I am often asked about the ways in which I use blogs for research purposes. I take this question to mean I should talk about something other than the usual blogging that I do. So here goes.
I have played around with various research-related blogging strategies. Here are two that seem to have worked fairly well for me and colleagues:
- Blogging a serial-style literature review
Research partners are invited to tune in each week to a shortish post which is one section of a literature review. Over time, the full literature review is posted.
An example – the performing impact project looked at the ways in which community theatre companies might learn more about the impact they had on participants. We invited a small group of community theatre practitioners to join us in thinking about how formative evaluation might be a useful way to do this. Our first step was to generate ideas from the literature which might be used for thinking about the various stages of developing a play and a performance. We blogged these ideas each week and suggested that our theatre partners might like to read some of the posts before they came to a workshop. They did. And while no one had read all of the posts, everyone had selected those posts which seemed most interesting to them. We discussed their chosen ideas in the first part of a two-day workshop, before going on to think about the practicalities of actual evaluation.
- Blogging appreciative stories
An example – a current project, TALE, funded by Arts Council England, is a three-year study of teachers and students engaged in performing and visual arts. Our partners are the Royal Shakespeare Company Education team (who direct the project) and Tate Schools and Teachers team. As we visit our thirty schools we write a short impressionistic post about an aspect of the visit. These snapshots are intended to give an idea of the interesting practice going on in each school in and through the arts. We know that our funder finds these posts interesting, as do the schools involved. There are also some other arts researchers and school practitioners who read the posts.
It’s important to note that we did not set out to reach a wide audience using these research blogs. But both examples do have a very clear sense of audience and purpose. They both aim to engage partners involved in the research, plus an immediate and small audience beyond. The posts are frequent enough to be anticipated, perhaps be a novelty – and not so far apart that our partners forget about them.
Each of our two blog types is tightly focused and the posts are also similarly narrow in content. Each performing impact post for instance addressed one idea in the literatures. Each TALE post describes a particular school and an event, conversation and/or practice.
The performing impact project blog also now contains a report of the final workshop and, as the project has now well and truly ended, it has become an open access archive. The site still gets a few visitors each week; visitors seem to find the posts germane to their interests, as they usually look at more than one post and page. Our quality in alternative education research project took a similar approach – we posted a literature review and case studies – and it gets similar continued, but minor, ongoing traffic.
These two kinds of blogs have modest aims. They aim in the first instance to support the community engaged in the research itself, rather than a more general public. They are an ongoing means of communication about progress. They do what we might once have tried to do – less successfully in my experience – through a project newsletter. The posts are intended to create interest as well as share some initial ideas with the research project community. The blogs are also a form of accountability to the participants, and to the funder – they can see what we are doing and where.
But we are/were also clear about what these kinds of blogs are not. The two examples I’ve given were not research blogs concerned with organisational questions about who, what and when – we manage logistical concerns via email and telephone. Nor were they to garner public interest. Some research blogs do aim to publicise events, but ours weren’t/aren’t those kinds of projects. We weren’t/aren’t concerned to build up a huge network or to inform public opinion during the research – that comes later in the case of TALE.
The key questions we asked of ourselves as we established these research blogs were:
- What specific community do we want to engage?
- What aspects of the research do we want them to know about?
- What aspects of the research will they be most interested in?
- What format is most appropriate?
- How frequently do we need to post?
- What off line conversations do we want to support via the blog?
- How will we let our community know about the posts when they publish?
- How will we tell other interested people that the blog exists?
We do the obvious things to let people know about the research blogs – we tweet about each post, and we notify our friends and colleagues via facebook. We put the links on our email signatures, and publicise posts through our university twitter accounts and on our university home pages and school websites. Our partners also tweet and make the links available on their own websites.
The archive function of research blogs is also important. While there is a lot of fretting about personal blogs becoming dormant, completed research blogs are more like any other completed research project – their reports are available as a resource for those interested in the topic.
Sometimes archived projects are useful in other funding applications and in related work – they act as evidence of previous activity that is being built on. Our GetWet website for example is an archive of two-year action research project: it stems from a long-term partnership with a local museum. Other subsequent water and museum projects always refer back to this original archived activity. Ditto our research on artists working in schools, the Signature Pedagogies project.
And, it has to be said, as we start to put together an impact case study (REF, UK) for our overall arts education research, the combined ‘effects’ of all of the research websites and blogs come into play. While a blog or website is not in itself an impact, it can be an important step along the way.
But research projects always lead to other forms of publication produced in addition to blogs. And when the books and papers and more mainstream media articles appear, the blogs then become a kind of multi-media appendix which can be explored by interested readers.