The Academic Identity of the Academic BEtreat

Connecting with BEtreaters in Grass Valley

I have been on the Academic BEtreat all week (today is the last day) and realize that I am not at all clear that we have a common understanding of what we mean by ‘academic’ on this BEtreat. What does it mean to be an academic?

As I mentioned in a previous blog post, there is a wide mix of people on the BEtreat – 16 of us in total.

  • Some have openly said they are not academics.
  • Some are as interested in the process of the BEtreat as in the academic content.
  • Some are more interested in the application of the ideas surrounding communities of practice and social learning theory, to their practice (be it in business or academia) than discussing the theory.
  • Others feel that they have come to the BEtreat to discuss theory and feel short-changed if we are not doing that.
  • What is a superficial activity for one is a meaningful activity for another and vice-versa.

The BEtreaters seemed to have come to the BEtreat with specific expectations related to their personal understandings of what an ‘Academic’ BEtreat might offer.

I have looked up the word ‘academic’ as a noun in the dictionary and here are two definitions.

  • A teacher or scholar in a university or institute of higher education
  • An intellectual

Well we are not all teachers in the BEtreat, and I think this probably applies to scholars and intellectuals as well. I wouldn’t count myself in either of those categories.

But looking up the word ‘academic’ as an adjective yields many more definitions. Here are some:

  • Belonging to or relating to a place of learning
  • Of purely theoretical or speculative interest
  • Having an aptitude for study
  • Excessively concerned with intellectual matters
  • Conforming to set rules and traditions
  • Theoretical or hypothetical; not practical, realistic, or directly useful

This is a strange list and makes me think that it’s not helpful to think in terms of academic or not an academic – but maybe more useful think about academic behaviours or academic identities.

I wonder whether if the BEtreat had had a different name,  it would have attracted a different group. For example:

  • Educators’ BEtreat
  • Learning, Meaning and Identity BEtreat
  • Learning Theory BEtreat
  • Social Learning Capability BEtreat
  • Cultivating Communities BEtreat
  • Pedagogy BEtreat …….

…… and so on. How much difference does the name make to who is sitting round the table?

When I signed up for the Academic BEtreat, my expectations were guided by the outline on the Academic BEtreat workshop.

The “academic Betreat” is open to researchers, lecturers, doctoral students, evaluators, and others involved in teaching and research. We envision a small group of 10-20 people, face-to-face and online.

This BEtreat is an invitation to come together and explore key concepts and issues in social learning theory. We take time to go deep into the questions brought to the table by everyone. We discuss concepts and methods, analyze frameworks, and compare theories. People will have a chance to discuss their research with the group and get some help on their work in progress.

Despite the clarity of the BEtreat outline, I know that some people think they have had too little theory, some too much, or some people think they have had too little application to practice and some too much and so on. It’s impossible to please all the people all the time, but it’s interesting to consider why mismatches in expectations occur.

I hoped to have in depth discussions about learning and I have more than enough to take away with me. It’s been exhausting – but time very well spent 🙂

Onliners’ view of Grass Valley BEtreaters

What is Academic Rigour?

This is a question that was raised near the end of Tom Reeves  very interesting presentation to ChangeMooc this week.

Recording for this session

The focus of Tom’s presentation was educational research and the lack of impact of educational technology research on educational policy and practice. To address this problem he has worked with colleagues to develop a model – Design-Based Research. in which the focus is on researching a problem.

Tom emphasised the importance of academic rigour, but this led to the question – what is academic rigour? There was no ready answer or consensus in the session.  Some answers to this question from Tom and participants were:

  • not for the faint-hearted; takes effort and commitment (Tom Reeves)
  • unchanging, in the sense that ‘rigorous’ means performing the same (type of) study every time, conforming to the same (set of) principles etc. (Stephen Downes)
  • more likely to lead to the truth (but what is truth?) (Stephen Downes)
  • disciplined, measurable, stands up to scrutiny by others (brainysmurf)
  • can replicate the methods (Tom Reeves)

None of these answers quite satisfies me and this dissatisfaction has led to some further thinking and discussion.

It seems to me now that there is not an absolute concept of academic rigour – but rather there are degrees of it depending of the closeness of research to known theory, whether or not the research is supported by known theory and the credibility of the data from which inferences are drawn.  This can be thought of in terms of the following diagram:

What is Academic Rigour?

Following a given model or a systematic process won’t necessarily lead to academic rigour or even reliable success.  I was interested in Stephen Downes’ comment that he is more a follower of Feyerabend in being “Against Method” and that ‘there is great liberation in understanding that ‘method’ is based on sociological desire for conformity rather than scientific desire for truth’.

Finally, there was the question of whether or not research needs to start with a problem – the Design-Based Research Model states that it does …..

… but this wouldn’t account for ‘Eureka’, ‘Ah Ha’ moments or accidental findings . This would suggest that ‘academic rigour’ is not always needed for good research.

Academic credibility

In recent days,  and as a result of ongoing conversation, both on and offline, in the light of my experience at the Networked Learning Conference, I have been thinking a lot about the implications of openness for academic credibility and learning.  The ideas I am about to express are the result of a conversation that I have been having with a friend, so I cannot claim them as my own, but neither can I attribute them, as they arise from a private conversation.

Academic credibility seems to stem from a recognised research record in academia. I am not an academic and I am a new researcher so I am aware that I could easily be shot down for what I write in this post.  However, being an independent consultant also gives me a degree of freedom to speak that maybe people who are trying to maintain their credibility and self-esteem within an HE institution and maybe climb the career ladder do not have.

As far as I understand it, an HE institution relies on its researchers to provide its credibility as an academic institution of note and from people I have spoken to, some if not all academics are required to publish a certain number of papers a year in esteemed journals. A recent article I read (can’t remember where) pointed out that the pressure on new researchers is much greater than on established/recognised researchers who can rest on their laurels a bit and have lesser demands made of them by their institutions as to how many papers they produce.

In this age of open online publication – what does this mean for academics? When Sui Fai John Mak, Roy Williams and I were selecting a conference to submit our two papers to, we specifically chose the Networked Learning Conference because our papers would be published online. For us this was/is important as we felt that this decision adhered to the principles of openness that we had learned about on the Connectivism and Connective Knowledge course.

Despite having written in the Ideals and Reality of Participating in a MOOC paper about the difficulties of understanding the meaning of openness, it seems to me to be a principle worth signing up to. But what might be the difficulties for academics if their paper does not go through a peer reviewed journal?

In discussion with my friend/colleague I realise that a peer-reviewed journal does offer some protection for the integrity of an academic’s ideas and for accuracy of citing the author’s writing. So for example, it is difficult to accurately cite writing in blog posts and often blog posts are not considered to have the same worth as an article included in a peer-reviewed journal. The link may go down, or the writing may be inaccurately cited or attributed.

And then there is the question of what happens when the online writing/article is translated into another language without the author’s knowledge  – interpreted inaccurately by the translator – and cited from there. The potential for dilution and distortion of the original post is huge.

So what do those who are keen to follow the openness route do? Do they just shrug and accept that their ideas and in many cases considerable work will be open to corruption and distortion – or do they need to consider the protection that the academic establishment can ensure for their ideas, through the long, slow, tedious and narrow confines of peer reviewed journals ( my interpretation of the submission to journal process, which I have to admit is based on very limited experience, and which, being independent of an HE institution, I don’t need to worry about!).

Which is more important: – that we ensure that our ideas/thinking/research reaches as many people as possible as freely as possible, or safe-guarding the integrity of our research? Quite a dilemma, for which I do not have an answer.