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Led by Dr. Jennifer Long, assistant professor of anthropology, and Wayne Williams, assistant professor of design, MacEwan faculty members are using design thinking and crowdsourcing to find innovative ways to provide community organizations with the information they need.

Faculty makes sure community-engaged scholarship continues

December 11, 2020 | Society
Community-engaged scholarship generally relies on in-person, face-to-face contact. But when COVID-19 made connecting with community partners who serve vulnerable communities more challenging, faculty members at MacEwan University decided to take a different approach.

Led by Dr. Jennifer Long, assistant professor of anthropology, and Wayne Williams, assistant professor of design, MacEwan faculty members are using design thinking and crowdsourcing to find innovative ways to provide community organizations with the information they need to address the many challenges the pandemic presents.

“The need for data and research among our community partners who work with vulnerable populations doesn’t stop during COVID-19,” says Long. “So we needed to find a way for our partners and faculty members to engage in research without being overwhelmed by it.”

What Long and Dr. Cynthia Puddu, director of community-engaged scholarship, originally envisioned as a research version of a hackathon morphed into a kind of design sprint. Using an approach inspired by the one companies use to take a new product or service to market, Long and Wayne Williams, an assistant professor of design, are working with faculty members and community partners to crowdsource research questions and distribute research tasks.

We're trying to match skills, areas of interest and expertise to form strong teams that can find meaningful solutions.
—Wayne Williams

“Applying design thinking in this way is really its own form of research,” says Williams. “We’re trying to match skills, areas of interest and expertise to form strong teams that can find meaningful solutions.”

The project kicked off with an online workshop where Long and Williams hosted seven community-serving organizations focused on immigration, social justice and Indigenous initiatives. In just two hours, the group worked through a series of exercises to identify and explore the issues organizations struggled with most. The result was a list of a dozen research questions that fall into two categories: access to resources (funding, staffing and technology) and how to create meaningful movement around equity, diversity and inclusion.

Long and Williams hosted a second virtual workshop for MacEwan faculty members in mid-November to introduce the potential research questions and identify faculty members with expertise to help address them. More than 20 faculty members participated, representing social work, psychology, arts and cultural management, nursing, human services, early learning, English, organizational behaviour, human resources management, computer science, anthropology and economics.

Next, Long and Williams will take those research questions back to the community partners and begin shaping interdisciplinary teams to start doing the work.

“The approach is iterative,” explains Williams. “It involves a lot of back and forth, reflecting on what we can improve, refining ideas and doing it all over again.”

Both Long and Williams are excited at the potential of the approach.

“Pulling together collaborative teams in a distributed way over distances, and sharing the work it takes to do good research gives this model the potential to make research more sustainable,” says Long.

It also creates a foundation upon which to build, says Williams. “Working as interdisciplinary teams means the data we collect and the findings we are working toward will extend far beyond a single partner and can be applied by all kinds of organizations – in ways we may not even have considered yet.”

Long and Williams anticipate that research teams will begin their work in February.

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