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Learning and Public Engagement (Jon Wardle and Richard Berger)

Authors: Jonathan Wardle and Richard Berger (Media School)

Alternative name suggestion: Learning (as Public Engagement might be better suited to being a cross-cutting theme)

Brief theme summary: Learning is undergoing a revolution globally as a world full of the unexpected realises a need for ingenious, indefatigable lifelong-learners. At the heart of these new directions lie exciting new media, new design, new teaching approaches, new business models and new ideas.

Understanding how to educate people for today’s politically, technologically and socially changing world is of critical importance as the ways in which people learn throughout life within educational institutions, the workplace and informal settings is of major significance for the future development of the UK and countries around the world.

Similarly, academics are increasingly being asked to show how their work has a societal benefit, and to explain their research to those outside Higher Education. Public Engagement is not a by-product of research, it should be at its core. As Kingsley Amis wrote:

“[I]t cannot be said too often that education is one thing and instruction, however worthy, necessary and incidentally or momentarily educative, another” (1998: 236).

As Bournemouth University moves forward, it must continue to provide an education not just for its students, but for other constituencies. BU is s justifiably proud of the learning, and public-engagement, which happens on and off campus, and we work hard with other stakeholders around the world to make learning seductive, engaging and effective. This effective learning is not just the result of an accidental whim; it takes research and reflection, practice and people, across all our schools and within inter-disciplinary research teams.

Allied to these agendas, we want people to consider, question and debate the key issues which impact society, and so we are constantly looking for new ways to encourage people of all ages and from all walks of life to be informed, inspired and involved in learning and research.

Scope of theme: what is included? – creativity; curriculum development; democracy; e-learning; engagement; life-long learning; literacies; politics and power; production and practice; public sphere.

Scope of theme: what is excluded? – careers guidance; e-commerce; intellectual property.

Which big societal questions are addressed by this theme? – how can learning be improved in schools, colleges and universities?
– can new media technologies facilitate new forms of learning and engagement informally and formally?
– how can those in work gain formal qualifications?
– are there emerging new literacies that need researching?
– What role can learning play in addressing issues of poverty, social mobility and civic engagement?
– What is a University in the 21st Century?

How do these link to the priorities of the major funding bodies? The major research councils (RCUK) now have a commitment to public engagement and impact. For example, members of the AHRC peer-review college are required to assess bids on the grounds of public engagement and impact. Submissions to RCUK are increasingly planning for more public events and exhibitions to disseminate their work.

Similarly, large charities such as The Wellcome Trust, have a wide public-engagement mission, regarding the communication of science and health issues.

Learning is also a key priority for policy makers, particularly at the axis where education and new media meet. In recent years there have been a number of government reports commissioned into young peoples’ use of new media (see Byron 2008).

A number of organisations are now focusing on new media and learning. The Higher Education Academy’s subject centre, Art, Design and Media (ADM – HEA) funds research in both public engagement and learning, as does the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), here with a more direct focus on technology. Other bodies are also active such as The Sector Skills Council for the Creative and Media industries (Skillset) who fund research which brings together education and industry and the Leverhulme Trust who are interested in social mobility and improving attainment in Schools.

BU has had some success with these organisations, but a defined research theme could mean our activity in this area could potentially be far more strategic, ambitious and wide-ranging. It is clear then that our own students’ work should have impact too. It is hoped that such a research theme would draw in and facilitate all of those in the BU community.

How does this theme interlink with the other BU themes currently under consideration? This research theme would cut across all schools, and should engage staff who have a particular interest in public engagement and learning.

This theme’s focus on new media and new technology could have alliances with other themes such as Culture and Society or Society & Social Change, Creative & Digital Economies and Technology & Design.

Environmental Change and Biodiversity (Adrian Newton)

Authors: Adrian Newton (Applied Sciences)

Alternative name suggestion: None

Brief theme summary: We are currently experiencing a global biodiversity crisis, with high rates of species extinction and widespread habitat loss resulting from human activities. Other forms of environmental change include degradation of ecosystems, pollution, overharvesting of natural resources, spread of invasive species and anthropogenic climate change. Together, these pressures are having a significant impact on the ecological processes on which human life depends.  

Scope of theme: what is included? Biodiversity loss, extinction of species, environmental degradation, loss of ecosystem condition, habitat loss, environmental pollution, climate change, depletion of natural resources. Human responses to the biodiversity crisis, including sustainable use of natural resources, protected areas, ecological restoration. Effectiveness of management and policy responses. Impacts on ecosystem services and human wellbeing.

Scope of theme: what is excluded? Any element that does not have a significant environmental component.

Which big societal questions are addressed by this theme?

  • How may extinction risk be assessed?
  • What is the current rate of biodiversity loss?
  • What are the likely effects of climate change on the world’s ecosystems and associated biodiversity?
  • How vulnerable is the earth system to biodiversity loss?
  • What are the likely effects of environmental change on provision of ecosystem services, and human wellbeing?
  • Are there tipping points in ecological processes?
  • Are there thresholds of environmental impact beyond which recovery is impossible?
  • How resilient are ecological systems to environmental change?
  • Will the earth system be able to support human society in future, if the biodiversity crisis is not addressed?
  • How can the biodiversity crisis be addressed?
  • What are the risks of ecosystem collapse?

How do these link to the priorities of the major funding bodies? Many of these issues are now featuring in calls from NERC (eg through the LWEC programme and the BESS programme), and from the EC.

How does this theme interlink with the other BU themes currently under consideration? There is a strong potential link with the Green Economy and Sustainability, but also potential to develop links (particularly on ecosystem services) with Health and wellbeing, Recreation and leisure, Culture and society or Society & Social Change, Entrepreneurship and economic growth.

Health and Wellbeing (Carol Bond)

Authors: Carol Bond (Health and Social Care)

Alternative name suggestion: None

Brief theme summary: Personal health and wellbeing. Understanding personal concepts of health and wellbeing, especially for people who face additional health challenges. How healthcare systems and healthcare professionals can develop to support health and wellbeing.

Scope of theme: what is included? Concepts of health

Concepts of health in people who have additional health needs

Health care professionals (education, development, ethics, attitudes, culture, power)

Experience of people with additional health needs (i.e. living with long term conditions and disability)

People’s experiences of healthcare (systems, providers, treatments, care) – and using this to improve systems and care

‘New’ technologies  in health, such as use of the internet, web 2.0 etc by people to support their own health needs and self management

Scope of theme: what is excluded? Medicine / Development of clinical procedures (focus should be on better understanding the ‘patient’ experience and using this to improve care)

Which big societal questions are addressed by this theme? How can publicly funded heathcare systems (the NHS) cope with the increase in people living with long term conditions

How can people be supported / encouraged to take more responsibility for managing their own health

How can the NHS achieve its aims of creating a ‘revolution for patients – “putting patients first” – giving people more information and control and greater choice about their care’  

How do these link to the priorities of the major funding bodies? Not stated.

How does this theme interlink with the other BU themes currently under consideration? If the theme is Society & Social Change rather than culture and society I can see a link with this theme in the area of changing public expectations of health services and societies attitudes towards health (e.g. disability,  body image, mental health) and the way that society impacts on personal health and wellbeing. There are also links with Aging, as a lot of people experience new health challenges along with the aging process.

Champions Answer the Call!

Several champions have stepped forward to help define the BU Research Themes.  You may recall I asked for people to help frame these themes and encouraged as many people as possible to step forward with their thoughts.  In fact the more views we have for each theme the more debate we can generate. 

To help this debate we are posting the detail from the templates on a special part of blog – the Themes page.  I encourage everybody to engage and to comment on the text as it is posted.  If you feel inspired then fill in a template as well!  The more people that get involved with this debate the stronger the definition of each research theme will be.  So please have your say!

For the template, please see my previous Research Themes post.

Matthew Bennett

PVC (Research, Enterprise and Internationalisation)

World Experts meet to determine future direction of soil carbon monitoring and reporting

A workshop organised by the BBSRC brought together top scientists from around the world to plan the future direction of standards and methodologies in the area of soil carbon monitoring and reporting. This will make a significant contribution to our knowledge of the role of soil in addressing climate change.
Outputs of the workshop will be a series of scientific papers outlining  the challenges and opportunities of soil carbon monitoring in the context of biomass production. This will help to inform sustainable management of changing land use, as well as any shift towards biomass crops within agriculture; contribute to the future direction of research in this area; and help to inform policy for sustainability. It is likely that opportunities will emerge from this work to improve the overall sustainability of bioenergy and an improved appreciation of the flux of carbon into and out of the soil will complement our increasing knowledge of the roles of genetics, physiology and agronomic traits of bioenergy crops.

Research Ontology or Find an Expert!

The new publication management system will be introduced over the summer and become the single user interface for academics with their web profiles and such things as BURO.  This project is in syncs with the introduction of the new content management system within BU which will transform our web presence.  As part of both these projects we plan to introduce a ‘find an expert’ function both for internal and external use.  We need to liberate academics to collaborate openly and freely within BU.  One of the inhibitors at the moment is actually finding someone to collaborate with!  So the find an expert function will have real power to help staff find potential expertise within BU with which to work.

The problem is that any such system is only as good as the keywords used to describe each individual’s research; we all refer to ourselves and our work via a plethora of different terms.  A basic ontology of subjects and research fields provides on solution.  Staff pick the words within the ontology which best fits their expertise.  There are lots of research ontology’s we could use as the starting point.  For example the Library of Congress Subject Headings is one of the best with good coverage of all subjects but is very granular for BU.  There are 150 different types of sociology for example!  Another option is the Science-Metrix which has three levels and 176 sub-fields.  This is much more manageable and could be modified to incorporate our own terms such as the ten BU Research Themes.

I would be interested to have your thoughts on this matter.  A list of the 176 sub-fields from the Science-Metrix ontology is shown below.  How would you describe your own research via such a system?  Are there alternative ontology’s we could use?  Your comments and ideas would be very welcome, but soon please since we have to take a decision on this shortly!

Unlocking Attitudes to Open Access

open access logo, Public Library of Science Emma Crowley and David Ball, Student and Academic Services, discuss open access publishing, and the role of the institutional repository BURO, and launch a short staff survey on open access publishing…


  • What do you understand by Open Access? 
  • Do you deposit your research outputs in BURO, BU’s online repository? 
  • Who owns the copyright to your research papers?
  • Would you consider publishing in an Open Access Journal? 

At BU these are exciting times for research and one of the key ways of ensuring that your work has impact is to make it available Open Access.  Most of you will be familiar with BURO, our online research repository, and are hopefully contributing your research outputs on a regular basis as per BU’s Academic Publications Policy.  As a strategic part of your personal research processes it is essential that you retain your own pre-print (pre peer review) and post-print (post peer review) copies of your journal articles as most publishers will allow you to make either of these formats available open access, but not the branded publisher PDF.  You can check copyright permissions in BURO using the Sherpa Romeo tool.    

So, how do we know how impactful our research really is?  The answer to this challenging question, discussed at length at this week’s Developing and Assessing Impact for the REF Conference, is not necessarily here, but clearly research that is being viewed and downloaded by large numbers of global web users has a greater chance of influencing policy and attracting more citations.  Below are the 3 most downloaded full text journal articles in BURO during the last quarter.  You can even see which search terms people are using to find your work. 

Buhalis, D. and Law, R., 2008. Progress in information technology and tourism management: 20 years on and 10 years after the Internet – The state of eTourism research. Tourism Management, 29 (4), pp. 609-623. 517 Downloads

Edwards, J. and Hartwell, H., 2006. Hospital food service: a comparative analysis of systems and introducing the ‘Steamplicity’ concept. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, 19 (6), pp. 421-430. 506 Downloads

van Teijlingen, E. and Hundley, V., 2001. The Importance of Pilot Studies. Social Research Update (35), pp. 1-4. 405 Downloads

In addition to BURO BU recently launched its own Open Access Publication Fund that will support BU academics in publishing their research in Open Access journals, where a fee is required to publish, but everyone can view your article.

We would be very grateful if you could participate in a short survey, the results of which will help inform BU strategy on Open Access and wider developments for Open Access in UK HE.  There is only one page of questions which will take you less than 10 minutes to complete.  The survey will remain open until Monday 30th June.

Please note: if you experience any technical difficulties using the survey please contact Learning Technology

International panel praises quality of UK psychology research

The ESRC, British Psychological Society (BPS), the Experimental Psychology Society (EPS) and the Association of Heads of Psychology Departments (AHPD) agreed in 2009 to work in partnership to benchmark the quality and impact of research in the UK against international standards.
The Panel’s headline finding is that, overall, the quality of UK psychology research is very high, bettered only by psychology research from the USA and in a substantial number of areas, UK psychology research is unsurpassed anywhere in the world. The Panel’s view is corroborated both by the outcome of the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise and bibliometric analysis.Read more on the ESRC webpage.

Official UK position paper on the next Framework Programme released!

Funding for EU Research and Innovation from 2014: a UK Perspective is the official response to the EU consultation on the Common Strategic Framework for Research and Innovation funding. It takes the form of a 16 page statement setting out the UK’s views, key points are:

  • green growth should continue to receive a high, and ideally increased, proportion of an albeit smaller overall EU budget;
  • focus on impact, dissemination and knowledge transfer should be increased;
  • social sciences and arts and humanities research should be embedded in all aspects of the future programme and increasing its share of funding;
  • a small number of thematic challenges should be agreed and these should include climate change, energy, water and food security, the protection of natural resources and the ageing population;
  • maintaining excellence should be at the heart of the programmes, but also provide support to the aspirations of EU12 countries to increase their participation;
  • as well as providing research and innovation funding, the programme should also support the provision of finance for businesses and follow-on activities; and
  • a step change in simplification is needed with time to grant periods being reduced and the number of audits being kept to the minimum necessary.

Research Informed Teaching

I spoke at the Education Enhancement Conference about a month ago on the subject of research informed teaching and have been asked to share my slides on this subject by several individuals since.  Not very happy to do this not least because of the picture of a young Bennett, so instead I am posting the gist of the talk here in this post.

For me research informed teaching goes to the heart of what it is to be an academic.  I love the phrase that a ‘university’s mission is to educate but its reputation is defined by its research’.  For me this speaks to the central duality of our profession – education in combination with research.  Because who would want to be at a university where knowledge is not being created?  At BU over the last few years we have had the ‘four pillars’ of research, enterprise, education and professional practice and these have done much to clarify the metrics for pay progression and promotion, but on the downside they are often seen as separate and competing activities rather than one collective whole.  For me research is everything from the creation of new knowledge, via its application in applied or contract research, through its dissemination via CPD to professional practice.  If one takes this broad definition then there are just two spheres – education and research – and the synergy in the overlap between the two is the place to be.  In fact one can see professional practice and knowledge exchange with society as the surrounding mix which helps bind these two elements.  This is the heart of research informed teaching, or if your prefer teaching informed research! It is this duality which has excited me throughout my career.

I have taught (and hope to continue to do so) for just under twenty years a range of earth science units from basic geomorphology, through glacial geology to a range of environmental and professional practice units.  Throughout research has been central to my teaching.  In the presentation referred to above I gave a series of examples from my own experience to illustrate just a small selection of what can be done.  I looked at five broad areas: (1) research and scholarly output for learning and research; (2) the power of field projects and courses; (3) placements and project students; (4) students and enterprise; and (5) unit design.

Throughout the 1990s I wrote a series of student focused textbooks produced as a result of my own teaching and the wish to produce a text tailored directly to the needs of my students.  Books on earth history, stratigraphy and my main passion of glacial geology.  These books were produced as a by product of my teaching but also shaped my teaching, allowing it to reach a much wider audience.  They may not have had any relevance in the turns of RAE/REF but they served an important function, not least of which was to improve my own knowledge.  I wrote a series of review papers at this time as well, directly driven by a pedagogic need to help my students with difficult subjects, but helping also to shape the academic agenda in these areas.  These papers are very well cited and two where the cornerstone of my contribution to RAE-2008.  They were driven by pedagogy but contributed directly to my research profile and plans.  I re-wrote a first year units last year only to see the unit axed during a curriculum re-write – I can’t complain too much since I initiated the curriculum re-write!  I put a huge amount of effort into this re-write reading widely and synthesising material in new way.  I don’t think of this as lost effort because one I really enjoyed doing it and two I intend to write the unit up as reader in environmental change given a couple of months spare.  Perhaps this will have to wait for a while but I will get to it soon I hope!

I ran field courses as a young lecture and used to turn students loose on Dartmoor each year to work independently on a range of field problems.  For over a decade they collected research data using simple techniques building an archive which I have yet to completely mine.  When people talk about student data you often here people say ‘but student data is poor, you can’t use it!’  But in truth student data is never poor and if it is, it is because you failed to teach them well enough.  It is about treating students as research equals as you would any other potential collaborator.  My greatest success of recent years – the Science publication in 2009 – was only possible because of an international field school (Koobi Fora Field School) where students provide the vast majority of the labour and contributed widely to the field debates.  While working as a contaminated land consultant in Dorset I used a succession of student placements and project students to help deliver these contracts.  Directly involving students in live consultancy is great experience for them and a source of reliable labour – you know the quality because you trained them!  There are lots of ways of involving students, but the key is to treat them as equal partners in all that you do.  There are also some fantastic examples in the School of Tourism and Media School of enterprise education in which students gain directly from being involved in live projects often taking the lead in solving business problems.

My final example was from a few years ago when a member of staff resigned a couple of weeks before the start of term and as all managers do I had to pick their third year unit up myself.  There was no way I was going to write 20 weeks worth of lectures, one week ahead of the students.  Done that and as they say bought the t-shirt and as we all know it is not a great experience for the students or for one self.  A more creative solution was needed, so I decided to run the whole unit around four projects with student’s gaining the required knowledge and meeting the learning outcomes through their delivery.  The four project were based on research that I wanted to have explored; I was the client, they were the consultants.  Of the four projects three led to clear research output at the end of the unit.  One focused on seeing whether Ground Penetrating Radar would work on Chesil Beach.  It did and led to me re-doing the work that summer with some of my colleagues leading to a great little paper in Geomorphology one of the leading Elsevier journals in the earth sciences.  Without the proof of concept the students provided this would never have been written.  A second project provided the proof of concept for a PhD studentship which looked at the geochemistry of Poole Harbour, while the third project compared a series of methods for producing photomontages of complex geological sections.  I use these methods now routinely within my own research.  The fourth project was a great student project but just didn’t lead to any thing more, but three out of four is a very good strike rate!  The units also got excellent reviews that year and two of the students went on to get firsts.  There is a huge amount of potential to create units of this sort the key is to be creative.

These are just some of the examples I have used to combine research and teaching over the years but I can think of many more.  I can anticipate the objections as illustrated in the picture, but in truth these are often not real and as the examples above show can easily be overcome.  So in conclusion research is at the heart of a good student experience with students learning from those that are learning themselves.  We need to find creative way of engaging our students in research, enterprise & professional practice.  The transferability of research skills is in my view one of the fundamental assets of a university education.  A balanced portfolio of research is vital to career progression and external profile.  It is not just about REF and there is lots of scope to do research which supports, is informed by and in turn informs ones teaching.  The secret is to go for it!

Matthew Bennett

PVC (Research, Enterprise & Internationalisation)

Research Centres at BU: What is the way forward?

Research organisation is a vexed question.  How should we organise ourselves to maximise our research potential and foster innovation and collaboration while boosting our collective output?  Over the course of my career I have seen and participated in many different forms of research centre or grouping, from informal clusters of academics sharing ideas over coffee, to formally defined research centres.  The key to the success of all these different centres is meaningful intellectual interaction leading to a sense of purpose and output; not just talking shops, but ones focused on talk and action!  Some of the most successful centres I have seen consist of little more than a couple of established academics – say a Professor and a lecturer – and around them they have built through their own funding bids a fluid team of talented post-docs and research assistants who create the energy and drive as they push to develop their own career and often land that first lecturing job.  The role of the Professor is simply to guide and channel this energy, writing the applications to retain or employ new ‘bright things’.  This is the model I understand best with Professors leading from the front and generating their own research teams.  There are a few examples of this within BU, but not many, and I would like to see many more in the next few years.  It is a model that drives research growth and develops critical mass without a dependence on established posts.  It is also common in most research active Universities across the World.

At BU we have in recent years ‘forced’ research centres into existence, insisting that every academic belongs to a centre.  They have become establishment structures often at odds with academic groups and departments, which have a broader focus, often led by frustrated field marshals unable to inspire or direct the troops within them.  This was all elegantly brought out in the review undertaken by Professor Adrian Newton a few years ago.  A key point here was that structures for research were often at conflict with structure for education, yet at the heart of BU’s future is the duality of education and research feeding from one another in a creative fashion.  It is one of the reasons why one of the out comes of this review was a focus on academic groups or departments which combine both research and teaching.  The question needs to be asked therefore about what to do with our structure of research centres?

I have almost finished visiting all twenty five of BU’s current Research Centres and the picture is very mixed.  While some are clearly vibrant units where academics are working together to create exciting output both in education and research, others are dysfunctional neither meaningful academic networks, nor effective leadership vehicles.  Added to this mix we have the term Centres of Research Excellence, prevalent in the Strategic Plan of a few years a go.  But we never actually defined what these where and none where officially recognised, although several aspire to the crown.

To my mind there are two alternative ways of approaching the issue of research centres.  The first is based on silo-free, organic academic networks in which academic staff are free to choose where, and with whom, they work and collaborate both on education and research.  Research clusters or centres will form where there is real synergy and research output.  In this model the key is to create an environment where this can happen – where staff can mix freely and find collaborators easily both within and beyond BU and we are actively tackling this at the moment through the Collaborative Tools for Academics Project.  In this approach research would be manifest simply through output produced via the big BU Research Themes we are currently defining and not through static structures of centres or clusters.  Academic Groups and Departments would off course remain and may or may not map on to these organic, output driven clusters of academic talent.

The alternative model is to maintain and/or re-fresh our current structure of centres.  Effectively to reinforce the imposed structures which currently for some prescribe and limit academic freedom and collaborative potential.  Despite these issues it is perhaps a more inclusive model since everybody belongs somewhere, but our recent history suggests that this model limits collaboration and innovation.  There is also a hybrid model in which we recognise a few – literally one or two – Centres of Research Excellence defined clearly by a performance threshold based on output, income, reputation and research impact.  Such status would have to be won and could also be lost if performance declined.  The rest of our research would be defined via a fluid series of clusters and centres which could form and re-form as academic interaction changes over time as with the first model.

Which ever of these models we favour, and for what its worth I am inclined to either the former or the hybrid model, it is essential that we see centres of activity in the broadest sense combining both research and education.  That conflicts with academic groups based on line-management are minimized, but that we create an environment where silo-free collaboration across BU is a reality not just a dream.  So as part of the re-think around the Research Strategy at BU I am interested in hearing from you on this broad topic and look forward to your comments.

Matthew Bennett

PVC (Research, Enterprise & Internationalisation)

Drive knowledge flow, influence, network and get insider information with Knowledge Transfer Networks

Knowledge Transfer Networks (KTNs) act as a single national network in a specific field, bringing together businesses and academics to stimulate innovation through knowledge transfer. By joining a Technology Strategy Board’s KTN you can help drive the flow of knowledge both within and in-and-out of specific communities and improve your ability to network, keep up to date with the very latest information and news, funding opportunities, policy, regulation and strategy. KTNs exist in many different areas so why not join one today?  Aerospace, Aviation and Defence, Biosciences, Creative Industries, Digital, Electronics, Sensors, Photonics, Energy Generation and Supply, Environmental Sustainability, Financial Services, FP7UK, HealthTech and Medicines, ICT, Industrial Biotechnology, Materials

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