Some (Failed?) Action Research

I have studied and taught action research as a technique in various ways, but my experience of it is rather limited, and it is opportune to revisit the approach. I am aware of a number of criticisms of it as a technique, of course (summarised very well by Hammersley’s (1986) discussion, which raises problems of the representativeness of the data, and, more fundamentally, questions whether participant and researcher roles can be combined). I have supervised a number of students projects as a tutor on the OU’s MA in Education, which produced similar problems : a tight 'practitioner' focus can produce little that is of value to anyone else outside the immediate context, and can produce a project limited to the 'surface' features of the case). On the other hand, the advantages are genuine ones, of course, in beginning to problematise teaching and learning for people who will have to bear the responsibilities for actually altering their practices. Anyone in educational research knows there are problems with all the approaches, of course. Thus action research seemed suitable for a limited, self-financed project designed to fit with a course structure that foregrounds teaching and learning. Finally, as a practitioner too, I am aware there are always specific problems which can be as urgent and as important as any more general 'theoretical' course design concerns.

Developing a project on module choice

I had originally become interested in a rather general and large problem -- gender and its effects on orientation to study. More specifically, I wanted to address the unconscious aspects of gender and how they might affect student reactions to my Media courses. One which has been discussed quite a lot [elsewhere] has been Propaganda…,and here gender issues have already affected my policies in teaching sections of the course (such as the James Bond  sequences) which seem to run obvious risks of being 'gendered'. I wondered if students experienced exclusion because of their gender in any way --exclusion from academic approaches, say, or just from the mundane pleasures of watching Bond movies. That question led in turn to further ones about why female students chose this module or this topic, and whether other modules might also be seen as gendered. This interest led to some work on comparing assessment score for male and female students on that module (see later sections).

A more manageable project emerged which focused on the conscious factors affecting student choice, as reported by students themselves. Perhaps I cold at least do something to make sure that students were properly informed about this module and its problems, and give them information that they wanted, rather than the more formal documentation. Of course, it is hard to give entirely impartial advice, since we were all 'selling' modules in what was basically a competitive struggle for work in the Media Studies group at the time.

I began by thinking about what I actually knew about student choice, and I realised I had some basic evaluation data, and some much more informal and anecdotal  material conveyed in the form of social chats or stray remarks, usually in the first few sessions when we were 'ice-breaking'. I set out to attend more carefully to these remarks (see below). 

Gathering more data
I talked to students at a formal evaluation meeting held at the end of the module, and asked them to fill out the new MEF (student evaluation questionnaire) forms. After, I asked them if we could talk more informally about how they had made their choices both in general and in terms of choosing Propaganda...

Most students in the group said that the official course handout had been influential in persuading them to try this course. Other influences had been the talk they had received at Open Day, on application to the College. Few had attended the special talk we had given during the second year (designed to assist choice), and nor did they seem to have had reports of the meeting from friends. (The meeting had been very poorly attended as I recall). Other factors seemed to be workload involved (exams and seminar presentations were disliked); perceived links with other courses (PR and History); personnel teaching the module; availability of resources, especially books; and the content needed to be 'interesting' (to quote the most frequently-used term). Talking to friends, or to students from previous years, or the physical timing of the sessions (my suggestions) seemed less important --students did not know of these matters before taking the course and found it unimportant to find out. Of course, it is possible that these comments are but the surface presentations of deeper matters, such as study orientations or 'cultural capital'. But staying at the surface provided some useful information for further design of the Handbook. 

The existing Handbook entry had described the content and something of the design constraints of the module in a populist manner, included information about staffing -- and had 'read them their rights' in terms of assessment and the deadlines and so on. It seemed obvious now to include some remarks about the perceived 'difficulty' or marginality of the material as well, perhaps in the form of advice about processes of choice (eg the need to discuss the issue with the actual teaching staff should such perceptions arise in the future). It also seemed necessary to indicate to students more generally that we were trying to pursue a 'student-centred' approach, which included 'permission' for them to state their views, and a commitment to try to adjust the course to meet any perceived problems. Perhaps a list of such problems might be included:

1. That we were aware of the importance of books and other resources, and were taking steps to meet the demand (eg by generating more support material or providing a booklet of key readings)
2. That we realised that assessment could be especially onerous in third year modules, and we would try to keep it to a minimum, provide choice, and definitely avoid 'busywork'.
3. That we were concerned with matters like the gendering of topics, and were monitoring the situation.
4. Specifically, that we would stress links with other courses and leave room for students to specialise slightly in the more 'interesting' examples or topics. Longer term ,we were already thinking about more radical design changes along the line of the 'clusters' approach [see file] with more self-instructional materials developing in LAT modules.
It would be unwise to generalise too far from this cohort, of course The apparent reliance upon the Handbook for information, for example, needs to be pursued with other students -- thus the Handbook entry for Realism is especially abstract and 'academic' (virtually a repetition of the formal syllabus), but more students currently choose that module than any other. In another similar exercise, carried out after the end of Children and the Media…, similar points were made, with slightly more emphasis on the importance of the staff teaching the module, and with more students saying they did ask their friends. Choice is much more limited in the second year, of course.

Some C and M students also mentioned the apparent absence of 'practical' or 'vocational' elements, which would certainly be worth addressing in any new Handbook entry for them. At the same time, C and M students especially liked the content of the module (children's media), which they felt gave them genuine opportunities to contribute to discussion. Some also saw the 'coursework only' mode of assessment as a 'soft option'. These points might well be raised in the Handbook and in the first introductory weeks for the next cohort.

I was not permitted to teach any Media modules after January 1998. Nor was I present at the student choice session in February 1998. There are some general lessons from this exercise though, concerning (a) the need to ask detailed and 'operationalised'   questions as well as more general research-orientated ones and (b) the need to build in some sort of feedback sessions on these questions before the end of modules -- this is to be attempted in the new LAT module I am to teach this academic year.

The other micropolitical issues to which I have referred [see file] are also of interest here: ours is a ‘market’ system in Year 3 in Media Studies where students choose completely 'freely' -- i.e. with no formal constraint. But what of the informal ones? I thought again about those students who had alarmed me with stories of how they have been told to avoid my modules or my work for various reasons, and I would be interested in pursuing these accounts. Just to list some of these without any comment on their veracity:

1. A student told me she had been advised specifically against choosing Propaganda…, on the grounds that it was known to be ‘too difficult’.
2. Two students told me that The Commercial and the Experimental… was regarded as ‘controversial’ and that they should not use any material from it on any other courses.
3. A student told me that C and M was regarded as ‘too specialist’ and that it ‘didn’t lead to anything else in Media’.
4. A student said that other tutors were both mocking and scathing in their views about my courses, and silent about my interests and publications, while extolling the virtues and ‘practical relevance’ of their own courses.
5. A group of students told me that they had been strongly advised to stick to certain ‘core’ elements of Media Studies, apparently at some kind of general meeting for first years, and, apparently my modules did not qualify as ‘core’ ones. 
Clearly, these issues are pointing towards another area of research, one fraught with professional and ethical difficulties despite its intrinsic interest. To retain this area for ‘action’ research it would be possible to regard these stories as ‘organizational myths’, suspending any other judgement on them. These ‘myths’ could then be countered, possibly, in course documentation. They might be expounded (without any clue as to their origin) and then simply denied or refuted with other arguments or evidence – the views of Externals or other commentators, perhaps. Or, on a more general note, students might be urged to disregard any myths in favour of asking direct questions at meetings designed to facilitate ‘choice’ (this might help obviate the effects of any further myths too – but much depends on students attending such meetings and discussing choices rationally). Finally, it would be neat (but difficult) to turn these myths to positive advantage, perhaps by using them in a ‘structure of apology’ as in Barthes’ work (in Mythologies) – the negative qualities of margarine are listed fully at the start of an advertisement for margarine, but an expert cook insists nonetheless that it is possible to make excellent cakes using it. 

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