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.
“Personalized learning” is that one area of research and practice that brings to the forefront many of the debates and issues that the field is engaging with right now. If one wanted to walk people through the field, and wanted to do so through *one* specific topic, that topic would be personalized learning.
Personalized cans? (CC-licensed image from Flickr)
Here’s are some of the questions that personalized learning raises:
- We have a problem with labels and meaning in this field. Heck, we have a problem with what to call ourselves: Learning Technologies or Educational Technology? Or perhaps instructional design? Learning Design? Learning, Design, and Technology? Or is it Learning Science? Reiser asks: What field did you say you were in? The same is true for personalized learning. Audrey Watters and Mike Caulfield ask what does “personalized learning” mean and what is the term’s history? Does it mean different pathways for each learner, one pathway with varied pacing for each learner, or something else?
- The Chan-Zuckerberg initiative and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation endorse personalized learning. What is the role of philanthropy in education in general and educational technology in particular? Should educators and researchers “beware of big donors” or should they enthusiastically welcome the support in the current climate of declining public monies?
- Where is the locus of control? Is personalization controlled by the learner? Is the control left to the software? What of shared control? Obsolete views of personalization and adaptive learning focus on how the system can control both the content and the learning process ignoring, for the most part, the learner, even though learner control appears to be an important determinant of success in e-learning (see Singhanayok & Hooper, 1998). The important question in my mind is the following: How do we balance system and learner control? Such shared control should empower students and enable technology to support and enhance the process. Downes distinguishes between personalized learning and personal learning. I think that locus of control is the distinguishing aspect, and that the role of shared control remains an open conceptual and empirical question. Debates about xMOOCx vs cMOOCs fall in here as well as the debate regarding the value of guided vs discovery learning.
- How do big data and learning analytics improve learning and participation? What are the limitations of depending on trace data? Personalized learning often appears to depend on the creation of learner profiles. For example, if you fit a particular profile you might receive a particular worked-out example or semi-completed problem, and problems might vary as one progresses through a pathway. Or, you might get an email from Coursera about “recommended courses” (see my point above regarding definitions and meanings). Either way, the role that large datasets, analytics, and educational data science – as well as the limitations and assumptions of these approaches, as we show in our research – is central to personalization and new approaches to education.
- What assumptions do authors of personalized learning algorithms make? We can’t answer this question unless we look at the algorithms. Such algorithms are rarely transparent. They often come in “black box” form, which means that what we have no insight into the processes of how inputs are transformed to outputs. We don’t know the inner workings of the algorithms that Facebook, Twitter, and Google Scholar use, and we likely won’t know how the algorithms that EdTechCompany uses work to deliver particular content to particular groups of students. If independent researchers can’t evaluate the inner workings of personalized learning software, how can we be sure that such algorithms so what they are supposed to do without being prejudicial? Perhaps the authors of education technology algorithms need a code of conduct, and a course on social justice?
- Knewton touts its personalization engine. Does it actually work? Connecting this to broader conversations in the field: What evidence do we have about the claims made by the EdTech industry? Is there empirical evidence to support these claims? See for example, this analysis by Phil Hill on the relationship between LMS use and retention/performance and this paper by Royce Kimmons on the impact of LMS adoption on outcomes. If you’ve been in the position of making a technology purchasing in K-12/HigherEd, you have likely experienced the unending claims regarding the positive impact of technology on outcomes and retention.
- And speaking of data and outcomes, what of student privacy in this context? How long should software companies keep student data? Who has access to the data? Should the data follow students from one system (e.g., K-12) to another (e.g., Higher Ed)? Is there uniformity in place (e.g., consistent learner profiles) for this to happen? How does local legislation relate to educational technology companies’ use of student data? For example, see this analysis by BCCampus describing how British Columbia’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) impacts the use of US-based cloud services. The more one looks into personalization and its dependence on student data, the more one has to explore questions pertaining to privacy, surveillance and ethics.
- Finally, what is the role of openness is personalized learning? Advocates for open frequently argue that openness and open practices enable democratization, transparency, and empowerment. For instance, open textbooks allow instructors to revise them. But, what happens when the product that publishing companies sell isn’t content? What happens, when the product is personalized learning software that uses OER? Are the goals of the open movement met when publishers use OER bundles with personalized learning software that restricts the freedoms associated with OER? What becomes of the open agenda to empower instructors, students, and institutions?
There’s lots to contemplate here, but the point is this: Personalized learning is ground zero for the field and its debates.
I’m at the Open Education 2015 conference, and I am struck by the continuing focus on costs, and the absence of theorizing openness, (and by extension OER and open textbooks). Is this a problem? Reducing costs is of course important. There’s no question about it. But whether the absence of theory is a problem depends what we believe theory does. After hearing many talks start with statements akin to “we asked faculty to use open textbooks, but…” or “we hoped the institution would embrace openness because it reduced costs, but…”, I thought that it might be worthwhile to ask more why questions:
- Why do some faculty do and others do not adopt open textbooks?
- Why do some faculty revise OER?
- Why do some faculty choose to publish their work in closed journals?
Theorizing openness can help us answer many of these questions. Because openness does not exist in a vacuum. I think that a sociocultural theoretical framing of openness can help practitioners and researchers make better sense and use of openness. Here’s a quote from a recent paper that argues for and clarifies this framing:
“A sociocultural perspective on openness, open practices and open scholarship views these practices as being socially shaped, and the technologies used to enact openness as necessarily, if not always intentionally, embedding their developers’ worldviews, values, beliefs, and assumptions into their design and the activities they support and encourage. By recognizing that open practices are shaped by social, cultural, economic, and political factors, this perspective rejects the notion that such practices are deterministic and holds that, with adequate information and evidence, learners, instructors, and researchers have the agency to accept or reject any particular technology or practice or to find alternative uses for it that will better serve their needs.” (p. 202)
Veletsianos, G. (2015). A Case Study of Scholars’ Open and Sharing practices. Open Praxis 7(3), 199-209. http://openpraxis.org/index.php/OpenPraxis/article/view/206/168
Related: See this presentation by Royce Kimmons which argues the following:
“[O]penness is more than economy. The freedoms afforded by open practices have great promise for improving the pedagogy and professionalism in our educational institutions as educators are empowered to differentiate, collaborate, and innovate in ways that were impossible under non-open paradigms.”
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
We are hosting a symposium on Openness, Digital Learning, and Networked Scholarship.
Please consider joining us (for free) by visiting the livestream page (http://livestream.com/royalroads/events/4446545)
November Tuesday 17th 2015, (10am- 3pm Pacific)
Organized by the School of Education and Technology & the Canada Research Chair in Innovative Learning & Technology
This symposium is intended to raise awareness about open educational resources, open pedagogy, and emerging approaches to digital learning. It provides a showcase for the work being done at Royal Roads University (RRU) and convenes open education practitioners and researchers.
In keeping with the RRU strategic mandate, this symposium builds on the work currently being done at RRU by our Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Innovative Learning and Technology and the School of Education and Technology (SET) to investigate promising innovations in educational technology. It is an opportunity to contribute back to the open community and further the developments in this area.
|10:00 – 10:05||First Nations Welcome||Asma-na-hi (Asma) Antoine|
|10:05 – 10:15||What makes RRU unique and a hotspot for innovation?||Steve Grundy|
|10:15 – 10:25||Introductions and context||George Veletsianos|
|What can Open be: Advances at the Provincial, National & International level||Mary Burgess|
|11:05 – 11:40
|For whom, for what? Not-yetness and challenging the “stuff” of open education||Amy Collier
|11:45 – 12:55||Break|
|1:00 – 1:30
|Creative Commons: Where are we now?||Paul Stacey|
|1:35 – 2:05
|Expansive Openness: Why Reducing Cost is Not Enough for Realizing the Full Benefits of OER||Royce Kimmons|
|2:15 – 2:45
|Panel Discussion: What can Open do?
* Each panelist to weigh in on panel topic and then open to the floor for questions
|Amy Collier; Jen Ross; Royce Kimmons; Center for Teaching and Learning; RRU Library; George Veletsianos|
|2:45 – 3:00||Wrap Up||Elizabeth Childs|
* Each session, excluding the panel will consist of a 20 minute presentation followed by a 10 minute Q&A
Mary Burgess is the executive director of BCCampus which supports the work of the B.C. post-secondary system in the areas of teaching, learning and educational technology. Prior to joining BCcampus in 2012, Mary Burgess was the Director of the Centre for Teaching and Educational Technologies at Royal Roads University where she started the University’s first open educational resources project. She is a career instructional designer and longtime advocate of OER.
Dr. Elizabeth Childs is an Associate Professor at Royal Roads University and the Program Head of the MA in Learning and Technology program. Her research interests include the design and implementation of flexible learning; online networked communities and, the professional development and support for learners and faculty in these emerging online learning environments.
Dr. Amy Collier is Associate Provost for Digital Learning at Middlebury College. She provides leadership in creating and sustaining a global learning community at Middlebury through the effective use of digital pedagogies and technologies. Amy studies how digital environments can foster emergence in teaching and learning.
Dr. Steve Grundy is vice-president academic and provost at Royal Roads University. He is responsible for the overall academic direction and quality of the university’s academic programs. He is particularly interested in the directions of post-secondary education, the evolution and development of online learning and new models of university governance and leadership.
Dr. Royce Kimmons is an Assistant Professor of Instructional Psychology and Technology at Brigham Young University where he studies technology integration in K-12/higher education, emergent technologies, open education, and social networks. He received his PhD from The University of Texas at Austin and formerly served as the Director of the Doceo Center for Innovation + Learning at the University of Idaho.
Dr Jen Ross is co-director of the Digital Education group at the University of Edinburgh, teacher and former programme director on the MSc in Digital Education, and co-creator of the E-learning and Digital Cultures MOOC and the manifesto for teaching online. Her research interests include online distance education, MOOCs, digital futures, reflective practices, and museum and gallery learning and engagement.
Paul Stacey is Associate Director of Global Learning at Creative Commons. Paul’s core expertise is in adult learning, educational technology, and open education. Prior to joining Creative Commons, Paul led Open Educational Resource (OER) and professional development initiatives across all the colleges and universities in British Columbia Canada
Dr. George Veletsianos holds a Canada Research Chair in Innovative Learning and Technology and is an Associate Professor at Royal Roads University. He has dedicated his research to understanding the practices and experiences of learners, educators, and scholars in emerging online settings such as online social networks and digital environments.
One of my favorite aspects of my work is mentoring. I get to do this work in many contexts, but last week at AECT 2015 I gave the following presentation at the NSF early career symposium, and had a lovely conversation with colleagues on research agendas, career trajectories, and institutional expectations.
Recently, I had the privilege of organizing a workshop for the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Athabasca University. The goal was to help the organization work through what they might need to do to put in practice a new strategic plan which calls for student-centered and open digital learning. I used the slides below to assist faculty, instructors, and instructional designers translate theory into practice.
I was at the Emerging Technologies in Authentic Learning Contexts Conference in Cape Town this week, where I gave one of the keynotes. In my talk, I highlighted some of the assumptions of the Educational Technology evangelists and explained how educational technology as an industry departs from educational technology as a field of study. I argued for context-driven innovation, and gave some examples from our current/upcoming research to explain these arguments. My slides are below.