22 SES 08 B, Reflections on Teaching and Research Methods
Phenomenography is a research approach that seeks to identify variation in experiences of a particular phenomenon amongst a sample population, and has been adopted for researching a wide range of higher education issues. These include learning and teaching (Shreeve et al., 2010), curriculum (Fraser, 2006), academic development (Åkerlind, 2007), study support (Hallett, 2010) and academic leadership (Ramsden et al., 2007) as well as disciplinary-based studies (Ashwin et al., 2013).
In a different field, sustainability in higher education has attracted a great deal of interest during the last 20 years, as demonstrated in various areas of policy, practice, and research, particularly in European and American universities. For example, there have been numerous conferences on sustainability; there are dedicated journals; and there is a growing higher education policy agenda addressing sustainability. Further, several studies suggest that many students are interested in seeing sustainability issues progressed in their institutions and addressed in their curricula (Drayson et al., 2013; Jones et al., 2010). However, whilst many universities have been relatively successful in campus environmental issues such as recycling, travel, and reducing carbon emissions, there remains a great deal of debate in the literature about what sustainability means and encompasses, whether the higher education sector should have responsibility for promoting and progressing sustainability, and, most of all, whether and how sustainability should be included in higher education curricula. This last issue appears to be particularly divisive with some commentators providing a persuasive case in favour (Orr, 2002), others providing examples of how sustainability has already been included innovatively in specific disciplinary curricula (Johnston, 2012), and others still suggesting that there are barriers and disadvantages to integrating sustainability in curricula (Chase 2010; Reid & Petocz, 2006). Overall, whilst sustainability is widely associated with good intentions and some success stories in the sector, it has also polarised stakeholders, with some parties interpreting it as an imposition.
Therefore, in this paper, I seek to bring together the research approach of phenomenography with the problematised area of sustainability in higher education, suggesting that the use of phenomenography for further researching sustainability would be valuable, in that it would contribute to our understanding of where the different conceptions and experiences about sustainability lie. The central research questions are:
(1). How and to what extent can phenomenography be used as a research approach to study variation in understandings and accounts of sustainability in higher education, and contribute to more coherent and meaningful engagement with sustainability in the sector?
(2). What are the benefits and challenges of using phenomenography as an approach for researching sustainability in higher education?
Drawing on empirical and literature-based research, my key argument will be that there is real potential for phenomenographic research to ‘cast light’ on areas of ambiguity and debate in sustainability in higher education, particularly in the context of different disciplines and amongst different stakeholders (staff and student groups). This could help inform a fuller and more inclusive engagement with this phenomena, taking account of the varied understandings and views about sustainability in different disciplines and sections of universities - which phenomenographic research can capture. This could, for example, help shape future policy on sustainability in higher education and provide guidance for teaching staff about whether and how to infuse sustainability into their curricula.
Åkerlind, G. (2005). Variation and commonality in phenomenographic research methods, Higher Education Research & Development, 24, 321-334. Åkerlind, G. (2007). Constraints on academics’ potential for developing as a teacher, Studies in Higher Education, 32, 1, 21-37. Ashwin, P., Abbas, A. & McLean, M. (2013). How do students’ accounts of sociology change over the course of their undergraduate degrees? Higher Education, 67, 219-234. Baughan, P. (2015). Sustainability policy and sustainability in higher education curricula: the educational developer perspective. International Journal for Academic Development, 20, 4, 319-332. Carew, A. L. & Mitchell, C. A. (2006). Metaphors used by some engineering academics in Australia for understanding and explaining sustainability. Environmental Education Research, 12, 2, 217-231. Chase, G. (2010). “Large Scale University Curriculum Change: Campus Stories and Strategies for Change (and back again).” Paper, Tomorrow’s Sustainable Universities Conference, Bradford, UK, 15-16 July. Collier-Reed, B., Ingerman, A. & Berglund, A. (2009). Reflections on trustworthiness in phenomenographic research: Recognising purpose, context and change in the process of research. Education as Change, 13, 2, 339-355. Drayson, R., Bone, E., Agombar, J. & Kemp, S. (2013). Student attitudes towards and skills for sustainable development. York, HEA / NUS. Entwistle, N. (1997). Introduction: phenomenography in higher education. Higher Education Research & Development, 16, 127-134. Fraser, S. (2006). Shaping the University Curriculum through Partnerships and Critical Conversations. International Journal for Academic Development, 11, 5-17. Hallett, F. (2010). The postgraduate student experience of study support: a phenomenographic analysis, Studies in Higher Education, 35, 2, 225-238. Johnston, L. (Ed.). (2012). Higher education for sustainability: Cases, challenges, and opportunities from across the curriculum. Oxon, Routledge. Jones, P., Selby, D., & Sterling, S. (2010). Sustainability Education: Perspectives and Practice across Higher Education. London, Earthscan. Marton, F. (1981). Phenomenography – describing conceptions of the world around us, Instructional Science, 10, 177-200. Orr, D. (2002). The nature of design: Ecology, culture and human intention. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. Ramsden, P., Prosser, M., Trigwell, K. & Martin, E. (2007). University teachers' experiences of academic leadership and their approaches to teaching. Learning and Instruction, 17, 2, 140-155. Reid, A., Petocz, P. & Taylor, P. (2009). Business Students Conceptions of Sustainability, Sustainability, 1, 662-673. Shreeve, A., Sims, E. & Trowler, P. (2010). ‘A kind of exchange’: learning from art and design teaching. Higher Education Research & Development, 29, 2, 125-138. Sin, S. (2010). Considerations of Quality in Phenomenographic Research. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 9, 4, 305.
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