Analytical autoethnography as a reflective philosophical instrument: towards an ecology of distance learning

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In this article I deal with my personal research journey using analytical autoethnography as a reflective philosophical tool in constructivist research. The research journey started with my attempt to find a way to improve the relationship between the University of South Africa (Unisa) and its students. I explored my own insecurities around writing about myself, and by bringing theoretical and philosophical aspects into the research I grounded myself and found the courage to write about my own experiences.

Choosing autoethnography as a research methodology was both a very exciting and challenging process for me. On the one hand I had a story to share, but on the other I was fearful that my story would be misinterpreted. Autoethnography is grounded in social constructionism, which posits that our world and our understanding of it and the meaning we give to it are co-constructed. My journey was also a social construction, grounded in the weaving of my story as it unfolded in a context which included a variety of theorists, colleagues and fellow thinkers. I therefore wanted to accompany my readers not solely though my personal experiences, but also on a journey of epistemological and theoretical realisation.

I was immediately drawn to analytical autoethnography, which brings analytical and theoretical aspects into the research process. This meant that I could not merely tell my story, but could also explain concepts and ideas in theory, and map them to my personal story, to help the reader follow my thought processes. I had a strong theoretical background, grounded in cybernetics and second-order cybernetics. Despite this, I felt confused and lost, caught in a maze I could not get out of. Although there were three key points of interest to me, I could not find the common thread to connect all the stories. (1) I was embarking on a doctoral study investigating student communication at Unisa. I had been working at the university for more than 20 years, and during that time I had become involved in student communication as part of a team attempting to improve the relationship between students and the institution. Somehow, no matter how hard we tried, it seemed that the relationship was deteriorating. I wanted to explore why our efforts were not working, and how to remedy the situation. (2) I wanted to explore my philosophical and epistemological roots in cybernetics, second-order cybernetics and ecological thinking to determine whether the solution to the problem of student communication lay there. My thinking was that if I applied a new philosophical lens, something new would emerge. (3) I had just discovered a recent publication by Maturana and Verden-Zöller (2008), in which Maturana (one of the founding fathers of second-order cybernetics and complexity theory) writes about our origins as humans. This triggered in me a quest to discover who we are as humans and what makes us “tick”. In searching for the key to the breakdown in the relationship between Unisa and its students I knew that the core of the problem had something to do with our essential humanness.

I explored my journey by interweaving my personal experiences with ideas of working in student communication at Unisa. To this end, I began adding, subtracting, multiplying and combining my own experiences with findings derived from the literature, from philosophy and from my own fundamental epistemological ideas. What emerged was a process involving weaving the theoretical with the personal, and it revealed seven fundamental principles: (1) epistemological vision, (2) a holistic and holographic perspective, (3) the nature of living systems, (4) the co-evolution of change, (5) humanness and the biology of love, (6) learning in a complex world, and (7) complex thinking and the ecology of action. Using these principles as a lens, I could recursively reflect on the relationship between the students and the institution.

Through this emergent process of constructivist research using analytical autoethnography as a recursive reflective philosophical tool, I discovered a process that helped me interweave the theoretical with the personal. This recursive process revealed new or meta-views of what was happening in the relationship between Unisa and its students. I call this methodology a recursive process of philosophical reflection through analytical autoethnography. By employing this process I was able to share what I had discovered, and how my discovery not so much changed the way in which Unisa deals with its students as it changed me profoundly.

I made deductions or drew conclusions that provided fresh insights into the form of recommendations about the conditions required for Unisa to create a learning environment that is conducive to the highly networked, complex world we live in. It also gave me a deeper understanding of issues around student communication at Unisa, but, most importantly, revealed my own role in the process. Throughout this very personal journey I came face to face with myself. I discovered how I was contributing to the distance between Unisa and the students, but I also learned that distance learning universities (like most organisations) are living, vibrant, complex systems, where we can co-evolve new cultures and communities that are more caring and eager to find solutions to our social, emotional, organisational and planetary problems.

I had doubts about using autoethnography as a research method, but during my study I learnt that my own personal reflective process of storytelling could not only be a valuable research tool, but could also provide fresh insights into the problems I encountered while working in the student communication context, while casting light on my personal role. I looked both inwards and outwards for new perspectives.

Looking inwards, I discovered that I often viewed myself as an outsider, criticising the institution, but though the process of recursive reflection I became aware of my dialogic relationship with Unisa, where the institution and I are holographic reflections of each other. I learnt that to improve our relationship with students we needed a culture of openness, where students could share with us their experiences and we could share ours with them. In the process, new ideas would co-evolve and more complex patterns would emerge.

Looking outwards taught me that the principles I had discovered can be applied to any distance learning institution or, for that matter, any human ecology. Most distance learning universities struggle with similar issues, where students feel isolated and, as individuals, try to find their own ways of creating effective learning environments. In a world that is increasingly connected, where learning is more distributed and the internet has opened up possibilities of learning outside of formal structures, most distance learning universities will have to find new and innovative ways of communicating with students. We need not only to focus on technology, but also to attend to epistemological issues. This will place the student at the centre, while technology and efficiencies will become the outcomes of a co-evolutionary process for the ecology of learning.

Creating ecologies of learning can change society fundamentally. This is highly possible, because if one imagines a future where technology is much more freely available, the marginalised can become part of this networked society and learn that learning is not just about knowing facts, but about learning how to learn, and becoming active actors or participants in a global or planetary networked society.

In this complex, globally networked world, where equality and the individual have once again become valued and where learning is everyone’s right, we must find new ways in which to live, communicate and learn. We must also find new ways of becoming institutions of learning, as innovative ways of thinking will make us value one another, value each individual’s place in the world, and value our environment and the planet we live on. That will allow us to find new ways of learning, facilitated by technology that allows us to self-organise into communities of learning. In such communities we will learn about life and knowing as we live life, and that will most likely allow us to find solutions to our social, emotional, organisational and planetary problems.

What I discovered was that using autoethnography as a social constructionist approach helped me to see how we co-create the world, and how – together – we can change it. Analytical autoethnography brought me closer to the subject and social issues I was dealing with on a daily basis. In the extraordinarily complex world we live in, we need a process that enables us to reflect deeply on the world around us. It has helped me to gain a deeper understanding not only of issues pertaining to student communication at Unisa, but also of social, societal, emotional, organisational and planetary issues. Most importantly, however, it has helped me understand my contribution to the creation of those issues and problems. As social beings we create a context in which we sometimes feel trapped, but by changing our perspectives we can make a difference and uncover new and exciting alternatives.

Keywords: analytical autoethnography; autoethnography; constructivist research; ecological thinking; qualitative research; reflexive autoethnography; social constructionism; student communication in distance learning

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Ontledende outo-etnografie as reflektiewe filosofiese instrument: op pad na ’n ekologie van afstandsonderrig

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