Part 4: Project Proposal Surprises and Missteps
We began the path to proposal development with the goal of creating an online instructional series of evidence-based practices for educators working with autistic high school students transitioning to college.
Our first step was to recruit participants for inclusion in our proposal.
We started talking to educators, lots of them. We talked with them in the classroom, at conferences, at workshops, and online. This qualitative audience research, speaking 1-on-1 or in small groups of our target audience, works best for us. We hear directly from the people who have a problem, and we ask follow-up questions for additional insight or clarification. A pattern emerged. Educators who were better equipped to teach autistic students either attended trainings or developed their own strategies. Those who struggled viewed themselves as lacking the experience and knowledge needed to teach autistic students.
Now we had verification of our informal observations that teachers were struggling when educating autistic students, and we had acknowledgment that many college educators believed they lacked adequate autism teaching strategies training. The logical solution would be to provide online training. However, we made an assumption and an omission, both of which turned out to be costly.
The Assumption: Unanimity Regarding the Solution
As we conducted our qualitative audience research, we examined different courses and programs to assemble a dream-team of autism-education experts. This team would guide us through the development, production, and distribution of our work. We have a reputation of producing high-quality content and a strong track record of collaborating with many post-secondary educational organizations. Typically, we can tap into our network to identify and recruit a diverse advisory board of subject matter experts and educational partners within a month. Not only that, but when we work on these kinds of projects, our subject matter experts tend to agree on the philosophy, techniques, and approaches that lead to the desired outcome. For Stairway to STEM, our goal was to recruit 12 to 15 individuals who represented a range of expertise and who all agreed on which evidence-based practices should be included in the series. I won’t keep you guessing. When it came to working with autistic college students, we couldn’t find two people who were in agreement on best practices.
The Omission: Autistic Students, the Main Stakeholders
A bigger issue is that we neglected to talk with autistic students. Facepalm. We acknowledged them only insofar as they would be the beneficiaries of our work. And we stopped there. The only way to build trust and credibility with autistic students is to ensure their voices are being heard and valued, and that their needs for solutions and approaches to educational challenges are at the forefront of autistic services. This was, needless to say, the most crucial finding.
Looking back, we skipped these critical interactions because we never looked at the autistic student population in its specificity when we were developing this professional development digital content for faculty. Subconsciously, we must have thought that “students were students” and that this population didn’t need further consideration. In fact, we document every consideration and decision, but there is nothing in our documentation indicating that we performed due diligence on autistic students.
As a classic example of confirmation bias, we put blinders on and found research, such as articles and case studies, that supported our hypothesis that educators needed videos to communicate to them well-established, evidence-based practices for autism and college instruction.
But, something interesting happened: the gaps created by our assumption of a single perspective and our omission of real live student voices meant we couldn’t execute a viable executive summary, let alone an entire proposal. But that failure, too, eventually led to crucial realizations and proposal success. It would shift our focus entirely.