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Posted by on Jan 12, 2012

#mLearning and History in Higher Education (Part 5): Partial Builds, Zanzibar, and Research Methods

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Returning to this little research project I have going on in my head and on this blog exclusively, I am left with the actual research methods I will employ to establish a credible study of mobile environments for creating communities of practice in dialogue-based disciplines (particularly History, but really any of the Humanities) in East Africa (Tanzania). Towards that end, I think it is critical to establish a fairly robust participatory design process explicitly in this project. It needs to be designed, owned, used, and maintained by the very people it is intended to serve. If it is going to scale from there, that is fine, but I am very leery of top-down ‘transformative’ solutions imposed from afar with little input from the potential participants. Unfortunately, Africa has received more than their fair share of NGOs and others who have tried this manouver. So, let’s cast that method out now. Whatever comes out of this research project will be localized in the extreme. Localized in language (Swahili), in respect to disciplinary practice, in respect to means of collaboration, localized even in respect to technology of greatest penetration (SMS-based). If this turns out to be a failure, it wont be because of a lack of a localized environment. 

So, here we go. I see a 1-2 timeframe for all of this, from communication, to disciplinary practice mapping (from UK/US to an East African context), to survey/interviews, to participatory design, to partial build, and then whatever additional time is needed to write the research up. In the interim while I am writing this into a case study report, a working prototype will be available for the community it is intended to serve (if they decide to use it). 

Research Methods

The research methods used for this exploration of mobile communities of practice for History in higher education in Tanzania will involve both some quantitative and qualitative elements. The research will begin with communication with select faculty and students at the two selected universities in Zanzibar to determine the validity of disciplinary assumptions put forth in this research proposal. This communication will be used to reconfigure disciplinary practice for History in Tanzania if necessary.

Based on this initial feedback, a participatory design process will be employed with participants to determine the needs, requirements, and cultural, emotional, or social variables that might affect participation in any mobile community of practice. This participatory design process will inform a conceptual design of a mobile environment for the practice of History in higher education. Subsequent assessment of this design will be tied to fulfilling the needs of disciplinary practice in History (epistemology, ontology, knowledge construction, collaboration, reflection, and dissemination) as well as the ability of the design to assist “in the process of coming to know, creating a human-technology system to communicate, to mediate agreements between learners and to aid recall and reflection” (Sharples, 2005). These research methods are separated into stages below:

Identification of and communication with select faculty and students in the discipline of History in higher education in Zanzibar, Tanzania.

Zanzibar represents a manageable, sample community having only three institutions of higher education, two of which offer degrees in History.

A third university, the University of Dar es Salaam will be contacted and asked to join the discussion, research, and potentially participatory design process exploring mobile communities of practice for History in higher education in Tanzania. The University of Dar es Salaam represents the largest university in Tanzania both in terms of size and knowledge output (articles and monographs). However, the two Tanzanian universities will drive the research into these mobile communities. This communication will identify and commit participants to complete both a survey and interview.

The survey will be designed to establish a technological baseline (ie, that everyone has a mobile device) as well as demographic information (years with the institution, experience with academic publishing, academic presentation, etc.). The purposes of the interviews will be to gauge the validity of the disciplinary practices of History (as put forth in this research proposal) for a developing, East African national context. Assumptions of disciplinary practice will be evaluated based on the feedback received from these interviews. Time Frame: 3-6 months

Survey/Interview

A survey will be conducted via a mobile survey tool (Zoomerang, etc.) with faculty, graduate and undergraduate level students of History in Zanzibar universities to determine to investigate levels of mobile technology penetration, familiarity and comfort of use, and to gauge the validity of assumptions on the disciplinary practices of History (those stated previously in this research proposal). Survey respondents will be asked about their research and collaborative workflows as well as the levels of their experience with knowledge dissemination and academic publishing (monograph or journal article). Further to these points, questions will be asked to gauge receptiveness to participating in a mobile-based community of practice for History for higher education. The National Survey of Student Engagement: Conceptual Framework and Overview of Psychometric Properties will be consulted in the survey development stages (Kuh, 2001).

Interviews will follow the survey and will specifically target the same faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students. The purposes of the interviews will be to assess the validity of the disciplinary practices of History (as put forth in this research proposal) for a developing, East African national context. Assumptions of disciplinary practice in History will be evaluated and redrafted based on the feedback received from these interviews.

The interview schedule will be constructed to avoid technologically deterministic definitions of mobile learning (or even mobile community). This stance was influenced by Sharples, Taylor, and Vavoula’s work positing mobile learning in terms of its affordance of mobility, its view of learning as a social process, and the role of situated activity mediated by technology (2007). Mobility, in this focus, is not limited to a particular technology, but rather incorporates environments that satisfy conditions of mobility, sociability, and situatedness, as well as the disciplinary practices of History as previously described. These interviews will be conduced via Skype or through the telephone at the researcher’s expense. 

Participatory Design and Conceptual Prototyping

Following the data accumulated from the survey and interview stages, a SMS-based participatory design process will commence with survey and interview participants. This participatory design process will involve a weekly prompt via SMS (through a Frontline SMS networking installation) to investigate the requirements, feasibility, desirability, and perceived impact of an SMS-based community of practice for History in higher education in Zanzibar (and the University of Dar es Salaam).

This participatory design process will be community driven, technologically accessible (SMS-based), minimal in terms of time requirement (SMS responses, daily digest), and rapidly prototyped. The potential environment for a mobile-based community of practice for History in higher education will be used to network the participatory design process. In short, the prototype will be used to drive the discussion of the prototype for History in higher education.

A participatory design process is required to mitigate the implicit presence of the researcher’s ethical, social, and community agenda (Mor, Winters, 2007). As this research begins with a comparative study and normalization of the disciplinary practices of History in higher education in the US/UK and East Africa, specifically Tanzania, it is important to establish a participatory design process to insure those comparative and normalization activities were indeed valid. A participatory design process, by testing purported disciplinary practice against the backdrop of a mobile, SMS-based, collaborative environment, will mitigate the presence of researcher bias in the collection of requirements and suggestions.

The overall goal of this participatory design process, from brainstorming activities to requirements gathering to rapid prototyping, is “to develop a class of theories about both the process of learning and the means that are designed to support that learning”, in keeping with Cobb’s (et al) (2003) five characteristics of design (taken from Mor, Winters, 2007). In this instance, the process of learning relates both to the practices of History in higher education in East Africa (how historians learn and make knowledge statements) and the means of learning will relate to the technological environments, in this case a mobile SMS-based environment, that are used to support those processes of learning. Collaboratively, we will learn how we learn and what environments are most appropriate that learning. This model of generating process (disciplinary practice) and design patterns (how we can support that disciplinary practice) specific to an East African, Tanzanian higher education context is, this researcher believes, scalable to the higher education system of Tanzania (since it is localized, it can expand locally and nationally).

Ultimately, this participatory design process is intended to produce a community of practice for History in higher education in East Africa maximizing the technology of greatest penetration (SMS-based mobile phones) towards replicating the “Hawthorne effect”, an instance of improved cognitive productivity under the control of the learners, eventually with minimal expense, and with a theoretical rationale for why things work (Brown, 1992 as taken from Mor, Winters, 2007). The improved cognitive productivity relates to increased levels of participation within the practicing community of History in Zanzibar and at the University of Dar es Salaam towards scholarly collaboration and output, all of which will be directed by the community of practice itself (the learners). The minimal expense will be the technological implementation of a mobile-based environment, housed locally (Frontline SMS-based environment with a laptop server configuration-no ongoing costs aside from the maintenance of the laptop). The theoretical rationale for why this might work is based on its adherence to the disciplinary practices of History itself, mapping History to the evolving frameworks of mobility (Sharples, 2005).

Design patterns, analytic forms used to describe design situations and solutions used to highlight key issues and dictate a valuable method of resolving them, will be collected from this process and made available to the participating universities in Zanzibar and the University of Dar es Salaam for application with other disciplines. These design patterns, which Goodyear emphasises as a means of empowering practitioners to utilize accumulated design knowledge, will be succinct, localized into Swahili, and distributed widely (Goodyear, 2004).

Assessment and Build

Based on the survey results and any subsequent interviews conducted for clarification, an assessment will be conducted that will attempt to analyze the mapping of these processes, information and collaborative needs to mobile learning solutions. At this stage, the ability of mobile learning to fulfill these needs and processes will be analyzed according to the frameworks mentioned previously.

Included in this analysis will be a recommendation to higher education as to the pedagogical appropriateness of mobile learning in Humanities-based education and design considerations for mobile learning developers. These design considerations will attempt to marry the pedagogical directives of constructivism (and the related tenets of threshold learning and troublesome knowledge) with the potential afforded by mobile functionality, including augmented reality and more. This analysis represents a core deliverable of this research and will be drafted specifically for wider dissemination to the academic community.

The deliverables for this section of the research will be:

  • accumulated discussions, requirements, and authenticated disciplinary practices for History in higher education in Tanzania 
  • accumulated, hosted, and distributed design patterns 
  • Prototype iteration(s): hosted, functional, and accessible by the learning community

(Stone Town, Zanzibar)

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