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NPAR: building networked participatory action research in cyberspace
Looking back on the first year of the Future(s)of Education Project: Difficulties
and successes in using networked participatory action research to engender
A presentation at the Collaborative Action Research Network conference, CARN, 2009:
Athens, Greece, 31 October, 2009.
By E. Alana James and April Maria
• Introduction of the Future(s) of Education Project and the ideas behind it that drive
• Discussion of first year outcomes regarding the continuum of design choices between
student-driven and educator-driven curricula and process
• Invitation to participate
The purpose of this study is to reflect upon lessons learned during the first year of the
international collaborative action research endeavour to redesign education. The scope of this
study centres on the experience of two women as they negotiated a collaborative environment
that included participants from seven countries. Based upon the philosophy of participatory
action research organized as networks, this study employs mixed methodology analyzing data
from weblogs, e-mails, articles, and triangulating that information with quantitative evidence
from an online survey. Findings show that:
1. Not surprisingly, beginning a collaborative process, without funds, and international
space, requires diligent effort.
2. Educators may not want to discuss strengths-based potential when they are faced with
3. We continue to confront whether and to what extent we believe in participatory
process and its ability to change the world.
This article concludes that participatory action research is a worthwhile undertaking to give
voice to the varied ideas regarding how we can better prepare our students for the future. The
PAR process allows those involved to face the roadblocks that are a holding back the progress
toward bettering education and find ways around those obstructions through discussion,
reflection and research. While limited to the reflective voices of two of the many participants,
the study contributes to the use of collaborative action research by encouraging its
employment in international settings and across virtual environments.
future of education, student-driven education, collaborative action research, networks,
This story begins in July 2008 with a series of coincidences that left one woman to take some
very bold moves. As an independent academic, living in Ireland, Alana James found herself
employing online social networks as a means to develop collegial relationships with other
people interested in the future of education. At the same time her hundred plus doctoral
students in education flooded her desktop with stories of how difficult it is to work in schools.
Three things were troubling:
1) Education is a hard job, with little pay, and difficult work place environments - and
this appeared to be as true in the developing world as it was in complex Western
2) Authors and publishers focus on efforts to improve schools while others point out that
achieving consistent outcomes is a complex problem, yet no one was using an
integrated means to develop new designs.
3) While it has become natural in the world of open source technology for new voices
from far distant environments to work together on designing new software, the only
international consortiums in education discussing the future of education were
attended by those best educated or highly employed in the status quo.
The three coincidences that converged to start the futures of education project were first, Alana
was just finishing a six-year longitudinal project where network of participatory team had
employed Internet conversations as they designed local solution to the problems associated
with homeless students. Second, she was nominated for a fellowship for which the application
requires a description of her project. Third, because she was isolated and therefore able to
investigate the most intriguing conversation about education she saw the threads of new ideas
and wanted to be part of a conversation that wove them together, perhaps into entirely new
Thus the Future(s) of Education Project was born in July, 2008. The project encourages
individual and group participatory work and ideas centered on the question, “What do our
children need to thrive in the world they will inherit? A world we cannot imagine.”
Granovetter (1973, 1982), tells us that the power of “weak ties” is that they have the potential
for news to travel between networks, thus improving the work on both sides of the link
because of the messages communicated. The potential of this power is seen in the
development of open source technology and it relies on a free and uninhibited communication
pattern. A key component of networked communication is that anyone can contribute to the
conversation, uninhibited by hierarchical roles or the dictates of power. This freedom is
obviously not one enjoyed in the halls of educational institutions, but is a guiding light for the
emancipatory work of participatory action research teams around the world.
The participatory action research (PAR) methodology (or philosophy as John Elliott (2009)
would have it) that I employ is articulated in any three step cycle: 1) discover, 2) act/measure,
and 3) reflect. It is frequently true that groups working on complex problems spend the first
act/measure step surveying their population or gathering more information (James,
Milenkiewicz, & Bucknam, 2008). Thus, measurable actions to create change are not always
identified in the first stages of the process.
Short history of what happened 2008 – 2009
Figure 1, below, is a diagram of what would have been true July 2008. It shows Alana James
surrounded by a cloud of diverse information on the Internet and interested in talking to
others about new possibilities for the design of education.
Figure 1: The Beginning of the Future(s) of Education Project
The website at www.futureofeducationproject.net was launched in mid-September, after
Alana attended a self-study conference in the UK. One year later, figure 2 displays the
relationships that evolved with the project.
Figure 2: Relationship map, year one Future(s) of Education Project
The following eight milestones contributed to the configuration above:
1. Colleagues at a conference express interest in the project, most fell away but Lindsey
Conner in New Zealand has given the project enormous help through sharing futures
research from her part of the world and the idea of system wide competencies vs.
2. Through a participant from India the overarching challenges of literacy and numeracy
in much of the developing world were brought into the conversation. Other colleagues
add a few ideas/videos etc to the site.
3. Our Isle of Wight team starts and adds a firm direction not to forget the importance of
assessment – others agree that in many ways assessment drives the ship.
4. We make our first growth producing connection, April Maria. She: runs a complete
group (5), starts a facebook group (6), and most recently facilitates groups of young
people who are producing a video for the CARN conference in Athens.
5. Stray volunteers happen (8) leading us towards more individualized input and “take
away” strategies for the site.
6. One doctoral student, loosely connected to the project, nevertheless runs with the
ideas, developing the concept of student “VOICE” and is beginning to transform the
ways in which the US Army provide ongoing training to officers.
7. Spanish speaking colleagues help add non-English content to the site (7).
8. A connection in Uganda grows to the point where he will also present at the CARN
conference in Athens, 2009.
In tandem with various input from diverse partners the conversation about what the required
by students in the future evolved. Figure 3 outlines the general conversation.
Figure 3: Map of discussion topics, year one Future(s) of Education Project
A central point for discussion and debate had to do with whether and to what extent young
people require guidance. Two continuums became clear, from student-driven to educator-
driven choices on what topics needed to be learned and the best processes for learning it. Our
partner in New Zealand was instrumental in helping others open up to new possibilities. Her
country has recently adopted competencies and teachers are beginning to build their
instructional design to encourage skills rather than specific points of data retrieval.
In another end of the year set of research findings, the following continuum was developed as
we concluded that even with a small group of participants new and provocative ideas emerge.
Figure 4 outlines what appears to be a core discussion, foundational to any new design process
Educator-driven process. Students driven process.
Educator- Educator-driven curricular choices with professionals Educator-driven curricular choices
driven the guiding, and assessing the entire process. delivered in online or other modular
curricula. context, so that students decide upon and
employ skill sets and outcomes of their own
Student-driven Student-driven curricular choices with adults Student-driven curricular choices with little
curricula. facilitating process and skill sets that aid mastery. or no adult facilitation (LIE).
Figure 3: Educator/student-driven curricular/educational choices
When reflecting on the challenges and successes of the last year, one has to ask what are the
qualities that made things work, and what were the forces that inhibit continued participation?
Some facts are consistent. People who are leaving or explaining lack of participation always
mentioned competing responsibilities. In reverse, during the time that people are most active,
they display enthusiasm and a belief that they are participation has meaning and usefulness to
help combat the complex adaptive problem that is education today. This is consistent with
findings from the web-based professional development project that Alana previously
facilitated. It leads us to see participatory action research as a holding environment through
which people can address complex issues (Heifetz, 2000; James et al., 2008).
Given that background what are the new lessons to be learned here?
1. Did the next international voices on the web enhance the project? Yes absolutely,
although maybe when someone drops off the loss is felt on more complex levels,
because we are losing access to an entire international context until we recruit someone
else from that area of the world.
2. What attributes cluster with participant involvement in the project?
The amount of international participation keeps others involved. One key participant
was an educator at the end of her career who looking back at a high level of frustration
with how education in the UK evolved. Her team selected a focus (assessment) that
was not universally interesting and they did not receive the international feedback that
they wanted. Attendance quickly dropped off.
Local teams will question their involvement. Some teams never started as a result,
even though the host was originally quite keen. We saw one team disappear as
mentioned above when they did not receive feedback and another suffered through a
very unpleasant meeting as they discussed, “What in the world are we doing here? Are
not other people with more money doing this exact work?”
3. What can be learned from analyzing the Web log data?
Almost 2000 people in over 80 countries visited the site and stayed long enough to look
around (didn’t bounce). Consistently the United States brings the most visitors with
India second. Most looked into three or four pages during a visit. We now believe
that one of the volunteers who came to us in the last months was correct when she said
that we needed to design a website or more “takeaways” by the individual. New
designs for the site allows visitors to give us information, as they take away:
• knowledge about how their ideas stack up with others (findings from the
survey they take)
• knowledge about how the rest of the world sees educational issues (we are
trying to develop a map that links stories to the locations)
• a range of quick understanding of different international voices (our video
debate section with videos in multiple languages)
• information from a variety of papers, videos, and short essays by people on the
tension within the education around the world
We also have to address the almost 50% bounce rate through better search engine
4. What remains to be done?
The answer to this question could easily make those of us involved in the project
become quickly overwhelmed. Mostly we need a lot more voices from a lot more
places actively involved. The most efficient way for that to happen would be for the
project to interact with other educational groups, hopefully finding someone interested
enough to act as a liaison, as well as, an active participant in the Futures project.
Part of bridging this project out to wider and more diverse communities requires
crossing language and potentially religious boundaries. The site is easily translated
into 27 languages, but we do not know how accurate the translations may be. We
welcome diverse opinions yet our survey data show that our readership are primarily
liberal in their ideology.
Young people are one population likely to both have ideas and be invested in the
immediate outcomes of the project. April has started youth participatory groups, the
videos from which will soon be on the site, and we would love to see international
responses from other teenagers. Youth declarations are not heard often, and we hope
that giving them an opportunity to express their thoughts will be a small flame that can
be fanned into a wildfire of powerful new ideas shared around the world.
We are sure there are many other answers to this question and hope that the potential
of the international participatory discussion designing new ways and means to educate
young people is of interest to people who want to carve out their own portion of this
project and champion new voices for new designs in education.
Elliott, J. (2009). Comment made that PAR is philosophy rather than methodology (Private discussion
ed.): BERA Mentoring e-seminars listserve.
Granovetter, M. (1973). The strength of weak ties: A network theory The American Journal of
Sociology, 78(6), 1360-1380.
Granovetter, M. (1982). The strength of weak ties: A network theory revisited, Social Structure and
Network Analysis (pp. 105-130). Beverley Hills: Sage.
Heifetz, R. A. (2000). Leadership without easy answers (Second edition ed.). Cambridge, Massachusetts:
Belnap Press, Harvard University.
James, E. A., Milenkiewicz, M., & Bucknam, A. (2008). Participatory action research: Data driven
decision making for educational leadership. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.