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10 June 2021
Who Are Your Students, Really? New Book Explores Phenomenology & Educational Research

Most quantitative research in education aims to determine the “how” and “what” about their research participants. But understanding why people perceive the world in their own unique way provides a powerful perspective that can transform education. Dr Karen Koopman’s new book, Phenomenology and Educational Research - Theory and Practice, aims to provide this perspective.

Phenomenology is a study mainly of an individual's lived experience of the world,” Dr Koopman explained. “This method of research in education is particularly important in SA because it opens the door to the consciousness and subconsciousness of research participants in order to understand how their mindsets have been affected by various forces: that is, the social, cultural, political, and economic forces of influence.” 

Dr Koopman is a lecturer in the Faculty of Education at the University of the Western Cape (UWC). Her own lived experience has taught her how important a phenomenological understanding can be.

“I grew up in a town in the Northern Suburbs of Cape Town, namely, Kuils River - the eldest, and only girl, of four children,” she recounts. “I stayed in various towns and worked at various institutions over the years – even had my own consulting business at one time. I’ve travelled extensively and met many people – this led to my interest in various cultures, or the lifeworld of people which is what my research is based on.”

Phenomenology has helped her understand herself better as well.

“When working in the field of phenomenology the philosophy teaches the reader/researcher to understand the self, and unknowingly instils in the self, important human qualities such as kindness, care and compassion towards others, particularly in our role as educators. By adopting a phenomenological approach we, as researchers, can relay these qualities to our research participants.”

The book, co-authored with her husband, Dr Oscar Koopman, a senior lecturer in chemistry in the Faculty of Education at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), is intended to assist students and seasoned researchers alike in adopting and conducting a phenomenological approach to (especially) educational research. 

“The idea for this book started whilst reading towards my PhD,” she said. “Although Oscar’s background is in Chemistry and mine is in Commerce, we both used phenomenology as a methodology in our dissertations – and we had trouble finding books or articles that could guide us on how to conduct a purely phenomenological study. So we wrote one.”

Reinventing The University: What Happens Next?

Higher education has been rapidly disrupted over the past few years - as we see a global reckoning with matters like the impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, decolonisation of education and more. A phenomenological approach can help with that.

“The living body, as a source of knowledge, is often dismissed in the teaching and learning process,” Dr Koopman noted. “Phenomenology helps us to see the link between the colonialism, apartheid, and the human psyche. Therefore, in my research on decolonisation I’ve adopted a phenomenological approach to re-design the university curriculum by advocating for a lived-experience approach in both teaching and learning. The bodies of the students in my classrooms, with their rich experience and/or knowledge, are the central focus of my lectures.”

And then - of course - there’s the pandemic.

“The emergence of COVID-19 has forced upon us a fully online virtual  space of teaching and learning - and brought forward the future. As universities we will gradually be shifting to fully online teaching and learning in the post-COVID-19 era. And that means we urgently need to address the digital divide.” 

Taken together, all these factors point to one thing: universities need to change.

“Universities have to re-invent themselves - I see higher education institutions as places of learning without classrooms in the next few years,” she says. “And that means academics who were trained to just use technology as a tool, need to learn to adopt a blended teaching and learning approach.” 

That’s not just idle speculation - Dr Koopman has even co-authored a paper about it, titled (appropriately) The Rise of the University without Classrooms after Covid-19

“Desirable change won’t happen spontaneously; hence universities need a well-defined plan to balance knowledge, skills and experience, particularly in the shift to 4IR,” she says. “And to do that, we need to understand students better. Understanding the lived experience of students will become more important than ever.”