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Action Research as a key to stimulating Innovation and Professional Development in ILT
by John Webber


The challenge

The project was designed to address the following challenges:

  1. A growing awareness that, on their own, Information and Learning Technology (ILT) training workshops fail to secure a sustained impact on teaching practice. A new strategy for promoting innovation and development was needed.
  2. Even amongst many of the innovators, early adopters and aspirational teams, ILT development appeared to have reached a plateau. Progress appeared to be more imitative than innovative.
  3. It was proving increasingly difficult to keep pace with the rapidly emerging opportunities offered by new developments in technology.
  4. There was a need to enhance the degree of reflective evaluation of new technology.

The opportunity

Last spring the Learning and Skills Improvement Service (LSIS) invited bids for funding for short term ILT action research projects. We proposed a project to test whether a model which we had developed to promote formative assessment could be adapted to meet the challenge identified above.

The model

The core of the approach was moving from training-centred model of Continuing Professional Development (CPD) to an enhanced version of Action Research, as contrasted in Figure 1. 

Traditional training vs. the Sussex Downs model of action research

Figure 1: Traditional training vs. the Sussex Downs model of action research

Key aspects of the Sussex Downs approach to CPD through action research are:

  1. The starting point is the particular need or aspiration of individual staff or staff teams. The ‘need’ might be identified in response to changes in curriculum, the character of student cohorts taught or issues raised in feedback from lesson observations. However the starting point might equally be inspired by an individual’s creative thinking about an emerging technology or about how a familiar technology could be used in a new way to meet a learning need.
  2. The exploratory phase is supported by a trained mentor who can both provide ideas drawn from their own experience and their knowledge of others or simply use a coaching approach to elicit ideas.
  3. Any learning needed can be achieved by many routes, formal workshop-style training being just one of these. The mentor can play a key role here either through sharing her/his own skills and experience or knowledge of other exemplars.
  4. Collaborative working with a peer, who is engaged in a similar exploration/development within their own teaching, is designed to encourage creative thinking and reflection at several stages in the cycle. In an earlier project these learning conversations were highly valued by participants.
  5. Reflective evaluation is informed by observations of student response, evidence of learning, and feedback from students or colleagues.
  6. The cyclical design is emphasised toencourage repeated experimentation and development that builds on learning fromprevious cycles. This can transform initial ‘failure’ into a stimulus to further development.

The process

A small team of ILT mentors were selected using criteria that included:

  1. Their effectiveness as teachers
  2. Evidence of innovative uses of ILT in their practice
  3. Personal qualities appropriate to supporting others via mentoring and/or coaching

Funding was provided to allow typically an hour a week remission for each mentor.  They were introduced to the action research model and the ideas behind it. They were also trained to work with a simple model of coaching developed by one of our most experienced Subject Learning Coaches. The development of ILT skills amongst the mentors was predominantly achieved through ‘Skills Swap’ workshops where each mentor contributed examples of their own uses of ILT. This process proved very effective in stimulating further experimentation and development by the mentors themselves. This knowledge of each other’s particular skills and experience proved very useful at the later stage of assigning mentors to teams.

Mentors, in consultation with managers, contacted teams in their area of the College to introduce them to the opportunity to become involved in the project. Ideas pooled during the skills swap were presented as options but teams were also encouraged to propose ideas that the mentor team had not considered. This happened on several occasions. 

Interested teams, with the support of a mentor, put their ideas into a simple project proposal form. This required teams to identify the intended impact on learning as much as the technology they proposed to use to address this. The proposals were reviewed by a group of mentors chaired by the project manager. An inclusive process of selection was adopted to support as wide a range of teams and technical developments as possible. In essence, if proposals were judged achievable, affordable (each team was allocated up to £200 to cover minor equipment or software costs) and sufficiently innovative, at least from the perspective of the team concerned, they were accepted. Mentors were then allocated to support projects on the basis of their own particular interests and expertise. With the support of their assigned mentors, teams completed a more detailed project definition identifying in more detail the intended benefits and planning how these would be evaluated. They also identified at least two people in each team who would be active participants.

Mentors provided ongoing support on occasions throughout the project via face-to-face meetings or online, responding to requests or checking in if they had not heard from the team for some time. This light-touch responsive attention helped teams overcome obstacles and sustain momentum against a background of competing pressures.

Observations and evaluation

The invitation stimulated a wide range of project proposals. Each represented a significant development for the teams of staff involved. Examples included:

  • using audio recorders to explore the concept of ‘voice’ in poetry;
  • putting video cameras in the hands of students to enhance their self and peer assessment;
  • extending and enriching an area’s use of the college Virtual Learning Environment (VLE);
  • building a Ning social network site (SNS) to facilitate student collaboration on an enrichment programme;
  • using Facebook to engage students in online debate;
  • using Camstudio to record animations and voice over of worked answers;
  • using a ‘Mimio’ to enhance and animate graphical whiteboard work in Maths, allow students to manipulate word order in language learning, and capture brainstorming sessions in humanities.

Observations by mentors during the trials also reveal something of the benefit compared to conventional approaches. The level of ongoing engagement and experimentation was sustained to a much higher degree than typically occurs after training and/or the introduction of new technology. Previously it has been common to discover that technology supplied in response to a request from a team ended up languishing in a cupboard. This did not occur in any of the projects reported here. The periodic attention of a mentor, the mutual commitment to share progress with a colleague and the inherent momentum of the action research cycle all appeared to be contributors to this success.

In their evaluations many staff wrote about this with enthusiasm:

  • The best bit was meeting with our enthusiastic mentor and my colleague to discuss fresh ways of approaching something in the classroom. It was really stimulating and refreshing.”
  • “The project promoted a collegial and reflective approach to professional development that had immediate practical implications... I think this is a very positive approach to CPD.” 
  • “It was really good spending time thinking about how I could enhance my teaching and the students’ learning. It stimulated me to reflect on what’s going on in my own classes and gave me the ability to create something to meet these challenges.”

Staff also valued the flexibility and responsiveness inherent in the approach:

  • “The best bit was finding how this approach to development is manageable within our heavy workloads.”
  •  “The mentoring system allows just the right amount of support. We felt we had the help just when we needed it.”

Asked whether they would recommend the approach to others and whether they would like to participate in further projects of this nature, all participants said yes to both:

  • Yes and yes. The best way to learn is by doing and the peer support is relevant and helpful.”
  • “Yes, definitely. All the staff were involved. It was great team building.”

The impact of the technology

Final evaluations of the impact of the technology were also remarkably positive and specific about the benefits to learning. Below is a small representative sample of comments received:

  • “Using this technology both improved the delivery and made the learning more hands on. It enabled the learners to have a brief demonstration, ask questions and then take action. The learners retained the knowledge from week to week which freed up time to allow us to go into greater detail than we have been able to previously.”
  •  “The pocket video cameras are brilliant because when an opportunity to demonstrate a particular skill comes up (say a client who wants a particular cut which isn’t often requested) you can just hand the camera to a student and they can record what you do. It means everyone can get to see the process in close up and review it later. Previously if a student was absent or busy with another client at the time, they would have just missed the opportunity which might not come up again for the rest of the year.”
  • “I definitely plan to continue to use this technology. The project has brought a new dimension to students’ learning by helping them recognise their own strengths and weaknesses.”

A risk with a project approach to innovation and development is that it will not be sustained after the project has finished. In practice it appears that in many instances a threshold has been crossed which has led to these technologies become part of normal practice:

  • “This approach has now become an integral part of every lesson I teach.”
  • “I was delighted by the students’ enthusiasm in using the technology. They have been more imaginative about the ways they could use them than we had ever planned. I now carry one [a pocket video camera] with me to every lesson.”

Conclusion

We believe that the project has not only been a success in itself but has confirmed the power of the approach. It has had a large impact in return for a relatively small investment of staff time and equipment. It has stimulated a dramatic increase in innovative development in the use of ILT across a wide range of provision from Maths and English to Carpentry and Catering. It has produced a range of exemplars and established a network of enthusiasts who are keen to share what they have learned with other staff. New project proposals are coming in apace.

John Webber
Professional Learning and
Development Manager
Sussex Downs College

john.webber@sussexdowns.ac.uk

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