Online Action Research Review
Action research is a process in which teachers investigate classroom issues of particular concern, collect information and report on their processes and results. In this project, action research is defined broadly, encompassing approaches referred to as teacher research, classroom research and inquiry-based staff development.
This monograph is intended to serve as a planning guide for adult education practitioners that are considering or have decided to implement an action research/practitioner inquiry project at the state, regional or local level. The Online Action Research (OAR) Project has been unique in that it has explored how to integrate technology into action research projects, using e-mail, the World Wide Web and online databases as vehicles for enhancing project activities.
This short monograph contains lessons learned and resources from the initial Online Action Research OAR Project (1992-93) and from the continuation of the Online Action Research OAR Project as part of the national Pro-Net professional development project (1995-97). The following sections are included:
Overview of the Online Action Research Project
- Description of the Initial OAR Project (1992-93)
- Description of the Pro-Net National OAR Project (1995-97)
Reflections on the Initial OAR Project
Reflections on the Pro-Net National OAR Project
The Role of Technology
- Using E-mail
- Researching on the Internet
- Designing and Using the OAR Database
- The OAR Database on the Web
Overview of the OAR Project
Description of the Initial OAR Project
In 1992-93, CASAS facilitated action research projects conducted by six pairs of teachers in ESL, ABE and GED programs in California. The Online Action Research (OAR) project was one of 36 funded by the National Institute for Literacy (NIFL). The OAR Project used action research to:
- examine the effectiveness of classroom practices in adult ESL, ABE and ASE programs;
- develop and use a variety of assessment strategies;
- provide an alternative form of staff development;
- explore the use of networking technology (e-mail) to facilitate the research process; and
- create and disseminate an online database of language and literacy action research.
Teachers worked in pairs to conduct classroom-centered research and systematically collected and reported research processes and results. CASAS research facilitators provided technical assistance to teachers, including introducing the action research process and providing support to conduct their research, develop assessment strategies, and analyze findings.
Computer-supported collaboration (e-mail) assisted instructors to develop and refine their research by providing for ongoing dialog with research partners from different sites. Through this project, the OAR online database was developed and has continued to serve as a vehicle for collecting and disseminating reports of action research projects to teacher researchers and others interested in adult education.
Description of the Pro-Net National OAR Project
A three-year U.S. Department of Education grant (1995-97) awarded to Pelavin Research Institute in conjunction with CASAS and the Adult Learning Resource Center in Illinois enabled CASAS to continue to serve as a resource for action research projects. CASAS had responsibility for developing a national action research network and database for adult educators.
CASAS responsibilities included:
- assistance to staff developers and practitioners to develop and implement action research projects;
- linkages with resources available to support action research projects, including resources through the Internet and other electronic networks and databases; and
- plans and procedures to involve professional developers and practitioners in contributing to and accessing the action research forum and database.
Two electronic resources were developed as resources for action research coordinators and practitioners:
- A moderated online communication forum was designed to provide a vehicle for information sharing, problem solving and collegial support. This forum focused on the process of conducting action research as well as on research topics of interest to ABE, ASE and ESL staff developers and practitioners. It was accessible through the Pro-Net DIAL-IN system using free software provided by the project. When the DIAL-IN system was phased out in 1997, this forum also ended.
- The OAR Database created under the National Institute for Literacy (NIFL) grant was adapted and expanded for this project. This national online database contains completed as well as in progress reports of action research projects.
The OAR Database was initially housed on the Online Technical Assistance Network (OTAN) Forum based in California, since OTAN was one of the organizations involved in the initial OAR Project. In 1995, it was revised and transplanted to the DIAL-IN system as part of the Pro-Net Project. When the DIAL-IN system was phased out in 1997, the OAR Database was significantly expanded, reformatted and reprogrammed to make it accessible via the worldwide web.
Professional developers and practitioners can use the OAR Database to:
- become familiarized with the action research process before starting their own research projects;
- provide ideas for conducting their own or mentoring other action research projects;
- foster communication among adult education action researchers;
- serve as a resource for research about teaching and training; and
- share their findings with adult educators throughout the U.S.
Reflections on the Pro-Net National OAR Project
During the three-year national OAR Pro-Net Project, CASAS engaged in a variety of activities to expand upon the initial OAR Project and to promote action research as a viable alternative approach to professional development in adult education.
A number of awareness workshops and trainings were presented at national and state conferences. The following selected resources from these workshops were developed to assist others in preparing presentations to introduce action research:
- Questions for Teacher Reflection
This overhead transparency or worksheet introduces teachers to action research.
- Some Benefits of Participation in an OAR Project
This overhead transparency lists some benefits of participating in action research.
- Adult Literacy Practitioners as Researchers
- This ERIC Digest article by Cassie Drennon provides a short overview of practitioner inquiry/action research.
- Action Research Scenarios This is a small group activity to introduce teachers to action research. There are descriptions of the context and the area of concern for two action research projects, with questions about refining the research question and how to document, assess and evaluate the project.
CASAS contacted states, consortia, regional groups and local programs throughout the country to identify who was using the Inquiry/Research Approach in one way or another. Pelavin staff also gathered information about existing Inquiry/Research projects. The results are compiled in the Inquiry/Research Compendium (May 1997) published by Pro-Net.
CASAS offered technical assistance to support the efforts of existing and newly starting action research projects, either to the coordinator or, in some cases, to teacher researchers individually. An information packet was developed in 1995 which was used as a resource by many state and local programs that were starting action research projects. This packet contained start-up forms and guidance for action research facilitators based on CASAS’ experience with the initial OAR Project. (Most of these materials are contained in this monograph.)
An important component of the packet was an introduction to the Inquiry/Research Approach that was developed with the Pelavin Research Institute and was also used as a chapter in the Pro-Net Professional Development Resource Guide for Adult Educators (January 1996).
The following suggestions for facilitating OAR Projects were also in the packet:
- Allow sufficient time for teachers to explore their specific interests and develop research questions that will be meaningful to them. Such activities will assist teachers to reflect on problems, clarify classroom issues and focus their research questions. This can be done by:
- providing relevant journal articles;
- facilitating group discussions;
- using a variety of questioning strategies;
- reviewing the OAR Database
- Encourage networking among teachers as they conduct their action research projects. Suggest that they identify a partner, work in teams, communicate online via e-mail or find other creative ways that permit teachers to share and learn from each other.
- Convey to teachers that action research is a process. They have the flexibility to try something, clarify, or modify it and then try again.
- Keep teachers at the center of their research projects. They need to learn and trust that they are in control of what they want to research, and that nothing will be done “to them” but rather “with them.” Sometimes a research facilitator’s most valuable contribution is as a “listener” and a “reflector,” allowing teachers to share meaningful classroom and research experiences. It is an art to learn to avoid imposing one’s own interests on teachers.
- Suggest that teachers share their research plans with their students and actively involve them in the process.
- Discuss assessment processes, data collection procedures and instruments that will provide documentation of the results of the research projects. Teachers often have an increased interest in assessment as they see its relevance to their own project plans.
- Emphasize the importance of documenting their reflections, insights, and findings. Suggest multiple methods such as keeping a journal or log, or using a more structured method of recording ongoing observations. The OAR Teacher Research Survey can be used as a summary activity to capture their perceptions of conducting action research.
- Encourage teachers to share their findings with their colleagues through informal presentations. OAR participants are also encouraged to submit their projects for inclusion in the OAR Database.
- Provide resources, both fiscal and material, to ensure that teachers have initial and ongoing administrative support to conduct action research:
- Cover online networking costs for teacher researchers
- Provide time for teachers to implement action research projects (Teachers need approximately 3 hours a week above and beyond their classroom assignment from the start of their research projects until completion.)
- Provide access to computers and computer training, as necessary
- Provide release time, travel and per diem for teacher researchers to attend relevant conferences, if possible.
- Assist teachers in recognizing that the action research process is a meaningful method of professional development. Action research is individualized, based on the identified interests and needs of the teacher and provides a legitimate forum for the teacher’s voice to be heard.
- Be prepared to enjoy very meaningful and possibly new professional relationships with teachers as they research what works and attempt to explain why. And expect to be challenged and rewarded in your new role as an action research facilitator.
There are many possible ways to organize and deliver action research projects, including:
- A state level professional development specialist who coordinates several pilot OAR projects throughout the state. Technology training is provided at a central location by the state. Participants communicate via e-mail and also meet in person periodically. (Kansas, Maryland)
- A statewide OAR network with a state level coordinator and 8 teacher researchers located throughout the state. All participants have online access and participate in periodic online group chats to discuss their action research projects. (PA)
- Teacher research that is mandated as part of the state’s professional development plan for adult education practitioners (Virginia)
- A teacher research group that meets on a monthly basis at the coordinator’s house under the umbrella of the state’s professional ESL organization (MATSOL)
- A local community college that takes an action research approach to reviewing and refining their criteria for level completion for ESL program-wide (Mira Costa College, CA)
Regardless of the organization of an OAR project, there are certain considerations that must generally be included in the planning process. Some relevant categories are:
- OAR Project Design
- Use of Technology
- Facilitation and Mentoring
A planning worksheet to assist OAR coordinators was developed. The worksheet, called the “OAR Action Plan,” asks coordinators to identify what is “Currently in Place,” list any “New Objectives,” and brainstorm “Related Challenges” in order to anticipate and try to overcome them.
The Role of Technology
In the design of the initial OAR Project, OAR teacher researchers were encouraged to communicate via e-mail with their partners. They were too geographically distant to meet in person on a regular basis (by design); they could communicate by phone, as needed, and met periodically in person during the project.
The promise of access to computers was the carrot to initially involve many of the teachers. The original plan was to provide them with a laptop computer as a tool to facilitate collaboration and research with their partners. The eventual grant did not provide funds to buy the powerbooks. The participants were very disappointed.
At the technical training, all were eager to learn, even those who had never touched a computer before. Not having powerbooks, which they could have taken back and forth to home and work, made it difficult for them to use the computer and to remember what they had learned when they did use it. In a technology survey completed at the end of the project, OAR participants were asked what was most helpful in learning to use computers. Surprisingly, 41 percent responded that individual practice was most helpful, followed by computer accessibility (24%). Assistance from site managers or staff or from OTAN technology specialists were less important (18% and 5% respectively).
Even though each district tried to help facilitate computer access, the fact that the majority of the participants had access, but not easy access to computers minimized the amount of online communication. If all of the teachers had been able to get online earlier in the project timeline and have easy access to computers there would have been a great deal more communication between and among partners. Those who were online quickly used the training provided, became comfortable with the process and communicated between and among themselves freely. Some of those who experienced long delays never did become comfortable. However, limited access to computers is probably more reflective of the situation most teachers face in adult education generally.
At the beginning of the project, 58 percent (7) of the participants reported that they had little or no experience with computers. At the end of the project, only 2 said they still had little computer experience. Some teachers found computers so useful that they actually bought computers for themselves to use on the project. One program coordinator surprised the OAR teachers in his district by buying laptops for both of them to use for this project.
Teachers have a very lonely journey as they seek to improve their craft and truly meet the needs of their students. Collaborating and sharing is one of the most exciting aspects of this type of research, because the pairs of teachers are able to share their insights, concerns, discoveries, and ideas. Communicating via electronic mail has a great advantage over telephone communication for several reasons. First, the senders can send the message at any time that is convenient, whether or not the receivers are available. The receivers are also able to receive the messages at a time convenient to them. Secondly, senders are able to enclose files. Using this feature, a teacher can send his partner a lesson plan, work sheet or other document for the partner to see.
It was exciting to read some of the communications from the teachers as they were struggling with the process, developing their surveys and assessment instruments, implementing and revising their interventions, sharing their problems, excitement and frustration, and offering suggestions to each other. Their spontaneous comments were in a coaching mode, supporting each others’ efforts and sharing personal anecdotes.
In the course of the project, we also grew in our use of electronic networking to communicate with teachers and other administrative project staff. It has now become second nature to all of us, including those who initially had limited computer literacy. We made special efforts to communicate via e-mail whenever possible, and learned how to do things that we didn’t know before, such as sending group messages. This often took more time, but it was important to us to follow through in the spirit of this project, with its focus on technology. In the end, it proved to be the most efficient way to ensure that everyone was always kept informed, and we became more confident in its and our own capabilities.
Researching on the Internet
The Internet has become a plentiful and efficient resource for conducting research. It is inexpensive and doesn’t require traveling to a library, or sending away and waiting for information to arrive. As part of this project, a one-page guide to some of the most useful resources for researching online was compiled.
Designing and Using the OAR Database
The design of the online database involved all participants in discussions of the kinds of data that could be collected, who might access the database, necessary versus “nice to know” information, and best ways to collect and input data. Running through every discussion was the idea of how to maximize dissemination of the OAR experience and stay within the fiscal parameters. There was consensus that quality was an overriding consideration.
Even though we had participated in the design of the database and had provided the majority of its contents, we were not prepared for the reality of seeing it online and interacting with it. It was incredible–we were delighted and thrilled. We had never completely conceptualized the project online. Our experiences with projects and grants have all resulted in a printed final report, which is rarely disseminated or read. Instead, OAR has become one of those intriguing icons on the computer screen that an interested person can access, investigate, and request more information about. OAR won’t get lost on someone's bookshelf.
The OAR Database on the Web
The OAR Database was redesigned in 1997 to be accessible on the World Wide Web at the CASAS website (www.casas.org). The new version has a flexible and powerful search capacity. User-friendly searches can be done by topic, state, author, and research setting, which includes the type of class (ESL, ABE, etc.), the level, and the research setting (e.g., classroom, workplace, library, etc.). A Full Search screen enables searches on all of the variables in the database, and key word searches are also built in to the program.
Existing and new Inquiry/Research Projects throughout the country were informed of the existence of the national OAR Database, as well as the opportunity to contribute to the national OAR Database as a way of “getting published.” The following information and forms for submitting action research reports to the OAR Database were disseminated widely:
- Call for Reports on Action Research
Describes how to submit action research reports to the OAR Database
- OAR Participant Information Form
Collects relevant personal information about teacher researchers for inclusion in the OAR Database
- OAR Reporting Form
Outlines seven steps in the action research process, and provides the format for submitting a project summary to the OAR Database.
- OAR Class Demographics Form
A form that may be used to collect basic demographic information about a class as part of an OAR project.
Selected OAR Projects Conducted During the Pro-Net Project
The OAR Database contains reports of inquiry/research projects that are of interest to adult educators in a variety of program settings. The following selected examples of research topics illustrate the scope of the database reports:
- Effective methods to teach ESL to beginning level adult Hispanic students
- Predicting students who are likely to show regression on post test
- Psycholinguistic validity of experiential methodology in the whole language, entry level adult ESL classroom
- Effective methods for teaching math concepts to students who lack abstraction skills
- Using learner-generated text as instructional material in the classroom
- The impact of computer training: Increasing computer literacy in tutors and students
- Developing curriculum and instructional materials to support a parent education course: Families learning English together
- Internet in the ESL classroom: A Comparison study of textbook-based and computer-based classrooms
- Developing and implementing a workplace communication skills program at a small firm (60 employees)
- Effects of staff development in adult basic education programs
OAR Project Lessons Learned: Some Challenges and Solutions
Hesitance to try a new approach
“Many adult educators are hesitant to try a new approach to professional development, especially if it involves “research,” which is perceived as particularly difficult.”
There are now enough adult education programs that have successfully implemented OAR projects to serve as examples of how it can be done, and how enthusiastic most participants become once they try it. The OAR Database also serves as a useful model of completed action research reports, many of which are reported in an informal tone. This helps to allay the fears of practitioners who believe they can not be successful researchers.
Part-time hourly staff
“Most adult education practitioners are part-time hourly, not full-time. They are unwilling to make a professional commitment to do action research.”
Teachers are often willing to go the extra mile with a small carrot. Offering training and access to computers can provide an incentive to involve reluctant teachers. Also, the excitement generated by teachers meeting in groups or in pairs to discuss concerns and solutions about their own teaching ignites additional interest.
A related strategy is to offer stipends or contracts with teachers for participation, which may not be more expensive than sending them to one conference, or paying for attendance at several one-day inservice sessions. A contract to conduct action research allows teachers to reflect about their teaching over time, and to be active participants in the process, as opposed to participating, often passively, in a one-time experience at conferences or inservice sessions. It is important, from the outset, to clearly specify teachers’ responsibilities to complete their contract.
Too busy with other projects
“Adult education practitioners and coordinators who want to try action research are already too busy with other projects.”
In some cases, it was possible to suggest that action research could be effectively integrated into an existing or newly starting project at a state or local program level. This is a way of reducing the sense of burden of taking on yet another project, while improving the quality of a project that has to be done, as well as trying a new approach to professional development.
Integrating technology is too difficult
“Integrating technology requires special expertise, training and equipment.”
Many adult education programs are lagging far behind other educational providers in their use of technology. OAR provides a way to integrate relevant content and try out an innovative approach to professional development (action research) with learning a new skill (computer literacy). Some teachers find OAR to be doubly challenging because they have to tackle both learning how to use technology and learning how to become action researchers. Most teachers, however, are eager to learn to use or improve their use of technology, and welcome an immediate application of their new computer literacy skills.
Requires commitment and planning
“Coordinating action research is a long-term project that requires commitment and time to implement.”
It is true that coordinating action research may take additional planning time. However, if the bottom line for an adult education program is improving student learning, and if teacher performance is a key factor in achieving this, then providing teachers with an opportunity to reflect and improve on their own teaching in an individualized, systematic way is a worthwhile investment to increase program quality and build teachers’ sense of professionalism and morale.