Lessons in Lifelong Learning

Kristy Lichtenwald spent the summer of 2017 working with Dr. Dirk Morrison in the College of Education. Below is a reflection of her research experience.

The research I conducted with Dr. Morrison was originally fueled by a combination of interests in informal learning practices, the nature of learning motivation, and learning with technology. This combination of interests suggested an examination into how Web 2.0 technologies are being used to create and maintain personal learning networks (PLNs) for informal learning purposes. The majority of previous research efforts in this area have focused on children, youth, and career-age adults; similar research with older adults is lacking. Given the rapidly growing population of older adults, along with the multitude of factors to take into account when considering the aging process, an exploratory investigation into the online personal learning networks (oPLNs) of the retirement transitioning population seemed like the perfect research trajectory. This is a Social Science and Humanities Research Council Insight Development Grant (SSHRC-IDG) funded research project for 2015-2017.

I was initially drawn to the project because of my own stake in lifelong learning. I take part in many online interest groups and am always looking for a new informal learning activity with which to get involved. The intrinsic motivation that transpires during these personalized projects is compelling. Personally, I am interested to see this research featured in an applied setting. One of the goals for an applied setting might be to empower older adults who are preparing for or are in the midst of transition into retirement. These adults have the chance to find out more about their own informal learning motivations with the help of oPLNs, and put that knowledge into practice in their own lives.

This mixed-methods project consisted of two phases of inquiry, namely, a national survey followed by online focus groups and interviews. The purpose of the first phase was to investigate and describe the Personal Learning Networks (PLNs) of older adults. This was achieved by employing a national online survey to retired Canadian adults, aged 55 and over. The primary purpose of the survey was to examine which types of web 2.0 tools are used for informal learning efforts, by which means participants are accessing their online learning communities, and the types of resources being consumed or shared. Phase two involved exploration into the informal and self-directed learning processes of older adults while they engage in their PLNs. Participants were recruited from the phase one national survey to take part in the online focus group or interview. They described their experiences with PLNs, their motivations for learning, how they set learning goals and manage their informal learning process, and some of the educational, personal, and community impacts of these informal learning activities. Data collection and analysis for both objectives are complete, and we are currently engaging in the interpretive and reporting stages of the project.

Before I started this position, I was a pretty typical undergraduate student, suffering from a bit of imposter syndrome when thinking about becoming involved in research, but still eager enough to seek out an opportunity. I felt privileged to be offered an Undergraduate Summer Research Assistantship (USRA) position with Dr. Dirk Morrison in the College of Education, an opportunity that was co-funded by the Undergraduate Research Initiative, a unit within the Office of the Vice President Research (OVPR). At the beginning of this journey, I did not know what to expect, but I felt prepared to embrace whatever was going to come my way.

Throughout my time working on this project I learned a variety of skills and gained some valuable knowledge about the research process. I spent time learning to use NVivo, a qualitative data analysis program, and was part of developing a tailored system and coding structure in order to use the program to enhance the literature review process. I received training from Rachel Tang, the manager of the Qualitative Research Lab at the Social Sciences Research Laboratory (SSRL), and pursued the opportunity to do some coding for one of the focus groups in our project. My understanding of how a literature review should be performed was enhanced, and I acquired a deep understanding of the “science” behind connecting pieces of literature together to create dialogue. In addition, I was able to discover more about Tri-Council funding and how the grant writing and application process in Canada works – eventually attending one of the workshops offered by the national funding body, the Social Sciences Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). This workshop taught me to develop a support system while in academia, a process by which I will continue to reach out to other people for support and to exchange ideas and potentially collaborate. Lastly, my supervisor, Dirk Morrison showed me a technique he uses to develop ideas and get his creative juices flowing – mind mapping in a sketchbook. I immediately felt captivated with this process and have already applied it to my own research project for my Honours degree in Psychology.

The project used a mixed-methods approach and it is the first time I have been involved with this approach in action. Seeing how the survey instrument and qualitative methods were complementary was illuminating. While many of us learn about these techniques in research methods classes, until we see the layering of data collection and analysis in action, it is challenging to fully grasp its utility. Being involved in a team and taking part in the analysis meetings with the SSRL, a full-service network that assists with carrying out investigative logistics for faculty, students, and external agencies, reinforced my impression of the importance of this work and the people doing it. I felt intimidated going to my first meeting, but I quickly learned that we are part of a team where everyone shares the same passion for research and wants to be a part of the collective discussion. The last meeting where we wrapped up the final report for the qualitative phase was especially exciting. The discussions around how these results could be reported and used in further research was one of the most inspiring experiences I have ever had – now when I read the discussion and future research sections in articles I understand this process much better than I did before.

I learned that it is fine (and actually the entire point!) to not be perfect; as students we learn from our mistakes and the whole reason we are at university is to acquire knowledge and grow by learning! These opportunities to do research, to advance an understanding of the process, and to be mentored by faculty, are not going to come after you – I recommend others jump in and go after them, even if feelings of vulnerability ensue. Professors are not really as threatening as we tend to think they are. I recommend just thinking of them as lifelong students, professionals who are passionate about research and education, and who truly value students’ input. As an undergraduate student, you really do have something to offer. Collaboration is fundamental regardless of your level of expertise.

It is impossible to know how the research process works in its entirety just from taking classes. It is a much more creative and fluid process than I had previously imagined. I learned to relax and trust in the process, it’s not necessary to force results or predict outcomes. Research really is not as polished and unvarying as it seems when learning about it in research methods classes. Everyone has their own process and that is what makes it so beautiful. My understanding of research has changed tremendously throughout this experience. I would not hesitate to become involved in another opportunity like this. In fact, my passion, ambition, and the skills that I have developed this summer have led to me being offered an extended research assistant position where I will continue working on this project with Dr. Dirk Morrison for the fall term while completing my final year of undergraduate studies. I am honoured and grateful for this opportunity. You really never know what could happen, and I don’t suggest waiting around to see what couldn’t happen; go for it!

I did, and now the upcoming months will be dedicated to writing and reporting our results. This will be achieved through scholarly publications, the development of an open-access resource website, and a symposium with local interest groups like the Saskatoon Council on Aging (SCOA). Who can imagine what might come next?!

Kristy is in her final year of a B.A. Psychology (Hons). She hopes to pursue graduate studies related to applied psychology.