Involving Local Undergraduates in Fieldwork - 31 July 2008
by Matthew Kam
In the summer of 2005, I spent two weeks at a remote village school in Uttar Pradesh, Northern India . 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 , 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.
Besides the upper-primary school students, a lot of my research has involved working with five undergraduate students as coresearchers. Their familiarity with the local languages and cultural norms meant that they can be invaluable in providing local support. In my opinion, however, their participation should not be restricted to the roles of interpreters and cultural guides. Rather, by investing the time and energy to mentor them in skills related to conducting user studies, we can develop their capabilities to undertake greater responsibilities as research assistants.
When recruiting local undergraduates, the first criterion to consider is their level of commitment to community service or rural development. More important, some universities encourage or make community service a mandatory requirement for graduation. As such, it becomes imperative to learn what a candidate's responsibilities and contributions in earlier community service projects were, in addition to simply looking for evidence of prior volunteer experience. For instance, several of the local undergrads who work with me have described how they lived for weeks under austere conditions in villages when they were administering baseline surveys for NGOs.
Next, while traits such as technical competence and academic achievement are no doubt important, the ability to engage end users, stakeholders, and NGO partners with maturity is the most essential quality. For example, enlisting the support of community leaders such as the village priest is instrumental to encouraging participation from the village community in our user studies. While our NGO partners had to introduce us to these leaders at the beginning, language barriers had prevented me from developing these relationships to the fullest extent. In the end, it was the local undergraduates in my team who helped by liaising tactfully and professionally with the community stakeholders in their native languages.
Once the priest was convinced about the educational potential of the prototypes that we were testing, he became our strongest champion. He added that if we were willing to conduct our technology trials with the children in his village for the next 10 years, he would personally convince their parents to support their ongoing participation. Given his influence as a religious figure in this predominantly Hindu village, his vote of confidence meant a lot to the success of our project there.
We not only had to manage relationships with adults in the community, but also needed to establish rapport with the children themselves. One issue arose when the children at one of the rural schools wanted to take us to visit the temple in their village. In fact, they became angry with us and lost their enthusiasm for the user study until we obliged them. On our way to the temple, the children insisted that we skirt around a part of the village that was inhabited by some of their classmates who are "dalits" (i.e., the "untouchables" caste). The local undergraduates in my team knew about the cultural implications behind this action; they decided that on our return journey, the team should walk through the area inhabited by the dalits. This gesture cheered up the children from the dalit caste who were upset that their peers wanted us to avoid their residences and helped to promote a more inclusive atmosphere in our user study. (Right figure shows the village district that was shunned by villagers from the upper castes because it was inhabited by the untouchables caste. We established stronger rapport with the latter group for our user study through willingness to visit their district.)
That is not to claim that local team members never encounter barriers when interacting with end-user communities. However, local team members are arguably more informed about the local culture to work around these obstacles. At one time, for example, we carried out contextual studies of the traditional games that children play in the villages, so that we could design e-learning games patterned after these games. It was the local undergraduates who first noticed that the children showed us only the urban games in India. It seemed that games were a marker of social identity, such that our young informants feared that we, as urban dwellers, might look down on their village games. The local undergraduates finally coaxed the children to reenact how they play their everyday games by enthusiastically describing the village games that my team knew about.
From the larger perspective, human-computer interaction is only beginning to take root in the mainstream undergraduate curriculum in India and many other so-called developing countries. Most students would therefore graduate and enter the workplace or graduate school without having been exposed to HCI. As such, in connection with the broader implications for HCI education in the developing world, involving local undergraduates from developing regions in our international-development projects is one way to provide them with meaningful exposure to HCI that they are unlikely to have otherwise. The process also gives them an outlet for their creativity and ambition to achieve.
I encourage other researchers, educators, and professionals in our community to explore similar symbiotic arrangements. Our efforts may not be on the same scale as formal institutionalized approaches to HCI education in the developing world, but they may nevertheless contribute to local capacity building in HCI and facilitate eventual adoption into mainstream curricula. More important, we set the stage for nurturing the next generation of HCI practitioners who can contribute to the growth of our community with a more diverse international outlook. In doing so, we lay the foundation for HCI to become a more positive force in economic development.
- Kam, Matthew, Divya Ramachandran, Anand Raghavan, Jane Chiu, Urvashi Sahni, and John Canny. "Practical Considerations for Participatory Design with Rural School Children in Underdeveloped Regions: Early Reflections from the Field." In Proceedings of ACM Conference on Interaction Design and Children. Tampere, Finland: June 7–9, 2006.
- Ramachandran, Divya, Matthew Kam, Jane Chiu, John Canny, and James L. Frankel. "Social Dynamics of Early Stage Co-Design in Developing Regions." In Proceedings of ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. San Jose, Calif.: April 28–May 3, 2007.
Matthew Kam is a Ph.D. candidate from the University of California, Berkeley, affiliated with the Berkeley Institute of Design. His dissertation focuses on e-learning games on cell phones that target language and literacy learning in the developing world. He has previously studied a microfinance transaction technology in Uganda.
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