Two new online platforms in higher education look set to change the face of early career researchers in South Africa.
Inspired by the Sesotho word “thuso” which means “help”, the platforms are called Thuso Resources and Thuso Connect and they will provide tools and mentors to emerging researchers at the press of a button. It is planned for Thuso Resources to be operational by the end of the year and Thuso Connect in the middle of next year.
The idea of having such online platforms to boost the capacity of emerging scholars has been mooted for a while. And Professor Stephanie Burton, project leader and Dr Leandra Jordaan, a consultant Researcher, presented updates about them at a recent workshop held under the auspices of Universities South Africa (USAf).
About 40 invited representatives from public universities participated in the online event. Their comments revealed how they welcomed the initiative, were impressed with its progress and the detailed thought that had gone into its development, and how much they wanted to be involved.
Professor Burton (left), who is from the University of Pretoria, chaired the workshop in her capacity as a USAf research fellow, and as project lead of the programme for the Advancement of Early Career Researchers and Scholars (AECRS). She explained how the programme had arisen from a 2019/2020 study about emerging scholars, which USAf, through its Research and Innovation Strategy Group, had initiated.
The Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) has now joined forces with USAf to sponsor the implementation of the study’s findings for two years.
One of the study’s recommendations had already led to the creation of USAf’s Community of Practice for Postgraduate Education and Scholarship (CoP PGES). Another of the study’s suggestions had been to establish a national toolbox of resources for emerging researchers. This had now morphed into Thuso Resources. And the suggestion of a national mentoring programme had developed into Thuso Connect.
Burton said Thuso Resources intended to “provide convenient access to the many instruments, resources and training offerings which have already been developed by South Africa universities, and which they are prepared to share in the interests of collaboratively building strengths” for emerging researchers.
She thanked her team for their help: Consultant Researcher, Dr Jordaan, Project Manager, Ms Tafadzwa Karimazondo, as well as USAf’s Project Manager in the Directorate: Operations and Sector Support, Ms Janet van Rhyn, and Project Coordinator, Ms Tentswalo Ngobeni.
The content of the online frameworks
The platforms will be hosted online by USAf. Dr Leandra Jordaan (right), who is from the Central University of Technology, designed the concept and technical requirements for the platforms and outlined the proposed frameworks.
Thuso Resources included information on:
- professional development (career planning);
- supervisory resources (guiding research, managing research groups);
- academic skills, which includes a focus on research integrity and ethics, data analysis, designing research protocols, and proposal writing for funding;
- publishing, selecting where and how to publish, promoting the research post-publication, advice on predatory journals, open access; and
- funding, such as fellowships, scholarships, and research grants.
Jordaan said they would ideally like to link to existing systems that contained this information, such as the excellent information on publishers’ websites, “because we’re not going to have someone managing this full time”. She said Thuso Resources would become “a one-stop shop” for information rather than people needing to search site after site.
She said they had considered what other types of documents and information emerging researchers might need. Thuso Resources would link to national departments such as the DSI, the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf), the National Advisory Council on Innovation (NACI), the National Planning Commission and various platforms on Stats SA.
Similar links to international organisations on the SA government’s website that the country was already engaged with “could be wonderful places to find funding or to get projects for your research,” said Dr Jordaan.
Setting up deals to share resources
Sharing open-source resources was straightforward; they could just provide the links. Dr Jordaan said they were still determining the agreements they would need to set up with universities and other entities to share resources that were not open-source. Options included singing Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs).
Making sure the content is up-to-date and useful
Jordaan said they were very aware of how important it was to manage the content on Thuso Resources.
“If a system like this doesn’t have new content coming in, if the content that’s being added is not validated properly, and if it is not reviewed to ensure quality, it loses value, and users,” she said, adding that it was very hard to build up users but very easy to lose them.
Thuso User Journeys – Resources (left) and tentative Connect (right). Initial sense-making of the target user – emerging researchers and academics’ needs, by unpacking the reports, research, and other available resources, as well as engagement workshops. A discovery of sorts.
They would avoid this potential pitfall by creating a set of criteria for the content, to be managed by a Content Review Committee of experts.
She said they were also considering adding a usefulness feedback score. This would ensure the content provided value for the users and would also help guide the committee as to which type of content was most useful. “We can think we’re making a difference, but we need to find a way to monitor that we do actually make a difference,” Jordaan said. “Are users engaging? Are they entering the system? If not, we need to market more. We need to put it out on social sites. We need to make sure that universities are aware this exists.”
The site would include a dashboard to monitor where users are spending their time. This would be in the form of a visual representation, data insights rather than data analytics, so they could instantly see users’ patterns, and act on them. It would also help those managing Thuso Resources identify gaps in the content.
All users of Thuso Resources will need to register so that it will be possible to track who is using the site and if they are finding it valuable. Dr Jordaan said registration would be as simple and easy as they could possibly make it.
Thuso Resources – Information Architecture. After discovery comes planning and design readying the work for the development phase.
There were three levels of access to the platform:
- level one – open access to anyone on a Creative Commons licence;
- level two — for higher education affiliates, such as USAf,the Council on Higher Education (CHE), THENSA; and
- level three – for university employees and students.
When users indicated they were joining on levels two and three, the system would email the organisations concerned to confirm their affiliation, and then classify the users accordingly.
Thuso Connect and the complexities of mentorship
Dr Jordaan said they were in the process of reviewing the literature on mentorship, which was a complex process and not simply a case of following steps 1, 2 and 3. They had to decide if they should adopt an existing system or develop their own.
Mentoring included pair mentoring, reverse mentoring – where younger people help older ones for example with digital skills — group mentoring, and cross mentoring between different universities, which they hope will be a big focus on the site “so we cross-pollinate and learn from each other,” she said.
They also had to decide if Thuso Connect should manage the relationship or leave it up to the two parties to manage on their own.
The literature had revealed that many become disappointed with mentorship when it does not provide what they want, and this is something the team would ideally want to avoid. She said mentorship had to begin with people indicating what they wanted from the relationship. They would allow for feedback by sending out emails to ask if the relationship was working or would they like to continue looking for a mentor.
Participants at the workshop were requested to identify individuals whom the AECRS team should deal with at each university, information about which resources they were keen to contribute to the platform, and if these were open-source or needed an MOU to confirm the agreement.
“Then we will start to populate this resource,” said Professor Burton. “I hope it will become more and more useful as it becomes more and more populated with all the rich content that we know you can provide.”
Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.