Mapping the barriers and drivers of digital action within Higher Education Institutions [Project HEIDI]

In October and November this year, for our Erasmus+ Heidi project, which UCL coordinates, we carried out a set of roundtables to learn more about the drivers and barriers of Higher Education Engagement in Digital Action as a catalyst for social change during the COVID-19 crisis. Digital action is a cornerstone of the HEIDI project, but the term was new for some participants too. In HEIDI and these online discussions we refer to three forms of digital action: Citizen science in COVID-19 times; the maker movement (i.e. people who make medical equipment); and hacktivism (hackathons, datathons, open data sprints tackling COVID-19).

In our five roundtables, which took place online, we brought together 34 people in total, including: students, academic staff, researchers, technical and support staff, librarians and decision-makers, to discuss digital action in Higher Education Institutions. We reached out and invited all relevant stakeholders to participate in the roundtables to make sure that  HEIDI sufficiently captures drivers and barriers to digital actions as these are experienced by different stakeholders in Higher education who might have different interests in digital action and who may try to achieve different objectives by organising and running digital action activities. 

We began each roundtable by discussing as a group exactly what digital action means. Many students, for instance, had participated in citizen science or hackathons (we did not meet many who had participated in makeathons, and we’ll be interested to hear from you if you have done so), but a few further examples of digital action were suggested. One was awareness raising, such as about initiatives people can get involved in. Another was activism such as the type done by Imperial College London researcher Jess Wade, who has written hundreds of Wikipedia profiles of women scientists, to make the digital world more representative.

Specifically, we explored three key questions in our roundtable events: 

  • What drives and enables digital action? 
  • What limits and is a barrier to digital action?
  • How Higher Education Institutions can raise awareness of and accessibility to digital action?

Participants identified key differences in the experiences of different stakeholders. Some of the technical and support staff discussed the “silo structure” that can operate in universities, and the feeling that on occasion – and particularly in relation to digital action – they and their ideas are not taken into account by researchers and decision makers, who may not consider them able to provide valuable intellectual input as well as general support. Conversely, a few students discussed their experience that there are times when they would like to engage in not-so-serious communication with each other, or to be able to speak their minds without worrying about what senior university staff would think! What this tells us for digital action is that, at times, it could be more connected, but at other times, it needs to offer spaces that are less so. It is likely that every digital platform is different, and many will evolve in the coming years. 

We detected three major themes in response to our three questions which we discuss below. 

  1. Community engagement (What drives and enables digital action?): Participants connected digital action, and associated digital outreach and engagement, to “good” research practice. “Good” research in this sense involves community engagement at all levels, in the undertaking of and reporting on action. Participants described how the desire to create opportunities for and increase the diversity of voices and ideas participating in conversations as a key driver of digital action. Our participants described the potential for digital action to reach “more people, who wouldn’t be able to attend otherwise, and bring [a] larger diversity of ideas”. Digital action came up as a practice that has the potential to bring together people from different parts of society to get involved in science, policy and decision making, as well as also providing opportunities for young people to collaborate with Higher Education Institutions.
  1. Access to resources (What limits and is a barrier to digital action?): Our discussions highlighted how digital action requires resources – technology, digital or technological literacy, time, equipment, data, and digital tools or skills. Lacking any one (or more) of these has an impact on the way an individual or a community can engage with digital action. Discussions that lacking access to resources limits and is a barrier to digital action, emphasised the multiple dimensions of the digital divide “going beyond just access to device, but also the cost of connection; the ability to use devices; the age of the devices; the ability to have someone that you know who can help”. Within Higher Education Institutions, discussions on the exclusion, lack of recognition, contribution, and opportunities for interdisciplinary work emphasised the need for resilient support with collaboration and digital working for staff, students, and researchers. Barriers to engaging communities and members of the public in digital action projects emphasised the impact a lack of time and funding has, describing issues of distrust among communities, and how the current legal environment restricts the flow of knowledge. Participants agreed a unique barrier to digital action at HEIs and UCL in particular, is the absence of a “front door” and the resulting difficulty for the public in knowing how to engage with UCL in digital action. 
  1. Recognising the benefits of using digital action (How Higher Education Institutions can raise awareness of and accessibility to digital action?): Our discussions about how Higher Education Institutions can raise awareness of and accessibility to digital action reiterated the importance of community engagement and access to resources. Our participants recognised the key benefits of digital action to include:
  • increased engagement and attendance;
  • increased opportunities for participation, collaboration, and training in an international setting and with external partners;
  • increased convenience for collaboration between multi-actor groups

Participants highlighted that Higher Education Institutions need to share these benefits more widely, either by sharing experiences of digital action more widely, transparently, and with a clearer aim, or by recognising the funding, training, and resource support engagement with digital action can offer. Participants commented on the need for Higher Education Institutions to recognise the ability of digital action to reach local communities, and engage with these communities to address challenges. 

Participants also discussed that Higher Education Institutions should take the lead in communicating more concretely “the benefits of using citizen science as a methodology”. HEIs need to provide examples of best practice across multiple subject areas. Participants shared with us three key ideas to move forward with: 

  • digital action needs to be more clearly defined;
  • more work needs to be done to communicate  and explain how digital action can be utilised as a research tool;
  • advocating digital action should be linked to opportunities for increased community engagement and access to resources (the key reasons why Higher Education Institutions should raise awareness of and accessibility to digital action).

We would like to thank everyone who was involved in our roundtable events! We really enjoyed hearing your ideas and learning from you! 

Please let us know by commenting below if there is anything  that you think we have missed from our discussions and which should we include in this summary!

What next?

We will be publishing a short report on these roundtables early next year to share our findings and results from digital action with Higher Education Institutions in three countries (UK, France, Malta). We will also start working on organising and running a series of events to upskill students, staff and community groups and enable them to participate and run their own digital action projects in the future. If you are interested in HEIDI and upcoming events, make sure you follow us on twitter @HEIDIProject

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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