Action research and fuzzy research

As part of any undergraduate action research planning or learning negotiation, the work-based learners on the BA Learning Technology Research, are asked to consider the ethical issues of their intentions. More often this is simple and straightforward, the different value systems of research and employing organisation, are harmonized. In reality this means balancing the learners research plans, with university expectations and with standards within the work-place. Where alignment is not immediately possible, redesign of research is called for. This is a practical approach to ethics in work-based learning.

When considering the ethical dimensions of action research it may be difficult to define where practice ends and where research begins. The blurring of practice and research is a key strength of the methodology, but for the purpose of ensuring ethics are attended to, it presents dilemmas.

For example, here it is difficult to say conclusively which parts of this research must be subject to research standards and which fall under the domain of practice: For his action research project a teaching practitioner creates a change to his practice to improve his teaching methods. But, he maintains that the change would have been made, with or without formally applying action research methods to evaluate that change. He collects interview data from the pupils about the sessions, as well as using observation and student evaluation data (which would have been collected despite of the research).

If the evaluation data were to be collected anyway, must it conform to the HEI’s ethical framework? Or should the HEI research standard (assuming it may be different, though not assuming superiority) only be applied to additional activity, over and above anything that would not occur in normal practice?

And what of the action itself: If the action taken is natural to practice it would be in keeping with the native value structure of the organisation … do the ethics of university research then subsume an organisation’s regular practices and so demand new standards be applied to the action, or, does action research respect existing organisational norms and only act on elements which are additional to ‘normal’ practice?

And why does any of this matter? Ultimately research ethics are in place to protect both the researcher and the researched, it is necessary for all parties in this tri-party learning arrangement to understand and accept their responsibilities. Action research is unlike other forms of research since it overlaps, by definition, with practice, and because of this it requires it’s own ethical protocols.

Evolving ILP’s

Back in 2006 I undertook some research in to approaches to developing autonomy in HE. Today as I began to look at the Independent Learning Plans of new learners, I recognised that the use of ILPs had evolved in two key ways on the BA LTR. 

We have offered our learners a greater freedom in how they create an ILP. Whilst a text-based approach is modelled by the provision of a template, learners are actively encouraged to utilise a planning format that complements their preference. For example, some choose a chart others a list, others a diagram. This freedom is in itself an, albeit minor, increase in autonomy designed to allow the ILP to become a living document suited to the learners style. 


The ILP now runs over a whole term. It covers two modules instead of a single module. This allows learners to better plan their time, seeing their entire semester at once creates an honest picture of the course demands and possibilities therein, it helps then to eradicate the rush in the second module since it has been as visible from the beginning. The semester long plan also allows the learner to build up a links or cognitive maps of related ideas, so the modules can feed in to each other. For example, in the BA LTR the second module involves some evaluating and exploring of technology. To ease the workload and to maximise the experiences to inform this second module, a culture of technological experimentation has been generated within the first module.