Finding better ways to enable students to shape the future of widening participation work
Why would we encourage you to consider a more creative approach?
The evaluation of Widening Participation initiatives is often associated with questionnaires or examining changes in quantitative data. Whilst this approach has value, we highlighted the benefits of adopting a more creative approach. It is important to remember that whilst taking part In evaluation can be an enabling process for outreach participants, it can also perpetuate disabling barriers to participation and voice in evaluation and maintain the exclusion of certain groups (see here for further information). For example, giving a young person with reading difficulties a survey may just reinforce the challenges they experience reading and writing and prove more of a barrier to their engagement with evaluation than a tool. Therefore we argue that adopting more creative and varied approaches to evaluation can support greater inclusion and engagement in evaluation, and ultimately lead to insights that are a more reliable representation of the experiences of a range of people attending outreach activities.
In addition, creative methods are argued to emphasise action over cognition (see Gauntlett) and support more in-depth insights. For example, whilst the quote below is from 2004, it is a quote I like to refer to as it nicely illustrates the value of creative methods:
‘The visual widens the window on the world of those being studied, bringing the intricacies of their lives closer to both researcher and audience’ (Allatt and Dixon 2004, p.80)
How can we be creative in evaluation?
Creative methods can include:
• Creative writing
• Arts based approaches
• Graffiti walls
• Role Play – Drama Methods
• Vox Pops
• Walking methods
• Photovoice amongst others
For a useful introductory book to using creative methods with young people, see here.
In widening participation evaluation, many of these can be adopted and adapted depending on the questions you are trying to ask. On the whole using a small steps approach a works well with these methods. They especially fit well within a theory of change approach as they are often ideal for finding out if your projects are realising their medium term or intermedia outcomes. One example at Oxford Brookes is the use of student produced videos to explore what makes an excellent student ambassador.
When used effectively, these methods have the ability to generate rich data about the experiences of participants. They can almost make the participants be part of the evaluation as opposed to it being something they passively engage with. From a practical perspective, the outputs from this type of evaluation can add to the richness of an evaluation report to help win hearts and minds.
Challenges of creative methods
There are, however challenges when using these methods. As we mentioned in the response to our task, creative methods can be met with fear. Jon’s previous research has identified four potential barriers:
• Fear of the unknown
• Fear of judgement
• Fear of the first step
• Fear of losing control
It is therefore important to ensure that any activities are scaffolded appropriately to support participation. This might be through warm up exercises, simplifying the approach or providing a clear structure within which to work.
Using creative methods does, however, raise some additional ethical questions. We know that Ethics is not a tick box approach and something that should be constantly under review. The possibility for ethical issues regarding anonymity and representation are, however ones that may need to be grappled with. For example if your participants want to include themselves in photo or video based methods how will you deal with that?
Using these methods in online outreach
We also highlighted how these often more physical modes of evaluation might be used in digital spaces. Whilst we cannot cover this in depth, thinking about platforms that allow you to curate video, photo, audio or text content are a good place to start. There are also opportunities for using tools like whiteboards in virtual classrooms especially for drawing based tasks.