Post-qualification education and professional identity in the contested landscape of Complementary and Alternative Medicine: a case of transformative learning in an online setting

Partington, Hazel orcid iconORCID: 0000-0003-3566-7035 (2017) Post-qualification education and professional identity in the contested landscape of Complementary and Alternative Medicine: a case of transformative learning in an online setting. Doctoral thesis, University of Central Lancashire.

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The education of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) practitioners within Higher Education (HE) is controversial, and has attracted criticism from various quarters, yet little is known about the impact of such courses upon CAM practitioners or upon the CAM profession. A programme of online MSc courses for CAM practitioners delivered by the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) offered an opportunity to explore this topic further. A case study approach using focus group and semi-structured interviews with teaching staff and graduates from the courses facilitated the generation of rich, thick data describing how CAM practitioners’ professional lives were influenced by their studies, their experience of the course and achievement of a master’s degree. Three key aspects of professional lives were selected as analytic categories, namely: professional identity, practice, and the wider CAM community of practice.

This research contributes to an understanding of the impact of the dominant critical discourse relating to the use of CAM therapies and the provision of HE courses in CAM, in addition to providing valuable insights into qualified CAM practitioners’ negotiation of their professional identity in the contested CAM landscape. All participants had been affected by criticisms of CAM, leading in several cases to a devaluation and stigmatisation of their professional identity. Yet graduate participants perceived the influence of their studies and achievement of a recognised academic qualification as immensely beneficial leading to both personal and professional validation.

The overall finding from this research is that study and subsequent qualification at MSc level in international online cohorts may be seen to have had a profound influence upon the CAM professionals participating in this study. There is evidence of an impact on MSc graduate participants’ frames of reference, identity, professional identity, practice, and participation in their community of practice; in addition to the acquisition of knowledge and skills in critical thinking and research.

For the graduate participants in this research the experience of their MSc studies has been a transformative one. The concept of transformative learning (TL) was developed by Jack Mezirow in 1978 and has been further expanded upon by Knud Illeris. Mezirow defines TL as learning which transforms the meaning perspectives or frames of reference by which we understand the world, while Illeris proposes that TL also has an impact on identity. A contribution to the pedagogy of TL may be found in the formulation and utilisation of the analytic categories of professional identity, practice, and community of practice, which offer a new approach for researching TL in professional and/or vocational groups.

This study also demonstrates that e-learning programmes can offer opportunities for transformative learning and adds to the call for an appreciation of the potential of e-learning to deliver profound and meaningful learning experiences.

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