Video interviews with the presenters can be found here.
Audience members were encouraged to write down questions or comments on post-it notes during the day. Below is a summary of their main comments. Given that the day was about methodologies of technology design, development, and evaluation – and the involvement of stakeholders in these processes – it is not surprising that many comments reflected this focus.
Should we question participatory design?
Crucially, in thinking about the design process of technologies, it was emphasised that there is an underlying ethical need to ensure appropriate participation of ASD communities and to allow for open conversations between different stakeholders (teachers, families, researchers, people on the spectrum, professionals). Therefore designs do not have to be closely specified at the start of projects and should be allowed to develop. This also involves enabling each other to understand the constraints as well as the requirements of the project, and managing expectations effectively. Users of technologies need to understand what academics do, and teachers and parents should understand the design implementation process (and what this may entail). Compromise is often necessary in order to translate ideas from concept to reality. It was noted that the expectations of funders about how research should be done can be a constraint on participation and the more creative involvement of stakeholders.
Comments were made about the extent to which children with autism can be involved in participatory design of innovative technologies, and whose ideas were actually being taken on board in the process. Face to face interactions can be challenging for children with autism and so using visual methods (e.g. iPad, collages) can reduce anxiety and facilitate engagement. The involvement and perspectives of parents was seen as crucial, since parents are also part of the intended ‘user group’ of technologies.
Important questions were also raised about the benefits of involvement in participatory design processes for children and others. Researchers should recognise the value of the process of design and participation, as well as the actual outcomes that may follow from using the technologies, though measuring this is challenging. Whatever the design process, it was felt important that there be traceability between inputs and the eventual design, so that individuals involved in the process can see where and how their decisions have been incorporated.
Engineers have all the power!
The discussions about the design process also included consideration of who is involved in the process and where the power lies in such collaborations. Some expressed the view that engineers and programmers have much of the power in collaborative projects because they are the ones who aim to make ideas a reality. They can also be gatekeepers for ideas because they ultimately decide what is feasible from a development point of view. Another view was that researchers more generally have responsibility for bringing people together and ensuring that people’s ideas are respected and included, where possible.
What does the school get? It’s not a zoo!
Leadership teams and local authorities also have power to push schools to use technology, not least to counter a perception that using iPads in school is not ‘serious work’. However this comes with responsibilities for ensuring staff are appropriately trained. The involvement of schools and teachers in technology research raised many questions for the audience – there was particular concern that schools can feel ‘used’ in research, rather than fully involved in the research implementation and benefitting from their collaboration. Teacher beliefs need to be taken into account rather than just designing something for the sake of it. It was also noted that it is important that confident and verbally articulate individuals do not hold all the power and that people with more severe learning disabilities or who may communicate in different ways (including non-verbally) should also be included in the design process where possible.
Small steps vs. tokenism
The audience pondered questions about what ‘tokenism’ means in terms of participation and involvement of stakeholders. There were some views that only fully involved partnerships can count as ‘non-tokenistic’, but it was also recognised that people can value different ways of being involved in a project. Some people may not want to be involved in all decisions and may prefer to be consulted or simply to participate by testing a technology and giving feedback. It is important that involvement also reflects individual needs and preferences and is not dictated by an ideological model that may not work for everyone. In this way, ‘small steps’ towards supporting wider participation of stakeholders are important and should not simply be dismissed as tokenistic. Everyone has to start somewhere.
Everyone learns differently
Finally, there was much discussion of the objectives and outcomes of technology projects for autism. Flexibility, individualisation and empowerment were emphasised as essential, as well as the need to appropriately reflect the cultural importance of neurodiversity. Finding out from people with autism what and how they actually want to learn was felt to be an important (but often missing) starting point for research. Questions were asked about how relevant and feasible randomised controlled trials (RCTs) are for evaluating projects with a more participatory approach i.e. projects which are concerned as much with the process of participation as well as any eventual outcomes from technology use. Moreover, RCTs are expensive and can be very time-consuming and so may not be able to reflect the fast pace of change in real-world technology developments and use. Also, they may not provide many insights into how learning might be taking place through using technologies – the link between what happens during technology use and what happens in non-technology-based interactions and contexts remains elusive.
Photographs from the seminar
Prof Mark Brosnan, from the University of Bath, welcomes attendees.
Richard Mills from Research Autism discusses the challenges and tensions in involving autistic individuals in the research process.
Dr Sue Fletcher-Watson, from the University of Edinburgh, presents a case study involving the production and evaluation of an iPad app.
This a video showing some of Sue’s work:
Prof Sarah Parsons, from the University of Southampton, speaks about her work related to developing a process for participation and empowerment. She presented recently published work related to a ‘sandwich’ of contexts that must be taken into account for developing technologies for autism groups.
Dr Kaska Porayska-Pomsta, from the London Knowledge Lab (UCL), discusses design and participation contexts surrounding past projects and the importance of developing technologies for autism user groups from multiple perspectives.
Mark closes the seminar with some final thoughts and drawing the themes and topics together.