<--back to report Review and Planning UNH2601




Andy Roberts


SID 0264114

November 28th 2005

BA - Research Proposal






Title: An Action Enquiry into improving the practice of online research, investigating online communities and using internet technology (provisionally termed Distributed Action Research)




Research Questions




Data Collection and Analysis Methods



Indicative References

Timetable and detailed plan




This proposal is an example of meta research (research about research) which aims to investigate through action, the difficulties and advantages of conducting Action Research entirely online and begin to create a resource about the practice which other internet researchers may find useful.

The original concept for this Action Research project stems from Roberts (2004), my year 2 Action Research project. At that time, I identified a distinct type of AR which I called Distributed Action Research (DAR). DAR was employed in that module itself and I defined it then as: “Research into or using online communities and digital tools.” The feedback sheet for my report of that module mentioned “I found your model of distributed action research convincing.” and a subsequent comment from hotseat guest Bob Dick after reading my report said “It's clear that you approached it in the manner of action research and that that worked well for you.”

This project will again take an essentially emergent approach in terms of the exact nature of the cycles, actions and areas of focus, but the overall structure is envisaged to comprise of two main phases. The first phase is a series of small Action Enquiries, each of which aims to improve a particular situation in an online community, improve an online research technique or improve the use a new technology.

Only a small part of the first phase has been planned at the time of writing this proposal. I intend to begin by working again with the same groups continuing from the year 2 research project involving a Community Of Practice (COP) of craft cidermakers and enthusiasts for whom I provided a wiki, taking small actions to improve interaction between communities and improve my facilitation thereof. It is tempting to remain with this group for the entire research project, it being such a rich and positive ground for development but I think I will need to move on and research completely different types of groups using different technologies in order to obtain enough diversity to make progress on bigger picture, the making of a resource for distributed researchers. These choices will be made by selecting from a dynamic list of possible future cycles maintained in a journal, or from new ideas as they arise, with the decision being made quite late as the separate cycles progress, in order to take advantage of timely opportunities, and to reap the benefit of previous findings.

Through taking actions, observing and reflecting on results I will render explicit or create new knowledge which will then be collated onto a dedicated wiki site to begin constructing a comprehensive online reference for the subject. Reflections on the process of conducting the individual small AE exercises will inform and improve subsequent cycles in order to leverage the improvement and hone an increasingly effective method of conducting cycles and generating content for this new resource.

The second phase consists of attempting to collaborate with others who are working in a similar field. This will begin with the lead up to a pilot exhibition of the work I have produced up until that point, and will then turn in a direction determined by an analysis of the experience and feedback obtained. I will seek out people of groups of people who are involved in some way with online research, and ask them to view a special Wordpress blog page which will exhibit the facilities for a resource ie the Wiki, solicit responses and hope to begin building a community of collaborating researchers around the resource. While it is likely that this stage will only reach an established maturity long after the the lifetime of the requirements of the degree course, I hope to be able to demonstrate that the project is well under way and beginning to take on a life of its own by that time. That is to say, this is a worthwhile real life project which will not be brought to an end after the 'main exhibition' phase is completed but will instead continue indefinitely afterwards, just as the level two project continues to grow and develop from strength to strength now, and with it, my own learning and capabilities.

This AR should add to a small body of knowledge which has been built up by Gilly Salmon, Nancy White, Howard Rheingold, Ultralab and others but will include a capacity for ongoing maintenance and development in the hope of keeping pace with advancing technology and understanding. This will have an immediate impact on my own practice as a self-employed Information Technology worker and in due course on others working with or studying online research. There may also be some relevance for remote workers in general, distributed COP facilitators and anybody interested in online communities and distributed research.

Very importantly, this idea for my year 3 modules also aims to fall within the requirements of justifying my desired Degree Title Suffix of “Information Technology” by focusing strongly on the qualities of various internet tools and developing technologies which are in use and impact upon distributed communities.



A search for literature on the exact subject of "Distributed Action Research" yields practically no relevant result apart from my own work, which is understandable since I coined the phrase myself only last year. On the one hand, most of the books recommended about Action Research tend to come from an education background and concern themselves with classroom settings or other fieldwork while on the other hand, books documenting examples and methods of internet based research appear to describe projects which have taken an evaluative, case study or ethnological approach, none of which could really be described as following exactly in the Action Research tradition.

On the subject of DAR itself without necessarily carrying that name, I anticipate a likelihood that literature of direct relevance may be uncovered as my search progresses.

Meanwhile, the initial theoretical basis of my own research will be an attempt to synthesise from the two bodies of literature about Action Research and about using the internet for research, starting with the four books listed further below in the indicative references section, and an extensive reading of current understanding, knowledge and opinion on the subject of online community, tools and emerging internet phenomena.

The leading authors and constituent subjects from which I shall begin my review of existing theory are these:

Kurt Lewin - groups, experiential learning and action research

Etienne Wenger on Communities of Practice

Stephen Downes on Communities of Practice, connectivism

Richard Winter on Action Research (a theoretical justification)

Nancy White - online facilitation

Gilly Salmon - E-moderating

Bob Dick - Action research, Emergent research

Ross Mayfield - Markets and Technology (Socialtext)

Jimmy Wales - Wikipedia

An early appraisal of these theorists shows no reason why action research methodology should not be applicable in a distributed context, which concurs with my own initial experience.



Research Questions

I want to uncover or create knowledge about the field of Distributed Action Research which helps to explain what it is, how it differs from conventional, non-distributed action research, and which helps others to understand and build on a young tradition. The actual questions themselves are expected to emerge from out of the execution of the proposal (emergent research) but to start off with, I have in mind:

What is the nature of Distributed Action Research ?

Are there people doing it ? who? where?

How does it differ from other Action Research?

How does it differ from other internet based research?

Where might it fit into established research traditions?

What are the advantages and disadvantages to the DAR approach. Where is it appropriate?

How can I help to build a resource which will improve the practice of DAR by myself and others?

Because of the unusual structure to the project, there will also be a number of unconnected minor research questions, asked by each of the discrete small Action Enquiry cycles in phase 1, but these research questions are not important to the overall project, they are catalysts designed to provoke the generation of content with which to develop the DAR knowledge bank.


  • It is assumed that such a thing as Distributed Action Research does or can exist.
  • Distributed communities will become increasingly important and commonplace as access to the technology improves and pressure increases to reduce expensive carbon dioxide emitting physical journeys to physical meetings and workplaces.
  • Anything which is performed using the internet is better understood as a real environment populated by real people rather than as a metaphor for something normally performed in the 'real' world. Virtual reality is just a computer game, but people on the other end of a computer connection are made out of flesh and blood and they are interacting in a way which has unique and as yet relatively unknown disadvantages and advantages compared with synchronous face to face or audio communications.
  • My work may eventually be useful to others, and the collaborative editable website (wiki) is one suitable means for sharing practice amongst researchers.

The action in the second phase consists of me having constructed the beginnings of a resource for internet researchers, then attempting to introduce it into the world in the hope that this might enable some kind of cross fertilisation between researchers whose practice overlaps with the DAR idea. Of course they might say "no this isn't what we need - we need something else " or "No thanks, we've already got one" in which case I shall be able to rethink and react with the full flexibility allowed for by having chosen an emergent plan.



I will be using a mixed approach which adapts Action Research methodology to the online environment, and owes some of its nature to the tradition of ethnographical study. As an action enquirer, I will employ some first-person action research techniques in order to improve my own practice as a researcher, facilitator or participant in online communities. The second phase will be necessarily relying on a very emergent approach, in that the direction of the research will be entirely dictated by events and results from initial cycles of research which have not yet begun. Action Research methodology is the most appropriate method here because of the emphasis on small scale and participatory research directly relevant to my own practice, collecting qualitative data, using reflective cycles and collaborating with others.

The following diagram demonstrates the iterative cyclical nature of the planned AR project.

Notice the "do" in each AE cycle which is a small action taken intended to make some kind of small improvement in an online setting, such as bridging two communities, initiating positive discussion, refactoring a wiki page, folksonomy tagging blog entries, enticing out lurkers or whatever else occurs. The important outcome is the learning about the metier, making this learning explicit and organising it in a way that is meaningful to others.

Notice also the feedback mechanism which harnesses what is arguably the most powerful feature of Action Research, especially when it is unleashed onto the process of research itself. By improving the mechanism of data collection, this should improve the quality of subsequent data which will in turn improve the quality of subsequent analysis and reflections.



It's intended that most of the research will be conducted in forums which are freely available to the world at large, so permission to read and use the data is already granted and rules of confidentiality and anonymity in such a situation are somewhat meaningless.

All of those groups where the conversations are knowingly posted onto the wide open internet, eg usenet, publicly archived email groups, web based bulletin boards which aren't hidden behind password protected barriers. The data is simply out there already for anybody or any thing ( eg google ) to read.


Having said that, I have identified ethical issues around the subject of the perception of privacy, and the idea that sending unsolicited mail seeking permissions or making group announcements about intended research can be intrusive in themselves.


In these circumstances I will argue ( backed up by some literature ) that posting announcements about research intentions and asking permission to quote is an unnecessary intrusion which disturbs communities and irritates individuals.


Where contributions are made anonymously, this presents an ethical problem as to the authenticity of the data. There is no audit trail back to the original author so the reader of the research reports may have to trust the researcher not to have made up this data himself.

There is also an ethical problem concerned with the anonymous contribution of copyrighted work to a wiki after it has been refactored.


Data Collection and Analysis Methods

Perhaps one of the biggest advantages of Distributed Action Research is that a lot of data is collected automatically by the environment itself. Mailing lists, web forums,wiki changes, blog posts and the web itself are all saved, cached, archived, sorted and counted to a lesser or greater extent by automated systems. Both quantitative and qualitative data can then be extracted on a daily basis and saved in a personal VoodooPad document ( see resources).

Rich data may be extracted from public conversations as they happen, and alternative interpretations might be solicited directly from individuals, in which case permission would need to be sought if such data is subsequently to be published.

A private reflective journal will be maintained by the researcher and updated promptly as the research cycles unfold in order to capture the experiential learning soon after it occurs.This should also be triangulated against a quantitative analysis of hard data captured by the information systems, and through soliciting interviews with volunteers from amongst key individuals in communities.

So one method of analysis will be to reflect on the actions, interactions and observations which have taken place, draw some conclusions, write them up onto the new resource and offer them to peer review for collaborative re-writing. Other methods might come to light after I've read the book about Internet Communication and Qualitative Research.




Just as the research will be conducted out in the "wild" public internet, so will the results be published back onto the world wide web as well. The problem is not making it available, but encouraging an audience to find it, join the nascent community around the concept of DAR and collaborate with it.

The formal assessment products, (reports) will also be published as ever, in my own personal web space, linked to from signatures, resumes and other sources such that present and future Ultraversity students might somehow benefit from reading them and in some cases contact me to ask further questions as has already happened.

"Hi Andy,
Looking for AE resources I came across your Action Enquiry - Level 2 - final report, and in to
Emergent Research
This type of Action research begins without a clear hypothesis to test, instead collecting ideas and data first, allowing questions or suggestions for change to emerge from the process of the action research itself. The research design can be improved gradually as understanding of the situation grows through observation and practice.
This sounds interesting, do you have links to further reading about this approach?
A Student, Cohort 3"



Action Research projects are generally low on resource requirements and this is no exception. I'll need the usual equipment for professional remote online working - a reliable broadband internet connection, a desktop computer and some web space with capability for installing modern read/write software driven by PHP and mySQL - probably best on a Linux server running apache.

These will be paid for out of the losses from my new business startup.


I will review the available technology matched to my requirements and resources, make some reasonable choices and then learn how to acquire, install, set up and operate the chosen items. When choosing software, I will be giving preference to Open Source software wherever possible.

I'll need

*Learning Journal / portable notepad.

For simple ease of use and familiarity I decided to upgrade the trial version of VoodooPad which I've already started using on various Macintosh computers.

*Screenshot/Annotation tool

Flysketch is a simple screenshot program combined with primitive vector graphics drawing tools, which together allows a fast way of producing annotated screen shots. These could then be imported into a video editing program such as iMovie which is supplied free with the Apple basic OSX package, to create instructional videos for software or web services.

*Domain Name and hosting for the project

I chose to stick with the same hosting company I used to transfer the ukcider wiki, simply out of familiarity with the interface and tools and certain knowledge that hosting a mediawiki is possible.

To choose the name itself, I pondered for many days, explored which names are available and discussed in private with my Learning Set partners. The name eventually chosen is distributedresearch.net

*Professional public Blog.

The blog which I've been posting to for the last 20 months is reaching the end of its useful life, being powered by an out of date version of the once popular Movable Type 2.6 hosted at ultralab.

By installing the Open Source Wordpress into my own domain I can take advantage of the increased functionality and high quality aesthetics. In particular I can now create any number of blogs using different stylesheets for any co-bloggers who wish to be part of the distributedresearch.net community, and the management of password protected pages for assembling exhibition material is particularly well catered for.


I managed to install and setup an instance of the open sourced Mediawiki 1.5 which will be where most of the accumulated content of the DARnet website will be maintained. The main reason for choosing mediawiki is because there is a large established userbase stemming from Wikipedia and all of the other Wikimedia projects, so that will ensure that the software is kept in the mainstream of wiki software developments.

The front page for the site might be redirected to the wordpress blog, or else I might design a single static entry page which then links to the blog and the wiki. This is something which might emerge out of audience and participant feedback.

*Podcasting capability

I feel that one of the dangers with the concept of an online exhibition, is that it could be viewed as 'just another website' which is casually surfed for a few seconds and explored in a very ad hoc way. For most purposes, the interactive nature of a website is one of the main attractions. In order to keep within the idea of exhibition however, I think a linear medium might be required. Something which forces the audience to take some time, sit back, start at the beginning and watch all the way through until the end. This could be done with either video, animation (Flash) or audio and I have chosen audio (podcast) in order to broaden my experience and I hope, keep things simple. I don't know exactly what resources I'll need for this yet but I suspect I'll be able to use an old microphone I have in the back of a cupboard somewhere, and a combination of iMovie and Quicktime to process the sound files onto the web. This is one of the things I'll be keen to try out and learn from the pilot exhibition.


Indicative References

Relevant books which I have acquired for this research project

Internet Communication and Qualitative Research: A Handbook for Researching Online (New Technologies for Social Research S.)
Chris Mann, Fiona Stewart

Doing Internet Research: Critical Issues and Methods for Examining the Net
Steven G. Jones (Editor), James T. Costigan (Introduction)

The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach
Daniel Miller, Don Slater

Teachers Investigate their Work: An introduction to the methods of Action Research
Herbert Altrichter,Peter Posch and Bridget Somekh



Online resources of particular relevance

Ethical Guidelines for Research Online Amy Bruckman ( viewed online at http://www.cc.gatech.edu/~asb/ethics/ 28/11/20005

online facilitation (onfac) group at yahoogroups - http://groups.yahoo.com/group/onlinefacilitation/

Communities of practice (com-prac) group at yahoogroups - http://groups.yahoo.com/group/com-prac/

Paccagnella, L. 1997. "Getting the seat of your pants dirty: strategies for ethnographic research on virtual communities". Journal of computer-mediated communication. 3(1).http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol3/issue1/paccagnella.html




Furls: Category Y3



Furls: Category Research:



Timetable and plan

Ultimate deadlines are set by the module hand in dates as depicted in my Year Overview extracted below.

Module Title   Start Deadline

Review & Planning

20 Credits 4000 Words

review learning, Identify a focus for your action inquiry and create a research proposal and a research plan. 19th September 28th November

Exhibition Preparation

30 Credits 6000 Words

methodology, options for data collection, ethical considerations, audience, lit review, pilot exhibition report

Priority - Ongoing Activity - Begin the Year 3 action inquiry work as soon as possible.

3rd October 9th December

Implement Action Research & Exhibition

30 Credits 6000 Words

carry out research plan, hold a full-scale exhibition of the findings, gather evidence of the impact of the research. 9th January 3rd April

Exhibition Validation & Defense

30 Credits 6000 Words

make a defense to a peer and academic audience after the exhibition process and focus on the reaction .

Engage in focused academic argument and defense.

In addition key questions posed by examiners will be answered.

13th February 8th May

In order to meet these deadlines I will need to have completed the following project tasks within the time bands allocated below:



Review Learning and Work setting - done

Decide on a focus - done

Produce an 'A4' plan - done

Exploratory cycle - proof of concept - done

Acquire literature - done

Assemble technology - mostly done

Write a draft AR proposal - by October 31st

Discuss proposal and refine (in the light of work for module 2) - by November 14th

Stitching and review planning process - by 28th November

Hand in UNH2601 by 28th November


Reading - Throughout November and afterwards

Small cycles of AE - from October 31st - 14th of November then do not start any new ones until after 9th December.

Preparation for the Pilot Exhibition:

Seek an audience - by posting requests for volunteers

Prepare the Wordpress password-protected Wordpress page and develop the Wiki.

Investigate podcasting

Record the pilot podcast.

All by Nov 14th

Pilot Exhibition - to be held during the week of November 14th- 21st

Write up Literature Review, Methodologies and Ethics by 9th December

Write up Pilot Exhibition report by 9th December

Hand in UNH3601 by 9th December

Implement Action Research & Main Exhibition

Continue with small cycles of AE, writing up findings onto the wiki site. From 9th December to the end of February.

Phase Two: The larger view

Reflect on findings from the Pilot exhibition and contemplate changes in the overall direction of the project. 9th December - 31st

Implement further cycles of Phase two. January / Feb

This will most likely entail seeking out fellow online researchers, enlarging my network of contacts, joining any communities which may already exist for distributed action researchers, exploring all possibilities for collaboration.

Begin work on the Defense Module - 13th February

Main Exhibition - to be held during the first two weeks of March

The exact format to be decided in the light of experience from the pilot and further development of audience.

Writing up module: March 14th- April 3rd.

Hand in UNH3603 by 3rd April

Hand in UNH3602 by 8th May

Hand in UNH1995 by 22nd May

Welsh cider festival 29th May




Internet Communication and Qualitative Research: A Handbook for Researching Online (New Technologies for Social Research S.)
Chris Mann, Fiona Stewart

Doing Internet Research: Critical Issues and Methods for Examining the Net
Steven G. Jones (Editor), James T. Costigan (Introduction)

The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach
Daniel Miller, Don Slater

Teachers Investigate their Work: An introduction to the methods of Action Research
Herbert Altrichter,Peter Posch and Bridget Somekh


Dick, B. (2005). Bob Dick's home page. Southern Cross University. Available: http://www.scu.edu.au/schools/gcm/ar/bd.html. Last accessed 28 Nov 2005.

Downes, S. (2005). Publications. Stephen's Web. Available: http://www.downes.ca/me/publications.htm. Last accessed 28 Nov 2005.

Mayfield, R. (2005). Ross Mayfield's Weblog. Available: http://ross.typepad.com/. Last accessed 28 Nov 2005.

Roberts, A. (2004). Introducing a WIKI to a Community of Practice. Andy Roberts Coursework .Available: http://frankieroberto.com/dad/ultrastudents/andyroberts/year2/AEreport/AEtool.html Last accessed 28 Nov 2005.

Salmon, G. (2005). All things in moderation. Available: http://www.atimod.com/profile/gsalmon.shtml. Last accessed 28 Nov 2005.

Smith, M. K. (2001) 'Kurt Lewin, groups, experiential learning and action research', the encyclopedia of informal education, http://www.infed.org/thinkers/et-lewin.htm

Wales, J. (2005). Jimmy Wales. Wikipedia the Free Encyclopedia. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jimmy_Wales. Last accessed 28 Nov 2005.

Wenger, E. (2005). Communities of practice. Etienne Wenger. Available: http://www.ewenger.com/theory/index.htm. Last accessed 28 Nov 2005.

White, N. (2005). Full Circle Associates. Available: http://www.fullcirc.com/. Last accessed Nov 28 2005.

Winter, R. (2005). Richard Winter. Anglia Ruskin University Online Community. Available: http://web.apu.ac.uk/richardwinter/index.html. Last accessed 28 Nov 2005.