#Take5 #94 The pathway to impact and why we need to embrace it.

This #Take 5 blog is brought to you by Dr Katharine Jewitt, The Open University sharing thoughts on how Learning Developers can evidence impact.

Impact – and what might get in the way

In learning development, we want to have an impact and are required to attempt to prove impact. This can often be problematic in many ways, for example, how conscious are we of the true rationale behind our actions and what sort of impact are we trying to have anyway? How research-informed is our practice?

Often we do things without being clear as to the assumptions that underpin the activities we are doing – and perhaps we are not reflecting on our work as research that can then have impact in the world.

To put it another way: we do not have a clear rationale for what we are doing – we are not exactly sure why we are doing it – we do not know what impact we want to have – and perhaps we have no dissemination policy to hand for when we do realise that we have had impact.

illustration of a person with symbols above the person’s head showing speech bubbles, hands shaking, papers with notes, an envelope and cash.

Image: What am I doing – and why?

If we are not careful, we can be very busy… doing things that seem potentially impactful… but the thinking is not quite joined up – the connections between the various activities are a bit tenuous – and we have no evaluation strategy in place:

illustration showing speech bubbles, hands shaking, papers with notes, an envelope and cash. Speech bubbles read ‘This will only work if…’

Image: Thinking “This will only work IF…” can hamper us from creating change.

We are doing things that might – or might not – actually create the change that we want to see. 

illustration of a person with symbols above the person’s head showing speech bubbles, hands shaking, papers with notes, an envelope and cash and arrows point to the word change. The arrows are crossed out.

Image: Shows a Learning Developer wanting to impact change but thoughts around the stages of change (resources, agreements etc) stop the change happening.

We could be working together within and across institutions to create impact in the world …

illustration of people working together and a speech bubble showing them dreaming of worldwide impact.

Image: people collaboratively working with a vision of worldwide impact

… But often we are struggling to make change happen – and perhaps also struggling to articulate what sort of impact we want to have. 

We are all researchers: This can change if we see our practice as ongoing action research – and if we: articulate the need; survey the literature/practice of others; devise an action plan; devise an evaluation strategy; always always have a dissemination plan in place.

So what is ‘impact’ and how can we evidence it?

illustration of 3 people each holding a card about one of the 3 types of impact – instrumental, conceptual and capacity building.

Image: 3 types of impact

There are three particular ways to configure or think about impact that we can use in our thinking about research impact. 

Impact is often described as:

  1. Instrumental impact – when you influence in a really organic and careful way, policy development or service delivery. You are finding ways to alter behaviour or to change legislation. 
  1. Conceptual impact – this is changing how policy infrastructures and definitions are formed. 
  1. Capacity building – this is when you impact on an industry through enabling technical, technological or skills development.

We often work in one of these areas, it is rare to work in all three.

Research impact defined 

In the UK, particularly through the research excellence framework (REF), there is a national research impact policy, which defines research impact as research that has as ‘an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia’. Impact must be demonstrable. It must be proven. It must be provable to transform the economy, culture, leisure, health and wellbeing, workplace, environment or quality of life.

illustration of 3 people in a cycle with arrow. It shows a knowledge exchange with stakeholders and stakeholders using research and then feedback to the researcher for the cycle to start again.

Image: An organic feedback loop – knowledge exchange is through iterations

In the UK, the word impact is used pretty much synonymously with knowledge exchange. That means whatever knowledge you have, it is exchanged with stakeholders. Researchers need to take their research to stakeholders for them to use. Stakeholders will then create feedback and the cycle continues. Knowledge exchange is research through iterations. It is an organic feedback loop. 

Impact provides information to institutions, organisations, businesses, community organisations, government, about the benefits derived from money spent in research. It is about Learning Developers proving that the research they are working on has an influence, impact, and resonance with stakeholders beyond the university. Impact needs to be measurable and a return on investment for the research.

illustration of a person with a speech bubble showing a light bulb, representing an idea.

Image: Thinking of an idea that has resonance beyond the university

Right at the start of research, collaborate, explore and discuss, to find something that clearly will have a resonance beyond the university. It is also about the promotion of that research area. It is making sure that there is at least one component of your CV, your research that goes beyond the university. You also need to configure strategies for the innovative dissemination of your research to diverse stakeholders. Most importantly you need to document and provide evidence of how your research is engaging with and transforming the practice of those communities. 

 illustration of lots of people representing a community

Image: A community

Dissemination of research

Social media is a useful tool for dissemination – Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Mastodon, TikTok, podcasts, vlogcasts, open access really matters. You may be engaging with communities who do not have access to libraries with academic journal subscriptions. Open access, the capacity for your research to be read by diverse communities is incredibly important. Even if your research is restricted behind a credit card paywall, you need to remember to use podcasts and vlogcasts to point to that research and talk about that research in a way that is free for lots of different people to hear and to use. 

illustration of lots of people with hearts above them representing social media likes.

Image: Social Media community sharing ideas they love

Producing research is certainly not the end point. You need to focus on dissemination strategies and that means, yes, disseminating and really thinking about the platform management. What is the best place to put bits of your research so it can resonate with a diversity of audiences beyond the university?

illustration of a learning developer discussing with stakeholders their research.

Image: A Learning Developer discussing their research with stakeholders

To help with this pathway from research to impact, there are five stages from thinking about a research idea to impact. Most people stop at stage three, but there are actually five stages. 

Five stages of impact

  1. Research inputs – This includes things like gaining funding, attracting staff and support, developing an infrastructure, gathering the kit they need.
  2. Research activities – includes research participants, research training is part of these activities, creating conferences and all sorts of presentations, workshops, membership of academic and learned societies, and a whole series of stakeholder and community engagements. This might also include board management for different community organisations.
  3. Outputs – This is the stage where most people stop. This includes media briefings, publications, policy briefings, e-books, patents, e-publications. 
  4. Outcomes – licences, revenue, new companies, spinoffs, venture capital, job creation, citations, policy interventions It doesn’t even stop there. The fifth stage is called benefits. 
  5. Benefits – demonstrate economic, education, health, social, cultural, environmental transformation, how the research has impacted on quality of life or provision of public services, eg have you improved the education and skill development of a particular workforce? Have you enabled job creation? Have you improved risk management in businesses? Business schools, as an example, can help in this area helping businesses mitigate and manage risk, perhaps through governance protocols. 

How can Learning Developers create impact today? 

Think about a research project and start with a collaboration. If you are interested in impact, start with a real-world collaboration and ask different people in different settings and ask them what are their problems or challenges and enable that to configure and shape your research. If you start there then your research is much more measurable and trackable. Applied research works very well when thinking about an impact narrative.

illustration of a lightbulb representing ideas and an arrow pointing to lots of people, representing a collaborative partnership

Image: Think of a research project and start with a real-world collaboration

Network through ALDinHE

To gain traction and gain impact, you need to build relationships. That requires you to create multiple iterations or multiple cycles of engagement with research users / stakeholders. In the case of impact, work with stakeholders in an organic feedback loop (discussed earlier) to improve and enhance the research. Stakeholders help to enhance, improve and engage with your research. Listen to those stakeholders and listen to what they want from you. Ask them what sort of research would help. Listen to them and provide that research. Being part of the Association for Learning Development in Higher Education opens up many opportunities for networking, including:

When carrying out research, the intermediaries of social media need to be thought about – agents of translation, amplifiers and network builders, for example, Linkedin and Twitter X are great examples of that. Also, be flexible. Where you thought research may go is probably not where this research is going to go. If you are listening to your stakeholders then your research is going to go in a different direction. 

Disseminate research through ALDinHE

The Association for Learning Development in Higher Education provides many ways for you to disseminate your research: 

Impact is to be embraced.

Impact is to be embraced. Whatever you may think about the politics, impact is a positive thing, as it demands all of us as practitioners and scholars to think about why we are doing this research. What are you trying to do? Who is your audience? Then, choose the format, choose the platform that allows your research to find its audience. It is important you create a research schedule, that you are predictable and you demonstrate time management, because you have to have deliverables. While there are some intellectual and political challenges with research impact, why impact is great is because it makes us all think about research narratives, how can we tell the story of our research with effectiveness and with clarity. Why is it important? Why are you doing this research? Why should your colleagues care?  

Pathway to impact 

illustration of a road with question signs along the route asking key questions for impact. The road travels along green fields and trees. There is a blue sky with clouds.

Image: Pathway to impact

When you answer these questions, that is your pathway to impact. As Learning Developers, we can also support our research students in implementing impact in their careers by helping them navigate this pathway.

ALDinHE annual conference 2024

The call for proposals for ALDcon24 opens on the 30th October 2023. Please visit the ALDinHE website for more information.

About Dr Katharine Jewitt 

Dr Katharine Jewitt

Image: Dr Katharine Jewitt

Dr Katharine Jewitt is an Associate Lecturer at The Open University in four faculties (Business and Law; Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics; Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies and The Centre for Inclusion and Collaborative Partnership) tutoring on access, undergraduate and postgraduate courses. She also works as a Validator with the Digital Schools Company to guide and implement its ongoing strategy to promote digital skills in Nursery / Primary / Special Education / Secondary schools & organisations. Her role focuses on maximising the opportunities offered by digital technology in education by working with educational leaders and practitioners to build their confidence and assist them to embed digital skills in their everyday learning and advising on areas where progress can be made. She has a Ph.D in Virtual Reality and is a Fellow of Advance HE. Katharine is also the Administrator of the Association for Learning Development in Higher Education (ALDinHE), Technical Editor for the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and Co-Chair of the UNESCO Inclusive Policy Lab for Education and Digital Skills. She is former Chair of the Evaluation of Learners’ Experiences of e-learning Special Interest Group (ELESIG) and the UK Digital Learning Community of Practice. Dr Jewitt’s research interests focus on digital wellbeing and how technology enhanced learning can help people to develop key life skills and realise their full potential. Katharine has won several awards, including Tutor of the Year at The Open University (2021 and 2022), the SEDA-PDF Institutional Change Leader Award in 2016, supported by Jisc and appointed as a Microsoft Innovator Education Expert (MIEE) in 2016. She is recognised in the 2020 Edtech 50 Year book as “one to watch” in building the Edtech UK sector and listed in the 2019 periodic table of Further Education Educators on Twitter. She was voted in the Top 50 social media users by Jisc and shortlisted for The Education Technology Association (NAACE) Impact Awards for Leadership Impact in 2016. Katharine tweets at https://twitter.com/katharinejewitt 

2 thoughts on “#Take5 #94 The pathway to impact and why we need to embrace it.”

  1. Love it, love it, love it! Thanks so much, Katharine, for visualising the super-complex issue of LD impact. This shows again that by combining text and visuals we achieve better communicational clarity. This will be my main focus within my sessions with students this year. (A fellow sketchnoter)

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