Category: networked scholars
Education Scholars’ Evolving Uses of Twitter as a Conference Backchannel and Social Commentary Platform
The scholarly community faces a lack of large-scale research examining how students and professors use social media in authentic contexts and how such use changes over time. Continuing our investigation into how professors and students use social media, Royce Kimmons and I just published a paper in which we used data mining methods to better understand academic Twitter use during, around, and between the 2014 and 2015 American Educational Research Association annual conferences both as a conference backchannel and as a general means of participating online. The first paper we published using similar methods, data, and comparing students and professors’ social media use is here. All of our research on networked scholarship and students’ and faculty members’ use of social media is gathered here.
Descriptive and inferential analysis is used to explore Twitter use for 1,421 academics and the more than 360,000 tweets they posted. Results demonstrate the complicated participation patterns of how Twitter is used “on the ground.” In particular, we show that:
- tweets during conferences differed significantly from tweets outside conferences
- students and professors used the conference backchannel somewhat equally, but students used some hashtags more frequently, while professors used other hashtags more frequently
- academics comprised the minority of participants in these backchannels, but participated at a much higher rate than their non-academic counterparts
- the number of participants in the backchannel increased between 2014 and 2015, but only a small number of authors were present during both years, and the number of tweets declined from year to year.
- various hashtags were used throughout the time period during which this study occurred, and some were ongoing (ie, those which tended to be stable across weeks) while others were event-based (ie, those which spiked in a particular week)
- professors used event-based hashtags more often than students and students used ongoing hashtags more often than professors
- ongoing hashtags tended to exhibit positive sentiment, while event-based hashtags tended to exhibit more ambiguous or conflicting sentiments
These findings suggest that professors and students exhibit similarities and differences in how they use Twitter and backchannels and indicate the need for further research to better understand the ways that social technologies and online networks are integrated in scholars’ lives.
Here’s the full citation and paper:
Kimmons, R. & Veletsianos, G. (2016). Education Scholars’ Evolving Uses of Twitter as a Conference Backchannel and Social Commentary Platform. British Journal of Educational Technology, 47(3), 445—464.
Scholars are often encouraged to be public intellectuals – to ‘go online’ and engage with diverse audiences. Yet, scholars’ online activities appear to be rife with tensions, dilemmas, and conundrums. In a presentation that I gave last week at AERA, I discuss some tensions and challenges scholars face when engaging networked publics and highlight some uncomfortable realities of being a public scholar. Evangelizing public and networked scholarship without acknowledging the existence of tensions is detrimental to the field and misleading to the scholars who may be considering greater public engagement- becoming more networked, more public, and more “digital.” Individual scholars and institutions need to evaluate the purposes and functions of scholarship and take part in devising systems that reflect and safeguard the values of scholarly inquiry.
Royce Kimmons and I have been exploring the use of large-scale data in a number of recent studies. We just published a paper that tries to make sense of students’ and professors’ social media participation on a large scale. We are continuing our qualitative investigations to understand “why, in what ways, and how” scholars (students & professors) are using social media, but this is our first data mining study making use of Twitter data. It’s also the first study using large-scale Twitter data to make sense of how professors and students of education are using Twitter.
Here’s a high-level summary of three of our findings:
- There is significant variation in how scholars participate on Twitter. The platform may not be the democratizing tool it is often purported to be: The most popular 1% scholars have an average follower base nearly 100 times that of scholars in the lower 99% and 700 times those in the bottom 50%.
- Civil rights and advocacy seem to be an important activity of social media participation – this is rarely captured in research to date, which most often focuses on how social media are used in teaching & research. Scholars’ participation on Twitter extends well beyond traditional notions of scholarship.
We found that those scholars who follow more users, have tweeted more, signal themselves as professors, and have been on Twitter longer will have more followers. This model predicts 83% of the variation on follower counts. This finding raises questions as to the meaning of follower counts and its use as a metric in conversations pertaining to scholarly quality/reach.
Veletsianos, G., & Kimmons, R. (2016). Scholars in an Increasingly Digital and Open World: How do Education Professors and Students use Twitter? The Internet and Higher Education, 30, 1-10.
Martin Weller sent me a photo of my book a couple of weeks ago. I was away from the office, and that was the first time I saw a photo of the physical book. I saw the physical one a week later when I returned to my office. There it was. In print. And published.
I wanted to write a book about the complicated realities of the use of technology in education. I wanted to write about us. About the people who use technology as part of their day-to-day professional life – and about the times that professional and personal life are intertwined. I am tired of the recycled unsubstantiated claims regarding the potential of new solutions and new technologies. So, I wrote a book about scholars and social media. A book about what scholars – professors and doctoral students – do on social media and why the use them. A book about those times that the potential is realized, those times that new technologies are put into familiar uses, and those times that the issues become a tad more complex. No surprises there – I’ve been working on this area for a few years now.
If you would like me to talk to your colleagues or students about this area, I would be happy to do so. I hope the short blurb below describes the essence of the argument:
Social media and online social networks are expected to transform academia and the scholarly process. However, intense emotions permeate scholars’ online practices and an increasing number of academics are finding themselves in trouble in networked spaces. In reality, the evidence describing scholars’ experiences in online social networks and social media is fragmented. As a result, the ways that social media are used and experienced by scholars are not well understood. Social Media in Academia examines the day-to-day realities of social media and online networks for scholarship and illuminates the opportunities, tensions, conflicts, and inequities that exist in these spaces. The book concludes with suggestions for institutions, individual scholars, and doctoral students regarding online participation, social media, networked practice, and public scholarship.
Here’s why academics should write for the public
There’s been much discussion about the needless complexity of academic writing.
In a widely read article in The Chronicle of Higher Education last year, Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at Harvard and author of several acclaimed books including The Sense of Style, analyzed why academic writing is “turgid, soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and impossible to understand.”
More recently, Jeff Camhi, professor emeritus of biology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, discovered how much academic authors struggle when trying to write for a lay audience. He suggested writing programs should “develop a night course in creative nonfiction writing, specifically for professors.”
We think learning to write creative nonfiction isn’t a bad idea. But we disagree with Camhi’s suggestion that academics need a night course for this. We propose something simpler: academics just need to start writing, getting edited and seeing if the public reads them. Through this process, academics will not only learn to express themselves clearly, but most likely become better scientists as well.
What are the benefits?
Although both of us currently write for the public, we come at this from different perspectives – one of us has written for a few years, and the other started writing only this year.
We don’t think we are amazing writers, but we do think writing for the public has helped us improve. The immediate feedback from editors and the public has helped make our writing clearer.
We’ve learned that if we’re not clear and engaging, then editors and the general public simply won’t read us. And that continues to teach us how to improve the next time we write.
Public writing has also improved both our academic writing skills and scientific thinking abilities.
That’s because the first step in improving academic writing is to learn to reduce the jargon academics use and express concepts clearly. And this has forced us to distill our thinking to its absolute core.
Consequently, not only did the process improve the quality of our writing, but it also brought more clarity to the way we were thinking about our scientific problems.
For example, when we recently started to write an academic review article together, we first considered how we could write a piece for the public later based on the review. This helped us reconfigure the way we synthesized the literature, forcing us to discuss it clearly and logically.
Additionally, because public writing engages both the public and our academic colleagues, we’ve found that public commentary can be a form of “public peer review.” Exciting research ideas for academic papers have developed from our public pieces thanks to crowdsourced feedback.
For example, a Psychology Today magazine article written by one of us (Wai) led to feedback from editors and others on the importance of studying highly educated influential people. This resulted in a series of research papers, discussed subsequently in The Washington Post.
Such public engagement can bring in other benefits for an academic career. For instance, one of us (Miller) traveled to Amsterdam last month to give a keynote address at a conference about gender and science.
The conference organizers found him because of the attention he received in popular press about an international study that he had led on gender stereotypes in science. That popular press attention was initiated by the author contacting his university’s press office and working closely with its writers to collaboratively draft a press release.
In both our cases, public engagement opened up opportunities to network with academics and others within and outside our fields. And this happened only because people read the public pieces we had written.
It’s that simple
Writing for the public requires improving one’s skills, just the way it does for writing an academic article or a grant proposal. Yes, there is a “start-up cost” as you learn the ropes. But it isn’t as time-consuming as many academics may think.
In fact, both of us were very cautious when we first started to write for the public. We were even skeptical of its benefits given the perceived time cost. But earlier this year, one of us (Miller) learned how easy this process is.
He learned about a controversial study that he wanted to place in a broader context for the public. So he submitted a 199-word pitch that night to The Conversation, which encourages academics to write for the public. An editor replied the next morning giving advice on how to structure and write the piece for clarity.
The 765-word article took just one day to draft and one day to refine with the editor – lightning fast compared to academic journals. The Atlantic’s Quartz republished the article, which has now reached over 25,000 readers. Consider how most academic articles are read by only a handful of people.
We now believe that public writing is part and parcel of our identities as scholars.
Engage with the public to have social impact
Now that we’ve discussed some of the benefits of public writing and why we think academics should do it, we conclude by addressing one important structural component to the solution.
But what she did not mention is that more scientists are needed in the public square to become clearer and better writers as well. As we said earlier, that clarity can bring other indirect and direct benefits for science and scientists’ careers.
So why aren’t more academics writing for the public?
Well, it’s really quite simple. There’s little incentive built into the reward and promotion system, something Steven Pinker noted as well. Perhaps administrators need to include public engagement on equal footing as teaching, advising, publishing, and grant-getting in the tenure review process.
Many academics, including us, now realize that if we want to reach people who might benefit from our research, we have to step out of the ivory tower. We academics need to enter the discussion that the rest of the world engages in every day.
The Chronicle of Higher Education published a commentary some time ago that argued that professors are “naive users of social media” and must exercise caution. It’s difficult to argue with the recommendation to exercise caution, when one looks at the list of scholars who found themselves in trouble in the last year: Salaita, Goldrick-Rab, Grundy, and so on.
But, the claim that professors are naive users of social media is unsubstantiated and reveals a limited understanding of the literature on how professors actually use social media and what they think about them. My colleagues and I have been conducting research on networked scholarship and scholars’ use of social media since 2009, and since that time, I can’t recall interviewing a faculty member or reading a study that revealed naiveté regarding social media and the challenges/tensions they introduce. If anything, most academics have an astute understanding of how social media intersect with their professional (and personal) lives and make informed (and tactical) decisions regarding their use of these technologies.
Granted, many find themselves in conundrums as a result of being in collapsed contexts and being exposed to unanticipated audiences, but to argue naiveté is misinformed.
I just received the final covers for my upcoming book, Social Media in Academia: Networked Scholars (see below). More importantly though, some very kind people I admire have read the book and have written some very nice things about it:
“A timely and significant contribution to the field. Many books tend to take either an advocacy stance or dystopian view of technology in scholarship, but Veletsianos manages to take a critical perspective that is both grounded in theory and rooted in practical experience. For any academic interested in the impact of networked technology on teaching or research, this is highly recommended.”
–Martin Weller, Professor of Educational Technology at the Open University, UK
“Social Media in Academia is one of those rare books that every new assistant professor and doctoral student should read and take to heart. Establishing one’s public profile through networked scholarship is not a task to be undertaken casually, but one that requires mindfulness and discernment. Veletsianos provides invaluable guidance that all academics, but especially those just starting out, should heed.”
–Thomas C. Reeves, Professor Emeritus of Learning, Design, and Technology at the University of Georgia, USA
Networked Scholars, or, Why on earth do academics use social media and why should we care? (workshop)
Below are slides from a workshop I gave on the use of social media by academics. During the workshop I described how/why academics use social media and online networks for scholarship, and explored the opportunities and tensions that exist in these spaces. Throughout the workshop, I facilitated small group and large group conversations on this topic based on participant interests. Topic we investigated included social media participation strategies; self-disclosures on social media; capturing and analyzing social media data; ethics of social media research; and social media use for networked learning.