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Participatory design research

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Notes by Mica Pollock

What is participatory design research?

Design research has researchers participating in trying to actually solve a problem or improve upon a situation, while studying the effort and its snags and redirecting accordingly (Dede 2005; Joseph 2004).

We call what we’re doing "participatory design research" because we’ve put community members of all ages in the driver’s seat of naming communication barriers of concern and then testing and considering communication solutions. In fact, we feel this is the only way to learn about which tools and strategies will actually work and “stick.” We’ve ended up pairing ethnographic researchers, technologists, and community organizers with educators, families, and young people, all innovating communication solutions together while studying the work!

Design based research is usually about proceeding in very clear “stages” to test something. Our work has proceeded in stages but in a more rolling manner: we’ve made ongoing course corrections in reaction to students’, educators’, and families’ ideas, interests and efforts. (We created a multilingual coffee hour and during one coffee hour, parents suggested we make a hotline. Local technologists made a hotline and bilingual parents and staff then clarified how to get information on to it more effectively. Now we are piloting the hotline and seeing what works and doesn't.) When something didn’t work, we all tried what participants thought would work better.

What has been particularly exciting to us about working in Somerville is that we've had the chance to engage young people, families and teachers in design efforts to bring tech into the everyday core of life and communication in “traditional” public schools (that is, rather than schools with unusual freedoms or, new schools created from scratch). That's somewhat unusual because researchers and companies typically design tech tools for education and then head to schools to try them; many avoid the bottlenecks of public schools altogether. Policymakers typically just tell youth and educators regulations constraining such tools’ use in public schools. Put together, this leaves young people, families, and educators in “traditional” public schools with little power to direct the use of technology in 21st century public education.

The OneVille Project has been a fully cooperative (and inter-group and intergenerational!) exploration of how commonplace technology might help diverse people share information, efforts, and resources for young people's success. As PI Mica Pollock put it in one letter to the community listserv, this is not typical in academia:

I understand well the desire for the “new”: I personally started with a lot of hubris about doing new things in Somerville to “unite a diverse community” and ended up focusing on designing, with lots of people, specific communication tools and strategies that might help glue people together in the schools. I’m still struck by how much Somerville is and could be a model of how a diverse community works together. There is so much energy, so much innovation, and so much welcoming OF innovation. . .I found the spirit of innovation in Somerville overwhelming (I sensed quickly my own hubris in coming in to spark new things, since so many others were sparking things) and soon had the sense that every school was stuffed with people brainstorming how to improve things. . . .I had the privilege of connecting to literally hundreds of people innovating from within Somerville’s existing schools.

Our participatory design approach

We've put several research methods together in our participatory design research. Ethnography, a method from anthropology and sociology, involves participating in the everyday life of a community and documenting people's everyday actions in detail. Design research has researchers participating in trying to actually solve a problem or improve upon a situation, while studying the effort and redirecting it toward success. Participatory action research engages members of a community in analyzing and thoughtfully improving community life. We put all of these together: in our texting project, for example, we engaged as researchers, teachers and students in trying out texting as a way to improve student support. We analyzed the texting experience and actual texts together, and we took notes throughout on our conversations and interactions so that we had data to draw conclusions from. And to even get to the point of innovating with texting, we had to form friendships that made us all want to try things together. That required learning the skills of community organizing!

With just a few exceptions, we all lived in Somerville and working to improve the lives of young people there meant improving our shared community.

Many of us had done community research before but not any community organizing; others had done organizing or tech design but not research. Some of us started our projects knowing tons of people in Somerville; others of us knew few people and had to make friends quickly. Those of us who do research for a living haven’t combined these methods before and, we certainly haven’t published our first thoughts online. So this project has taken a lot of adventurous spirit, from all involved!

Learning from community feedback

We began our work in Somerville with a year of fieldwork, interviews, friendship-building, and trial and error exploration, to understand current communication issues in Somerville and to test ways of linking people in efforts to support young people. For example, we piloted multilingual coffee hours at the K-8 Healey School to get diverse parents talking to one another for the first time across boundaries of program, income, and language about shared issues in their schools. In that work, we learned about the massive resource of the bilingual parent. We piloted academic “Reading Night” events to partner families who shared a K-3 hallway, but had had never talked before about their children’s education. In this work, we learned the crucial nature of face to face gatherings for building community spirit, but also the need for better infrastructure for sharing out information to all parents. We also held some public dialogues to support the school community through the decision of “unifying” several programs, and we learned how some parents had far more access to information and input than others. All that work led to our Parent Connector Network efforts. As we had discussions across the school about improving translation, tech access/training, and public information, we found our first Parent Connectors.

More examples: with permission during our first year, we participated in the typical data drudgery of schooling, by entering K-8 student data by hand into a school spreadsheet to help the principal analyze it. In that work, we learned which information was and wasn’t kept in the district database and which was kept in folders in drawers, to the frustration of educators who needed to access it. That work funneled into our dashboard project. We started an afterschool club and began to test a private social network allowing students to communicate about school and life outside of class with "teams" of peers and potentially teachers. In that work, we learned that students were motivated by media but didn't want to speak into a vaccuum (an empty social network); they wanted to speak out to actual listeners about their actual learning experiences. The Eportfolio project would pick up on several of these threads. In summer school, with a Somerville High School teacher and two classes of summer school students, we explored the concept of convening a support team around every student, using technology to communicate about the student's progress. Students made clear that texting was the most natural tool for everyday support conversations, which led to our pilot of texting with educators at Full Circle/Next Wave who were excited about the approach.

The community as our guide

We also took a big hint from community organizing: listen, then work with those excited to try a particular approach. We worked for a year with Somerville High’s principal, to build on interest in his school and School Improvement Council in transitioning paper portfolios kept in a filing cabinet to Eportfolios that could display work in vocational as well as typical academic subjects. At Somerville’s alternative school, we found teachers immediately interested in experimenting with texting, to facilitate their role as “teacher-counselors” trying to reach students often hard to get to school. We designed a “dashboard” with a teacher tired of creating and printing out spreadsheets in Excel and, with a principal tired of wasting time going through multiple paper folders of student data in preparation for student support team meetings. We built on an Excel spreadsheet the school was already using, designed by a parent at the school. For a parent view, we combined some existing successful paper models from elsewhere (Taveras et al 2010) with Somerville’s new report card. To support local efforts to improve computer infrastructure, we linked a Somerville High graduate wanting to test software to a computer center in a housing project hoping to staff computer programs, and we funded a young intern to help her in the effort.

And in all this, we learned to see a city as an ecosystem of communication about young people, in which infrastructure did or did not exist to support various participants to share information and ideas they wanted to share to support student success.

Each effort we participated in itself indicated the need for more communication infrastructure. Advertising Reading Night required a mix of paper-based, emailed, and personal communication. Busy working parents then couldn’t share Reading Night tips without email and a schoolwide listserv.

Core communication issues percolated throughout any attempt to partner people in student support.

In fall 2010, we broke up the project more explicitly into 6 working groups, each tackling a different aspect of communication to help people partner in young people's success.

Main ¡Aha!

Those of us who are researchers have come to believe that joining educators, youth, and families in efforts to improve schools, while rigorously studying those efforts in detail, may be one of the most important ways available to us of actually improving education in general.