Educational Technology & Society 4 (3) 2001
ISSN 1436-4522

Teaching Action Research on the Web

Ian Hughes
School of Behavioural & Community Health
The University of Sydney
PO Box 170, Lidcombe NSW 1825, Australia
Tel: +61 2 9351 9582
Fax: +61 2 9351 9540
I.Hughes@cchs.usyd.edu.au

 

ABSTRACT

Action Research On Web is a teaching program and a set of web-based resources, which is the subject of a long‑term action research project. This report of educational research includes a description of the Action Research On Web learning system, a report of long-term action research from 1995 to 2000, and discussion of the use of Internet technology for participatory approaches to learning and educational research.

Action research has been used to solve problems associated with curriculum design, forming and supporting learning sets and problems associated with the introduction of new modes of learning into a traditional University. Students from widely differing formed virtual learning sets to facilitate learning through projects.

Keywords: Action research, Web-based education, Learning community, WWW


Action Research On Web (AROW) is a long‑term action research project to develop knowledge, skills and resources for action research and related activities. The project runs at a World Wide Web site (http://www.cchs.usyd.edu.au/arow). This site offers open access to resources for the international action research community. The site hosts:

  • A long term action research project,
  • A one‑semester courses in action research,
  • Related courses and learning modules,
  • On‑line resources including a journal, and
  • Support for action research and related projects.

 

This paper reports findings of the first five years (1996 to 2000) of a long‑term action research project. This continuing action research project has the twin goals of developing on‑line learning resources, and contributing to the theory and practice of Internet technology for action learning and research.

This continuing action research project asks: ‘What are the optimum conditions for web supported learning of action research?’ Staff and students have used action research to develop curricula, build electronic learning resources, and to practice modes of interaction for optimising learning outcomes. We have used action research to solve problems associated with curriculum design, forming and supporting learning sets, providing web based learning resources, and problems associated with introducing new modes of learning into a traditional University.

The sociology of virtual community has seen a decade of debate in which the question of whether virtual communities are ‘real’ has been replaced with descriptions and explorations of on-line community activity (Baym 1995; Benedikt 1991; Jones 1995; Rheingold 1993). This debate applied to education theory and learning communities poses the question of how to generate on-line learning communities (Hiltz 1990; Kim 2000; Porter 1997). The AROW project contributes to this debate by attempting to create on-line learning communities and virtual learning sets, and reporting the findings of this action research.

 

Context & Significance

The Internet has transformed global communication. Web technology is proliferating in education and research, University teachers are making increasing use of Web based learning and Internet communication systems, both as the main mode of instruction and in conjunction with other media Hiltz, 1994 #12; Hiltz, 1995 #5; Hiltz, 1990 #31. In 1998 the TeleCampus Online Course Database listed more than 10,000 on-line courses without a residency requirement (McGreal 1998 16), and at the beginning of 2001 Globewide Network Academy listed nearly 24,000 distance education courses world wide were using the Internet (GNA, 2000). It has been predicted that by 2005, 40% of students in English language Universities will learn through the World Wide Web, and by 2020 this will be the usual way for adults to learn. We no longer ask whether computer mediated learning can be as effective as other teaching‑learning strategies (Khalili and Shashaani 1994), but whether there is any alternative for education in the future.

Professional development involves an attitude to life and to work that is responsible, creative and proactive. This is more than acquiring knowledge and skills. It involves personal growth, and the ability to harness this into effective action (McGill and Beaty 1995: 14). Student and teachers achieve this through collaboration

The AROW Web site first appeared in 1995. Initially supporting a one‑semester course in action research for credit in graduate courses. The Action Research Electronic Reader was added in 1996, as an edited collection of original papers. In1997 the action research course was made available for international professional development students. From 1998, administrative changes and financial imperatives made new demands to utilise AROW to improve the effectiveness of teaching and research. The teaching web was redesigned. Some associated project webs were added to the site, to support research. On‑line enrolment was enabled for 1999. In collaboration with the Mid‑Western Area Health Service of NSW Health, an action research course was offered to rural health professionals in workplace learning sets. In 2000, Offshore Learning Sets were inaugurated in Singapore, in collaboration with Management Learning And Action Research Pte Ltd, a Singapore organisation whose core business is action research and workplace learning. An electronic journal, Action Research e‑Reports, was published on the site in 2000 and, in the same year, resources for community action research were added. A one-semester course in planning and evaluation, and a number of related professional development modules will be developed during 2001. The growth of the site has been organic, and reflects action learning processes. Discussion in this article is mainly around the one-semester action research course available for professional development or graduate course credit.

The AROW web site (http://www.cchs.usyd.edu.au/arow) is the centre of operations. The home page gives access to: course information and on‑line enrolment for prospective students; study guides, communication tools and links to readings and other on‑line resources. The site also accommodates the Action Research Electronic Reader Action, Research e-Reports, as well as a guide to community action research.

The site is designed to be accessible by students with old browsers, slow modems or unreliable phone lines (which affect students from rural Australia as well as developing countries). There is no pre‑arranged route through the web site. Students structure their learning around learning projects, going to readings and other information as needed. Redundant hyperlinks encourage students to navigate without pre‑defined pathways.

Apart from the usual problems in teaching any subject, the main ongoing problems worked on in this project have been associated with designing the most appropriate way to use Internet technology to meet the specific demands of this subject area.

Action research is a way of designing and conducting research projects distinguished from other research approaches by its dual objectives of solving practical problems and contributing to new knowledge. Action research is neither research for action, nor action for research. It is research‑and‑action in a single process (Dick 2000; Hughes 1997). Many action research projects are participatory. People who may he affected by the outcomes of research are involved in decision‑making. Participatory action research projects typically work through cycles of action and reflection to produce knowledge with action for change in the same process. Most action researchers would agree with Argyris and his colleagues that the crucial characteristics of action research are: a collaborative process between researcher and actors in a social situation; a process of critical inquiry.' a focus on social practice; and a deliberate process of reflective learning (Argyris et al. 1985).

During the early years of the site the central problem was to devise ways of learning and teaching that are consistent with the principles and practices of action research. A key element was to generate a participatory style of learning that is consistent with the principles of participatory action research (see, for example, Carr and Kemmis 1986; Greenwood and Levin 1998; McGill and Beaty 1995). The requirement for a community of scholars, or a dialogue space for students of action research is central to the functioning of AROW.

Staff and students use AROW e‑mail lists for announcements, messages and discussion. Students receive e‑mail from the course coordinator each week. These remind them of weekly learning tasks, pose discussion questions about readings, and encourage discussion. They provide sequence, reduce the sense of isolation and remind students of deadlines. Students are organised into learning sets, with five to ten participants. An e‑mail list is set up for each virtual learning set. This is used for reflective discussion and project work, as well as informal chat.

Students taking Action Research on the web have included postgraduate Health Science students, professionals sponsored by their employers and individuals seeking professional development and research education. Whether they are on campus or from the other side of the world, they access course materials and readings from the Web site, participate in virtual learning sets and on‑line discussion, and, submit assignments by e‑mail.

Students work on individual or team learning projects designed to increase their understanding of action research, These learning projects may contribute directly to improved professional practice, workplace change or development of new knowledge.

Reg Revans (1982) invented action learning as a way to improve work practices and learn through reflection on action (Pedler 1991; Weinstein 1995). Action learning and action research are related forms of action inquiry (Tripp 1996), so action learning is an ideal way to learn action research. The action learning cycle is similar to the action research cycle, so students benefit from their experience of participating in action learning projects when formal research experience is not available for logistical or ethical reasons.

 

Method

Peter Checkland drew attention to a critical difference between natural science and social phenomena. He credits Geoffrey Vickers with pointing out that while Copernicus and Ptolemy offered different theories about the basic structure of the solar system, the solar system itself is entirely unaffected by our theories about it. However, when Marx propounded a theory of history, the social system and its history was changed (Checkland 1991). Social research is complex because human beings act in relation to observers in ways that change the phenomena being investigated. This feedback has profound implications for research into many aspects of human activity. This paper reports an action research project to inquire into teaching and learning action research using the Internet, and the research project changed the phenomena under study. The action research framework that assumes that social systems change, that one source of change is action taken by people in the situation (whether they are researchers, subjects, participants, or others), and that we can learn by observing the outcomes of action. In action research the research design can change as the project progresses.

The AROW course materials, following Kemmis and McTaggart (1988) describe Action research projects as proceeding through cycles, each with four phases labelled 'plan, act, observe and reflect'. The long‑term action research project proceeded through annual cycles summarised in Table 1, which also shows the communication medium used for teaming set meetings in each year that sets were active. An action research cycle was used to manage AROW during each active year. A planning phase occurred before the academic year (which starts in February in Australia). The 'action' phase was the learning during semesters, while staff and students were active facilitating and learning. Participants observed this process, and observation records generated included archived e‑mail discussion, and grades. Assessment items were not included as research data. While reflection was encouraged throughout the action‑learning phase, a reflection phase commenced with student evaluation of their learning experience at the end of semester, and review by staff prior to the planning phase of the next cycle. This annual cycle occurred in the context of long-term action research cycles. The long-term cycles shown in Table 1 were not planned from the start of the AROW project, but can be discerned by reflection. Two years of planning and development preceded the first web-based course in 1996. No students enrolled in 1998 for administrative reasons, providing an opportunity for reflection and direction setting.

 

Year

Cycle

Learning Set Meetings

1994

Cycle 1: Planning

None

1995

Cycle 2: Development

Face‑to‑face

1996

Cycle 3: Action

E‑mail

1997

Cycle 4: Action

E‑mail

1998

Cycle 5: Reflection

None

1999

Cycle 6 Action

E‑mail & workshops

2000

Cycle 7: Action

E‑mail & face‑to‑face

Table 1. Long-term action research cycles

 

Action research principles inform the management and development of AROW. The web site itself is a project to extend knowledge and improve practice. Students are invited to participate in the Action Research Electronic Reader as a work in progress, Their learning project may result in a paper which will be useful to students and practitioners of action research, or which extends knowledge relevant to action research. Student papers of an appropriate standard may be published in Action Research E‑Reports. These resources are cited by the international action research community and are used as a learning resource by several universities.

From 1995 until the first semester in 1999, each student purchased a prescribed textbook. By the second half of 1999 there were enough on‑line sources to use readings on the AROW Web site as the primary source, and complement these with readings available on other Web sites. The context of on‑line learning resources is changing rapidly, and the balance between various sources of information requires constant monitoring.

The AROW web site and University library provide access students to on‑line journals, library resources, search tools, journals in print and library holdings, and through indexes, to downloadable journal articles. But access to information is not learning. The AROW learning system contains several essential elements.Each student designs a learning project around his or her individual learning needs and opportunities. Three assignments and four action learning cycles structure the learning process. The three assignments are:

  1. A proposal for a learning project,
  2. Reflection and discussion and e‑mail communication in virtual or face‑to‑face learning sets, and
  3. A final 'paper' designed for electronic publication.

 

Learning project work including work on assignments, structured learning activities regular e‑mail discussion, and face‑to‑face learning set meetings are organised into four action learning cycles. Each cycle has phases of planning, acting, observing and reflecting, as summarised in Table 2.

 

Week

Cycle/Phase

Learning project work

 

Cycle 1

 

1

Reflect

Reflect on personal learning goals

2

Plan

Draft plan for learning project

 

Act

Circulate draft learning plan to learning set

3

Observe

Read draft plans from self & learning set members

 

Cycle 2

 

4

Reflect

Comment on own & set members draft plans

5

Plan

Revised plan for learning project

6

Act

Circulate revised learning plan to learning set

7

Observe

Read revised plans from self & set members

 

Cycle3

 

8

Reflect

Comment on own & set members learning plans

9

Plan

Plan presentation of work in progress

10

Act

Present work in progress to learning set

11

Observe

Read works in progress

 

Cycle 4

 

12

Reflect

Reflect    Comment on work in progress

13

Plan

Plan final report

14

Act

Write and submit final report

15

Observe

(not implemented)

16

Reflect   

Receive feedback and evaluate learning

Table 2. Action learning cycles

 

Each participant writes a draft plan for a learning project. and circulates it to members of his or her learning set. Each member of the learning set comments on another members draft plan, guided by stated criteria. Academic staff also provide feedback. Participants then consider feedback, revise their plans and submit them for assessment. A structured format for peer and self‑assessment is combined with assessment by academic staff. The Unit of Study Coordinator approves the plan for an action learning project for the remainder of the semester.

Students are required to engage in reflective dialogue through the semester. A reading available from the Web is prescribed for each week. Students post comments on their reading to a threaded discussion on the web. Students also contribute to e‑mail discussion lists belonging to their learning sets. In some weeks this involves structured activities, and in others reflective discussion of their learning projects. An informal, friendly and supportive tone is encouraged in learning set e‑mail lists.

Boud and Walker (1993: 21) point to three key factors in reflecting on experience. In the first the learner recalls the experience in a descriptive way, without judgement or evaluation. In the second he or she attends to feelings that arise, and works with obstructive feelings so that reflection can take place constructively. Supportive feelings are fostered to assist the process. The third factor is the reevaluation in which learners link this experience with elements from their past experience (association), integrate this new experience with existing learning (integration), test it in some way (validation), and make it their own (appropriation). In AROW, e‑mail is both a means of reflection, and a record of these processes.

Students write a final paper in the form of an electronic publication, which they believe will be of value to students and others engaged in action research, or a final paper in another format agreed to in their learning plan. At the end of the course each student submits a final paper for assessment. Because of the short time between submission date and examiners meetings it is not feasible to ask for peer assessment of these papers, but I am considering an electronic seminar in which final papers could be displayed to students for feedback and comment. The use of a template to standardise format will assist this process.

 

Achievements

Action Research On Web has attracted participants from several countries. Evaluation through student surveys has been positive, and students have demonstrated high levels of achievement. During 1995, as the curriculum was under development, enrolments were kept below five. In 1996, five students enrolled. This doubled to ten in 1997. AROW was not offered in 1998 for administrative reasons. Twenty‑six students enrolled in 1999, and eighteen in 2000. Of 66 students, roughly 75% are female. About 60% of students live in Australia, divided equally between Sydney and rural NSW. Nearly 20% of students five in Singapore, and the rest come from Canada, Finland, India, New Zealand, South Africa and U.S.A (Illinois and Pennsylvania).

Continuing professional education accounts for about one‑third of enrolments. There have been three PhD students, 32 Master of Health Science and four Bachelor of Health Science (Honours) students enrolled at The University of Sydney, and a few seeking course credit at Universities in Australia, USA and Canada. Two students were academic staff of the University of Sydney, and 6 were staff of other universities in Australia, Finland, South Africa, and USA.

Student's results are shown in Table 3. A 'satisfactory participation' result is recorded for continuing education students who actively contribute to reflective discussion through the course, but who do not submit a final paper for assessment. The proportion of 'distinction' and `high distinction' results (44%) reflects the high number of final papers that, with some revision or minor changes, could be submitted to a professional or academic publication.

 

Result

No.

%

Fail

5

7.6

Satisfactory

14

21.2

Pass

5

7.6

Credit

13

19.7

Distinction

18

27.3

High Distinction

11

16.7

Not finalised

0

0.0

TOTAL

66

100.0

Table 3. Results

 

Eleven student papers were published in the Action Research e-Reports. One of these, The History of Action Research by Janet Masters, (1994) has been re‑published in four other collections of readings, and several are cited in academic publications. Three students have published final papers elsewhere.

The heart of action learning is the learning set. Many people have adapted Reg Revan's (1982) original idea, so that today there is a range of related approaches called learning circles, learning sets or by other names. Students are organised into learning sets with fewer than ten members. Action Research On Web has supported four patterns of learning set:

  1. Learning sets met regularly in face‑to‑face meetings during 1995. Some members also used other modes of communication (telephone, e‑mail etc) for project work and for informal interaction between meetings.
  2. Virtual learning sets, whose members meet through e‑mail communication, operated in 1996 and 1997. Some members, or sub‑groups, may or may not used other modes of communication (telephone, face‑to‑face etc) for project work or informal interaction between meetings, but the learning set as a whole did meet face‑to‑face.
  3. In 1999 virtual learning sets ran through the semester. Participants in employer‑sponsored met together in two workshops during the course.
  4. In 2000 two learning sets met face‑to-face on organised facilitated meetings once each month, and continued learning set activity by e‑mail between these meetings. Some members and sub‑sets also used other modes of communication (telephone, e‑mail face‑to‑face) for project work and informal interaction between meetings.

 

Whatever the pattern of meeting, AROW learning sets have the same important functions. A learning set is a facilitated learning support group. The facilitator encourages members of the learning set to generate a cooperative, mutually helpful support system. While each student's learning project provides a primary focus of attention, the tone of interaction is friendly and personal. Members of each learning set are encouraged to get to know each other as people, to make appropriate personal disclosure, and provide emotional support. From time to time members meet for coffee, or to share meals. Established friendships may be brought into a learning set. Some members have made friendships that outlived the learning set.

Each learning set is also an exchange for learning and resources. Members are encouraged to share knowledge and resources. Some of this activity is organised in the learning cycle, and some occurs informally during learning set (face‑to‑face or virtual) meetings. The advantages of small group learning have been widely reported. AROW learning sets combine key advantages of small group learning with the advantages of decentralised delivery through the World Wide Web. This can overcome the risk of loneliness and isolation that may be experience by remote students or students enrolled in other web based courses.

Learning sets empower students to become independent learners. The facilitator's function is not to teach, but to encourage, enable and empower learning. In AROW virtual learning sets:

  • The primary mode of communication is e‑mail Some members may not use any other mode of communication (for example, if they are the only student located in an overseas country or Australian town). Other members may interact face‑to‑face, by telephone or other media, for project work or social interaction.
  • Each learning set has an on‑line facilitator (usually the Unit of Study Coordinator).
  • The University provides an e‑mail list for each learning set. Each member, the facilitator and the subject coordinator can post e‑mail to a fist address, and automatically receive all mail posted to the list.
  • The subject coordinator sends e‑mail to the list each week during semester. This message is friendly in tone, and includes reminders about learning tasks for the coming week, information and answers to questions raised by students during the preceding week, suggested discussion topics, and sometimes relevant announcements and news. These messages are not usually in the form of 'lessons' for the week, although some didactic material may be included. Hyperlinks to on‑line learning resources relevant to the week's learning tasks are included.
  • Each week each student contributes to learning set e‑mail discussion, following the action learning cycle summarised in Table 2. Students post their own plans and work in progress to the fist, comment on each other's work, and reflect on their learning. Learning set e‑mail lists are used to share information about learning resources, and to share discoveries and insights.
  • In addition to formal and organised responses to set learning tasks, students are encouraged to use the learning set e‑mail list for informal discussion, to provide mutual support, and as a chat forum. This mutual support and informal chat is important in developing learning sets as self‑facilitating.

 

Two or more participants may decide undertake a team project. Each team is a subset of a learning set. Project teams work together on learning projects that are submitted as joint assignments. Each member of a team remains responsible for his or her learning, and is expected to participate in learning set e‑mail discussion.

 

Discussion

Digitised lectures and interactive games, are replacing face‑to‑face teaching. The World Wide Web and decreasing costs of digital communication, make it possible distribute information and learning content quickly and cheaply throughout the world. We can provide the information a local or offshore learner requires over the World Wide Web, but the process of facilitated learning in AROW has deepened our understanding that learning is more than information retrieval, and always happens locally, in the place where the learner is.

Educators we know many advantages of small group learning. The World Wide Web can provide new opportunities for local small group learning. Students do not learn in Cyberspace or on the World Wide Web. We have no virtual students. Students are real people, in real places, who sit in front of computers for only part of their lives. To talk of virtual classrooms, as if students exist in Cyberspace, is a misconception. Therefore, we have learned to constantly bear in mind the varied real‑life situations of students, and their learning experiences.

Students have different access to off‑line learning resources in their workplaces, Universities, and home communities. They also use different search techniques, have different interests, and so gain access to different on‑line resources. The design of the Web site, as well as the way it presents the learning project, reflects awareness of a wide range of individual differences between students and their environments.

The AROW web site is not a virtual classroom. We think of a virtual classroom as an online learning environment that 'should not he much different from a real classroom or training room' (Porter 1997: 24). That is, a virtual classroom is a place in cyberspace in which people learn. But from the beginning, AROW has supported action learning from workplace or community based projects. Students using the AROW web site learn in real workplaces or real communities. AROW participants do not learn on‑line, but they use online resources and communication tools to learn in the real workplaces and communities.

Students in learning sets become learning resources for each other. Set members communicate with each other by e‑mail on a weekly basis, and may meet face‑to‑face between two and four times during the semester. Learning sets become self-facilitating, with members supporting each other to complete their individual learning projects. The Unit Coordinator or a learning set adviser encourages participation, stimulates discussion, and encourages members to facilitate each other's learning.

The combination of action research and action learning, with international discussion between members of facilitated learning sets, supporting each others learning across national and ethnic boundaries is a powerful tool to increase international understanding, renewal and reconciliation.

AROW is a unique opportunity for international and cross‑disciplinary cooperation. Students have provided mutual support to projects in education in South Africa; youth work in Canada; nursing in Sydney; theological education in USA; Physiotherapy practice in rural NSW; and aged care in Singapore.

These findings can contribute to debate on learning and the Internet This long-term action research project has aimed to discover optimum conditions for web supported learning of action research. The developed on‑line resources for action learning of action research, and contributed to theory and practice knowledge of using internet technology for participatory action learning. The AROW project contributes to debate about learning communities, and poses the question of how to generate on-line learning communities

Action Research On Web is a unique semester long Unit of Study combining project based action learning with computer mediated communication. The Internet is used as a dynamic communication medium to maximise interaction among students and with staff. While there are difficulties, AROW can claim notable success in challenging and supporting students to achieve notable learning outcomes.

 

Acknowledgments

I wish to thank all who have contributed to the development of Action Research On Web, especially AROW students, MaLAR, our collaborative partner in Singapore; and my colleagues Bob Dick and Shankar Sankaran of Southern Cross University, and of course, colleagues at The University of Sydney.

 

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