Academic blogging

George Veletsianos is running a four week open course about networked scholarship and the implications of academics’ presence and visibility online for their work and careers.

The first week is already over and there has been plenty of interesting discussion and two interesting events.

On Wednesday Michael Barbour  joined the course for a day to answer any questions that participants threw at him and he generously shared his strategies for working in the open.

On Thursday there was a webinar with Laura Czerniewicz  who shared her work on open scholarly practice in relation to presence, visibility and branding, including her guide to curating open scholarly content:

An 8-step guide to curating open scholarly content 

and with Sarah Goodier a Four Step Guide to online presence

Also shared in the course was this slideshare by Sydneyeve Matrix about academic branding –

There has been some discussion about whether academics should blog. Some have said that open scholarship means sharing all aspects of your life (I have blogged about this in the past ), but as Laura Czerniewicz said ‘Some people are not comfortable blogging – some people have a blogging voice, others don’t’.

For me it’s not either/or. Sometimes I feel that I can’t get the blog posts I want to make out fast enough. At other times I feel that I have nothing to say, nothing to add to the conversation that has not already been said, nothing that I think anyone would find interesting to read – but sometimes you just have to force yourself and start writing, because as others before me have pointed out, writing is a practice – use it or lose it.

Catherine Cronin has recently said  (I can’t remember where – sorry Catherine) that you can never tell whether something you write might be of use to someone, and you might never know.

Stephen Downes  (a most prolific blogger) has written somewhere (or maybe it was said – again I don’t remember – sorry Stephen) that if you can’t find anything to write about, you must be a boring person, ‘or words to that effect’. I think what he meant was that everyone has something to say – we just need the confidence, the belief that there is someone out there that might want to listen.

This echoes what the poet Bernadette Mayer said in a Modern and Contemporary American Poetry MOOC webinar this week –  ‘You can’t have writer’s block – as that would mean total lack of thought’. It’s not lack of thought, it’s lack of confidence. Various bloggers have written about this (see references at the end of this post).

Bernadette Mayer has provided loads of possible starting points for writers in a long document Bernadette Mayer’s List of Journal Ideas. In the webinar her advice was to find something completely impossible to write about and write about it, such that the problem becomes the material and we use the constraints. Write against the reality that is presented to you – she says.

Bernadette’s advice is for poets, but works equally well for academic bloggers. The advantage of blogging is that it can release you from the conventions of academic writing of the type done for journal articles. You can simply start and ‘let it all hang out’ and include images and multimedia. You can write a line or two or you can write at length. There are a whole host of genres you can experiment with.

I think it would be a shame to think about blogging only in terms of scholarship and academic branding. Blogging is much more than that, even for academics. It is about ‘finding your voice’ and building an identity. As Laura said: ‘So much scholarship is embodied in a person.’

Some references that might be of interest, that I have come across or been reminded of this week are:

Automating teaching and assessment

George Veletsianos gave an interesting and thought provoking talk to the University of Edinburgh yesterday. This was live streamed and hopefully a recording will soon be posted here.  A good set of rough notes has been posted by Peter Evans on Twitter

Peter Evans@eksploratore

My live and rough notes on #edindice seminar from@veletsianos on #moocs, automation & artificial intelligence at pj-evans.net/2014/06/moocs-…

As he points out, there were three main topics covered by George’s talk:

  • MOOCs as sociocultural phenomenon;
  • automation of teaching and
  • pedagogical agents and the automation of teaching.

George’s involvement with MOOCs started in 2011 when he gave a presentation to the Change11 MOOC, which I blogged about at the time .

I found myself wondering during his talk to the University of Edinburgh, whether we would be discussing automating teaching, if he had started his MOOC involvement in 2008, as this presentation seemed to come from a background of xMOOC interest and involvement. Those first cMOOCs, with their totally different approach to pedagogy, were not mentioned.

I feel uncomfortable with the idea of automating teaching and having robotic pedagogical agents to interact with learners. The thinking is that this would be more efficient, particularly when teachers are working with large numbers as in MOOCs, and would ‘free up’ teachers’ time so that they can focus on more important aspects of their work. I can see that automating some of the administration processes associated with teaching would be welcome, but I am having difficulty seeing what could be more important, as a teacher, than interacting with students.

George pointed out that many of us already use a number of automating services, such as Google Scholar alerts, RSS feeds, IFTTT and so on, so why not extend this to automating teaching, or teaching assistants, through the use of pedagogical agents such as avatars.

What was interesting is that the audience for this talk seemed very taken with the idea of pedagogical agents, what gender they should be, what appearance they should have, what culture they should represent etc. For me the more interesting question is what do we stand to lose and/or gain by going down this route of replacing teachers with machines.

For some of my colleagues, Karen Guldberg and her team of researchers at Birmingham University, robots have become central to their research on autism and their work with children on the autism spectrum. These children respond in previously unimaginable ways to robots. For some there will be gains from interacting with robots.

But I was reminded, during George’s talk, of Sherry Turkle’s concerns about what we stand to lose by relying on robots for interaction.

And coincidentally I was very recently pointed, by Matthias Melcher, to this fascinating article – Biology’s Shameful Refusal to Disown the Machine-Organism – which whilst not about automating teaching through the use of avatars/robots, does consider the relationship between machines and living things from a different perspective and concludes:

The processes of life are narratives. The functional ideas manifested in the organism belong to the intrinsic inwardness of its life, and are not imposed from without by the mind of an engineer. (Stephen L. Talbott, 2014).

Finally, George Veletsianos’ talk was timely as I am currently discussing with Roy Williams, not how teaching and assessment should be automated, but rather whether and if so how, it can be put in the hands of learners.

This topic will be the focus of a presentation we will give to the University of Applied Sciences, ZML – Innovative Learning Scenarios, FH JOANNEUM in Graz, Austria on September 17th 2014.

 

The Benefits and Risks of Academic Openness

 

Yesterday Frances Bell made a presentation to FSLT12 MOOC on

The role of Openness by Academics in the Transformation of their Teaching and Learning Practices

This was a thought provoking session. Frances didn’t throw content at us, tell us what to think or how to think, but challenged our thinking with the questions

  • How can openness benefit my practice?
  • What risks are presented by open academic?
  • What impact is your participation in #fslt12 having on your personal network?
  • What role can openness play in learners’ practice?

Of course there are no right or wrong answers to these questions. It’s all a matter of perception. Frances states

I prefer to think of openness as a default option that can be turned off, not as a zealot’s precept

But when  I recently wrote a blog post raising the question (in response to a post by George Veletsianos)…..

Is openness becoming a ‘tyranny’ that we are all just drifting into? Or is openness essential to the future of education and scholars?

…. Stephen Downes emphatically responded ‘Yes’ it is essential to the future of education and scholars’, but ‘No’ it is not becoming a tyranny. He feels that we have the autonomy to decide whether to be open or not and writes

First, nobody’s imposing anything here; if you want to go back to your structured formal education, where you pay a substantial fee, there are thousands of institutions who would be happy to help you. Second, the openness (and the rest of it) is the result of a critical examination. As I have argued with respect to the principles of successful networks, if you want your social organizations to be effective at all, you need to embrace things like autonomy, openness, interatcivity and diversity.

This was on the 18th May and I have been thinking about it since because I have a great deal of respect for Stephen, but for me the answers to the questions are less clear cut.  I think in the context of Higher Education the problem is that we are in structured formal education, where, if we want to keep our jobs, we sometimes do have to conform to the institution’s requirements – and that may or may not include a requirement for openness. I should say here that I am not in this situation (I am an independent consultant), but I have been in the past and I know from experience that resistance to an institution’s principles might mean handing in your notice, which is probably not an option for many people – although I have done this twice in the past, and fortunately on both occasions was able to move straight into another job. So I think in certain circumstances, openness could be imposed if you do not have the autonomy to resist it.

But I do agree with Stephen that openness is the result of critical examination – which I think fits with Frances’ statement that openness can be thought of as a default option. As she said in today’s session it will not be for everyone in every situation. We each, individually need to decide how open to be, when and where.

So what might be the benefits? I know that the benefits can be considerable, although I think I benefit more from others’ openness than being open myself. I get access to free information and a wide range of alternative perspectives. More importantly I receive support and encouragement from people I may not even have met. People’s generosity through openness on the web and indeed in this FSLT12 MOOC never fails to amaze me.

But I am equally aware of the risks. Openness necessarily means a certain degree of exposure. For introverts and private people in particular this can be difficult. I think I’m in this category. For novices it may be even more difficult. As Stephen says, we don’t have to be open. We can choose not to be. But first we have to have the freedom to make this choice and second we have to have the skills to weigh up what is gained and what is lost by being open or not open, what we should be open about and what we should keep to ourselves – and then of course we need to decide who to be open with – the whole worldwide web, or just a small working team? As Frances has said in the Moodle discussion forum

I really don’t understand why anyone would want to be open (different from honest in that we can choose not to say certain things) all the time – some remarks are better kept from the public gaze.

Openness is not straightforward. It clearly means different things to different people according to their context and it may be something that we cannot take a stance on in the moment. I suspect it may take considerable experience and time to determine what openness means on a personal level and how that understanding will be reflected in our personal practice.

What is a scholar?

George Veletsianos’ presentation to Week 33 of Change Mooc  has been very timely for the First Steps in Learning and Teaching Mooc  that I am planning with colleagues  at the moment.

George has posted a recording of his presentation to his blog and it is worth listening to. (See also – http://change.mooc.ca/recordings.htm) Another very interesting part of this presentation was the chat that it provoked. This focused on the question on ‘what is a scholar?’ a question that novice academics must surely think about. I have pulled together some of the key ideas and questions that came out of this chat. I’m not going to try and identify those responsible for each comment – but these are the people who contributed (in no particular order): Lisa Lane, Keith Hamon, Stephen Downes, Verena Roberts, ljp and Bon

This is how I have interpreted the key ideas – but I have also included quotes from the chat below.

  • You have to be networked to be a scholar
  • These days you not only have to be networked to be a scholar – you also have to be networked online
  • As a scholar you need to have your work critically assessed and this happens by submitting your work online
  • Sharing is an essential element of scholarship
  • Blogging can be scholarship
  • There is no such thing as a non-connected scholar
  • Scholarship relies on interaction
  • Institutional management processes are a constraint on scholarship

The discussion started with the question of whether in this digital age a scholar can be a scholar without being online. The conversation (chat) included these comments……

‘the act of becoming a scholar is (now / in the future) the same as the act of *creating* an online social network’ 

‘your activities may be online and off, but your *scholarly* activities (papers, presentations, discussion, etc) ought to be online – otherwise the

y’re just private & therefore not very scholarly’

‘I think we all became scholars by participating in networks, online and off’

‘… the extent that they are not online I think they are over time becoming less and less “scholars”

I became a scholar BY participating in online social networks (no chicken, no egg)

Then there was the question of whether you need to have your work critically assessed by online networks to be a scholar

‘…you can’t submit your work to critical assessment (these days) without really being online, and a person who does not subject their work to critical assessment is arguably not a scholar’ 

Sharing was considered an essential element of scholarship

‘..sharing is what makes scholarship valuable’

‘I can’t think of any scholarship that isn’t shared eventually’

That makes most blogging qualify as scholarship?’

‘… no but it does mean that blogging can be scholarship’

‘Do you have to be with a University and digital in order to be a scholar?’

and

What are the institutional constraints on scholarships?

‘ …institutions cannot change quickly enough to support the kind of work we are doing’‘management is based on [a] measurement, and [b] best practices and these are antithetical to good work’ 

we keep having to go outside institutions to do good work?

as a grad student, this academia beyond the institution potential is what i find most profoundly absent withIN the institution. little support and no scaffolding. people can’t model or even recognize what they don’t understand.

because our institutions keep wanting to ‘manage’ us

because the institutions cannot change quickly enough to support the kind of work we are doing, for instance here today

& management is based on [a] measurement, and [b] best practices and these are antithetical to good work

I wonder whether creating an environment for scholarship is an institution’s responsibility any more?

Can a person working on his own be a scholar?

I don’t think you can say an individual working on his/her own can’t be a scholar.

if a person is working on his/her own, then, what is it that makes them a scholar (and not, say, a carpenter)?

no scholar works on their own – that pile of books IS a network of scholars

There is no individual working alone – we are all born out of a discipline, or network of study, and we conduct our study (even alone) within the context of that network, using its language, tools, resources, reference points, even if we extend them or change them

generally, I think we would agree that just reading a bunch of books is not by itself ‘scholarship’

Maybe its about the interaction as well? Its difficult to interact “with” a book…have to interact in order to be a digital scholar?

a “bunch of books” + peer review of ones own work can equal scholarship

actually successful readers are highly interactive with the books they read

All these comments and questions seem to me to be directly relevant to the work of lecturers in Higher Education, whether or not they are new to the job.

My question

Is the identity of people working in Higher Education changing?

Or do you keep your identity intact in a special place known only to you as one chat participant commented ……

Final quote from the chat…

I keep my identity in a small cardboard box in the attic

I love this comment 🙂

Scholars’ participation and practices online

This is the title of George Veletsianos’ talk to Week 33 of ChangeMooc.  George is asking questions which are directly relevant to the Mooc that I am planning with colleagues from Oxford Brookes University – George Roberts, Marion Waite, Liz Lovegrove, Joe Rosa, and Sylvia Currie from British Columbia.

I like the way George has related his post to ChangeMooc to previous speakers in ChangeMooc – Howard Rheingold in Week 15, Tom Reeves in Week 23 and Martin Weller in Week 3. It seems that there is a growing awareness of the issues he is raising, namely:

What are the opportunities and difficulties, for scholars, associated with open sharing of knowledge and practice?

In our First Steps in Learning and Teaching MOOC (#fslt12) , we will be encouraging people who are new to learning and teaching in Higher Education to engage in open academic practice. I will be interested to see what responses we get to this. Will we only have people sign up for the MOOC if they are already comfortable with working openly online? What about the people who are not only new to learning and teaching in Higher Education, but also new to ‘openness’ online?

Martin Weller in his talk to the HEA Workshop held at Oxford University the other week –  said that ‘Openness is a state of mind’.  I agree – but for a novice this openness must be much more difficult to achieve. The risks to reputation, career, credibility and so on, must be much greater.

George Veletsianos’ topic this week is an important one for anyone working in Higher Education, or thinking about working in Higher Education. Unfortunately I won’t be able to attend the live session, but I will listen to the recording with interest.