RAPID: How People Learn Rapidly: COVID-19 as a Crisis of Socioscientific Understanding and Educational Justice and Equity

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May 26th, 2021

Authors: Angela Calabrese Barton, Leslie Rupert Herrenkohl & Elizabeth Davis (University of Michigan)


From news and governmental outlets to social media, Americans have had differing access to scientific information about the COVID-19 pandemic with differing opportunities for and contexts within which to sense-make and produce new insights around such information. Yet, there have been few studies on how people learn consequential science quickly or on how such learning is shaped by justice concerns and social context during crisis. Furthermore, there are longstanding inequities and systemic oppression that are exacerbating the impact of the disease on people of Color, low-income people, immigrants, and other vulnerable groups.

In long-term research-practice partnerships (RPPs) in the midwestern and western United States, we sought to understand what/how community partners learn about and take action on COVID-19, and how this is shaped by racial and economic concerns. Our research questions included:

â—Ź       How and what science do people learn about COVID-19?

â—Ź       How do people activate and apply the science they learn to make (or revise) personal and family decisions?

â—Ź       How is learning by youths and adults about COVID-19 shaped by their critical consciousness around racial, educational, and economic justice?

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In answering these questions, using remote research methods, our study contextualizes the sources of information to which people turn in their everyday lives; how they evaluate this information when they must make drastic, life-altering decisions; and how families and communities share knowledge or support each other to take action. By addressing these gaps, we seek to disrupt the reproduction and deepening of educational inequality caused by COVID-19.

(Image: Three TikToks sent by participants. )


Project Development Process

This study examined data generated March 2020–summer 2021 with 62 participants. The first setting was a Midwestern urban community that is home to African American families with whom we have collaborated for over a decade. The second setting, a West Coast urban community where we have collaborated since 2013, is home to low-income immigrant/refugee families of Color, many from East Africa and Southeast Asia.

In both settings, low-income youth of Color participate in youth-centered STEM afterschool programming co-designed by community and university educators. Program mentors from universities who work in settings with youths identify as people of Color, growing up low-income, and/or being immigrants/refugees. Most study participants had existing relationships with someone on the COVID-19 research team and had experiences with them as partners in research/practice within educational spaces.

Our relationships framed and mediated our data co-generation in ways that centered the ethical and political in learning and research. Specific methods included three participatory interviews per participant, lasting 90–240 minutes each; informal conversations throughout the year via chat, Zoom, and phone; and experience sampling methods (e.g., monthly Google surveys with brief reminders to share any relevant updates). Methods took shape interactively as we partnered with participants to cogenerate data over time through a multimodal and dynamic data cogeneration design. We have been co-analyzing data with participants using critical inquiry and grounded theory, in a constant comparative, continuities/contradictions approach.


Project Findings

Learning about and making decisions related to COVID-19 are deeply tied to how, when, and why participants access data and data infrastructures in relation to their lives and communities, and how trust mediates these processes. Our findings focus on three related themes.

First, participants came together to co-create new data-constructing and data-sharing infrastructures that could better serve their needs as they continued to learn the science of COVID-19 and its equity-related complexities. By community infrastructuring we mean justice-oriented acts of necessity for community protection and well-being to share and reorganize resources in the moment and with an eye toward the urgent near-future. Participants highlighted conflicts between sources and messaging, where and how they saw their own experiences mirrored or challenged in them, and the extent to which these data could possibly inform or even transform their decisions and actions. Using multimodal forms of information, participants pointed out how misinformation campaigns fostered deepening racial and socioeconomic injustices, and what that meant for their own practices.

Second, participants’ enactment of critical data practices changed how they negotiated between coming-to-know and coming-to-act. Community-engaged critical practices are what people do in socially mediated and culturally embedded ways with, in relation to, and oriented around data and data infrastructures in support of more equitable everyday living and communities. These practices arose from tensions in participants’ engagement with data as they mobilized big and small data from different epistemological and social origins toward meaning-making, action-taking, and building alternative data infrastructures. For example, one youth, Jazmyn, used social media apps as a gateway to the CDC’s COVID-19 databases. She paid attention to posts where the individuals looked like her and were posted from verified science-related accounts. She participated in her city’s racial justice protests wearing a mask and social distancing, after a complex analytical process of weighing different data inputs such as comparative efficacy of risk mitigation behaviors, patterns of infection/spread in her region, predicted numbers of participants, and photos of other recent protests to gauge how many participants appeared to be taking safety precautions.

Third, participants’ coming-to-know and coming-to-act were mediated by issues of trust in relation to what one knows and seeks to know, and who one is in relation to the community. For example, early in the pandemic, participants from Asian and Asian American backgrounds who brought prior knowledge or experience with the practice of mask wearing understood that masks helped prevent community viral spread. Yet, some participants reported not wearing masks due to fear of racism and xenophobia and because wearing a mask early in the pandemic was interpreted as an indication of illness, not responsibility. In this way, participants experienced both racial and epistemic injustices as they built scientific understanding from trusted sources and experiences, but they did not trust the general public and feared racism, intimidation, and violence.

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Insights and Implications

Our study offers insight into what low-income communities of Color, who have disproportionately experienced the negative impact of the pandemic, learn, including how and why they learn and take action in the ways that they do toward STEM-empowered lives. Our research suggests that we need new models of learning and action that attend to issues of race, cultural practices, and systemic injustices.

Furthermore, this collaborative study puts into stark relief the relational dimension of critically being with in research that is often made invisible—indeed problematically made absent—in traditional institutions of learning. How researchers and participants come together, engage, and co-construct knowledge in real time and in urgent local and global contexts, using a wide range of media and access points for communication and community storytelling and counternarrative, must become a more urgent consideration for the field.

Lastly, drawing insights from these findings, we suggest that the educational field needs more platforms for amplifying counternarratives of learning in local communities. This could highlight community strengths and shift how we frame literacy in STEM in relation to everyday life.

On our project website (http://learning4justice.org), we share publications, working papers, briefs, and a podcast series on our findings.

(image: Participant wearing a mask that she made, in a BLM youth-led protest she helped organize.)