RTC:Rural has a long history of engaging and mentoring students, and after graduation many of these students continue in research. No matter what career path they follow, our students take with them knowledge of the disability research field and awareness of disability issues, perspectives that are valuable for all fields of study.
Most recently, ten University of Montana students have been involved in the Healthy Community Living (HCL) project, creating an online multimedia curriculum that will help people with disabilities gain life skills and learn how to set and reach healthy life goals. These students come from a wide range of disciplines, including the School of Media Arts, psychology, community health sciences, and law.
HCL uses an Iterative Participatory Curriculum Development (IPCD) process, a procedure in which stakeholders are involved in the development, implementation and evaluation of a curriculum. Using IPCD, students have collaborated with RTC:Rural staff and disability service provider partners to develop and design the HCL curriculum.
UM students have had direct involvement in developing work plans, providing research support, sharing innovative ideas, conducting interviews, and collecting photos to use in the curricula. Their diverse range of skills and support have helped shape HCL over the last few years. However, this exchange of knowledge and learning has been mutually beneficial. The students have contributed their time, talents, and perspectives to HCL, and in exchange have received valuable new knowledge and skills. Many of them were unaware of disability culture, let alone the field of disability research, before their involvement with HCL.
“I’ve learned a lot since working here that applies to other projects and this project,” said Arynn Payne, an undergraduate psychology major. “It’s really opened my eyes to disability and what that means for different people and the different challenges that are faced – and the really awesome ways those challenges are met.”
Other students shared that they gained an increased understanding of disability identity, accessibility, appropriate use of culture-specific language, and a new perspective of disability across the life span as well as across rural and urban communities.
While HCL is now in the pilot phase, two key activities from the development stage—social media research and curating media—had notable impact on the project and on the students themselves.
Social Media Research
One of the first phases of HCL was to develop social media accounts to use for several purposes. These accounts were to both promote the early phases of the project with a national audience and to experiment to see how social media could be used to bring people together to share knowledge and support. The project started with Facebook, and later added a Twitter account, to share project updates with partners and the public.
Megan Miller, a UM undergraduate psychology major, worked with HCL for nearly two years. With guidance from RTC:Rural staff, Miller developed a research project that examined the effectiveness of different types of posting strategies on Facebook, with the goals of better understanding how to attract followers, more effectively share project information with these followers, and to encourage people to contribute to the Flickr photo database. Miller’s research, coupled with other social media tactics, led to the project adopting social media strategies that tripled the number of Facebook followers within 6 months.
The insights gained from this research project didn’t just benefit HCL. Miller presented her research at the 16th annual University of Montana Conference on Undergraduate Research, and her findings were also shared at the 2017 APRIL Conference to an audience of disability service and advocacy organizations interested in learning about how to better use social media to reach people with disabilities.
After working with HCL, Miller said she’d like to continue her work with social media. “I’d be interested in working with other organizations to help improve their social media presence,” she said. “Creating content is super interesting to me now that I’ve worked with HCL, especially since I was able to be part of the whole process and see how it all works.”
As RTC:Rural staff worked with disability service provider partners to outline HCL curriculum content and identify the most engaging and appropriate ways to present that content, a team of students searched for photographs and videos to supplement the curriculum. “Our students spent hundreds of hours searching online for applicable videos that people with disabilities would relate to,” said Justice Ender, RTC:Rural Communications Associate and a member of the HCL project team. After they found videos, the HCL team worked to decide which videos and clips best fit within the curriculum as a whole. Once these final decisions were made, it fell back on the students to make sure these videos were captioned and fully accessible.
“Two of our students, Aaron Barker and Arynn Payne, rapidly figured out a way to use YouTube’s auto captioning system to be a jumping off point to caption the videos,” explained Ender. “Then, they would go in and fix timing, identify the speakers, and address all the other components of correct captioning.”
“This is remarkable because none of our students had ever done that before, and the recommendations from captioning professionals was to buy expensive software that doesn’t offer much more than what YouTube offers for free.”
Curating media was a major student focus as well as additional support work. All of the students’ contributions have been crucial in the creation of the HCL program.
We are very grateful for our relationship with the University of Montana because of opportunity it gives the RTC:Rural to work with such excellent students.