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Creating a shared understanding with children of the process in long-term digital technology design projects

Authors: Leena Ventä-Olkkonen, Heidi Hartikainen, Marianne Kinnula, Netta Iivari

Please cite as: Ventä-Olkkonen, L. et al. (2022): Creating a shared understanding with children of the process in long-term digital technology design projects. In S. Kotilainen (Ed.), Methods in practice: Studying children and youth online (chapter 9). Retrieved DD Month YYYY, from, doi:

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A challenge we have encountered in project-based working with children is how to create a shared understanding with children of the process and goals of projects that span over several sessions. One may try to mitigate that by careful preparation. Next, we describe the challenge, analyze reasons behind that, and propose ways to tackle that. As an example, we present Finnish cultural foundation project: Children as technology makers and shapers – integrating technology making into comprehensive school education (Demakids), which was conducted year 2018 with several schools in the Oulu area, in Northern Finland.

Long-term design and making projects conducted with schools can last from some weeks to months, with sessions on a weekly basis. In the separate sessions, children experiment with technology design and making, e.g., by sensitizing with the topic, field studies, ideation, designing, prototyping, evaluation, and reflection. In such long-term work, there is a possibility for children to invest more in different phases of the design process and gain a deeper understanding of the process, compared to short-term working. While the different sessions focus on certain phases of the design cycle, it is important that children understand how the phases belong together and work towards the same goal, i.e., towards creating something new to make the world a better place. This has proved challenging.  It may appear to children they are doing separate things in the sessions, not connected to each other; they do not always see how each phase of the iterative process links to the other phases and how they build on top of each other. As an example, observing and interviewing potential technology users in the first phase might appear irrelevant for technology ideation in the later phase, if children do not understand that goal of both activities and the linkage between them, i.e., finding out the interests and needs of potential technology users and based on that ideating new technology for the purpose of meeting their needs, ending up in creating technology that helps the life of the users – the final goal of the whole project. In addition to this, problems might appear if children miss specific sessions and knowledge gained within those.

A making project with two classes, one with 10-year-old pupils, and one with 14-15-year-old pupils started with a field study session where the idea was to collect user needs and ideas through interviewing potential technology users, recording those interviews for the later use, as well as through observing the users’ behavior in certain situations. The goal was to develop a specific product idea in the ideation phase, based on the information gathered by interviewing and observing. This was explained to the participants at the beginning of the field study session. However, we found out later that the reasoning as to why observations were conducted in the first place remained obscure for most children; they did not understand the connection between observing or interviewing people and designing something for those people. Furthermore, utilizing results from the recorded interviews was forgotten in the design phase, as children’s own ideas, based on what they were personally interested in, overshadowed the collected field data. (see e.g. Hartikainen et al., 2021; Ventä-Olkkonen et al., 2020)

Lessons learned

  • We underscore that conducting longitudinal design and making projects in schools brings in the challenge of creating a shared understanding of the process and goals with children. We emphasize that creation of such a shared understanding needs to be seen as an on-going, evolving process, which starts when the project activities are initiated with the children and continues until the end of the activities. 

  • Despite possible time constraints at school, spending ample time on explaining to children the process in the beginning of the project helps them understand the goals, reasoning for the different activities and phases and the interlinking between them. 

  • Starting each session by showing a visualization of the process, e.g a diagram of the design process, provides a good ground for recapping the previous phases, reminding children of the purpose of the current phase, linking it to the overall work and briefly introducing what is still to come. The purpose and goals of each activity should be justified carefully, to crystallize to the children why it is part of the project. 

  • However, we still wish to remind that children will make their own interpretations, no matter how often and carefully adults explain and justify the goals and purposes to them.

Despite the challenges involved in conducting design and making projects with children, we see a lot of value in them: they offer children valuable skills and competencies and empower children to take a more active role in shaping our digital futures. For researchers the projects offer an opportunity to peek into what is interesting and relevant for children and how they could be supported in growing up as active citizens who have agency in their digital present and future.

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  1. Hartikainen, H., Ventä-Olkkonen, L., Kinnula, M., & Iivari, N. (2021). Entrepreneurship Education Meets FabLab: Lessons Learned with Teenagers. FabLearn Europe / MakeEd 2021 - An International Conference on Computing, Design and Making in Education, 1–9.

  2. Ventä-Olkkonen, L., Kinnula, M., Hartikainen, H., & Iivari, N. (2020). Embedded assumptions in design and Making projects with children. 32nd Australian Conference on Human-Computer Interaction, 178–188.

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