Virtual action learning: What’s going on?

24 November 2008
Whilst there is extensive and growing literature in online and networked learning (e.g. McConnell, 2000) and in research and practice on face-to-face (f2f) action learning (AL) (Pedler et al, 2005), there appears to be very little reported or anecdotal evidence of the virtual variety. Yet with the development of communication technologies such as groupware, videoconferencing and the internet changing working and learning practices, virtual action learning (VAL) might have been seen to be flourishing as the natural successor to AL.
This paper presents the findings of on-going research at Henley Business School which aimed to explore current practice and identify the critical enabling factors for this emerging form of action learning.

At the start of the inquiry, October 2006, existing technologies for VAL seemed very limited in what they could deliver and suggested a simple six-form model of potential sorts of VAL. In less than 2 years, there have been considerable advances both in technological developments and in the levels of usage. What was cumbersome is becoming more accessible, more user-friendly yet sophisticated and is increasingly offering viable alternatives to f2f collaboration.

However, despite these technological advances, with more examples of VAL practice going on than we thought, simple technologies such as email and audio-conferencing are proving successful.

VAL emerges as a variety of action learning in its own right with its own strengths and weaknesses. The practitioners of the various approaches to VAL frequently assert different potential benefits from this way of doing AL. Just as VAL should not necessarily be measured against f2f AL, so one must caution against making assumptions that any one form is necessarily better than any other, even where communication possibilities appear to be restricted. Opinion is divided on whether VAL is a substitute for f2f AL or whether it has advantages that may lead it to being preferred over f2f AL. These arguments await further research and exploration.