Monday, 21 January 2008

Participatory approaches to inclusion related staff development

On January 22nd I gave a talk at a "good practice lunch" organised by the Learning and Teaching Enhancement Unit at the University of Southampton. See Link to Slides

The purpose of my talk was to give an overview of a university funded learning and teaching development Project that I have been working on for the past year. The aims of the project called PAIRS (Participatory Approaches to Inclusion Related Staff Development) are to:

  1. Capture “student voices” regarding their learning experiences within the School of Education: Use these “voices” to explore whether and how our School of Education programmes (undergraduate and postgraduate) include or exclude students with a wide range of learning needs from experiencing positive or high quality learning opportunities.
  2. Involve students in the analysis and exploration of these “student voices”: Develop a collaborative partnership whereby students help to develop materials and methods that can be used to help staff in the work towards meeting learning needs and reducing barriers to inclusion.

The motivation for the project was derived from the University Disability Equality Scheme in which one action listed in the plan was to: involve students in the design and delivery of staff development and CPD opportunities in relation to developing inclusive teaching practices .

The underlying principles for involving students as users/evaluators in this project have their origins in two related fields: Participatory Design (Boyd-Graber et al 2006; Davies et al. 2004;Newell et al. 2007; Seale et al. 2002) and Participatory Research (Burke et al. 2003; French & Swain 2004; Gilbert, 2004). Drawing from these fields, for the purposes of this project, I have defined student participation as reflecting the principle of "Nothing About Me, Without Me" and involving:

  • Working directly with students in the evaluation of their learning experiences and development of staff development materials;
  • Seeking student input throughout the evaluation project;
  • Early and continual participation of intended users (students) to produce improved teaching practices;
  • Engaging participants in the design, conduct and analysis of “research” with the construction of non-hierarchical research relations;
  • Encouraging participants to own the outcome by setting the goals and sharing in decisions about processes.

In addition, the methods used in the PAIRS project are influenced in part by the methods used in the ESCALATE funded "Hearing the student voice" project.

For the PAIRS project, there were two different types or phases of participation. In Phase One the students were asked to contribute descriptions of their learning experiences and how their learning needs had/or had not been met. Students were able to choose the method or media for their contributions, which included:

  • Write or audio-record a one-two page letter to an “imaginary” friend
  • Write a diary describing learning experiences on course, over the period of a “typical” week;
  • Write a reflective journal that describes a “critical incident”
  • Produce a piece of creative writing or art (e.g. poem, picture, sculpture, song)
  • Alternatively, opt to be interviewed face-to-face, by phone or by webcam

In Phase two students formed an advisory group that worked together to decide how we will use the information about student learning experiences to design staff development initiatives in the School. Some preliminary data from the project is outlined in the Online Slides

My initial reflections on the relative success of the project in encouraging meaningful participation by students are:

  • Some students were motivated to take part because they had a "bee in their bonnet" about particular issues (good and bad)
  • Some students were motivated to take part because they were curious about the methods and wanted to learn more about them, sometimes with a view to using them in their own research or practice
  • Some students were motivated to take part because they wanted to have a "voice".

The project was participatory in that students could choose the methods by which they contributed their voice and their experiences ( and this has similarities to the methods being used by two of the current NCRM Nodes in their research activities: Qualti and Real Life Methods) and advise on how to disseminate the information gained on the project to teaching staff. These are two standard practices in participatory research.

The students were also asked to help analyse the data obtained from phase one. This is a less standard practice. Involving users in data analysis is extremely rare and considered quite difficult to do (Richardson, 2000). Certainly in this PAIRS project, the success was limited. This is essentially because little effort was put into helping the students learn how to code and interpret reams of qualitative data (which is the task they were asked to do). Some students coped very well with this minimal guidance, others struggled. The result was that I as project facilitator found myself conducting a meta-analyses of the students analyses in order to try and synthesise findings for students and suggest a way forward in terms of coming to a consensus about what the important findings were. In hindsight, there is a signficant chance that I may have steered the students in a particular direction and that my greater expertise introduced an imbalance into the relationship between myself and the participants, that violated in part the principles of participatory research.

My conclusion then is that the methods used in PAIRS were generally successful in revealing useful, rich and in-depth information about the student learning experience. They are time-consuming and require more commitment on the part of the evaluator in terms of communicating and working with participants. More effort needs to be put into developing successful methods for helping participants gain the skills required to engage in the analysis stages of research and evaluation projects.

I would welcome your comments on the applicability and value of the methods used in this project to your own inclusion related activities.


Boyd-Graber et al (2006) Participatory Design with proxies: developing a Desktop PDA system to support people with Aphasia. In proceedings of CHI 2006, Montreal Canada.

Burke, A et al. (2003) Setting up participatory research: a discussion of the initial stages, British Journal of Learning Disabilities, 31, 65-69

Davies, R., Marcella, S., McGrenere, J., Purves, B. (2004). The ethnographically informed participatory design of a PDA application to support communication. Proceedings of ACM ASSETS 2004, 153-160

French, S. & Swain, J. (2004), "Researching Together: A Participatory Approach," in Physiotherapy: A Psychosocial Approach, 3rd edn, S. French & J. Sim, eds., Butterworth-Heinemann, Oxford.

Gilbert, T (2004) Involving people with learning disability in research: issues and possibilities, Health and Social Care in the Community,12,4, 298-308

Newell, A et al. (2007) Methodologies for involving older adults in the design process. In proceedings of the 4th International Conference on Universal Access in HCI:

Richardson, m (2000) How we live: participatory research with six people with learning difficulties Journal of Advanced Nursing 32 (6), 1383–1395.

Seale, J., McCreadie, C., Turner-Smith, A and Tinker, A (2002) Older People as Partners in Assistive Technology Research: The use of focus groups in the design process. Technology and Disability, 14,1,21-29