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Participatory approaches in education and research

Participatory approaches entail researchers and practitioners working with members of the community to understand the community’s challenges, and jointly develop acceptable solutions. In this module, you will learn about participatory approaches for education and research from theory and interesting examples from VU Amsterdam and beyond.

Participatory approaches encompass a range of techniques and activities aimed at sharing the decision-making power and involving relevant stakeholders - both academic and non-academic. Depending on the complexity of the challenge the participatory initiative is attempting to address, different levels and forms of participation are required. Such approaches can be considered transdisciplinary, as they seek to transcend disciplinary boundaries and divisions between science and society to enable the emergence of integrated, innovative, co-created solutions.

Introduction to Transdisciplinary Research

The following video by Dr. Barbara Regeer (Athena Institute, VU Amsterdam) introduces the principles and values of transdisciplinary research. Dr. Regeer describes how it is essential to include multiple stakeholders in a transdisciplinary way to address complex societal challenges. She emphasizes the importance and benefits of participatory dynamics during the research process.

Introduction to Participatory approaches in education & research

  • What do Participation and Participatory approaches entail?

    Participation, at the most basic level, means the involvement of people in making decisions that affect their lives. In education and research, participation entails the involvement of academic (teachers, researchers, students) and non-academic (industry and community) stakeholders. The involvement and active participation of these actors are crucial in sharing knowledge and values between science and society. Studies have also shown that active participation of community actors in academic learning and research projects often have a positive impact on the outcomes of such projects (Khodyakov et al., 2012).

    While participation of varied stakeholders and actors in education and research is of value, there are many factors that govern its application. Participation and participatory processes are often rooted in power and control, and based on this there can be different levels of community-academic partnership in research and education. At the lower end of control spectrum, community partners act as consultants and have limited influence over research-related decisions (Cook, 2008). At the higher end of control spectrum, community partners have the same amount of power and control as their academic counterparts (Israel et al., 2005). Researchers have also argued that different levels of participation are likely appropriate in different contexts and depends on the stakeholders’ objectives and capacity (Reed, 2008; Tippett et al., 2007).

    Participatory approaches encompass a range of techniques and activities aimed at sharing the decision-making power and involving relevant stakeholders - both academic and non-academic. Non-academic stakeholders (e.g. citizens, patients, civil society organizations) possess their own type of experiential or value-based knowledge. In participatory research, this more implicit type of knowledge first needs to be captured or articulated, after which it can be properly understood and integrated with knowledge stemming from academic stakeholders. Depending on the complexity of the challenge the participatory initiative is attempting to address, different levels and forms of participation are required.

  • Who is it meant for?

    In education and research, participation of both academics (teachers, researchers, students) and non-academics (community stakeholders) is key to ensure a sound decision making process. Depending on the context, the community stakeholders may be members of certain communities, citizens, patients, civil society organizations, governmental stakeholders, even private industry. Meaningful participation requires that individuals are entitled to participate in the decisions that directly affect them. So depending on the task-at-hand and who it affects, the decisions on which stakeholders to involve, and how to involve them (the nature and degree/level of engagement or involvement) in participatory processes may vary.

    We can take an example of community service learning in this case. Studies have visualized community service learning, a prime participatory approach in research and education, as a triad between the students, faculty (teachers)/University, and the community, with (ideally) reciprocal engagement.

    For students, participation in service learning provides them opportunity for out-of-the-classroom learning, real-life experiences, and service to the community. It links them with the community, where they can work with the community and use their theoretical knowledge to address issues relevant to the community. For the faculty, service learning provides an opportunity to create dynamic teaching and mentoring modules for students that link theories with community practice. For the community, such collaborative processes help in not only identifying some of the persistent and pervasive problems in the society, but also addressing those problems together with academic partners (Daniels, 2003 & McCarthy, 2003).

  • Why are participatory approaches important?

    Participatory approaches in research and education aim to actively involve relevant members of the public in the decision-making and the research process. Depending on the context, these might be members of certain communities, citizens, patients, civil society organizations, governmental stakeholders, even private industry. Academics/researchers and community members work in collaboration to understand and resolved the jointly defined problem of the community. Different types of knowledge are integrated, including experiential or value-based knowledge contributed by the community. New knowledge is generated to address the issue. This type of research can be considered transdisciplinary as it seeks to transcend disciplinary boundaries and divisions between science and society to enable the emergence of integrated, innovative, co-created solutions.

    Participation of societal stakeholders increases the understanding of societal needs and community priorities, as well as improves the visibility and transparency of research, increases societal relevance and acceptance of research, and accelerates the impact of its findings. Transforming the power dynamics and empowering the community members to articulate their views and express their knowledge also helps in realizing positive social change, mutual learning, and empowerment of excluded or oppressed groups.

  • How to set up projects in a participatory way?

    In order to set up participatory initiatives in research or education, it is important to have a thorough understanding of the collectives of participation. These "collectives" of participation or "participatory collectives" constitute essential components that help visualize the what, who and how of any participatory initiative. According to Chilvers and Longhurst (2016) and Lynch et. al. (2020), there are three components in a participatory collective, viz. Subjects (s), Objects (o), and models of participation (p).

    (i) Subjects (s): this includes the participants or stakeholders whose involvement and engagement is crucial in participatory processes. In education, the participants are usually students, teachers, and varied societal stakeholders.

    (ii) Objects (o): this constitutes the issue(s) at stake. The issues/problems can be diverse and range from simple to complex. The complexity of the issue determine the involvement of diversity of subjects/stakeholders and the application of varied models of participation.

    (iii) Models of participation (p): this component constitutes the participatory model/approach to be applied in the project. The choice of approach depends on the nature of the issue/problem at hand, the stakeholders that need to be involved to address the problem, and the degree of involvement/engagement of stakeholders. Depending on the characteristics of the issue under investigation, community members can have varying degrees of participation and control. From low levels such as informing and consulting, to active involvement, collaboration, and empowerment of community members.

  • Examples of participatory initiatives in research and education from VU Amsterdam

    Please find below some examples/inspirations of courses and research projects from VU Amsterdam that apply various participatory approaches:

    Courses:

    Research projects: