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Action research and digital technologies

Action Research - digital technologies 4Ted Fox Joyce, head of visual arts at Langley Park School for Girls, embarked on an action research project which changed his approach to using technologies  in teaching and learning. He recently shared the details of his project with The National Society for Education in Art and Design magazine (NSEAD). Here he explains the important role action research plays in developing pedagogic practice.

As head of visual arts at Langley Park School for Girls in Beckenham, I was invited to take part in a shadow leadership programme. Part of the programme involved undertaking an action research project, the aim of which was to reflect on pedagogic practice with  the long-term goal to use this research to impact on whole school development in aspects of teaching and learning. The results changed my approach to using technologies in teaching and learning. So what is action research? Working in collaboration with key staff and a leading educational researcher at Goldsmiths, University of London, we set out to explore  and define action research.

Educational theorists Wilfred Carr and Stephen Kemmis write: ‘Action research is simply a  form of self-reflective enquiry undertaken  by participants in social situations in order  to improve the rationality and justice of their own practices.’1 Typically in the field of education, action research aims to improve the methods and approach of those involved. Action research is based on self-reflection and developed in cycles of reflection. It is pivotal in developing teaching and learning and should form a natural part of  a teacher’s pedagogic development. Considering the notion of action research,  I set about exploring my own pedagogic practice using research cycles in order to break down my approach to teaching and learning.

Cycle 1: Personal reflection

Action Research - digital technologies 3It was necessary for me to observe my own practice. The question that came to mind was, what has been happening in my own pedagogic practice, especially in my main subject focus of GCSE Photography, over the last five years? In response, the way in which I deliver course material has evolved over time and has become somewhat flexible. I have also adopted a blended learning approach, one that combines online digital media with traditional classroom methods. It requires the physical presence of both teacher and student with some element of student control over time, place, path or pace. While students still attend brick-and-mortar schools with a teacher present, face-to-face classroom practices are combined with computer-mediated activities regarding content and delivery which can happen anywhere and at any time.

Cycle 2: Challenge and liberation

When teaching software such as Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Lightroom, I have found that it can be difficult to teach specific aspectsin real time for several reasons: the software  is complex and multi-faceted; students have individual learning needs; students can only retain a certain amount of information; and learning software requires practical repetition to embed skills which naturally requires time. To approach these issues I observed that some  of my students would actively engage with how  to videos on Adobe software via the Internet, which enabled them to further their knowledge in their own time. In response to this I started  to record my software demonstration lessons using SMART board apps such as Smart board recorder, and then I shared the recordings  with students in class, using apps such as Adobe Spark to create a learning journal. This impacted my students in several ways: the recordings helped to compound learning and they acted as a resource to assist learning. The recordings freed up my time, allowing me to focus on other needs – essentially the recordings became a tool of liberation for both my students and me as teacher. With this approach I was  no longer bound to the front of the classroom constantly going over the same material. Students instead set their own pace and I  had more time to help certain individuals. Furthermore, I could focus on assessment  and feedback in real time.

However, I did find issues with this model. Some students did not utilise these digital resources and were less confident in using them, being  far too reliant on the teacher leading their learning. This in turn raised the question of  how could I encourage my students to take more responsibility for their learning and prepare  for future lessons? To get my students to engage more with my instructional videos I decided to use aspects  of blended learning. I considered what  students could do both in and out of the school environment. I became proactive in using our school intranet system, Firefly, in order to  share the instructional videos I had made.  When I uploaded a video I would highlight this to students by showing them in lesson time  and/or emailing them a link to the video. I would use this strategy to set homework and I would encourage the students to watch a certain video ahead of our next lesson. Reflecting on this process I found that a greater percentage of students actively engaged with the resources prior to lessons. Students came to lessons with prior knowledge and so were able to access material more readily. Students were able to raise pertinent questions based on prior learning in class time and the teacher was able to use lesson time to get a greater ‘buy in’ from those few students not actively involved. There was a shift from  lessons being fully directed by the teacher  to the student, directing aspects of their learning which helped develop confidence  and personal ownership.

Cycle 3: Reflection and observation

Action Research - digital technologies 1Action research is made in cycles of acting, reflecting and modifying, and so at this stage it was necessary for me to reflect on the outcomes. It was clear that a blended learning approach was working well for the majority of my students, which I could see in their developing portfolios and in the way that students were able to discuss their work and progress. However, some students could not access the software  at home, an issue which Adobe have recently addressed with their ‘K12’ named user licence, enabling all students to access industry standard software at school and at home at a fraction of the cost. Additionally, some students just do not have computer hardware at home, although Adobe has developed excellent free mobile device apps that enable anyone with an android phone the ability to access and use excellent free software in order to develop and manipulate visual images. Accessing creative digital software  has certainly never been so easy, cheap and so widespread before.

Action Research - digital technologies 2Cycle 4: Modifications and enhancements in digital learning

At the end of last academic year I presented my action research project to the leadership team  at my school. It was received enthusiastically and questions were raised as to how such developments might be used across the whole school in other subject areas. In answer to  these questions I am now leading an in-house working party and we are actively exploring these questions. Our principal aims are to learn and utilise advances in digital technologies such as Adobe Spark in order to liberate staff and students, and through the use and development of such rich visual technologies, help develop deeper, subject-specific understanding. In turn it is hoped that we can collectively examine the important role that action research plays on developing pedagogic practice for all. 

Ted can be contacted at: efj@lpgs.bromley.sch.uk

References 1  Becoming Critical: Education, Knowledge, and  Action Research, Wilfred Carr and Stephen Kemmis, Flamer Press, 1989


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