By Edward Elder and Susan Geertshuis
If researchers want their ideas to be taken up and used then it is not enough to publish academic articles. Potential users of good and practical ideas probably do not read academic journals, nor do they have the time to decipher our detailed arguments, complicated stats and cautious academic prose. If research is to be used it has to be translated into forms that reach people and make it easy to adopt new ideas. Researchers need to make it easy for stakeholders to influence, access, understand, and apply their research. A field known as translational research tries to discover ways to do this well.
“Translational research makes engagement with practitioners and the wider community its priority. It seeks to ‘translate’ research in ways that enable that research to be applied. It also ‘closes the circle’ by allowing practitioners to provide feedback to researchers based on their experience… [These practitioners include] government, business communities, foundations and other philanthropic bodies as well as the public at large.” (Mitchell, 2016: 4)
The Future Ready Grads project’s was dedicated to discovering, testing and disseminating effective and efficient means of embedding employability into university courses. It was very important that the ideas developed in the Future Ready Grads project were developed and delivered in ways that people would use them. To this end, the project team have tried to apply the principles of good translational research and, using Mitchell’s (2016) guidance, our activities are described below.
Not surprisingly, reviewing the evidence is the first practice Mitchell notes. This involves synthesising the existing academic and non-academic research, as well as any other relevant information you can get your hands on. The Future Ready Grads project team did this. They looked at published research to better understand multiple aspects of graduate employability, from what ‘employability’ even means to how to teach it. The team also got their hands on more information by conducting 20 interviews to better understand the challenges teaching staff have faced in teaching employability in university courses. In this way the project was tailored to the needs of practitioners/teaching staff and informed by multiple research literatures.
Mitchell highlights the benefits of creating things such as practical guidelines, brochures and online videos to promote research in a palatable ways to a wider audience. The Future Ready Grads team is following this advice. The findings have been disseminated at conferences and meetings (both academic and non-academic). They are also creating guides, toolkits, manuals, and the like so that teaching staff, programme leads, employers, co-curricular providers and students can utilise the material in the future. And, yes, they are taking into consideration the style of language used to make sure it is palatable (even this blog post has been toned down from the author’s initially wonky draft). How they actually get it into the hands of all the right people is something they are constantly thinking about.
Of course, one-way communication with these people isn’t really enough. As Mitchell notes, active engagement with the stakeholders is important. The team has done this through the workshops conducted. These workshops have included participants’ (most of whom are university teaching staff) using their own courses as the foundation for the activities. The participants were able to reflect honestly on the strengths and weaknesses, in terms of the employability skill development, already embedded into their courses, how to embed employability skills better as well as how to deal with the variables stopping them from doing so. While engagement with teaching staff has been high, engagement with policy makers and senior staff has fallen short of the project team’s hopes. This is definitely something to work on.
We can also take this one step further when thinking about the collaboration that can take place between researchers and practitioners in order to trail and develop the outcomes of the research over time. Why? Well, as Mitchell notes, we need to know what works, what does not work, and what can be improved as well as altered over time. Such collaboration can be seen in the wide partnership of teachers/researchers/careers staff who led the project, and in the interviews with ‘positive deviants’, who provided feedback on the 4Es pedagogical framework, sharing how they applied the framework in real world practice, as well as giving the team a better understanding of the importance of teachers having the right mindset to successfully embed employability into courses.
Finally, Mitchell highlights the importance of evaluation to translational research. Specifically, Mitchell recommends developing a flexible framework to evaluate performance that “tracks their progress, incentivises fruitful activities, and aligns individuals throughout the organization”. The project adopted an educational design research approach with an agreed set of design principles. A national programme of academic development events was executed with evaluation, reflection and improvement at each step. This means that the material available on the web site have been tried and tested multiple times.
Overall, it is pretty safe to say that the Future Ready Grads project team has followed Mitchell’s advice. Perhaps exerting influence at policymaker level and conducting follow up studies to assess the impact of the project on students should be our next steps. As I type, the team still has a month and a half left before the end of the project. So there is still some time to think about and address these issues, which is all part of the process.
Mitchell, Pru (2016). From concept to classroom: What is translational research? Australian Council for Educational Research. Retrieved 22 July 2018 from https://research.acer.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1009&context=professional_dev