From Brick and Mortar to Online Classrooms: Using Participatory Action Research to Build Community and Foster Intentional Use of Technology

Mary Buckelew

Mary Buckelew

Mary Buckelew, PhD
West Chester University of Pennsylvania

“That year I made the most important discovery I have ever made about teaching: community in itself is more important to learning than any method or technique. When community exists, learning is strengthened—everyone is smarter, more ambitious, and productive. Well-formed ideas and intentions amount to little without a community to bring them to life.” (Peterson, 1992, p.2)

Fall Semester 2019

Day 1. Freshman students trickle into my (face-to-face) composition and rhetoric course. I begin with a focused freewrite. I invite students to write about something that’s on their minds – something they do not mind sharing with another student. We write for 3½ minutes. Some students use laptops, some smartphones, others electronic notebooks, and some pen and paper. The freewrite focuses the students on the content of the course, writing – and is a first step towards building community. That’s my plan.

After students share their freewrite with a partner, I invite students to share with the class. Melanie (student names have been changed ) volunteers: “I want to be listened to when I share ideas and I love discussing ideas with others.” Melanie’s remark prompts me to scan the semi-circle of 25 young people. I count six students fixated on their phone screens; five more students hunker behind computer screens, while some students appear to listen. I don’t know whether Melanie’s remark is prompted because her partner didn’t listen to her or because she notices students blatantly using their devices and not looking at her as she speaks.

“AMERICANS LOOK at their phones up to 80 times a day, or every 12 minutes, according to a 2018 survey by Asurion, a tech support and insurance company” (Plumoff, 2020, para. 1; Caps in original).

I momentarily pondered whether I should address the students regarding technology use, but I hadn’t set parameters. I had not asked students to put their devices away at the start of class nor had I asked them to complete their focused freewrite with paper and pen. For all I knew, the students staring into their devices might be deciding whether to share their writing.   I chose to say nothing, but I acknowledged Melanie’s remark with extra enthusiasm: “I, too, am looking forward to future class discussions.” Her remark lingers.

At the next class meeting, in addition to reviewing the general education goals with students in both freshman writing courses, I included the goal of “creating and sustaining a classroom writing community.”   I shared research supporting the importance of community in the writing classroom. This became the impetus for our informal Participatory Action Research (PAR) approach to building community and tackling distracting technology use.

“A PAR project holds that research is conducted with participants, rather than on participants (Herr, & Anderson, 2015; Heron & Reason, 2001; Kindon, Pain, & Kesby; Savin-Baden & Wimpenny). Within an educational institution, this would propose research is to be conducted with students, rather than on students” (Jacobs, 2016, p. 49).

Our PAR Inquiry Question “What happens when we completely unplug in our writing class?”

A Lexicon for our Unplugged Experiment

Two students, Trevor and Jane, came up with terms that would help us describe two different types of technology use that we wanted to avoid while in class: Covert Phone Use (CPU) and Overt Phone Use (OPU). The students were excited about their contribution to our project. When we discussed the terms in both classes, we decided the word “technology” could be substituted for phone use if we needed to generalize to CTU & OTU.

For the next three weeks, I used the whiteboard and markers and students used notebooks and pens. We mostly managed to refrain from CPU and OPU during class. If there were lapses, we were quick to remind each other.


After three weeks, students shared “honest anonymous” feedback to describe how our state of unpluggedness was working for them. When we reviewed their feedback – three categories emerged: 100% positive feedback (28 Respondents); Positive feedback but with a suggestion or concern (15 Respondents); completely negative (3 Respondents); I was surprised that out of the 46 respondents, only three students gave negative feedback. Although building and maintaining a writing community had been our initial focus – interestingly, student comments emphasized their ability to concentrate as a result of disconnecting from technology.

Some Representative Student Comments

Student 1. “The unplugged classroom is my favorite thing. I love getting one hour and fifteen minutes away from my phone and to be totally focused. This is a technique all teachers should try.”

Student 2. “I honestly think the unplugged classes are helpful. It made me focus.”

Student 3. “I, personally, enjoy the unplugged classroom. It really keeps me up to date and engaged in the class. I wish it was a campus-wide project and more professors would try it out.”

Positive with Concerns or Suggestions

Student 4. “I feel as though it is a good thing because this generation is addicted to their phones and that is a habit we must break, But, I feel as though it is a difficult transition because I am used to having my phone.”

Student 5. “I’ve enjoyed being unplugged in class. I feel like I can focus better and there are less distractions; however, taking notes on a computer and handwriting after class is how I learn best, so I’ve been struggling a bit with that.”


Student 6. “It is not working for me. It is not helpful that I have to go back and forth from notebook to laptop depending on the assignment.”

Field Research

The heightened awareness of our personal CPU and OPU behaviors prompted us to extend our research. We brainstormed different places and events where we predicted people would pay attention to each other or to an event without the distraction of technology. (e.g., restaurants, movies, sporting events, theaters, weddings, family dinners, some university courses,)

With double-entry notebooks in hand, students positioned themselves in spaces and places to observe humanity. Changing the names of the innocent and guilty, students were surprised and sometimes shocked at the prevalent CPU and OPU among friends, family, and strangers. A new term emerged upon discussion with my colleague Nur Ritter: Addictive Technology Use (ATU).

Expected and Unexpected Outcomes

After our informal study, my students and I began using our devices again —

Technology use was more intentional and pertinent to class activities

Developing our own lexicon – reinforced a sense of community

Students felt like they had done “real” research because of the field research

Senses were heightened; we added proprioception to our lexicon.

“A PAR initiative can change both students and teachers, and change their perceptions of each other. According to Savin-Baden and Wimpenny (2007) who state a PAR project is tasked with producing knowledge and action which is directly beneficial to a community, and is empowering through its value of consciousness-raising” (Jacobs, 2016, p. 52).

Fast Forward Spring 2020

After spending the first half of the semester building community in my brick and mortar writing classes, like much of the universe, we will now meet remotely. My students and I will tackle new research questions based on learning and living online during a pandemic (see also, Buckelew, 2020). PAR is needed more than ever — and I am looking forward to learning alongside my students. Stay tuned!


Buckelew, M. (May 18, 2020). Re-Visioning Brick and Mortar Classroom Practices: From the Mindful Minute to the Mindful Stretch.  Write.Share.Connect. Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project.

Efron, E. S., & Ravid, R. (2020). Action research in education: A practical guide. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Heron, J., & Reason, P. (2001). The practice of cooperative inquiry: Research ‘with’ rather than ‘on’ people. In P. Reason & H. Bradbury. (Eds.), Handbook of action and research. Participative inquiry and practice (pp. 179-188). London: Sage.

Herr, K., & Anderson, G. L. (2015). The action research dissertation. A guide for students and faculty. Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications Inc.

Jacobs, S. (2016). The use of participatory action research within education — Benefits to stakeholders. World Journal of Education, 6 (3). doi:10.5430/wje.v6n3p48 URL:

Kindon, S., Pain, R., & Kesby, M. (Eds.). (2007). Participatory action research approaches and methods. Connecting people, participation and place. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Peterson, R. (1992). Life in a crowded place: Making a learning community. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Plumhoff, K. (2020, Jan. 3) “How to last a day without your phone.” The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from

Savin-Baden, M., & Wimpenny, K. (2007). Exploring and implementing participatory action research. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 31(2), 331-343.

Sharma, M. K., Rao, G. N., Benega, l. V., Thennarasu, K., & Thomas, D. (2017). Technology addiction survey: An emerging concern for raising awareness and promotion of healthy use of technology. Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, 39(4): 495–499.

One thought on “From Brick and Mortar to Online Classrooms: Using Participatory Action Research to Build Community and Foster Intentional Use of Technology

  1. Such a masterful approach to actively engaging students, respecting the diversity of community, and advancing the learning objectives of the course. A perfect trifecta!

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