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Following the success of the learning technologist, is it time for a research equivalent?

The research cycle is changing at quite a rapid pace and a lot of that change is due to the increasing numbers of technologies and websites that are appearing to support that process. Many of the most useful tools have been captured by Jerome Bosman and Bianca Kramer with their excellent 101 Innovations in Scholarly Communications. Whist this work is a great use to those who are aware of it in academia, for the majority of academics it is a distant and alien world. The majority are not faintly aware of the myriad of tools and technologies at their disposal. There are several reasons for this, workload and deadline pressures, fear of technology and ethical implications around their use and their application, especially when it comes to third party software. Added to this is the issue of choice, there are a staggering number of technologies and platforms to choose from. Most academics are aware of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, and many millions have signed up for the academic focused social networks ResearchGate and Yet these are merely the tips of the iceberg, and below their peaks lie many hundreds, if not thousands of niche and task focused tools that all promise to make an academic’s life easier. Many of these tools are potentially very useful and the likes of Elsevier are investing in some to create their own research cycle workflow. So if Elsevier are changing the research eco-system it should be of great interest to anyone who publishes with them, or perhaps not? With so many tools how do academics navigate their way through them, how do they make the connection between technology and useful application. Also who helps them charter these sometimes scary and unpredictable waters?

Lecturers and teachers have their pedagogy, what do researchers have?

If we look at the application of technology and social media from the teaching side of higher education we can see more clearly how things have been implemented. Post 2004 and the advent of Web 2.0 there was an increased uptake of technology in the teaching community. The advent of virtual learning environments aided this with the ability to employ discussion forums, blogs, video and more recently social media. Of course research has also taken advantage of these tools but the difference with teaching is that it was often led and facilitated by the learning technologist. This group of central and departmental university-educated professionals help drive teaching innovation which is underpinned by technology - the clue is in their job title. The technology does not drive the teaching innovation but it can help initiate and improve on it. Through the championing of technologies with teaching staff the technologists have helped refresh higher education making it more fit for the 21st Century. They have helped shape learning and teaching through approaches such as blended and flipped classes, video and screen capture, fresh forms of assessment, use of mobiles and social media. In many cases the innovation is led by the lecturer but, like research, in most cases it requires a good degree of guidance and hand-holding to get them there.

Better connections

Research is supported by a wealth of professional roles from those working in the central research and finance office, library, media team and IT department. All of these offer valuable support in the areas of research and public engagement. Yet for any centralised department they have the disadvantage of being at arm’s length from the researchers. There is also the issue that a lot of their resources are taken up by the day to day running of their systems that support research. As with the learning technologists for example, we have centralised technologists who look after the VLE and assessment and we have departmental technologists who can help drive innovation directly within the department as well as support central systems. Much of that is afforded by building relationships within the department and gaining the trust of teaching staff. The research side of things is far less developed when it comes down to in-house departmental support for innovation.

The research technologist

Whatever we call them, the research technologist or digital academic specialist, they are not too different from their learning technologist counterpart. They can support research and its dissemination in the use of video, animation, infographics, social media, online discussion, mobile device use and social networks to name but a few technologies. The learning technologist applies pedagogical reasoning for their technology choices, the research equivalent needs to assess the same considerations. Not only that but they need to understand good communication, information literacy, data protection, ethics, be able to judge what is a good technology and, finally, understand how it can be applied to a specific research setting in a sustainable and timely manner. For example the use of video to disseminate research around speech therapy would potentially be more useful than an infographic. In the same way, an infographic showing results ofa public health project might be better at conveying the results via a blog post. The reason why in-house support could benefit the conduct and dissemination of research is that researchers are very pressured for time; and often they do not know what they need with regards to research technologies and especially dissemination. Secondly when they do know what they want, then they often need it as soon as possible. These two problems are more solvable within the department with the research equivalent of a learning technologist, especially as researchers often do not know where to go for specific help. The reason learning technologists work so well within teaching is that they are in a designated and focused role that is often embedded into the department. They are there purely to support anyone delivering 21st Century teaching that extends beyond the traditional face to face lecture. They are a signpost to new ways of working, problem solving and most importantly, can consider all of the ethical and pedagogical issues when passing on advice. They become the ‘go to’ person for anyone wanting to use technology as part of their teaching.

More than just using technology

The issue of employing more technology in your research does come with various challenges. For example, if you are involved in research that can gain negative attention, such as religion, feminism or politics, then using social media does come with many issues. By instructing researchers to use Twitter to communicate their research is all very well and good until they get negative comments, especially abusive and threatening ones. Something like Twitter requires a technical explanation, how to use the block function or employ a dashboard like Tweetdeck. As well as advice around negative comments, how, if and when to respond, when to block and in some cases when to report to the platform, your institution or the authorities. Unless time is spent helping researchers use tools and being aware of their major issues, like Researchgate and its ease of sharing research inappropriately, YouTube and copyright, Twitter and abuse, then more researchers will be reluctant to use these tools. In addition to this the more who have bad experiences, often through no fault of their own, the more likely others will see good reason to navigate around such opportunities. One bad experience on social media could put a researcher off using it for good. With the right ongoing support these technologies can - in an impact-driven environment - help communicate and disseminate your research to wider audiences.

The role I am fortunate to have is akin to a learning technologist but I work more closely with researchers these days. My role was created a decade ago as an information specialist and was established to look at how technologies can be leveraged to support my department at The University of Sheffield. That extended to the research and teaching staff, students and our own academic library. In that time I put my department on the path to their first MOOCs in 2013, edited a book on Altmetrics and championed Google App, as well as the use of video and social media on my campus. Whilst in that time I have seen the creation of new roles around learning technology, marketing and impact, there are areas of support that fall between the cracks. This is where I pick up much of my work, supporting research and teaching colleagues around the use of video, infographics, social media and all the less attractive issues that are associated with them, such as copyright, security, ethics and the negative impact on productivity. I work closely with the centralised departments, which is beneficial for all the parties involved, and I carry out some teaching, marking and write the occasional paper. In effect I am a hybrid model that is able to hopefully better understand the needs of all parties involved, including the centralised departments who work so hard to support the researchers. As with teaching, which has always required librarians, IT technicians and marketing experts, the learning technologist does not replace them, but complements them. The establishment of learning technologists within departments has helped bring teaching forward to take advantage of the many new technologies. For the same to happen within research it needs institutions to consider the learning technologist and explore whether there is value in developing an inhouse research equivalent, a kind of “Swiss Army Knife” professional who can exploit the burgeoning number of opportunities afforded by the many new technologies out there.

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