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.
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.
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.
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.
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):
- improving skills
- assisting the economy, e.g. improving the competitiveness of SMEs
- contributing to key social concerns, e.g. healthcare, reskilling the workforce,
- promoting multiculturalism, inclusivity, tackling social exclusion, etc
- informing the debate around a particular issue
- increasing knowledge in the discipline, including public understanding
- engaging and building communities
- showing efficiencies
- increasing creativity
- increasing cross-disciplinary activities and collaboration between disciplines, academia and the public and private sectors, etc
- opening access to research results/data
- making it possible to reuse and sharing material
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.
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.
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.
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):
- Our development and promotion of software to facilitate community collection (or crowd-sourcing) under the RunCoCo project. This involves a simple piece of open source software that allows you to set up a website for people to contribute material to.
- Supporting podcasting and iTunes U. This has allowed Oxford lecturers to reach global audiences with their lectures, interviews about their projects, guides to studying at Oxford.
- Extending the backbone network across the city. Recently we have managed to develop our wireless facilities to be available in the City's NHS hospitals.
- Leading the development of, and investigations into, Open Educational Resources through the OpenSpires and STEEPLE projects.
- Developing software that is freely available to assist in computer modeling through our Modelling4All project .
- Contributing regularly to open source products, which can then be used by other Universities and businesses.
- Opening up some of our training facilities to non-University people – including running courses for OUP, our Alumni, and for local teachers through the NUT. We have also contributed to 6th Form Master Classes, and Access Programmes for Higher Education.
- Making our teaching rooms available to local organisations such as BBC Oxford and special interest groups.
- Offering internships, as well as work experience for local school pupils, and considering running apprenticeship schemes.
- Developing the University's virtual learning environment - WebLearn - so that it can be opened up to allow access to visitors and indexing by Google.
- Taking a lead on various Green IT initiatives, most notably our Low Carbon ICT project which allows users to power up machines remotely, rather than having to leave them on all the time.
- Developing the Mobile Oxford service which is of use to anyone in the City - students, staff, citizens, tourists - promoting sustainable travel, bettering the learning experience, etc.
- Hosting major national advisory services which are of benefit to UK HE, businesses, and Government. These have included: OSS Watch (national advisory centre on Open Source Software); Intute – cataloguing Arts and Humanities online resources; the Oxford Text Archive - the oldest electronic text archive in the world; UCISA - the major organisation for University and College IT units; Computers in Teaching Initiative Centre - advised UK HEIs on using IT in teaching; British National Corpus - major collaborative service of use to linguists and publishers; Text Encoding Initiative - major international organisation to develop text mark-up standards.
- Running numerous conferences on IT and becoming a recognised world-centre of expertise in key technology fields.
- Opening up our doors as part of the City's Artsweek festival to allow members of the public to see art created by OUCS staff, but also to learn more about the department.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.