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Action Research Considerations

In document 1.1 The Focus of this Research (Page 97-101)

4.2 Theoretical Considerations

4.2.3 Action Research Considerations

By combining the generation of knowledge with the desire to improve social activity, action research is concerned with ―working towards a resolution of the impetus for action with the reflective process of inquiry and knowledge generation, to generate new practices‖ (Somekh & Zeichner, 2009, p. 18). The ―call for action‖ (Lincoln &

Guba, 2000, p. 174) advocates a movement away from simply understanding and interpreting the social world towards action – it is not enough just to describe, the researcher must act as well.

Adopting an action research framework was a consideration for this study. Indeed, acknowledging the Marxist roots of activity theory, it could be argued that using activity theory in research inherently entails a commitment to social action. Jensen (1999, p. 97) observes that ―philosophical activity was, for Marx, to reflect critically upon the concepts and theories being used in practice and at the same time to take part in practices in order to attempt to overcome limitations and contradictions in practice.‖ More forcefully, Wertsch, del Rio, and Alvarez (1995, p. 29) argue that

―sociocultural studies should be involved in changing and not just examining human action and the cultural, institutional, and historical settings in which it occurs.‖ Their uncompromising stance challenges us to define what ―using‖ activity theory for social research actually means. Is it consistent to use activity theory as a descriptive tool and ignore an obligation to directly transform social practice?

There are compelling reasons to position this study within an action research framework and use the findings to transform local teaching and learning practices. It may seem curious that this was not an explicit objective of the study. This research meets the criteria of a ―basic interpretative qualitative study‖ as defined by (Merriam, 2002, p. 6) because attention is directed toward how individuals attribute meaning to situations and/or phenomenon; the researcher acts as the primary research instrument;

an inductive approach is employed; and a descriptive outcome is realised. In justifying this decision to describe rather than transform, it is argued that we must first understand a learning context before we can transform it. Thus, this study positions itself as contributing to understanding so that later research (conducted by the researcher or others) can build on these findings to improve eLearning practice.

However, upon reflection, this issue is more complex than it appears and is shaped by factors relating to the teaching and learning contexts under study, institutional factors, and the personal history of the researcher. The following discussion unpacks this complexity.

First, in terms of the local teaching and learning context, particular factors thwarted a transformational agenda. In Case Studies One and Three, the findings were shared with the lead teachers; however, at the conclusion of the papers, both teachers accepted different positions within the institution and were no longer responsible for the learning activity. Thus, the opportunity to continue to work with the teachers and apply insights gained from the research evaporated. The only tangible possibility of transformation occurred in Case Study Two as the same teacher did conduct the same paper (and learning activity) during the following semester. However, while the findings were shared with her on several occasions and vigorous discussion had ensued, they did not appear to result in much change in her pedagogy. It appeared that migrating the paper to a new virtual platform which occurred between the first

paper in Semester A and the repeat of the paper in Semester B had occupied much of her attention, and the teacher was unable or unwilling to consider changing the learning activity based on the findings. Clearly, action research involves a time commitment from the researcher and teacher which may extend over several semesters/terms or even over several years. It also assumes that the same teacher will have the same course over a period of time and that she will have the time and energy to devote to her learning activity. In addition, it assumes that the researcher will be committed to an extended period of data collection; however, this may not be an attractive proposition for a doctoral student. The main point being argued is that a transformative agenda assumes that opportunities for transformation will be present within the research site.

Second, in relation to broader institutional factors, there appears to be an acceptance in academic institutional settings that research does not necessarily have to affect the social world beyond academia and that ―the bulk of university-based social research has a decidedly antipraxis orientation built deeply into the current structure of the academic social sciences‖ (Greenwood & Levin, 2000, p. 86). While conceding that some social scientists do succeed in merging practice with theory, Greenwood and Levin (2000) argue that much academic activity is inwardly directed towards conversations with colleagues in specific disciplines rather than outwardly directed towards the social world. Thus, the products of doctoral research activity (for example, theses, conference presentations, and publications) can be encapsulated objects, consumed by the academic community, but not the general community. In contrast, outwardly directed research pursuing social change can create a product which can be consumed by the wider society. These distinctions are undoubtedly simplistic; however, they implicate wider issues pertaining to the role of the university in society.

Finally, in relation to my personal situation as a researcher, I lacked an historical connection with the learning contexts and the teachers involved. Having just met the teachers, I did not feel in a position to pursue a transformative agenda. It was challenging enough to obtain access to the few papers that met the criteria for the study and I was present simply through the goodwill of the teachers. I was allowed access to the papers on the understanding that I would be exploring rather than helping to transform teaching and learning experiences. Also, I was acutely aware that a transformational agenda could place an extra workload on teachers as they considered the findings, and reflected upon and modified their pedagogy. It seems that for action research to proceed there has to be some level of trust and rapport between researcher and teacher – which I lacked. Thus, the initial intent of the study leaned towards description rather than transformation. However, as I established rapport with the teachers, possibilities for transformation began to emerge as the inquiry progressed. At times, teacher-researcher interviews became a source of mutual exchange of information as I sought information from the teacher, and the teacher sought my opinion about the design and implementation of the learning activity. My role oscillated between researcher and teacher-resource, and the study started to take on characteristics of action research. Admittedly, this situation only endured for the length of the paper/course (approximately five months) in all three case studies, but nonetheless, dialogue did occur between teacher and researcher about opportunities to improve the learning activity.

It is interesting to reflect upon how a study not positioned within an action research framework evolved into a form of informal action research through ongoing relationships between the researcher and teachers. Sustained social interaction facilitated the development of rapport and trust which allowed our interviews to become a site for generating understanding but also improving teaching and learning practice. In addition, my experiences caution against simplistic and potentially premature views of transformation which may measure it in direct and immediate

terms. Human activity is complex and transformation may not occur immediately but can percolate in the teacher‘s mind for some time before action (if any) is taken.

Research findings may be digested, rejected, revisited and, over time, lead to a transformation in teaching practice in subtle or more significant ways. For example, in terms of Case Study Two, it is possible that when less busy, the teacher will have time and motivation to reflect upon the task design and pedagogical outcomes. While a transformational agenda has not been explicitly built into this research design, characteristics of action research have emerged from dialogue between researcher and teacher, and it is possible that changes in the teachers‘ perspectives may occur in subtle or indirect ways over time.

In summary, ontological and epistemological underpinnings of qualitative methodologies have been considered in order to lay the groundwork for the following section where the selection of a theoretical framework for this study will be discussed and justified. In addition, considerations pertaining to action research have been discussed, revealing the complexity and emergent nature of this study.

In document 1.1 The Focus of this Research (Page 97-101)