Digital Participation: using media-based tools for need assessment and project evaluation

Projects based on digital tools are a great, effective way to support and empower adult learners at risk of exclusion. Giving participants the space to express themselves using photography and filmmaking has a visible positive impact on their learning process and self-development. But are workshops the only way to use digital approaches at work with vulnerable groups?

We believe that participatory media methods can be used for much more than just supporting people in reflecting and sharing their life stories to the outside world. That is why, during Digital Participation: Engaging Diverse and Marginalized Communities, we explored how to use digital tools in different areas and for different purposes. 

Film and photography as need assessment methods 

During our project we focused on the question of empowerment and how to make sure that our educational activities are truly what our beneficiaries need and want rather than what we think they want. The key to achieving this is to devote time, resources, and attention to investigating the community needs and only after this process is completed, to design the workshops or other activities accordingly. There are many great examples of need assessment methods, such as focus groups, in-depth interviews. The problem with these more “classical” approaches is that they do not necessary work with people who are vulnerable, not involved in community life and lacking self-confidence. This kind of beneficiaries do not have the sense that their voice matters so they rarely share their opinions, the common thinking here being that “I have nothing to say” or “whatever I think doesn’t matter anyway”. The answer to this challenge can be to use more creative methods, such as participatory photography or digital storytelling. Both are based on the assumption that every voice should be heard and all stories matter, regardless of how “meaningless” they may seem. By creating a safe space where participants have the feeling of being valued and heard, it is possible to encourage them to openly express what they think, feel, and want. Digital approaches are so successful also because of the fact that photography and filmmaking are tools perfect for those who do not feel comfortable speaking up or writing their reflections – very often they find the visual language easier to use. 

How to use participatory media as need assessment methods in practice? There are several ways of doing so. One approach is to conduct a very classical workshop where participants are free to talk about whenever they feel is important and then to analyze the content they created. This works great with beneficiaries we do not know so well and initially we just want to understand who they are. It does not give very specific or measurable results, but still can give us a direction or general aim we should aspire for. For example, if several participants decide to focus their digital stories on the issues of being unemployed/struggling to find a better career or feeling alienated and experiencing mental health challenges due to corona virus and isolation, this already suggest us that we might want to dedicate a specific project to address these issues. A more advanced approach that can be used while working with target groups we already know is to design a storytelling and/or participatory photography workshop in a way that focuses on a specific, concrete issue we want to investigate. The best example here is to use participatory media to understand what kind of changes people would like to see in their community – typically participants are asked to photograph places in their neighborhood they like/dislike, places that bring positive memories or emotions, places that they do not ever go to, or take a picture that visualize how they imagine the perfect living place. Analyzing results can say a lot of how people move around the neighborhood and can suggest ideas how to revitalize certain areas. When it comes to digital storytelling, it is also possible to choose specific topics, especially when working with people who share some characteristics. Examples include designing workshops for recently arrived migrants, asking them to talk about how they feel in their new community, or inviting people who are unemployed and proposing to create a film about their dream jobs or competences they would like to develop. 

Results of these workshops should be analyzed either by the NGO staff members who conducted them, or during open community meetings to which both the participants and stakeholders/decision-makers are invited (for example municipality representatives, employment center workers etc). Organizing open screenings or exhibitions can be a great way to bring different groups together and jointly design new initiatives that are based on the very specific needs raised by adults at risk. 

Evaluating the project using digital tools 

Evaluation is a crucial part of every project cycle but in an alarming number of cases it is either neglected or skipped altogether. As Digital Participation consortium, we strongly advocate for putting significant effort into evaluating all the activities we as NGOs are implementing. Assessing to what extent our projects are brining results and measuring the impact on the participants and communities can help us improve our educational offer and develop our organizational capacities, thus becoming better equipped to truly support our beneficiaries. 

Evaluation, however, is not easy. For one, it is challenging to design an evaluation format that really measures what we intend to. Even bigger challenge seems to be finding ways to encourage participants to really answer honestly and put some thoughts into it. Learners taking part in educational projects often consider filling out an evaluation form a boring and meaningless obligation. From our talks with beneficiaries, it is clear that they doubt if what they write is going to make any difference. Hence, there is a great need to convince them that we do really care while at the same time making the evaluation itself more engaging and creative. 

We find it very useful to take advantage of digital tools also on this stage of our projects. During our Digital Participation KA2, we organized a series of video interviews with participants of our local workshops. Recording them speaking their mind and sharing their impression is a great way of documenting the project results – it can be easily shared as it is more tangible than the dry statistics extracted from the classical, written evaluation. In our opinion, it also has different, more significant benefits: providing participants with safe space and focusing our attention on them makes them feel important, valued, and listened to. It is yet another way to reinforce their self-confidence and strongly send the message that their voice and opinions matter. 

Of course, not everyone feels confident in front of a camera, that is why these interviews should never be compulsory, because once they are forced, they become counterproductive and can lead to diminishing participants’ confidence and putting them in a stressful situation.

However, they are other digital tools that can be used to evaluate the project and that are more suitable to participants who are camera-shy. One of the ways is to use participatory photography, asking participants to take pictures symbolizing what they have learned/how they feel/what could be improved in the activity/how they are planning to use their new skills in their life etc. The advantage of this method is that facilitators can come up with different questions that are relevant to their activity depending on what they would like to focus. Another benefit of using photography during the evaluation is that it helps participants express themselves in a more visual language, which is great for those who are not so confident in writing. The process in itself is also fun and creative, so it eliminates the problem of evaluation being perceived as a boring obligation. 

Digital tools and methods based on participatory media have a great potential for working with marginalized groups and have many benefits when it comes to supporting and empowering adult learners. Through Digital Participation we had a great chance to explore and investigate new ways in which these methods can be successfully used at different stages of projects based on non-formal education. 

Digital Participation: Engaging Diverse and Marginalized Communities is KA2 project in the field of adult education, funded and supported by the Erasmus+ Program of European Commission. 

Project partners: Fundacja Autokreacja (Poland), Mine Vaganti NGO (Italy), Upstream Stories (Denmark) 

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