IT, Impact, and Public/Business Engagement - A Brief Guide
Figure impact-images/networking.jpg [Networking image]
The issues of public engagement and demonstrating how your project could have a beneficial impact on society are now becoming increasingly important to many researchers and lecturers within the University. In this brief guide we list a series of practical suggestions on how you can use IT tools to help meet both these goals.
Figure impact-images/stuart.jpg [Dr Stuart Lee]
There is an increasing drive across Higher Education to demonstrate the importance of the various activities Universities undertake, in particular in research, teaching, and learning. This is, of course, tied up with the rather contentious issue of ‘impact’ – both academic and public – and it seems clear that in whatever form it takes, Universities will be encouraged to undertake activities that engage with, and are of benefit to, other academics, students, the public, and the economy.
The aims of this guide therefore are to outline one area that might assist Oxford academics who are seeking to explore new ways of engagement, namely the use of various IT tools which are now readily available. These can help in creating communities, disseminating outputs, engaging the public in research activities, and so on. In present terminology these can also be of use when preparing a 'pathways to impact' plan.
We have divided this guide into two sections. The first looks at various IT tools and facilities researchers, faculties, and divisions could consider using. The second details specific activities that Oxford University Computing Services (OUCS) have engaged in as examples of potential outreach activities. In both sections we have sought direction from the current Research Councils UK (RCUK) guidelines, and the University's own recent publications on public and business engagement - and the University's publication A Vital Partnership which was designed to engage the public and business.
We hope you find this information of use.
Figure stuart-sig.png [Dr Stuart Lee signature]
Dr Stuart D Lee
Director, Computing Systems and Services
Oxford University Computing Services
2. Why use IT?
Some people may ask why IT deserves specific attention. Without doubt there are numerous engagement activities one could, and will, undertake that do not involve using technology in any form, and these are all well attested to in guidelines issued by the RCUK, and in summaries of existing impact statements. Employing IT solutions then, should be seen in this context.
Having said that, IT can provide easy wins with substantial benefits that might be very difficult to achieve otherwise. For example, a well-advertised website presents the researcher with a single point of publication that can easily be updated and read by anyone for free. Increasingly this site can be fed to other sites or tools, and peripherals such as mobile devices, pushing out information to the user. A traditional publication, on the other hand, would require multiple copies for dissemination, each one needing updates or reissues, and may be cost prohibitive to the consumers. Similarly a single lecture delivered to an audience may be useful to list under dissemination, but the same lecture recorded and delivered as a podcast for free could reach an audience of tens of thousands with minimal effort.
Figure impact-images/scrabble.jpg [Scrabble pieces]
It is surprising to see, therefore, just how little imagination goes into the use of IT in existing research project applications (as witnessed by summaries of impact statements readily available online). This guide, therefore, could be of use to Oxford researchers in gaining advantage over competitive bids.
3. The Strategic Background
The Research Councils of the UK are currently asking people to include 'pathways to impact' in their research applications. The jury is out as to what form these will take but it is a reasonably safe assumption that something along these lines will be around for some time. When we consider the guidelines currently issued it is clear that the funding bodies are looking for suggestions as to how the project will be of benefit to other researchers (e.g. academic impact) and to the public and the economy (e.g. public or wider impact) in advance of funding being awarded.
By studying the various guides issued by the RCs some common themes emerge. To begin with, it is suggested that any project should clearly state who will benefit and how. This could be either other academic(s)/researchers, the general public (including other education sectors extending to lifelong learning), businesses, or a combination of all of these. Commonly the types of benefits listed include (in no particular order):
Again, considering a range of sample submissions to date, all the above will appear in some form or other for all subject areas, and will often be tied to specific activities of relevance to the discipline. However, in many cases, the same activities are listed again and again but in a very limited way, e.g. create a website, run a public lecture, run a conference, publish an article or monograph, etc. Many of these are based on traditional and long-standing dissemination methods, which may be appropriate, but could at the very least be supplemented and enhanced by using IT.
The following list of suggestions, therefore, point researchers and units to IT tools and services which may single their project out from the crowd. It is true that not all of these will be applicable in every instance, and as stated before this should be seen as only part of a wider programme of activities. Moreover, different technologies will be appropriate at different parts of the project's lifecycle. Some will be of use when setting up the project, others after it has been completed.
For any projects we would point you to the list of services already offered by OUCS aimed at academic researchers. Many of these services are free to use already:
The suggestions below are aimed at listing simple solutions that do not require advanced IT skills.
The first step to using IT successfully for engagement and dissemination is to really consider who your stakeholders are, i.e. the important people you are trying to reach, or who will be affected by your project. This could have important implications for your choice of services. For example, a closed academic email list will not be easy for the public to engage with, or certain social networking tools already have an assumed specific target audience (e.g. MySpace is mainly used by teenagers, Facebook by students in Higher Education, etc). More importantly some target groups will be better reached by other non-IT routes (e.g. magazines, local media), targeted press releases, or tapping into existing networks.
EXAMPLE: The First World War Poetry Digital Archive extensively used IT tools to build up a community interested in its project, but also used national associations (e.g. the Western Front Association) and local media routes (such as BBC radio) who had been targeted by the University's Public Affairs Directorate with relevant press releases.
Figure impact-images/opencast-logo.jpg [Opencast logo]
EXAMPLE: The OpenCast community is producing an institutional podcasting solution. OUCS’s Learning Technologies Group and OSS Watch (our national advisory centre on open source developments) hosted a UK community event to increase EU and UK engagement in the worldwide community. We also worked with the community to define their community engagement and support processes and tools.
4.2. Set up an "Effective" Website
Figure impact-images/www-type.jpg [WWW letters]
It is now almost ubiquitous for a project to state that they will set up a website, but little thought is given as to why, how it will be maintained, and what extra tools could be used to increase its usefulness. The website is usually used at getting information out to users about the project, but it can also be used to engage the target audience(s). To do so it should be written (in part at least) in a language that is appropriate to them. If material, for example, is aimed at Schools then make references to Key Stages (where appropriate), and so on. Furthermore, a website should also try to retain an audience’s attention and be attractive enough for them to constantly revisit it.
4.3. Dissemination and building a community of interested parties
A good website may not, by itself, attract a community of people interested in your project. Your project needs to engage with potential community members in order to make them aware of your website. Once you have attracted some interest you need to ensure that you retain their attention.
Email can be used effectively and easily to attract and then engage with potential and actual community members. You should aim to keep them informed of what you are doing and why it is of interest to them. The newer social network tools, although often treated with healthy scepticism, can also provide easy ways of building and sustaining communities and tapping into existing groupings.
Sometimes building a new community may not the best course of action. Engaging with an existing community can often provide a higher level of visibility for your work.
Figure impact-images/WW1postcard.jpg [First World War Poetry Digital Archive postcard]
EXAMPLE: The First World War Poetry Digital Archive created two Google Groups, a Facebook site, a Twitter feed, and a Flickr group. It discovered that most of the traffic to its website came through postings to the latter of these social networking tools.
4.4. Extending your event
It is quite common to run an event (public lecture, workshop, or conference) related to your project. It is notable, however, that when projects mention such activities they rarely think on how they can extend the event to reach wider audiences. It is very easy to add ‘virtual’ elements to your conferences or workshops which can then allow you have greater outreach.
Figure impact-images/conference.jpg [Conference delegates]
EXAMPLE: All the sessions from a recent climate-change research conference held at Oxford were recorded and made available on ITunes U enabling students and researchers who could not attend to access all of the content of the day. This content is now being packaged up as e-learning materials for the subject community.
EXAMPLE: OUCS learning technology conferences have used Twitter channels to encourage discussion before, during and after each of our events. This has been valuable for delegates who could not travel to the event and also to build up a community of followers interested in the subject areas.
Figure impact-images/podcast-said.jpg [Said podcasts iTunes picture]
EXAMPLE: The 'Building your Business' podcast series from the Said Business School spent many weeks in the top ten global download charts of iTunes U, with peaks of 1,700 downloads per day.
EXAMPLE: The popularity of the 'Introduction to Philosophy' podcast series produced by Department of Continuing Education has made the lecturer involved a well known name, with tens of thousands of downloads and hundreds of web page hits through to the departmental website.
4.5. Extending the reach of your project
In addition to the above there are a variety of things you can do to extend the reach of your project, in terms of it being noted, or reused elsewhere.
Figure impact-images/satelite.jpg [Satelite image]
EXAMPLE: The web-based Galaxy Zoo project at Oxford has been so successful in gathering an informal community of contributors that the project leaders have been able to engage this same community in a series of further, related projects without any need to start from scratch. The project team have also been able to apply their community model to projects well outside their subject area, thereby making savings in re-using code and design. The OUCS RunCoCo project can provide support in developing online communities around research projects.
EXAMPLE: The Modelling4All and First World War Poetry Digital Archive have developed 'introductory' and 'trailer' videos for YouTube to explain the project to a wider audience, which in turn bring new visitors to their websites (e.g. see http://www.youtube.com/user/ww1lit#p/u).
EXAMPLE: By releasing software outputs as open source, and by managing the project using an open development methodology, the Wookie project has attracted contributions that enables it to be used in environments other than the original target of the virtual learning environment - Moodle. At the time of writing it can now be used within other applications such as Wordpress, Elgg, Drupal, and LAMS.
EXAMPLE: Conferences such as ‘ TransferSummit /UK’ (organised by OUCS’s OSS Watch) are aimed specifically at bringing together academic and commercial partners to explore opportunities for collaboration and innovation.
EXAMPLE: The OpenSpires project has worked closely with the University’s Legal Services office to develop a Creative Commons licence appropriate for online media (audio and video). OUCS provides advice on the use of speaker sign-off and release forms to ensure that your materials can be shared and re-used widely.
5. Departments and Public/Business Engagement
Occasionally a department, faculty, college or other unit may be called upon to list its overall engagement programme. Again, this will be spread across a range of activities many of which will not involve IT. However, by way of example the following exercise outlines OUCS’s approach to this.
Figure impact-images/cable.jpg [cable plug]
First, it is useful to list your projects online thus alerting people (collaborators, prospective students, the media etc) to the range of work you undertake. OUCS maintains lists at:
Second, it would be useful to brainstorm some of the one-off, or ad
hoc activities that you might wish to promote. Considering work
undertaken at OUCS we would point to the following activities (listed in no
particular order and many drawn from examples above):
Having compiled such a list we could then consider each of these activities under some key targets and objectives (as identified in A Vital Partnership).
5.1. Economic Impact/Knowledge Transfer:
Running iTunes U/Podcasting; Green IT (also helps vendors understand HE requirements); open publishing of OUCS documentation (usually licensed under Creative Commons licence); developing a model to cost IT services as part of a national project; launching the Mobile Oxford development platform as open sourcce; the British National Corpus is used extensively in English language teaching; etc.
In addition we would also highlight the work of OSS Watch under this heading, as it is a national service specialising in sustainable open source developments, the production of reusable software, and community building. The team connects projects and businesses in order to explore open innovation as a means to externalise and enhance work carried out in the academic sector. They also work with mentoring programmes such as the Google Summer of Code, which provides practical guidance and support for students exploring open source software and the OpenSE project which focuses on similar mentoring in both formal and informal education.
5.2. Bringing Learning Resources to a Wider Audience:
Running iTunes U and Podcasting; assisting and creating the proliferation of Open Educational Resources; opening up WebLearn; running Community Collections; hosting key events; opening up our training; assisting in or leading the creation of freely available Digitised Collections – e.g. First World War Poetry Archive, but also assisted with Vindolanda Tables, Roman Coinage, Pitt Rivers Pacific Pathways; hosting the free online Oxford Text Archive; working on building communities via new Web 2.0 tools such as Facebook, Twitter, Second Life, Flickr; etc.
5.3. Getting More People Interested in Learning and the University:
Figure impact-images/modelling4all.jpg [Modelling 4 all abstract design]
iTunes U and Podcasting includes guides to studying at Oxford; mounting films explaining some of our projects on YouTube; running Community Collections; opening up WebLearn; using Social Media tools to reach new audiences(Facebook/Twitter); opening up OUCS Training; helping to run an area on Epidemics at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition ; participating in ArtsWeek; offering the Mobile Oxford service to the entire City; etc.
5.4. Attracting Students from Under-represented Groups:
Via iTunes U and Podcasting; WebLearn; Digitised Collections; offering Work Experience to local school pupils; developing an Apprenticeship scheme.
Running major Green IT initiatives – especially the low-carbon ICT project; developing Mobile Oxford – promoting local public transport policies and cycling routes; advising on recycling of IT equipment; leading the development of Virtualisation facilities across the University to reduce power consumption; etc.
Figure impact-images/Artweeks.jpg [Arts week logo]
5.6. Arts and Culture:
Participating in ArtsWeek; Podcasting on art (including Ruskin School) with increased accessibility to artistic works; running Community Collections that focus on literature and art; cataloguing arts and humanities online resources through Intute; running workshops on digital video and music, and hosting the annual Filming Literature Competition; etc.
6. Further reading
6.1. University Guides
6.2. OUCS Guides
6.3. OSS Watch Guides