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Arts & Culture

Public engagement in the digital environment

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ABOUT THE PROJECT

Commissioned by the Arts & Humanities Research Institute as a piece of rapid research in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, and supported by the College's Service team, this project, led by Dr Anna Khlusova, provides an unprecedented opportunity to study the impact of digitalisation for humanities research and public engagement.

The onset of the pandemic, which closed universities and saw the introduction of a mandatory work-from-home policy, has certainly challenged us to re-think our usual practices and consider new creative ways of working, learning and connecting with each other and with different communities beyond the boundaries of the academy. In response to this pressing need, this project explores the implications of using digital methods of public engagement for arts and humanities research and asks whether and how online technology is facilitating and adapting the existing socially engaged research practices of academics in this field.

RESEARCH AIMS 

By analysing King’s College London’s digital public engagement activities in action, this study aims to achieve two main goals.

Firstly, it evaluates the significance of digital technology as an engagement tool for arts and humanities researchers and stresses the opportunities and challenges that come from delivering public engagement in virtual environments. Within this discussion, the study addresses the following questions:

  • What are the implications of delivering public engagement online? In particular, what are the conceptual and practical implications of online communities rather than face-to-face interactions?
  • How can we use technology to communicate humanities research in a more engaging way and build collaboration / knowledge co-production in virtual realms?
  • What challenges - instructional, practical or ethical or otherwise - do scholars face as they move to digital platforms to deliver their research? 

As the study addresses the above questions, key skills gaps and opportunities for improving the future practice will be identified.

The second aim of the study is to inform action and change and offer practical solutions and strategies of use to universities and community partners employing digital methods for their public-facing and socially engaged research activities.

The significance of the project therefore lies in drawing attention to the wider potential of digital formats, with implications for the College that will last well beyond the Covid-19 crisis.

 

WHAT IS INVOLVED?

For its analysis, the project has focused on three online public engagement projects conducted by KCL researchers:

a) an online conference;

b) a series of online workshops;

c) a larger digital project that includes several online engagement activities designed to strategize and deliver alternative cultural experiences in the time of Covid-19.

Different in scale, size and overall objectives, these three case studies have offered a varied range of perspectives on technological, organizational, and cultural opportunities and implementation barriers that accompany digital public engagement – including those issues that are specific to King's and the Faculty of Arts & Humanities.

Furthermore, to situate the study within a wider context and to ensure that it corresponds to the most current thinking on digital engagement and humanities research, Anna has been in conversation with Being Human Festival (the UK’s national festival of the humanities) about their digital strategies and contingency plans.

For each case study, data have been collected in cycles according to the four-phased process of action research: ‘planning, acting, observing, and reflecting’. In the first stage, two strategies to enable cross-case comparison were developed: a common evaluation form for reporting on each case study and a semi-structured qualitative interview script to guide each case study examination. The aim was to enable participants to share meaningful experiences while stimulating a reflective process and informal, honest conversations.

The second and third stages of the action research process involved the use of observation methods - attending and actively participating in planning meetings for each case study example and direct observation of planned public engagement activities / event(s). Lastly, following observations a final set of qualitative interviews were conducted. Participants provided feedback on their own practices and skillsets and were encouraged to contribute in identifying suitable solutions for change and improvement.

 

Summary of findings

The project identified multiple opportunities arising from digital methods of public engagement, including:

 

  • Widening the engagement and reach of public engagement activities, reaching more diverse and international audiences including people who might be excluded from attending face-to-face events because of childcare, health or travelling restrictions. 

 

  • Cost-efficiency through reduced venue hire, travelling and accommodation expenses.

 

  • Enhanced inclusivity, interactivity and collaboration with the public. Specifically, researchers suggested: a) the efficacy of using breakout rooms to hold small group discussions and mitigate some inherent power imbalances b) the benefits of utilising Q&A and chat box functions as a communication backchannel for participants to share notes and offer real-time feedback; and c) the advantages of integrating external digital tools – such as Padlet and Miro – for hosting brainstorming sessions and creative mind-mapping exercises, stressing these as providing more diverse and efficient ways to co-construct knowledge.

 

  • Sharing outputs and evidencing impacts through digital technologies. For example, data visualisations produced through online platforms such as Padlet or Miro can be used to increase engagement with, and understanding of, projects’ findings, making the research process more open and transparent. They can also be used to provide evidence-based arguments when evaluating the impact of an event.

 

  • Enhancing skillsets with benefits to research and teaching careers. For example, researchers noted that the digital strategies and tools they used for engagement could equally be translated to their online teaching practices, making these practices more inclusive and interactive.

 

The project also identified various challenges associated with online public engagement, including:

 

  • Training and Skills Gaps, including a perceived lack of specialised training in digital methods of public engagement for arts & humanities researchers, a reported lack of robust frameworks around ethics in the online space and the fact that researchers are not all trained to effectively evaluate their own digital engagement work. This highlighted the need for future support and training about online research methods and engagement activities.

 

  • Challenges in the Online Space. These involved not just technical challenges with managing online platforms but also challenges arising from the nature of online participation and interactions.

To read the Working Paper please click here

Impact

Overall, this study suggests that there is a need for more strategic incorporation of digital technology to empower meaningful and impactful public engagement online. Rather than trying to replace and recreate face-to-face interactions, effort should be made to support the development of activities that take full advantage of new formats and embrace the affordances of the virtual environment. The paper offers the following pragmatic strategic pointers for individual researchers to consider in their future digital public engagement work:

 

  • Adopting a purpose-driven approach - the online platforms and processes used should be guided by considerations of the aims of the proposed activity and the needs of the participants.
  • Ensuring that their set-up supports inclusive engagement and provides for varying levels of technological competence.
  • Utilising a combination of methods/tools to foster different types of interaction online (content-participant; participant-participant; facilitator-participant) and enhancing active participation and involvement.
  • Appointing a dedicated online facilitator to assist with technical aspects of executing online events/activities.

When it comes to institutional practices, this paper highlights the need to provide better training opportunities (both formal and informal) to empower researchers to undertake meaningful and impactful public engagement online. It also suggests that universities could reconsider their strategies when it comes to financing digital engagement – e.g. considering the costs of hiring an online facilitator / technical support specialist; introducing small bursaries for researchers to spend on specialised training programmes; ensuring that funding is available in a flexible, rolling manner.

Dr Khlusova has also presented the summary of her project as a podcast on SciPod, which can be accessed here.

Project status: Ongoing

Principal investigators

Anna Khlusova

Dr Anna Khlusova

Postdoctoral Research Fellow – Arts and Humanities Research Institute

Funding

  • Funding body: King's College London and Affiliates
  • Amount: £3000
  • Period: April 2020 - October 2020

Contact

Arts & Humanities Research Institute

King's College London

Strand Campus

London

WC2R 2LS