Evaluating Information and Communications Technology: new ways of evaluating new ways of knowing

A paper presented to the Special Interest Group Research on Evaluation at the American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting,

New Orleans, April 1–5

Jean McNiff

[Word version available]

Outline of this paper

This paper describes one of several evaluation projects I have been involved in recently. All these projects have adopted the same methodology (see also McNiff, 2002b).

This methodology regards evaluation as a form of self study. The approach has become increasingly popular over the last decade, and is animated by a commitment to personal responsibility for professional practice, a theme supported by a range of literatures that emphasise the need for individuals to account for themselves in relation to their physical and social environments. It is indeed a powerful approach to personal and organisational development, yet not without its critics, for whom the approach is invalid, as I explain below. The approach represents a major shift from traditional ‘old scholarship’ ways of thinking and acting, which operate from an externalist perspective in which some people make judgements about others, to ‘new scholarship’ ways that celebrate person-centred approaches in which people, individually and collectively, account for themselves to one another. For some researchers, the idea of people thinking and acting for themselves might appear contrary to the values of traditional epistemologies that regard expert knowledge as a property of legitimated knowers. When the right to be regarded as a legitimate knower is devolved to practitioners, questions arise as to how the knowledge might be validated, and, because validation is always rooted in power and politics, problematics and social conflict can arise in a variety of interesting ways.

Context of the evaluation project

In 1997 the Department of Education and Science in Ireland launched Schools IT 2000, a national initiative that was intended to establish a permanent infrastructure in schools for the development of appropriate knowledge of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) (Department of Education and Science, 1997). The initiative was to be managed by the National Centre for Technology in Education (NCTE), and would be implemented in schools through a range of programmes, including the Schools Integration Project (SIP). Schools were invited to apply for support to develop a schools-based project of their choice through ICT. By 2001 eighty schools-based-projects were under way, some involving other clusters of schools, and all with their individual project focus. A total number of some 400 schools became involved, representing a cross-section of sectors and management bodies. The projects are now being posted on the SIP website (http://www.sip.ie).

In October 2000 the NCTE invited me, in my capacity as an independent researcher, to conduct an evaluation of SIP in order to investigate its potential impact in schools. They invited me, rather than another evaluation agency such as one of the universities, evidently because my work is now well known in Ireland for supporting teachers in undertaking their action enquiries into their classroom practice, to show how their knowledge impacts beneficially on the development of the organisations they work in. For examples of reports from these action enquiries, see Collins and McNiff, 1999; McNiff, 2000, 2002a; McNiff and Collins, 1994; McNiff, McNamara and Leonard, 2000; see also practitioners’ Masters dissertations and reports, for example, the dissertation by Thérèse Burke at http:www.actionresearch.net, and those by Máirín Glenn, Caitríona Mc Donagh, and Mary Roche at http://www.jeanmcniff.com. From my own commitments to democratic practices, as well as my understanding of the transformative potentials of personal enquiry for social renewal, I negotiated with the NCTE that the evaluation would be conducted participatively. Its epistemological base would be self study and its methodology would be action research. On this basis, teachers and principals, as co-ordinators of their schools-based SIP projects, could undertake their action enquiries into their practices, and produce accounts to show how they felt they were justified in claiming that they had improved the quality of educational experience for themselves and the children in their schools through ICT.

The epistemological and methodological bases of self study in relation to ICT

My reasons for negotiating this methodological base for the evaluation work was grounded in my own understanding of the significance of new epistemologies for the new scholarship of teaching (Schön, 1995; Zeichner, 1999), and the need to demonstrate the significance for educational practices of the scholarships of discovery, integration, application and teaching (Boyer, 1990). Contemporary studies emphasise the process of knowledge creation through self study (Hamilton, 2001; Whitehead, 2000). Some show how ICT, as a new form of knowledge-creation itself, can be integrated into self-studies. Some of these are showing how the use of multimedia portfolios of professional development can contribute to a new scholarship of teaching (Farren, 2002; Whitehead, 2001).

My reasons were also grounded in my view of self-study as a context for developing appropriate standards of judgement for testing the validity of claims to educational knowledge (Bullough and Pinnegar, 2001). New work (Kushner, 2000) emphasises the importance of new personalised forms of evaluation that recognise the emergent and transformative nature of knowledge creation processes and aim to develop transformative standards of judgement to test the validity of the knowledge thus created. Evaluation on this view becomes an integral aspect of personal knowledge-generating processes as people address questions of the kind, ‘How do I improve my work?’ (Whitehead, 1989). The epistemologies of practice that people can come to create through addressing such questions can be demonstrated to be appropriate for forms of enquiry that aim to encourage sustainable social change.

I held the view that negotiating the personal knowledge base to this evaluation work would have significant implications. The evaluation process would become a form of professional education in which teachers might come to regard their practice as research, and aim to find ways of engaging with the new technologies and understand the potential educative influence of this interaction. The participative nature of the work might enable the teachers to form supportive communities of enquiry whose focus would enable them to explore new pedagogies and strategies for managing the development of learning through ICT. For many teachers, involvement in SIP was a new professional learning experience both of substantive issues and also of collaborative working, and many found the process a form of personal and professional renewal that offered them new sources of energy for reconceptualising their schools as learning communities.

Indeed, the nature of learning and teaching through ICT had become an issue for many teachers involved in the SIP project. Through the process of SIP, some teachers were already experiencing destabilisation within their tried and trusted pedagogies, because of the development of new insights into the nature of teaching and learning through ICT, and these insights were beginning to manifest for some as new theories of learning (Pachler, 1999). The issue had become for them not only whether children and their teachers could learn to use ICT at a skills level, but also whether they could learn through ICT to enable the development of their multiple epistemologies. Traditional theories of learning emphasise the development of cognitive capacities. Newer constructivist theories of learning accept the existence of embodied epistemologies (for example, Gardner, 1983), and show the transformative potentials involved in turning an individual’s tacit knowing into purposeful action. Conceptualisations of ICT move from its being a repository of knowledge, a ‘tool’ in much popular discourse, to becoming a living process of knowledge-generation itself. Information, Castells (1996) reminds us, refers to a process of people creating knowledge and testing its validity collaboratively. The SIP project appeared to be enabling participants – teachers and children – to show how they were developing their own personal theories of learning, as embodied in their practices, and how they were making judgements about the use value of that learning.

So I worked for eight months across the country, meeting people individually and collectively, in their workplaces and through organised meetings and seminars, explaining the principles of action research and helping them to find answers to their own workplace dilemmas. All the while I was monitoring my own practice, and gathering data from the critical perspectives of SIP coordinators on my work and how I might be having an educational influence on them. My evaluation work took the form of my own self study as I encouraged others to undertake their self studies.

The working framework we used for our self studies was the one developed by Jack Whitehead (1989). This follows a systematic action plan in which a series of critical questions enable people to develop their own logic of practice (Bourdieu, 1990). These questions take the following form:

What is my concern?

Why am I concerned?

What can I do about my concern?

How can I gather evidence to show that I am influencing the situation?

How can I be sure that any conclusions I come to are reasonably fair and accurate?

How will I modify my practice in the light of my evaluation?

(See McNiff, Lomax and Whitehead, 1996 and forthcoming).

This action plan enabled SIP coordinators to locate their work within a coherent conceptual framework, and enabled many to come to see their work as a form of educational research. From my own conversations with coordinators, as recorded in my notebooks, I extract the following comments in support of these claims:

‘You helped us shape our projects in terms of a visible framework.’

‘I see my work in the context of a bigger picture. I can see that I am creating my own knowledge here which I can use for the children.’

‘I didn’t want to do this, but it’s good that I have. I can look back now and see where I’ve come from and how I’ve got here, and I can make sense of what I am doing. I can understand how I can go forward now with the children.’

‘What we’ve done here has been the most educational experience I can remember. I really didn’t think at my age that I would have anything left to learn. I have learnt with the children.’

At the end of the evaluation phase, some 60 reports exist to show how teachers, principals, advisers and managers have come to understand their practice at an explicit level, and are able to theorise their practice in terms of explaining their reasons for action and showing how they accept the responsibility for the consequences of their actions. These projects will soon be on the SIP website.

Developing standards of judgement to test claims to educational knowledge

A major issue for the project was to find ways of testing individuals’ claims to educational knowledge. I consistently promoted Whitehead’s (2000) idea that we can understand our practices in terms of the values we hold that inspire our work, and how we might live those values in our everyday practices. Our values can act as our living standards of judgement, which we use to test the validity of our claims to understand how we might learn to improve the quality of learning for others. If we could show, I said (and many agreed with the idea), that we were practising in the direction of our values, we could claim that we had achieved our aims of improving the quality of educational experience through ICT. It is important also to appreciate that the meanings of our values often emerge only slowly, through our unfolding practices. In this view, some coordinators, who really wanted to get to grips with the idea of self-evaluation, systematically monitored their practice to record instances of when they felt their values were emerging as the living criteria by which they could judge their work.


The main data for the research was in the production of some 60 personal accounts of practice from the coordinators. It would be inaccurate to say that all 80 SIP coordinators were enthusiastic about engaging in their own self studies or producing reports. Some saw SIP as extra work; others saw it as an opportunity to gain resources. Some did not want to write a report. However, they all did, as part of their contractual commitments with the NCTE. About 60 out of the 80 reports show that coordinators did come to understand the significance of what they were doing and its potential for encouraging sustainable school development. The production of these reports was a living out of my own values of believing that people are able to, and should give an account of their own professional learning and development, and that these accounts can show the creation of their own personal theories of education as they help their children and colleagues to engage with the educative potentials of ICT.

A secondary source of data exists in 40 semi-structured tape-recorded interviews I held with coordinators about their experience of being involved in SIP and its evaluation. The questions for the interviews had been established collaboratively with a core team of ICT advisors and NCTE managers, and, as interviewer, I put these questions to coordinators. I then transcribed all the interviews and did an item analysis for each of the questions. This item analysis and my interpretations went into my final report.

My understanding of the process of the evaluation project is that NCTE colleagues and I collaboratively developed a commitment to encouraging all participants to be accountable for their own work, and to value their capacity as knowledge creators. Many participants came to see their work as research, as was manifested in the new forms of discourse that emerged as part of the evaluation process. In turn, some coordinators began to encourage their children and colleagues also to see their work as research, and to produce their accounts of practice to show the process of their learning. Many of the coordinators’ research reports contain accounts by children and teachers, which form their own narratives of professional learning. These reports explore innovative forms of representation. Many schools have produced their own web sites, CD-ROMs and multimedia presentations. Alongside stills picture and texts, one can also access visual narratives of children learning and hear their own emergent understandings of what they know and how they have come to know. Collaboratively we have created a new body of knowledge that is to be found not only in the NCTE archives and, shortly, on the SIP web site, but that also exists within the practices of people as they create their own educational knowledge in company with others. Many participants explain how they are using their values as their living standards of judgement to support their claims to educational knowledge through ICT.


While it is possible to show how the evaluation project acted as a form of personal and professional development that was widely welcomed by teachers as helping them to understand and improve their practice for the benefit of their students and colleagues, it is not possible to say that the approach was accepted by all. One observer, on reading one of my working reports, commented vehemently, ‘This is not an evaluation.’ I believe he would have been speaking also on behalf of others who, while they might accept the idea of self study as a form of professional learning, would not accept it as a form of evaluation.

Herein lies a major issue – what counts as evaluation – that must be addressed urgently in education debates, for it is crucial to the development of the Scholarship of Teaching movement (see below), and is breaking on many fronts in professional education initiatives. The extensive literatures of school improvement now explain that the quality of students’ learning has to be understood in relation to the quality of teachers’ learning (see for example MacBeath, 1999; the Special Edition of the British Educational Research Journal, September 2001, on ‘Educational Effectiveness and Improvement’). New literatures of teachers’ professional learning explain that the capacity of teachers to make professional judgements on their own practice, and to subject those judgements to public critique, should be seen as the basis of professional education. This philosophy is well embedded in initiatives such as the peer review of teaching (PRT, known in the UK as the peer observation of teaching, POT), an approach to the professional education of faculty developed during the 1970s, that came to prominence during the 1990s through a project on PRT led by the American Association for Higher Education, and that is now integrated into the Scholarship of Teaching movement (The Times Higher, March 15, 2002). Yet these are contested territories. What counts as scholarship is contested (Schön, 1995), let alone what counts as evaluation.

About evaluation

The comment from the observer (not an isolated incident I have to say) moved me to engage seriously with issues of how evaluation is construed, and how differing opinions about the matter might be validated. I began to investigate issues about what are the objects of evaluation, and the nature and purposes of evaluation, and how one might make professional judgements about one’s own decisions about these issues.

My investigations into the history of evaluation reveal that opinions have changed over time. This is entirely in keeping with views that, as the process of scientific enquiry itself changes over time and in relation to social needs, so also do conceptualisations of other issues, in this case, evaluation. The idea of evaluation is, like many other ideas, an aspect of discourses that communicate wider evolutionary processes of social change. Whereas earlier conceptualisations of evaluation presented it as a form of social control, by requiring ‘subjects’ to achieve behavioural objectives (Tyler,1950; Mager, 1962), more developed models present it as a form of social interaction as people work towards mutual understanding of their own personal and interpersonal processes (MacDonald, 1987; Stake, 1978). So the objects of evaluation have moved from a study of the behaviours of compliant people, to a study of the intersubjective understandings of socially aware people. The form of evaluation has evolved from the imposition of reified frameworks of control to the development of transition structures, and the purposes of evaluation have evolved from social control to participative social evolution. What has not changed however is the locus of power in evaluation processes. The concept of evaluation still carries connotations that an external observer can make judgements about the practices of other people. The assumptions underpinning this view are that ‘ordinary’ people are not capable of thinking for themselves, and need an external expert to make judgements about the value of their lives.

In newer conceptualisations of evaluation, the locus of power does begin to shift. Kushner (2000) promotes a view of evaluation as the study of people who are involved in self evaluation processes, though there is ambivalence about who makes judgements and how these judgements are justified. My own view is that people are capable of thinking, learning and acting for themselves. I regard evaluation as a process of self study in which people make claims to have improved the quality of their work in terms of their educative influence in the lives of others. A crucial aspect here is to find ways of assessing that educative influence. I have come to understand that the term ‘evaluation’ is a socially constructed concept that can be appropriated to meet different people’s specific political ambitions. In my view, the idea of evaluation should not be regarded as a reified ‘object’ so much as a process of enquiry, a term that is part of the discourses of evolutionary practices. Evaluation carries an implication that something is of value, and the value of lives can be established in ways other than as behavioural outcomes. In my view, the worth of a lived experience can be demonstrated within the lives of real people as they aim to live in the direction of their values, and produce validated evidence to explain how they are doing so.

The problematics of validation

I still need to address the issue of how I feel I am justified in this view, particularly as the view is contested. I am claiming that, as an educator, I believe my view of evaluation is valid; and it is more appropriate than the view of my critic in terms of meeting the aims of SIP, as set out above. I am claiming that I know this, while my critic, also claiming to be knowledgeable, is saying the opposite. Yet I do not see this as a rivalrous competition, but as a process of education. How do I show the validity of my view? How do I remain open to the possibility that I might be mistaken? How do I invite others to share and put forward their view for critical scrutiny, so that we might work through our differences? For I do believe that educational enquiry should itself be a form of dialogue through which people can learn from one another and generate new knowledge.

I am reminded here of the film ‘Good Will Hunting’. This film is about three men. Two of them, Jerry and Sean, both of whom claim to be educators, try to influence the third, Will, for what they believe is the ‘good’ of learning. Will is a wild young genius who reads books at a glance, solves seemingly insoluble mathematics, and picks fights for fun. Jerry, a university professor, wants to harness the indiscipline and persuade Will to focus his energies on productive work in business. Sean, a community college lecturer, wants to help Will choose for himself what is worth living for, and particularly to see loving relationships as the grounds for life decisions. The conflict between Jerry and Sean is presented as a battle for Will’s soul. Importantly, the conflict is not presented as an allegory of good and evil, but of two competing visions of ‘good’. Both lecturers sincerely believe that their vision is for the greater good of education. Both are prepared to put up with Will’s personal abuse in order to win their struggle for his soul. Both aim to help him towards what they believe is freedom and responsibility in choice, Jerry’s vision of freedom being the freedom to contribute to technical knowledge and earn cash, Sean’s vision the freedom to develop a capacity to love.

These two conflicting views of the good of education are grounded in the same principle as the conflicting view of what counts as evaluation.

My way of resolving the tension about who is ‘right’ is not to appeal to grand theory, but to appeal to the principle of local demonstrations. My God is a god of small things (Roy, 1997), on the fractal metaphor that larger things evolve from small things, which evolve from still smaller things, but small is where it all begins. The potential grandeur of small things is without limit. This is where I find legitimation that my view of evaluation has led to benefit in other people’s lives.

My claims to know are grounded in the evidence of real people’s testimonies that they did come to evaluate their own work and make professional judgements on it that proved to be of benefit both for themselves and for the children in their care. These testimonies are contained in the reports of teachers, and these will soon be in the public domain. When you access those reports, you will be able to judge for yourself which view of evaluation you feel is the most useful for practices that are trying to influence the nature of educational and social change. You will be able also to decide for yourself which practices you decide to adopt, depending on what values you hold about whether or not people are able to think for themselves and should be supported in doing so, or whether you feel that evaluation, and the processes it describes, are to be controlled by elites.

We people here, who enjoy privileged positions as public intellectuals, have choices about our actions. We need to be clear about what those choices are, defend our choices by producing evidence to show why we have made those choices and not others, and accept the responsibility for the consequences of what we decide to do.


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