I've been thinking further about my possible involvement in the next Learning Event (LE) for web 2.0 as a moderator and my concerns about how this would effect the validity of my research, and in particular the comments from Laura in response to my posting - many thanks Laura for your valuable input. I went back to my notes on Action Research and realised that this is precisely what I have been practising so far and that my participation in the future activity, as a researcher, is not only allowed, it is actually required as an integral part of the methodology.
Action Research involves researchers working together with practitioners to use the results to implement change. Rather then having external 'experts' observing the practice of 'subjects', often associated with a scientific of positivist approach, the two collaborate together as equals in process of change (Cohen et al, 2000). Action research is often used in local projects of a social nature, for example for research involving teaching practice and professional development (Denscombe, 2007). The advantage of Action Research is that you get an insiders view, that is holistic and covers the whole social context rather than the view of a detached outsider. However, it is only Action Research if is is collaborative, often through 'self-critical communities of people participating and collaborating in all phases of the research process' (Cohen et al, 2000, p.300). But does this imply that all 200 teachers in the LE need to have a say in how we design and carry out the event? Luckily Cohen et al also state that 'The view of action research as solely a group activity, however, might be too restricting' (p.301) and they indicate that it can involve a small group or even a single teacher in a 'teacher-researcher-teacher' movement.
I have been working closely with the domain expert for the event, Tiina, and our collective thinking has led to a proposal for the next LE that, I believe, benefits from our collaboration and offers something with which we both can feel comfortable. Involving the teachers themselves during the event in an ongoing reflection and discourse on what they think of the LE is also compatible with an Action Research based approach. Furthermore, the researcher may have a legitimate role as facilitator in the process, as a 'guide, formulator and summariser of knowledge, raiser of issues' (Cohen et al, 2000, p.301), 'a resource to be drawn upon as and when the practitioner sees fit' (Denscombe, 2007, p.127).
There are some drawbacks of this approach and the researcher needs to go to great pains to avoid biasing the research - this involves reflexivity, when the researcher has to be open about her/his own feelings and ensures that the overall project remains democratic, with symmetry of power and respect for each other as equals.
Action Research usually involves cycles or spirals of plan, act, observe, reflect, with several iterations of experimentation. In practice, this is often limited and in my case I will have gone through two iterations, using the first LE to observe, analyse and propose changes and the second LE to try out the ideas.
From my reading of Action Research I've picked up some useful ideas. I must keep a diary of what happens and I should continue to be open about what I am thinking (through this blog perhaps). I would like to encourage Tiina to keep her own diary and to be my critical friend throughout the process. Instead of keeping the research aims in the background, we should be open about what we are doing and why we are doing it, seeking the opinion of the participants as an ongoing process of reflection. This could be usefully done within the staff room. I suggest collect data from as many sources as I can practicably manage, always ensuring informed consent from the participants and the right to with draw from the research.
If all goes well, I should have enough data to analyse what happened and to write a case study - the typical output of Action Research (Gray, 2004). Whether the results will be generalisable or too context specific is debatable (Cohen et al, 2000), however it will be a useful research exercise that should contribute to understanding more about learning communities.
Cohen, L., Manion, L. & Morrison, K. (2000) Research Methods in Education, Routledge.
Denscombe, M. (2007) The Good Research Guide: For Small-scale Social Research Projects, Open University Press.
Gray, D. E. (2004) Doing research in the real world, London, SAGE Publications Ltd.
About my research
My research was set in the context of the European Commission’s eTwinning initiative and it looked specifically at the use of eTwinning Learning Events (non-formal learning). It examined how the community influences the development of teachers’ competence in online collaboration and discourse, and it considered the contribution of social aspects and online moderation.
I am very grateful to my supervisor, Dr. Julie-Ann Sime from Lancaster University, and to my eTwinning soulmate, Tiina Sarisalmi, for their invaluable support. And to my examiners, Prof. Marilyn Leask from the University of Bedfordshire and Dr. Don Passey from the University of Lancaster, for their valuable advice.