Just over six months into the PriDE Project, it seems timely to reflect on that age-old challenge, dissemination. What do we think of our efforts so far? What appears to be working and where else do we need to focus our attention?
Dissemination is a word and concept that for all those of us who have worked within higher education, and have ever crafted a successful project bid, have come to know and love. Although I suspect that the notion of ‘loving’ dissemination may be placing too fine point on it! From our funders’ perspective, our ability to demonstrate a comprehensive and well implemented dissemination strategy provides the reasssurance that we do intend to share the findings and deliverables from our project somewhat wider than the four walls of our own institution and, quite rightly, too. However, the challenge is how does one do this effectively?
I much prefer to think about engagement as opposed to dissemination as the term, in itself, carries a far greater suggestion of imparting information in a more meaningful and constructive manner. But what defines engagement? The point at which the information you are attempting to impart connects with either an expressed interest, need or requirement by another party generally results in engagement. And how do we know? There is one well tried and tested method and that is the one of asking. Stating the blindingly obvious does, of course, come to mind but it continues to come as a surprise, even after years of both advising on dissemination and trying it for myself, just how easy it is to forget to communicate with one’s end users, or stakeholders, if that is how you prefer to think about them. Find me a project that is not guilty of working its way through the long list of over-used dissemination methods, endless mailings, printed documents and and beautifully designed and published reports, the vast bulk of which ends up gathering dust on office shelves (take a peek at your own and see what is lurking there) propping open doors or filling up stationery cupboards. We would be hard pushed to class any of these methods as effective, let alone true engagement.
With the idea of engagement in mind as opposed to dissemination, and set within the context of having embarked upon the rather significant challenge of an institution-wide, organisational and cultural change project, I have taken the view that a considerable part of our project activities have already focused on actively engaging our stakeholders, rather than just pushing information out to them. Don’t get me wrong, we are still writing our news items for our internal home page, however recognising at the same time that such things are likely to only attract the attention of the minority. I continue to resist the sometimes, rather overwhelming temptation to produce glossy flyers, distribute newsletters and stick posters up around the place. Instead, I have observed with interest how, by the very nature of the way in which we are approaching the PriDE Project, we are actually engaging our stakeholders in new and meaningful conversations.
To-date we have set up and run 12 creative think-tank style sessions with four Faculty Learning Communities (FLCs) providing attendees (both staff and students) with the opportunity to participate within the context of their own subject disciplines. After attending one of the FLCs myself, I was reminded just how passionate people are about their own subject and how quick and willing they are to share not only their ideas about something, in our case, digital literacies, but also their issues and barriers. Engagement works when it is meaningful to the end user. We have continued to replicate these ‘conversations’ as I like to think about them, all over the institution – not just in a formal way but on the back of other discussions in other meetings, not forgetting, of course, our own Project Steering Group.
During the six months of our project, some 50 staff and students from across the institution have engaged in conversations about digital literacies and willingly put their minds to the challenge of creating a digital environment. I doubt very much if this level and scale of engagement would have been achieved by the dissemination of a project newsletter.
Last November we hosted the national Heads of e-Learning Forum (HeLF) attended by 30 e-Learning experts from across the sector. With an agenda focused on two key issues, that of leading change and developing institutional approaches to digital literacies, this Forum provided the perfect opportunity to engage attendees in discussion about issues and challenges highly relevant to our project.
The involvement of Matt Benka, our Students’ Union Vice-President (Education) as a member of our PriDE Project Team has already proved hugely beneficial as he participated in an on-line discussion panel as part of the JISC Conference on Innovating e-Learning. An excellent opportunity to engage in a fascinating debate about digital literacies to support learning and teaching from the student perspective. On the back of this conference, we have also secured an opportunity to contribute a featured article to NUS Spotlight later in the year to coincide and inform the launch of NUS Digital.
Being my own worst critic and taskmaster, I am constantly asking myself if we are getting our approach to dissemination right. It is never perfect and there is always a challenge. For example, the whole project team continues to find itself grappling with the delights of social media – how on earth does one ever build in sufficient time to tweet on a regular basis, we ask ourselves and each other? Hallelujah, she cried, after discovering the wonders of Tweetdeck! There is a way…….onwards and upwards.
Even when you feel you might be even part way to achieving some effective engagement within one’s own institution, you are still left with the question of how on earth does one achieve this on a national scale? The national conference circuit, the programme gatherings, the journal publications – which or all, is it to be? I see this as another set of conversations but just in a different place with a different set of stakeholders with different needs. The trick is to build in sufficient time to get out there and have those conversations. Nobody said this was easy!
If we want to avoid the bear traps of projects of the dim and distant past, I am convinced that engagement is the way to go, that less is quite definitely more and effective engagement is about the quality of the conversation and not the quantity. News travels fast – if the content of the conversation is that good, the person you were engaging with will almost certainly pass it on for you. If I have learned nothing other than the power of ‘word of mouth’ then my previous life in higher education was worth every minute. On this note, I plan to continue to resist all temptations to slide back into the more traditional and, shall we say, familiar forms of dissemination and continue in this new and far more satisfying vein of engagement.