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Reaping all the rewards of research-led teaching

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When it comes to policy-making, teaching and research are still seen as two distinct worlds, but higher-education institutions are finding increasingly sophisticated ways of linking the two in the digital age, writes Amber Thomas

Defining research-led teaching is no easy matter. For many people it simply means that students are involved in their tutor’s current research work. For me, that doesn’t sound enough. Students could, theoretically at least, be at the mercy of their tutor’s current, narrow research interests, with research being used to lend ‘credibility’ to teaching, as if it that were somehow a lesser activity. That would be selling everyone short.

Fortunately, a growing number of institutions are developing fresh and innovative ways of bringing research and teaching together, in ways that bring real benefits to students, researchers, teachers and to the institution itself.

The University of Bath, UK has been working hard to broaden the links between the two big university functions. It places an emphasis on teaching in a way that develops research and inquiry skills, and on learning ‘in a research mode’. It is an exciting way of accessing learning, and one that has the full support in the UK of the National Union of Students. It emphasises the superior student experience, and enhanced future employability, that result from such an approach, when it is done well.

It also has clear benefits for the teachers’ research, bringing the potential for their existing ideas to be challenged and tested, and for new thinking to be fed into the mix. And at an institutional level, the approach helps to ensure that course content remains up to date and relevant, and also enhances both reputation and the ability to recruit the very best students.

So it’s no surprise that other leading institutions are grasping the nettle. At Colby College in Maine, USA, its research-focused teaching programmes have attracted grants from major US science and healthcare foundations so that it can develop opportunities for students to ‘learn by doing’, and its well-deserved reputation in this area is enhanced by its annual Undergraduate Research Symposium, which it has run for more than a decade. It is a great opportunity for the brightest students to present papers, many of which are archived and available online.

In the UK, the University of Exeter has similarly put research at the top of its teaching agenda. Here, its determination to promote ‘research-inspired teaching’ ensures that, where their discipline allows, students are given an active part to play within a relevant research team. The key is to draw research practices into the learning process, and JISC is funding additional work at Exeter to support the development of digital literacy skills to enhance postgraduate research practice, and to help postgraduates to pass these skills on.

At the University of Leeds, the Creativity and Research-Led Teaching website is giving students access to the problem-solving strategies of some of the institution’s brightest research stars.

Increasingly, open approaches to data management are bringing fresh opportunities for teaching to become truly research-focused, and to move away from the relatively narrow interests of a single tutor, or group of tutors. Open repositories and open licensing offer students easy access to a wealth of broad but relevant research material that might otherwise be hard to find. Resources such as those offered in the UK through JISC, and worldwide by services such as Google Scholar, are free and quick to access, often with no need even to log in.

Although the developing trend towards open access is sometimes regarded with scepticism even by young undergraduates and postgraduates, an open approach to research is driving large-scale efficiency improvements. The work on fast neutrinos by scientists at CERN was a high profile recent example of open science, where interim findings are shared openly with the research community so that they can feed ideas quickly and effectively into the problem-solving process.

Elsewhere, citizen-science projects such as FoldIt, Oldweather, and Transcribe Bentham are giving students and the wider public fascinating opportunities to participate in data-crunching activities and translation from print to text. The global effort to populate Wikipedia with well-referenced material shows a blurring of boundaries between academics and other experts.

In the right context, these could be opportunities to develop real, transferable and marketable work-related skills. Even if a teacher does not have any current research activity of their own to share with students, they could do worse than to encourage their students to engage with a spot of citizen science.

For academics, this renewed focus on links between research and teaching represents a valuable opportunity. Virtually all academics are contractually required to teach as well as to research and there are now ways for them to reconcile those dual responsibilities. Information professionals can help them to do so by supporting students in the development of their scholarship skills, through initiatives like Huddersfield University’s Lemon Tree Project.

To ensure that we fully develop the professionals, researchers and citizens of tomorrow, I believe it’s time to make the most of the opportunities to open access and open research. Digital literacy opens the door for researchers, professionals and the citizens of tomorrow to engage with research today.

Amber Thomas is a JISC programme manager