Announcing a new project: Digital action at HEIs as a catalyst for social change in the COVID-19 crisis, “HEIDI”

We’re very excited to announce the start of a new ERASMUS+ project, “Digital action at HEIs as a catalyst for social change in the COVID-19 crisis”, or HEIDI.

The coordinator of the project is University College London (ExCiteS group in the Department of Geography) and our partners include: University of Paris, University of Malta, Web2Learn (an SME in Greece) and C.I.P. or Citizens In Power (an NGO in Cyprus). At UCL, the ExCiteS research group will further work with the UCL Office for Open Science and Scholarship, the Evaluation Exchange and the Community Research Initiative for Students. We are a mixture of universities and community groups working together.

HEIDI will be a little like the fictional Swiss heroine, who experienced great changes and who talked to many people and often brought people together. “HEI”, of course, means Higher Education Institution, and the “DI” for “DIgital action”, or online community-driven learning and activism.

As we all know, the COVID-19 crisis brought immense challenges. An immediate (though not the most serious) one for many of us was switching to online working, especially moving lectures and tutorials online. It was not just educational institutions or even workplaces generally that did this, however: community groups, such as astronomical or wildlife societies, moved their talks online.

What have been the results of this? For some of us, especially those of us who are disabled or have long commutes, it was perhaps an improvement. For others, it has been isolating or stressful. One result is that we are now more used to online communication than ever, which has allowed individuals to network worldwide.

We’re really keen to study how things have changed due to so much working and studying online – and what people need in the online age to better support Digital Action projects, by upskilling the wider HEI community (i.e academic and support staff, students) as well as community and voluntary groups and addressing barriers which would enable bottom-up, community driven collaborations and actions. In HEIDI we will focus on the following three areas of Digital Action (DA):

  • Citizen science in COVID-19 times;
  • The maker movement (i.e. people who make medical equipment);
  • Hacktivism (hackathons, datathons, open data sprints tackling COVID-19).

But we’re also very keen to find out the new needs of students and staff at higher education institutions (HEIs) – and how people involved in DA, whether working in HEI or in the community, can support and learn from each other.

We’re therefore going to spend 2 years running 90 events (85 as part of our Intellectual Outputs, and 5 multiplier events to disseminate the project) in 5 countries and engage over 3,000 people. Some of HEIDI’s events will focus on members of the specific groups mentioned above, and others will bring people together to learn from each other. Some examples of these events will be:

  • Roundtables for HEI students, lecturers, librarians, research and technical staff to learn more about their needs in the age of COVID-19;
  • Online citizen science training events, on subjects such as using the nQuire, Zooniverse or iNaturalist projects, planning citizen science events such as City Nature Challenge, or relevant topics such as trust in data, policy impacts, communication and volunteer management;
  • Co-created citizen science events with local community groups;
  • Training and roundtables aimed at students, involving mapping collaborative and participatory skills and identifying gaps in skills that need addressing;
  • Storytelling and roundtable events with voluntary and civic community groups who have participated in DA;
  • DA co-created by HEI staff and the voluntary sector;
  • Webinars on DA and wellbeing.

One of the aspects of the HEIDI project is the view that HEIs are not the only knowledge generators, but rather that knowledge creation is also done by bottom-up community-driven action and networking between individuals. We’re therefore keen to explore and map this knowledge and find out how HEIs and non-academic community groups can learn from and support each other.

In HEIDI we have 5 Intellectual Outputs, which you can read about in detail on our ERASMUS+ page, but a short summary of them is as follows:

  1. To learn more about the drivers and barriers of HEI engagement in DA as a catalyst for social change during the COVID-19 crisis.
  2. To create the conditions for the co-creation of DA between community groups and HE (Higher Education) staff and students, and to learn more about how DA and collaboration takes place.
  3. To facilitate grassroots DA and bottom-up innovation driven by communities, and to upskill HE students and staff, social actors and marginalised individuals such as immigrants and refugees via events such as webinars.
  4. To develop the digital skills of HE students and staff to respond to crisis situations, map skills (and gaps in skills), and develop a methodology for skills development through DA initiatives – and to evaluate the effectiveness of this methodology.
  5. To learn more about the needs and requirements of community groups and within HE systems for them to engage in DA.

A big thank you to everyone involved in the grant writing process in autumn 2020, and to the many people (HEIs and community leaders!) who agreed to sign our support letter. We were very excited to learn a few weeks ago that our grant application was successful, and we are greatly looking forward to working with our partners and starting these events over the next few weeks and months. Stay tuned for announcements of our events as several will be open to the public!

Update: We’ve now created a survey to ask more HEIs and their staff and students about any digital action they have undertaken. We’d be delighted to hear from you.

With the support of the ERASMUS+ programme of the European Union under Grant Agreement no. 2020-1-UK01-KA226-HE-094667.


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