Teaching and Learning in a Net-Centric World

Is Blogging worth it for the aspiring academic?

After spending most of yesterday catching up on blogs, Facebook posts, twitter and linked in, I began to wonder if it was worth it and how I would I would measure the value (in academic terms) of my day. First of all I should note that the day was a pleasant one, with a few good articles uncovered, a joke or three, time wasted trying to find closed articles mentioned in open repositories, a few new slides for upcoming keynotes, updates on a number of colleagues, some interesting conference to keep in mind and a great of peripheral knowledge that I have no idea if it will ever have any use.  But was it worth it??

Like most academics, I’m evaluated annually based on three expectations:

1. publishing peer reviewed articles – how many depends on the discipline and the institution, but a quick scan of my CV shows 53 articles in 11 years or more than 4 a year.  Throwing book chapters and full books in adds more brownie points.

2. Teaching – At Athabasca in our graduate program the normal load is only 3 semester courses per year, so I get off quite lightly. We do however have many MEd and EdD students to supervise.  The quality of the courses and my teaching is not assessed very rigorously- as long as there are no students pounding on the Dean’s door.

‘3. Service – a large number of activities falls under this criteria, but certainly suffering through administrative and academic committees meetings within the university counts, as well as public service activities. Fortunately at Athabasca, most meetings in our “distributed workplace” are help online or on telephone, so I shameless multi-tasked through many meetings.

The relative weight of each of these three is both arguable and varies at different institutions. But most Canadian universities seem to be weighted around 40/40/20%.

Now how did my net activities relate to these measurable outcomes?  Certainly one can make a note in one’s annual report about how many blog posts you have posted, how many Twitter followers you have engaged and if your how many hits on your presentations in Slideshare or YouTube – but these don’t count for much in themselves. And worse, they may be seen by faculty evaluation committees (especially those members who do not have a significant Net presence) as a waste of academic time.

I did bump into articles that were recommended on Twitter – I think for three of them I downloaded the citation into my reference manager- hopefully for appearance in future articles. Thus, some potential benefit to my publishing work for this year. I also tweeted and blogged, and copied the URLs into a research course that I am continuously updating -teaching work. And finally my tweets and posts are bringing some limited fame and acknowledgement to Athabasca University and the Centre for Distance Education where I work- public service.  But pretty hard to make direct measurements of these activities on the ‘big three’ listed above.

Finally I had an interesting discussion with a colleague yesterday, musing about this issue and heard the very familiar complaint that he can hardly keep up with email and just doesn’t have time or interest in more net activities – reading or writing. Unless of course, he gets a filtered recommendation on something from myself or other colleagues.

So, today I am wondering how the question of how much effect does Net presence and activity have on academic careers could be empirically resolved. Of course, it isn’t very likely that a control group, longitudinal  experiment could be done, so one would likely have to settled for correlational data. But what data counts – Number of posts? number of followers? Number of “retweets”? and what would be the dependent variables- time to promotion to tenure and/or full professor, number of keynote and invited presentations?, number of articles pushed? number of citations or H-index from Google Scholar?  Probably the H-index would be easiest, but there are many questions about Google Scholar- none of which are resolved by the lack of transparency in the way items get counted.

I can certainly think of super-star academics (- in our field George Siemens, Grainne Conole, Tony Bates, Steve Wheeler and dana boyd come mind) – who have good academic ratings and are very active on a number of platforms. But I can think of an equal number of strong academics (Randy Garrison, Manuel Castells, Michael Moore and Phil Abrami)  who to my knowledge have no or very limited net presence. Looking at the names I’ve listed I see there MAY be a small correlation with age, but certainly there are many exceptions.

So let me throw this out to researchers on the net. How do you measure the value of net presence on academic career success?

Hmmm, I wonder what the academic value of this musing has been.

 

 

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7 Comments

  1. Mike Cosgrave Mike Cosgrave
    January 22, 2015    

    Yes but..

    The materials you found will end up in either research outputs or teaching
    If you didn’t do that gathering online, how much time would it have taken?
    How much of the material you found would have been impossible to find without being online?
    How important is it for academics to maintain an active network in their field? If you did not do that online, how often would you interact with some of those colleagues? How much would it cost in time and money for a 10 minute chat with someone without being online?
    Over the past month, I’ve come across two very interesting dissertations on ADF and PLE that I would never have found if I wasn’t active online; both will enrich my teaching and research, and I plan to contact the authors and add them to my network.

  2. Mandy Lupton Mandy Lupton
    January 22, 2015    

    For me, blogging is essential to the development of my publications and research profile. I use blogging as a way of formulating my ideas as a precursor to journal articles. I have different blogs for different topics and audiences. One of my blogs has generated invites to present at conferences.

  3. Stephen Downes Stephen Downes
    January 22, 2015    

    Given that the majority of graduate students are not hired by universities, but instead obtain employment elsewhere, perhaps the 40-40-20 criteria mentioned in the article is not an appropriate measure of the value to the work they do.

    Or perhaps the definition of ‘academia’ includes all and only people employed at universities, which would bean that according to this account I am not an ‘academic’ and need not worry about the arguments in this article at all.

    But that said, this article does seem to take a very narrowly-defined and narrowly-focused perspective on the issue, one that I think surfaces more issues with ‘academia’ than it does with blogging.

  4. Jon Dron Jon Dron
    January 23, 2015    

    One of the reasons I like to be in academia is that I can, much of the time, do what I think is right rather than what is required or rewarded. Assuming our mission is, at heart, to increase the knowledge in the world, then blogging seems a pretty clear imperative to me, irrespective of whether my institution or scholarly community directly rewards me for it.

    I’d guess the most popular of my cited works are read by a few thousand people. More popular blog posts get tens of thousands of readers, and they are often read right away, at the point that it matters, while I am still thinking about it. Not only that, the contributions of others can add immeasurable value – it’s not just me but others who are represented: a blog post is a distributed work, not a standalone monograph, and the comments of others are often more penetrating and meaningful than peer review. And the conversation can drive my own thinking: it is at least as good as presenting at a conference, with greater longevity and persistence. And that’s an important distinction: on the whole, for me at least, blog posts are more akin to presentations than papers. They are often valuable as ways to start exploring ideas that later get incorporated into papers and getting feedback from others, but seldom quite as rigorously constructed to report findings and ideas. Often, they are like notebooks (that I also keep and which often form their basis) worked up into something a bit more tangible, with the benefit that the reflective process of writing them for others makes it easier to form ideas and connections. Occasionally they refer to actual papers I have written, so increasing exposure, or form the basis of new papers. I see that as a win-win.

    There has been some slow progress towards measurement of impact. Altmetrics is a step towards that, albeit that its use of social media metrics still focuses on published papers. Webometric methods like WIF have a long heritage but, of course, do not measure academic impact – few bloggers that I know stick solely to academic topics when blogging, and what makes something popular is not always its academic credibility or interest. I’d be rather sad if they were treated like papers though, as part of their value is that we do them solely, or at least largely, for the love of it. There’s a spirit of play involved. The stringent demands for following the rules when submitting papers, along with the carrot and stick drive by institutions and publishers can sometimes make paper writing a bit of a chore.

    Jon

  5. Tony Bates Tony Bates
    January 23, 2015    

    Hi, Terry
    I’m talking to faculty at UBC who are becoming ardent bloggers, but they are integrating it (and their student blogs) with their teaching. Take a look at videogames.law.ubc.ca or ETEC 522 for examples. These faculty get their academic rewards from being considered innovative teachers (UBC has a tenured teaching track), as well as enjoying the experience of opening up their courses
    Also, blogging can definitely help your research, not in the sense of publications, but in terms of ‘pre-research’: testing ideas, getting feedback, making connections.
    Lastly, if you can count it, it probably doesn’t count. Keep your blog going, Terry – we all benefit from it!

  6. January 24, 2015    

    Thanks for all the interesting responses.
    These show an obvious reason for blogging, is to connect with others- both old friends and not yet friends.

    The responses (all from great bloggers) are, as one would assume, from “born again” bloggers. So possing my question, if kind of like asking Baptists at a revival meeting if being “saved” is worth it!

    Obviously those who don’t blog, likely don’t read blogs either! But given the rationale many of us feel about the need for academics to move beyond the communication opportunities within the academy, it raises the question of why so many academics DON’T blog, tweet, etc. To my knowledge of the nine full time academics in my own Centre for Distance Education, only two of us are active bloggers – and they are all (arguably) successful academics).

    Perhaps they just haven’t “seen the light” yet. Sorry for the religious metaphors, 18 years in a Baptist home, takes its toll!

    Stephen: I was using the common definition of academic to mean one employed at a University. Of course this does not imply that those not so employed cannot be “scholarly” but academic scholars are measured by some variation of performance of the big 3 that I noted. Why do most researchers with National Research Council of Canada blog or not blog?

    Tony: I did not realize that one could get to be a full prof at UBC through “teaching”. Congrats to them! I would be interested in knowing how many other Universities in Canada – especially the major research universities, offer this route.

    Jon: I agree that Blogs, are not the same in terms of rigour, referencing and usually results presented as a peer-reviewed paper. But that doesn’t diminish their value as formative and communication pieces as you note, so surely they should count for something. It is interesting that Google Scholar lists a number of my earlier posts, but only when they are cited by others- not the original posts. Which I guess helps control vanity blogs.

    Again, Thanks for the responses!!

  7. Stephen Downes Stephen Downes
    January 24, 2015    

    So by what you say then, I can be considered “scholarly” but not “academic”. I’m debating whether to feel miffed or relieved.

    I only know of two people at NRC who blog (the other one is Richard Ackerman). There is no reward (academic or non-academic) at NRC for blogging, and no small perception of risk. In my own case I think the rewards are obvious.

    I think the main reason they don’t is workload. For similar reasons they don’t publish a lot either (and publishing is only a minor indicator of output). NRC researchers are product-centric, value-centric and commercially-centric. That said, they are no less academic (and in many respects, far more academic) than many university staff.

    Today’s anti-spam word is: gig swill — funny enough to pass along.

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