The first phase of the study was essentially designed in order to pave the way for the second phase. We thus report only briefly on the first-phase results and focus on data from the students who were subsequently interviewed. Table 2 provides a summary of the participation on the discussion boards demonstrated by the interview sub-group, as tabulated against the four main sub-divisions of our coding sheet. In overall terms, scrutiny of the table suggests that these participants were meeting basic expectations, and that they were pursuing projects as learners through the online discussion boards. Our main interest, though, was in developing an understanding of the basis for the engagement of these students in their learning. Unless otherwise indicated, the findings that follow are exclusively based on the interview data.
The agency of the learner under given structural constraints
The students who were interviewed cited a range of concerns about their studies. We identified concerns that were linked to how best to carry out a required task on 18 occasions, while concerns that pertained to the utility of their studies and tasks for employment were identified on 13 occasions. The range of concerns manifested by students within the interviews thus went beyond those focused on the construction of understanding when posting on a discussion board. Students made explicit connections between the tasks they carried out in the module, and activity that they would then be able to undertake in their employment. Bassey, for example, said: “I realised, actually, I know nothing about energy management, but realised the need for my company.” Archer (2007) suggested that such employment-related concerns are characteristic of autonomous reflexivity, focused as this mode of reflexivity is on one’s own performances in society. All of the students who were interviewed manifested at least some concerns that were typical of autonomous reflexives.
These concerns typical of autonomous reflexives were taken forward by students as they progressed specific one-off actions and established practices. The tasks required of students on the modules provided a significant focus for their interview responses, with the following tasks referred to on 174 occasions: completing an initial discussion question posting, follow on postings, dissertation proposal, ethics application, dissertation, group project or other assignment. In many instances, it was at least implicitly clear that the task was accompanied by autonomous reflexivity on the part of the student. For instance, in describing how he went about programming, Rutger indicated that he had learnt over a long period of time to build process models in his own mind:
I was, like, 15 or 16 years old, making programs and trying to figure out how things were working, and this was quite challenging to see how things are working; and I probably still do that today.
In this example, we see that uncertainties associated with programming acted as triggers for autonomous reflexivity. Okedi spoke of the difficulty of a simulation task to optimise feedstock, production, supplies and market prices, indicating: “But I got through it and it was challenging but it just needed some sitting down and getting to understand it.” An implicit link to autonomous reflexivity was also evident in relation to sub-tasks that students formulated for themselves in carrying out the required tasks. The sub-tasks ‘searching for literature,’ ‘reading,’ ‘formulating ideas’ and ‘drafting’ were identified in the interview responses on 62 occasions. Such sub-tasks are essential before a student can go on to display cognitive presence within an online discussion forum. The need for sub-tasks was closely related to the complexity or openness of the overall tasks. For instance, Rutger indicated:
I think one of the great things about this type of study is that you are quite free because of the open discussion questions and, although you have to answer the question, you still have the option in the follow ups to research it in the direction that you want.
There is scope for students to choose their lines of enquiry on the basis of the utility to their employment, for instance. Furthermore, it was clear in 25 of these 62 occasions that the exercise of the sub-task had become an ongoing practice for the student.
Concerns that were categorised as typical of meta-reflexivity were identified on 35 occasions, with the most prevalent of these concerns related to the improvement of one’s own learning in relation to regularly-undertaken tasks. For example, Philippa indicated:
I found that thinking about what I was going to post and posting three or four fairly meaty posts for each discussion question worked better for me than some of the other students that were posting a lot, but less in each post. That was a conscious decision; it worked better for me to think about it.
While the emphasis here was not on the social impact of the students’ actions, such reflexive deliberation is nonetheless itself focused on the reflexivity that is associated with carrying out required tasks. Furthermore, uncertainty was seen to be a factor in 23 of the identified meta-reflexive concerns, linked by the participants to tasks that were perceived as challenging. Schön (1987), indeed, argued that ill-defined problems provide an ongoing reason for professionals to engage in continuous learning in relation to their practice. Archer (2007) suggested that uncertainty may serve to extend the exercise of meta-reflexivity. Given that uncertainty is an inherent element of learning, it is not surprising that Haynie et al. (2010) similarly indicated that metacognitive awareness increases with higher perceived levels of novelty. The tasks that Herrington et al. (2003) highlighted as important to student engagement in the online learning environment also incorporated significant levels of uncertainty for the student. More limited attention was given by the participants to how their studies might enable them to make a contribution to society.
All but one of the students (Bassey) demonstrated some concerns that were typical of communicative reflexives, with 37 instances identified across the transcripts. These included concerns that related to rapport with others and to interactions with others as a basis for making discussions postings or for completing other tasks. For instance, Phillipa indicated that overlap between her work and the programme allowed her to talk over discussion questions with colleagues before making a posting. Okedi described how he sought help from a fellow student from his own country and industry: “I just asked him. I said, ‘I’m having some problems getting a book’, and he was able to help me.” We have seen that communicative reflexives characteristically share their deliberations with others before taking action.
The main features of Archer’s model of agency are thus apparent in the analysis of these students’ experiences. The concerns and actions of the students were influenced by their structural settings, as they took responsibility for progressing inherently challenging tasks alongside others. These students configured concerns that pertained to required tasks, and produced specific courses of action and sustained practices on the basis of reflexive deliberations.
Beyond dominant modes of reflexivity
Archer (2007) suggested that individuals can be characterised by a single dominant mode of reflexivity. In our account, however, we have seen several characteristic modes of reflexivity in play for the same agent. If we consider the reflexive profile of our participants, each student exhibited concerns typical of autonomous and meta-reflexives, and all but one manifested communicative reflexivity. Philippa, for instance, provided balanced indications of all the modes of reflexivity that support purposive personal and mutual action. Yamin demonstrated indications of all the modes of reflexivity, although she offered strong indications of autonomous reflexivity in comparison to the other modes. Bassey was the only participant not to offer any specific evidence of communicative reflexivity during his interview.
Given the complexity of the structural demands on these students, it is perhaps not surprising that we were not able to identify dominant modes of reflexivity for our participants. It was clear, furthermore, that significant overlap was present between specific concerns: nine of the meta-reflexive concerns were also included in other categories, with the same true for 11 communicative reflexive concerns and 14 autonomous reflexive concerns.
The overlap in characteristic modes of reflexivity for the same subjects mirrors that in a recent study by Kahn (2013) that focused on developments in tutors’ practices. Similarities are also present with the study by Porpora and Shumar (2010), which saw overlap in subjects between communicative reflexivity, and either autonomous or meta-reflexivity.
Reflexivity underpinning the attainment of shared goals
Archer (2003) also gave consideration to intentional action that entailed individuals joining together in order to articulate and promote mutual interests, terming this corporate agency. However, this was treated on a largely separate basis to the agency that was seen to influence social mobility. In our case, though, many of the concerns, projects and practices exhibited by the students could be characterised by the extent to which they were mutually held or pursued.
We identified 42 occasions when the sub-group students spoke of concerns that were specifically shared with others, and in which a shared goal was at stake. For instance, Rutger recounted one occasion as follows where this mutuality was in evidence: “I had a discussion with a person and they really followed what I was doing and he was provoking me and I was answering showing my side, and getting further and further.” The shared goals either pertained to the development of mutual insight or to the completion of a group project. We can characterise this as an instance of collective reflexivity (Donati and Archer 2015), something that occurs when two or more parties each deliberate about the emergent effects of their relationship.
The development of mutual insight through an online discussion board represents a project that is shared by the learners. It was apparent that such projects were underpinned by a range of social practices. We were able to identify 73 instances within the transcripts of specific social practices relevant to this mutual learning, with each of the participants manifesting at least one such practice. Table 3 shows the categories developed to characterise the social practices that were employed by the participants on an ongoing basis as they sought to achieve shared goals. A student might be drawn into participate in a particular learning activity, if they are invited to contribute, challenged or encouraged. The most commonly applied strategy was to seek to identify common interests. For instance, Daniel mentioned that if discussion question postings were contextualised within a region or culture that he felt was not relevant to his own professional setting, he would try to add a posting offering a perspective that specifically sought to shift the discussion as a whole onto territory that aligned more directly with her own interests. The nature of the discipline of public health meant that the deliberate exercise of such a practice was required if mutual insight was to emerge. Students had complete freedom in relation to which posts they responded to with follow up posts, allowing them to discuss interests of theirs that overlapped with those of other students.
The practices are intrinsically linked to uncertainty in that the responses of others cannot be straightforwardly known in advance. Daniel, for instance, could not tell at the outset if he would be able to move discussion onto his desired territory; if the discussion did not shift he would leave it. Such uncertainty helps to ensure that a reflexive dimension remains important in the execution of the practices, with collective reflexivity thus manifesting itself as an integral feature in each case. The genesis of these social practices is also of interest. For instance, it might have been the case that students first began to employ particular practices after seeing them modeled by a tutor. Consideration of such issues, though, lies beyond the scope of this study.
Challenges in establishing constructive forms of collective reflexivity
The pattern of reflexivity exhibited by the students can be differentiated from that identified by Archer (2003) in one further regard. Fractured reflexivity represents a mode of reflexivity that Archer (2003) argued does not easily allow one to exercise agency. This includes forms of mental life that are best described by a substantive absence of reflevity, which Archer characterised as near-non reflexivity.
Participants exhibited concerns on 19 occasions that we identified as typical of fractured reflexives, in which concerns were focused on frustrations rather than on constructive ways forward. Clear variation between our participants was evident, as only four of the eight participants offered indications of such reflexivity, although this did partly reflect the structural constraints in place within the different disciplines. What is of most interest, though, is that the fractured reflexivity occurred above all in relation to the pursuit of mutual objectives, especially those centred on specific tasks where students felt their control was limited. For instance, students in Public Health needed to secure approval from others in order to progress their research, whether a dissertation advisor, an ethics committee or a workplace manager, within a given time frame. As Yamin said:
Well, during the first 2 months of the research module; yes, it’s when developing the research question and while waiting for the local ethical approval. Those are the real things that I have to face and during that time I was really frustrated because I hadn’t decided yet in which country I have to do the research.
Particular challenges were also faced by the Computer Science students when conducting the group project, partly given an absence of similar tasks at earlier points in the degree. Philippa remarked on the frustrations entailed in collaborating with others when everyone had different preferences about when to study, something accentuated by living in different time zones. It was also the case that fractured reflexivity was evident in relation to discussion postings, although of a more tempered nature. Kwame, for instance, expressed some ‘nervousness’ in relation to postings when discussions related to problems in his own country. We characterise this as a fractured collective reflexivity.
Kahn (2014) drew attention to a potential role for a restricted reflexivity that involves students taking what might be termed short cuts in their completion of required tasks. By contrast he suggested that reflexivity which crosses various characteristic modes may have a tendency to be extended in time. Flann (2010), meanwhile, argued that reflexivity can be restricted when one person dominates another. Participants in our study reported ways in which the pursuit of joint concerns was limited by practices that worked against mutual understanding, as when someone dismissed the views of another without recourse to argument; expected the tutor to indicate the way forward; or looked to divide a group project into separate tasks to minimize interactions. Such practices specifically restrict the occurrence of collective reflexivity. In relation to the group projects, for instance, Rutger was keen to ensure that each person in the group made a significant contribution to the joint output, although he stated that this concern was not shared by every group member:
Sometimes you end up in a group with others who aren’t as motivated or aren’t as engaged and then it can be tough to get responses and you need to be patient till the end of the week until they post what they have been doing.
This suggests restrictions on both the social practices that related to the joint activity (e.g. on exchanging or discussing work) and on collective reflexivity prior to the end of the week. It is finally also worth noting that collective reflexivity can be limited in terms of who is drawn in. For example, it may have been the case that Bassey’s pattern of collective reflexivity was restricted in these terms.
In conclusion, we have identified ways in which fractured and restricted collective reflexivity constrained or weakened the capacity of the participants to pursue projects as learners. This contrasts with a focus on forms of fractured reflexivity that pertained simply to individuals in Archer (2003). We can constrast the nature of the engagement linked to fractured and restricted collective reflexivity with the engagement that emerged in our earlier analysis of the collective reflexivity within the previous section. In this latter case, the exercise of collective reflexivity was directly linked to the agency that resulted in learning. A difference is apparent in the extent to which these students were able to exercise agency when displaying these different expressions of reflexivity in situations where mutual objectives are in play.
The relationship between reflexivity and student engagement
It is apparent that a different relationship between reflexivity and student engagement is in view than that identified by Archer (2003) between reflexivity and social mobility. Archer (2003) saw the exercise of autonomous reflexivity leading to upward social mobility. Communicative reflexivity entailed a renunciation of social mobility in favour of a way of life centred on one’s family and friends, while meta-reflexivity ensured that a greater value was placed on things other than one’s own social status.
By contrast, the reflexivity exhibited by the students in this study was seen in part as a response to the structural constraints that were in place in their settings. Students did not manifest dominant modes of reflexivity, but exercised several characteristic modes of reflexivity concurrently. It may be the case that students who are unable to establish such a varied pattern of reflexivity will be more likely to drop out at an early stage in their studies. There are limitations in our account here, given that the methodology employed resulted in general terms in the selection of participants who were engaged rather than disengaged.
The exercise of collective reflexivity was also seen to be an important feature of the students’ reflexivity. This contrasts with the substantive absence of such reflexivity in the account given by Archer (2003) in relation to concerns and actions affecting patterns of social mobility. Mutual insight was seen to be established where the students exhibited social practices and underpinning collective reflexivity, while engagement was weak when students found themselves unable to display constructive forms of collective reflexivity in support of tasks that required interaction with others.