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Interpreting lived experiences and needs in multimodal learning


  • Laura Jo Swartley, she/her, Senior Learning Designer, Human Centered Design & Engineering, University of Washington, Seattle campus
  • Dr. Kristi Straus, Associate Director and Teaching Professor, Program on the Environment, University of Washington, Seattle campus
  • Najmo Abdi, Learner-Researcher, Environmental Studies Major, Sophomore, University of Washington, Seattle campus
  • Jasmine Barreto, Learner-Researcher, Environmental Studies Major, Junior, University of Washington, Seattle campus
  • Delaney Lawler, Learner-Researcher, Public Health Major focused on environmental health, Junior, University of Washington, Seattle campus


Project Question

As Environment 100 – a foundational course with a major objective of introducing eco social concepts and sustainability – continues to evolve into hybrid modalities due both to design and demand, the instructional sustainability challenge is: how to become maximally responsive to evolving learner needs. Our project asks, “What can be learned from learners themselves – positioned as “Learner-Researchers”- about the experiences and well-being of peers across synchronous/asynchronous modalities? Could their closer interpretation of learning data help continually to improve this course?


The course being studied by so far five (5) Learner-Researchers, alongside a PhD student researcher, is a hybrid, large offering by the Program on the Environment. Its design and teaching strive to deeply yet supportively introduce complex “social-environmental challenges.” Then, the Learner-Researchers themselves form a learning community we wish to grow and sustain. There are two learning contexts (a course and a research-learning space) but our research-learning space is the focus.


Research team members engage in phenomenological inquiry methods (Vagle, 2014) – open-ended interview and continuous narrative memo-writing – to surface lived experiences of learners becoming qualitative researchers and examine co-occurring self-learning.

Assessment is threefold: (1) continuous reflexive-reflective memo’ing by all research team members is analyzed by qualitative coding toward developing themes and even grounded theories (Charmaz, 2014); (2) surveys gather insights into evolving understandings achieved among teachers, researchers, and learners, and (3) design-based research methods conjecture and iteratively assess learning outcomes toward continually and responsively improving the learning design of the course.


A recent assessment of our model shows Learner-Researchers persist in the work (uncompensated), expressing dual motivations: desire to learn qualitative methods and form deep insights into their learning lives. Impacts can also be seen as dual – ON the Learner-Researchers and BY them.

Impacts ON them are best expressed in their words, captured in narrative memos. Effects of volunteering to research their near-peers’ data are described personally in “getting closer to learning” and “putting myself out there.” Value of research-learning registers as helping one to, “understand where to begin, in the data.” In examining the value of getting closer to learning, one student expressed: “I thought, wow, we can use our own learning!” adding “You know…the university never asks, what is your experience as a whole…it always asks about individual classes [but not] …holistically.”

Impacts BY the Learner-Researchers have directed this research into what one student described in a narrative memo as the “inert knowledge” college learners possess, “not being taken seriously by those outside of [their young college] age cohort.” She wished that the university “pay attention,” as the research space has, to this knowledge. Another student expressed a link between her learning-research work and a newfound ability to be “brave in her neighborhood” about expressing eco social values – an impact rippling into community.

All of these impacts-as-insights can carry into responsive course design.


We hope this work could prove to transcend the ecological learning domain and help any faculty or department seeking to inclusively cultivate their communities of inquiry and practice by gaining greater mutual understandings with their learners. Research-learning models, wherein students are actively involved in interpretation of student well-being, learning experiences, and learning outcomes could be useful in many domains. We hope our learning design intervention insights are also helpful.

Additional Resources

I would just emphasize that this is a nested project — with the learner-researcher model emergent within a larger study of the Environment 100 course. Our work on this research-learning space is focused here. We would also be happy to speak to the design and in-progress efforts of our longer study.

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