research questions

By this time next year, I need to have zeroed in on a research agenda for this PhD.

Here are my thoughts as of now...they're a little rambly, so bear with me.

This post will hopefully be recognizable in the final accounting of my degree, but I know that it won't be all that close to it. Such is the nature of spreading a degree over several years.

When I think about the most pressing issues, in my mind at least, in Canadian higher ed today, there are a few that come to mind, and they seem to fall into two general categories:


  1. The recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission:

We call upon the federal government to develop with Aboriginal groups a joint strategy to eliminate educational and employment gaps between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians.

We call upon the federal government to provide adequate funding to end the backlog of First Nations students seeking a post-secondary education.

  1. The cost of textbooks.
  2. The geographical barriers to participation in higher ed in Canada.

Digital Literacy

  1. The need to prepare K12 teacher candidates to use technology well in their teaching practice.
  2. The pressure on higher ed faculty and k12 teachers to integrate technology into their classroom without sufficient support in how to do so in a pedagogically beneficial way.
  3. The increasing polarization of Canadians along political lines driven by digital media.
  4. The mass surveillance of students and teachers/faculty through 'free' digital tools sold to schools.

Obviously this isn't an exhaustive list of all the things that concern me and it seems that the two categories are a little unrelated. But, to me, they are related.

Access to higher ed is an issue for Indigenous students for many reasons, and some ways that barriers can be reduced is through the creation and adoption of open textbooks, the use of pedagogies uniquely enabled by open resources, and technology-enhanced methods of scaffolding access to learning environments. So, in short, technology and digital pedagogies can increase access to formal educational environments, but K12 teachers and HE faculty need to learn how to use the technology before they can do that.

Good for Something

My new favourite quote from Paulo Feire is

It's not important to be good, it's important to be good for something. [emphasis added](Horton & Freire, 1990, p. 35).

His point, I think, is that it is not enough to simply be an excellent teacher or researcher. It is more important to use your skills, background, education, and experience to promote and create the conditions for justice to thrive.

I am in a very privileged position in that I am able to work full-time while working towards my PhD without having to uproot my family. I don't just want to earn a degree. I want to earn a degree that is good for something in the world of education. As I write this, in the fall of 2018, it seems that one of the greatest goods towards which I can work is to incline my research towards addressing the two recommendations from the TRC above, to eliminate ... education gaps between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians, and to end the back-log of First Nations students seeking post-secondary education. These are both questions of access (partly).

My problem, though, is that I am an outsider. I am a non-Aboriginal Canadian. My ancestors are Norwegian and British. I am a direct beneficiary of colonization. I am the problem.

That makes it extremely presumptuous of me to pretend that I should try to 'solve this problem'. Myles Horton talks about the problem of coming into a community as a so-called expert:

The problem is confused because a lot of people use organizing to do some education and they think it's empowerment because that's what they're supposed to be doing. But quite often they disempower people in the process by using experts to tell them what to do while having the semblance of empowering people. That confuses the issue considerably [emphasis in original] (Horton & Freire, 1990, p. 120).

In talking about a pedagogy of the oppressed, Freire writes

a pedagogy which must be forged with, not for the oppressed (whether individuals or peoples) in the incessant struggle to regain their humanity [emphasis in original](Freire, 2018, p. 48).

So, this makes it difficult for me to focus my research entirely on the issue of 'liberating Aboriginal Canadians' in alignment with the TRC recommendations. I am not in any way an expert on Indigenous Education or the needs of Aboriginal students. And again, I am an outsider. I need to think carefully about how formalized this becomes in this stage of my work.

Good for What?

This all leads to the question of what, specifically, I want to be good for, and how?

One possibility will be to investigate the impact of the open education pedagogies and practices deployed in multi-access environments with a view towards the impact on increasing access to higher ed for marginalized populations, not only Indigenous learners.

Another is to explore the development of digital literacies for both K12 pre-service teachers and higher ed faculty, again with a view towards using technology in ways which promote high impact learning activities, of course, but also justice and students becoming more fully themselves, as Freire would put it.

It seems to me that these two ideas are two sides of the same coin and can't really be divorced from one another.

What do you think?


Freire, P. (2018). Pedagogy of the Oppressed: 50th Anniversary Edition. Bloomsbury Academic.

Horton, M., & Freire, P. (1990). We make the road by walking: conversations on education and social change. (B. Bell, J. Gaventa, & J. Peters, Eds.). Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

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