Friday, August 01, 2008

Involving Local Undergraduates in Fieldwork

Using locals in field research ...

"In the summer of 2005, I spent two weeks at a remote village school in Uttar Pradesh, Northern India [1]. Even though I had prior experience in user-centered design, that episode was the first time that I had worked with rural school children as partners in the design process. The goal of this exploratory research was to understand what might be some appropriate e-learning applications that we can design for and with them. To address this goal, I loaned out inexpensive digital cameras to the students so that they could photograph and tell me more about everyday scenarios in village life. The rest of the time was spent in engaging students in low-tech and high-tech prototyping activities.

It did not take long before I realized that at least three things were happening that should not have been. First, the 12 children who were preselected as my design partners were the "star students" from the school, which implied that I was not working with a representative group of students. Second, the children were skipping lunch to participate in the design sessions. Third, they were under the expectation that I was there to teach them something.

I narrate the above incidents to illustrate, at a concrete level, some of the challenges that nonlocal researchers face when working with a community to engage in cross-cultural design. I learned that the principal of the school that hosted my visit was eager to impress us, since we were his foreign visitors. As an unintended consequence of his enthusiasm, he had wanted us to interact only with his best students. Similarly, until we instructed the students to take their lunch breaks, they were skipping their meals so that we would not be kept waiting when we arrived each afternoon. Lastly, despite their high hopes, I needed to dispel the misimpression that they could learn a tremendous amount from their foreign visitors and emphasize that there was a lot for us to learn from one another as equal partners in the design process.

Since then I have found that even though it is helpful to have highly motivated Berkeley undergraduates accompany me to India, there are tremendous benefits to involving local undergraduates from India in my field studies. Familiarity with the local languages, cultures, and systems is an enormous advantage when undertaking field research. Participation with local students creates cross-cultural learning opportunities for the non-Indian members of the team, and this experience is important in an increasingly globalized world.

But the benefit that is perhaps least appreciated is the rapport that we can build with community partners. Local partners, such as nongovernment organizations (NGOs), may understandably perceive a project to be driven by "outsiders" and hence hesitate to lend their complete support. In this way an active role by local undergraduates helps to reinforce our message that we are committed to working with locals and giving back to the community through cross-institutional learning opportunities.

What then about involving other locals, such as graduate students or a professional field researcher in a cross-cultural team instead? There is no doubting the value that more-experienced personnel can bring to a cross-cultural design project. However, in previous field research that my colleagues and I have conducted in other developing regions [2], we have observed that low-literate users in marginal communities have more often than not perceived educated visitors as "outside experts" or authority figures, and have felt more comfortable in learning about the technology from peers whom they view as their equals. Hence, local youths and undergraduates can often find it easier to overcome these barriers."    (Continued via, Matthew Kam)    [Usability Resources]


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