Research Networking: looking to the future.

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Andrew Morris, a member of the Policy Consortium and co-organiser of the Learning & Skills Research Network, celebrates the 20th anniversary of LSRN. He reports on plans for an overarching structure to link together the various networks involved with research in the sector.

November 2017 marked the twentieth anniversary of the Learning & Skills Research Network. True to its unchanging mission – championing the use of research – it marked the occasion by preparing for a new phase of life, rather than dwelling on past glories. The Network idea arose originally from a three-day workshop on FE Research, at the FE Staff College in December 1996. This led to the formation of an informal Planning Group and a founding conference in Blackpool in November 1997. Then, as now, the organisational structure was informal, and activity depended on the voluntary contribution of enthusiasts.

Today, as then, LSRN is independent of any funding or policy influence. Its role is to bring together practitioners, researchers, trainers and intermediaries to share, communicate and promote research and the use of evidence in the sector. The Network has survived in a turbulent political environment by adapting to economic and political circumstances whilst remaining true to to its values and purposes. In this spirit, it recently welcomed a forward-looking suggestion about developing a new structure fit for the next decade: some kind of superstructure for the dozens of networks that now engage with research in the sector. The idea was discussed at an LSRN Workshop in November 2017, upon which this paper is based.

The problem this suggestion addresses is that there are many small initiatives, but no organised system, for engaging with research. Interested practitioners don’t know which way to turn for evidence or research support; leaders and policymakers don’t have simple access to evidence on relevant topics. One consequence is that research and use of evidence in the sector are insufficiently funded and fail to achieve the prominence they merit. Fragmentation results in a lack of infrastructure; incoherence in the absence of a strong voice for evidence.

Proposition

Norman Crowther of the National Education Union, a member of the LSRN Planning Group, has suggested an overarching entity be created, linking to the many current research-related networks. Dubbed a ‘meta-network’ it would be made visible through a joint website which signposts intelligently to participating networks and provides smart communication channels to foster collaboration. Models in various industries offer both inspiration and know-how. The Co-Tech collaboration, for example, includes some 30 organisations and networks in the co-operative movement. A similar collaboration in the post-16 sector might link up research institutes and centres, networks of colleges and training providers, bodies working with employers, academic and teacher education networks, awarding bodies and sector support agencies. Representative from dozens of these participated in the LSRN Workshop.

Benefits and risks

The most immediate benefit of a collaboration system would be to raise awareness of the range of networks and organisations serving research and evidence use and to open-up informal communication channels between them. This alone would raise the profile of research activity and encourage greater use of evidence in decision-making. As relationships develop, synergy between separate research activities is likely to be found, leading to stronger projects and greater impact on practice. Collaborative bidding could follow, leading to more convincing proposals for more substantial and relevant research projects and knowledge mobilisation actions.

In the longer run, were funding to be attracted, tools could be developed collaboratively to facilitate access to evidence, and support for using it, in practical ways suited to teachers, trainers, professional developers and policy analysts.

The idea is not without risks, as was pointed out at the Workshop. Time and energy might be wasted trying to foist a new network on a reluctant sector. The virtues of the established LSRN network might be lost: confidence about its institutional independence and the quality and inclusiveness of its activities. LSRN ‘runs on thin air’, drawing on the voluntary contributions of enthusiastic people. Any new structure would need to attract commitment to the same degree or more if it is to progress beyond current arrangements.

Design

Discussion at the Workshop confirmed the principal purposes of a collaborative ‘meta’ Network: to share information about projects, events, training etc; to help develop a stronger voice for research and evidence and, potentially, to facilitate the development of tools to make evidence more accessible.

The scope needs to be inclusive so that colleges, training providers, universities, adult education centres and offender learning are all involved. It should also look outwards to both practice and policy. The technology will help individual users see the parts that interest them particularly. It could provide forums for discussion, areas for collaborative development of documents, areas that offer links to participating websites and, perhaps later on, some kind of portal to key evidence resources. Face to face activity through regional and national workshops and perhaps local ‘researchmeets’ could be advertised through the website and a newsletter.

A set of commonly held principles would need to be developed and agreed to ensure broad understanding of the basis of the initiative. LSRN began its life in this way with a statement of ‘Values and Purposes’. It has served LSRN well for twenty years and could provide a useful starting point.

Starting up

It was suggested at the Workshop that the initiative could itself be conceived as a Research & Development process: developed and evaluated in stages. The LSRN Planning Group has agreed to set out a staged plan and identify people willing to give a little time to it.  Volunteers will take forward specific issues such as: identifying potential participant networks and organisations; locating website expertise; developing a social media presence. If interest and commitment proves sufficiently strong, LSRN will hold a further workshop to take forward action on these plans. To find out more or get involved, contact me at a.j.morris@ucl.ac.uk.

Andrew Morris 8th January 2018

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