An International Online Network for Gifted Education Researchers?

This Post is a thinkpiece on the potential development of an international online network to support research – and ideally teaching – in gifted and talented education.

Genesis

Some weeks ago, I had a very interesting conversation with an old colleague, Tony Crocker, in an Oxford hostelry.

Tony is Honorary Professor at the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff and editor of an annual journal ‘Gifted and Talented’ which he undertook initially under the auspices of the UK’s National Association for Gifted Children and subsequently as an independent endeavour.

He also publishes ‘Gifted and Talented Abstracts’, originally part of the journal but later a separate entity. The abstracts were for some years funded by England’s education ministry as part of its grant to the NAGC, but the work is now undertaken by UWIC where Tony is based. The annaul cost is a small four-figure sum. The most recent edition – Volume 14 – was published in August 2010.

The ‘Abstracts’ is an annual compilation from a large number of international journals in gifted education – all those known to Tony that agree to take part – as well as hundreds of articles from other education journals. They have always been published only on paper or DVD and are currently available by order from UWIC at a cost of between £10 and £18 depending on format and postage, thus generating some limited income which is offset against the costs.

Readers who are interested can order the latest edition from Dr G Davies, UWIC, Cyncoed Campus, Cyncoed, Cardiff CF2 36XD, UK. Enquiries should be directed to Tony at tonycrok@aol.com

Tony and I met to discuss some ideas for making the Abstracts available online. As we explored how best to do this, it became apparent that there is considerable potential in positioning the Abstracts within an online network supporting research in G&T education – and particularly the work of an emerging generation of younger researchers currently engaged on postgraduate degrees.

I undertook to develop some initial thinking about how this might be accomplished, and to share this with Tony and with a wider readership through an initial mindmap and post on this Blog.

The mindmap is reproduced below and is also accessible here in case the reproduced image is insufficiently clear. It is published as a ‘work in progress’ with the deliberate intention of generating comment and contribution from others with an interest in gifted education research. The remainder of this post sets out the initial thinking captured in the mindmap.

Why bother?

During our discussion, we identified several good reasons to propose such a network:

  • The Abstracts are a very useful resource and should be more widely available. They might be particularly helpful to young and/or inexperienced researchers who are relatively less familiar with the canon, but all researchers in the field would benefit from having them at their fingertips – and preferably in an easily manageable online format.
  • There is currently limited online support for networking and collaboration between G&T education researchers. The main international organisation supporting research – the IRATDE – currently relies significantly on relatively traditional methods. It organises face-to-face conferences and symposia, an online journal and newsletter, although its published aims also refer to maintaining a database. Other organisations such as ECHA, the World Council and ICIE, which support researchers as part a wider stakeholder group, are also typically traditional in their approach
  • There is evidence online to support the argument that a social networking approach can help to meet the needs of researchers and research students, by providing them with a platform to share and discuss findings, establish partnerships and undertake collaborative activity while geographically distant. Use of an online platform also has significant cost advantages over more traditional forms of collaboration.
  • A recent EPPI study of international research in G&T education undertaken in the UK showed that the overall quality of the gifted education research canon leaves something to be desired. (The EPPI approach requires research reviews to reject studies that do not have a robust methodology including properly evaluated outcomes.) By making research studies more widely available – and by providing tools to assess and share perspectives on their relative quality – it should be possible to help lever up research standards overall
  • As the internet develops as an educational tool, there is increasing interest in making research findings freely available rather than publishing only in hard copy and/or charging a fee to readers. A social networking approach could help to ensure wider awareness of those resources that are freely available and bring pressure to bear on those who continue to charge. It might even be possible to negotiate free access to priced resources for members of such a network, many of whom will not be able to afford the sums routinely charged by publishers.

What kind of online platform is needed?

Before setting up a network of this kind, one must consider where and how it should be hosted. There are five broad options:

  • use an existing educational social network platform such as edWeb or brainify
  • develop a new customised platform, on the grounds that none of the above is ideal.

There are pros and cons for each of these and the choice will depend on factors such as: the specific objectives of the project and the relative priority attached to them; whether the research network is to stand alone or be embedded within something bigger; and a thorough assessment of the balance of costs and benefits.

We are not yet at that stage but, having conducted a fleeting review of the options, my preliminary assessment is that researchgate provides a baseline service which other options must exceed to be viable alternatives.

Researchgate incorporates the following elements:

  • a detailed profile page enabling researchers to share their personal details, including their research skills and experience
  • the means to upload journal articles, book chapters and conference proceedings – to rank and review such articles – and to import and export this library to and from the platform
  • the means to find and and import references from a publications database
  • the means to log events and to monitor the events logged by others
  • a personal blog with the option to post a microarticle – halfway between an abstract and a full article – or a general blogpost
  • a contacts list and the capacity to send messages to anyone on the list
  • a board on which to share details of available jobs
  • the option to form groups of members and join groups established by others, using discussion boards and shared files and documents to communicate and collaborate and
  • a network graph that provides a visual representation of one’s personal network

Researchgate currently has just five members who register an involvement with gifted education and no gifted education groups. It provides abstracts of 275 articles relevant to gifted education but just four journals.This suggests that there is considerable scope to expand the membership, if only by ensuring that all members of IRATDE are actively engaged.

What other services and tools would it helpful for a platform to offer?

There are four overlapping areas in which the researchgate service could be improved, by including the capacity to:

  • connect to a wide range of external services rather than being confined only to those supplied through the host platform
  • build links between researchgate and other educational services, so that a fruitful two-way relationship can be established with professional development activity and wider online learning (since research is of relatively little value as an end in itself)
  • draw in more visual and multimedia resources (since researchgate is predominantly a word-based service) which would make it possible to organise and run online conferences and workshops, webinars and podcasts
  • deploy a much wider range of tools that would help researchers to undertake their role, including, for example, collaborative mindmapping and concept mapping resources, project management tools, the capacity to design and administer online polls and questionnaires, tools to support evaluation design, even a facility to bring crowdsourcing to bear on difficult problems.

How can this be financially sustainable?

Researchgate is currently a free service, but naturally it does not offer the additional ‘bells and whistles’ listed above – and free services often have a need to acquire income-generating capacity once they have built up a critical mass of dependent users.

But if researchgate could be combined with an e-learning and professional development arm, there is much greater scope to sell research outputs in the form of learning opportunities of various kinds. As indicated above, the option of charging for research itself seems to militate against the overall aims of improving the amount of research activity, the quality of researchers and of the research that they generate.

If a customised platform was designed specifically for gifted education researchers, the costs of that undertaking would need to be recouped through a charging mechanism, possibly combined with income generated through advertising revenue. It is questionable whether the gifted education research community has the critical mass to justify such an investment.

Assuming it does, one other option could be to develop a consultancy and bidding arm of the service which might subsidise some or all of the costs, on the basis that they are utilised to support the delivery of the outputs paid for by customers.

What next?

This is a thinkpiece and not a well-wrought proposal. If it has potential for development and is attractive to others, the next step must involve asking young researchers how we can best support them, for any network must be designed primarily to meet their needs.

It would be great if, by this means, we could find a way of making Tony’s Gifted Abstracts more widely available, while continuing to cover the costs of producing them

In the short term, there may be another solution to that narrower problem. One option that emerges naturally from a social networking approach is to devolve, distribute and democratise the task, by inviting the gifted education research community to undertake the process voluntarily through researchgate.

GP

December 2010

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