Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Reader, I published it! Converting a thesis about teaching and learning into a book

Guest post by
Dr Claire McAvinia, Learning, Teaching & Technology Centre, Dublin Institute of Technology author of Online Learning and Its Users: Lessons for Higher Education. Kidlington: Chandos Elsevier.

This blog post has two aims – first, to share with you my experience of converting a PhD thesis into a published book, and second, to tell you briefly about that book.
At this time of year many of us are thinking about our research and writing for the next twelve months, and I hope this post might be helpful to those of you putting plans together for the coming year.  The book began life as a new year’s resolution. Although it took more than one year to complete, the aim is to encourage you in your writing plans, whatever they may be. Resolutions do (eventually!) come true.

In 2011, I completed a PhD after seven years of part-time study. My research looked at the adoption of virtual learning environments (VLEs), sometimes called learning management systems (LMS), in third level institutions in Ireland. The starting point was research emerging in the mid-2000s which seemed to conclude that VLEs like Blackboard and Moodle had become repositories of lecture notes, with transmission-oriented lectures being as prevalent as ever. Researchers argued that students would expect much more innovative uses of technology in future, and there was a strong sense of disappointment with the VLE experience overall. Through a mixed methods study using Activity Theory, I found that there was evidence to challenge this discourse. Many lecturers were innovating in gradual, subtle ways with the VLE which were not apparent from usage data alone. They needed time to develop their digital literacies over some years. Students used the VLE as a gateway to library resources and other coursework materials, but did not seek to drive the use of new technologies by their lecturers. In short, VLEs had been adopted in ways appropriate to the needs of campus-based institutions. The thesis concluded with a recommendation that we might re-frame our expectations of educational technologies in higher education in light of this experience.

Like most graduates, I had no appetite to revisit the thesis after its completion. However, by 2014, and following a job change, I realised that I either had to publish some of the work or simply accept that the thesis would lie forever undisturbed on a shelf. I had received kind encouragement from my External Examiner to publish a book based on the work. Colleagues similarly were very generous in encouraging me not to let it go. I first tried to break the thesis into a number of potential journal papers, but because the nature of it was to look at institution-wide issues and how interconnected they were, this didn’t work. It was frustrating being unable to write when I had thought I had plentiful material ready to use. I decided to see if reworking the thesis as a book could be a more productive alternative.

I contacted a few publishers, including those I knew who had published e-learning research or academic development texts. The UK publisher Chandos, an imprint of Elsevier (who coincidentally publish much library research), were willing to pursue the idea and I prepared a full submission for them. I had a lot to learn: writing a full book proposal is challenging, and early on it’s important to think your way into what the publishers are looking for. After all, why should they invest their time and finances into producing your book? The Irish market is too small for most publishers and I had to look for international dimensions to the work, as well as finding international reviewers for the proposal. I found most of these people through looking at works I had used in the thesis, and of course calling on those I’d met at conferences or through work.

The proposal was submitted in June 2014, but getting the required number of reviews took until early 2015. The book was commissioned at that point and suddenly I was under contract to write it, with a deadline of November 2015. This was the serious bit! But the publishers were very supportive and helpful throughout. The contract is a legally binding document and it is essential to read the small print – your responsibilities as an author are set out in black and white and will include things like getting copyright clearance for any visuals you want to use, agreeing to update the work for future editions, and writing to agreed house style as well as the word limit.

I had a very busy 2015 and a particularly busy summer, with the book consuming weekends and holidays. I was fortunate to be able to commit that time, and it helps if you enjoy the writing. By the drafting stage I could finally enjoy it as the review process was over, I had a clear outline and structure, and there were drafts of two chapters from the proposal phases. It was liberating to pull the thesis apart and re-assemble it in a new form, without the prospect of an exam at the end. A key challenge was updating the content and literature review, given the time lapse between thesis and book draft. As e-learning research moves on quickly, I also felt the book needed something new and added a chapter on the adoption of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which has had some parallels with the VLE/LMS.

Once the full draft had been submitted, everything was managed online and the production process moved ahead apace. This was fascinating, and I was suddenly working with an editor and designer based in Chennai, India. It was a pity never to meet these colleagues or even those in the UK in person, but very enjoyable to work with them remotely. Finally, I received the typeset PDFs to review and correct, and the book was published on 6th May 2016.

What have I learned about writing from this experience? People had told me a book would have to be very different in format to a thesis, but I hadn’t fully believed them until I found myself cutting the methodology to a couple of pages, and breaking up discussion and conclusion chapters across each individual book chapter! I know now that I could not have written a book from scratch in the time available – at least two years would be needed for a project such as that – and that’s good learning for the future. Unlike other forms of writing for publication, in this case review and assessment happen at the start of the process rather than at the end with submission. This means it is essential to invest time and effort at the beginning as you map out the work – the proposal is a roadmap, and a commitment to produce the outlined set of chapters – the wrong map could lead to a very difficult journey. Finishing the project has been very rewarding, and it brought final closure to the thesis too. But writing a book for publication involves multi-tasking: you must be your own project manager, and wear a marketing hat as well as an academic one.

Although all of the stages had their own challenges, it would be very good to think that the book might help librarians, academic developers, learning technologists and anyone else navigating the digital revolution with academics and students. If there is one message in it, it’s that we need to work together to ensure we let the learning lead, and not the technology. I hope that if your Library has purchased a copy, you’ll find it useful. I would be delighted to hear what you think!

McAvinia, C. (2016) Online Learning and Its Users: Lessons for Higher Education. Kidlington: Chandos Elsevier.

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