COVID 19: Thinking differently about education research impact

Image: © Jorge Martin 2020

16/06/2020

In the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic, researchers are faced with the challenge of having to adapt their plans for achieving specific changes in policy and practice through new evidence. In this context, a webinar hosted by The Impact Initiative on 11th June 2020 set out to explore how researchers may need to think differently about impact for education policy and practice, and what kind of support they might need from funders and policy actors.

The 'COVID-19: Thinking differently about education research impact' event was an opportunity for research grantholders from the ESRC-DFID funded Raising Learning Outcomes in Education Systems and Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) research programmes to hear from policy actors on how they are adapting their thinking on the types of impact that can be achieved in an education context in the context of COVID-19 and the processes through which researchers can best engage with policy actors in this context.

A group of more than 80 participants joined the virtual meeting. Professor Pauline Rose from the Impact Initiative, and Director of the REAL Centre, University of Cambridge, moderated a panel of four researchers and practitioners who shared their thoughts on how translating evidence into policy and practice can be managed and adapted within the context of COVID-19. The panellists were:

Issues the panellists and grantholders were asked to reflect on included: What will COVID-19 mean for doing research using previously-planned methodologies? What will it mean to try and achieve impact in this context, recognising that researchers will have to think very differently? What do we think is appropriate and feasible? What support will be needed going forward, in whatever practical ways that may be?

The panel presentations were followed by a rich Q&A session, collectively generating a lot of practical suggestions for how researchers can think differently about education research impact post COVID-19. These included the opportunity to:

1.    Build back better (but differently!)

The impact of COVID-19 on global education will undoubtedly be significant. School closures are likely to worsen educational inequalities, risking progress towards inclusive and equitable quality education as set out in Sustainable Development Goal 4.

In order to protect educational gains that have been made in recent years and to address continuing inequalities, Suman Bhattacharjea, Director of Research at the ASER Centre, India, noted that the pandemic offered an opportunity to ‘build back better, but differently.’ She described how, due to the massive expansion in distance learning provision following COVID-19, there was a critical need to understand the effects of this type of learning, particularly which children it was reaching and to what effect.

Drawing on Pratham’s experience - who were very quick to offer virtual learning opportunities to 11,000 villages across India (providing educational content such as word games and simple sums for parents to do together with their children via messaging services like WhatsApp) - she described how distance learning was providing a positive framework for families and communities to engage in ways they hadn’t done pre-COVID.

Given this engagement and excitement, Suman considered how online-learning could continue once schools re-open, noting the particular role of schools and communities in working together to support children’s learning (the RLO project: ‘Can schools' accountability for learning be strengthened from the grassroots? Investigating the potential for community-school partnerships in India’ is working with ASER India to explore some of these issues). Pratham plan to gain a better understanding of whether these interim actions are working by undertaking real-time monitoring via a phone survey.

2.    Identify opportunities for innovation

There is a great uncertainty about future research plans. Research may be affected by school closures, travel restrictions, and the inability to hold face-to-face stakeholder meetings. The panel were therefore asked to reflect onhow can relationships and communications between researchers, funders and partners be adaptedso researchers can best engage with policy actors.

Nompumelelo Mohohlwane, Deputy Director of Research, Monitoring & Evaluation of the Department of Basic Education South Africa, explained that although policy work had been greatly affected by the restriction of movement and a re-allocation of programme funds (with potentially restricted funding for future programmes), the landscape had created a new opportunity for researchers to engage with policy actors. She urged researchers to use this unique moment to provide new ideas or to re-analyse existing data which might fill in specific data gaps (such as the risk of children being exposed to COVID-19 in formal school settings) or be relevant to specific policy areas. She also gave some practical advice – she encouraged researchers to be clear and concise when communicating with policy actors (given that it is a busy and demanding time), highlighting the benefits of spending time identifying the correct person to contact (which is not always the most senior person available).

Drawing on his experience from the GCRF funded project ‘Transforming Universities for a Changing Climate’ Tristan McCowan (University College London) responded by thinking about how different types of impact plans (as visualised in the the Impact Initiative’s wheel of impact’) had been affected and had had to adapt due to COVID-19.

He explained that in place of face-to-face stakeholder meetings, his team had prioritised policy analysis and had been forced to think more creatively in terms of communication outputs (such as policy briefs, social media).  He admitted that changes at a local level had been immediate, with plans remaining uncertain depending on when Universities could open again. His research team were working to problem-solve by setting up a whole new schedule of virtual meetings and making an effort to engage new partners, despite the obvious challenges (such as working with the Association of Commonwealth Universities to try and engage new partners in the research).

3.    Focus on building partnerships

The panellists agreed that research-policy partnerships were critical in terms of meeting the demands for evidence during this. Laura Savage, Senior Education Advisor at DFID, recognised that as evidence was in demand more than ever, this provided a real opportunity for networks to build messages and to tell a powerful story across a number of different contexts. Rather than working in silos and replicating work, she suggested, for example, that data could be collected and inputted into a global database which could help assess the impact of COVID. 

Laura explained how, from a policy-oriented funding perspective, there are hard choices ahead in a post-COVID world in terms of shifting priorities with diminished budgets. She urged researchers to ask how they can work cross-sectorally to answer the questions being asked right now by the global education community – e.g. how to support the gathering of evidence to support the safe opening of schools. And she encouraged researchers to keep relationships going with in-country contacts – even if physical meetings weren’t possible.

Watch the live recording of the webinar

The event was a positive platform for engagement to share learning on approaches to adapting impact pathways in the context of COVID-19. The overall conclusion was that we all need to be the sum of our parts: there are opportunities to collate information and work together to support to those working with policy actors and at grassroots level.

Our thanks go to the panel and to those who joined us.

For those who were unable to join, the webinar was recorded and can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bN1a2N6671g&feature=youtu.be

Useful resources

IDS Bulletin ‘Exploring Research-Policy Partnerships in International Development’