David received his PhD (2014) in Classics, Ancient History and Archaeology at the University of Birmingham. In his collaborative dissertation, he worked with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust to ask how practitioners involved in selecting, digitizing and using Shakespeare-related artefacts interacted with the artefacts. David is currently the Head of Collections and Trust at the National Trust for Scotland.

Being Objective: Communities of Practice and the Use of Cultural Artefacts in Digital Learning Environments

1) Could you describe your dissertation topic to us? In what ways was your dissertation non-traditional/innovative in your field?

My dissertation aimed to find out what influence environments have on how we use cultural artefacts (museum, library and archive items). By environment I mean the learning environment within communities of practice (such as heritage practitioners, digital creative, academics from different disciplines) as well as the environment in which individuals engage directly with cultural artefacts, in physical and digital form. My dissertation was innovative in two main ways. Firstly, the methodology used generated numbers from a subject which has largely been analysed qualitatively. Mixed methods and content analysis (using Grounded Theory), more commonly used in the social sciences, were utilised to describe how individuals from different backgrounds engage with cultural artefacts, and to allow comparisons between different communities of practice (CoPs). Secondly, in approaching the subject of using digitised artefacts from a CoP angle, new insights were possible in terms of the connection between learning styles and artefact use, and the relative influence of different learning environments (including virtual learning environments).

2) As you conceived to follow this path, what was the reaction of the key actors in your university (such as your supervisor, committee, department, other)? Did you receive any resistance?

I was employed as a research fellow by the University of Birmingham and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust so finding a subject which was of interest to the academy and a museum / visitor attraction was necessarily novel / innovative for both parties. Therefore, taking this path in my research seemed like a natural thing to do as a reflective practitioner who requires a pragmatic worldview. My supervisors came from different academic fields – an archaeologist and an educational specialist – so they appreciated that mixed methods were needed to pursue my research goals. The only resistance came from those within the museums sector who seemed uncomfortable with the ‘black and white’ nature of some quantitative analysis.

3. How do you think your non-traditional dissertation helped you develop professional competencies and prepared you for academic/non-academic career prospects?

Since I had come from a practice background (as a museum curator), and knew I’d probably return to it, my research was very practice-focused. Having the opportunity to spend time thinking about a subject and then test theories against practice was enormously useful. Seeing the connection between ideas and issues in the field and how these might be developed in the academy before being made useful again in practice was made possible by taking a non-traditional approach. It gave me confidence returning to practice in a way which I might not have had had the dissertation stuck to a traditional route which, in my field, tends to resist mixed methods. I knew that the findings were relevant and I could apply these in practice. The means justified the end.

4. Did you face any challenges regarding the evaluation of your dissertation (such as from the external examiner)?

The main challenge was in finding appropriate examiners internally and externally but I was fortunate to secure two experts in their field who were open-minded and generous enough to agree to evaluate what I had written. Finding suitable journals in which to publish can also be a challenge.

5. What would you have done differently if you could do it all over again? What advice do you have for doctoral students who would like to produce a non-traditional dissertation?

I wouldn’t have tried to publish papers during my PhD since this was in some respects a distraction from the main output, the thesis. Having said that, writing individual papers did encourage me to develop ideas, and ways of explaining them, which then fed into my thesis. It takes courage to do something differently but you are tasked with undertaking original research and this is one way of achieving that. Ask, how will this approach make a difference – it shouldn’t be done just to be different. My advice would be to make sure you can find supervisors and examiners that will appreciate non-traditional approaches and then go for it!