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MARNet Conference 2021: A Post-Conference Reflection

MARNet Conference 2021: A Post-Conference Reflection

The Malaysian Action Research Network (MARNet) was established as an official action research organisation on 2 September, 2021. To celebrate this success, and for the first time in its history, MARNet organised an online international action research conference, in collaboration with the Collaborative Action Research Network (CARN), United Kingdom from 5 to 9 October, 2021. The event formed part of the CARNival Conference 2021, which was held virtually from 2 to 10 October, 2021. CARNival was organised from Dundee, Scotland, and featured a variety of CARN events from all over the world, representing 25 countries. A total of 216 action research practitioners attended the MARNet conference 2021. We also invited world-renowned action research speakers and discussants. A total of 122 Pecha Kucha and Photovoice presentations, delivered by presenters from multidisciplinary backgrounds, were shared during the five days of the conference. The conference featured two plenaries and two symposia, facilitated by prominent Malaysian action research scholars, who are also MARNet committee members.

Two plenaries and two symposia

On day one of the conference, Dr Zailah Zainudin from Institut Pendidikan Guru Kampus Raja Melewar, also MARNet President, delivered a welcome speech. She welcomed all participants, including speakers and attendees, and expressed her delight at the number of registered participants at this first-ever international action research conference in Malaysia. Following the welcome speech, Associate Professor Dr Vishalache Balakrishnan from the Universiti Malaya chaired Symposium 1, entitled ‘Raising voices through participatory action research’. The recording of the event can be viewed at https://youtu.be/KdDmPvfLPtI

The first speaker, Associate Professor Dr Fariza Puteh Behak from the Islamic Science University of Malaysia, delivered a paper entitled ‘Raising voices through participatory action research: A question of power and empowerment’. As a participatory action researcher, she highlighted that “participatory action research seeks to effect social change through the collaborative efforts of individuals in a given context who work together as co-researchers”. In particular, she presented the concepts of power and empowerment in conducting a participatory action research study with Malays, a hierarchical society in Malaysia (Puteh-Behak, 2014). The second speaker, Dr Pang Jee Ching from SEGi University, delivered a paper entitled ‘Participatory action research and rights to research for individuals with intellectual disabilities in Malaysia’. In her presentation, she emphasised that “the rights of those with intellectual disabilities to participate in research should be upheld in the social inclusion agenda”. She shared her PhD research that captures the lives and rights of individuals with intellectual disabilities, involving them as research partners (Ching, 2018). The third and final speaker, Dr Amirul Shah Md Shahbudin from Universiti Sains Malaysia, delivered a paper entitled ‘An academic entrepreneurship programme: The role of academic action research in harnessing talent to become an entrepreneur’. He shared inspirational stories of two young graduates from a professional accounting programme who decided to become entrepreneurs.

Dr Amirul Shah Md Shahbudin reflected his role as an action research researcher.

During the discussion session, Associate Professor Dr Vishalache Balakrishnan invited Professor Mary Brydon-Miller from the University of Louisville, United States, to provide constructive feedback to the speakers and to raise questions for further exploration during the question and answer session. She summarised all the papers presented by the speakers and facilitated the discussion in an extremely engaging manner. At the end of the session, she encouraged everyone to disseminate their findings via international, peer-reviewed scholarly publications. 

“There are lots and lots of action research publications out there that would really be interested in learning about your individual projects or possibly if you wanted to come together and talk about them from sort of a MARNet perspective… what is the nature of action research currently in Malaysia? Part of our job as researchers is to share our knowledge with others, and I would really welcome hearing from you and encourage you to consider publishing your work”. (Professor Mary Brydon-Miller, University of Louisville, United States).

Plenary 1: Voices explored through “I” as a living contradiction

On day two of the conference, Associate Professor Dr Sarimah Shaik Abdullah from Universiti Utara Malaysia delivered a plenary entitled ‘Voices explored through “I” as a live contradiction’. The recording of the event can be viewed at https://youtu.be/Goo8mx6V-QE. She shared her action research-based learning about learners, learning, and teaching, which she had gathered from her doctoral studies (Shaik-Abdullah, 2005) and her subsequent experiences teaching and supervising at a postgraduate level. On a reflective note, she hoped that educators will exercise their autonomy to engage learners in the learning process. After the presentation, Dr Zailah Zainudin (the session chair) invited Professor Jack Whitehead from the University of Cumbria, United Kingdom, to serve as a discussant. Professor Whitehead described Dr Sarimah Shaik Abdullah as a “magnificent” illustration of someone passionate about education and improving learning. In addition, the subsidiary discussant, Dr Marie Huxtable from the University of Cumbria, was also impressed with Dr Sarimah Shaik Abdullah’s presentation. She explained that Dr Sarimah Shaik Abdullah “shifted from asking questions which were focused on instruction, to skills, to the educational purposes of what she was doing. She wanted to solve a problem but also understood it as a process, and then how she actually developed a methodology in order to enable her to answer the questions continually”. At the end of the session, Professor Jack Whitehead thanked the MARNet organisers for the invitation.

“Thanks to the organisers of MARNet for this opportunity because it’s so impressive to see what is actually being done. People from MARNet can help grow this movement [educational living theory] by sharing the knowledge you are creating and generating as you work to improve your practice. Many thanks for the opportunity to participate; it’s been a pleasure. Thank you”.  (Professor Jack Whitehead, University of Cumbria, United Kingdom).

The MARNet Conference 2021 continued on day three with the second symposium entitled ‘Voices of the unheard: Teachers as agents of change’. Associate Professor Dr Sarimah Shaik Abdullah chaired the session. The recording of the event can be viewed at https://youtu.be/a_g5RFzuCYQ.

The first speaker, Associate Professor Dr Nadarajan Thambu from Sultan Idris Education University delivered a paper entitled ‘Action research: A catalyst for educational practice innovation’. In his presentation, he elaborated on the role of action research in moral education, explaining it as a cyclical process (Thambu et al., 2020). He ended the presentation by emphasising that “action research is an appropriate methodology to test learning methods, systems, techniques, and strategies in the context of education”. The second speaker, Assistant Professor Dr Nazatul Akmar from the International Islamic University Malaysia, presented her paper entitled ‘Rediscovering oneself: Listening to the “voices within”’. Her presentation described her qualitative action research study, which entailed the description of how she, as the educator cum researcher, used the philosophical inquiry approach to improve teaching and learning in the area of Civic and Citizenship Education in a Malaysian secondary school. She emphasised that “action research is all about personal and professional growth, how we embrace changes, how teachers have to be agents of change, and how we should lead the educational world”.

Assistant Professor Dr Nazatul Akmar’s presentation entitled ‘Rediscovering oneself: Listening to the “voices within”’.

The final paper entitled ‘Raising teachers’ voice through collaborative action research’ was presented by Dr Satirah Ahmad from Institut Pendidikan Guru Kampus Sultan Abdul Halim. In the presentation, she proposed a partnership between universities and teachers to ensure that teachers are able to theorise their own educational living, with support from teacher educators and university lecturers. She concluded by suggesting a way forward for conducting research. As she described: “researching with insiders is certainly different; it feels different because it is different. It feels uncomfortable because we are doing things differently; we have to start somewhere”. At the end of all three presentations, Dr Sarimah Shaik Abdullah invited the symposium’s discussant, Professor Kenan Dikilitaş from the University of Stavanger, Norway, to provide critical feedback and to explore questions and answers. He was impressed with the meticulous action research procedures explained by all three speakers. He then started to ask questions to all speakers about what specific changes in practice had happened in the classroom. The discussion was very critical, moving back and forth between the speakers and the discussant. In the end, he suggested thinking more about the role of learners/participants in future action research studies. He was also pleased to be invited as a discussant for the MARNet Conference 2021.

“I really love the idea of being invited, being here getting to know more about Malaysia. The discussion was really thought-provoking; the presentations highlighted very interestingly critical points that we commented and reflected on critically. I think there are still things to talk about, but as always, we never have enough time to discuss everything, and we can meet at other events and discuss further” (Professor Kenan Dikilitaş, University of Stavanger, Norway).

Plenary 2: Voices of the unheard in participatory action research

On the final day of the MARNet Conference 2021, Associate Professor Dr Vishalache Balakrishnan delivered a plenary entitled ‘Voices of the unheard in participatory action research (PAR)’. The recording of the event can be viewed at https://youtu.be/mwktDNWO_tk. Drawing from her experiences in multicultural education and working with culturally diverse youth and communities (Balakrishnan & Claiborne, 2017), her presentation focused on the unheard voices in PAR and suggested that PAR remains consistent with its original transformative goals. She emphasised that “there is much contemporary debate about the possibilities of critique that take on board divergent socio-material realities within the same classroom. PAR also remains open to further explorations of activism that address pressing contemporary concerns within culturally complex societies”. One of the audience members was Dr Andy Convery from the Collaborative Action Research Network (CARN), the United Kingdom. He thanked Dr Vishalache Balakrishnan because her presentation made him ask a number of important questions: “Is action research a transformative or formative process? Does it change you so that you don’t need to do anymore ever, or does it form you so that you want to do more in the future?”. 

Professional discourse and cultural event

Besides the two plenaries and symposia, the MARNet Conference 2021 also featured two special events: a professional discourse event and a cultural event on 7 October, 2021. The professional discourse event, entitled ‘Action Research for Postgraduate Studies’, was chaired by Dr Zailah Zainudin and engaged with two prominent action research scholars based in Malaysia: Emeritus Professor Dr Othman Lebar from Sultan Idris Education University and Associate Professor Dr Vishalache Balakrishnan from Universiti Malaya. The recording of the professional discourse event can be viewed at https://youtu.be/SkWvYUnT8G4.

Emeritus Professor Lebar briefly explained the historical background of action research in Malaysia and emphasised the importance of distinguishing between classroom-based action research and action research for postgraduate studies. He also highlighted that if students are conducting action research for their doctoral studies, they need to demonstrate a rigorous action research methodology to convince universities that it is ethical and feasible. In addition, Associate Professor Dr Vishalache Balakrishnan explained the struggles involved in conducting action research at the postgraduate level in Malaysia from a scholarly point of view. She stated that scholars in Malaysian universities should change their mindset and bring different research philosophies and paradigms to the table. She also emphasised that there is hope for action research to be widely accepted across universities in Malaysia. The discussion concluded by stating that the work of MARNet could significantly impact the development of action research in Malaysia.

“I really hope that MARNet will flourish and become a giant action research organisation in Malaysia. In particular, I also hope that action research impacts the schoolteachers themselves. There is a need for MARNet to calculate action research using a bottom-up approach, and the Ministry should appreciate action research findings and reports. Although I am in my retirement days, don’t hesitate to get in touch with me if anyone requires views from time to time; I am willing to be contacted”. (Emeritus Professor Dr Othman Lebar, Sultan Idris Education University).

Cultural event – Action research and the ‘rendang’ analogy: A live cooking demo

MARNet also organised a unique virtual cultural event during the conference. The cultural event, entitled ‘Action research and the rendang analogy’, was a live cooking demo presented by Dr Mohd Syafiq Aiman Mat Noor. He demonstrated the processes of cooking rendang – a rich, tender, coconut meat stew that is explosively flavourful. By explaining the methodological processes involved in making rendang, Dr Zailah Zainudin and Dr Satirah Ahmad offered an analogy for action research philosophy and methodology. This session aimed to provide participants with a deeper understanding of the action research philosophy and methodology and to introduce international audiences to Malaysian culture and traditional food. Many participants were impressed with the informal nature of the session, which offered a moment of respite in the middle of the conference. The recording of the event can be viewed at https://youtu.be/6DSXV8mR8Dc.

Pecha Kucha and Photovoice presentations

At the MARNet Conference 2021, we welcomed two types of contributions: Pecha Kucha and Photovoice presentations. Pecha Kucha, which means “chit chat” in Japanese, is a presentation method that encourages presenters to tell a story using images rather than reading text from slides during a PowerPoint presentation. Meanwhile, Photovoice is a type of participatory action research in which presenters use photographs and/or videos to capture and express their thoughts about their environment and experiences (Wang & Burris, 1997). Despite the novelty of this type of presentation for the Malaysian participants, we received and accepted an impressive 80 Pecha Kucha and 42 Photovoice presentations. The presentations were presented in 31 parallel sessions, spread over three conference days. The parallel sessions were based on specific fields of study, with themed sessions such as ‘Voices from Tertiary Educators and Health Practitioners’, ‘Voices from Education Administrators’, and ‘Voices from Teacher Educators’. The conference feedback indicated that the majority of the participants enjoyed presenting and listening to the Pecha Kucha and Photovoice presentations. The participants also enjoyed receiving constructive feedback from the panellists, and they hoped that this format of presentation will continue in future conferences. As one of the participants expressed:

“There is no competition with the MARNet Conference 2021; hence, every presenter’s main focus was ideas and thoughts regarding action research, and to see the genuine passion in everyone was simply mind-blowing. Every session left me thinking and reflecting as an educator and a learner. The plenary sessions where the academicians talked about their work and the discussants shared their constructive feedback and views on the discussed topic. The same goes for Photovoice and Pecha Kucha; some academicians’ feedback was very thoughtful and thorough. In future sessions, after each presentation, there can be a discussant to talk about action research in a thoughtful reflective way which can help foster future conversations”. (Mrs Sheimah Nallasamy, Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan Kahang, Johor)

Concluding remarks

After the second plenary, the closing ceremony, which was chaired by Dr Mohd Syafiq Aiman Mat Noor, the MARNet Secretary, began with a speech from a representative from the Darulaman English Language Learning & Teaching Association (DELTA), Ms Selvamalar Selvarajan. DELTA is a non-profit organisation that promotes life-long teaching and learning activities to enhance professionalism among English educators. DELTA was an official MARNet fiscal sponsor, which has helped to finance MARNet’s activities since its inception, and in particular, for the conference. Ms Selvamalar Selvarajan introduced DELTA to all participants, including its aims, purposes, activities and programmes. Following a speech from the DELTA representative, Dr Mohd Syafiq Aiman Mat Noor invited Emeritus Professor Karen McArdle from the University of Aberdeen and Dr Andy Convery from the Collaborative Action Research Network (CARN), United Kingdom, to give speeches. Professor McArdle, also part of CARNival 2021, thanked MARNet for the possibility to collaborate with CARN to organise the MARNet Conference 2021. She expressed that:

“We at CARNival [organised by the Collaborative Action Research Network, United Kingdom] are really proud to be associated with MARNet. It’s been just such an exciting and well-managed conference and has had such respected speakers. I think it’s been really terrific, and I’ve managed to make lots of international contacts, which is great”. (Professor Karen McArdle, Emeritus Professor, University of Aberdeen).

Similarly, Dr Andy Convery, representing the CARN committees, thanked MARNet for organising a fulfilling MARNet Conference 2021. He said that:

“The conferences [CARNival Conference 2021 and MARNet Conference 2021] have really been fulfilling, as our two networks have synchronised so immensely, very well, so we must thank you. The work you are doing is an inspiration to us, so thank you for that. Thank you for taking part, and we look forward to meeting everybody at future conferences. Hopefully, we all can meet up virtually or face to face sometime in the future”. (Dr Andy Convery, Collaborative Action Research Network, CARN).

At the end of the conference, Dr Zailah Zainudin, the MARNet President, delivered a concluding remark. She expressed her appreciation for all secretariats who had worked hard to organise the MARNet Conference 2021. She also thanked all participants who participated in the sessions over the five days of the conference. As she expressed: “action research can be the catalyst for the fast, drastic revolution in education and without our raised voices, change in education might be a slow natural revolution”.

The Malaysian Action Research Network is looking forward to hosting the International Conference on Action Research (https://icar.marnet.my) virtually from 2 to 6 September, 2022.

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