Laura Malinverni is a researcher and designer in the field of education. Her main interests are the design, management and evaluation of projects for social interventions and for the development of educational technologies. Her work includes participatory design projects with autistic children and young people.
Laura Malinverni (LM): Generally, in literature, scholars distinguish between four roles children may assume in the design and development of technology for them: as design partners, as informants, as testers and as users. We experimented with these roles some years ago in the EcoSystem project where children were involved to different degrees during different stages of the design process.
Besides these roles, I would also add two other additional and fundamental roles: as full designers (as, for instance, in some digital fabrication projects) and as evaluators (as, for instance, in participatory evaluation projects).
Within a design process, and especially with neurodiverse population, defining the role of children represents a delicate issue since we move in the continuum between overwhelming the children and relegating them in a marginal role, in which their skills are not fully considered. Nonetheless, I firmly believe that all children, including autistic children, can assume all of these roles if well accompanied and supported.
This implies three things:
First, and fundamentally, to pay careful attention to the affective dimensions of the project. This means being sensitive to children’s affective state and open to change one’s plan in order to avoid either overwhelming or marginalising them.
Second, it implies considering these roles as taken and not as given. This means to let children the agency and autonomy to situate themselves in the role where they are comfortable in that moment and eventually accompanying them in shifting and experimenting between different roles.
Third, this implies to bet for situated, contextualised and personalised techniques and strategies to involve children. This is especially relevant while working with neurodiverse populations. It, therefore, implies to not try to find “methods and techniques” that work for all but to design and develop carefully tailored approaches that fit with the needs, preferences and know-how of these children.
LM: In my opinion, using a participatory design (PD) approach in the design of technology for autism offers several benefits. First, from an innovative perspective, it allows bringing other voices and perspectives in the design process, hence enriching and diversifying it. Second, from a pragmatic perspective, involving end-users in the design process always allow to better understand their needs and preferences and, hence, designing better solutions for them. Finally (and for me more importantly), from a pedagogical and affective perspective, it can serve to support the empowerment and self-confidence of these children, or, in other words, to make them feel that they are capable and skilled to design and create relevant and interesting stuff. This latter aspect is particularly important when we work with children since in this developmental stage they need to experience situations in which they can demonstrate their competencies, tracking their achievements and feel that they are capable of doing stuff. Furthermore, is even more important when we collaborate with children with special needs since this population tends to be underrepresented in decision-making processes and often, the focus on “needs” reduces the attention that can be placed on “skills”.
However, doing PD with autistic children can often be a complex task for the researchers that are involved. On the one hand, as a designer, you need to deal and combine multiple contributions, requirements and constraints within a coherent holistic design (e.g. children’s interests, educational goals, therapeutic guidelines, technological possibilities, etc.). On the other hand, from a pedagogical perspective, you need to design activities that make sense for the child, the fit with their needs and know-how and that can be useful to answer your design question. Finally, often, the complex situations that these children are facing require particular care for the ethical implications related to what happens during the PD workshops and how you should or should not behave in them. This latter aspect requires proper training for researchers involved in PD and a great amount of reflexivity on your own role and your own actions as a researcher and facilitator in a PD workshop.
LM: My PhD thesis focused on Full-Body Interaction Learning Environments defined as interactive environments where users’ embodied experiences serve to interact with digital technologies and to support thinking and reflexive processes.
Within these contexts, I believe that the most relevant examples are those that are capable of fully taking advantage of the particular qualities of bodily movements and feelings (e.g., playfulness) to support certain kind of experiences and of using technology as a media to enhance these experiences.
Interesting examples of them can be found in projects such as the “Augmented Reality Sandbox” where the sensorimotor experience of playing with the sand is augmented to offer a digital topographic representation of the mountains and valleys, or in the “Improvised Empathetic Device” where interactive technologies augment our sensing capabilities to allow users to physically feel the death of each soldier on their bodies or in the “Machine to be another” where virtual reality allows individuals to experience the world through the eyes and body of another person.
LM: I have been mainly interested in defining approaches, tools and techniques to support autistic children’s self-expression, empowerment and feeling of being skilful and capable of doing relevant and interesting stuff. For this reason, my research in this field focused mainly on involving them in Participatory Design processes or in creative processes such as art-making and digital fabrication.
This focus makes it a little bit difficult to speak about metrics for efficacy since often such aspects cannot be measured and even less can be considered in term of efficacy. Nonetheless, in order to evaluate the interventions related to my research, I generally try to assume a holistic approach, which combines careful qualitative observation of multimodal factors, the use of theoretical concepts to think about experiences (and vice-versa), self-examination and reflexivity.
LM: I’m currently working mainly on two research lines. On the one hand, I’m researching how children understand and perceive different concepts related to technology in order to better design pedagogical approaches for technology implementation in schools. On the other, I’m working on several projects related to the idea of children as designers and creators, focusing on using technology to support self-expression and creativity, especially with marginalised children. Some of these projects are supported by a cultural association we created with some colleagues (http://www.cosicosa.tech/) and others form part of my academic research.