I got came from people who taught sociology or classics or something like that. I think there are lots of places where we can pick up good ideas and good principles and values and all the rest of it, and they do indeed transfer between the disciplines, provided we’re prepared to transmute them. Also, if you’re going to have a network, you’ve got to have something to share. Basically, you need to be breaking new ground, and you need to have your new experiences to share. People like wrestling with an idea and giving you back suggestions on it. That’s an aspect of networking too.

Another thing you can do, as early as possible, is to get yourself onto a panel of people who review papers. That’s been productive staff development for me. I read and review two or three papers a week. And it’s wonderful stuff for me. First, because if these papers are going to be published, that’ll be 18 months or two years from now. So I’m 18 months or two years ahead of the field. The next thing is, if I’ve got into a journal that insists on reviews being constructive, it makes me think about what the authors could do that would make the paper deeper and maybe better. So that’s a really good professional development activity too.

Also, be aware of the kinds of things that are happening in education, not just across the disciplines, but also across the levels. Some of the most imaginative things are happening at the primary level. And we can pillage from that sector, too.

Contributions: Facilitating Change at the Grassroots

My biggest contributions have been at the grassroots. I’ve only written two books, and I’m not one of the big-name personalities, but I’ve gone into situations and worked there with teachers, with my colleagues in my own department, and in places around the world. We’ve changed things, and I’m glad to say that this has been acknowledged in a number of awards I have received. I would say that my contribution has been getting into grassroots activity and showing the people that are involved there how they can change things, how they can evaluate the changes, and how they can do without me. The most important thing is, when I go away, are they going to manage creatively on their own, without me? Are they going to go on being creative, and are they going to have stories to tell me about, “We’ve done this,” and “We’ve done that”? I see myself as a facilitator, nudging them to be the best that they can be, and then quietly bowing out and letting them be the innovative people, just as I do with students. Then I can always go to another place and work on another grassroots activity. That’s the way the people I’ve worked with would describe me, I think —and hope.

Reflecting on this pioneer’s story…

  • Where have you looked (or could you look) to “pillage” useful ideas from other scholars or other fields?
  • What does educating for capabilities look like in your discipline? What are some of the key capabilities that graduates should have? How can such development be effectively facilitated?
  • Does engineering education still concentrate too much on number-crunching rather than qualitatively understanding behavior?

Photos provided by Dr. Cowan.

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