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.
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.
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.
- Always begin by performing a stakeholder analysis identifying who you want to reach, and how this can be best achieved. List the Target Groups (e.g. academics, public, school teachers) and the main networks that could be used (e.g. specific discussion lists, publications, conferences, media outlets, etc).
- At the beginning of any statement that you make outlining your engagement activities clearly specify the Target Groups you have identified (who are they, what they want, what they can do), why you are aiming to reach them, what your main message is, before you list the activities you will engage in.
- Research whether the platforms and dissemination channels you choose will in fact reach those audiences. For example, Oxford’s Internet Institute produces an annual report on Internet usage in Britain and the Public Affairs Directorate can advise on appropriate media outlet channels for target audiences. OUCS can provide specific detailed advice and answer any questions relating to Web 2.0 tools (firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com).
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.
- Arrange a meeting with OUCS's Web Design Consultancy if you are uncertain as to how to start and what you can do with a website (firstname.lastname@example.org). See also the useful set of material for web site designers (http://www.ox.ac.uk/web/)
- Include in your site easily updatable feeds of information that you can post to, e.g. an RSS news-feed, a blog, or a Twitter feed.
- Tailor the presentation and language of your website to your target audience(s).
- Ensure that your website is optimised for search engines by incorporating relevant keywords in content and metadata appropriately.
- Make sure you obtain a intuitive and brief domain name for your new website. To register a non-Oxford domain name contact email@example.com or to register an Oxford domain name contact firstname.lastname@example.org. To obtain advice about domain names contact email@example.com.
- Use an analytic tool to monitor traffic to and use of your website. This will not only be useful on reporting back, but also in targeting groups, seeing what parts of your site are popular, etc. A popular utility widely used at Oxford is Google Analytics.
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.
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.
- Allow people to register interest in your project from your web page by providing a means of sending you their email, or joining a mailing list
- OUCS provides a simple mail-list service that is free to use (http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/email/maillists/), or you could go to the national academic mailing list service – JISCMAIL
- Alternatively use a free third-party discussion forum tool such as Google Groups to easily set up a forum and manage discussions and membership
- Consider making your project a part of a pre-existing community – search for associations or existing discussion lists/groups that you could be part of
- Create a blog to regularly report on progress (akin to a project diary) – see OUCS’s brief guide on Blogs (PDF)
- Set up a Facebook site and invite people to join. Facebook comes with a range of tools that will allow you to attract and maintain a community (see OUCS’s Facebook guide (PDF))
- Set up a Twitter feed and regularly post short bits of news about your project or the related discipline. This will attract 'followers' who in turn will allow you to spread the word further through their networks
- Set up a WebLearn site if your project is to do with teaching and learning. This will provide you with a wealth of additional tools, and a simple intranet or for projects a SharePoint site under the Nexus Service
- Again, although treated with healthy scepticism, make sure that references to your project are included on all the relevant Wikipedia pages, and even create an entry about the project itself. It should be remembered that Wikipedia is a high-profile site which appears high-up in search engine results for many subjects; links to relevant Oxford pages from Wikipedia will provide exposure for your project and enrich the Wikipedia entry. Contributing to relevant Wiki pages is also a potentially wide-reaching form of community engagement.
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.
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.
- If you need a room with state-of-the-art IT/AV facilities talk to OUCS staff about using the facilities at Banbury Road or about facilities elsewhere in the University (see http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/thamessuite/index.xml). Another very useful resource is the Media Production Unit which hires equipment and has a full-furnished video conferencing suite.
- Set up a discussion facility (e.g. a Google Group, or online chat area in WebLearn.) to run before, during, or after your event. Consider using Twitter to publicise your event and encourage delegates to tweet using an associated hash (#) tag before, during and after the event.
- Stream your conference live through a video feed. Both the Media Production Unit and OUCS can assist with this.
- Use video streams to also allow presenters to speak at your event without the need to physically be there, thus reducing the travel impact.
- Record all presentations as audio or video files, or enhanced 'presentations' (e.g. PowerPoint slides with audio overlaid) and then make these available on your website. OUCS can provide courses and advice if you are new to creating this type of resource.
- Make all audio and video recordings available as podcasts as part of the University's iTunes U initiative (see http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/podcasts/ and http://www.ox.ac.uk/itunes_u/contribute.html)).
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.
- Record an introduction to your project explaining its importance and make it available as a podcast.
- Provide a set of case studies of how people have interacted with your project for teaching or research.
- Model your data, and the means to interact with your data, in an open standard where possible – this means it is not based on a proprietary standard associated with a specific software application or vendor and can be used far more. By doing so you will also increase the chance of being able to integrate it with other data sources and tools for data analysis (so called 'Mashing up'), e.g. using open standards for geolocation data will allow you to link to Google Maps.
- If appropriate use online survey tools (e.g. WebLearn or SurveyMonkey) to regularly assess feedback and reactions from your target audience (see http://weblearn.ox.ac.uk and the SurveyMonket Guide (PDF)).
- ‘Crowd-sourcing' is an innovative way of extending two-way engagement. In short it means engaging large numbers of people (usually volunteers) to contribute to your project. For example you might consider allowing the community you have built up to contribute content, or comment on content (e.g. by annotation or tagging). OUCS’s RunCoCo project can provide advice and support for this way of working.
- Run an online debate with positioning papers and an open forum for people to discuss issues that have arisen (e.g. via Weblearn’s discussion tools, or Google Groups).
- Set up an 'ask the expert' facility (a simple discussion board will suffice) where interested parties can ask you questions about the project or related topics. This could be particularly useful if aimed at schools and further education. You can also contact the University’s Public Affairs Directorate and offer your services as a media contact on particular topics (see: http://www.ox.ac.uk/media/find_an_expert/index.html).
- Consider building a mobile application that interacts with your project, or at the very least provides a short cut to the main site. OUCS can advise on this (see: http://m.ox.ac.uk/desktop/).
- Consider publishing your data, slides, publications, and educational resources using a Creative Commons licence to facilitate reuse (see OUCS’s OpenSpires project and the Creative Commons site).
- When developing software tools consider using an open development method and releasing the software under an open source licence (see OSS-Watch OUCS’s national advisory service on open source developments).
- Make any material you create available in easy to reuse sections (e.g. separate images, audio files, etc) which will allow others to create new material (e.g. teaching resources more suited to their situation).
- Run an event bringing in your stakeholders (e.g. teachers) to discuss how they might use your project, or even provide funding for them to create learning resources.
- Consider the possibility that you may have a new and unexpected audience for your materials, and try out different platforms such as iTunes U and YouTube (using the existing Oxford University channels perhaps) to reach informal learners, and browsers.
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.