Last week I had the absolute pleasure of attending #JSWEC, the joint social work education and research conference, for the fourth year running. #JSWEC jointly focuses, as the name suggests, on research (new findings, methodological issues, PhDs and Professional Doctorates in process etc) and education (initial social work education, post qualifying education, ongoing CPD and inter-professional education). As someone whose business is focused on knowledge transfer and ensuring research reaches practice and those who are likely to benefit from it, this combination is a heady mix.
Why then did I have so many conversations about bees!
#JSWEC 2015 was held at the Open University, which on the plus side is *much* nicer than I expected (although beware of the sinister roundabouts) however from my perspective it was a bit of a poor venue for a conference. We were incredibly spread out across the campus, on a number of occasions I had to dash from a lecture theatre at one end to a building at the other and let’s not mention the sessions held in buildings you could only access with a swipe card – which stops any chance of jumping between sessions. Being so spread out also seemed to have an impact on the vibe in some way, we’d congregate in the lecture theatre for the opening keynote of the day but then people would disperse on the walk over for the first session or coffee, not ideal for networking or for creating a buzz. The conference team did their best to negate some of this, and there were a number of opportunities to gather socially and over coffee/lunch in the exhibition and surrounding area, but it was a very different vibe to last year. On the plus side though, I know I walked more steps than I usually would in a day, and there were bees!
The main walkway through the middle of the campus featured what I’d describe as a bee corridor. I loved this, I’ll not get into an environmental rant here, except to say we should all take good care of what bees we have left, while we have them and I was delighted to see that the OU are taking bees seriously.
What I’d also like to suggest is that this sign was one of the best examples of knowledge transfer at the OU!! OK, it was more a warning than educational, it worked to forewarn you that there were likely to be some bees flying around, but it also goes someway towards predisposing you to them, presenting bees as cute and smiley with the graphic. It tells you who to contact with questions, or presumably problems, and perhaps most of all it got people talking.
The OU is a large and prestigious university with a long history of education and research. I’m not sure that you’d really know it from wandering around the campus though!! The only other example of research findings or promotional material that caught my eye was this, Technology for dogs with important jobs, work by Ciara Mancini a Research Fellow in Animal-Computer Interaction. I stumbled across Ciara’s work while waiting for Amanda to fill her SAGE water bottle (how did I miss out on one of those) in one of the buildings we’d been listening to papers in.
Yes, before anyone else says it, the cute doggy does help catch your attention. However it was also the bright colours and the fact that the stand had a number of leaflets in and that there was so little else around that grabbed me. I am confident that the OU must have a focus on knowledge transfer and research impact, indeed I know that a lot of their work is very applied and I’m effectively just talking about one tiny element, disseminating research findings (which to be honest is where researchers tend to focus, too little, too late). However (even allowing for the fact that the OU is incredibly big on distance learning) we could have been in any conference venue really, I’m not sure you’d have known that it was a university conducting world class research. There were one or two noticeboards with yellowed posters, but not a lot else.
So why am I waffling on about this? I’m evidently biased, I’m a freelance knowledge transfer consultant, this stuff is my bread and butter (when I’m not campaigning and being loud online). I’m constantly frustrated that researchers aren’t better able to share their work with people, to engage people with why it’s important. I’m passionate about doing this better.
I don’t think you need to wait until you have your research findings.
I don’t think you need to get everything signed off in triplicate, peer reviewed and twelve months out of date before the world hears about it.
I don’t think journal articles are particularly accessible to the mainstream (even to most practitioners unless you’re writing for an open access publication) and most researchers aren’t scalable and don’t have the time, resources (or inclination?) to genuinely take their work to people in a face-to-face setting.
All the conference papers in the world are unlikely to reach enough of the disenfranchised and demoralised people trying to access services, the poorly paid, over worked care workers, and/or the exhausted and broken carers. Conferences are good for connecting with the academy, for inspiration and connection, but they’re possibly not as good as we think at sharing knowledge.
So what can you do differently? Don’t worry this isn’t just a blatant plug for my services (although you know where I am if you ever want to shoot some ideas around or better still pay for advice and support to do things differently), I spoke to lots of people at #JSWEC about the Social Care Research Impact website. Developed using HEIF funds awarded to LSE PSSRU it incorporates some of our learning over recent years (from the Social Care Evidence in to Practice SCEIP project and other work we’ve been involved with) and is intended to inspire researchers to think a little differently about the impact of their social care research.
The website includes tools and support for managing impact and lots of methods that researchers (and educators) could consider using when planning, doing or sharing research. I shared a myth busting blog post on the site in February, that blew apart the myths that there’s no money, no interest and no point to creative knowledge exchange methods.
I look forward to the day where we have less focus on journal articles and conferences as measures of academic success and instead there is a proliferation of comedy and photo exhibitions, where comics of research messages are the norm, and the brilliant aspects of #JSWEC sit alongside unconferences, lightning talks, perhaps a book sprint or a podcast or two.
#JSWEC have engaged many of these methods in the time I’ve been attending, comedy and drama and fast track and workshops, I don’t think the responsibility sits with the conference organisers, I think what we really need now is a mainstreaming of these methods across our social work education and research, so when next year’s call comes out everyone is thinking more creatively about how they can use the opportunity. That and how to avoid the bees!