Wednesday, 23 December 2015

AURA developing a framework for strengthening a research culture

The African Universities' Research Approaches (AURA) programme completed its first research capacity intervention, earlier this year in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam working with African universities to enable faculty to do more research and develop researchers of the future.

How the study of people's information behaviour informs the programme

The AURA programme's strategy draws on the study of people's information behaviour. In particular the assumption that information behaviour is intrinsically related to how we navigate and at the same time co-construct our experience. This shared experience, although open to interpretation, is reflected in our thoughts and informed and communicated through our actions including speech, writing, the creation and use of images, and with an array of technologies. The 'experience' that is the focus of the AURA programme is our learning experience, in particular that learning experience associated with conducting an inquiry into a particular topic or problem, i.e. conducting research and becoming informed.

As a consequence the project draws on theories of people's information behaviour that explores and documents the factors that influence and drive information behaviour, some generic some context specific. The sub-domain, information literacy, i.e. concentrating on the cognitive, emotional and behavioural capabilities relating to being informed; where people identify their information needs and appreciate and effectively utilise their socio-technical environment that can enable them to become informed or may be used to manage or communicate their 'research' i.e. the product of 'finding out' and learning.

Drawing on current approaches within higher education and research

The AURA programme also draws on a knowledge of current approaches to become informed within, on the whole, higher education and research environments.  These include an overview of the ontological, epistemological orientations and approaches that are taken. These include the broad ontological distinction between Cartesian and non-Cartesian and broad epistemological viewpoints within the post positivism or interpretivist paradigms such as social constructivism or critical realism or phenomenology.

Furthermore the distinction between citizen-led, highly participative or researcher-led forms of research (which are associated with distinct epistemological orientations) are highlighted.

The theoretical is however grounded in relation to the practice of conducting research and the process of developing research questions that will lead to funding from donors and research sponsors as well as getting published in respected publications plus ensuring that research is communicated effectively and has impact.  Hence, mapping the researchers network and identifying stakeholders (other academics, policy makers, publishers, international organisations etc.) and also mapping the knowledge, information and data landscape is seen as fundamental. The academic's research is therefore seen as integral to the wider socio-economic-technological context. Thus the research has to be contextualised and justified in terms of potential impact on society as well as to be clear about the academic contribution the research makes. In fact successful research is likely to stem from this contextualisation process. Without this contextualisation process, research is less likely to succeed or be seen to contribute.

Using pedagogical theory and practice to enable learners to engage with interventions

Another key component of the AURA programme is pedagogy. Pedagogy is the theory and practice of enabling learning and education. It is therefore intrinsic in that it enables us to implement interventions that are based on strong pedagogic theory and will enable learners to engage with the subject i.e. research and how to go about research. The current teaching of research, although there are examples of excellent practice, in many cases the learners do not engage and benefit little from research methods courses. Plus they tend to be patchy in their coverage. In the past the teaching of research has tended to take a teacher-centred approach rather than participative and experiential. It also tends have taken on board to a limited extent recent developments, for example, the importance placed on participative research or the blurring between quantitative and qualitative data or the increased emphasis on holistic/systemic approaches in addition to the more traditional analytical approaches. These changes are related to an increased appreciation of the complexity of many problems that we face and that need to be tackled from a multi-disciplinary, mixed methodological perspective.

Furthermore drawing on current knowledge about pedagogy enables the modelling of methods and techniques that can be applied in the universities and the learning stemming from AURA to be cascaded and institutionalised. It also enables current practices to be adopted such as reflective practice or the use of social media or blended learning which draws on different modalities of delivery and learning.

Concluding reflections

Strengthening research capacity within an institution is however challenging. There are organisational factors that impinge on the project. These include their: history, culture, goals, organisation and infrastructure. One key challenge is the large numbers of students and the shortage of staff. A host of different players operate in this context: faculty/researchers, students, the research office, the library, continuing professional development, the graduate school, deputy vice chancellors of research and teaching, the ICT providers. Each play a role and have an interest in certain aspects of the 'problem' i.e. strengthening the research culture and the capacity to do research. As a consequence AURA has involved representatives from these groups in each African university. They form the core group of partners and co-developers.

 This blog post was originally shared by Professor Mark Hepworth on LinkedIn.

Dr Mark Hepworth is Professor in People’s Information Behaviour, at the Centre for Information Management at Loughborough University, Loughborough, UK. He champions access to information for underrepresented groups in society, is passionate about research philosophy and methodology and about strengthening people’s capacity to conduct research in educational, workplace and community based contexts. He specialises in participative, qualitative research.

Read more at Mark Hepworth's Blog and on Twitter: @kampalamark.


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