Charting my way to and through design-based research

Sprout bulb in interative cycleAs we’ve kicked off this first week of the DML Commons design research course, I’ve been reflecting on the evolution of my own relationship to design-based research (DBR). It’s a fairly short amount of time, all said, that I could even say that I’ve had this relationship – I’ve been formally designing learning experiences and environments since 2006, started collaborating with educational researchers in earnest in 2008 and then headed off the graduate school in 2010. Over these years my relationship to DBR has of course deepened (and certainly become more explicit and intentional), but I think part of what I see when I look back is how my early experiences working as a practitioner in an informal learning organization dedicated to social justice continues to inform how I think about and engage with design-based research approaches today.

My first proper job was at a fantastic organization called Global Kids, where I had the luck to have Barry Joseph as my boss. For anyone who knows Barry, it’ll be no surprise that a lot of educational design work I did was highly experimental, utilizing emergent new media (games, virtual worlds, social media, mobile technology, digital mapping, badging, podcasting, you name it, we tried it) to figure out how it might be leveraged to support learning and engagement around social justice issues. We often didn’t know in advance exactly what kind of learning might be supported through different types of explorations, but we had hunches about affordances and we were good at learning along the way, documenting emergent best practices (design principles, if you will) for leveraging emergent forms of new media for learning. Global Kids was a dynamic place partly because we did so much experimentation, but also because we took the time to document best practices and design principles, something I would later learn is central to design-based research approaches.

At the same time as we focused on experimentation, at Global Kids we also focused on how theories around digital learning and literacies coming from the academy might intersect with what we were doing on the ground. The most significant example of this for me was the collaboration I ended up working on with Henry Jenkins (then of MIT, now USC) on Project New Media Literacies in 2008 and 2009. As part of the collaboration, I designed a curriculum and associated afterschool program called Media Masters that focused on new media production, social justice, and new media literacies. The project aimed to explicitly take the theory around these new literacies that Henry and his colleagues had identified as an “in the wild” phenomenon and figuring out how to create activities, participation structures and collaborative, production-oriented digital projects that would allow youth to engage in and reflect on these literacies. The collaboration with Henry’s team showed me the promise and potential of using theory, in this case theory about emergent competencies, as a driving force behind doing principled and intentional design. Again, I was engaging in practices central to design-based research without quite knowing it.

Eventually, the many opportunities I had to collaborate with learning researchers while at Global Kids led me into the world of research myself. I headed to grad school to study learning sciences at Indiana University, a place that felt right for me because of its simultaneous valuation of learning theory, research methods and design. It was during grad school that I was ‘formally’ introduced to DBR, and the possibilities of what it might look like to design in a way that was guided by principled inquiry; one where particular theories and conjectures about learning could be indexed (or embodied, as Bill Sandoval would say) within a given educational design.

As I went through my program, I moved deeper into the literature on DBR and began to engage in new design projects within the context of my graduate assistantship, I was able to more critically assess and consider issues at the intersection of research, design and theory development, and issues of who’s involved in this intersection and how they interact. I spent a lot of energy thinking through a variety of limitations I was seeing within the DBR paradigm, even as I was seeing and experiencing its potentials. Some of these limitations were related to its ability to generate theory, and what sort of theory it could produce (Cobb et al. 2003 [pdf] talk about “humble” theory as a product of DBR). Others were related to the reality that while DBR had been actively proposed and refined back in the late ’80s/early ’90s, looking back from my seat in the early 2010’s I wasn’t seeing major projects that used these methods and actually seemed be making big impact in education (something that others in the literature had noticed as well). I was seeing issues relating to both DBR’s promises regarding basic research as well as those related to applied research (the intersection of which is known as “Pasteur’s Quadrant”, oft-cited in the DBR lit). Finally, I was deeply unsettled by how educators were often positioned in the DBR literature. Lots of language I was seeing disempowered educators – issues of “fidelity of implementation” and “lethal mutations” that occur when the original vision of an innovation is lost or somehow ‘corrupted’ by an adopting educator. As a practitioner myself, I felt irked. And I felt like there must be a way to resolve these tensions.

I thought and wrote about these issues during my qualifying exams, and while I won’t go into the whole logic of what I wrote (for those interested, here’s the paper [pdf]), I essentially argued that the most impactful and viable uses for DBR are versions of the methodology that “double down” on hyper-locality of both the theories generated and innovations developed and where practitioners are the ones leading what problems get addressed and subsequent innovations designed. While I didn’t go deeply into it in the paper, the implications were that researchers might play different roles than those that had been usually implied in the central corpus of the DBR literature to date. Rather than leading and being the source of innovations that practitioners then adopt, I saw researchers more playing playing roles related to facilitation, measurement, analysis/theory generation and generally providing technical assistance and capacity to a process deeply rooted in practitioner innovation and agency. As someone who never stopped identifying as an education practitioner, it felt like these issues of practitioner agency needed to be central in order for DBR to be a framework that was going to be meaningful to me.

It’s only in the latest phase of my work that I’ve had an opportunity, and set of collaborators, that would allow me to figure out how to actually make these ways of working happen on the ground. The work I’ve been doing with Dixie Ching, Kylie Peppler and Chris Hoadley in Hive Research Lab over the past two years has turned into the space where the commitments and ideals I put on paper during my qualifying exams are being born out through lived experience, and the theories I have around what relationships and joint work might look like between researchers and practitioners are themselves getting ‘humbled’. We’re learning a lot about the messiness and challenges of trying to live the values we have around research. Dixie and I will speak about it more in an upcoming webinar, but the idea of a researcher group embedded within a network of out of school learning organizations was one initiated by practitioner leaders within Hive NYC Learning Network, deeply informed by months of talking to the practitioners it might serve, and in its implementation has been characterized by rich relationships, collaborative design between researchers and practitioners, and an embedded approach that aims to break down walls between research and practice while maintaining the distinctive capacities that a range of stakeholders can bring to the table. And as we’ve been doing this work, we’ve moved again back into the literature to find new and promising trends – emergent work on research practice partnerships, design-based implementation research, co-design and participatory design are forming a basis for what it might mean to take many of the core ideas around design-based research and move them into the context of joint work with a network of talented practitioners in Hive NYC.

It’s been, and continues to be, a fantastic, and challenging, opportunity to try to make this stuff happen on the ground in a way that really reflects the ways I want to work. Reflecting on my journey to and through the practices and ideas of design-based research, coming from way back to my days at Global Kids, is part of what helps me to contextualize and continually refine the work I’m grateful to be doing today.


  1. CogDog · April 8, 2015

    I remember well connecting with you and Barry on Global Kids (my Second Life avatar is rather dusty and neglected) and it;s great to see the trajectory you’ve taken into the research world. I am just at a beginning cusp of DBR (it was something I had not even come across before DML Commons). If anything, to be really simple minded, it seems almost a more human approach to research.

    Carry on!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Rafi Santo · April 8, 2015

    Yes, definitely remember well our days in second life while you were at NMC. I believe that my first virtual-world based presentation about youth development and technology was actually on NMC island, and Barry and I made folks fly around in all sorts of ways during the activity!

    I definitely agree on DBR as a “humane”, and very human, approach to research. Looking forward to continuing the conversation!


  3. Amanda · April 8, 2015

    Thanks for sharing your personal story, Rafi. It’s very helpful to learn about your background and pathway, and how you came to DBR. I’m also looking forward to learning more about the “humbling” experiences with the HRL work!


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