Thursday, October 18, 2012

Research Online: Why Universities Need to be Knowledge Brokers

Research being carried out at the Microscopy l...
Research being carried out in a Microscopy lab (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Professor Justin O'Brien, Professor of Law at University of New South Wales, The Conversation:

FUTURE OF HIGHER EDUCATION: We continue our series on the rise of online and blended learning and how free online courses are set to transform the higher education sector. 

Today, UNSW’s Justin O'Brien looks at ways universities can improve their online research presence.

It is clear that the mass of priceless research carried out by universities needs to find its way to the public and to policy makers. The issue is how to get it there. On the face of it the internet provides the obvious solution and it is logical that universities go online to share their research. The benefits can be enormous.

The disintegration of media financing models and the threatened implosion of much of the mainstream media adds a sense of urgency to a recalibration of academic research.

The provision of high-quality research that simultaneously informs and influences the trajectory of increasingly polarised, partisan debate has become an imperative not least because the online environment privileges free comment over rigorous analysis - now often hidden behind paywalls.

But many of our most highly powered institutions are setting out onto this intergalactic highway system using the cyber equivalent of horse and cart technology.

Look closely into the online research presence of most major Australian academic institutions and you can see the weaknesses. While home pages have become marginally more inviting, delve deeper and one finds how unidimensional, reactive and unengaged a large proportion of university sites remain.

Room for improvement

We hear constantly of the threats posed by the online environment. For universities and researchers, multimedia platforms bring much needed sunlight into the lecture theatre and impose an enhanced degree of accountability, which if not managed, could be a problem for already fragile academic ecosystems.

Increasingly students will make their choices on the basis of how they view the performance of academics, and be attracted to institutions with what Google describes as “rockstar professors”.

In such an environment, satisfying student experience necessitates enormous investment in media and online training; not just for dissemination of academic knowledge to outside providers but for the academic institution itself.

Knowledge brokers

There are threats in this paradigm shift to online but there are also opportunities for universities. The requirement of major funding agencies such as the Australian Research Council for evidence of impact and outcomes has little to do with increased managerialism, symbolism or curtailment of academic blue-sky thinking.

It is a reflection that the old funding model and associated key performance indicators for universities are no longer fit for purpose. The academy, therefore, has a vital role as well as responsibility to act as a knowledge broker. But the fact is to be a knowledge broker in the 21st century, you need to be online.

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