Question marks in the margins: ‘Knowledge Hubs’ and ‘Learning Networks’ 12

Date: Tuesday, March 1, 2016
By: Evaluating Communication for Development

On my first day in the job as a postdoc on the Evaluating C4D project I sat down to read the full research proposal. As I read, I highlighted the words ‘learning network’ and ‘knowledge hub’, and drew a question mark in the margin. This ‘learning network’, according to the proposal, was to be established in Year 1 of the project, and the ‘knowledge hubs’ were scheduled for Year 2. I emailed the Chief Investigator, Professor Jo Tacchi, to ask what these terms mean so I could get to work; to which she replied “Good question - we have to work that out”. Now, more than 12 months into the project, the question of the shape and form of the ‘learning network’ and ‘knowledge hubs’ continues to vex us. After frequently finding ourselves stuck in circular conversations, our only firm conclusion so far is that we need to treat this as a research question to be investigated systematically and progressively. Currently, one line of enquiry is the possibility of using a wiki platform for this purpose.

We first become interested in wikis in relation to a concept two of the researchers in this project (Jo Tacchi and Jessica Noske-Turner) have been working on called the ‘Living Baseline’. As a direct critique of traditional baseline reports, a Living Baseline would be a work-in-progress data-bank that continues to be added to throughout a project. Though untested, we propose that through using a wiki, additions and edits could be truly cumulative, adaptive, and emergent, while also leaving a trail of changes, allowing for comparisons and analysis of over time. In addition, the wiki platform enables broad participation in its construction, since a community of users can add their own data, and question or correct information presented. In this way, a Living Baseline in the form of a wiki might be a practical response to the “reflexive development” agenda (Jakimow 2008), wherein learning through the inclusion of multiple voices and valuing multiple sites of expertise is core to development practice. Wikis may also respond to the movement towards open data and knowledge management, with the potential to challenge dominant and top-down knowledge structures (Davies & Edwards, 2012). Further, through our scoping research with UNICEF, we found that one of the ‘Innovation Labs’ in a UNICEF Country Office is in fact experimenting with the use of a wiki for internal sharing, learning and archiving.   

In our early thinking around knowledge hubs and learning networks we characterised a wiki as ‘relatively fluid’, as opposed to a website, which is ‘relatively static’. For the sake of comparison, a pdf report could be characterised as ‘extremely static’, since unlike a website it can’t be edited; and a wiki would be more static than, for example, a discussion forum (‘extremely fluid’), since it is potentially somewhat stable and can also function as a reference.

A cursory search for wikis in this area returns several interesting examples, and demonstrates that there is a groundswell of interest in the potential for wikis for sharing knowledge on evaluation. We also know there is a precedent for using wikis with UN agencies, where it was found to be useful and positive but resource intensive (Maron and Maron 2007). However, most existing efforts to build a wiki that we have seen indicate a need to interrogate the assumed fluidity of wikis in practice.

The now closed ‘MediaME’ wiki, an initiative led by CAMECO, intended to collect and share knowledge on monitoring and evaluation in the area of media assistance exemplifies this point. Sofi Jannusch, who managed the initiative at CAMECO, found that partners of the initiative were generally reluctant to contribute to their wiki and found the content production in the start-up phase too demanding (pers. communication). Contrary to the notion of wikis as open, collaborative and dynamic spaces of contestation and shared knowledge building, Sofi observed that wikis don’t function very well as a forum for discussion, and rather, people expect reasonably settled facts in a wiki, which she attributes to the way most people use Wikipedia. Sofi reported achieving much more constructive knowledge sharing via discussion forums, with a recent success in using LinkedIn.

A separation of ‘discussion’ and ‘information’ seems to be common structure. For example, the Association of Women’s Rights in Development manages a wiki on M&E, described as a ‘living document. at the beginning stages of life’. It is separated in two parts: Part A is to “share thoughts, struggles, or successes” and “pose questions or offer advice and to gain feedback from colleagues around the world”; Part B is described as a ‘compendium’ or a ‘library’ of M&E frameworks and resources. Another wiki we have come across, the Knowledge Management for Development wiki, also blends these two types. Here the content is sourced from their discussion group, and then collated, curated and posted to the wiki for future reference.  

Forums have certainly been part of our discussions in the context of our Knowledge Hub/Learning Network. Through his work as the UNESCO Chair for Community Media, one of our Primary Investigators, Professor Vinod Pavarala, has witnessed the potential for engaged discussions, debates and peer learning via online discussion groups through his work with community radio networks in India. This experience has spurred our interest to foster a similar ‘community of practice’ as part of our research project. In our recent scoping visit to Vietnam we found that UNICEF C4D actually already has an Facebook group which regularly shares links and resources.  

These observations of uses and experimentations with wikis suggests something ‘mostly fluid’ and something ‘mostly static’ working in combination seems to be the ideal model. Forums, rather than wikis seems to provide the best platform to facilitate fluid discussion, but whether a wiki (relatively fluid) or a website (relatively static) is the better companion to a forum is still unknown. Further, are even grounds to question whether a wiki is indeed ‘relatively fluid’ in practice, given that very few people seem inclined to contribute, more likely to consume information as if it was a stable and static resource. If this is the case, would a regularly updated website with some commenting functions (such as Better Evaluation) be a better fit for this purpose? Conversely, is it actually irrelevant that few people take up this option, or is it enough that the options for participation in knowledge creation are available?

Although the question mark continues to hover around us, we’re continuing to explore these ideas, and we are currently experimenting with a wiki to house our own research and analysis. We are also paying close attention to the experimental wiki in the UNICEF office mentioned above. Much like the idea of the ‘Living Baseline’, we see the wiki platform as enabling us to create a non-linear, ‘living’ archive of our findings. This applied experimentation should help take us one step further to understanding how we might achieve our goal of establishing a ‘knowledge hub’ and ‘learning network’.

If you have experience of using wikis, discussion forums or other resources we would love to hear from you! Please comment below.

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