Opening district spaces to collaboration, education (and research) by inclusion and simulation in a post-covid society

Federico Monaco, Katya Lucà


In order to design an exploratory tool to brainstorm about possible scenarios we have sketched an open source canvas with eight dimensions reflecting the local resiliency enacted during the pandemic. The three missions (teaching, research and public engagement) and others dimensions, conceived as layers, intersect three different times (before, during, and after pandemic) and make it possible to figure out and easily visualise actions and resources, facilitating the description of how digital technology works in a university-city assemblage case during the pandemic emergency.

By brainstorming about our condition in this way, we wanted to create some local scenarios about innovative solutions for teaching, researching and commons for the public in a post-pandemic condition, considering at once, in a shared narrative, the RTOL (Rapid Transition to Online Learning) and the collective experience being held in Parma.

In this case study, none of the dimensions present a possible trend going back to a pre-pandemic situation. The lockdown experience we had might be considered as a threshold to an overwhelming peak of disruptive change for both the university and the district community of citizens. Local examples and most of the following links are resources in Italian; we apologise for this, but these are the first hand evidence of the work of cooperation done and how it was recorded during the lockdown itself.

The know-how and best practices from digital innovation and research disseminated in the local context are a good example of displaying a university of imagination. It is happening at a local level given peculiar conditions to design with the participation of stakeholders in a SLOC perspective. What follows is a narrative about how social and cultural are happening by digital technologies in the university and social environment because of the covid experience.

Some possible answers come from the frame of a regional project CASPER II started long before the pandemic. The main stream of this project is about social inclusion and one of the settings is the district Pablo of about 15.000 citizens in the city of Parma in Italy. The local hospital, where the Department of Medicine and Surgery, offices, classrooms and its simulation lab named SIM.LAB are located, makes up one third of the territory of the district.

Before the pandemic a synergy of collaboration of the welfare services with the digital program of the laboratory of simulation was already strong in terms of digital and social inclusion of local and foreign citizens, in particular in terms of participation and “active citizenship”.

Although designed for skill training and problem-based learning simulation for students, such synergy was meant to experiment with new ways to connect people, develop networks and provide social inclusion by digital means. Moreover, opening the district to digital and to innovation was a way to rethink the role of the university itself, and towards the community and the city, nonetheless already in partnership with the Common House of the city of Parma.

Parma is characterized by a high participation in public and social life by its citizens, including foreigners. The hundreds of associations that actively operate in multiple areas of social utility are proof of this. Despite the efforts made, however, there are many gaps regarding the use of digital technologies and even before the advent of the pandemic, awareness of the role of technology in supporting the commitment of associations and increasing possibility of action. In this sense, the engagement of the university in generating an opening of the district to digital and innovation was precious.

The virtual soul of SIM.LAB named 360 (www.360.unipr.it) is an activity run by a research fellow of the laboratory of simulation. His research includes programs about digital networks, e-Learning, virtual reality and environmental sustainability of healthcare training. A small project to include citizenship started in November 2018 by a mini bootstrap website (https://pablocommons.github.io/pablocommons.github.io/english) to make citizens and the department aware about the need  to map best practices in the district.

It was presented in a meeting among associations of the district and some managers of the Common house of the city. After a year such collaboration became strong and could develop a network of citizens, families and associations about using the digital to facilitate new ways for “living” the district (abitanza) and even welcome refugees and foreigners without a status. For instance, panopictures of different spots (shops, the local school, squares, streets, parks, the hospital, etc..) were shot to develop a visual and interactive map to provide a virtual ground to create hotspots and augment the district map with useful user generated information. Such VR techniques were earlier tested and adopted to create virtual tours of the simulation lab and design digital PBL (Problem Based Learning) assets meant for training students by simulation activities using their own smartphones in a MOODLE environment called VROODLE.

It is understandable that such a project makes possible the delivery in a post-pandemic situation of some segments of activities and augments the simulation spaces for students as trainees. Reducing the time of physical presence, students can dedicate their presence to the hands-on by giving remote feedback to pre- and post-self-efficacy surveys and briefing and de-briefing sessions online. Safety and risk prevention are being mandated in designing lectures and training activities to be delivered. For instance, in the case of venipuncture three years ago, tutor students co-designed a virtual class for traineeship with experts and created a video to instruct other students about all the steps, so that more students could be trained in a shorter span of time. Since then participative design by digital assets embedded in VR scenarios about the skill room is making it possible to “experience” as much as possible before the training in presence.

Thanks to the coordination between the laboratory and the Municipality of Parma it was possible to transfer these basic technological skills from the university laboratory to the homes of citizens. The network of participants in the Casper project suffered a sudden stop to the project activities and experienced the difficulty in continuing to offer its contribution to the community, as well as the need to get out of the isolation that the pandemic had inevitably generated. Initially, on-line socialization meetings were organized between citizens, associations and participants in the Casper project. This first phase was essential to identify the main critical issues towards which to direct solutions.

As it is easy to imagine, the weaker sections of the population have suffered the greatest difficulties. An example are the many families of foreign origin, in a situation of economic poverty and with little possibility of supporting their children in online teaching. Although schools made smartphones and tablets available to all students in need for distance learning, there were numerous critical issues: families who could not access the devices, difficulties in communicating with the school, insufficient internet infrastructure, language difficulties, parents who struggled to help their children, etc. Even the associations that until recently had been taking care of these families, suddenly could no longer act as a form of support and protection. In this scenario, supporting associations in acquiring tools and skills that allowed them to continue providing help to families in difficulty appears to be an essential step. Thanks to the dialogue between the University and the Municipality of Parma we have achieved the goal and through the provision of technological skills and simulation tactics we have been able to strengthen the weakened associative networks during the lockdown.

The digital exchange of best practices and urgent needs between us made it possible to implement some e-Learning tools and methodologies to turn meetings of citizens and associations to remote, not only by videoconferencing. A coordination between the laboratory and the Welfare office could transfer such knowledge from the university to the homes of citizens. Such initiative was even advertised as news on the website of the university. Moreover, the delivery of tactics of simulation and representation was meant as a way to empower and connect to one of the weakest social categories during the lockdown: preschool children. In fact, online puppeteering performances in videoconference were delivered, inviting families with children and supported by puppeteers and pedagogists from La Sapienza University of Rome and OMEP Italia. It was a way to provide sociality and deliver a message of hope to the children of the district. More activities online were provided as online laboratories of virtual reality for children, also thanks to assets developed the past year before and provided two weeks before the lockdown in the local primary school Racagni, and remotely during the pandemic as online laboratories to teach children to sketch in virtual reality, promoted by the Welfare office and even by a hacker community based in Brussels.

All this happened during the lockdown involving children, adult citizens and experts as well. Given the exceptional conditions during the lockdown, everybody lived a big change in her/his life and in the case of students, part of their life was moved to online; fortunately, like in the rest of the world, the presence of digital networks and personal devices made possible for most professors to deliver lectures and for students to take exams online. In the case of five higher education courses for health professions from Parma University, further lectures are delivered each year to teach and train students about CSCW (Computer Supported Collaborative Work) to create small communities of practices online. In this case the transition to online was easier, as online was the subject itself. We must say that it was inspiring because of digital methodologies put into practice, the usage of open technologies and the delivery of customised digital assets to discuss case studies about digital culture.

Case studies happening in real time were for instance: the open official data about pandemic released daily since march the 7th by the italian government (https://github.com/pcm-dpc/COVID-19); some industry 4.0 hacking solutions in Brescia hospital to print oxygen valves (Brescia was one of the italian cities with critical conditions in terms of deaths by pandemic). The Covid nightmare became a subject of study and inspired live discussion with students; by providing successful case studies, students could understand better how open data and digital technologies were useful to prevent and contribute in providing cure from Covid at local, national and international level.

At the moment, two teams of about 7 students each are designing digital solutions as experimental project works which consist of kits of co-design to create websites, digital serious games and VR solutions. The first team of risk management nurses is developing scenarios about best practices to be delivered online for healthcare professionals from five different italian hospitals by digital case studies and storytelling; the second one is co-designing with experts and primary school teachers digital games to teach children about hand washing to prevent risk. All this is happening online by CSCW and these nurses are learning and becoming best nerds and some of them even coders and website masters.

We conclude writing that such tight collaboration between the SIM.LAB and the Welfare Office, made the university functional part of the district, while local citizens became learners and early adopters of experimental research about Digital Social Innovation in such extreme conditions.  The support from the know-how provided with a sociotechnical approach could empower and engage citizens and students with open technologies and sociocratical decision making processes. Boundaries between the university and the district have been reworked in a much sustainable and proficient way during the lockdown experience, as collaboration became more important and evident day by day.

There is a great potential to construct a sustainable future for the community and the university by open innovation design thanks to institutional support, but also by techy-inspired and open-to-the-future citizens and students. The experience of collaboration between the Municipality of Parma and the University represents a best practice of cooperation between different institutions side by side to co-produce a more inclusive and cohesive city. The hope is that collaborations of this type will transform from virtuous practices into real policies.

The first steps have been taken.

Watch the short documentary about our collaboration.


Photo by Hans-Peter Gauster on Unsplash

Federico Monaco Ph.D. Is a sociologist and e-Learning designer, Research fellow for the integration of simulation with e-Learning at the Department of Medicine and Surgery of the University of Parma.

Katya Lucà is a psychologist expert in transcultural psychotherapy. Since 2017 she is Delegate for social inclusion of the Municipality of Parma. She is responsible for coordinating reception projects and promoting cultural integration activities.

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