Thinking before speaking: Being strategic with dissemination

Michael Grove, University of Birmingham, considers the routes to sharing learning and teaching practice.
This article was originally published in Forum 37: 6-7.
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Dissemination, meaning the broadcasting of a message, is a word widely used within Higher Education, but often perceived to be an activity that takes place near the conclusion of a project or intervention. Sharing learning and findings is essential to the scholarship of learning and
teaching, and consideration of how effective dissemination can be embedded throughout a project’s lifetime can greatly enhance its overall impact.

We can consider four questions that will help us disseminate our work much more effectively:

  • Why are we seeking to disseminate? [Purpose]
  • What are we seeking to disseminate? [Messages]
  • To whom are we seeking to disseminate? [Audience]
  • How can we disseminate effectively? [Media and Timing]

Why disseminate?

grove1We disseminate to make information on a particular topic more widely known, but for this to be effective we need to begin by considering what we want our dissemination activities to achieve. For example, is it:

  • Dissemination to raise awareness?
    Perhaps raising awareness that an activity is underway to generate buy-in or wider engagement from departmental colleagues or senior management.
  • Dissemination for engagement?
    Involving others in the activities of a project can enhance outcomes. This might help identify previous practice and learning upon which you can then build, or pilot and evaluate the developed approaches.
  • Dissemination for understanding?
    Sharing the knowledge and learning generated from an activity with others. This might be linked to emerging findings from research or evaluation, but could equally involve sharing the rationale for a project at its outset.
  • Dissemination for action?
    Are you looking for your project to bring about change beyond your own practices? Perhaps at a departmental, faculty or institutional level? If so, you need to involve other colleagues so that they can see the benefits of your work (efficiency, effectiveness, increased impact or financial) and their potential for adoption and scalability.
  • Dissemination for promotion?
    Developing an individual, institutional or national profile through any activity can only be achieved through visibility. It is therefore vital that you not only take advantage of the opportunities available to disseminate your work but that you are strategic in how you approach them.

Having identified the purposes of your dissemination, and it is likely that there will be more than one, you can begin thinking about what your key messages are and who you wish to be the recipients of these messages; different audiences require different messages.

Dissemination may take a range of forms, for example writing newsletter articles, academic papers, presenting at conferences, or participating in meetings and seminars, however they won’t be effective if the message isn’t correctly framed for the audience at which it is aimed. Equally, for the audience to be receptive to the message that you are trying to convey, they need to find something within it that benefits or interests them.

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For each of your reasons for undertaking dissemination activities, consider the audience who might be targeted to achieve your intended outcomes. For example, your audience might consist of departmental or disciplinary colleagues who want practical details; at a conference, your message may need to be more general. If the audience is internal to your university, you might be able to talk more frankly and openly about what you have found or any challenges or barriers you have faced. In seeking to bring about change, senior management teams and those at policy level are important audiences, but here it is important to convey your message in a concise and precise format. Focus upon the key generic details, avoiding overly technical language or jargon, and communicate explicitly the impacts and evidence-based benefits that have been achieved, as well as how continued support or extension of the activity will offer clear benefits to the institution (particularly students) and the real risks of failing to do so.

Dissemination may take a range of forms, for example writing newsletter articles, academic papers, presenting at conferences, or participating in meetings and seminars.

When to disseminate?

With dissemination having a range of purposes, it can be undertaken effectively at different times; from before a project begins to after it has concluded. When developing an idea for a project you can bring together interested individuals to discuss the ideas and approaches; this engages others in its development and helps form a natural group of supporters. Once a project has been established dissemination can help identify examples of similar practices undertaken elsewhere and so provide a starting point upon which you can build. Or it can enable other individuals to contribute to its design, development and delivery thereby increasing the size of the project team and its wider reach. As the project progresses, dissemination can share and test findings, and explore possibilities for wider activity.

When he began teaching his methods were considered way ahead of their time

When he began teaching his methods were considered way ahead of their time

Once a project has concluded, dissemination can be used to share findings and conclusions, and to address questions such as: what was the impact of the work? What new knowledge or understanding has been generated? What conclusions can be drawn? What are the recommendations for practice or further research? Such dissemination should not only focus upon what has worked effectively, but also what has been less successful; others can learn a lot from this! Whereas the dissemination of emerging findings can include anecdotal information or opinion, dissemination that takes place near its conclusion should be based upon robust data and evidence; this is vital for the credibility of the message being conveyed.

How to disseminate?

The various methods of dissemination have been left until now to reinforce the idea that they are not the starting point for any dissemination strategy; they are a mechanism by which key messages can be communicated to the appropriate audiences. There are a range of possible approaches to consider:

  • Networking: Attending workshops and conferences and participating in working or special interest groups. Even if not presenting, this provides an opportunity to informally share ideas and findings with others and develop collaborations.
  • Seminars: Many universities have established seminars to which you can contribute; these act as a focus for bringing together those with particular areas of interest and expertise.
  • Committees: Projects and activities can be discussed at learning and teaching committees through formal or informal updates. This provides an opportunity to explore how they might become embedded (sustainable) as a part of departmental or institutional practices.
  • Online: Websites provide an opportunity to aid communication beyond an institution and allow others to find out more. Email lists (such as the @jiscmail.ac.uk lists) allow you to post details of your work and ask questions of others.
  • Newsletters: A short paper-based or electronic newsletter can be developed and sent to a mailing list of interested individuals to provide a handy first reference for those wishing to understand more about your work.
  • Conference presentations: Consider the conferences you attend and the opportunities offered, for example by giving a talk, running a workshop or offering a poster. A developed poster can be used on other occasions!
  • Publications: Writing your work up for a formal journal, newsletter or other publication. Different journals have different audiences and many are accessible to those looking to publish for the first time, particularly if you consider institutional and professional body journals.

Whichever form your dissemination takes, it will be most effective if you start by asking “why disseminate?” The answer to this can help define and influence your entire project or activity!

 

groveprofileMichael Grove is a Senior Lecturer and Director of the STEM Education Centre at the University of Birmingham where he works on issues relating to learning and teaching within Higher Education and teaches mathematics to undergraduate students. He is a National Teaching Fellow, a member of the Directorate of the sigma mathematics support network, and is also responsible for the University of Birmingham’s Mathematics Support Centre. He is also a visiting Associate Professor at the University of Leeds.

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