In Chapter two the literature that pertains to this research was discussed to provide along with Chapter one the context for this research.
In this Chapter the methodology that was used in this research is outlined.
3.1 Action Research
action research was coined in the
The purpose of action research in organizational settings is to develop and discover aspects of the system’s operation which can lead to improvement and change (Cunningham, 1993). Elliot (1991) states that the “...fundamental aim of action research is to improve practice rather than to produce knowledge”. However, Lewin (1946) clearly indicated that action research can be used to simultaneously achieve advances in theory and needed social change. Action research therefore allows the exploration in two dimensions, that is to say theory and practice. It explores this intimate relationship between theory and practice, where the theory influences the practice and the practice changes the theory.
Chein, Cook and Jarding (1948), working under Lewin’s guidance, outlined four varieties of action research:
- Diagnostic action research: the goal is to diagnose a problem in need of change, and to seek and find cures which are feasible
- Participant action research: the participants are actively involved in the research
- Empirical action research: the goal is to use recurring experiences to gradually develop generally valid principles
- Experimental action research: a variety of techniques in identical situations are studied in a controlled way to determine their relative effectiveness.
The action research process typically occurs as a spiral of sequential research cycles. This process was initially defined by Lewin (1946) and further developed by others including Carr and Kemmis (1986) and Zuber- Skerrit (1992).
The spiral nature of action research is due to each cycle of the research building onto the previous one. In action research, the maturation of the research is typically evident in clearer goals within each progressing cycle. In this study the spiral effect led to more heuristics in regard to managing the implementation of the virtual class infrastructure in conventional tertiary education being discovered in each cycle – these are summarised in chapter 8. At the same time, as this research progressed, more characteristics of virtual class management emerged, which were consolidated into a new educational management paradigm for the virtual class called networked educational management (Chapter 9).
In this cyclical process it might be that even the problem, variables, hypotheses, and methods may undergo modification as interim results are validated or invalidated (Clark: 1976).
typically four interrelated steps or elements within each cycle that do not
necessarily occur sequentially, but can be a continuous process as the four
elements (plan, observe, act and reflect) may occur in parallel.
The action research centered on the implementation of the virtual class at Wellington Polytechnic as the primary case study.
3.2 Rationale for Using Action Research
Action research seems appropriate for this research, as it caters well for dynamic change, provides research outcomes that have a high degree of relevance, is pragmatic, and can address complexity of systems well. These aspects are described below.
The context and domain of the virtual class is a dynamic one as described in Chapters 1 and 2. It is based on the emergence of a global information or knowledge society and is, for instance, reflected in the exponential growth of the Internet, which is one of the central technologies in networked education. For Cunningham (1993) the traditional approaches in scientific research “...do not seem to recognize the dynamic nature of organizational problems.”
degree of relevance to current issues in conventional tertiary education was
pursued in this research as it sought to identify what the key management
issues are of implementing the virtual class in conventional tertiary education
In Chapter 1 of this study a real-life problem has been identified in terms of the research construct to discover what the key management issues are when implementing the virtual class in conventional tertiary education, and in terms of the two research questions "How does one manage the implementation of the virtual class infrastructure in conventional tertiary education?" and "How does one manage the operations of the virtual class?"
The interplay between conventional tertiary institutes and the virtual class is a complex and open real-life system owing to the presence of a large number of factors and management issues (as illustrated in Chapters 8 and 9) in which cause and effect are not necessarily closely linked. This relates to the notion in chaos theory that one interaction may have a domino effect of interactions, which leads to unexpected synergies that disturb the normal cause-effect relationship. Adding to this complexity is the notion in this research (discussed in Chapter 1) that a conventional tertiary educational institute and its management processes can be viewed as having a fractal dimension, that is to say management processes of the institute, administrative departments, academic departments, the design and development of the teaching materials, the actual delivery of the teaching materials that is the "class", and the students’ management of their own learning. Action research can, as Cunningham (1993) argues, address this level of complexity through its holistic disposition since organizational problems are best understood by understanding the relationship of various activities as they interact.
Cunningham (1993) argues that while each operationalization of a construct and perspective of a researcher provides certain biases, each method, perspective and operation has a degree of truth associated with it so that an action science would not rely solely on standards of internal and external validity.
research process within Wellington Polytechnic therefore has a specific degree
of truth associated with it, but these truths had to be evaluated, compared
with, validated and further developed in relation to similar developments in
other conventional tertiary institutes in
The primary case is the implementation of the virtual class in the Wellington Polytechnic, New Zealand, and aimed at meeting the criteria of an “...exemplary case study” (Bridgeman, 1998:42) by being significant, complete, considering alternative perspectives, displaying sufficient evidence, taking into account feedback from those involved, and composed in an engaging manner.
3.3.2 Improvement of practice
Cunningham (1993) also insists that, in responding to organizational problems, good research is determined by the degree to which the results are used in improving organizational practices. He maintains that unless the results of action research positively contribute to practice, it cannot be said that the action research has been valid. The implementation of the virtual class at Wellington Polytechnic as illustrated within the four action research cycles indicates that this study has contributed to research and teaching at Wellington Polytechnic. At the end of the research period, however, a critical mass of those involved in networked education has not yet been reached.
3.3.3 Internal validity
Internal validity in general relates to the use of an experimental group and control group to establish correct causal relationships. This is extremely difficult, if not impossible, in real-life organizational change; Cunningham (1993) highlights this when he points out that variables are generally defined, interrelated, ambiguous and hence an experimental condition once introduced, changes the field setting even if that condition is withdrawn.
research therefore acknowledges the complexity of reality by allowing the
research to progress within a series
of cycles. This allows the research to mature while it is possible that the
problem, variables, hypotheses, and methods may undergo modification as interim
results are validated or invalidated (
Action research acknowledges the reality of a complex relationship between cause and effect by having the element of “reflection” in each action research cycle to reflect on what emerged in a specific cycle, which then stimulates the “planning” element of the next cycle.
3.3.4 External validity
validity refers to the degree to which the findings may be generalised when
extended to other actions and settings (
external validity of this exploratory research, which is based on a central,
primary case study, is inevitably lower than would have been the case if a
large number of in-depth case studies on management of the operations of the
virtual class and its implementation within conventional tertiary education in
There are possibilities of generalising the primary case study of implementing the virtual class in a conventional tertiary educational institute in New Zealand to other conventional tertiary educational institutes (universities, polytechnics and colleges of education) in New Zealand, that is to say to approximately 40 tertiary education institutes which can be defined as conventional according to the definition given in Chapter one. This possibility is based on a number of factors described below.
organisational structure and focus of the polytechnics are essentially the same
since the specific focus and structure
of Polytechnics in
The 25 polytechnics in
Furthermore, in “A Guide to tertiary education in New Zealand” (1997, June) the Ministry of Education states that "the distinctions between New Zealand universities and polytechnics are diminishing” for although “...most polytechnics continue to provide traditional trade and basic vocational courses, an increasing number of professional courses offered at degree level is reducing the distinction between the respective roles of polytechnics and universities.”
This guide (Ministry of Education, 1997 June) furthermore indicates that
A central feature of the reforms, as they affect tertiary institutions, has been the introduction of common systems of governance, funding, accountability, and reporting. This included a consistent and coherent funding system for all universities, polytechnics, colleges of education, and wananga.
Association of Polytechnics in
the generic name for the tertiary education sector that comprises the 25
polytechnics and institutes of technology in
Polytechnics and institutes of technology deliver technical, vocational and professional education. They offer programmes at all levels - community interest courses, certificates, diplomas, degrees and some post-graduate opportunities. Some also deliver the first one or two years of selected university degree programmes.
Wellington Polytechnic however does not offer community programmes, but degrees and diplomas only.
second generalisation may be possible: to apply the research findings from
conventional tertiary education in
potential generalisation is based on a few factors, the first of which is the
development of the
openness and internationalisation of tertiary education in
The first of these major
factors is the internationalisation of the
The goal of preparing school
leavers for this new environment is a challenge for the tertiary education
system. Nevertheless, the system is well-advanced down a path of
internationalisation. The internationalisation of the
internationalisation of tertiary education is also illustrated by its
participation in and hosting of international conferences. An example of this
participation occurred at the first world congress of colleges and polytechnics
that was held in May 1999 in
factor contributing to the possible generalisation of research findings on
conventional tertiary education in
factor contributing to the potential generalisation of research findings on
conventional tertiary education in
Finally, interim research findings have been examined and commented on by the research community after the presentation and publication of papers nationally and internationally (Uys, 1997a June, 1997b June, 1997a October, 1998, 1998 April, 1998 June, 1999, 1999 January). The feedback obtained suggests in a qualitative sense that there is a degree of generalisability between the findings of this research and conventional tertiary educational institutes elsewhere with a similar profile to that of Wellington Polytechnic.
Reliability of research in the traditional scientific paradigm has to do with the degree of comparability between outcomes when an event is repeated under similar conditions.
In action research that deals with complex real-life organizational change, this is highly improbable if not impossible to achieve since a field setting changes irreversibly once an experimental condition is introduced and cannot be restored by the removal of the condition (Cunningham, 1993). This means that as action research progresses through its cycles of plan, act, observe and reflect, each cycle has different conditions not only because of the “action” element of the previous cycle, but also because of the open and dynamic nature of organisations that respond to other external and internal prompts.
identified heuristics in regard to managing the implementation of the virtual
class infrastructure in conventional tertiary education as well as
characteristics of virtual class management are compared to similar projects in
3.4 Research Execution
Lewin (1946) said that action research can be used to simultaneously achieve advances in theory and needed social change. This goal is pursued in this study by the implementation of the virtual class infrastructure within Wellington Polytechnic, of which the Wellington Polytechnic On-line Campus (1998, June) formed the centrepiece. At the same time the theoretical aspects of management within the virtual class are being explored.
specific type of action research used in this study would be termed “diagnostic
action research” since management within conventional tertiary education in
The leadership and sometimes singular actions of the author in introducing this change within Wellington Polytechnic have also aligned this study more with “diagnostic action research” than with “participant action research” – the former being strongly advocated for use in the educational sphere (Kemmis and McTaggart, 1988; Zuber- Skerrit, 1992; Elliot, 1991). The author was the project manager for implementing the virtual class infrastructure at Wellington Polytechnic during the research period. The research analysis and synthesis presented in this study is the independent work of the author. Seashore (1976) claims that within the action researcher’s role in organizational life advocacy is inevitable since the action researcher’s services are often sought precisely because of the trust that the client or sponsor places in what the action researcher will advocate and how single-mindedly that we be implemented.
However, this does not imply that this research was done in isolation. Members of the HYDI team (see Chapter four) that worked with the author to develop networked education at Wellington Polytechnic were involved in each of the action research elements of planning, acting, observing and reflecting. This related more to the operational matters of the HYDI project than to the research analysis and decisions, which were predominantly that of the writer. The collaborative reflecting of the team was mostly done on an informal basis although some formal evaluation sessions were held (Appendix 16). The team used electronic mail extensively and also had regular team meetings (often weekly or fortnightly) to discuss progress and plan further action.
The research started in July 1995 and was carried out over a three-and-a-half-year period. The following cycles were analysed.
Cycle 1 - Towards the virtual class
July 1995 - December 1995
Cycle one represents the first steps towards implementing the virtual class infrastructure at Wellington Polytechnic. The overall objective for this action research cycle was to manage the implementation of the virtual class infrastructure so that the feasibility of the vision of networked education at Wellington Polytechnic could be tested.
It was the start at Wellington Polytechnic of the hypermedia (HYDI) project during which the Wellington Polytechnic Website was developed as a pilot project. Cycle one is described in Chapter four.
Cycle 2 – First networked course
January - December 1996
The overall objective for this action research cycle was to manage the implementation of the virtual class infrastructure at Wellington Polytechnic from the preliminary pilot stage to the infrastructure required by the institute to offer networked education.
In cycle 2 the Wellington Polytechnic On-line campus was created and the first networked course offered as a free sampler course. The hypermedia project became an established but still experimental project after the completion of the pilot project in 1995. Cycle 2 is described in Chapter 5.
Cycle 3 - First commercial networked courses
January 1997 - December 1997
The overall objective for this action research cycle was to manage the implementation of the virtual class infrastructure at Wellington Polytechnic to the stage where networked education could be offered commercially.
The first commercial networked courses were developed and the hypermedia (called HYDI) project became the HYDI Educational New Media Centre. A few students did participate in one of the commercial networked courses in an experimental way when it was offered as an alternative to the traditional on-campus version. Roles and responsibilities in the centre became more formalised and the virtual class infrastructure became part of the organisational processes of the Wellington Polytechnic in a non-experimental albeit small way. Cycle 3 is described in Chapter 6.
Cycle 4 - Networked education in operation
January - December 1998
In this final action research cycle the overall objective was to assess the effectiveness of the virtual class infrastructure and to extend this virtual class, where necessary, to support commercial networked education.
Networked education went into operation as students enrolled for the courses. Additional commercial networked courses were also developed in other academic areas. Cycle 4 is described in Chapter 7.
Figure 3.1 Action research process