Examining Multi-Institutional Collaboration Structures for Engaged Learning Research
by Tim Peeples
Finding time, space, and resources to conduct and manage one’s own research, honing effective research questions and methodologies, and reporting results are all difficult enough. Why complicate this intellectual work by pursuing multi-institutional collaborations? And if one chooses to pursue such collaborations, how can they be best organized, managed, and resourced to succeed?
Multi-institutional research is not at all new. The numbers engaged in this kind of research grew after World War II, with the rise of “big science” and the support of national and international agencies and institutes, primarily in the sciences. The numbers have grown even more, increasingly crossing educational and cooperate lines, supported by enhanced computational and communications technologies.
Still, much remains to be learned about the benefits, costs, and best practices of multi-institutional research. And even today, very few are engaged in multi-institutional research outside of the sciences. What do we know, what do we need to know, how can we enhance this work, and is it worth pursuing, specifically in fields outside the sciences and around questions of engaged learning, broadly writ?
The literature on multi-institutional research tells us much of what we might intuit: the collaborative activities of multi-institutional research are complex and require additional resources.
Multi-institutional researchers must address questions of organization. Ivan Chompalov, Joel Genuth, and Wesley Shrum remind scholars that formalization of hierarchy, specialized leadership, and division of labor are three key factors related to organization of multi-institutional research collaborations. Perhaps surprisingly, highly formalized hierarchies with distinct expert-leaders and strong division of labor are not only less common – even in the sciences – but also less effective (see Elizabeth Corley, P. Craig Boardman, and Barry Bozeman, 2006).
More participatory structures – with less hierarchy, formalization, and division of labor – are both most common and effective. Within these more common and typically effective participatory structures, the focus turns to coordination of activity and interaction: dividing responsibilities and tasks, sharing resources, identifying and pursing “goal-driven intellectual efforts” (e.g., presentations, seminars, papers), and organizing direct communication throughout but also at key moments (e.g., meeting and symposia).
Research being done specifically on the Elon Research Seminars (ERS), seminars designed to support multi-institutional, multi-national research on questions related to high-impact educational practices and engaged learning, confirms the value of attention to the organization and resource support of the research collaborative.
Such work requires the development of shared language and frameworks. As one participant reflected in the video above, any resources that can bring researchers closer and better connect them are highly valued: shared databases, software, communication media/spaces, and regular meetings all help. Perhaps more critical in the research related to educational best practices is in-depth knowledge of (and comfort with) the others with whom one is collaborating and even their individual institutional contexts. Context is of great significance, and failure to attend to that elides significant differences.
In spite of the “massive coordination” efforts necessary, as one ERS participant expressed and as indicated in the literature, are the upsides worth pursuing multi-institutional research?
Once effectively launched and supported, multi-institutional research functions as an accelerator and network incubator. Though some of the following outcomes can be achievements of independent research, organizational theorists identify these as being significant for multi-institutional research: knowledge outcomes (e.g., developments of new areas of research, new models, and new grants and/or spin-off projects), tool outcomes (e.g., new methodologies and software), outreach outcomes (e.g., new partnerships across people, institutions, and communities), collaboration outcomes (e.g., relationships that extend beyond a particular project, a wider network of contacts, and intellectual companionship), and leverage outcomes (e.g., better positioning to argue for external and internal resources and wider visibility). (See: J. Sylvan Katz and Ben R. Martin, 1997; Jonathon N. Cummings and Sara Kiesler, 2007).
Though we have these understandings of the challenges related to multi-institutional research and the potential outcomes, there is much to be studied and learned about how we better organize, manage, and support such work to maximize the potential positive outcomes.
- Chompalov, I., Genuth, J., & Shrum, W. (2002). The organization of scientific collaborations. Research Policy, 31, 749-767.
- Corley, E. A., Boardman, P. C., & Bozeman, B. (2006). Design and the management of multi-institutional research collaborations: Theoretical implications from two case studies. Research Policy, 35, 975-993.
- Cummings, J. N., & Kiesler, S. (2007). Coordination costs and project outcomes in multi-university collaborations. Research Policy, 36, 1620-1634.
- Katz, J. S., & Martin, B. R. (1997). What is research collaboration? Research Policy, 26, 1-18.
Tim Peeples is Associate Provost for Faculty Affairs and Professor of English at Elon University.