Public Interactive Learning Labs. What did we learn about engaging the public with current research?

Last year we were thrilled to win a grant that allowed us to trial a method of public engagement that we called the Public Interactive Learning Labs, PiLLs for short. These PiLLs were an amazing opportunity for us to explore important ideas from different perspectives. We loved that we got to share that exploration with others who were keen to share, curious to learn and open to new ideas and change, in the best traditions of our university.

The concept of the PiLLs was to look at topics that were of general political interest (remembering that last year we had a federal election) in a way that would help us to understand the issues beyond the media headlines. We chose our topics and we worked with researchers and educational designers to create a series of four free public events. The general format was four x 10min presentations and questions followed by a short break, then reconvening in a world cafe format that allowed the room to split into small groups to discuss the issues that arose. Discussion groups would record the highlights of their conversation and the events would wrap up with a list of ‘policy actions’ that came out of each discussion.

So that was the plan. We love plans… we especially love watching as reality catches up and we throw our plans out faster than the leftover Christmas trifle.

Okay it wasn’t that bad, but I think we learned a lot along the way too.

We wanted to attract an audience who wouldn’t normally be caught dead at a University of Melbourne lecture so we advertised on  social media and using the free Eventbrite management tool. For the event that was held off-campus (in Preston) we also advertised in the local suburban paper. Probably less than half of the overall attendees weren’t regulars at uni events. I say ‘probably’ because we  tried not to overwhelm attendees with survey and evaluation questions (in hindsight this may have been a mistake when it comes to understanding the value of the program).

We experimented with different tech – online, real time surveys and note sharing – and had mixed results. When it worked, it was brilliant. The survey questions integrated with the power point presentations to give speakers immediate feedback from the audience. Being able to show the world cafe conversations in real time and have a post-event record of them was also fantastic. What was not so good? Providing eight (loaned) laptops with access to internet (within the University IT system), and with the correct pages loaded required a level of preparation and planning that I hadn’t expected. This was made more problematic by using two different venues within the university and one outside of it. The applications were also available for mobile devices and participants were encouraged to download the apps before the event – for some people this was enough to put them off attending at all. Others simply didn’t engage with the technological aspects but enthusiastically joined the questions and discussions. We tried an event out in the suburbs and had our smallest audience (nine attendees), worst issues with technology, and  a particularly late start while our speakers battled crazy traffic and wild weather to get there.

On a happy note, I think we created an intellectual space that both the audience and researchers found unusual and worthwhile. As a university, the standard format for public seminars is to put an eminent figure or a panel of experts at the front of the room, let them talk (didactically) for about an hour and then take questions from a small number of audience members. Our events allowed for a genuine exchange of knowledge, questioning and learning. Small groups and technology allowed for more voices to be heard. The inclusion of research presentations around a topic rather than around a single discipline brought out multiple perspectives and gave an opportunity for senior researchers  to engage with the public and with early career peers from other disciplines. The general spirit of goodwill and engagement with ideas was a pleasure to be part of and reminded us of the best parts of university life as an intellectually stimulating, collaborative striving for a better world!