Digitally Engaged Research: Time For A Change In Postgraduate Training

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With universities and funding bodies increasingly pushing forward impact agendas, engaged research has become a life or death issue for academics. Tweeting, blogging, and other forms of digital engagement are particularly on the rise. It is likely that in a few years’ time, the merit of Phd proposals will be based on their potential to engage publics through social media and measures of scholarly impact will include the number of tweets or blog comments.

What is the impact of these trends on Phd students and emerging researchers? And what support do universities and research centres offer for digital engagement and other new forms of engaged research?

Training in digital engagement was recently offered to postgraduates at the University of Oxford. At The Open University, a ‘social media trainer’ has together with academics developed a social media toolkit which includes advice on how to effectively connect global audiences through innovative Web2 uses. Other universities are developing twitter user guides and propagating online research marketing in various disciplines.

Effective engaged research is more than social media though. In addition to engaging global audiences, researchers can work with local communities and participate in various activities such as running research cafés or school-university partnerships.

Natalie Starkey, a SEPnet Public Engagement winner, exemplifies how this may look like in practice. Natalie tweets, contributes to Guardian Science podcasts and regularly appears on radio, TV and online. As a STEMNET ambassador, she often speaks to school children about science and regularly writes science stories for blogs and news pieces.

And if you thought all that was a little, then you could add to your academic profile smartphone and tablet app design. This can further maximise the research benefits for practice and demonstrate a research concept through a real-world digital product. In my postgraduate research, we collaboratively developed and modified an educational app with practitioners from local schools as well as children and families we recruited for the trial testing. The app supports multimodal story-making and story-sharing and is available as a free public download for Apple and android devices. The development and public launch of the app enabled us to connect to practitioners from across the UK (e.g. Hackney London or Gaelic nurseries in Glasgow) and across the globe (e.g. a pre-school in Spain or a special needs school in Japan). Moreover, we could document the research in authentic contexts and disseminate it to relevant audiences (such as school principals, children’s parents or our own funders).

There are several success stories of early career researchers creatively engaging varied publics and it may be tempting to think that we, the younger generation of academics, are naturally competent in the novel, digital forms of public engagement. The truth is that many of us learn ‘on the go’ and from each other. Integrating regular social media posts into an already busy academic schedule is not easy and often has to happen outside the set working hours. It is also challenging to know when and how to share ideas when working on commercially sensitive projects, particularly in business research partnerships. We therefore need support for specific engagement techniques but also ethical and socially responsible ways of nurturing and sustaining research impact. The latter is particularly important when thinking ahead of the next REF cycle.

Innovative engaged research training should therefore be included in all current postgraduate training. Crucially, it should be about developing a unique mix of social engagement skills and digital competencies. We need both if we want to generate and sustain public interest in research.

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