Saturday, 22 March 2008

Using Participatory Research Methods to Explore the E-learning Experiences of Disabled Students

I am currently involved in a JISC funded project called LEXDIS which aims to explore the e-learning experiences of disabled students in higher education. At the heart of the project is the use of participatory research methods in order to give real "voice" to disabled students and their experiences. I have defined participatory methods in another blog, but the underlying principle is the development of collaborative relationships with research participants, in this case disabled students in higher education.

In a talk that I gave to the Higher Education Research Group at the University of Southampton I provided an overview of the participatory methods and used examples from phase one of the project to illuminate the challenges that arise from undertaking participatory research. Slides available here. In phase 1 of LEXDIS, participatory methods involved consulting with disabled students and seeking their advise on two key aspects: 1) the importance/relevance of our proposed research questions and how well they were phrased or understood 2) preferences for (appropriateness of) the different media or methods that students might be asked to use to record their e-learning experiences in phase 2 of the project. In the talk I highlighted six issues for discussion:
  1. Understanding and meanings
  2. Motivations for participation
  3. Rewards for participation
  4. Recruitment
  5. Gate-keepers
  6. The nature of participation

The conclusion of the talk was that whilst the participants had not initiated the research and were not acting as researchers they were playing an important role in the research in terms of acting as consultants and joint decision-makers. The students were helping to ensure that the research topics and questions were worthy of investigation.

The ideas and issues discussed in this talk have been expanded in a paper which has recently been accepted (subject to amendments) in the Journal of Assistive Technologies. The paper is entitled: "Exploring the technology experiences of disabled learners in higher education: challenges for the use and development of participatory research methods" and it focuses on 3 main challenges to using participatory methods: informed participation; valued participation and empowered participation. The conclusion of the paper is that whilst the principles of participatory research are worthy, the use of participatory methods can reveal certain tensions that need careful managing and that the management of such tensions and potential conflicting pressures, may require “pragmatic compromises”.

Dissemination activities for the LEXDIS project are wide and varied, but look out for us at EdMedia 2008 in Vienna (paper accepted) and ALT-C in Leeds (subject to paper acceptance).

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