Incorporating Student Voices with Participatory Design

By Lisa Nielsen

Students and teachers spend their days subjected to policies, guidelines, and mandates that they rarely have any say in. Why is that? If we develop policies, guidelines, programs, even buildings with rather than for students and teachers, the result can be a success for all.

That’s what we did when we developed social media guidelines for students at the NYC Department of Education—we incorporated the input of relevant stakeholders. Only later did we realize this process has a name. It’s called the “Participatory Design.” And it worked!  

Here’s what our version of the participatory design process looked like:

Identified Students

We asked educators who had participated in our Digital Citizenship training if we could speak with their students either face-to-face and via video conference.

Explained Our Goals

We explained to the students we met with that we were creating guidelines for their peers. We asked for their advice about social media use, how they prefer to receive information, what they would find most credible, and what they think is most important.

Documented Our Findings

We documented what the students said.

Identified Student Preferences

Teens told us they wanted infographics and quotes from real experts in the field. Younger students said they wanted learning about social media to be fun and they would prefer learning about the guidelines via an activity guide.

Drafted Materials

We created infographics and activity guides as well as guides customized for educators and for parents. As we planned and developed these materials, we collected feedback from parents, students, and teachers.

Involved Internal Stakeholders When Work Was Near Complete

Instead of having the “experts” create the documents, we had the lawyers, union representatives, and policy experts review the materials we created. When all sign offs were secured, we published.

Supported Teachers + Parents

We provided professional development to teachers and parents to ensure they are prepared to support students using social media.

Invited Ongoing Feedback

We check in with students, teachers, parents, and others to find out  what works. We ask them what’s confusing? What’s changed that needs to be updated? We continually incorporate feedback, which we also ensure is vetted, as necessary, by appropriate departments such as legal, the union, and policy experts.

Celebrated Success!

We included a hashtag with all the materials so that people could share their enthusiasm as well as their questions. Hashtags help create excitement and allowed us to share ideas not only from and with stakeholders, but with the larger community.  

As a result of this approach, teachers, and parents are supporting students in responsible use  of social media with resources and materials that students can relate to. They’re not the only ones who benefit: “My phone doesn’t ring anymore,” said our General Counsel. “We’re not getting the same angry, concerned phone calls.” (as reported in DNAinfo)

Have you used a similar process where you work? If so, what were your successes and challenges? If not, is there work in which you are involved where you could?


Lisa Nielsen has worked as a public school educator since 1997. She began her career as a library media specialist working in a PK – 8 school in Harlem. Today she serves as the Director of Digital Engagement and Professional Learning at the Division of Instructional and Information Technology. You can Tweet Lisa at @InnovativeEdu or connect with her and other innovative educators across the New York City Department of Education in the NYC Schools Tech Facebook group.