Participatory Scholars and 21st Century Scholarship

The paper posted below is for an ITFORUM discussion I am leading on the topic of participatory scholars and participatory scholarship. Feedback is much appreciated!

Participatory Scholars and Scholarship

Dr. George Veletsianos

Instructional Technology

Curriculum and Instruction, College of Education

The University of Texas at Austin

ITFORUM Discussion paper: April 12-16, 2010

This paper is in very draft form.

Feedback is welcome (and greatly appreciated)

Participatory Scholars and Scholarship


Rarely do we post in-progress scholarship for public consumption. We usually hoard our research until journals are ready to publish it, at which time it magically becomes a “finished product,” despite the value of sharing, discussing, critiquing, and presenting our thoughts. In line with the ideas presented in this paper, and to demonstrate that sharing in-progress scholarship can be beneficial both for the field and the authors sharing their work, this paper is intentionally shared at an early phase of conceptualization. Some of the arguments and ideas presented below therefore are in need of further development. I expect that by the end of our discussion, I will have gained great new insights from you. I also hope that you will have gained much from this process, both to inform your future scholarship and your online presence and activity. Let the learning begin, and feel free to critique anything and everything!


Educational technology research and practice has traditionally focused on instructors, trainers, learners, and learning environments, seeking to delineate the impact and implications of technological interventions on various outcomes such as learning and engagement. In this paper, I focus on scholars (e.g., doctoral students, professors, and researchers) and those supporting their roles (e.g., learning technologists) and their participation in online spaces. I argue that participation in online spaces (e.g., communities and networks of practice) is becoming increasingly important and absence from these spaces can be detrimental to scholarship, practice, and personal and professional development. For instance, participatory scholarship enables scholars to stay current in their research field, explore new approaches to teaching from their colleagues, engage with individuals mentioning their research/work, and expose their work to larger audiences.

While scholarship may traditionally be viewed as scientific discovery, its meaning in this paper is broader. Pellino, Blackburn, and Boberg (1984) for instance have expanded scholarship to include (a) professional activity, (b) research/publication, (c) artistic endeavors, (d) engagement with novel ideas, (e) community service, and (f) pedagogy. Further, Boyer (1990) proposed four functions of scholarship that reflect academic endeavors: scholarship of discovery, scholarship of integration, scholarship of application, and scholarship of teaching. In this paper, scholarship takes this broader meaning.

Networked & Participatory Scholarship

The term “participatory culture” describes a society in which the consumer is no longer a passive recipient of information, media, and artifacts, but also a producer of these. Jenkins et. al. (2006, pp. 7) describe a participatory culture as one

  1. 1. With relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement
  2. 2. With strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others
  3. 3. With some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices
  4. 4. Where members believe that their contributions matter
  5. 5. Where members feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created).

The concept of participatory cultures has been embraced in educational circles, in which prior research has highlighted ideas similar to the ones proposed by Jenkins et. al. Notably, the description of participatory cultures proposed by Jenkins et. al. aligns with socio-constructivist (Kukla, 2000) and connectivistm (Siemens, 2006) points of view: In particular these two schools of thought imply that scholars practice scholarship within online social networks that serve to expand their learning, views, and activities relating to research and teaching practice. Situated within a community of practice, scholars’ work and activity becomes the mediating object which bounds together the network and community (Kaptelinin & Nardi, 2006). Specifically, Vygotsky (1978) highlights the importance of social interaction and negotiation of meaning in learning; Lave and Wenger (1991) discuss how learning transpires within communities of practice; Jonassen (2000) notes the value of active participation in learning; and McCombs and Whisler (1997) highlight the benefits of student-centered learning environments. In an era where social media participation is central in youth’s daily lives[1] (Lenhart, Madden, Macgill, & Smith, 2007), researchers have sought to understand (a) the practices and activities of youth in Social Networking Sites (Ellison, Steinfield & Lampe, 2008; boyd, 2008) and (b) the meaning of social media participation for 21st century education (Greenhow, Robelia & Hughes, 2009). While youth participation in social networking sites has seen extensive research interest in recent years, research on networked participation and the activities of scholars in online spaces is minimal. Specifically, while scholars have explored the affordances of social media for instructional and professional development purposes (e.g., Martindale & Wiley, 2005; Webb, 2009) writing in relation to the implications of the participatory culture for social scholarship beyond conceptual explorations is scant.

Lack of research however, does not mean that there is no interest in the topic. While higher education faculty may be more inclined to use “traditional” technologies than students (Roblyer, McDaniel, Webb, Herman, & Witty, in press), we have seen an increase in specialized social media tools targeting scholars. For example, (figure 1),, and VIVO are three instances of online networking tools for researchers; TechLens is a research paper recommender system and Sciencefeed is a science-focused microblogging platform. In addition, web-based bibliographic tools, such as Zotero and Mendeley enable scholars to share their bibliographies and collaborate with others (figure 2), while social bookmarking sites enable the sharing of resources between scholars as well as between instructors and learners (Greenhow, Robelia & Hughes, 2009). For example, various web-based resources that were collected for the writing of this paper are available at

Figure 1. A publicly available profile on (

Figure 2. A publicly available bibliography on (

Indeed, it seems that scholarship is increasingly moving online and becoming more social and conversational in nature (Oblinger, 2010). The rise of the participatory web and scholar-focused web-based services provide enhanced opportunities for interaction, collaboration, and networking and renewed promise of breaking away from departmental and institutional silos (c.f. Hanson, 2009; Nixon, 1996). Yet, recent evidence from the British Library and the Researchers of Tomorrow project (2010) indicates that young researchers (doctoral students born between 1982 and 1994) are not utilizing social networking technologies for scholarship. Given the increasing empirical evidence suggesting that Net Generation students do not use technology in fundamentally different (or sophisticated) ways (Reeves & Oh, 2008; Nasah, DaCosta, Kinsell, & Seok, in press), one would expect that scholars born prior to 1982 are also not capitalizing on networked technologies for scholarship.

Scholars need to understand the affordances of networked technologies for social, participatory, and networked scholarship. Prior to discussing the important issues relating to 21st century scholar participation in online spaces, the following section presents trends influencing contemporary scholarship.

Trends influencing Digital Scholarship

A convergence of technological and social trends is promising to exert strong pressures on 21st century scholars and scholarship. In particular,

  • Open Access (OA) publishing: OA publishing refers to the online publication of materials (especially journals and books) that are free-of-charge, and thus accessible to everyone. For example, Athabasca University Press is an OA publisher and Educational Technology & Society is an OA peer-review journal. This is not to say that OA publishing will replace traditional journals. For example, doubts about sustainability remain, especially as popular online journals close their doors (e.g., Innovate)
  • Publication impact:  On the one hand, online publishing allows authors and other interested parties to easily track the reach and impact of a publication (e.g., download counts). On the other hand, online publishing allows us to rethink peer-reviewed publications. For instance, the Public Library Of Science has started publishing a variety of metrics for each of their publications including article usage statistics (e.g., pageviews), comments/notes/ratings left by article readers, and blog posts citing published articles. These data help researchers gain a firm understanding of the impact of their publications, along with providing transparency to the research community (e.g., figure 3 shows the most read education articles/authors on

Figure 3. Most read articles and authors in Education (screenshot from

  • Open Education: Open Education refers to open access to teaching/learning materials and institutions, and Wiley and Hilton (2009) argue that higher education must embrace openness to remain relevant in society. Examples of open education vary, ranging from individual faculty sharing their syllabi, to institutions sharing learning materials en masse online, to instructors opening up their online classrooms to learners who are not formally enrolled in a course.
  • Tenure & Promotion (T&P): Research, teaching, and service are obviously valued in academia, but tenure and review policies are under pressure to change. For instance,
    • T&P committees are accepting additional evidence for engagement with these three items (e.g., professional blogs as engagement with new ideas and scholarship of discovery)
    • Additional items are being included in the list of valued contributions to the academy (e.g., software development)
    • Scholars are utilizing the affordances of the web to support their T&P applications (and being open about the process in the course of doing so), and are able to provide multimodal evidence to support their applications (e.g., video). One example, is Dr. Couros’ application for tenure.

21st Century Scholars & Participatory Scholarship: Issues and Complexities

Even though recent technological advances have provided the impetus for scholars to productively participate in online networks of practice, the issues that arise as a result of participation in networked spaces are complex. Technical skills (such as setting up a blog or an RSS aggregator) are the least of scholars’ challenges. Participation in networked spaces for scholarship also requires a paradigmatic shift with respect to our identity as scholars and the purposes of education and scholarship. Below, I highlight a few of the issues related to participatory scholars and scholarship

  • Participatory scholarship requires scholars to develop Personal Learning Networks (PLNs) and Personal Learning Environments (PLEs). PLEs “are the tools, artefacts, processes, and physical connections that allow learners to control and manage their learning” (Couros, 2010) while PLNs are the “the sum of all social capital and connections that result in the development and facilitation of a personal learning environment” (ibid). PLEs/PLNs were originally popularized for the generic learner but their appropriateness might shine in participatory scholarship and researcher training where self-directedness, lifelong learning, and personalization in learning, teaching and research is at the center of our work. Importantly, PLEs and PLNs as concepts rather than technological tools. While the information, knowledge, and connections harnessed within a PLEs/PLNs may be the result of tools (e.g., software aggregating relevant information), it is the idea of the individual being in charge of flexible and meaningful digital spaces that contain dynamically updated and personally-relevant information that is important. Similarly, while the PLN may be build, traversed, and mediated by contemporary social networking tools (e.g., Twitter), what is important is the notion of being able to access and share a persistent, co-created, and mutually beneficial space with other scholars. An example of a PLE is presented in figure 4. This image was taken from my RSS reader and shows a collection of items that I have marked as deeming further attention. In this image you will find articles that are in press and have just been posted online by the journals in which they were published (e.g., figure 5) and Blog posts from colleagues and students. Subscribing to RSS feeds for journals relevant to one’s field can be a daunting task, but this is where the value of openness, sharing, and networked participation in online spaces for scholarship is demonstrated: Dr. Doug Holton has created an extensive listing of RSS feeds for more than a hundred journals and has made it publicly available at

Figure 4. An RSS aggegator as a Personal Learning Environment

Figure 5. A PLE allows me near-instant access to published articles that interest me

  • Participatory scholarship requires commitment (and takes time). Developing a PLN takes effort and commitment both in terms of cultivating relationships with colleagues and in terms of taking the time to understand participatory cultures. White (2008) uses the continuum of digital visitors and digital residents to understand participation in online spaces and this is helpful in understanding participatory scholarship as well. Digital residents would be those scholars who understand the affordances of the participatory web for scholarship, take the time to cultivate digital identities and relationships online, and view the web as a crucial component of their life. Digital visitors on the other hand would be those scholars who use the web as a tool when the need arises. In the context of digital scholarship for example, they would visit electronic databases (such as ERIC and Scopus) to update a literature review for a paper rather than have a PLE that keeps track of publications of interest. The difference is between information/resource delivery and information/resource searching. Yet, being a digital resident takes time because of the pressures that exist to remain relevant and visible. For instance, remaining visible on a social networking and fast-moving platform such as Twitter means that one has to share often and frequently. Otherwise, her voice and presence will be lost in the sea of tweets coming from others.
  • Participatory scholarship requires the development of social and digital literacies and skills essential to the participatory web. Jenkins et. al. (2006) highlight the negative implications of the participation gap when youth do not have equal access to technologies. In the context of scholars, the participation gap refers to those scholars who participate in networked spaces and are able to take advantage of 21st century literacies to advance their career (e.g., learning new teaching approaches, promoting their research online, organizing colleagues to tackle important educational issues) vis-à-vis those who have had no exposure to participatory cultures or who do not have the essential literacies to engage in such activities online. Rheingold (2009 – is convinced that learners need literacies affording them to decode and encode the information in online spaces. These relate to attention, participation, collaboration, critical consumption, and network awareness (ibid). For example, the amount of relevant information available online is beyond our individual ability to attend to it, especially as we are bombarded with distracters that demand our attention (e.g., facebook messages from a long lost high school friend). Without access to these critical literacies, participatory scholars will not be effective participants in online spaces. Subscribing, following, and commenting to hundreds of scholars’ blogs for example will, at some point, become too much of a time commitment. Nevertheless, being a literate participatory scholar means figuring out ways to manage information overload. For instance, Steven Downes publishes a newsletter aggregating information relevant to online learning so that users don’t need to do it themselves. In essence, Downes acts as an information filter. Nevertheless, digital literacies also demand critical evaluation of the filter (any filter, and not just Downes) to ensure breadth of coverage. Deciding what or who to trust as a filter is perhaps as equally important as using a filter. Another example relating to digital literacies is the use of web services to alert scholars of information relating to their specific interests. For example, figure 6 shows an alert sent to me tracking the use of the term “pedagogical agents” in online spaces. This service allows me to keep ahead of developments in this research field, take note of newcomers to the field, and even take notice when instructors assign my papers as reading material for their courses (as long as they post their syllabus on a public site or assign blog reflections to their students).

Figure 6. Filtering personally-meaningful information

  • Participatory scholarship requires scholars to cultivate online identities and monitor their digital footprints. Online identity refers to users’ presentation of themselves online (c.f. Coiro et. al. 2008) while digital footprints refers to the information available online about individuals (Madden et. al., 2007). Cultivating a scholarly online identity means refining online presence and reputation relating to one’s scholarship (e.g., topic of research) and taking an active role in managing that identity. For instance, participatory academics employ the services of text-mining techniques (e.g., Google Alerts) to track mentions of their name, publications, etc such that they can take an active role in managing how they are represented online. Note that in this context online presence is assumed to exist regardless of whether a scholar has taken any steps in cultivating such a presence: search for any scholar online and at the very least you will find a departmental or facebook profile. Rather than ignoring this presence, participatory scholars cultivate it, and take an active role in ensuring that their digital footprint accurately reflects their work. For example, figure 7 shows the results of a text-mining exercise on my last name.

Figure 7. Online identity management

  • Participatory scholarship requires ongoing participation. Participation in online spaces is ongoing. Dormant social media profiles say as much about scholars as active participation in online spaces. Likewise, the process of scholarly inquiry does not end with publication. Papers are shared, discussed, and critiqued across social media, providing additional opportunities for feedback and review.

Concluding Thoughts

In this paper, I explored the meaning of participatory cultures for scholars, arguing that participation in online spaces is becoming increasingly important and absence from these spaces can be detrimental to scholarship and practice. This proposal has extensive implications for scholarship, academic institutions, tenure & review policies, and researcher training. The cultural shift required for this transition, while implicit in this discussion, is an important dimension in any discussion surrounding higher education and scholarship. While I hope that this paper resonated with you, I welcome critique, feedback, and discussion both through ITFORUM and through my blog where this paper is posted.


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[1] At least in the United States


IRRODL Call for papers: connectivism


Participatory scholars v2


  1. Thanks for sharing this paper George. It’s a great read which resonates with my own research. One point I would make is that adoption of social and participatory media for academic practice is fundamentally dependent on the potential value of the communities and networks a student can develop and sustain. Us who are actively engaged in educational technologies must constantly remind ourselves how our ‘privileged’ positions bias our own experiences and perceptions. Students and academics from other disciplines may not only lack the skills and motivations to use social media, but also the critical numbers of fellow academics within their fields that are using these tools. Data from a pilot study I’ve been doing for my PhD (particularly around Twitter) indicate strong stratification in academic hierarchies, with participants only following those of equal or higher academic level. I myself have access to many fellow Doctoral and post-Doctoral researchers and Professors actively engaged on the Web – look at other fields and disciplines, and these numbers can be significantly diminished. This was certainly a concern raised by a number of attendees when I recently co-presented a series of social media workshops for PhD students and Early Career Researchers at my University.

  2. Thanks for your comments Andy. and for sharing the link to your workshops! You bring up a good point when you argue that “Students and academics from other disciplines may not only lack the skills and motivations to use social media, but also the critical numbers of fellow academics within their fields that are using these tools.” Part of the reason of engaging with some of these activities is because one can go beyond his/her own field. If we are serious about multidisciplinary research & work, then this is an obvious place to look at. You point about “participants only following those of equal or higher academic level” is also interesting and i’d love to read your paper. A couple of thoughts that jump in my mind: How active are the participants in your sample and how do they use the tool? I don’t follow everyone that follows me on Twitter. And, if I do, it doesn’t mean that I am paying equal attention to everyone (as tools like tweetdeck allow me to create groups of people whose tweets I follow closely). Also, for what purposes do they use the tool? If I am using the tool for professional purposes and the person who adds me is not using it professionally at all, I am less likely to follow them back… Finally, yes, we (in the ed tech field) probably use these tools and engage with these ideas more than others…. which is why we are in a good position to do research on the topic and let others know about out experiences and about the possibilities/shortcomings :)

  3. Funny…looks like we are all looking at similar stuff… so it’s great George has opened up a space for discussion through this space. We should talk more!
    I will get back with more comments but for the time being I’d like to address the issue Andy has raised…which is a very pertinent one!
    I think this is still early days. The internet world is still very new, especially when it comes to approach it from a connected, truly participatory perspective.
    And I think the problem we face is that we, as learning technologists/researchers or whatever we call ourselves these days…have for long been preaching to the choir. Of course this is debatable… but we go to TEL conferences and are all excited about showing and using the latest applications… but we are all TEL-researchers…why are we not taking part in learning events where TEL is not the main topic of discussion? And help embed it in their strategy in such a way it feels rather natural, obvious, relevant.
    I think the grand challenge for the TEL community is to work outside its comfort zone, i.e, with people in academic areas who couldn’t care less about TEL…not because they are against it, but because it’s not part of their academic/discipline culture.
    Having said that, in the last few years I have witnessed change. There are pockets of people in different disciplines doing really cool stuff.
    But just as they don’t know about what we are doing, so don’t we. We need to talk more, and to more and different people. That’s my take. And as TEL researchers and practitioners I think our mission is to go out there and offer our support to people in different areas…really work and collaborate with them rather then ‘telling them how good tech can be’.
    And of course, there is also a lot to be said about some of the so called learning technologist, who talk about it but ‘do not walk their talk’…sort of speaking!
    If we want to transform, we need to aims for self-transformation first.
    Above all, I think it’s still early days. There are habits and cultures to change, including our own. We need to work with people differently if we want to help them make the shift (work differently).

  4. Thanks for your thoughts Cristina, and for the valuable points that you bring up. Walking the talk is important and so is engaging in conversations/projects with people outside of our field…

  5. I was going to leave and go home but your paper caught my attention and then kept it. I am an early career researcher who has just finished 15 years as a teacher and a simultaneous 7 years as a masters then PhD student. With my doctorate complete I am now interested in engaging with people outside of my classroom. Yet physical education is not a traditional location for technology or technology research and my background is one of traditional sports participation and prestige gathering for my school. I have been interested in the ways in which we socially construct our identities as educators and physical educators and think that the online simulacrum notion raised by social networking platforms likes twitter has an important part to play in the future development of teachers and pupils.

    I am a novice on twitter (DrAshCasey) and a novice academic but I am an experienced teacher and reflective practitioner. I am trying to get involved in a larger community of practice but the elements of time and expertise are important in forming a credible persona. The paper, as presented, is very interesting and I feel that there is a big opportunity to use the time and space that we have online. However, the social construction of the ‘academic’ and the fear that such work won’t further a university’s desire for ‘international prestige’ may be an obstacle to immediate or medium term success.

    I felt that walking the talk is a vital point because it is easier to talk a good game than play one. This takes courage of purpose and a determination that goes beyond, and changes, many of our established philosophies.

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