Universities, research, social Learning ecosystems

David Monk, Gulu University

Universities as research institutions are increasingly being scrutinised in relation to the impact they have on the communities where they work.  Reflection on research becomes even more pronounced and needed when thinking of international research. Sarah White (2019), writing from the UK context has called for increased accountability in relation to power and participation in communities where research takes place.

As this research comes to a close, I thought I would reflect a little on our own research processes. Elsewhere, I (Monk et al, 2019) have made a case for community based participatory approaches to research, and called for universities to facilitate relationships of mutuality with the communities in which they are embedded in order to contribute to solving practical problems established by the communities, with the communities. The idea being that universities are part of a learning ecosystem, with healthy epistemic and social relationships based on mutuality and reciprocity. Universities can mediate diverse knowledges, forms of knowledge expression, and thus work together in multiple ways- including through relevant research- to benefit society.

This is not always easy to do, especially when external funding and funders often dictate the terms and conditions and parameters of research. However if the university is embedded in a healthy social learning ecosystem (here I am borrowing from Hodgson and Spours, 2016 concept of Social Skills Ecosystem) it is able to work within its networks to ensure that the research is beneficial. Using the social Skills ecosystem model, Wedekind et al. (2021) suggested that Gulu University is an important anchoring institution in the Northern Region of Uganda. Here I think it is worth noting that Gulu University is also embedded in broader international learning networks and plays an important integrating role between and within learning communities and networks. Thus Gulu University has an important role in research integration, contextualisation, and translation in order to deepen knowledges, add to the social learning ecosystem and contribute to society. It is in this multidimensional context that the DRIVE research finds itself.

In what follows, I engage in a reflexive exercise about what kind of impact we have had in Uganda with the DRIVE Research, and how it has fit into the many dimensions and layers of the social learning ecosystem. Here, the social component is a particularly important consideration, because it reminds us that research is about learning and learning is for people and (hopefully) other species living well together. Research and learning, in my opinion, are deeply entangled in the other facets of the complex lives we live. In a healthy arrangement of living and learning (social learning ecosystem) research will therefore be contributing towards a deeper knowledge base and have practical impact for all involved. In my reflections I am mindful of Lynch et. al (2022) who conduct participatory action research in Uganda in the field of disability studies and caution that participatory approaches to research can be difficult to gauge in terms of power and governance and who is participating. Thondana et al. (2021) draw attention to epistemic injustice in research, which they claim is prevalent in research that is either unable or unwilling to understand multiple knowledges and knowledge cultures, thus undermining and excluding different knowledges and experiences. Such practices form the basis for social injustice whereby people are talking about others without them, epistemic ignorance and inaccurate and incomplete research.  Participatory approaches attempt to mitigate these issues through authentic inclusion of lived experiences and knowledges of participants.  Healthy social learning ecosystems therefore are essential in order to decide what needs to be researched, and how it needs to be researched. So it generally comes down to relationships of living- the social component- that gives meaning, purpose and value to the research.

Participatory elements of the research: Entering an ecosystem

The research was initiated out of a perceived need derived from work in the UK. It was not building on existing relationships, so in terms of processes, on the ground in Gulu, we were focused on entering into an existing social learning ecosystem. In orer to enter into relationships in a good way we had to do a good deal of listening, mapping, learning, engaging, and relationship development for the longer term. The development of the research proposal in Gulu was done in partnership with people experienced and immersed in work with refugees in multiple dimensions. This helped to frame the parameters of the research in such a way that enabled a useful study in the local context- however it was limited to secondary stakeholders. We recognized this epistemic shortcoming in the design and intentionally created space for integrating the experiential knowledge of experients- through the creation of an advisory committee. Unfortunately, COVID 19 and the related lockdown measures, reduced our access to settlements and primary respondents, so our advisory board remained a diverse group of people who work in the field of disability, inclusion and society, and with refugees. These included academics, curriculum designers, and NGO workers. As we moved forward, we added a teacher and a representative of a parents association. We invited the team to engage in the research at all levels, and they did- including in initial site visits to refugee settlements where I made informal inquiries and introductions with education officials, teachers, schools, and NGO field officers. While ‘in situ’ we formulated a more specific research plan. The advisory committee also played a role in conducting and reflecting on the interviews. We used semi structured interviews with a lifegrid as a guide- to try and capture lifewide and intersectional experiences, and asked participants to draw pictures and tell stories. We also asked the people we spoke with, what they thought would be important to look at in more depth- in recognition of their experience and capacity to analyse their lives better than we can. We hosted several rounds of interviews with regular reflexive sessions after each set, which allowed us to adapt our questions and pursue new leads. One example of the impact of

At the end of the funded component of the research we brought together core stakeholders from the research to share their opinions in a policy brief which we designed as a regional forum to bring various actors in the ecosystem together. The majority of the participants were refugee children with disabilities and their families. This was not easy or cheap to do, but we had developed enough relationships with people who could help facilitate their movement that we managed to pull it together. Their participation was fundamental both for sharing their knowledge, giving weight to the policy brief and confirming some of our observations, as well as pushing an agenda for the community of government, international NGOs, unions, refugee councils, and academics to act on. Following the forum, we received feedback from the families- who travelled long distances to be there- that it was essential that they were included, and that they were glad having made the trip. Various members of our team were asked to come and visit schools (by students and teachers). Likewise, several academics approached me at the end admitting to being astounded by the depth of the contribution that the families made to the program.

Impact and relationships

As a component of this research, we have engaged a number of stakeholders to think more deeply about education for disabled refugees, particularly girls. The forum was an important point of entry for Gulu University as a facilitating institution in an ecosystem. Participants were brought together strategically because of their involvement in the ecosystem. The process of the research has therefore begun to develop a community of learning and practice that we hope to sustain through Gulu University initiatives-an areas that we can directly influence. We have already started to act on other findings. One key finding was the lack of teachers with the particular skills to work with refugees and their families with disabilities.

We therefore engaged with students of education in Gulu University in a series of workshops on inclusive teaching each semester.  The Faculty of Education and Humanities has also approved and initiated the development of a Bachelors and Masters program in inclusive education, including courses specifically on the intersectional challenges of refugee and displaced families, and . Another department currently under development in Lifelong Learning, has included courses and research opportunities related to shifting habits of perception and developing inclusive communities for refugees, people with disabilities, and teacher skilling courses for university lecturers. We have also partnered with initiatives of our advisory board in the community and in academia- for example an upcoming community inclusion festival. Perhaps of more importance, we have heard some very important advice and warnings from our stakeholders. First, stigma associated with families and parents of students with disabilities in relation to their ability to learn and contribute to society is mostly a fabricated narrative based in epistemic ignorance and arguably injustice, whereby third party actors fit their observations into preconceived categories without challenging the structural conditions that conveniently create the manifestation for the categories. This is an entirely different discourse, that requires significantly more depth than is possible to introduce here. The stigma and misconception is in fact initiated by those creating the structures, most likely not on purpose, however when it comes to epistemic injustice theory, the motivation is not of concern, rather the opportunities available for contribution to knowledge bases is centred. Another, related, observation of our participants was that there are no pathways, transition opportunities or provisions for livelihood opportunities for refugee students with disabilities. This now, opens up an important area, identified by experients for more research and action.


So what does this all mean, really? Research, conceived as individual and time bound projects, is often restricted to very small pieces of broader phenomenon and lived experiences of whatever is being studied. This fundamentally limits the results of research, no matter how participative it is. The core findings of this research demonstrate significant intersectional and life wide challenges facing refugee students and their families with disabilities. We have advised that challenges need to be addressed more holistically- for example recognising health and economic factors that play a role in learning opportunities. It is the same with research processes. What we can learn from this, is that university research is one small area of potential contribution towards healthy societies and communities. For this potentiality to be realised, it must be oriented within broader ecosystems of living and learning. In this particular research, we began as outsiders. Recognising our own, and in particular my own (as co investigator), epistemic ignorance helped us to engage in active listening, feeling, relationship building. It helped us to enter an ecosystem of learning not as supposed experts seeking confirmation of our egos and knowledge, but as participants and neighbours, and cohabitants interested in expanding our epistemic and social horizons.  Universities and researchers within universities hold significant epistemic and social influence  and have immense power and resources as a result. If we develop healthy relationships, and consider universities and the related research and learning initiatives as participants within an ecosystem, driven by the diverse ecosystem needs, the potentiality to facilitate learning and living well is as boundaryless as the ecosystem itself. As such we have the opportunity to engage in power as pouvoir faire (ensemble), rather than power as puissance.

Hodgson, A., & Spours, K. (2016). The evolution of social ecosystem thinking: its relevance for education, economic development and localities.

Lynch, P., McLinden, M., Douglas, G., McCall, S., Muturi, M., Bayo, A., … & Muga, J. (2012). Developing participatory approaches for use in an action research project with teachers who support children with visual impairment in Kenya and Uganda: reflections on the relational praxis between participants and research institutions. Research in Comparative and International Education, 7(3), 282-295.

Monk, D., Openjuru, G., Odoch, M., Nono, D. & Ongom, S., 2020. When the guns stopped roaring: Acholi ngec ma gwoko lobo. Gateways: International Journal of Community Research and Engagement, 13(1), pp.1-15.

Thondhlana, J., & Garwe, E. (2021). Repositioning of Africa in knowledge production: shaking off historical stigmas—introduction. Journal of the British Academy, 9(1).

Wedekind, V., et al., 2021. Conceptualising regional skills ecosystems: Reflections on four African cases. International Journal of Training and Development 25, 347–362. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1111/ijtd.12251

White, S. 2019. Towards more equitable interdisciplinary development research: five key messages. Development Studies Association, UK.

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