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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 barriers to communication/collaboration and then testing and considering communication solutions. We feel this is the most productive 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. A young local technologist prototyped a hotline and then a developer friend from MIT made a professional-level one. Bilingual parents and staff then tested ways to get information on to the hotline effectively. Finally, parent Connectors started piloting the hotline to explore how best to support other parents to use it.) 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 try using commonplace technologies to support everyday work and communication in seemingly “traditional” public schools, rather than in 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. For their part, policymakers typically just tell youth and educators regulations constraining such tools’ use in public schools. Put together, this often leaves young people, families, and educators in “traditional” public schools with little power to direct the use of technology in 21st century public education, or even to innovate youth support solutions. In contrast, Somerville is a community that supports teachers, young people, and families to try out their own solutions.

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 combined several research methods in our participatory design research approach. 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, local graduate students and professor engaged as co-researchers with 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 hadn’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, as we struggled to communicate across language barriers in real time, we learned about the massive, often untapped resource of local bilingual parents. We piloted academic “Reading Night” events to partner families who shared a K-3 hallway but 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 parents who couldn't make face-to-face gatherings. We also held some public dialogues to support the school community through the decision of “unifying” several programs, and in those efforts, we learned how some parents had 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, who led the design of their own Connector Network.

More examples: with permission during our first year, we learned about the struggles of getting ready and reliable student data to educators, by stipending a former graduate student to enter K-8 student data by hand into a school spreadsheet to help a principal analyze it. In that work, we learned which information was and wasn’t kept in the district database for educators to review 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, which engaged a teacher, two principals, and local technologists in designing several simple online "views" for reviewing student data from the district's Student Information System. We started an afterschool club and with student participants, began to test a private social network ("Elgg" software) 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 loved most media but didn't want to type about their school day into an empty social network; tapping students' motivation to share ideas with others was the key. The Eportfolio project would pick up on several of these threads, testing portfolio designs and rubrics that motivated youth to share out what they knew and could do. 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, again using a social network to communicate about the student's ongoing life and progress. Students made clear that texting was the most natural tool for such 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 across subjects to multiple viewers. At Full Circle/Next Wave, Somerville’s alternative schools, we found teachers immediately interested in experimenting with texting, to facilitate their role as “teacher-counselors” trying to reach students who were often hard to get to school. We designed “dashboard” views with a teacher tired of entering Student Information System data by hand into an Excel spreadsheet so he could view his entire class at once, and with a principal tired of going through multiple paper folders of student data in preparation for student support team meetings. We built the dashboard "views" 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 and with 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.

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 do research for a living have come to believe that joining educators, youth, and families in pilot 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.