“Students as university’s knowledge ambassadors? Introduction to the CHEPS OPENUNI project”

Author: Matt Bucholski

Today’s universities frequently engage in research in cooperation with societal stakeholders and industries. No longer are they ivory towers on the landscape of knowledge production, universities increasingly strive for societal relevance and valorisation of research. This holds especially true within the Dutch higher education system, where initiatives such as the Dutch National Research Agenda (Nationale Wetenschaps Agenda, http://www.wetenschapsagenda.nl) aim to provide scientists with topics and questions that different publics deem research-worthy.

At the same time, higher education has become massified, with ever-growing undergraduate cohorts (and, typically, tuition fees). Universities have therefore found themselves in a situation where they must intensify their research effort in order to satisfy external expectations of applicability, whilst simultaneously catering to more and more students.

But how to reconcile external pressures to produce relevant knowledge with the demands of providing mass education, given universities’ limited resources? The ongoing CHEPS project OPENUNI shows that the solution lies in rethinking the role of students as not only passive consumers but also active producers of knowledge, thus creating a symbiotic nexus of research and teaching.

To explore this in practice, we conducted an ethnographic case study at a health technology department in a Dutch border university. The central premise in our interviews with students, researchers, and administrators was to elicit different ways in which Bachelor and Master students who engage in research assignments supervised by the department participate in its practices of social learning.

Taking from Wenger (1998) the concept of “community of practice”, an academic department can be described as a group consisting of a number of core members (researchers) who share a certain ‘joint enterprise’ – in this case pursuing health-technological research. Moreover, the department allows for ‘mutual engagement’ by providing spaces where researchers can produce knowledge collaboratively. Finally, over time, the department’s researchers develop ‘shared repertoires’ of doings and sayings. In the investigated department, this can be seen in shared daily lunches, research seminars, social events, etc., all of which constitute the group as a community of practice.

Having established the investigated department as a case of a community of practice, we were then interested in discovering how students become participants in said community: what knowledge-production practices they engage in, how they are socialised into the departmental working culture, what roles they play therein, and, last, how the products of their research circulate in the department’s knowledge architecture. This last point can be considered the benchmark of active student participation within today’s research university, and the arena where research and teaching do indeed blend.

To answer these questions, we looked at the Bachelor and Master thesis process. During the thesis semester, students conduct individual or group research over an extended period. They are supervised by two senior researchers, typically both being from the department, or – in some cases – by one internal supervisor and one external supervisor from the health sector. Throughout this time, students become legitimate peripheral participants to the department’s community of practice. Peripherality means here that students are not full members of the group, as this role is reserved to staff, but they nonetheless assume roles that warrant them a level of community membership.

How students come to attain this membership can be traced in the three dimensions of a community of practice. First, in terms of joint enterprise, thesis projects were discovered to often stem from their supervisor’s own (sometimes funded) research projects. Supervisors come up with thesis assignments based on their ongoing research. This ensures that the work students provide is relevant to staff. Second, the department allows for mutual engagement between students and staff by providing students with a dedicated room. By working next to their supervisors, students have the opportunity to intermingle with researchers on grounds both professional and social, which facilitates learning. Third, the department has mechanisms of involving students in its shared repertoires. Most notably, students are invited to participate in the daily lunches, and, at times, research seminars.

Beside legitimate peripheral participation, students were found to act as academe’s knowledge ambassadors, facilitating knowledge transfers between university and society. In the department we investigated, student research was often undertaken in cooperation with external health organisations, e.g. hospitals. When students venture out into those sites, they act as boundary brokers and spanners, connecting academic and societal communities of practice. This way, they create interpersonal working relationships that sometimes result in future collaborative research projects being made possible or more feasible to carry out.

This is why teaching and supervision are worthwhile endeavours even in the modern research university. By investing resources into student research and making students into active participants of academic communities of practice, we are opening alleyways for further research projects and knowledge transfer partnerships.

Naturally, this is not devoid of limitations. Limited time and funding available for student supervision often continue to dissuade supervisors from “going the extra mile”, for instance when it comes to translating a thesis into a publishable journal article. Nonetheless, our preliminary experience with the OPENUNI project shows that students have the capacity to actively contribute to the university’s research effort, even if that capacity sometimes remains untapped. The next step is therefore to reflect as an academic community on how to make most use of our students’ contributions. With OPENUNI we hope to have provided a worthwhile starting point thereof.

 

References

Wenger, É. (1998). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. New York: Cambridge University Press.

 

About Mateusz Bucholski

Mateusz Bucholski is a student in the Research Master Cultures of Arts, Science and Technology at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Maastricht University, where he had previously completed the Bachelor degree in European Studies. As an assistant to Dr. Paul Benneworth in late 2016, he was involved in the CHEPS research project “OPENUNI” about the roles of Bachelor and Master students within university-based knowledge production practices. Beyond higher education studies, his other interests include philosophy and sociology of science, science and technology studies, and continental philosophy.

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