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  • Writer's pictureJessie G Taft

DL Seminar | Thinking Backwards from Improvement in Information Technology Action Research

Updated: Apr 24, 2021

Individual reflections by Baitong Li and Lars Kouwenhoven (scroll down).

By Baitong Li

Cornell Tech

One of the more prominent perspectives today is human development theory. Perhaps more familiar to practitioners as the capabilities approach development. Most action researchers believe that technologies should be used to enhance the lives of underserved, marginalized, and low-income populations throughout the world. However, there are many questions required to be solved before we start: what is the improvement? for whom? why that matters? how it will affect people?

To think through these values, perspectives, and normative assumptions of development, Anthony Poon shared a thinking framework called thinking backwards with us and presented his related research.Anthony Poon is a doctoral student in human-computer interaction for underserved populations and developing contexts at the Information Science department at Cornell University. His research interests involve designing and evaluating information technology interventions that address issues of socialization and community building. In other word, he devotes himself to the research of information & communication technologies (ICT) for development and he gradually forms an effective thinking framework.

Why it Matters?

Many scholars have offered different definitions of development, making it really confusing and unapproachable. However, the norms and values inherent in perspectives on development will strongly influence the direction of action-oriented research. Different perspectives will lead us down different paths from the outcomes that we examined in measure to the interventions that we design and implement. So it’s essential to remove the barrier of implicit perspectives to make it possible to understand and evaluate the research of other scholars, as well as point out a more clear direction for all action-oriented researchers.

How Does it Work?

Thinking backwards is a thinking framework, a process starting with the explication and reflection on our values, perspectives, and theories. Firstly, you need to explore different connotations (i.e., exam some alternative perspectives) of an elusive concept. Secondly, you should apply them to the contexts of your own work (i.e., case study). Sounds a little confusing, right? Let’s learn how Anthony did this.

Improvement: Helps Enhance Students’ Capabilities

Specifically, for development, Anthony Poon first discusses development as improvement, which helps to motivate his research in Cameroon, where the project was to leverage technology to enhance the capabilities of high school students to lead desirable lives. There, students have different study strategies that might lead to different results that only 60% can pass the high school degree examination. The research aim is to address the problem by encouraging a consistent set of good study practices. They designed and implemented an intervention that sends multiple-choice quizzes to high school students. They also applied some nudges to perfect the system by introducing an anti-cheat mechanism, encouraging students to design quizzes, assigning bonus questions, and so on. It might create a long-term impact on students’ lives. Overall, they started with the perspective on improvement with its inherent values and biases. And they worked backward from this to identify outcomes that operationalized and embodied these values in their context.

Empowerment: Increases the Agency of Marginalized Populations

Empowerment is an alternative definition of development, which refers to the degree of autonomy and self-determination in people and communities. This enables them to represent their interests in a responsible and self-determined way, acting on their authority. In this case, Anthony helped the health care workers in NYC, who struggled in relational problems with their patients and lack power in dealing with these problems during the pandemic of COVID-19, partly because aids are isolated workers, further removed from being social spaces. So Anthony and his team proposed to create professional support groups for home health aides to share advice, and the small weekly meeting ensured that participants had equal opportunities to speak and to encourage the sharing of experiences. Home health aides have increased agency to develop and formulate the shared concerns and potentially mobilize to leverage power. The overall design idea of the intervention, again, is thinking backwards from right to left.

Post Development: different perspectives lead to different designs in the same context

Thinking backwards again. Structural perspectives on development are not necessarily helpful, since the development itself may be detrimental. For example, in the Cameroon case, Cameroon is a former colony that succeeds France’s education system that might not be suitable for them and encourage brain drain. Hence, intervention should be based on achieving the back that encourages and legitimizes its value. One example is the holiday camp program during their summer break, where local experts will introduce students to jobs and skills and professionals will encourage students to work out their values and desires for the future.

To summarize, the diversity of ICT and action research makes it difficult for researchers to grasp each other's work due to mismatches and underlying values and perspectives. So this framework is created for thinking through these values. The seminar demonstrated how explicating these values in the form of thinking backwards is valuable for an action researcher.

How to Apply it into Your Own Context?

The author will use a personal research example as a reference. Many studies may involve a concept with rich connotations. I have done a project on evaluating the policy of “coal to natural gas” in aspects of environmental protection and human life enhancement. After listening to this seminar, the first thing I want to do is to define what is a good policy? What can be regarded as improvement? I will choose some alternative concepts: loss reduction, benefit increase and cost decrease. These concepts here not only belong to economics but also belong to environmental science and social psychology.

For loss reduction, we will examine whether the harmful substances in the air have decreased; for benefit increase, we will examine people's satisfaction and the indoor temperature of collective heating; for cost decrease, we will examine the technical cost and raw material cost under the same calorific value.

Then I will think backwards and try to propose some improvement advice. For example, in some villages where natural gas pipelines are not laid, coal purification equipment may be more effective in reducing pollution; We should hold propaganda lectures to popularize the importance of environmental protection and improve people's satisfaction with the policies; In terms of cost reduction, we can consider different provinces importing natural gas from different neighboring countries. Thus, abstract improvement of social welfare has become a concrete and executable design under this generalized thinking framework.

By Lars Kouwenhoven

Cornell Tech

Information and Communication Technology for Development is a field of research that explores the ways in which technology can be leveraged to improve the lives of disadvantaged communities. Improvement, however, does not always carry an objective meaning, and is thus a concept that should be carefully examined. On the 11th of March 2021, Anthony Poon spoke about the concept of 'Thinking Backwards', based on his experiences in Information Technology Action Research, providing a framework for researchers to think about these different definitions of improvement.

"Improving" lives?

Anthony starts his presentation by posing that "Improvement" assumes a normative and theoretical perspective that merits a more careful expansion by action researchers. He notes that, for many action researchers this may be tempting to ignore, as this investigation may take away from more immediate impact. A core reason to resist this urge to ignore such examinations is that different perspectives and assumptions, whether explicit or implicit, will lead researchers down different paths, and one must examine exactly how these perspectives influence their actions. For this purpose, Anthony introduces the concept of Thinking Backwards. His presentation is a demonstration in Thinking Backwards through his own work, which he presents as belonging to one of three different concepts: development as improvement, empowerment as improvement and post-development as improvement

Development as Improvement

Although development is a broad concept, one of the more prominent perspectives on development nowadays is that of human development, where the idea is that development occurs if the scope of individual's potential choices are enlarged. As an example of a project where human development was seen as improvement, Anthony Poon introduces his research with high school students in Cameroon. Cameroon is a country with a young population, and the goal of the project was to help Cameroonian students develop their human capital. There was a specific focus on the 'baccalauréat', the Cameroonian high-school exit exam. As described by the local students, this exam is seen as an opening door to many employment opportunities that are regarded as out of reach when a student does not pass the exam. As a result, the successful completion of the 'bac' was seen as a necessity for personal development. With this in mind, the researchers aimed to provide a consistent set of good study practices for the exam. With a cell phone penetration rate of over 95%, the researchers sent mock exam questions through Whatsapp or SMS. Their goal was to better prepare students for the exam, achieving a higher pass rate, leading to more future opportunities for the students. Thinking backwards, Anthony describes that the researchers started with the action-oriented goal of improving job opportunities, which would be made possible by a better performance on the bac, which in turn could be achieved by better exam preparation.

Empowerment as Improvement

Second, Anthony Poon spoke about empowerment as improvement, where empowerment refers to the degree of autonomy and control an individual or group of individuals has over their ability to exercise power to formulate and actionalize their goals. Here, an example was provided through a project that focuses on home health aides in New York City. These aides feel underappreciated by the public, and lack a space to discuss some of the issues they face in their day-to-day work. A solution was provided in recurring professional support groups, alleviating the isolation that many of these workers experience. Here, thinking backwards starts with the goal of increasing the agency of home health workers, which is achieved by sharing common experiences, which is in turn facilitated by connecting home health aides to each other through virtual support groups

Post-development as Improvement

Many definitions of development assume some universal definition of progress based on Western experiences, which may display non-Western societies as poor or underdeveloped, underappreciating local opportunities. Therefore, dissolving this hegemony can also be seen as a form of improvement, which is summarized in the concept of post-development. A post-development stance might, in the context of the bac exam in Cameroon, focus on dissolving the exam structure, which is a result of French colonial rule. A holiday camp project, which introduces students to local jobs, is detailed by Anthony as an example of post-development. Anthony poses that, starting from a very different perspective of improvement, a researcher may be interested in different outcomes, which in turn influences the methods and intervention designs used.


During his presentation, Anthony Poon stressed that researchers should critically reflect on what it means to provide improvement, and introduced a series of frameworks to investigate this concept. Whereas the researcher plays an important role in the development of interventions, it appears it may be worthwhile to critically examine other parties involved in the research process, too. For example, the fact that many students see the bac exam as a ticket to a golden future was used to design the mobile phone-based intervention that was discussed earlier. This design was thus not based on an assumption by the researchers, but rather an assumption by the target population. Later, Anthony described how, even with a successful completion of the bac exam, many students still struggle finding a job, as there is an incredibly high supply of workers. Then, while the exam was perceived as the barrier to a successful future, reality suggests otherwise. It may therefore be important for researchers to not just examine their own assumptions and definitions of improvement, but also those embedded in the local culture in which a researcher attempts to introduce an intervention.


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