Sounds to Keep: Moving community-university knowledge exchange online
In this time of social distancing, it is imperative that we keep connected across institutional boundaries and bring different knowledges, practices and experiences to bear on the challenges we face. But how can we create and maintain spaces for knowledge excha
nge between community partners and universities in the current Covid-19 context? This was a key question underpinning the recent Sounds to Keep knowledge exchange event, which was originally p
lanned to be hosted by SECP at the university’s city-centre campus. In this blog, Bethan Prosser shares learning from moving this event online.
Sounds to Keep successfully piloted soundwalks and sound foraging activities in Autumn 2019 to engage local residents in the sound collections at The Keep. The post-pilot event aimed to share learning, experiences and reflections from the partners – co-led by Bela Emerson from Open Strings Music (Brighton & Hove’s speciality community music service), Esther Gill from Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (sound archive digitalisation programme) and myself as a PhD intern on the project funded by the South Coast Doctoral Training Partnership.
With the impending lockdown, we quickly decided to move the session online, which provided the opportunity to experiment with virtual knowledge exchange. As we all grapple with remote working, there are a growing number of resources available to guide online events. Particularly helpful in preparation for this event was Going virtual: Top tips for trainers and facilitators by Nim Ralph. There are specific challenges and advantages for moving community-university events online, which the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement is starting to pool resources for.
Our first challenge was choosing appropriate technology and software. Accessing university facilities and overcoming institutional technological barriers are well-rehearsed issues in community-university engagement and moving online is no different. The university has swiftly moved to Microsoft Teams, which holds the promise of a ‘guest’ function. However we came across early glitches with other institutional IT systems blocking invites and the need for specific Office365 licences. This made Teams inaccessible fo
r some participants. We therefore moved to using Zoom and, through the virtue of partnership working, Open Strings Music (OSM) became the the main host.
The technology necessitated a significant amount of preparation time. We needed to learn what the software allowed and live trial its features. One advantageous function is the ability to record sessions and potentially share with a wider audience. A key preparatory activity was creating clear instructions for participants on how to join and fully participate in the meeting. Online security and privacy are particularly challenging and
evolving issues that we are all still learning about. We therefore also provided information on Zoom policies and tried to make participants aware of what they were agreeing to by joining the meeting.
A second key area was adapting our programming and facilitation for the virtual realm. We wanted to make sure we accounted for technical issues and ongoing screen fatigue. We shortened the event schedule and added in initial technical support time. However, we quickly overran, demonstrating how much additional time is required for clear communication within online meetings compared to face-to-face. This is particularly apparent for co-hosting, which needs careful planning and clarity on roles for each section e.g. who is presenting, checking chat and participant questions, responsible for app features like muting mics or recording the session.
This event provided the opportunity to try out what types of group activities are appropriate online. Presentations through PowerPoint were simple to transfer, but our planned sound foraging taster workshop needed creative adaptation by OSM facilitator Bela Emerson. Our participants generously and openly joined in our experiment, which became the highlight of the event. We foraged sounds in our homes and managed to play them together and in response to an audio recording from The Keeps’ sound collection – you can listening to a clip of our foraged sounds here:
Sound clip: Sound foraging taster
A final aspect worth highlighting is the degree of exchange that is allowed by moving online. Five researchers joined from Brighton University and six practitioners from a range of public and community organisations. We were joined by more participants from outside the university than were initially booked onto the event. Not being physically located allowed us to reach a geographically wider audience with community practitioners joining from outside Brighton. The presentations shared learning from the three different partners representing the community, public and university sectors. Furthermore the sound foraging workshop allowed a different mode of engagement through active participation and co-creation.
However the opportunity for participants to share their knowledge and experiences was restricted. We invited participants to introduce themselves and ask questions through the chat function. But although we had planned for some facilitated video discussion, the timings did not allow this to take place. This requires a different approach for any groups larger than five, for example creating time to use break out group functions.
The spaces in which we arrange our meetings…frame the behaviour that may take place there, and the different forms of power, particularly hidden, or internalised notions of power or powerlessness, can have a profound effect on the ability of different partners to participate. (Davies et al., 2016:11)
Overall the Sounds to Keep event was a successful first foray into virtual knowledge exchange and provided a fruitful space for experimenting with a willing audience. It is hoped that sharing our learning may contribute to others’ endeavours in spanning boundaries and progressing community-university engagement practices. Many at Brighton University have pioneered different ways and means of creating and sustaining collaborative spaces, including virtual networks and online platforms. This lays a hopeful foundation for moving forwards and understanding ways in which the university can be a good neighbour in this time of crisis.