design research as praxis for literacy educators

For the last year, I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of action research (Mills, 2011) in higher education, especially in literacy instruction. It is the prevalent mode of self-reflective, evidence-based, and participatory research in K-12 settings meant to improve students’ outcomes and practices. Similar to case studies, it examines phenomena within specific contexts. What makes it distinct is its explicit purpose of positive change in the classroom (and beyond). Ideally, it would be part of normal teaching practices rather than just some periodic activity. Unfortunately, many teachers don’t have the time (or incentives) for formal engagement in such research.

It does not seem to be on the radar of many educators at the university level, but it strikes me as an important approach to adopt. Faculty cannot be forced or goaded into it though; by its very nature, its foundation is a personal desire to examine one’s own teaching methods and willingness to share. But faculty are sometimes known to be resistant when it comes to evaluating or altering their own instructional practices due to, in part, a lack of perceived need or time (McCrickerd, 2012).  While  I cannot magically plant intrinsic motivation or add more hours to the day (or both), I hope that some type of collaborative research in regard to instructional design can scaffold their way to action research.

For a while, I wondered how to approach it. I could certainly give a workshop describing action research conceptually, but I don’t have confidence that people would fully embrace it (in part because not everyone shares a common foundation in instructional methods, terminology, and assessment—or even aware there is already a rich & established knowledge base in this area). And then anything mandated or facilitated would no longer be action research as understood in education. But early last week, I attended an Educause webinar called “Iterative Design for Learning: Using Design Research and Prototyping to Innovate and Support Learning”  (7/9/2012) and learned about a similar type of research that doesn’t have that constraint.

The presenter was Alan Foley, an Associate Professor in the School of Education at Syracuse University, and he spoke about the problem of linking educational research to instructional practice in higher education. Aside from the fact that studies about learning and teaching tend to be only read by other educational researchers, academia does not reward good teaching (or robust student assessment). But the topic of the webinar was prototyping, and therefore he did not go into great detail about how to resolve tensions between instructional designers and faculty or how to improve teaching on campus. He does, however, talk about the context for prototyping, and this was the most compelling part of his talk for me: design research.

Design thinking is part of my job, but I think the best way I can truly support faculty is through design research. What’s the difference? The latter takes more of an academic approach. Beyond just developing an instructional product or activity, what’s the theoretical base for its design? And after implementation, what new knowledge about its design and student learning was generated from the outcomes?

These types of practices could potentially advance our practices and effectiveness as a literacy organization (and the larger profession) and seems like a ready alternative to conceptual (see Jacobs, 2008) or borrowed (i.e. action research) ideas regarding professional praxis. In the webinar, I was able to squeeze in a question about action research, and he confirmed that the difference between the two lies in the presence of an external researcher. I suddenly felt validated in my efforts, and if I can recruit my colleagues for design research, I think it would go a long way in supporting and developing instruction.  I am looking forward to developing context-specific research methodologies.


Jacobs, Heidi L. M. “Information Literacy and Reflective Pedagogical Praxis.” Journal of Academic Librarianship. 34.3 (2008): 256-262.

McCrickerd, Jennifer. “Understanding and Reducing Faculty Reluctance to Improve Teaching.” College Teaching. 60.2 (2012): 56-64.

Mills, Geoffrey E. Action Research: A Guide for the Teacher Researcher. Boston [etc.]: Pearson, 2011. Print.

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