Practitioners and researchers: an unnatural divide? (#fslt12)


[Image retrieved from, 28 May 2012]

Organising academic conferences (such as the first Unisa ODL international conference) often bring our hidden assumptions and epistemological beliefs to the fore.  For example, choosing a theme, inviting keynote speakers and considering the ‘structure’ of the conference are all determined by our assumptions, epistemological beliefs; but also by  the institutional political landscape  of the institution and the broader influence of the  immediate higher education landscape. But more about these latter influences at a later stage…

This week the question was raised why we have not invited practitioners to present papers.

I immediately responded to say that we did – there was a call for full research papers as well as a call for research-in-progress papers. In my epistemological framework, this included research by practitioners. I was wrong. The practitioners on the organising committee just did not buy into my protest.  And this made me think…The dichotomy between practice and theory has always fascinated me. While there are fields in which there are ‘pure’ theoretical explorations, most of the research I personally value in the educational context has implications for practice and/or originate in practice.

So the question of how the conference will cater for practitioners really caught me by surprise.

A number of years ago I was involved in organising a major international conference on sustainability in another African country. The organisers (a world organisation) felt very strongly that there should be practitioner and research streams. To make matters worse (from my point of view) – these two streams were hosted on two different locations in the same city and never engaged or shared after the opening ceremony. Except for the fact that I considered this to be an absolutely bizarre practice; I also felt (and still feels) that it impoverished both streams. To talk about the issue of sustainability and then to separate research and practice just did not (and still do not) make sense to me.

So when the question was raised in the context of this conference; I immediately fired a broadside and just swept the issue off the table as bizarre, outdated, and a number of expletives that do not look well in an educational blog. In educational research there cannot be and should not be a gap between research and practice. We just cannot afford to separate theory and practice. Yes, I know that some of the decisions management in higher education institutions take are based on neither theory or practice (…); but that does not mean we should perpetuate the separation – on the contrary.

Since the question was raised, I reflected on where this ‘gap’ between theory and practice comes from. Some possible origins or practices come to mind:

  • In many (most?) higher education students are first introduced to the theories in a particular field and then, ‘when they are ready’, they are introduced to applying these theories to real-world problems.  Although there are glimpses that this practice may be changing, it is still in place (and valued as good teaching…) in many disciplines.
  • Another possible origin of this false gap between theory or research and practice may be found in research as being portrayed as a hallowed domain for the Chosen. Research is then often sold (often literally) and valued as research with a capital ‘R’. The hype, the standards, the rankings, the criteria, and a number of other practices produce a notion of research that creates the impression that Research (with a capital ‘R’) is outside the domain for ‘ordinary’ practitioners.

Then there is also organisational culture and self-belief.  The other day I wanted to do some collaborative research with educators at an esteemed distance education institution in America and I was told that these distance education practitioners would not be interested because they do not do research –  they teach. I nearly suffered a stroke. How can you teach and not do reflexive research? If you don’t do reflexive research, how can you teach? Actually, how are you allowed to teach if there is no record of your reflexive engagement in being an educator, in what you teach, in how you teach, why you teach, how you assess and the impact of your teaching on your field and its impact on the lives of your students?

There are also, on the other hand, ample examples of practitioners doing research but their research is never peer-reviewed or never presented in formats that will qualify their research as Research (with a capital ‘R’). However bizarre, Research is a ‘bridge too far’ – the criteria, the strict definitions and prescriptions place doing research and living research outside the reach of practitioners.

While I agree that reflective practice on what and how you teach may not yet qualify as ‘research’ in its hyped form; surely reflective practice is the start of research?

The possibility exists that there may actually be educators who are not reflective practitioners; I don’t think there are many of them. We may have created so much hype, processes, criteria, rankings, etc around doing research that practitioners who have not (yet) published, or don’t know how to take their reflections one step further, just do not consider themselves to be players in this field. These practitioners may then feel safer and more valued in conferences where they do not (have to) compete with these halo-carrying Researches. In ‘practitioner’ streams they feel safe to share and celebrate solutions to problems and issues where their contributions will not be scrutinised and weighted.

So maybe, my dear readers, we have ourselves to blame for this continued misconception of the value and worth of practitioners in the haloed spaces of research conferences. We must find a way out of this dilemma. I am more convinced than ever before that it is not a solution to have separate streams for researchers and practitioners. The solution may be in valuing the insights of ‘practitioners’ and finding ways to allow them to see themselves as researchers. Don’t get me wrong on this – the issue is not to assimilate ‘them’ into the sacred domains of Research, but that we critically interrogate our ‘R’ness of Research.

The cost of perpetuating this false dichotomy between educational researchers and practitioners are immense – not only on what we know about teaching (the theories) but how we teach (the practice).


About opendistanceteachingandlearning

Research professor in Open Distance and E-Learning (ODeL) at the University of South Africa (Unisa). Interested in teaching and learning in networked and open distance and e-learning environments. I blog in my personal capacity and the views expressed in the blog does not reflect or represent the views of my employer, the University of South Africa (Unisa).
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One Response to Practitioners and researchers: an unnatural divide? (#fslt12)

  1. Laura says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful and important post, Paul. Unfortunately these divides are perpetuated within universities themselves, where practitioners may be told that any thing like research is “not in the job description”. I wrote about the challenges of trying to overcome these divides when employing people awhile ago at It is false dichotomy kept firmly in place by (amongst other factors) polarised conditions of employment.

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