Meet a Geographer — Undertaking research

Dr Elizabeth Hartnell-Young

Research Fellow, Learning Sciences Research Institute (LSRI,
The University of Nottingham, UK

Elizabeth Hartnell-Young

I am a researcher and writer with an interest in technologies for learning. I explore new and disruptive technologies, such as ways of using mobile phones, GPS, RFID (radio frequency identification) and eportfolios in schools, and the results of my work are used to develop education policy in the United Kingdom.

Best aspects of my job

The best things about my job is working with people as they try out new forms of communicating and new ways of working, looking for patterns and surprises, and influencing policy directions at a large scale. I try to capture and understand people’s experiences, through observations, surveys, conversations, blogs and images. I have met and observed people in computer game parlours, shopping centres, remote indigenous communities and schools. I recently won an award from the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation to travel to Osaka where I interviewed Japanese university students.

Prior studies

At school I had a great Geography teacher who challenged me to do well, so I went on to Monash University and became a Geography teacher myself.  Studying the patterns of interaction between people and places was always my favourite, and I enjoyed mapping all sorts of spatial relationships, networks and nodes. I also studied several languages, which have been really helpful in my travels.

Career pathway

Researching the ways that people use mobile phones seemed a natural progression.For a Masters degree, I mapped the spread of new ideas in an organisation. Researching the ways that people use mobile phones seemed a natural progression. For my PhD I researched how people used computer technologies in Victorian schools, and then worked as a researcher in Information Systems and later in Education at The University of Melbourne. I chose my current position so I could work with leaders in mobile learning in the UK and Europe.

I like to keep on the move, either physically or virtually, in my everyday life, and in this job I travel frequently to collect data and to present papers at conferences. I enjoy writing, from proposals for funding, academic papers, online publications and educational newsletters to the travel articles I write in my spare time.

Future career opportunities

There are plenty of opportunities for technologies to improve education and training and to bridge the ‘digital divide’ on a global scale. Cheap laptop schemes aims to create communication networks across developing countries through the devices themselves. In Africa, mobile phones are used extensively for learning as there is limited landline infrastructure. I recently helped organise a conference in Melbourne to demonstrate work being done in Australia and internationally with handheld devices, GPS, RFID and barcode technologies.

Advice to people considering this type of career

To be a researcher … you need to have a curious mind, a good understanding of what’s already been researched in your field, lots of patience and the skills to plan projects, write reports and share your results with others.Throughout my career, I have appreciated the terrific grounding that geography gave me, including appreciation of local community, global understanding, strong spatial sense, environmental awareness, curiosity and observation skills, which all come into my daily work in one way or another.

To be a researcher, either in a university, government department or a private company, you need to have a curious mind, a good understanding of what’s already been researched in your field, lots of patience (especially to get financial support) and the skills to plan projects, write reports and share your results with others. You can start with small projects in undergraduate years, go on to Honours or postgraduate research and then a PhD, which is designed as a research training degree. If you like the challenge of creating something new and making a difference in the world, it’s well worth it.