This paper proposes an action research model as basis for the management
of change in continuing professional distance education (CPDE). The
model proposed emerged from the need to manage a complex change process
from traditional paper-based distance education to e-learning. In order
to illustrate and support the model proposed, this paper describes and
discusses such a change process in a CPDE Masters programme.
The Educational Management Action Research (EMAR) model conjugates pedagogical
thinking, curriculum design and organisational context. This model facilitates
dialogue of all parties engaged in the design and delivery of CPDE.
This enables educational managers to effectively lead change in their
Continuing Professional Distance Education, Action Research Model, Change
The quest for successful management of change in educational environments
has become a focus of activity for many educationalists, educational
managers and researchers. The assumption underlying much of this activity
is that if change can be understood and controlled, then strategies
can be developed and success will ensue.
A driving force behind the attention being paid to 'change' is the idea
that the ability to handle and sustain change and innovation is central
to success in improving teaching and administration. This concept is
particularly applicable to the management of Continuing Professional
Distance Education (CPDE) programmes in IT and IS because of constant
changes in this field.
Consequently, educational managers are looking for the 'best' way to
manage change which, for the most part, emerges as a series of steps
or 'recipes' to be followed to create an efficient, effective, successful
educational setting. This stance is often challenged by both research
and empirical findings. This particularly applies to change processes
related to the introduction of new Information and Communication Technology
(ICT) into learning and teaching in distance education:
"Technology in itself does not change or improve teaching and learning.
Attention to management processes, strategy, structure, and most importantly
roles and skills, are the key to successfully introducing technology
in university teaching and learning." 
Therefore, no simple template or checklist can hope to predict and resolve
the complex interactive processes involved in this type of change process
. A different type of framework is needed, based on empirical and
research evidence, which can support educational managers "to provide
opportunities to investigate perspectives and rehearse and test responses
to them, thus reducing misunderstandings, friction and conflict within
team environments" . At the core of such a framework is the
collection of feedback from administrators, tutors and learners prior
to, during and after course delivery, so as to adapt solutions to specific
teaching and learning needs.
Thus, action research provides an ideal approach to the management of
change, which involves a close collaboration between practitioners and
researchers over a matter that is of genuine concern to them . This
type of research embodies the principles of pragmatism applied to research
and change by providing an approach for knowledge creation, reflection
and application in action . However, while there are examples of
successful deployment of action research in universities, these are
rare, difficult to create and hard to sustain .
This situation is probably due to the lack of a specific framework to
support the change process within Higher Educational environments, since
traditional action research only provides us with generic constructs
This paper proposes an educational model that can be used as a specific
action research framework. It is grounded on the principle of practitioner
action research as the guide for everyday work and professional life
2. EDUCATIONAL ACTION RESEARCH
Action research is a pluralist research approach that is based on the
assumption that, when studying complex human activity systems, the mere
recording of events and formulation of explanations by an uninvolved
researcher is inadequate in and of itself. Conversely, action research
proposes that those who have previously been designated as "subjects"
should participate directly in research processes  and that those
processes should be applied in ways that benefit all participants directly.
Therefore, action research is more than the traditional interpretative
research in the sense that the researcher is directly involved in the
research setting and in the experience itself.
More specifically, the model proposed by this study draws on the spiral
framework illustrated in Fig. 1. Inquiry results from spiral research
cycles, starting with a process of identifying a problem area - a pre-step
often based on the previous experience in the field of the researcher.
The actual cycle comprises Diagnosis (data gathering, analysis and representation),
Action Planning, Action Taking, and Action Evaluation .
3. THE EDUCATIONAL MANAGEMENT ACTION RESEARCH (EMAR) MODEL
In order to support sustained and effective change when introducing
ICT within a CPDE environment, this research team found it necessary
to develop an appropriate action research framework. The Educational
Management Action Research (EMAR) model, proposed in Fig. 2, emerged
from research and facilitation of this change process over a four-year
period. EMAR aims to enable course improvement, tutor development, management
strategies maturation and infrastructure evolution.
The EMAR model combines the spiral approach discussed above and earlier
framework proposals by both Goodyear  and Kahkar . These initial
frameworks, although extremely useful, were always considered as being
only a starting point for discussion and as a first attempt to build
a general CPDE change management framework. In fact, and as pointed
out by the authors themselves, these initial proposals incurred the
danger of oversimplifying complex relationships and processes . Crucially,
these first attempts did not accommodate global evaluation phases and
mechanisms for continuous improvement, which are required by CDPE programmes
This type of programme always requires an action research framework
that supports the continuously changing requirements and needs of both
industry and adult professionals. The awareness of this need for persistent
improvement led several authors to express the opinion that any course
development must not only meet the objectives of how students learn,
but must also take into account the students' motivations, priorities
and preferences . The introduction of e-learning adds to this complexity.
"Online teaching represents a shift from a model of efficiency
to a model of quality" .
In order to support this need for persistent improvement, educational
action research must be understood as a cyclical process, as stated
above. This cycle consists of diagnosing, action planning, action taking
and action evaluation. However, these are easily understood generic
steps, but not directly adaptable to the context of educational practice.
Therefore, there is the need for an action research educational model,
specifically designed to support educationalists in their daily practice
and research. Fig 2 is intended to address this issue. Note that diagnosis
in this case is the identification of a learning need that gives rise
to development or improvement of a particular course.
Once this has been identified, a suitable pedagogical model has to be
specified and an appropriate educational setting designed. This corresponds
to action planning. The next phase of our action research framework
encompasses course delivery in the designed educational setting. This
corresponds to action taking. Formative evaluation during the delivery,
summative evaluation at the end of each module and follow-up evaluation
to assess the impact of the course are then used to improve the pedagogical
model and redesign the educational setting: action evaluation. From
this action evaluation, new needs may be identified that then trigger
The pedagogical model adopted for any CPDE programme is usually proposed
by the curriculum designer and the course team. Different models would
impact on the design of the educational setting, that is, the corresponding
tutoring strategies, learning tasks and activities, learning outcomes,
support mechanisms and ICT technologies to be used.
educational setting depends on the curriculum design for particular
courses within the organisational context and according to a particular
pedagogical model. Curriculum design is a process by which the course
aims and objectives, content, delivery mode and assessment procedures
of a course are decided, taking into consideration different factors
that affect the whole programme, such as: the student and his/her knowledge
about the subject; the specific nature of the subject matter; the subject
matter expert and the way she/he does things; the method and media of
delivery . This process of curriculum design determines the syllabus,
the content materials, the learning tasks, the resulting learning activities
and the ICT learning environment. The conjunction of these five factors
forms the educational setting.
The fundamental contention of the action researcher is that complex
social processes can be best studied by introducing changes into practice
and observing the effects of these changes . Therefore, the most
important part of any educational action research model is evaluation.
Evaluation is the collection, analysis and interpretation of information
about any aspect of a programme of education and training, as part of
a recognised process of judging its effectiveness, its efficiency and
any other outcomes it may have .
4. EMAR IN CONTEXT
As stated above, the EMAR model was developed in the context of a change
process from a traditional paper-based distance education program into
an e-learning mode of delivery. This was the initial trigger for a process
that started in 1998, when pressures from both industry and students
made this change inevitable.
4.1 The MA in ITM
The MA in Information Technology Management (ITM) is a flexible part-time
CPDE programme that aims to develop more qualified and experienced IT
managers and consultants. The programme was designed to prepare IT and
Information Systems (IS) managers to bridge the substantial gap that
exists between professional systems developers and potential users within
organisations. Bridging this gap is fundamental to solving the problems
that arise from the introduction of IS in the workplace. Students enrolling
on the MA are required to have a relevant first degree or a minimum
of three years experience in the IT/IS field.
Conceived in the early nineties, the programme initially did not require
access to online facilities and relied solely on paper-based materials
and supporting face-to-face (f2f) day schools. However, as a consequence
of PC boom and the fast development of the WWW, the course team was
soon under pressure to incorporate aspects of e-learning in the course
The opportunity to introduce an ICT component into the MA in ITM arose
when the University decided to adopt WebCT as its VLE. WebCT is a tightly
integrated system facilitating the creation of web-based educational
environments. It adopts a virtual classroom metaphor, composed by a
number of ICT tools, which allow educators to build e-learning collaborative
Thus, all students need to make use of ICT now and it is a requirement
to have access to computer facilities that include all the standard
desktop processing, as well as access to the Internet.
4.2 The Change Process
The EMAR model was developed to facilitate the change process undertaken
by the MA in ITM. This process is now completed with all materials and
student support being undertaken through e-learning.
Rather then just replacing paper-based materials by web pages, the current
setting for each MA in ITM module offers: the corresponding and continuously
revised course materials in pdf format; additional web-based materials
and links; all module related administrative and organisational information;
all the problem-based learning materials and case-study notes; both
synchronous and asynchronous computer mediated communication (CMC) tools;
private group discussion and presentation areas.
This constitutes a Rich Environment for Active Learning (REAL) 
and therefore a much more complex educational setting than the previous
combination of paper-based and postal correspondence. Although the f2f
day schools still exist, an important part of tutor and peer discussion
now occurs online and is supported by the REAL. The design, development,
installation and delivery to the students constituted an iterative change
process that required a maturing understanding of all the issues involved.
These implied early successes and failures that had to be facilitated
by the programme co-ordinator and involved the co-operation of the course
team, the students and the support services of the university.
With the support of the EMAR model as an action research framework,
this change process resulted in tangible benefits for all parties involved.
However, more importantly, because an action research approach was taken,
several other research projects emerged from the change process, and
ultimately ensured the final success.
4.3 EMAR in Practice
4.3.1 Networked Information and Communication Literacy Skills (NICLS)
As a consequence of the change process described, tutors and students
were compelled to engage with new learning environments and new methods
of learning without being properly equipped with the basic skills required
to be successful in an online networked learning environment.
In truth, because these students are IT professionals, they were expected
to be able engage in e-learning without being properly trained in basic
low-level skills such as the use of computer mediated technology, online
etiquette, web navigation, web searching, etc. In fact, they were not
prepared. Being a "techie" is not a synonym of being a good
e-learner. Consequently, this initial misconception resulted in under-use
of both online materials and communication resources.
Having identified this as a problem and also having acknowledged that
the team's initial assumptions were incorrect, an independent project
was launched to address this deficit.
This resulted in the identification and classification of a core set
of basic skills, coined Networked Information and Communication Literacy
Skills (NICLS) . These are not only required to succeed in online
learning environments, but also an important aspect of daily online
Facilitating the acquisition of NICLS by continuing professional adult
students is particularly crucial. In the future, these basic literacy
skills will be addressed and acquired at lower levels of the educational
system. It could even be argued that a new generation of learners will
soon emerge from schools possessing most of what we consider to be NICLS
. However, students currently enrolled on university programmes
(both on-campus and distance education) are still equipped with traditional
literacy skills based around the three Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic).
In order to address this problem, an NICLS induction module was developed
and introduced that resulted in better prepared students and a maximisation
of the online resources offered by the VLE .
4.3.2 Virtual Social Space (VSS)
During a second iteration of the cycle further problems were then identified,
which were related with both the nature of e-learning distance education
and the modular architecture of WebCT. Distance education has not been
very conducive to the building of strong learning communities and therefore
often results in feelings of isolation and disorientation in students.
Web based learning addresses and minimises this problem through the
use of CMC.
However, WebCT has a modular architecture that forces students to jump
from one course module to the next. These course modules are normally
insulated subject areas and with no direct connection between them.
Consequently, students lose the holistic view of the course and the
building of a course/learning community is made extremely difficult.
Additionally, they lose contact with previous course materials and tutors
as they progress through the programme. There was also no opportunity
for interaction with students from other modules.
Therefore, the team identified the need for a unifying component that
connects all members of a programme for the duration of their studies
and eventually after their graduation. This unifying component, coined
a Virtual Social Space (VSS), was also developed as an independent project
. It now serves as a reinforcement for online social skills and
allows the technology to become more ubiquitous in students' learning
Action research is highly appropriate to the development of e-learning,
where experience suggests that significant modifications to the traditional
paradigm of higher education supply are required. The EMAR model has
proved an invaluable action research and change management tool. Its
usefulness was of such crucial importance, that the team is now using
EMAR as a management tool, in order to address the continuing needs
for persistent change in e-Learning and IT .
Nevertheless, it is important to reflect whether this model can be applicable
to other CPDE courses, as a generalisation from one single case study.
Scientific facts are rarely based on single experiments and theory extension
must be based on a multiple set of experiments, which have replicated
the same phenomenon under different conditions. Hence, at this point
in time, the model cannot be considered as definitive. Further studies
are required to establish whether the EMAR model is applicable in similar
It is therefore assumed that the model will evolve and change according
to the fluid needs, requirements and learning approaches of CPDE.
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