What does scholarship sound like?

Creative work is scholarly work

The Specialist Committee recognises the importance of both formal academic research and creative outputs for the research cultures in many departments, as well as for individual researchers; it thus aims to give equal value to theoretical/empirical research (i.e. historical, theoretical, analytic, sociological, economic, etc. studies from an arts perspective) and creative work (i.e. in cases where the output is the result of a demonstrable process of investigation through the processes of making art.); the latter category of outputs is treated as fully equivalent to other types of research output, but in all cases credit is only given to those outputs which demonstrate quality and have a potential for impact and longevity.

The South African National Research Foundation has recently shared guidelines for the recognition of creative scholarly outputs, which serves to broaden the concept of what kind of work can be regarded – and importantly, recognised – as “scholarly”. The guidelines suggest that the creative work could include (among others):

  • Non-conventional academic activities related to creative work and performance: Catalogues, programmes, and other supporting documentation describing the results of arts research in combination with the works themselves;
  • In Drama and theatre: scripts or other texts for performances and the direction of and design (lighting, sound, sets, costumes, properties, etc.) for live presentations as well as for films, videos and other types of media presentation; this also applies to any other non-textual public output (e.g. puppetry, animated films, etc.), provided they can be shown to have entered the public domain;

I’m going to talk about podcasts as scholarly outputs because I’m currently involved in three podcast projects; In Beta (conversations about physiotherapy education), SAAHE health professions educators (conversations about educational research in the health professions), and a new project to document the history of the physiotherapy department at the University of the Western Cape.

These podcasts take up a lot of time; time that I’m not spending writing the articles that are the primary form of intellectual capital in academia and I wondered, in the light of the new guidelines from the NRF, if a podcast could be considered to be a scholarly output. There are other reasons for why we may want to consider recognising podcasts as scholarly outputs:

  1. They increase access for academics who are doing interesting work but who, for legitimate reasons, may not be willing to write an academic paper.
  2. They increase diversity in the academic domain because they can be (should be?) published in the language of preference of the hosts.
  3. They reduce the dominance of the PDF for knowledge distribution, which could only be a good thing.
  4. Conversations among academics is a legitimate form of knowledge creation, as new ideas emerge from the interactions between people (like, for example, in a focus group discussion).
  5. Podcasts – if they are well-produced – are likely to have a wider audience than academic papers.
  6. Audio gives an audience another layer of interesting-ness when compared to reading a PDF.
  7. Academic podcasts may make scholarship less boring (although, to be honest, we’re talking about academics, so I’m not convinced with this one).

What do we mean by “scholarship”?

Most people think of scholarly work as the research article (and probably the conference presentation) but there’s no reason that the article/PDF should remain the primary form of recognised scholarly output. It also requires that anyone wanting to contribute to a scholarly conversation must learn the following:

  • “Academic writing” – the specific grammar and syntax we expect from our writers.
  • Article structure – usually, the IMRAD format (Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion).
  • Journals – where to submit, who is most likely to publish, what journals cater for which audiences.
  • Research process – I’m a big fan of the scientific method but sometimes it’s enough for a new idea to be shared without it first having to be shown to be “true”.

Instead of expecting people to first learn the traditions and formal structures that we’ve accepted as the baseline reality for sharing scholarly work, what if we just asked what scholarship is? Instead of defining “scholarship” as “research paper/conference presentation”, what if we started with what scholarship is considered to be and then see what maps onto that? From Wikipedia:

The scholarly method or scholarship is the body of principles and practices used by scholars to make their claims about the subject as valid and trustworthy as possible and to make them known to the scholarly public… Scholarship…is creative, can be documented, can be replicated or elaborated, and is peer-reviewed.

So there’s nothing about publishing PDFs in journals as part of this definition of scholarship. What about the practice of doing scholarly work? I’m going to use Boyer’s model of scholarship, not because it’s the best but because it is relatively common and not very controversial. Boyer includes four categories of scholarly work (note that this is not a series of progressions that one has to move through in order to reach the last category…each category is a form of scholarship on its own):

  • Scholarship of discovery: what is usually considered to be basic research or the search for new knowledge.
  • Scholarship of integration: where we aim to give meaning to isolated facts that consider them in context; it aims to ask what the findings of discovery mean.
  • Scholarship of application: the use of new knowledge to solve problems that we care about.
  • Scholarship of teaching: the examination of how teaching new knowledge can both educate motivate those in the discipline; it is bout sharing what is learned.

Here are each of Boyer’s categories with reference to podcasts:

  • Discovery (advancing knowledge): Can we argue that knowledge can be advanced through conversation? Is there something Gestalt in a conversation where a new whole can be an emergent property of the constituent parts? How is a podcast conversation any different to a focus group discussion where the cohort is a sample with specific characteristics of interest?
  • Integration (synthesis of knowledge): Can the editing and production of a podcast, using the conversation as the raw data, be integrated with other knowledge in order to add new levels of explanation and critique? This could either be in the audio file or as show notes. Could podcast guests be from different disciplines, exploring a topic from different perspectives?
  • Application/engagement (applied knowledge): Can we use emergent knowledge from the podcast to do something new in the world? Can we take what is learned from the initial conversation, which may have been modified and integrated with other forms of knowledge (in multiple formats e.g. text, images, video), and apply it to a problem that we care about?
  • Teaching (openly shared knowledge): Can we, after listening to a podcast and applied what we learned, share what was done, as well as the result, with others in order that the process (methods) and outcomes (results) can be evaluated by our peers?

This may not be a definitive conclusion to the question of whether podcasts could be regarded as scholarly work but at the very least, it suggests that it’s something we could consider. If you accept that a podcast might be regarded as scholarly we can then ask how we might go about formally recognising it as such.

Workflow to distribute scholarly work

I’m going to use an academic, peer-reviewed, traditional journal (or at least, the principle of one) to explore a workflow that we can use to get a sense of how a podcast could be formally recognised as scholarly work. We first need to note that a journal has two primary functions:

  1. Accreditation, which is usually a result of the journals peer review process, and their brand/history/legacy. The New England Journal of Medicine is a recognised “accreditor” of scholarly work, not because there is anything special about the journal but simply because it is the New England Journal of Medicine. Their reputation is enough for us to trust them when they say that the ideas presented in a piece of work have been tested through peer review and has not been found wanting.
  2. Distribution, which in the past meant printing those ideas on paper and literally shipping them around the world. Today, this distribution function has changed to Discoverability; the journal does what it can to make sure your article can be found by search engines, and if you’re the New England Journal of Medicine you don’t need to do much because Google will do your quality signalling for you by surfacing your articles above others. Theefore, ournals host content and try to increase the chances that we can find it, and the distribution function has largely been taken over by us (because we share articles on behalf of the journals).

By separating out the functions of a journal we can see that it’s possible for a journal to accredit work that it does not necessarily have to host itself. We could have a journal that is asked to accredit a piece of work i.e. signal to readers (or in our case, listeners) that the work has passed some set of criteria that we use to describe it as “scholarly”.

What might this workflow look like? Since I’m trying to show how podcasts could be accredited within the constraints of the existing system of journal publications, I’m going to stick to a traditional process as closely as possible, even though I think that this makes the process unnecessarily complicated, especially when you think about what needs to happen following the peer review. Here is what I think the accreditation process could look like:

  1. Create a podcast episode (this is basically a FGD) on a topic of interest where guests discuss a question or a problem that their community of peers recognises as valid. This could be done by a call to the community for topics of interest.
  2. Edit the podcast, including additional resources and comments as show notes. The podcast creators could even include further comments and analysis, either before, during or after the initial recorded conversation. The audio includes the raw data (the recorded conversation), real-time analysis and critique by participants, discussion of potential applications of the emergent knowledge, and conclusion (maybe via post-recording reflection and analysis).
  3. Publish the episode on any podcast-hosting platform. The episode is now in the public domain.
  4. Submit a link to the episode to a journal, which embeds the podcast episode as a post (“article”) along with a short description of what it includes (like an abstract), a description of the process of creation (like the methods), the outcome of the conversation (like a conclusion), and a list of additional reading (like a reference list).
  5. The journal begins the process of accrediting the podcast by allocating peer reviewers, whose reviews are published alongside the embedded podcast in the journal.
  6. Reviewers review the “methods”, “conclusions”, “references” and knowledge claims of the podcast guests, add comments to the post, and highlight the limitations of the episode. The show notes include a description of the process, participants, additional readings, DOI, etc. This could be where the process ends; the journal has used peer review to assign a measure of “quality” to the episode and does not attempt to make a judgement on “value” (which is what journals do when they reject submissions). It is left to the listener to decide if the podcast has value for them.
  7. The following points are included for completeness as they follow a traditional iterative process following peer review. I don’t think these steps are necessary but are only included to map the workflow onto a process that most authors will be familiar with:
    1. The podcast creators make some changes to the audio file, perhaps by including new analysis and comments in the episode, or maybe by adding new information to the textual component of the episode (i.e. the show notes).
    2. The new episode is released. This re-publication of the episode would need to be classified as an entirely different version since the original episode would have been downloaded and shared to networks. An updated version would, therefore, need a new URL, a new page on the podcast hosting service, etc.

In the example workflow above, the journal never hosts the audio file and does not “publish” the podcast. It includes an embedded version of the episode, the show notes (which include the problem under discussion, the participants and their bios, an analysis of the conversation, and a list of references), as well as the full peer reviews. Readers/listeners then decide on the “importance” of the episode and whether or not to assign value to it. In other words, the readers/listeners decide what work is valuable, rather than the peer reviewers or the journal.

In summary, I’ve tried to describe why podcasts are potentially a useful format for creating and sharing the production of new knowledge, presented a framework for determining if a podcast could be considered to be scholarly, and described the workflow and some practical implications of an accreditation process using a traditional journal.

OpenPhysio | A new physiotherapy education journal

I’m really excited to announce a new project that I’ve been working on together with the folks at Physiopedia. Today we’re launching an open access, peer reviewed journal with a focus on physiotherapy education, with a few features that we think are pretty innovative in the academic publishing space. The journal is called OpenPhysio and represents what we think is a fundamental shift away from traditional ways of thinking about how we share knowledge.

Here are some of the ways we think the journal is different to more traditional publication channels:

  • Immediate publication. Your article is available to the public almost immediately after submission.
  • Peer review is open and transparent. Authors work together with peer reviewers, and the reviews and author responses are published alongside the final article, together with DOIs that make them citable objects.
  • You retain your intellectual property at no cost. OpenPhysio does not require you to transfer copyright to the journal, and there are no page fees for published articles.
  • Articles are first class internet citizens. Your articles can be enhanced with images, audio, tagging, hyperlinks, and video.

We’re still in the early stages of the project (we have no publications yet) and there’s a lot still to iron out, but we’ve decided to make it public nonetheless. This is in line with our broader thinking about publication, which is to share stuff early and then hash it out in the real world. We have Editorial and Advisory Boards and you can have a look at our policies around open access and peer review.

Now, before you write and tell me that there’s no such thing as physiotherapy education (you’d be right, by the way) we want to be clear that this is a journal aimed at physiotherapists with an emphasis on teaching and learning. it’s not about suggesting that the way physiotherapists learn is somehow different to how nurses, physicians and OTs learn. But we do think that there’s a space to explore our context in ways that may not translate well into other domains.

We want to encourage submissions from physios who are interested in learning more about teaching and learning, whether you’re supervising students or less-experienced colleagues in the clinical and community contexts, or if you’re an academic responsible for teaching in undergraduate and postgraduate classrooms. If you’re interested in teaching and learning in a physiotherapy context, we’d love it if you would consider OpenPhysio as a channel to share your ideas.

If you’d like to know more about the journal, please contact the Editor or visit the website.

What does it mean to be a book?

Recently I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a book. What makes a book, a “book”? I’m willing to bet that when you see the word “book” you think of a physical container for words that are printed on paper, bound within covers and sits on a bookshelf. Wikipedia agrees with you:

A book is a set of written, printed, illustrated, or blank sheets, made of ink, paper, parchment, or other materials, fastened together to hinge at one side. A single sheet within a book is a leaf, and each side of a leaf is a page.

It seems that the physicality of a book has a lot to do with its book-ness. In other words, when we think of a book it’s usually as something that we can hold. This makes sense in a historical context because writing in books was an evolution of previous systems that allowed the recording of words and ideas onto some kind of natural material e.g. tablets (clay, not Apple). When you actually think about it, maybe the only reason we think of books as printed collections of words is because for the past several hundred years that’s all they were. Maybe we think of a book as a collection of words printed on bound paper because that is all we have ever known a book to be.

If we consider the design principle that form should follow function we see that the purpose of a thing should define it’s form. In other words, if the purpose of a book is to record and preserve ideas with the intent of sharing them at scale with others, then we should choose a form that allows us to most effectively achieve that function. For most of our recent history, printing words onto paper was pretty much the only way that complex ideas could survive the death of a person. While oral traditions of preserving and sharing ideas are also valid, they don’t scale when it comes to sharing with very large numbers of people.

We should be asking what technology currently exists that enables books to take on a form that allows them to better achieve the function of storing and sharing ideas at scale over extended periods of time? Why do we still think of a “book” as a thing that sits on a shelf, when digital tools enable us to create new forms of books that are better suited to achieving their function. And I’m not talking about PDFs as digital versions of books. The PDF version of a printed book differs only in degree from the printed version and its fundamental properties are generally the same. For example, the PDF is “better” than the print version because we can make more copies at a lower cost. This property makes the cost of distribution (i.e. copying) of PDFs essentially zero. But besides decreasing the cost of efficient distribution, how else is the PDF of a book different to a printed book?

digital-book

What if “books” could be more than a collection of printed pages (whether the “print” and “page” is ink- or pixel-based)? What if, instead of thinking of books in terms of their physical properties (i.e. what they look and feel like) we think of them in terms of collections of ideas that are stored and shared over time (i.e. what books are for)? Now we’re talking about separating the function of a book from its form, and digital technology is inherently suited for this. In the default idea of “book”, form and content are intricately tied together. Words are collected into sentences, paragraphs and chapters, and printed onto pages. The words and the pages are inseparable.

“Digital” allows us to abstract ideas out into smaller collections (much smaller than chapters), which can be shared, modified and repurposed far more easily than 20 printed pages collected into a chapter. Instead of thinking of words, sentences and paragraphs as collections in a chapter, we can think of them as discrete ideas – down to the “word” level – which can then be categorised and presented as such. It means that we could, for example, allow for readers to search for ideas and abstract concepts, rather than just words. Imagine putting together a custom textbook that is made of excerpts or ideas from a variety of other books that are created this way, in a similar process to what we can currently do with books created in Wikipedia. Imagine if readers could download and share, not only single chapters of a book, but single ideas?

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“Digital” means that we can separate the form and content of writing so that we can focus on creating content leaving computers to focus on form. Machine readability is what allows me to write a blog post in plain text and leave the formatting and presentation of my content to the WordPress theme that I have installed on my blog. It’s what allows my content to show up, stripped of formatting and design, in your Pocket reader when you save it to read later. It’s what allows you to subscribe to my posts and have my content show up in whatever format and device you choose to receive it in.

Machine readability allows affordably serving the information to a wider variety of users (in a presentation that they can understand), where users may be humans or machines. This requires the ability to recast abstractions in new instances quickly and cheaply (that is, without time-consuming reworking), which generally requires automation rather than person-hours of labor.

Responsive design is the idea that content will take the form of whatever device you’re using to access it, and has become a foundational principle of modern digital design. If you’re a content creator, you need to ensure that your work is going to take whatever form the content consumer requires it to. If they’re on a 20 inch monitor, it needs to look as good as it does on a 4 inch phone screen. Try making a PDF do that.

triveo-media-responsive-design

This is the power of separating out content and presentation. How a thing looks is different to what it does. So we come back to the idea that a book is a container of ideas, not words, which means that the way in which the ideas are expressed, stored and shared need have nothing to do with the ideas themselves. A book therefore, does not actually need to be a book.

Now that we’ve separated form from function, what does that allow us to do with the “collection of ideas” (i.e. the book)? Well, for one thing, it removes the requirement that ideas are presented linearly. When you can break up the ideas into discrete items, they can be remixed, distributed and presented in non-linear ways e.g. using hyperlinks to connect different ideas in different places. It also means that the “book” can be presented and shared as either a physically printed volume, an ebook, an audiobook, a website, an RSS feed or an email newsletter.

By using digital tools, we lose nothing (we can still print the book) and gain several advantages that print simply cannot provide. For example, you could make sections of the book available to be distributed as embedded content or as streams of content (via RSS) rather than PDF pages. One practical benefit of this is that further distribution is possible in very simple ways. Just like a tweet can be embedded in any website, a section of content from the book could be embedded into any other media. Think what this would mean for generating discussion and debate around your content, as opposed to emailing a PDF of a whole book around.

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Finally, on a more pragmatic level publishing a book – not just as an ebook but also as a website, RSS feed, or mobile app – provides the following benefits:

  • You can include animations, audio interviews, linking out to external content, and embedding videos.
  • Digital text can be converted to audio via text-to-speech software, creating access for people with disabilities.
  • The separation of content and presentation means that you could edit and update content via a content management system, which means that errors can be corrected at no cost, and the updated content is propagated through the system, changing automatically whenever it is viewed.
  • New chapters could be added or modified over time at no cost. There would be no need for updated editions that are distributed in cargo containers to other countries because every instance of the “book” is the most up-to-date version.

Taking all of the above into account, what is the value of publishing a physical book in hard copy? I honestly can’t think of any reasons that are not rooted in legacy or simple momentum, for us to seriously consider printing words onto paper, binding them together and shipping them around the world. I think that in order for us to most effectively share our ideas with others is to ask what it means – in a digital age – to be a book?

Abstract for RCTs in educational research

There seems to have been a resurgence in calls for the use of systematic reviews and randomised controlled trials in educational research lately. There’s a lot to like (in my opinion) about RCTs in certain contexts because of how they are designed.  For example, when you want to figure out the effect of variable A on variable B, it’s a very useful approach because of the randomisation of the sample and the blinding of assessors and participants.

However, the method doesn’t translate well into most educational contexts for a variety of reasons, usually in the form of arguments for how RCTs in educational research are unethical and logistically difficult. I recently wrote a position paper with a colleague from Rhodes University where we looked at the argument against RCTs where we basically ignore the arguments just mentioned. We focus instead on how using an RCT pre-supposes an understanding of teaching and learning that is at odds with what we know about how learning happens. The article will be published soon in the African Journal of Health Professions Education. Here’s the abstract:

Randomised controlled trails (RCTs) are a valued research method in evidence-based practice in the medical and clinical settings. However, the use of RCTs is associated with a particular ontological and epistemological perspective that is situated within a positivist world view. It assumes that environments and variables can be controlled in order to establish cause-effect relationships. But current theories of learning suggest that knowledge is socially constructed, and that learning occurs in open systems which cannot be controlled and manipulated as would be required in a RCT. They recognise the importance and influence of context on learning, something that positivist research paradigms specifically aim to counter. We argue that RCTs are inappropriate in education research because they force us to take up ontological and epistemological positions within a technical rationalist framework that is at odds with current learning theory.

 

Thoughts on my first article for The Conversation

I pitched 3 ideas for articles to The Conversation: Africa at the end of last year, one of which was picked up to develop and publish. A few days ago I gave the go-ahead for it to be published and am happy to report that it is live. It’s called Technology is no longer a luxury for universities – It’s a necessity. My original title was a William Gibson quote: “The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed” but I gather the editor decided on something more accessible.

There are a few things that were different to what I was expecting, in particular the amount of input that the editor provides. I was expecting something more like critical feedback in the peer review process but it was actually more like having a co-author at times. This worked out well for me since I didn’t want to feel like I had to put in the same amount of time that I would for an academic paper. It was nice to have someone else try out the ideas and to actually make the changes to the article.

I was also surprised that the editor selected the header image. When I’m blogging I’m used to spending a bit of time trying to find a good picture that works with the post, so it was strange to see the final article with an image already included. This is both positive and negative. Positive because I didn’t have to spend the time finding a graphic with the right permissions (I suppose this is the main reason the editor takes on this responsibility), and negative because I may not like the selected picture, although this is obviously something that can be discussed.

All in all, I enjoyed the process, especially the very quick turnaround time from the initial submission of the idea to the final publication, which would have been even quicker had we not had the #FeesMustFall movement at the end of 2015. I am also impressed at the reach of the publication, which you can see in the screenshot below. That’s not bad considering it was only published this morning. Finally, The Conversation makes it very simple to republish articles on your own site – providing the source code for the piece – which you can copy into your own blogging platform. I’ll be doing that in my next post on this blog.

The Conversation 2016-01-12 10-53-04

 

I enjoyed reading (December)

This post is really delayed, mainly because I took a break from blogging over December and January. I was starting to feel an “obligation to blog”, which is when I know that I need to step back a bit and take some time off. There’s nothing worse than writing because you feel you have to, rather than actually wanting to. Now that I’ve had a break, I find myself feeling excited at the prospect of blogging again, which is a much better place to be.

9 reasons why I am NOT a social constructivist (Donald Clark): Interesting critique of the concept of social constructivism as a theory that explains learning. To be honest, I’ll admit to having accepted the authenticity of the theory because it fits in with how I believe the world is. However, I haven’t been at all critical of it. In the spirit of adopting a more critical view of my beliefs, this was a very good post to read.

Educators nod sagely at the mention of ‘social constructivism’ confirming the current orthodoxy in learning theory. To be honest, I’m not even sure that social constructivism is an actual theory, in the sense that it’s verified, studied, understood and used as a deep, theoretical platform for action. For most, I sense, it’s a simple belief that learning is, well, ‘social’ and ‘constructed’. As collaborative learning is a la mode, the social bit is accepted without much reflection, despite its obvious flaws. Constructivism is trickier but appeals to those with a learner-centric disposition, who have a mental picture of ideas being built in the mind.

Going Beyond ‘Learning to Code’: Why 2014 is the Year of Web Literacy (Doug Belshaw): I like the idea of people having a sense of how technology works. As more and more of our lives become integrated with technology, isn’t it important to understand how it affects us? How are the decisions we make increasingly influenced by those who write the code of the applications and devices we use? Think about pacemakers that determine the frequency and regularity of your heartbeat. Wouldn’t you want to make sure that there are as few software bugs as possible? My interest in this topic is more related to the idea of open source software and the importance of ensuring that as much code as possible is open for review by an objective and independent community. Mozilla’s Web Literacy standard is one small aspect of developing competence in a range of skills that are increasingly relevant to our ability to interact with others in the world.

In this post I want to argue that learning to code is part of a larger landscape that we at Mozilla call ‘web literacy’. I see that landscape as being increasingly relevant in 2014 as we come to realise that “learn to code!” is too simplistic and de-contextualised to be a useful exhortation. Web Literacy, on the other hand, is reasonably well-defined as the skills and competencies required to read, write and participate effectively online. We’ve included ‘coding/scripting’ as just one part of a wider strand identified as ‘Building’ (i.e. writing) the web. Other competencies in this strand include ‘remixing’ and ‘composing for the web’.

Do What You Love: A Selfish and Misguided Message (Dean Shareski):

By keeping us focused on ourselves and our individual happiness, DWYL [Do What You Love] distracts us from the working conditions of others while validating our own choices and relieving us from obligations to all who labor, whether or not they love it. It is the secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment. According to this way of thinking, labor is not something one does for compensation, but an act of self-love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient.

Academic publishers must sort out their outdated electronic submission and review processes (Dorothy Bishop):

My relationships with journals are rather like a bad marriage: a mixture of dependency and hatred. Part of the problem is that journal editors and academics often have a rather different view of the process. Scientific journals could not survive without academics. We do the research, often spending several years of our lives to produce a piece of work that is then distilled into one short paper, which the fond author invariably regards as a fascinating contribution to the field. But when we try to place our work in a journal, we find that it’s a buyer’s market: most journals are overwhelmed with more submitted papers than they can cope with, and rejection rates are high. So there is a total mismatch: we set out naively dreaming of journals leaping at the opportunity to secure our best work, only to be met with coldness and rejection.

Side note: The above post included a screenshot of this tweet, which I enjoyed.

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New South African online T&L journal (CriSTaL)

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We’re really happy to announce the launch of CriSTaL (Critical Studies in Teaching and Learning), a new South African online journal on the scholarship of teaching and learning. From the home page:

Critical Studies in Teaching and Learning is a peer-reviewed journal that publishes scholarly articles and essays that describe, theorise and reflect on teaching and learning practice in higher education. The editors welcome contributions that are critical and well-researched, whether they are analytical, theoretical or practice-based, as well as contributions that deal with innovative and reflective approaches to teaching and learning. We are particularly interested in articles that have relevance to the South African educational context.

It’s great to finally have another local option for publishing scholarship around teaching and learning in South Africa. Please take a moment to share this with any colleagues who you think may be interested.

Alternative ways of sharing my PhD output

“Online journals are paper journals delivered by faster horses”

– Beyond the PDF 2

I’ve started a process of creating a case study of my PhD project, using my blog as an alternative means of presenting and sharing my results. Most of the chapters have already either been published or are under review with peer-reviewed journals, so I’ve played my part in the publishing game and jumped through the hoops of my institution. The full-length thesis has also been lodged with the institutional repository, so it is available, but in all honesty it’s a big, unwieldy thing, difficult to navigate and work through for all but the most invested reader.

Initially I thought that the case study would simply be a summary of the entire project but quickly realised that this would defeat the object of using the format. If people want the “academic” version, with the full citations, reference lists, standard headings (Background, Method, Results, etc.) then they’d still be able to download the published paper or even just read the abstract as a summary. The online case study should be more blog / wiki, than peer-reviewed paper. I’m starting to realise that one of the great things about the PhD-by-publication approach is that with the papers already peer-reviewed and published, I’m freed from having to continue playing the game. I get to do whatever I want to with the case study, because the “serious, academic” stuff is done.

After exploring a few other options (see list below), I decided that HTML was the best way to share the process in a format that would be more flexible and engaging than a PDF. HTML is a text-based format that degrades well (i.e. old browsers, mobile browsers and slow internet connections can all deal reasonably well with text files) while at the same time allowing for advanced features like embedded video and presentations. Also, being an open standard, HTML is unlikely to suffer from the problems of software updates that disable functionality available in previous versions. Think how many people were (and continue to be) inconvenienced by Microsoft’s move from the .doc to the .docx format.

Here are some of the features I thought were important for whatever platform I chose to disseminate my research. It should:

  • Be based on an open standard so that it would always be readable or backwards compatible with older software
  • Have the ability to embed multimedia (video, audio, images, slideshows)
  • Enable some form of interaction with the reader
  • Have a responsive user interface that adapts to different devices and screen sizes i.e. it should be device independent
  • Allow the content to be presented in a visually attrative format (“Pretty” is a feature“)
  • Be able to be adapted and maintained easily over time
  • Be able to export the content in multiple formats (e.g. Word, ODT, PDF)

Before deciding on using HTML and this blog, here is a list of the alternative diseemination methods I considered, and the reasons I decided not to go with them:

  • ePub is an open standard and can potentially be presented nicely, but not all ePud readers are created equal and I didn’t want anyone to have to jump through hoops to read my stuff. For example, an ebook published to the Kindle may not display in iBooks.
  • PDF is simple, open standard, easy to create but too rigid in the sense that it conforms to “digital paper” paradigm. It wouldn’t allow me to be flexible in how content is displayed or shared.
  • Google+ is visually pleasing but it is not open (the API is still read-only) and I have no idea if it will be around in a few years time.
  • Github was probably never a real option, but I like the idea of a collaborative version control system that allows me (and potentially others) to update the data over time, capturing all the changes made. However, it is simply too technical for what I wanted to do.
  • Tiddlywiki actually seemed like it might win out, since it’s incredibly simple to use, and is visually appealing with a clean user interface. I even began writing a few notes using it. The problem was that once I decided that HTML was the way to go, there wasn’t a strong enough reason to use anything other than my own blog.

If you’re interested in exploring this idea further, check out the Force11 White Paper: Improving The Future of Research Communications and e-Scholarship as a manifesto for alternative methods of sharing research.

I enjoyed reading (March)

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The web as a universal standard (Tony Bates): It wasn’t so much the content of this post that triggered my thinking, but the title. I’ve been wondering for a while what a “future-proof” knowledge management database would look like. While I think the most powerful ones will be semantic (e.g. like the KDE desktop integrated with the semantic web), there will also be a place for standardised, text-based media like HTML.

 

The half-life of facts (Maria Popova):

Facts are how we organize and interpret our surroundings. No one learns something new and then holds it entirely independent of what they already know. We incorporate it into the little edifice of personal knowledge that we have been creating in our minds our entire lives. In fact, we even have a phrase for the state of affairs that occurs when we fail to do this: cognitive dissonance.

 

How parents normalised password sharing (danah boyd):

When teens share their passwords with friends or significant others, they regularly employ the language of trust, as Richtel noted in his story. Teens are drawing on experiences they’ve had in the home and shifting them into their peer groups in order to understand how their relationships make sense in a broader context. This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone because this is all-too-common for teen practices. Household norms shape peer norms.

 

Academic research published as a graphic novel (Gareth Morris): Over the past few months I’ve been thinking about different ways for me to share the results of my PhD (other than the papers and conference presentations that were part of the process). I love the idea of using stories to share ideas, but had never thought about presenting research in the form of a graphic novel.

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Getting rich off of schoolchildren (David Sirota):

You know how it goes: The pervasive media mythology tells us that the fight over the schoolhouse is supposedly a battle between greedy self-interested teachers who don’t care about children and benevolent billionaire “reformers” whose political activism is solely focused on the welfare of kids. Epitomizing the media narrative, the Wall Street Journal casts the latter in sanitized terms, reimagining the billionaires as philanthropic altruists “pushing for big changes they say will improve public schools.”

The first reason to scoff at this mythology should be obvious: It simply strains credulity to insist that pedagogues who get paid middling wages but nonetheless devote their lives to educating kids care less about those kids than do the Wall Street hedge funders and billionaire CEOs who finance the so-called reform movement. Indeed, to state that pervasive assumption out loud is to reveal how utterly idiotic it really is, and yet it is baked into almost all of today’s coverage of education politics.

 

The case for user agent extremism (Anil Dash): Anil’s post has some close parallels with this speech by Eben Moglen, that I linked to last month. The idea that, as technology becomes increasingly integrated into our lives, the more control we are losing. We all need to become invested in wresting control of our digital lives and identities back from corporations, although how exactly to do that is a difficult problem.

The idea captured in the phrase “user agent” is a powerful one, that this software we run on our computers or our phones acts with agency on behalf of us as users, doing our bidding and following our wishes. But as the web evolves, we’re in fundamental tension with that history and legacy, because the powerful companies that today exert overwhelming control over the web are going to try to make web browsers less an agent of users and more a user-driven agent of those corporations.

 

Singularities and nightmares (David Brin):

Options for a coming singularity include self-destruction of civilization, a positive singularity, a negative singularity (machines take over), and retreat into tradition. Our urgent goal: find (and avoid) failure modes, using anticipation (thought experiments) and resiliency — establishing robust systems that can deal with almost any problem as it arises.

 

Is AI near a takeoff point? (J. Storrs Hall):

Computers built by nanofactories may be millions of times more powerful than anything we have today, capable of creating world-changing AI in the coming decades. But to avoid a dystopia, the nature (and particularly intelligence) of government (a giant computer program — with guns) will have to change.

 

Twitter Weekly Updates for 2012-06-18