Using Participatory Tools Virtually by Beverly Peters, Michelle Conway, Tabetha Karydas, Talatha Kiazolu-Reeves, Jess Littman, and Mallika Rodriguez.

Hello! I’m Beverly Peters, faculty member in Measurement and Evaluation at American University, here today with Masters’ students from my Evaluation: Qualitative Methods class: Michelle Conway, Tabetha Karydas, Talatha Kiazolu-Reeves, Jess Littman, and Mallika Rodriguez.

Photo of Beverly and student authors.
Top Row L to R: Talatha, Bev, Michelle
Bottom Row L to R: Mallika, Jess, Tabatha

In my qualitative methods classes, I impress on students the nature of qualitative inquiry in evaluation, and the goal of uncovering emic, or insider, perspectives of a project and its stakeholders. Students partner with organizations in their local communities, and use the data collection tools I teach—participant observation, interviews, and focus groups—to answer a qualitative question. For one assignment, students choose a participatory tool, like mapping or thought showers, and moderate its use within a focus group.  

The goal of a participatory tool is for the moderator to encourage the interaction of, and dialogue between, stakeholders, through the tool’s activities. Students find that this dialogue sheds light on emic perspectives of project operations and program outcomes.

Until now, I had assumed the need for close personal interaction when using participatory tools.  As we started this semester, I knew that the current public health climate presented challenges to students; however, I did not want to change the class assignments. Instead, I challenged students to find ways to use participatory tools in a virtual setting.

In an era of social distancing, how did students adapt such tools to meet their data collection needs, while safeguarding the health of all stakeholders? What tips can my students share for those evaluators using participatory tools virtually?

Hot Tips from Qualitative Methods Students:

  • Consider your data collection needs, and then adapt a participatory tool to meet the parameters of your research, including group size, available technology, and participant technology comfort levels.
  • A participatory tool doesn’t need to be complicated to support conversation, and sometimes, less is actually more. Thought showers, fishbone diagrams, drawing pictures on paper, and SWOT analyses were simple tools that encouraged participants to share their thoughts freely, without causing technology hassles. (See Rad resources for more information on these and other participatory tools.)
  • Find appropriate technology to support your participatory tool. Students successfully used Smart Learning Suite Online (a cloud of tools and activities that can help facilitate conversation); Twiddla (an online whiteboard); Zoom (video, whiteboard, breakout rooms, raise hand, and screen share); Go To Meeting (screen share); Google Docs; and OneNote documents
  • Preparation is key. Practice moderating your participatory tool, and make sure you can give directions simply. Know your technology and how to introduce it to participants. Send a welcome email with guidelines (lighting, microphones, muting), telling participants what to expect, and reserve time at the beginning of the session for informal conversation and to answer questions.  
  • Troubleshoot potential problems ahead of time. Be flexible, and plan for technology failures such as dropped calls and feedback. Think through low-tech options and make contingency plans for breakdowns within the virtual platform or connectivity before the session starts. 
  • Consider using technology with built-in recording and/or transcription services to host your session, if appropriate to your topic. This can allow you to capture non-verbal communication.

Rad Resources:

Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

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