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A place of useful learning…

March 26th, 2013 by Cristina Costa

This is what, in my opinion, every University should be and what research should also support. This is also the vision and goal of the University of Strathclyde; the reason why it was created. And I must say that it goes very well with my own vision of what a University should be about. So I am well proud to be part of it now.

 

The University as “a place of useful learning” ~ Professor John Anderson

 

This Friday I attended the DIALOGUE symposium which Dr Rob Mark, my line manager, hosted at the University as part of his involvement in a project with the same name.

The DIALOGUE project is seeking to improve the links between research and practice in lifelong learning by promoting a dialogue between researchers, practitioners and policy makers.  The project is highlighting models of good practice as well as exploring ways of involving practitioners in research.  Through the sharing of knowledge and experience, it is hoped the project will lead to new ways of working and improvement in the transfer of knowledge both within and outside the university.
The project is also seeking to promote a research-practice dialogue around 4 themes:

Access and progression

Quality assurance and enhancement

Learning and guidance

New media

The event started with talks from a group of guest speakers who shared their views and experiences in bridging the gap between research and practice. Some of the talks inspired very interesting debates.

I especially liked Prof. Yvonne Hiller’s presentation. Not the least because she went straight to the point and talked about issues that we all face and which need addressing, especially at policy and strategy levels.
Professor Hiller, who launched the Learning and Skills Research Network in 1996, mentioned something that is no longer news to us, but which somehow still puzzle us:

practitioners don’t read academic journals!

I would say that there are different reasons to this: firstly, the culture of reading academic papers by non academic audiences is not there; secondly, access to academic papers by practitioners is very limited; thirdly, the register and style used in academic papers is probably more complex than it needs to be. Let’s face it, academic language is no one’s native language. (we could also ask, what do researchers read besides academic publications?)
The questions that immediately sprung to my mind:

why do researchers elect academic journals as their main means of dissemination?

Why don’t we choose other channels of communication that are more accessible?

Why aren’t all researchers blogging, for instance?

(…I had to introduce the technology, didn’t I?)

Unionization and New Media

Photo by truthout.org License: (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Open blogs allow to spread knowledge wider and farther. And bloggers can use a less formal, more fluid speech that may appeal to one of their main target audiences: practitioners. As a ripple effect practitioners could also blog and as a result of that both parties might as well find a common ground through which they can achieve a deeper understanding of each other. And if not blogs, why not networks, or whichever way it is easier for both parties to establish communication?
But none of this is as simple as it may sound.  A suggestion to something that seems so obvious these days, such as a blog, is not a quick win amongst researchers, and I would dare say also not necessarily that popular amongst practitioners.
As I tried to make sense during my PhD…. the use of the social and participatory web to produce and disseminate knowledge and create conversations implies a deep change not only in terms of practice but the philosophies that support those practices. Old habits die hard and blogging, for instance, doesn’t come easy. It becomes even harder when there is no strategic vision supporting it.
Take REF as an example (You’ll probably have a similar system in your country…?). Formal publications are a core element in this research assessment exercise. The *one* element people are more focused on and concerned about. Since there is no explicit (I mean, spelt out) mention on the way the participatory web can have a positive influence on how research is communicated, may reach larger and more diverse audiences, and/or generate impact (aside from being published on a webpage), no one (or shall I say only very few) are taking (what they consider) risks. People (are persuaded to) follow the same, old conventions, i.e, what has worked for them in the past. A publication in that hard to publish journal often does the trick. The problem is that the journal is  not only one that is hard to publish in, it is one that is hard to have access to! This does not generate innovative ways of working, and it certainly doesn’t close gaps between research and practice.
I guess what I am saying is that we not only need to make an effort for research and practice to meet, we also need to promote changes in policy if we want the partnership between research and practice to work. Change cannot come only from top-down nor merely from bottom-up. Both need to meet half way through the process of implementing measures that will inspire the development of new approaches and practices. For this to happen we need to achieve true communication between all parties involved. Policy included. This is what I hope the DIALOGUE project will achieve.

Can the Web be a place of useful learning?

I think it can help achieve that goal. Now the question remains:

How do we go from here?

Many more questions were raised during the symposium but I will leave them for future posts since this is already a long blogpost. Meanwhile I would love to know how you deal with these issues in your country/institution.

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