An Architecture of Participation: Working with Web 2.0 and High School Student Researchers to Improve a Service-Learning Partnership

An Architecture of Participation: Working with Web 2.0 and High School Student Researchers to Improve a Service-Learning Partnership

Rachael Wendler (University of Arizona and Desert View High School, USA), Aria Altuna (University of Arizona and Desert View High School, USA), Timothy Crain (University of Arizona and Desert View High School, USA), Oksana Perez (University of Arizona and Desert View High School, USA), Savannah Sanchez (University of Arizona and Desert View High School, USA) and Jalina Vidotto (University of Arizona and Desert View High School, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60960-623-7.ch001
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This case study, collaboratively authored by a university researcher and five high school students, presents a model for assessing community partnerships that employs Web 2.0 technologies to facilitate participatory evaluations. A research team of high school students undertook an evaluation of a service-learning partnership titled Wildcat Writers that sponsors online writing exchanges between high school and college English courses. The evaluation project used a participatory action research (PAR) approach, which involves (1) including community members as equal co-researchers, (2) respecting experiential knowledge, and (3) working toward mutually-conceived positive change. This case study demonstrates how Web 2.0 tools that allow participants to collaboratively create documents provide an architecture of participation that supports a PAR approach to assessing and improving community partnerships.
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“Who you are changes what you see.” This observation by high school student researcher Aria Altuna holds important implications for the assessment of service-learning (SL) programs. All forms of inquiry are shaped by the perspective and background of the inquirer, as science theorist Haraway (1998) has reminded us. In service-learning assessments, the evaluator’s worldview influences the choice of the outcomes to examine, the collection methods, and the approach to interpreting data. We cannot pretend that factors such as college or community affiliation have no impact on our assessments. Yet as service-learning scholars Cruz and Giles (2000) have noted, community-university partnership evaluations are traditionally carried out solely by university representatives. Cruz and Giles have explained that when university members conduct evaluations, academic issues such as student learning, faculty performance reviews, and institutional goals take center stage, while the perspective of the community remains relatively untapped. The focus becomes “Where’s the learning in service-learning?” rather than also “Where’s the service in service-learning?” (Cruz & Giles, p. 28). Because assessments often form the basis for program planning, the university’s needs and ways of understanding the world therefore steer the partnership—an imbalance we find deeply problematic.1

To resist this hierarchy in university and community relationships, and to develop partnerships responsive to community needs and perspectives, we suggest actively involving community members in the design and implementation of program evaluations. This participatory process can be supported by Web 2.0 technologies—tools that go beyond technical facilitation to foster the participatory approach to knowledge needed for collaborative meaning-making. As software designer and IT entrepreneur Kapor (2006) has famously observed, “Architecture is politics.” Changing the power dynamics of the university-community relationship requires finding tools that are structured to promote democratic ways of thinking and interacting. We argue that Web 2.0 technologies have the potential to encourage more balanced program assessments.

This chapter traces the efforts of a research team of five high school students (Aria, Timothy, Oksana, Savannah, and Jalina) and one graduate student researcher (Rachael) to collaboratively evaluate a service-learning partnership between the University of Arizona and five local high schools. The service-learning partnership, Wildcat Writers, pairs high school and college English classes for online writing exchanges. As representatives of the community being “served” by the partnership, the high school student researchers provided invaluable leadership and insight in the project, and the graduate student (who is also the coordinator of Wildcat Writers) offered guidance in research methods and access to teachers and administrators. Together, we crafted research questions, designed evaluation tools, collected and analyzed data, and presented our findings to key stakeholders in our program. Together, we also composed this book chapter to detail our project for others who may be interested in our approach. Our composition process follows our participatory philosophy, as this chapter was authored collaboratively on a Web 2.0 tool called Google Wave. We all brainstormed for each section of the piece, and then certain groups took on primary authorship for each part of the chapter. The student researchers crafted the section on Wildcat Writers and the student research team, along with portions of the conclusion, and Rachael wrote the other sections, incorporating quotations from the student researchers. Our case study intentionally uses a “we voice,” because although this approach may gloss over the differences that naturally arise on a diverse team (Cahill, Rios-Moore, & Threatts, 2008, p. 93), we are committed to the participatory feel and enriched perspective that a “we voice” gives our description of the project.2 We first provide background on Wildcat Writers and outline the process we undertook as a research team. We then describe the need for a participatory action research (PAR) approach to evaluation, and we demonstrate how Web 2.0 tools can be integrated with PAR approaches to knowledge through examples from our own work. Finally, we address the limitations of 2.0 technologies and participatory evaluations, and conclude by highlighting key outcomes of our project, along with future possibilities for the field of service-learning.

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