The Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) Initiative combined with various local institutional and personal factors has increased the interest of some colleagues and I in biting the bullet and entering the next stage of academic development. i.e. the preparation, submission and hopefully successful receipt of applications for external funding. This post is the start of some reflections and thinking about how and what to do.

I am starting from the assumption that it is now an institutional requirement that we undertake this task and be successful at it. There are a range of questions about the validity of aspects of this task and the thinking that may be displayed below. In part, this is purely pragmatic and, hopefully, will in part be mitigated by trying to knock the rough edges off that pragmatism by various other strategies.

This post is in part sparked by the announcement of a grant writing workshop being held at our institution next Tuesday. The announcement included some questions that we’re expected to have considered prior to the workshop. I’m using those questions as the structure for the rest of this post.

What is the research question/idea?

The basic idea/project is based around the Indicators Project. We’ve developed a tag line for the project, which summarises the basic aim

Enabling comparisons of LMS usage across institutions, platforms and time

i.e. we want to look at the usage – via system logs – of learning management systems (LMS) within universities. In particular, we want to look at, understand and compare the usage of LMS between different institutions, different LMS and do so longitudinally.

The question is how do we translate that into something that is important and attractive to the folk evaluating research proposals and is something we can actually do.

The answer to that, to some extent, is going to lie within the aims of the particular research grants and a range of other factors. For this project there are probably two very different types of grants:

  1. ALTC (teaching and learning) grants; and
    There are also some internal L&T grants, this will focus on the ALTC grants.
  2. Research grants.
    In our context, the ARC national competitive grants program is the nirvana. The type of grant you need to get to say you’ve arrived as a researcher. There are also equivalent grants internally at most universities within Australia. These are the stepping stone to the externally competitive grants.

This project could connect with both sides. The ALTC grants could be seen as helping with the “development” side of the project in terms of developing technology/knowledge support institutions to look at their LMS logs and those of others. The research grants are more connected with generating theoretical knowledge. For this project, identifying the ALTC grant maybe a bit easier.

ALTC grants

This project is probably best suited to a ALTC competitive grant. However, on the negative side there ALTC did fund an analytics related project this year. It built on a 2007 project. Any related project would have to work hard to demonstrate a difference between that project but still have some sense of connection or accumulation. The details of these grants are available from the ALTC site, so we can find out what they are aiming to do and see what we can do differently. Will be interesting to see if the idea could get up.

Can this idea be turned into a priority project – “academic standards, assessment practices and reporting”, “curriculum renewal” – are two of the priorities.

Priority grant applications are due April. Competitive due June.

ARC grants

As per the ARC site these are scheme-based (basically discovery and linkage) and across 6 inter-disciplinary groups

  • Biological Sciences and Biotechnology
  • Engineering and Environmental Science
  • Humanities and Creative Arts
  • Mathematics, Information and Communication Sciences
  • Physics, Chemistry and Earth Sciences
  • Social, Behavioural and Economic Sciences

I’m somewhat doubtful we can aim for these. Might be a step too far. The indicators, at initial glance, probably doesn’t fit nicely within those disciplines in order to be seen as something important. Think we’re going to have to identify the discipline and then get to know what things are important to the discipline. This page has lists of previously successful applications grouped by a number of ways including by field.

Discovery objectives are:

  • support excellent fundamental research by individuals and teams
  • enhance the scale and focus of research in the National Research Priorities
  • assist researchers to undertake their research in conditions most conducive to achieving best results
  • expand Australia’s knowledge base and research capability
  • foster the international competitiveness of Australian research
  • encourage research training in high-quality research environments
  • enhance international collaboration in research

Linkage grants might be the way to go

The Linkage Projects scheme supports collaborative research and development projects between higher education organisations and other organisations, including within industry, to enable the application of advanced knowledge to problems. Typically, research projects funded under the scheme involve risk.

The idea might be to link with some of the LMS vendors.

Discovery applications look like closing March 2010. Linkage in May 2010.

This seems to be the page for seeing examples and getting some ideas.

Why is it important? What is significant and innovative in the study?

The first question is somewhat easy and has probably been made by the existing funded ALTC grants identified above. The points are:

  • LMS are almost, if not, ubiquitous within higher education. Everyone has one.
  • Few if any institutions are using the data about the use of these systems to drive decisions at any level.
  • Drawing on this information can be used to improve the quality of learning and teaching at a number of different levels.
  • More broadly, L&T is important in the knowledge economy etc.

Work will need to be done to connect this with priorities set by the funding agencies and/or the government.

The second question is a little more difficult given that there is existing work in the field (ALTC grants) and the question about how this gets linked under disciplines within ARC grants. More work needed here.

Do I need a research team on this project and who should be a team member? Why?

Some reasons for team members:

  • Additional areas of expertise – e.g. statistics, educational research methods.
  • Prestige and track record. i.e. this is important, I believe, for ARC grants. At the moment, I don’t think the existing indicators project members have the appropriate level.
  • Other organisations. e.g. folk at other institutions to enable use of that institution as a site or perhaps someone who works for an LMS vendor or similar for the linkage grant angle.

Will need to look at the allowed size of teams.

What will be the key outcomes/contributions to the area/discipline?

This is related to the question of how it’s different from other work. Most broadly increased information to aid decision making. Perhaps the project needs to include an aim to identify, develop, or research how that decision making can be improved. i.e. not enough just to provide the information, need help on designing interventions and how the data is used to improve practice.

Perhaps guidelines/theory/knowledge that guides e-learning/learning and teaching becomes an outcome?

Misc other things

There was a Discovery project funded from 2009 title “Competing on Business Analytics” awarded to some IS academic from Uni Melbourne. Might have some useful insights. More info here and here. The latter provides some potential useful ideas.