Action research and evaluation on line
Session A: Orientation
Areol, action research and evaluation on line, is a 15-week public course offered each semester as a public service by ALARA, The Action Learning Action Research Association Inc. This is the first orientation session.
... in which an overview of the structure and process of the areol program is given, descriptions of the various components are provided, and some of the associated resources are described 1
Most sessions will begin with an initial section indented and marked like this. In the section you will find suggestions for a question which you might think about as you read the material.
This session has two such paragraphs (in addition to this one)...
This material may be more useful for you if you pause and decide what you would like to get out of the overall program. What are your personal goals for this areol program? You can use this session to help you decide how to achieve them
I'd like to treat areol as an action research process as well as an action research program. If you were writing this material, what outcomes would you be trying to achieve? What topics would you address first? How would you address them? -- and, if your answers are different to mine, how will you let me know about it. If you are subscribed to the discussion list, how will you mention this clearly and constructively on the list so that we can do something about it?
This is the first of two orientation files for areol: an on line program of material on action research and evaluation. It is intended to be read before beginning the actual areol sessions. 2 It contains:
and information on
- the design of the program
- the discussion list for the email version of areol
- the learning groups (also for the email version)
- choosing a project
- the archive and other resources, including an archive specifically for the list and another action research archive
- archived resources
- additional reading
- and finally, notes
So, welcome to areol: action research and evaluation on-line.
Areol has been run twice each year since February 1995. The email version is revised each program. This web version tends to be revised less often. Both versions benefited greatly from the comments and suggestions offered by participants in those programs. I thank them for that.
The recent changes have been relatively trivial. There has been some restructuring, and more attention to the orientation, the discussion list and the learning groups. I continue to polish and simplify the language. I've been giving a bit more attention to action research as an emergent methodology: it uses processes which evolve over the course of a study. I have also been trying to make clearer that it is a natural process. It is a more formal and critical version of what good practitioners do to learn from their experience.
My name is Bob Dick. I'm your host for the 14 sessions or so of the program, and the preceding orientation files. If you are also joining the email version you will be able to "meet" some of your colleagues on the program later.
Soon, an overview of the program design. First, though, I expect that some of you would like to know what I think action research is.
There are many varieties. For present purposes I'll assume that action research is a methodology for simultaneous change and research. That is, action research is action and research. To be able to be used in fluid applied settings with change as an intended outcome it must also be flexible and responsive to the situation.
Action research is cyclic (some would prefer to say, a spiral). It has critical reflection as part of each cycle. This is what distinguishes it from the usual work of many practitioners. It is usually (some would say always) participative. It is usually qualitative, partly or wholly, but need not be.
In the early sessions you'll be introduced to a particular version of action research. There are many. You'll be able to access the others, if you wish, through additional reading.
I'll say more in the first content session, after we've taken care of some of the preliminaries.
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Some of you, too, would probably like to know something about me. After all, we're going to spend some time together. A brief biography follows.
In the distant past I've been an electrical apprentice. At different times I've worked in electrical design and personnel management. I've been an industrial psychologist.
For more than a quarter of a century I've been an academic. Most of that time I've used experiential methods to help people learn social consultancy. Most of this was done within a traditional psychology department at a traditional university. That has now ended, though I still maintain an adjunct position at Southern Cross University.
I think my academic colleagues would describe me as non-traditional and often therefore somewhat marginal.
Since the mid 1970s I've run a small consultancy business in community and organisational change and related matters. Much of my recent work has used action learning and action research.
At Southern Cross University I manage arlist-l and armnet-l (electronic action research mailing lists) and areol, maintain and help to edit Action research international (a refereed on-line journal) and supervise or provide guidance on action research and other qualitative theses.
At the University of South Australia I provide occasional advice on action research theses.
I probably should mention that, formally, I'm not well qualified for any of this. My undergraduate and research masters qualifications are in experimental psychology. On balance, I would claim it as an asset that I haven't ever worked at a job I was formally qualified to hold. That helped me to avoid the indoctrination. So far, too, I've resisted encouragement to upgrade my qualifications. I've recently completed an unofficial doctorate for my own learning. You'll find it on the web at
as a series of PDF files.
I should also mention that my natural leadership style is laissez-faire -- I think it's your responsibility to decide what you want from this program. I'm not going to offer the "truth" about action research. I'm going to describe one of my versions of the mechanics. I'll try to do so in ways that illuminate some of the principles and concepts. I leave it to you to decide what you're going to do with it.
A minority of past participants have said that I don't pay enough attention in this program to history or philosophy. It's true I don't give much space to them.
Although I read a reasonably amount of philosophy, very little of it has given me any reason to change my practice. Also, I don't personally think most participants are looking for material on history or philosophy. Fortunately there is a growing action research literature which does discuss philosophy.
For those of you enrolled in the email version of areol there is an academic learning group set up. We can talk philosophy there if enough people wish to do so.
There isn't much about ethics, either. It's not that I think ethics are unimportant. Quite the reverse: too important for me to presume to tell you what you should do.
In my spare time I enjoy the company of my partner of 31 years, Camilla, and from time to time the 17 grandchildren (that we know about). When I'm not reading technical literature I read science fiction.
Now, the areol program itself...
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The design of the program
In many programs what you get out depends on what you put in. I think that's true of areol.
Areol doesn't pretend to be encyclopaedic, or for that matter very academic. Mostly I use one particular variety of action research to illustrate some more general principles. My hope is that you'll use it as an example, and work out your own ideas and processes.
The focus of the program is on action research as action and research. Some sessions will describe how the action component can be strengthened; others will discuss enhancing the research component. Some will talk about how the two can be integrated.
I've assumed that different people will want to use the areol program to achieve different goals. To that end I've designed it as a smorgasbord. There are many offerings. You are invited to put together a combination that suits your goals, style, experience, energy, and time.
I'm still learning how to achieve these outcomes. The present attempt at design goes something like this ...
You can think of areol as a having a tiered structure. The content is addressed in three main ways:
- Most basic are the areol sessions. Taken together, they constitute an introductory course in one form of action research and evaluation. There is also some exploration of the underlying principles, using that particular approach as an example
- The content of the sessions is supplemented by archived files. They expand on the material in the sessions. There are instructions for accessing them below
- Most sessions also contain suggestions for further reading. You can follow these up too if you wish
There are a number of different levels of activity allowed for in the sessions. Most sessions contain:
- The content. Your activity is to read it, and (I hope) to think about it
- A trigger question (on the discussion list) to introduce the theme and suggest a way of thinking about the material you read
- From time to time, a case study or example to illustrate some of the processes and principles
- A thought experiment. You can usually do this without leaving your computer
- An individual activity. Sometimes this involves pencil and paper; sometimes it will invite you to go and do something
- A team activity. This may be done with your learning group, if you have one. Or you may set up some other group (perhaps an ad hoc group) for it.
I think you will also find it very useful to have a project in mind. You can then use it as a sort of "test case" to try out the ideas presented in areol.
More on each of these later.
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There are different ways of getting involved in areol:
- You can read the material (sessions, archived files, and references to choose from)
- You can in addition take part in the discussion on the discussion list. (I regard this as an important part of the email program. I also realise that keeping up with the reading will be as much involvement as some of you will be able to manage. I'll try to encourage discussion; but the level of your involvement is your choice)
- If you are doing the email version you may have joined one of the learning groups. These have the aim of helping you to apply the material to your own interests and projects
- I try to practise action research in my own work as educator, facilitator or consultant. This includes areol. For those of you following the email program there will be an evaluation at the end of the current program, and perhaps midstream. The results of this can be discussed on the list. (If areol subscribers wish to do other research on the list and its discussions, that too may be possible.)
Beyond all this there is no limit to what you might do yourself. Some people have set up face-to-face learning groups amongst their colleagues. Some have passed on the areol material to others at the same site, in some instances having discussions with them about the material. I imagine you have some ideas of your own.
Now, the components in more detail. Most of these apply only to the email version, and are included for information (and because some email participants prefer to read the web version) ...
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At the heart of the email program are two email mailing lists. 3 One carries an email version of the text that you are reading now. You can read it, but not write to it. The other functions as a discussion list.
You will be given information on emailing to the discussion list if you subscribe to the email version of the program. 4
I expect the discussion list to consider both the content of the sessions on the reading list, and the way this electronic course operates. You can think of it as an electronic tutorial which also monitors the program as a whole.
It gives you a chance to question anything ambiguous or unclear in the areol sessions. It allows you to provide examples and references additional to those in the sessions. You can use it to express views contrary to those I hold (and I hope you will). You can offer suggestions about the process.
I will often post a trigger question on the discussion list when an areol session is mailed. This is just to help maintain the discussion. Many of the participants in previous programs have been disappointed that the discussion list was less active than they would have preferred.
I hope that you won't confine your discussion list contributions to the topic of the trigger question. The email version attracts diverse and substantial experience and talent. It would be a pity not to make use of it.
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I'll keep this short. There are more detailed descriptions in the next file, which you can ignore if it's not relevant. I'm mentioning the learning groups here so that those of you not on one of them will understand the otherwise esoteric mentions of them.
The discussion list (described above) is for questions about the material. As I said, it's to help you clarify the material, challenge it, or add to it. The learning groups, on the other hand, are to allow more specialised dialogue between people with similar interests.
Above all, the learning groups give their members a forum where they can help each other to apply the material to their own work and projects.
(You may hear them referred to as "learning sets" from time to time. This is because they operate in a way consistent with action learning. "Set" is the terminology often applied to a learning group in action learning projects. You may also hear the term "pod" from some of the Southern Cross University subscribers, who use this term.)
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Choosing a project
There is a simple and effective way of checking the usefulness of the program materials and your understanding of them. Have a project. When you read of any process or principle, ask yourself how you can make use of it in your project.
Often, you may be able to try out processes in practice. When this is not feasible, you can at least imagine yourself using them. Any step you cannot imagine in detail, you probably don't yet understand. This may well be because I haven't explained it clearly, or because I've left something out.
If you subscribe to the discussion list you can take your questions and comments to it. (If you're too shy for that, you can refer them to me.)
If there is some project which is a high priority for you at the moment, it may be the best areol project. For example, if you are using action research for a thesis, that may be a good choice. (One of the early sessions will touch on the use of action research as thesis research, and refer you to archived resources.)
Lacking such a project, you may choose something you could undertake (or imagine) as part of your work or in your family and social life. Here are some of the features which you may want to take into account:
- the project is going to be easier to manage if you can maintain some control over it
- your own practice, for example as a professional or technical worker, may provide a very good vehicle for applying the processes and ideas presented here
- a small and simple project can be more effective for the purposes of this workshop series than a large or complex one; if it is large or complex, there may be some piece of it you can concentrate on
- it is most likely to suit the use of action research if it involves some change you and/or others wish to introduce.
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The archive and other resources
There are a number of archives. They contain materials to supplement the areol sessions, as well as other materials on action research. One of them contains an archive for arlist-l (another action research mailing list -- many of you are already subscribers).
(To subscribe to arlist-l, you send the messagesubscribe ARLIST-L Firstname Lastname (eg. subscribe ARLIST-L Joan Baez) to firstname.lastname@example.org
from your usual email account. Subscribe to armnet-l in the same way, substituting the appropriate listname. Of course, substitute your real name for "Joan Baez". You're welcome to join arlist-l and armnet-l; but there may be enough reading on areol to keep you occupied.)
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Action research archive
We will also make use of resource documents to provide additional information. In this web version there will be links direct to the relevant files from each session. You can also find the index to the resource files athttp://www.aral.com.au/areol/
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Here are some other relevant introductory resources (I've included URLs for people who have this as hard copy rather than a web page):
- A partial FAQ (frequently asked questions file) at
- A beginners' guide to action research at
- A brief description of some of the similarities and differences between action learning and action research, at
- An action learning bibliography at
- Action research: action and research at
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For introductory reading on action research and related approaches I suggest any of the following:
- Greenwood, Davydd, and Levin, Morten (1998) Introduction to action research: social research for social change. Thousand Oaks, Ca.: Sage.
- Kemmis, Stephen, and McTaggart, Robin, eds. (1988) The action research planner, third edition. Victoria: Deakin University.
- Reason, Peter, ed. (1988) Human inquiry in action: developments in new paradigm research. Newbury Park: Sage.
- Stringer, Ernest T. (1996) Action research: a handbook for practitioners. Thousand Oaks: Sage.
If you are more experienced, or you wish to gain an impression of the breadth of current action research, Peter Reason and Hilary Bradbury have edited a recent handbook of action research:
- Reason, Peter, and Bradbury, Hilary, eds. (2001) Handbook of action research: participative inquiry and practice. London: Sage.
For some recent papers on action learning, many of them practical, see:
- Pedler, Mike, ed. (1991) Action learning in practice, 2nd edition. Aldershot, Hants.: Gower.
Krystyna Weinstein has written a very practical and readable account of action learning, based on her experience with a variety of action learning groups (usually called "learning sets"):
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- Thanks to all who contributed to this program, including participants in earlier areol programs. Special thanks to those who took part in the evaluation of each program, to those who assisted with the evaluation in various ways, and the learning groups whose discussion was a great help. Thank you, too, to the many friends and colleagues who have helped sharpen my own understanding of action research. I have the good fortune to have some good friends who are also thoughtful and skilled, and interested in action research and its development.
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- Yes, by academic standards these are short lines, short sentences, and short paragraphs. My intention is to make the material more readable on screen. White space is cheap and improves readability. On some screens text isn't easy reading. You may want to save it to a file and print it out. If that isn't much better, you may even read it into a word processor, change the font or font size, and then print it out.
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- Although you are probably reading this on the web, I've chosen email as the primary vehicle for this program. There are two main reasons. First, it provides the widest access: many people have email and low speed modems, and nothing more sophisticated than that, so cannot access the web. Second, there are associated activities which the web version lacks, and the email version offers you more interaction.
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- Yes, it would be nice if responses to the reading list could be redirected automatically to the discussion list. I'm sorry, but the computer people tell me this can't be done without changes that are beyond their resources.
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- URL is "uniform resource locator". This is included for those who use such things. If you don't know what one is, don't worry. You don't need it.
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In this orientation you've been introduced to a number of ways in which you can become more involved through
- the accompanying discussion group, to raise questions and comments
- a learning group, to discuss with a small group of people your use of the material
- the use of a project as a vehicle for learning
- the list archives, providing more detail than the basic session
- the action research archives, or further resources
If you have any difficulties in implementing or accessing any of this, don't hesitate to let me know.
The next session, part 2 of the orientation, offers some suggestions for starting and maintaining effective and satisfying learning groups.
Let's practice action research on areol. What ideas do you have for improving this orientation? What didn't you understand? What examples and resources can you provide from your own experience? What else? If you are subscribed to the email version, send your comments to the discussion list. Otherwise, send them to Bob Dick.
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Copyright (c) Bob Dick 2002. May be copied provided it is not included in material sold at a profit, and this and the following notice are shown
This document may be cited as follows:
Dick, B. (2002) Orientation. Session A of Areol - action research and evaluation on line.
Maintained by Bob Dick; this version11.05w; last minor revision 20140105