The Participant-Observer in Community-based Learning as Community Bard 

John M. Carroll

The Pennsylvania State University < >

 Mary Beth Rosson

The Pennsylvania State University < >



We reflect on the role that we play, as participatory action researchers, in community informatics projects. We characterize this role using the analogy to "bards" from medeival societies.



During the past three years our Civic Nexus research group ( has been involved in a collection of community learning projects with groups in Centre County, Pennsylvania, a rural area of about 1,000 square miles with a population of 140,000, including the fairly cosmopolitan college town of State College (population 75,000) and the main campus of the Pennsylvania State University. The focus of the project is to investigate, develop, and assess sustainable strategies to help these groups better control their own information technology. We have worked with the county historical society, the regional emergency management coordinator, a sustainable development group, the enrichment program at the local high school, the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity, the symphony orchestra, the local food bank, an environmental preservation group, a local emergency medical services council, a group that works with at-risk youth, and with a group that trains leaders for community groups.

Our original project concept was to form participatory action research (PAR) relationships with these groups, to jointly undertake technology development projects through which our partners would learn by doing, and we could observe how the learning occurred, and how it could be facilitated and sustained (Merkel, Xiao, Farooq, Ganoe, Lee, Carroll & Rosson, 2004). We found that, in general, groups in our community already use Internet technologies, like email and the Web, to carry out their missions, but, also in general, the groups are not satisfied, often feel like they are slipping behind some norm, and do want to consider learning more and doing more. For example, many of the groups are interested in attaining more direct control of their overall Web site design, others are interesting in better integrating their information technology (for example, integrating databases with their Websites), some are interested in adding special functionalities to their Web sites (such as interactive maps), and some are interested in supporting collaborative interactions like discussion forums.

Our PAR projects have several distinctive characteristics relative to standard conceptions of participatory technology projects (Clement & Van den Besselaar, 1993): (1) The owners of the project are the community partners. They control the work activity being supported. They authorize the project and the approach taken. (2) The scope of the design concern is fairly broad. It is not limited to a user interface or even an application program; it generally involves adaptations in the work itself, especially including approaches to managing technology and technology training. (3) The scope of the collaboration is also quite broad. These groups are not organized for efficient decision-making and policy implementation, rather they work through consensus building. Thus, decisions develop through considerable spans of time and involve mutual trust. (4) Finally, these groups are more responsible for their own technology than the workers typically studied in classic participatory technology projects.  For example, participatory projects with office workers hinge on accurately codifying the work that is to be supported. The office workers will not have to maintain the new systems any more than had to personally maintain the old ones. For community groups, this is different. The only sustainable innovations they can make are those they can either pay for or carry out. There is no corporate infrastructure underwriting their activities; no IT Support department. Thus, their expectations about learning and development are that they will assume responsibility for maintenance and further design (Merkel, Clitherow, Farooq, Xiao, Ganoe, Carroll & Rosson, 2005).

Indeed, the community volunteer groups we are working with are quite unlike those in the classic participatory technology projects. In those projects, participation is conceived of as a strategy for mediating and integrating the interests of workers and managers. These different interests were often themselves conceived of as fundamentally adversarial. In the civic sector, the issues manifest differently. Most of the activity in a community group occurs through minimally coordinated and highly localized initiatives. The community groups we have worked with have few paid staff members. Most of the work activity is carried out by volunteers, who participate how and to the extent that they wish.

The characteristics of PAR projects, and our interest in investigating and developing sustainable community-based learning, impel a different sort of role for us as participant-observers. Specifically, we have learned that effective participation requires a substantial and long-term involvement in the community group, but at the same time, relegates us to the active periphery of the community. This may sound contradictory. On the one hand, the fact that the groups are constituted by loose networks of volunteers and managed by a mixture of self-initiative and consensus-building, makes it difficult to quickly understand the groups and earn sufficient trust to work with them. On the other hand, we are ultimately concerned with helping to implement sustainable learning strategies in these groups. But if we have to actually become members in order to do that, it becomes impossible to differentiate the “models” we are developing and investigating, from our own personal identities. (See Carroll, Chin, Rosson & Neale, 2000, for a broader version of this argument.)

We call this role in the active periphery “the bard”: those fellows with lutes and plumed hats, roaming about, singing ballads in medieval courts. Bards were not knights, chancellors, or bishops; they were not even blacksmiths, tailors or farmers. They were not core members of the medieval community at any stratum. However, their songs reminded all the members of the community of their collective exploits, of the folkways, mores, and values that regulate and sustain their practices, and of their future objectives and visions. Their songs inspired other actors in the community to undertake great quests, to defend their comrades, or just to be a bit more creative and daring in their farming or whatever else they did. The bard’s tools are themselves fairly unthreatening to the interests and practices of others, and at the same time participatory in the sense that a familiar or rousing ballad asks for sing-along (Carroll, 2004).

As the bards of community nonprofits in Centre County, Pennsylvania, we are much more than facilitators. We are much more than occasional visitors. We are continuously involved. We are aware of what is going on in the group, of who is doing what in the group. We understand what the group is about and what it values. We are sounding boards for the group’s analysis and planning. We are on occasion direct technical resources for analysis and planning. We represent the group to itself, in our case from the particular perspective of technology needs and possibilities. But we are also firmly at the edge of the group. We don’t have an operational role. We don’t have power.

This role can be uniquely useful: Community groups are not about information technology any more than they are about plumbing. They recruit various technologies in the service of their community goals and functions. It is easy for them to lose sight of their own technology needs and goals. The peripheral participant can remind core members of their own needs and goals, and draw connections between current group issues and opportunities and technology plans. If this reminding is done creatively, it can become a vehicle for defining a zone of proximal development, in Vygotsky’s (1978) sense, with respect to technology learning and mastery. The zone of proximal development is the set of concepts, skills, and other capacities that a person or an organization can undertake with help. As an individual or an organization successfully operates within the zone of proximal development, it becomes autonomously competent with a larger set of concepts, skills, and capacities. At that point, it can articulate greater ambitions and continue to push the bounds of its own development. If the peripheral participant can remind the core members of their zone of proximal development with respect to information technology, and perhaps even provide some help so that they can operate within this zone and push out its boundaries, then the peripheral participant can become an instrument of learning and development within the community. (See Carroll & Farooq, 2005, for a more specific and detailed version of this proposal.)



We are grateful to the other members of the Civic Nexus project team — Cecelia Merkel, Craig Ganoe, Umer Farooq, Lu Xiao, Wendy Schafer, Michael Race, Matthew Peters, and Paula Bach. This research is supported in part by the US National Science Foundation under award IIS 03-42547.



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Carroll, J.M., Chin, G., Rosson, M.B. & Neale, D.C. (2000). The development of cooperation: Five years of participatory design in the virtual school.  In D. Boyarski & W. Kellogg (Eds.), DIS’2000: Designing Interactive Systems (Brooklyn, New York, August 17-19). New York: Association for Computing Machinery, pp. 239-251.

Carroll, J.M. and Farooq, U. (2005). Community-based learning: Design patterns and frameworks. In H. Glllersen, K. Schmidt, M. Beaudouin-Lafon, and W. Mackay (Eds.), Proceedings of the 9th European Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (Paris, France, September 18-22, 2005), pp. 307-324. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.

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Merkel, C.B., Xiao, L., Farooq, U., Ganoe, C.H., Lee, R., Carroll, J.M. & Rosson, M.B. 2004. Participatory design in community computing contexts: Tales from the field. Proceedings of the Participatory Design Conference (Toronto, Canada, July 27-31). New York: ACM Press, pp. 1-10.

Vygotsky, L.S. 1978. Mind in society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.