Getting real about Knowledge Translation

I tout myself as a Knowledge Translation Geek, as that is the career path that I’ve carved out for myself within academia, and the topic I studied in my academic journey. I choose to focus a lot on knowledge translation (KT) basically because I care for my world, and I truly with all my heart believe that academia has the potential to be a more critical player in the way the world works – outside the ivory tower.

One realization I have is that I talk about Knowledge Translation all the time, and wrongfully assume that everyone, including academics, knows what I mean.

Knowledge Translation as a term is most widely used in the world of health care and health care research, where applied research is utilized and conducted most frequently. The most broadly used definition in the Canadian context comes from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR):

Knowledge Translation is defined as a dynamic and iterative process that includes synthesis, dissemination, exchange and ethically-sound application of knowledge to improve the health of Canadians, provide more effective health services and products and strengthen the health care system.

This process takes place within a complex system of interactions between researchers and knowledge users which may vary in intensity, complexity and level of engagement depending on the nature of the research and the findings as well as the needs of the particular knowledge user (Graham, 2010).


I am an educated woman, I claim to be a proponent of knowledge translation, yet when I go to look up definitions of KT used to describe the concept, I don’t even know what it actually means. The irony is palpable.

The general concept of knowledge translation is a bit of a dispute, and may mean different things to other people. The term is closely related to its cousins and predecessors – knowledge mobilization, knowledge transfer, knowledge dissemination – but to me has come to embody a number of things regardless of what it is called.

As an academic, my tendency when I write anything is to have a list of sources and well-researched peer-review journal articles behind anything I may state. That’s the way I was trained. But for this post, I’m going to abandon that and speak a bit more “bare bones” about knowledge translation. In future posts, I’ll discuss more strategies and methods for KT, but for now, I just want to get real.

What does knowledge translation do for academics?

Knowledge Translation gives your work a life. KT brings your work outside of yourself, your department, your faculty, your institution, and your direct region and allows your work to take on a life of it’s own. I won’t go all Baconian on you and talk about power, but truthfully, when knowledge gets into more hands, it has the potential to do more than just what you, yourself, are able to do with it. It’s that simple.

Knowledge Translation gives you a break from talking and writing academically. I am aware that this is probably very un-academic of me to say, but I speak the truth when I say that I know we are all tired of talking in “academic-speak” all the time as academics. We are trained to adopt the jargon of our discipline and the style of scholarship that makes the general population basically say “WTF are you saying?” KT allows you to express complicated concepts in simple ways. It provides EVERYONE a relief from having to find the message behind what you exploring through research by communicating the message in ways that it’s received by all kinds of audiences, not just the academic ones.

Knowledge Translation lets you be creative. It gives you a break from writing and speaking academically, but it also allows you to explore different ways that you can take what you know, and put it out there. KT engages all the senses and helps convey knowledge through art, technology, experiences, and events that bring people together just to name a few.

Knowledge Translation helps you explore “other ways of knowing”. I’ve seen this term come up in literature and a lot within cultural discourses in academia. It basically just reminds us that the way that academics have been trained to traditionally create and disseminate knowledge is not the only way to know things. When you bring your research and work to communities and to the public, you see that different kinds of people receive their information differently. Some communities rely on narrative, spoken word, and tradition, while others prefer receive and engage with information more formally through statistics and quantitative data. Some communities are passive receivers of information, while others are more engaged in the ways information is distributed and shared. It’s important to understand these nuances.

My challenge to you as an academic reading this is to consider what you want for your academic work. Do you want to devote your life to academic work runs the risk of being irrelevant, unnecessary, and producing material that gathers dust and may be read by a total of 8 people and cited once, or do you want to produce really good stuff that communities and decision-makers need and the general public would find of interest.

What does knowledge translation mean to you?

Let Our Traditions Guide Us: Remembering roots of engagement

Tradition is not to preserve the ashes but to pass on the flame” – Gustav Mahler

My time within academia has given me a sense of the diverse perspectives around community engagement at the individual and academic levels. I’ve learned that community engagement itself means different things to different people and academic environments, yet the emergent consensus is that academia has an interest and a duty to engage with its community, and act as contributors to both local and global issues through the knowledge and talents they are set up to produce. Some universities are more demonstrative of engagement than others, yet it would be difficult to find an academic institution that doesn’t have some sort of partnership or reach into their local community or involvement of community on campus.

Community Engagement, in the broad sense refers to the collaboration between institutions and its broader community. We’ve seen community engagement initiatives manifest in a number of ways: research partnerships with community organizations, student placements through practicum or internships, continuing education programs, student engagement initiatives that involve learning within local or global settings, or events that seek to bring the public onto campus. Different institutions pride themselves on the ways they engage externally, and quite often, can present a unique way that defines their engagement strategies.

Community engagement advocates do often go up against tough critics of engagement ideas from both internal skeptics and external organizations and individuals. Internally, some academics prefer to do research and teaching the is more inward focus and doesn’t lend itself to engagement with the external community due to the topic or in some cases, the discipline. Some things are studied on campus and is not mobilized because it’s more useful to the internal academic community of practice, and that’s OK. Some academics do have a preference to keep their studies more insular. That’s OK too. Some academics think that the community doesn’t belong within the ivory tower. I’m not so much of a fan of that perception. External critics often view the academy as elitist, closed off, and difficult to access. Some people don’t believe they belong within the academic community, which is a downfall of some academic traditions and the perpetuation of elitist attitudes. Some critics believe academia has no place in the community or the community in academia. I am also not such a fan of that ignorance.

As an advocate for community engagement for academic institutions, which we know rely heavily on tradition, I’ve often found comfort and motivation in the tradition of the faculty of extension. Faculties of extension had roots in extending beyond the community to rural settings, providing access to education, and acknowledging the academy’s duty to contribute to the community outside its gates. I had a rather serendipitous moment in my life when I was working at Western University, and had the opportunity to work within community engagement efforts. I stumbled upon an annual from the early-1900s where I saw Western University’s(The University of Western Ontario’s) foundations in extension. I always wished that still existed for the university.

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The tradition of the faculty of extension is fading. We don’t hear about it that often anymore. When we do, it’s often not as clear what the function of the extension is. In Canada, our strongest example of a Faculty of Extension is University of Alberta‘s, and I’ve oft looked at this with a nostalgic remembrance of academia’s past. The Faculty provides a promising glimpse into the importance of building bridges between the institution and its wider community, with the greater mandate of removing barriers and providing access to education to all, regardless of class, location or current level of education.

I am encouraged by the programs that exist within our own community, as well as across Canada that represent and hold onto the duty to extend beyond campus. Such examples include Liberal Arts 101 at King’s University College at Western, which has had positive reception within the community as well as provided great opportunities for King’s to live to its mission. Another program is Halifax Humanities 101, which was a model introduced to me early in my academic career and influenced my dedication to community engagement. Both programs demonstrate a dedication to the traditions of extension and reflect the value of building bridges for access to education.

As I previously stated, both those with in and external know that academia holds on too closely to old traditions. This has often been my frustration with working in structures built heavily on history, canon and theoretical thought as much as that is why I find it so fascinating. The faculty of extension is a tradition that academic institutions have the opportunity to celebrate, honour, and revitalize in order to live a vision of building bridges to communities. Such traditions allow us to reflect on our strengths in engagement and change the conversation about the ways the ivory tower has reached beyond its gates. It’s always been a part of what they do, and as academics we can find inspiration in our past work together to mobilize the strengths of the traditions we have built together with the communities we are a part of.

Why I Quit International Learning, And Why International Learning Quit Me

The field of international learning is growing at rapid rates for Canada’s universities. In recent years’ past, we’ve seen a strong insurgence of strategic missions for internationalization come out of many universities; objectives to bring more international students to Canadian institutions, while also sending Canadian students to destinations all around the world to experience culture, engagement, service and research, with hopes that these experiences will prove to be transformational for both students and communities alike.

I’ve been a participant in higher education programs that sought to send students abroad for a variety of experiences, and during this time, I engaged with the community of practice surrounding this type of programming.  Sadly, but not to my own surprise, I consider my time and contributions during these international education programs my biggest failures of my personal, academic, and professional life. So I quit international learning, but at the same time, international learning quit me. Here’s why.

I do not know enough about international development to be an international learning educator. And I don’t know what I don’t know.
My failures in international learning are amongst the most humbling of my life. I broke rules. I broke the BIG rules of international engagement. I engaged in practices or behaviours that at times perpetuate colonialism, voyeurism and the gazing eye, reinforce first/third world paradigms, and ran the risk of exploitation, even if I didn’t really know it at the time. On the ground and in my own experience, I was building relationships, learning from people, sharing precious and real moments of connection, learning about history and culture, and approaching every experience, and the way they were shared, with best intentions. Through the eyes of others based on the tiny portions of my experiences that were shared on social media or hurried emails home, I had potentially reinforced stereotypes, perpetuated colonialism, and produced “poverty porn”. Yikes. I did? It was then that I realized I knew nothing about international development as I made my way through my international learning experience: I wasn’t engaging in these perceived activities on a conscious level – I was literally just clueless on how to approach all cultural situations and recognize the “fine lines”, and unknowingly I had the potential to cause harm in place of good intentions. My experiences showed me that I have a lot to learn about international development and what it takes to build a successful and ethical international learning program before I give it another shot and throw my hat back in the ring. Not only do I need to move from a place of ignorance to being a bit more “in the know” but I also have to gain a handle on what I don’t know I don’t yet know… the learning curve is a daunting one.

The gaps between the research on best practices, the actual practices, and pressures universities face are too big. And it’s no one’s fault. There is an emergent body of research surrounding best practices for international engagement by educational institutions. Recommendations contained in these works span from length and content of training programs, to effective evaluation methodology, to best practices for site visits to host communities. The body of research is extremely useful and gives a glimpse into the ways that international education programs can and should do better. However, at the practitioner level, pressures to send out as many students as possible to fulfill Internationalization missions within often constrained time frames forces some of these “best practices” to fall by the wayside, and it’s not for lack of wanting to “do better”. Oftentimes criticism can lead to defensiveness, a desire to change becomes frustration that the infrastructure is not set up for change and innovation. At all levels: senior leadership, researcher and practitioner, there needs to be a harmonizing of research to inform best practices, institutional goals that focus on quality rather than quantity, and for the playing field to be conducive to allowing international programs to be executed by practitioners that addresses the concerns that are revealed in evaluative research and within their community of practice.

International learning and international development cannot be mutually exclusive. Participating in the international learning sphere leaves you open to a lot of criticism, as it should. It is difficult to articulate learning in ways that honour and respect international development principles, mostly because international learning is often messy. When you decide to travel to another country to engage in community development work for the purpose of learning, and pack your bags, you automatically also pack assumptions, power, privilege, perception and ego along with you – your own, and those of your allies and critics. I’ve come to recognize that there is this thing that exists called the “international development hyper-lens”. In every international experience, especially when you are engaging closely with communities, there HAS to be the presence of an international development lens; this lens allows us to determine whether in pursuit of our learning we may be causing damage, and should be carried into every experience. On the flip, the international development hyper-lens can become dangerous and stifling by taking every single situation and experience of cultural discovery and subjecting it to splitting hairs, looking for the injustices or the exploitation that you’re undoubtedly causing just by being an outsider in a “third world” country, and engaging a little zealously in the critical discourse we have necessarily learned to become a part of. It’s incredibly important to use an international development lens in every experience of international learning, yet automatically assigning a negative or exploitative stance to learning experiences can stifle cultural discovery – and most importantly human connection – when people become afraid to engage with the world around them. My own sharing of learning experiences became subject to the international development hyper-lens, and took my experiences away from me to become about someone else’s need to tell me they knew more about international development than I did or to project their views that I was doing damage, when no damage was being done. My visit to a cultural site in Africa that takes ex-poachers and places them with secure jobs educating tourists about history and culture became exploitation and gazing; a piece of writing describing one’s experience of experiencing being racially identified for the first time became an insensitivity to the racism experienced by minorities at home; fundraising, but only being able to give a one-time donation became setting an organization up to fail due to not being a sustainable funding-source. Where’s the learning to be taken? I’m pretty sure it’s somewhere within the nuances of the mistakes we make, the lenses we view things, and the on-the-ground relationships and experiences that prove to be personally significant. The learning from the educational perspective occurs when we continue to ask the questions that come up in the relationship between international learning programs and international development principles. Personally, I’ve determined that I am educationally, mentally and emotionally deficient in my abilities to successfully participate in international learning programs from the educator perspective, but this doesn’t mean that I will discontinue engaging on a global level as a traveler, and someone who has important global connections and a desire to work globally. I think it’s OK if I demote myself back to “just a traveler” with a vow to always do right by people, be kind and respectful, always remain transparent in my intentions, and always consider the point of view of others as best I can.

There’s work to be done right outside my own door. Being on the periphery of international development work through international learning has exposed me to the age-old argument of “why do work in other countries when people in our own countries need help?” This is an argument I’ve always tried to stay away from in a direct manner, as I’ve seen how these kinds of arguments can often go off the rails to places I don’t want them to go; we saw some of this happen with the recent Syrian refugee crisis. However my experiences of being a North American working within “third world” countries has underscored that in some cases the countries we think need our help can actually be negatively affected by our presence. The North American mentality has persisted too long that these countries are deficient, or look to the West for the best solutions to community development issues. Our relationships to other countries are best leveraged when we engage in relationships of mutual knowledge exchange and exchange of community development practices, as there is a lot to be learned by the countries we have traditionally seen as “needing help”. Instead, I always come back to the Goethe quote: “Let everyone sweep in front of his [sic] own door, and the whole world will be clean”, and have personally decided to focus my energies into my local community for the time being. The Rwandan practice of “Umuganda” engages citizens in mandatory community-clean up once a month, which contributes to the country’s immaculate conditions. What if all municipalities and communities mandated this practice, but it was expanded to all aspects of society, beyond just environmental cleanup? What if everyone swept outside his or her own door – would the whole world be clean? Perhaps I can be too utopian, but I’d like to hold onto this utopian view for just a little longer.

I quit international learning, and international learning quit me, but it still remains a big part of my life. My experiences have turned me into an advocate for better training for staff, faculty and students involved in international learning. My experiences will never have me stop advocating for host communities. My experiences have allowed me to develop a skill set that will help international learning programs asses their impact. Since these kinds of programs aren’t going away, I can at least use what I have learned to help them work internationally a bit better.

I am encouraged by the changes in international learning that are occurring and will undoubtedly occur in the next while, and I am also excited to witness university programs emerging as leaders in best practices for fostering learning in international environments that place community first and emphasizes quality over quantity. I hope practitioners, researchers, and participants who engage in international learning programs harmonize their efforts in ways that foster collaboration rather than criticism in order to do right by all who engage in these programs and the communities who host them.

Some helpful resources for practitioners, researchers and participants alike. These have certainly been helpful for me in learning the tough lessons that brought me the greatest learning:

End Humanitarian Douchery.

Ernesto Sirolli – “Shut Up and Listen” – TED Talk – –

Larsen, M. (Ed.). (2015). International Service Learning: Engaging Host Communities. Routledge.






Here I Go…

I’ve been working towards launching my own venture for quite a while now, and here goes nothing! I am at the point in my life where I feel ready to be able to offer the skills, expertise and knowledge that I have gained through my education and employment opportunities to individuals, organizations and institutions at both the local and international level.

My interests are wholly focused on bringing people together on a world that is sometimes really good at creating divides. By recognizing that people come from different places, perspectives and agendas, I am able to see the big-picture and work with all stakeholders towards common goals.

I promote collaboration, partnership, and the belief that knowledge can be mobilized in ways to create effective change and I am ready to work with people to bring about change through deploying innovative strategies to bring about awareness and innovation.

My blog will be updated regularly on topics surrounding research, knowledge translation, education, international development and current events, with hopes that I am able to create dialogues that lead to collaborations that create change.

Here goes nothing!