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Finding research time

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 1 Feb 2021, 17:43

After about two years of working at the former OU London regional centre in Camden, I remember a presentation for someone; a fellow staff tutor who worked in the Arts Faculty.

“He’s been given a chair!” my colleague whispered. I must have looked confused, since this assertion was immediately followed by a further explanation: “he’s become a professor!”

I had discovered that much of my role of a staff tutor was constantly spent facilitating, co-ordinating and administrating (if that is a word). I didn’t have any time to carry out any substantial or significant research. I was way too busy with “getting things done” to do any in depth thinking and reading about and into my discipline, which was originally computer science – or, more specifically, computer programming and software engineering.

“They do things differently in Arts; they have a role called a senior faculty manager” my colleague explained. “The faculty manager does a lot of the administrative work that a staff tutor does, such as organising the timetables and carrying out CDSA appraisals”.

If we had help with carrying out some of the admin work, I could see how someone who was doing my role might be potentially able to carry out research, and potentially step onto the trajectory that may lead to a chair. 

I could see it working within the Arts faculty, but I couldn’t see how that would be possible in the Faculty of Maths Computing and Technology, as it was called then.

I remember some celebrations. I remember some speeches. I’m pretty sure there would have been some prosecco.

After the celebration and the speeches, I would have returned to my email inbox to continue with whatever admin I needed to complete.

Finding the time

The School of Computing and Computing has a number of research groups. 

There’s the next generation multimedia and networking research group, the critical information studies group, an interaction design group, an AI and natural language processing group, a software engineering and design group, and a Technology and Education group (group website). 

My research ‘home’ within the school lies within the Technology and Education group, for the simple reason that I thought it easier to carve out a research niche if I allied aspects of my work (which is within education planning and organisation) to computing technology (which is a field that I used to work in). This said, my research interests also cross the interaction design group (which I used to tutor), and software engineering (where I’ve done a bit of research into, particularly theories of software comprehension and software metrics).

Earlier this month, there was a meeting which was about how staff tutors in TERG might increase their opportunities to carry out research (if this is something that they are interested in doing). Essentially, it all boils down to how to “craft out time” from our day job. This may mean thinking about accompanying issues, such as how to gain help with important elements such as writing, or research design, or statistical analysis. It also means finding ways to set boundaries.

I remember a talk by a former colleague who used to work in the School of Maths. He allocated a day per week to carry out research. I tried that for a while, trying to allocate every Friday as a research day, but it broke down; meetings kept sneaking into my diary – the need to administrate intruded in my plans.

One way to increase research capacity is to combine it with other related activities. One activity is co-supervising PhD students. This means identifying projects, and recruiting potentially interested students. Doctoral students might mean full time students based in the school, or part time students who are studying away from the university, or even EdD students (if their research area has a significant or substantial educational focus). A point to bear in mind in that a staff tutor must network to find potential co-supervisors.

An important suggestion was that it might be possible to plan what could be termed an ‘internally supported sabbatical’, perhaps in collaboration with other staff tutors or assistant staff tutors. Perhaps time could be ‘chunked’ together. Perhaps my day a week didn’t work out, since I didn’t have enough concentrated time to work dedicate to a problem. It took time and energy to get into research, and there’s an overhead in trying to repeat that same activity every week. Momentum is important.

A related theme is the importance of buddying; perhaps sharing some responsibilities maybe one approach to gain some of the important ‘headspace’ needed to facilitate the development of research capacity.

Other points that have been discussed have included the need to be completely honest about how our time is allocated and reported to the university (using something called the Academic Workload Modelling tool). Maybe there are clever ways to gain administrative support, but effective admin support needs consistency, since that too is all about understanding and solving problems.

Since I haven’t been able to carry out any disciplinary research for quite a while, I feel I would benefit from knowing how others do research. Perhaps there’s opportunity for mentoring, or the development of practical support and guidance about how to bid for projects. Again, it comes down to knowing who is good and doing what, and who might be able to help.

During our meeting, something called PACE was mentioned, which is an abbreviation for Professional academic communication in English. PACE happens in another faculty, called WELS, the Faculty of Wellbeing Education and Language Studies. The programme looks interesting, and doing a bit more digging, I’m taken to a further set of pages about face to face doctoral training.

Director of research

Following on from our TERG specific meeting, our current director of research, Robin Laney attended one of our staff tutor meeting. I noted down four important points:

  1. Make sure you find the time to network widely across the school (but also outside of the school too). Find others who share your research interests.
  2. Do you have a research agenda? If not, try to write one. If you don’t, go to different research group meetings. See point 1; networking.
  3. When it comes to finding research students, make sure that you advertise projects not only through the school website, but also through various mailing lists and other communities. See point 1; networking.
  4. Go speak with the director of research. Our director may be able to put you in contact with other colleagues in the school with similar research interests, and support activities that could lead to research, such as conference attendance or funding of pilot project. See point 1; networking.

Reflections

I’m faced with a dilemma. 

I really enjoy research, but I also enjoy seeing the end result of what some might see as ‘admin’, such as making sure that a module timetable is set up and ready to go, or the development or co-facilitation of a tutor development conference. In some respects, I’ve tried to find a middle way, which has meant carrying out some scholarship through the STEM faculty scholarship centre, called eSTEeM.

The one thing that is common to both research and scholarship is, of course, time. It may be possible to carve and craft time from an existing work plan, but there are two other common elements that are important: collaboration and planning.

This blog can be linked to two other blogs, one which is about C&C research groups and another post which offers some pointers about research funding.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Janet Hughes who set up a meeting to discuss research amongst the staff tutors from the TERG research group. Janet kindly reviewed an earlier version of this blog. Thanks are also extended to Robin Laney, C&C Director of Research. Acknowledgements are also extended to Karen Kear, who leads the technology and education research group.

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C&C research fiesta: getting research funding

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 29 Jan 2019, 08:39

This is the second in a short series of two posts that summarises some of the highlights of a ‘research fiesta’ that has held by the School of Computing and Communications. This post summarises some of the points that were made during a panel session about research funding.

The panel comprised of four professors (if I’ve counted correctly), a research manager from the STEM faculty, and was facilitated by our director of research, Robin Laney. Although the focus was about research funding, it could have also easily had another title: how to become a professor.

Here’s a list of some really useful tips that I noted down about gaining research funding: 

  1. Think about how you might go about forming a working relationship with a funding body. This might mean keeping an eye out for different research related events that they run. Networking is important. Take time to speak to them.
  2. To develop relationships with funders, join mailing lists, check their websites and respond to calls for advice and consultation activities.
  3. Take time to understand the motivations of a funding body and what their priorities are. Simply put, the closer a research proposal or bid fits the aims and objectives of a funding body, the higher the probability of success.
  4. As well as understanding their aims and objectives, take time to understand the processes that they use, both in terms of bid submission and also in terms of how bids are evaluated. A key tip here is: talk to colleagues who have been successful and know what the procedures are.
  5. Always try to play to the strength of the university. Each institution is unique.
  6. Consider projects or proposals that are a little ‘left field’; proposals that are slightly unusual or explores an unexpected area may cause interest and intrigue.
  7. Look for new funding programmes. Getting in early might benefit both the funder and the organisation (and project) that is funded, especially as the funding programme builds up experience and finds its distinct focus.
  8. Successful bids often have components of interdisciplinarity and collaboration. Unsuccessful bids don’t present a clear story.
  9. Find collaborators who are able to work between disciplines; these are rare people who can help with the writing of project bids and proposals.
  10. Find external stakeholders who have a lot to gain from their involvement in a project. When describing this, present a clear project narrative that others can easily understand.
  11. When working with collaborators and stakeholders, make sure that you give them plenty of time to create supporting documents, such as letters of support. 
  12. Think in terms of teams. Working with a team of people means that funders might see certain bids as being less risky. Use your team to read and review your bid.
  13. Learn how everything works. Become a bid reviewer and seek out opportunities to sit on funding panels. The experience of reviewing other bids is invaluable.
  14. Speak to your university ethics committee early (and show that you have done so).
  15. Think about creating what could be described as a portfolio of ideas to work on at any one time.
  16. Smaller grants can be important; small grants can lead to large ones. Small grants can help researchers and research groups to develop their experience and expertise.

Summary

There are lot of really helpful points here. The biggest points I took away from this session was: be strategic (consider your portfolio of interests), look at what funding bodies are doing and what they are doing, and network to find collaborators, and build a team around project bids. In essence, take a collaborative approach. 

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Computing and Communications: Research groups

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 29 Jan 2019, 08:33

On 10 January 2019 I went to my first ever Research Fiesta that was held by the School of Computing and Communications! I’m still not exactly sure what a research fiesta is, but what I attended was a fun event.

This is the first of a two part series of blog posts about two key parts of the event. This post is a quick summary of all the research groups that exist within the school (including the one that I’m affiliated with). It has been compiled from a series of short five minute presentations that were made by the group conveners. The second post shares some key messages from a panel discussion that was about research and research funding.

Introducing the research groups

All central and regional academics (lecturers and staff tutors) can join a research group which aligns with their research interests. Looking towards the future, where the terms of associate lecturer terms and conditions may change, there may become a point where ALs may also able to become affiliated with research groups in some way (this is a hope and a reflection that is above and beyond my pay grade).

In some respects, research groups in universities come and go depending on the academics that are employed within an institution and institutional and school strategic priorities. What follows is the current configuration of the groups. If you look back on this post after, say, a decade or so, things might look very different.

SEAD: Software Engineering And Design

The SEAD group, the Software Engineering and Design research group isn’t just about researching software that runs in a computer; it also studies how software engineering relates to real world applications. The domains of application that the groups have studied has included: policing, health care, aviation, and sustainability (farming). These external domains of application are becoming increasing more important. An aim of the school is to have more PhD students.

This wider focus reflects the orientation of the school, in the sense that it is about studying and teaching about the connections between computing and people (as far as I understand it).

TERG: Technology and Education Research Group

TERG, the Technology and Education Research Group (group blog) is a large group; it has around 30 members and a third of the group are staff tutors. The focus of the group is to study the use of technology for learning and teaching. It is closely link to another research group called CALRG which is within another faculty, known as the Computers and Learning Research Group (group blog) and has hosted a number of STEM scholarship research projects that have been funded by eSTEeM, the OU centre for STEM pedagogy. TERG has recently run a number of events, including writing away days (for research publications) and workshops about methods and theories.

AI and NLP group

This group covers the subjects of artificial intelligence, machine learning, natural language processing and also aspects of music computing. There is a movement towards an increasing amount of focus on ‘deep learning’. 

NeXt Generation Multimedia Technologies

XGMT (research group website) was formed in 2005. If I’ve got this right, XGMT has got a connection with a number of OU modules, including TM255 Communication and Information Technologies. Some of the areas of research image processing and mobile communications.

Interaction Design Research Group

Interaction design is primarily about how to design usable software systems and devices. Members of this group have got a strong connection with the module TM356 Interaction Design and the User Experience and key areas of research include: digital health and wellbeing, animal computer interaction, designing future interfaces (which means looking at physical interfaces and haptic devices – devices that rely on our sense of touch), and music computing. Recent activities has included submitting research to the CHI series of conferences, and also participating in public outreach events.

Critical Information studies

The aim of this group is to interrogate and to understand the notion of information from critical perspectives. There is an important emphasis on the analysis of power, the application of ethics and the consideration of politics. Subject areas and topics that connect to this theme include artificial intelligence (AI) and big data. A critical question that the group address could be, for example, whether algorithms and the data that they use can inadvertently produce prejudice that is reflected in the data that those algorithms consume. Members of this group have contributed to both undergraduate and postgraduate modules. The group has recently run a successful conference and aims to increase their outreach activity.

Reflections

It was really helpful to hear about the different groups. A thought that immediately came to mind was: I have interests that span these different areas. 

Although I’m a member of TERG, my postgraduate research was more closely aligned to the work that goes on within the SEAD group. My own personal research (and teaching) journey took me off in the direction of interaction design which, of course, has its own group. The point here is that there are many connections and links between these different groups.

There is another link that is really important, and that is the link between the groups and the undergraduate and postgraduate modules. Research carried out within these groups can (and should) directly feed into the design, development and updating of modules that are created by academics within the school.

An important question to ask is: what was the biggest lesson that I learnt from all this? My answer would be: an increased awareness of the breadth of research that is taking place within the school. By knowing about these group and the research that takes place within them I have a more direct understanding of who might be able to help me if I had a question about, for instance, what topics are important in a subject area. In a discipline such as computing, where so much is subject to continual change, understanding who to go to is really important.

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