Utilizing Photovoice technology for student-driven research: An award winner tells her tale

The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) Annual Program Meeting taking place October 31-November 3, 2013 in Dallas Texas, is a place where social work educators, administrators, practitioners, and students can come together to discuss some of the biggest issues in social work. SAGE is a proud supporter of the event, and a sponsor of the SAGE/CSWE Award for Innovative Teaching in Social Work Education. This year’s award winners were a Northern Kentucky University (NKU) Group headed by Dana Harley with colleagues James P. Canfield, Willie Elliott, and Karen Tapp and Dale Fitch from the University of Missouri. Both will be recognized for their work on Friday, November 1 and making presentations on Saturday, November 2 (more info on the presentations here).


Dana Hurley and the NKU group

The Northern Kentucky University Group won their award for their work using Photovoice as a tool for active student-learning research projects. We thought their work was intriguing and that other SAGE Connection readers would like to know more, so we asked Dana Harley of NKU a few questions:

1.  Your work utilizing Photovoice in student research sounds very interesting. Can you explain to how your group decided to implement it for research at NKU?

Area school districts expressed growing concern regarding the increase in non-academic barriers that were preventing students from graduating high school.  NKU’s Social Work Program was invited by area school districts to explore ways in which collaboration might serve at-risk and homeless students. The implementation of the mentorship/photovoice project was our way of responding to direct concerns and needs expressed by area school officials regarding the retention of “at-risk” and homeless students.  One of the major areas of concern involved identifying students’ perceived barriers to graduation. NKU proposed one-on-one, non-clinical mentorships between Master of Social Work (MSW) students and at-risk high-school students. Photovoice methodology was utilized to non-invasively explore barriers that students experience on their paths to graduation.

The “Photovoice Project: Barriers to High School Graduation” is a two year collaborative project with area Northern Kentucky schools; it explores the non-academic barriers to graduation for  high-school students identified as homeless and/or at risk of dropping out.  The project spans an academic year and is integrated in three core MSW courses (Social Work Practice with Children and Families, Multiculturalism, and Family Public Policy). Forty-six MSW students served as mentors to at-risk high-school students, on-site in three area high schools. MSW students applied theoretical concepts, and practice engagement skills with high school mentees in a real-world setting. Photovoice methodology was utilized in the project to explore non-academic barriers for high school graduation.  MSW students received mentoring and photovoice training in the Multiculturalism Course, and the Child and Family Practice Course.\

2. Can you please explain Photovoice methodology as well as how it was integrated into the project?

The use of Photovoice, an innovative participatory action research methodology (Wang, 2006), gives mentees the opportunity to explore and define for themselves, through photography and narration, the everyday reality of their lives and their perceived non-academic barriers to graduation.

During the mentoring process, participants are given disposable cameras to take photos of images that represent barriers or supports to graduation.  Each participant reports to his/her assigned MSW mentor/“researcher” on the subjective meaning of his/her photographs taken. MSW students then present the findings and recommendations to school administrators, key stakeholders, and policymakers at a gallery showing.

3. What are some of the benefits of using this methodology?

Photovoice allows children and adolescents to co-construct research with investigators. It creates an alternative method for youths to voice their thoughts, feelings, and concerns.  Photovoice offers a non-threatening manner in which to discuss difficult or sensitive topics.

4. What were some of the more surprising things that you and your MSW students have learned as a result of this project?

Photovoice puts a “face” to many of the issues and barriers that at-risk high school students encounter.  The MSW students are always surprised to find out how much more information their mentees share through the photovoice process. The MSW’s get an insider perspective of the mentee’s lived experiences from a contextual and cultural viewpoint.

5. What tips do you have for other professors seeking to implement this type of research?

Photovoice is typically used with marginalized or oppressed populations to give them a voice. Professors seeking to implement a photovoice project should first identity a social problem or issue that is of concern. Consider collaboration or partnership with community agencies/organizations, they often have issues or concerns that are appropriate for photovoice methodology. Photovoice compliments mixed-methods studies well; it can be integrated with existing quantitative studies.

6. What does winning this award mean for your group?

The NKU group is honored to receive the 2013 SAGE/CSWE Innovative Teaching Award.  As recipients of this award, we are excited to share with the educational, research and practice communities our project.

Stay tuned to SAGE Connection as we will be sharing our interview with the other award winner, Dale Fitch, very soon!

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