Conducting better university-community knowledge exchange

By Mathew Wong
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, June 21, 2020
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Many people believe that research studies conducted across universities are too theoretical and abstract, limiting their relevance and value to their everyday lives. Therefore, there is now a greater call for universities to become more engaged with their local communities to explore more possibilities of conducting community research.

Conducting community research is becoming more appealing as they allow academics to be exposed to wider perspectives and alternative ways of thinking, which can assist them in challenging received truths and spur more creativity, innovation, and productivity. Throughout the process, those research problems often drive academics to employ, synthesize, and integrate theories, concepts, methods, and tools across different disciplines.

Although the very idea of conducting community research sounds promising, there is always a need for having an accessible starting point. The most appropriate platform is perhaps the inquiry-based and interdisciplinary research that is emerging across many prestigious universities. These studies often touch upon a wide range of important daily issues, meaning they have more explicit reference to practical relevance and societal values.

Through these platforms, academics can better connect with outside stakeholders in the community through conversations and interactions. In short, it is more like a dynamic two-way engagement that involves putting the research process into their communities and having the communities feeding back to the research.

In January 2018, the State Council issued guidance on intensifying basic research and advocating interdisciplinary research. Meanwhile, there are also more interdisciplinary research institutions and funding established across many universities. All these reflect the ongoing changes of the disciplinary boundaries where the whole world is more diverse and complex than the academic world that is often categorized into specialized and narrow disciplines.

Take the recent global outbreak of COVID-19 as an example. Many professional researchers and experts are working together to identify the pathogen and ways of transmission, which help better formulate remedial and preventive measures after acquiring more evidence-based epidemiological information. This is particularly crucial when there is no pre-existing immunity for defense and resistance against the virus as well as no vaccine for prevention.

But apart from physical health, many people are psychologically wounded due to the sadness and uncertainties brought by the disease, be it home confinement, social isolation, or even disruption of daily routines. There is a need to better understand the perceptions, needs, and difficulties the public face to offer them more effective mental support. Sadly, these are often research areas that are neglected by many academics.

There is still a long-standing insulating layer existing between academia and the community. Since the community does not purely focus on academic or research-oriented goals, this creative difference can lead to more innovative solutions to a wide range of genuine problems. Therefore, universities should establish ongoing dialogues and close collaborations with various parties within the community, which constitute a meaningful and sustainable synergy.

For example, under the influence of the COVID-19 outbreak, academics can reach out to underprivileged students to see how they can overcome the digital divide and continue their e-learning during the ongoing school suspension. Meanwhile, academics can explore how to better support the elderly with high psychological and medical risks who are living alone. Furthermore, there can be detailed studies by academics regarding how the government should prioritize their directions of offering epidemic financial support for the public.

Without reaching the community, academics can hardly reach the frontline practitioners and general public with firsthand information and tactic knowledge, which allows them to analyze the problem holistically and advise ways for targeted assistance through conducting research. Meanwhile, they seldom understand the emotional and sensitive aspects of the issue, which are often excluded when research is conducted objectively.

Although problems come into layers that need to be separated and analyzed, the relevant solutions should be addressed as a holistic system rather than as fragmented pieces. Nonetheless, a good inquiry-based interdisciplinary research should look into the interplay of various elements, which help better unfold and reveal the complexities of the research problem.

Most importantly, the addition of such an engagement element allows knowledge to be broadly, pragmatically, and meaningfully realized, which can eventually benefit a wider set of stakeholders. In fact, all these real-life research projects also need not be deemed as less rigorous or objective than that of the academic variety under strong publication pressure.

Although academics may eventually frame these projects as particularly local or regionwide, what they are attempting to address or tackle will still be important for the global reference. They can also easily scale up these preliminary products for larger and more powerful projects. Without such an intrinsic connection, academics will continue to be too concerned about uncovering general patterns and developing theoretical frameworks.

Currently, some research studies conducted within the closely confined walls of universities are translatable and have value externally. Therefore, conducting more inquiry-based interdisciplinary research allows academia and society to communicate, coordinate, and collaborate continuously. This eventually allows a strong synergy when they are utilizing their strength in arriving common propositions and enhancing overall productivities.

Mathew Wong is an assistant professor in the Department of Social Sciences at the Education University of Hong Kong.

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