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Openness inspires both research and teaching

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One of the big questions for the future of higher education is how knowledge is going to be available and to whom. At the recent International Open Educational Resources Symposium in London, Brian Lamb from the University of British Columbia urged academia to act as a ‘leader and guardian of free and open enquiry’. He argued that we live in challenging times and have an urgent need to harness all the ingenuity and expertise that we can. This means sharing and building upon existing knowledge in a way that engages as many people as possible and makes research as accessible as possible.

It is now possible to involve a broader spectrum of participants in the research process, including students and members of the public, through digital technologies like virtual research environments or repositories. These are already having a huge impact on the way research is done and the type of research questions that can be addressed. They allow a wider selection of feedback, expertise and experience to contribute to improvements in research quality and consistency.

Coupled with this, there are open repositories of teaching and learning materials like JorumOpen. These are not only mechanisms to share knowledge for academics but also allow formal and informal learners to engage with a wide variety of academic teaching materials. Knowledge is not just transferred openly but also constructed socially as authors and users interact with resources and with each other through comment boxes and blogs.

When research-driven subject knowledge is delivered as a core part of teaching, the student experience can improve dramatically. Research-led teaching is very effective at developing skills such as problem solving, effective questioning and independent thought. It engages students at a deeper level than traditional teaching methods because it sparks curiosity and the willingness to explore a subject in greater detail.  For example, the Creativity and Research-led Teaching website promotes creative approaches to problem-solving through short films of leading researchers describing their projects and challenges associated with their work. Students are then asked to think of creative solutions to these problems either as individuals or in groups. This will also give them a flavour of a potential research career as well as allowing students to reflect on their own learning styles.

Traditionally, research-led teaching has relied upon the interests and skills of the academic who happens to be doing the teaching. But Open Educational Resources - the publication of educational materials under open licences - as well as open-access research and open data give students and staff access to the exciting work of a whole sector. This provides much more research to lead the teaching with. Maybe a student is interested in cephalopod nervous structures and links to observed behaviour, but her teacher is a specialist in muscle recovery in mammals and the metabolism of lactic acid. Why not let the student use the materials relating to her interests, produced by an academic at the other end of the country, and extend beyond the course curriculum to experience the process and the excitement of research?

Research undertaken by JISC and other sector organisations looking at the impact of research-led teaching suggests that linking teaching and research is also essential to the future of the higher education sector as a whole if it is to maintain its global position as a leader in innovation and exploration. Openly sharing research as part of the teaching model encourages new discovery and ideas, opens up new opportunities for students and staff to share knowledge and understanding, keeps the curriculum up to date, and provides value for money in terms of maximising existing systems and learning materials. 

With so many benefits, how does a university make the most of research-led teaching?

Firstly, there is a need to consider how to implement research into the established curriculum and increase student awareness of the specific areas of interest of the staff. Secondly, students should be actively engaged, encouraged and supported to take an interest in research opportunities as part of their studies. To support this JISC is making research papers more easily available, through open access, so that lecturers and students can use them for learning. It is also funding learning environments that support a research-led focus.

An example of how research can be integrated into teaching can be seen in the JISC-funded GrassPortal, which involves partners in the UK, the USA and France. This portal provides a single point of access to an extraordinary range of grass data for scientists, researchers and students. It also provides educational case studies and sample datasets in these areas as research-led teaching resources for university and school students.

Opening up their teaching and research activities will allow universities to reposition themselves as guardians and leaders of public knowledge.  And involving students in the process of academic discovery, encouraging a spirit of enquiry and sharing the research interests of academics can be very powerful indeed.

There is a general trend towards “openness” in academic life. This can be seen as a return to and an expansion of the original ideal of a university as a community of scholars – but today the web is the community.

David Kernohan is programme manager for e-Learning at JISC