Masters applied research projects with external partners, 2021

In this post, three Masters students in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds discuss their applied project research. Their contribution is prefaced with a brief introduction by Professor Sarah Irwin, programme lead for the MSc Inequalities and Social Science.  

Our applied research projects, whose aims have been agreed in partnership with non-academic organisations, give our Masters students a hugely valuable opportunity for their dissertation research to have immediate practical value and policy relevance. Working on an applied project enables the students to develop new skills, work with diverse stakeholders and gain valuable professional experience beyond academic study. The applied projects span a range of organisations in the third sector as well as Leeds City Council and partners in the education sector.

This year, several students worked with diverse partners and here 3 of them, Olivia Heath, Evie Hutchinson and Ellie Shackleton describe their research. Olivia worked with Leeds City College analysing Further Education student and staff experiences of the move to digital learning through the pandemic. Evie worked with Voluntary Action Leeds examining prospects for greater organisational inclusivity for volunteers with refugee and asylum-seeking backgrounds. Ellie worked with Go Higher West Yorkshire in exploring the role of networks in the professional development of Higher Education Outreach Officers and in the support they provide to young people.

Our Masters students developed insightful research and gained a lot from presenting their applied project findings to the partners and often large audiences of other invited stakeholders. Here they describe their projects and indicate how their research informed the partners’ thinking and practices.

COVID-19 and the Move to Online Learning: An investigation into the views from Staff and Students in Further Education, by Olivia Heath

Educational inequalities pre-existed the pandemic with an extensive list of factors, including the existence of private schools, family resources and cultural capital, all contributing to a significant socioeconomic education gap. However, COVID-19 and the move to online learning generated an array of concerns about how staff and students would fare online, how different subjects would be delivered online and how digital accessibility might widen the pre-existing socioeconomic gap (The Edge Foundation 2020, Schleicher 2020).

When reviewing current research surrounding COVID-19 and education, it became apparent that many researchers focused on primary and secondary schools and Higher Education, with Further Education (FE) receiving less attention. Leeds City College, the main FE college in the city, wanted to gain insights into how their staff and students were coping with the move to digital learning in periods of lockdown, and what improvements they could make to online education moving forward.

I worked with a gatekeeper in the College to agree on a set of research aims that were both suitable for a dissertation, and useful to the college. We agreed on these questions:

  • How did staff and students experience teaching and learning when using online methods?
  • Did learning experiences vary between an academic subject and a vocational subject?
  • To what extent did socioeconomic background influence student experiences of online learning?

To carry out the project I used online/telephone qualitative interviews with staff and students in the college. Students were studying both an academic subject (required GCSE resit) and their chosen vocational subject.

The College ensured that all its students had access to devices so that they could work online from home, supplying laptops where needed. The research focus was the move to online teaching and learning and I examined staff experiences and students’ engagement and motivation. The interviews highlighted that staff and students’ experiences of online varied depending on the individual’s ability to engage with online methods and learning materials. Some seemed to thrive online, while others missed the studious college environment. Communication arose as a key theme with both staff and students saying that the insightful question and answer style conversations they would usually have in college were completely lost online.

Although research often suggests academic subjects are easier to deliver online, students generally preferred learning their vocational subject online. However because they selected the course, the motivation required for online learning was easier to acquire, whereas for the academic subject, which was a compulsory element of their course, and something they had struggled with previously (GCSE resit), they felt that online learning acted as a further barrier.

Finally, as the department under examination contained students from some of the poorest postcodes in Leeds, it was important to analyse how their socioeconomic circumstances impacted their online experiences. Analysis revealed that those with difficult circumstances tended to struggle with developing the motivation and engagement needed for online learning. However, students in more advantaged circumstances also faced motivational issues. This highlighted the complexity of online learning and showed that while socioeconomic circumstance is a shaping factor, individual capability, subject compatibility, and a web of other factors also contribute to an individual’s online experience.

I developed this analysis, as well as a list of recommendations for the college, in a presentation which was delivered to over 40 staff members. This provided a great opportunity where staff provided further insights that were added to my dissertation. The college found the research valuable and believed it would be useful nationally, which led to a submission to present on the research being sent to the Association of Colleges national conference.

Broadening volunteering amongst people with Refugee and Asylum-seeking Backgrounds, by Evie Hutchinson

In the UK an assembled evidence base on refugee and asylum seeker volunteering reveals an overrepresentation within refugee service organisations and an underrepresentation in mainstream volunteer roles. Literature attributes this pattern to clustering related to volunteers’ prior links to specialist organisations but also to a series of barriers. Barriers include language divisions, feelings of exclusion and a lack of awareness as to the breadth of volunteer opportunities available. Yet within empirical research there is evidence that refugees and asylum seekers’ volunteering in mainstream charities offers reciprocal benefits, for example through helping to integrate refugees and asylum seekers into their host country, but also enabling valuable volunteering contributions drawing on, for example, a breadth of lived experiences in numerous sectors and a wide and varied skill set.

The body overseeing volunteering in Leeds, Voluntary Action Leeds, sought to build on the assembled evidence base and examine the value of, and prospects for, broadening refugee and asylum seeker volunteering. This Applied Project involved in-depth interviews with both mainstream third sector organisations and those specialising in refugee services alongside insight from key informants from Leeds City Council. I explored organisational views regarding the perceived importance of more inclusive volunteering and its value. This was alongside exploring organisational views on current barriers and how to overcome these, demonstrating the knowledge, guidance and research needed for a more positive and inclusive volunteer experience.

Utilising Voluntary Actions Leeds’ networks, I worked with 5 organisations that had expressed a desire to broaden their activities by working with individuals with a refugee and asylum-seeking background. Interviewees from all the organisations felt that more needs to be done to ensure that organisations are open and inclusive for refugees and asylum seekers, with many attributing limited past action to be a result of a lack of knowledge leading to apprehension about ‘saying or doing the wrong thing.’ This is something that interviewees believed can be addressed through sharing knowledge in the sector as well as more effectively drawing on other organisations’ experiences of working with refugees and asylum seekers to better inform their own policies. Interviewees highlighted the importance of actively promoting an inclusive environment. To ensure this I wanted to translate my academic analysis into useable policy recommendations, knowledge, and resources for organisations. This took three strands; increased communication, personalisation and knowledge highlighting that in order to better integrate refugees and asylum seekers organisations not only need to be non-exclusive but, more importantly, actively inclusive.

From the experiences of volunteer managers in targeted refugee organisations and key informants from the refugee sector what became clear was that whilst inclusivity actions do not require a paradigm shift in practice, caution needs to be exercised about what inclusivity entails. Reflecting on interview data and accounts of exclusivity, it is crucial that inclusivity is not an overarching term with limited action behind it but there is a need for specialist attention and education to be ingrained within organisational policy. Questions need to be asked about who has the power to ‘include someone’, for example ensuring policy is not inclusive to certain backgrounds and exclusive to others. Personalisation, improved communication and knowledge sharing are important criteria towards active inclusion but are, in themselves, the first step in a journey rather than an endpoint.

Conducting this research has been an opportunity to turn my academic insight into research of real-life benefit to Voluntary Action Leeds. It has led to the creation of a policy paper and an on-line webinar detailing the outcome of my research to charities and organisations spanning across the UK. I hope to have developed tools for mainstream volunteer organisations to utilise in being more inclusive for refugees and asylum seekers. Moreover, whilst recommendations focused on the improvement of knowledge, communication and personalisation of the volunteer process, this study is seen to be only the start of further research towards greater inclusivity of all minority groups.

The social networks of Higher Education Progression Officers in Go Higher West Yorkshire, by Ellie Shackleton

Go Higher West Yorkshire (GHWY) is a partnership of 13 local higher education providers who collaborate to enhance entry to, achievement and continuation in higher education amongst marginalized groups. As a result of evidence showing that augmented advice and assistance to young people is essential for advancement into higher education, Higher Education Progression Officers (HEPOs) are employed in the project to organize and administer bespoke outreach activity to young individuals and their parents/ carers in schools and colleges. GHWY identified a gap in research on the role of Continual Professional Development in assisting the staff that work with marginalised individuals, particularly for outreach officers (Formby et al, 2020). As a result, GHWY wanted to better understand how HEPOs (and other school and college staff) use social networks to improve the support they offer to young people. These networks include formal networks of team meetings and CPD events and informal networks of WhatsApp groups and breakout rooms in online team meetings. I formulated a research design to examine the lived experiences of social networks of HEPOs, exploring the meaning and content of their social ties through a realist evaluation lens. Using a relational perspective on social networks, I interviewed 10 HEPOs using a qualitative participatory mapping technique (Emmel and Clarke, 2009).

Studies on social networks have undergone a ‘cultural turn’ in recent years, with researchers moving their focus from the structure of relationships to their social features, such as the meaning and content of social ties.  Literature has demonstrated that open networks, characterised by weak contacts, are most useful for communication, and for gaining information and guidance. My data analysis showed that in contexts where HEPOs felt integrated into their institution, they often formed weak tie connections with other HEPOs, HEPs and external companies through formal networking to gain information and advice for supporting young people. In addition, there was some evidence of informal connections being formed with other HEPOs, through the break-out room function in virtual team meetings, to gain information but also emotional support, again mostly characterised by weak ties. My findings build on recent literature which indicates that weak ties, as well as strong ties, can be useful for emotional support and well-being.

Social network literature also revealed that close-knit networks are beneficial for emotional support, identity and sharing tacit advice and knowledge. In my investigation, where HEPOs had not fully integrated into their institution they had formed relationships, indicative of strong ties, with HEPOs in other schools by meeting up outside of work for activities such as walking and getting a coffee together. HEPOs in this context used these relationships for friendship, emotional support and sharing of tacit knowledge which helped them to navigate the challenges of feeling isolated in their institutions. Strong and weak relationships with their peers and staff in GHWY, therefore, enable HEPOs to gain information, resources and emotional support. My analysis provided insights into how CPD, in this case, networking enables the HEPOs to provide the young people they work with support and up to date information that helps them to make informed choices.

My applied project with Go Higher West Yorkshire provided me not only with the chance to develop my passion for the topic of inequality in higher education, but also to gain new skills in conducting my own piece of applied research and to present my findings to an external partner of the University. One of the main recommendations was to support the improvement of the relationships between Progression Officers and colleagues in the universities they work with. In addition, I was able to recommend the development of informal networking for HEPOs in both contexts, as all HEPOs saw this as a positive experience for sharing ideas and gaining emotional support from colleagues.