Learning >= Rate of Change: How action research helps bridge the gap

By Jim Turner

As learning technologists, we are at the forefront of a rapidly changing educational landscape. New technologies, pedagogical approaches, and learner expectations seem to evolve at an ever-increasing pace. How can we not only keep up, but lead innovation and effectively tackle the complex challenges we face? Action learning offers a compelling solution. 

In a recent ELESIG webinar presented by Becky Quew-Jones highlighted a key principle: our rate of learning must be greater than or equal to the rate of change in order for us to maintain a sense of control and agency. For learning technologists grappling with the educational impacts of phenomena like AI, the rate of change is clearly leaving or sense of learning far behind. Action research could provide a structured way to confront through a methodology called ‘action learning’ that by bringing together diverse practitioners to investigate issues (action learning sets), question each other, share knowledge, take action, and reflect on the results. 

The basics 

Some key benefits of action learning for learning technologists include: 

  • Collaborative problem-solving – Action learning sets harness the diverse perspectives and experiences of participants to deeply explore challenges and uncover new solutions. For complex, people-centered issues without clear answers, this collaborative approach is far more effective than tackling them alone. 
  • Accountability for action – Rather than endlessly discussing problems, action research demands real action between meetings to move toward solutions. Reporting back to supportive peers creates positive accountability. 
  • Psychological safety to accelerate learning – Action learning sets provide a safe environment to openly share struggles and quickly develop new knowledge/skills. Honest dialogue and questioning fast-tracks the learning process. 
  • Links to research and practice – The cycles of action and reflection at the heart of action learning parallel the scientific method. It can serve as a systematic research methodology and also bridge research and practice by field testing new approaches. 

As learning technologists, we could employ this versatile approach for challenges such as: 

  • Evaluating and implementing emerging educational technologies 
  • Redesigning courses/programs for new modes of delivery 
  • Tackling issues like academic integrity, accessibility, or digital literacy 
  • Piloting innovative pedagogical approaches 
  • Improving technology adoption and support for faculty 

 Want more details? 

The presentation offered inspiring examples of action research in degree apprenticeship programs, academic integrity efforts, and research on workplace learning. Becky has recently used this process and published an article on a particular ‘wicked’ problem at the heart of her current job role. Here is summary of that process: 

  • Participants: Six representative apprenticeship ambassadors from large organizations with existing relationships with a business school for level 6 and 7 apprenticeships. 
  • Three Action Learning sets conducted over a 9-month period. Each set lasted 2 hours.
    • Set 1: Investigated barriers preventing curricular collaboration between university providers and employers. “Wicked problems” were identified and categorised into initial themes. 
    • Set 2: Reflected on outcomes of issues recognised in Set 1. Facilitated dialogue to overcome barriers and identify best practices to maximize translation of knowledge. A sixth theme (senior management buy-in) was added. 
    • Set 3: Reflected on outcomes of actions taken since Set 2. Promoted further dialogue to discuss best practices to enhance work-based learning experiences for current and future practice.
  • The researcher’s role was to gather the participants and facilitate the action learning sets. The participants acted as co-researchers. 
  • Data was analysed using a six-stage thematic approach, including transcription, coding, collating codes into themes, reviewing themes, defining/naming themes, and reporting. The data included the cyclical process of planning, acting, observing and reflecting was followed, with the goal of improving practice. 

In summary 

By convening action learning groups around these issues, we can accelerate progress and spread innovative practices across our institutions. The beauty of this is that it doesn’t require extensive training or resources to get started. We can begin by gathering a group of engaged colleagues, establishing ground rules for productive sessions, and diving into the cycles of action and reflection. 

In a time of disruptive change, learning from different methodologies can empower us as learning technologists to not only keep pace, but to drive educational innovation for the benefit of faculty, students, and institutions.  

What to try it out?  

Becky recommended the following . . .

1.      Watch the presentation recording 

2.      Coghlan, D., 2019. Doing action research in your own organization. Doing Action Research in Your Own Organization, pp.1-240. 

3.      Brockbank, A., & McGill, I. (2003). The Action Learning Handbook: Powerful Techniques for Education, Professional Development and Training (1st ed.). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203416334 

4.      Pedler, M. and Abbott, C., 2013. Facilitating action learning: A practitioner’s guide. McGraw-Hill Education (UK). 

5.      Pedler, M.M., 2012. Action learning for managers. Gower Publishing, Ltd. 


Rebecca Quew-Jones (2022) Enhancing apprenticeships within the Higher Education curriculum – an Action Learning and Action Research study, Action Learning: Research and Practice, 19:2, 146-164, DOI: 10.1080/14767333.2022.2056135 

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