UNIMAS-ISITI COMMUNITY SCHOLARS PROGRAMME
Since the earliest inception in 1999 of the eBario research project, the seminal initiative that ultimately lead to the formation of the Institute of Social Informatics and Technological Innovations (ISITI) in 2011, almost all the research that has been conducted with our partner communities has been action-oriented. Projects have been devised, implemented, operated and evaluated in close conjunction with community members; usually in accordance with the principals of Participatory Action Research (PAR). PAR emphasizes collective inquiry and experimentation grounded in experience and social history. Within a PAR process, communities of inquiry and action evolve and address questions and issues that are significant for those who participate as co-researchers. The approach resonates with the socio-technical approach to the design of information systems - a core function for the interventions that took place within the eBario initiative and its corollaries - whereby the most favourable outcomes emerge from the joint optimization of the social and technical components of the system. The belief was, and has subsequently been confirmed by research, that it would be essential to firmly embed the newly introduced technologies into the social, economic and cultural context of the communities who were to benefit from them.
The cycles of action, reflection and further action, which were always aided by the equal participation of the communities involved, gave rise to the co-creation of the new knowledge that emerged, involving not only the researchers, but also the citizen protagonists with whom they worked as well as the wider community populations with whom they regularly interacted. This process of knowledge co-creation has gained wide traction among social research and development practice globally.
Whilst recent trends have emphasised the need for stronger pathways between research and those who might make use of its findings - not the least in terms of advising policy reform and improving professional practice - it has also become clear that merely creating and accumulating more knowledge does not automatically convert into better policies or practice. This can only come about when research is relevant and accessible and helps to solve problems of public concern. The extent to which this can happen depends in turn on several factors, such as; how knowledge is produced; how it is shared with those who might use it; and how it is integrated into the social context within which people absorb new knowledge. Knowledge co-creation assist all these processes, but it cannot occur in the absence of relationships at the ground level that are based on mutual trust, common goals and a deep sense of empathy for the aspirations of each partner in the process.
A key requirement for effective knowledge co-creation is to foster a sense of trust between all those involved and create a sense of shared ownership over research questions and subsequent findings. Knowledge co-creation therefore requires researchers to follow principals that are recognised as being likely to yield the desired results for making research relevant and useful for the people and institutions that need them. They include:
- Systematically represent research user knowledge needs and priorities in research design.
- Systematically identify likely users of research and other relevant stakeholders.
- Embed key stakeholders in all stages of research, including design; data collection and interpretation, analysis and promotion of findings.
- Build long-term, trusting relationships based on two-way dialogue between researchers and stakeholders.
- Engage in two-way dialogue as equals with the likely users of research.
- Create opportunities for informal interaction and learning between researchers and stakeholders.
- Work with stakeholders to interpret the implications of research for policy and practice.
- Co-design communication products.
- Create a safe space in which those involved can effectively listen to each other, share knowledge and skills.
- Identify and engage effective knowledge brokers and intermediaries as early as possible in the research process.
Much of ISITI's research has been conducted with communities and many of these principals have been followed; not necessarily within formalised protocols but more through the development of the Institution's culture and the generally well-understood notion that they make good sense. In the process of conducting our research in close conjunction with our community partners, several local individuals have emerged as pre-eminent community leaders, activists, entrepreneurs, opinion-leaders and dynamic people capable of getting things done. They have become instrumental agents in facilitating the process of knowledge co-creation within our research. We have never formally recognised these contributions. It's time we did.
Given the importance of the role of key community members in enabling the co-creation of knowledge from our research, this is a proposal for creating the role of Community Scholar. A Community Scholar is an individual member of one of our community partners with whom we conduct research who carries out an important role in the design, implementation and evaluation of the research and/or the analysis, translation and promotion of the results. The intent of creating and recognising the role is to:
- Give credit where it is due.
- Strengthen the relationships between ISITI and our community partners.
- Encourage citizens to engage more closely with our research.
- Facilitate a two-way process of knowledge exchange between communities and the University.
- Formalise and intensify the process of knowledge co-creation.
Components of the Community Scholar Programme
The programme is envisaged to consist of several overlapping and cumulative mechanisms, as follows:
When recruited into the programme, the Community Scholar is assigned to one or more mentors, who may be UNIMAS faculty and/or another Community Scholar. The mentor's role is to guide the recruit through the process of conducting research and to advise on how the Scholar should approach his/her responsibilities and on what to expect.
- Skills Training
Training the Scholar in the skills they may need to fulfil their role and which they don't possess. Training programmes will be personally devised depending on the needs and aspirations of the individual but could for instance include skills such as; leadership, group facilitation, ICTs, interviewing, project management, communication, public speaking and giving presentations, and data management.
- Formalised Roles in Research Projects
Project roles for Scholars should be formally announced and designed. These might include data collection and analysis, workshop and focus group facilitation, communication, community liaison, project management and evaluation. Scholars who make significant contributions or perform a significant role in a research project should be considered as appointees as Research Associates for UNIMAS.
- Service learning Co-ordination
As UNIMAS progresses with its service learning activities, more communities will participate by hosting students so that there will be an increasing administrative task to co-ordinate their activities. Moreover, the students will need to be guided towards activities within communities that will satisfy the needs of both within the service learning programme. Community Scholars can contribute towards both these requirements for local involvement.
- Awards; Certification, Honorary Diploma/Degree
Visible recognition is important for many reasons, so each activity should be acknowledged, at the least with a certificate of achievement/appreciation. As the Scholar progresses further into the role, he/she can be considered for an honorary degree-type qualification.