Education Observatory

Research in Education at the University of Wolverhampton

By John Traxler, Marguerite Koole, Shri Footring, Matt Smith

The Tawaw ( project is led by Marguerite Koole from the University of Saskatchewan, Shri Footring, an independent consultant, and Matt Smith and John Traxler at the University of Wolverhampton. It is early days so this is just an outline of our thinking and progress to date. It grows out of Marguerite’s work in language app development with Indigenous peoples in Canada in Canada and from John’s work with various groups across Africa. The project is part of a programme being developed under the auspices of our newly established UNESCO Chair for Innovative and Informal Digital Learning in Disadvantaged and Development Contexts.

The project aims to explore the development of tools and techniques of digital learning research that will empower Indigenous and marginal communities to design and build their own digital learning spaces, meeting their needs and aspirations rather than ours.

The objectives of the project:

• to explore the extent to which the tools and techniques, and to a lesser extent, the ethics, governance and funding of educational research are fundamentally pre-digital, modernist, colonialist and European in their origin and ethos;

• to ask, whether, as a consequence, these are unsuited and are in fact oppressive when exploring the educational and epistemic experiences and expectations of cultures and communities that are very different, diverse and distant from the national and global norms that we in western universities take-for-granted, not-worth-mentioning, and become a global standard;

• to assess whether we can collaboratively adapt, devise, co-opt or construct better tools and techniques, from within the communities, and also eclectically and inclusively from across the academic disciplines, that better match their worldviews, their lifestyles, livelihoods and environments.

A recent paper (Traxler & Smith, 2020) tentatively documented the kinds of barriers that might exist between national and global mainstreams and the communities and cultures at their margins, recognising the diversity of these barriers and the tools and techniques that might overcomethese barriers. 

Clearly some of these barriers might be objective features like distance, sparsity, services, transport, infrastructure, coverage, mains and buildings whilst others might be language and literacy or capacity, knowledge, training and skills or status, stigma and esteem. The list can be refined and extended. In many cases, individuals and their communities, and researchers and their organisation are on opposite sides of multiple barriers—however much they might wish they were not. 

Others of these barriers are consequences of the fact that the research methods in use in low-income countries and disadvantaged regions are, as we said, predigital and European in origin. They are often deployed by organisations with limited resources, confidence, capability and criticality. These organisations, both educational and governmental, and their ethos and mindsets, often still embody the legacy of colonial and crudely modernist ideas but now reinforced by globalising and neo-colonial digital technologies and are now expected by western aid and humanitarian agencies and donors. These legacy methods, by which we mean surveys and questionnaires but sometimes also focus groups and interviews, might align with the tech-savvy metropolitan elites in low-income countries, but not necessarily with the rural, Indigenous or nomadic communities at their margins.

An earlier pilot initiative, funded by the Newton scheme,organised by Dominic Kimani and hosted by the Friends of Kinangop Plateau, an upland community in Kenya, explored a variety of possible tools, including card-sorts and rich pictures, with community members and was a valuable incentive to develop the ideas and develop a more structured format for their evaluation and their use.

On these foundations, the work currently underway is building a network of local communities ready for events within these communities later in the year.

We have reached out to researchers who work with communities in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Guatemala, Kenya, Borneo, Indonesia, South Africa, New Zealand, Congo Basin, Finland, Namibia, and Palestine. Our aim is to connect withlocal facilitators in each community and to organise events where potentially useful tools and techniques can be tried and discussed. This is not to elicit data or information, certainly not in the sense that western academics might define these terms, but to get nearer to understanding their values and their understandings of their world and particularly how what wemight recognise as knowing, understanding, enquiring and learning might fit into their world. 

Already we have feedback reminding us that other cultures do not subscribe to the European modernist binaries such mind/body, human/animal, manufactured/natural, spiritual/rational and that the nature of learning, knowing and finding out can be much more inclusive than those of our culture, and especially within the structured, reductionist and hierarchic university systems.

Part of the rationale, in the face of invasive global digital technologies, is in the longer term to develop, with the communities, ways to strengthen and preserve their own culture and traditions whilst empowering them to makeinformed and critical judgements about the threats and opportunities accessed on these global digital technologies and about the interests that they serve. 

Already many of our contacts talk about climate change, environmental degradation, loss of traditional livelihoods and the appropriation of cultural heritage and Indigenous knowledge, and we see these as challenges that self-governing decolonised digital learning spaces can help communities to fight.

We do not expect that there will be generic formats; we expect each community will have its own constraints and conditions defining how we and the local facilitator can run events or gatherings to try out methods and tools and discuss and document the findings. Furthermore, research in each community will very likely focus on different topics of concern—so far ranging from bee keeping, animal husbandry, subsistence farming, traditional games, cooking and ceremonies.

We resist what is sometimes called the ‘pan-Indigenist’ position, the notion that Indigenous, or indeed any other marginal, communities automatically or axiomatically have anything in common… except that is, the common and potentially epistemicidal threat to their values, ethea, traditions and cultures posed by ubiquitous, pervasive and intrusive digital technologies in the hands of global corporations, modernist mindsets and national governments. Our work expands to non-Indigenous peoples who are similarly marginalized. For example, we are also working with a group of Deaf and Hard of Hearing from Canada.

Clearly our project is logically problematic, using unproven methods to access understandings which we cannot necessarily corroborate. This argues for an incremental and iterative approach. Findings from Individuals may corroborate the findings from other individuals in the same community, but we are currently uncertain as to whether that validates any given tool or technique within that community or merely indicates a misunderstood consensus.

The team are working with a pan-African project, OERIGA, which is documenting collating Indigenous games. This represents another potential way to understand some of the local understandings of learning and of issues such as collaborating, cooperating and competing within different African cultures. The team are working with experts in knowledge elucidation and requirements engineering from Keele University partly to cast the net as wide as possible in terms of tools and techniques—rather than theories—but also to pursue the development of a technology that might enable remote knowledge capture or facilitate peer-to-peer networks

The team are scouring the literature looking for methods within the western canon that might be suitable for adaptation, drawing eclectically from sociology, software engineering, development studies, anthropology and wherever else. The team is also interested in locating non-Western methodologies that might be shared amongst communities.

At the same time, the team are having conversations with intermediaries, people with a foot in each camp, culturally, to look for correspondences, for example between talking circles and focus groups, or between storytelling and critical incident methods, that might represent mutually acceptable, trustworthy and adaptable formats.

Marguerite, Shri, Matt and John recognise that the issue of research methods should not be tackled without also tackling research ethics and research governance. To try to do so without taking these into account is a merely technical manoeuvre that does not address the fundamental issues of power and control in the relationships and transactions between researchers from outside these communities and cultures and the people within them deprived of that power and control. This too is logically problematic because the discussions about what is appropriate and ethical within a community do, themselves, need an ethical basis in order to proceed. We will start from within the communities themselves and the intermediaries, and proceed cautiously.

This project is the precursor of initiatives to decolonise learning technology, digital learning or edtech since these too inevitably rest on European and colonial theorising drawing on the institutions, methods, data and findings from within largely European cultural settings. There is considerable activity in universities globally to decolonise the curriculum and thus this project is one small part of a bigger picture.

Who We Are and How to Find Us:

Marguerite Koole, PhD
University of Saskatchewan

Shri Footring
Digital Learning Research Ltd

Matt Smith, John Traxler
University of Wolverhampton,
@MattSmithWlv, @johntraxler

The project website:

Traxler, J. & Smith, M. (2020), Data for development: shifting research methodologies for Covid-19, Journal of Learning for Development 7(3), 306-325.

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