Saturday, 13 February 2010

Academic roles in research led institutions and the simultaneous impact of technology on teaching and research productivity

Academic roles in research led institutions are markedly different than those in teaching institutions. It is therefore unlikely that technologies deployed at either type of institution should be the same. At research led institutions academics mostly prefer to conduct research than teach. Although lecturing is critical to funding at research led institutions engaging academics into using eLearning technologies to enhance student experiences has fallen on deaf ears. At teaching institutions the reverse is true where those academics take considerable pride in their teaching and actively seek new advancements in technology to enhance practice. This critical distinction must be embodied into any strategy aimed at research led institutions. To this extent, teaching and research are deeply entwined. Introduce an approach to eLearning that increases the workload of academics would be to the detriment of research. Now let us think in terms of academic productivity. As an academic institution we train our students and those we consult to that technology is a great enabler by incrementally improving human productivity in a number of ways. It is commonly found in the literature that those businesses that have looked beyond traditional technology practice boundaries do better than those that do not. They have become better at managing their work flow and have improved customer interactions allowing them to compete better than those that are less technologically advanced. For academics in research led institutions the situation for technology deployment must surely be the same? It should be that we only deploy technologies that raise productivity in both teaching and research practice and that these elements should be optimised simultaneously. Typically however, we find across many research led institutions that two distinct 'silos' appear where one does not influence the other. In this case, eLearning and eResearch approaches operate apart and rarely do they meet to seek commonalities in collaborative approaches or work out productivity trade off's between the silos. More frequently it leads to under adoption of key technologies that can reduce the time spent teaching, increase student satisfaction and enhance research productivity simultaneously. Many academic researchers are apathetic toward eLearning because of the expectation of increasing workloads. Although some eLearning approaches may increase workloads, this need not be the case and Lancaster eScience provide the Sakai platform that accommodates this way of thinking. A key ability of learning platforms is to significantly reduce door knocking and emails from students as all communication is managed online at a time the suits the academic. Answer a common student question (e.g. when is the deadline) via a forum just once, and all students get to see it. Contemporary students are the Web 2.0 social networking generation and are very amenable to this method of communication and actually prefer it to traditional teaching practice. A student in my eBusiness module wrote in a forum post that he found, I quote “It's a little bit addictive and it's practical”. Informal discussions with students also highlight that they much prefer this approach over traditional delivery methods and it's helping them engage more fluidly with me. So, the story so far is that it has reduced my teaching load and improved student experience. So where does research fit into this? Apart from reducing my teaching load which therefore increases my research output, the application of Sakai as a virtual research environment allows me to organise my research and research resources better than existing university infrastructure would allow. Crucially to my work it allows me to conduct both qualitative and survey based data collections online and also brings geographically close or distant research groups together into a common collaborative platform designed to work online from any internet ready computer. In this sense there is a double research increasing 'whammy' to applying Sakai in they way I do as it reduces my teaching load (indirectly giving me more time to research) and it increases my research productivity directly by improving my efficiency. Many others such as Mary Rose of the Institute of Entrepreneurship and Enterprise Development at Lancaster uses Sakai for both teaching and research collaboration and has similar experiences. It gives us a common platform for both teaching and research simplifying the accessibility of both.

So, what is the takeaway from this blog? By creating eLearning and eResearch silos that do not communicate with each other we run the risk of adopting the wrong technologies, or indeed, slowing the process of diffusion among academics. There are number of good virtual learning environments available to choose from (e.g. Blackboard, Moodle) that are perfectly usable at teaching institutions; but these have not been designed specifically for the research led academic. Sakai has been designed by research led institutions understanding the distinctions between research and teaching. If you have any comments on this blog please do leave them, I'd like to hear any counter or pro arguments.

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