If I have any careful readers of this blog, or close followers on Twitter, they will know that I am working my way through Martin Weller’s fascinating book The Digital Scholar. One of the interesting points raised is around research, where Professor Weller compares academic research to software. Traditionally, just as software took years to develop, culminating in the release of a finished product, research has tended to consist of large-scale, substantial projects with results communicated at the end. But the success of the open source movement has shown that a process of releasing small chunks of software, which can then be discussed and improved on by users, can be highly effective.
A similar approach to research means releasing small pieces of research to the community as soon as possible, which the community can then use as they see fit. Weller comments, that, following adoption of this ‘open source’ approach:
“…the granularity of what we consider to be research may then alter. The UK REF uses the following definition of research: ‘a process of investigation leading to new insights effectively shared’….there is nothing in its definition that specifies the length of a project or the size of the outputs it produces.” (Weller, 2011)
His point is that some blog posts may reasonably considered small pieces of research. However, compared to traditional routes of research and publishing, they can be shared much more quickly, and responses obtained. Another key difference between blogging and traditional academic approaches is that the barriers to entry are much lower. As Prof Weller elaborates elsewhere in the book, academia can be something of a ‘closed shop’. But blogging is open to anyone, and instead of “peer review” before anything is published, a rough and ready “peer review” takes place via social media after the piece is published.
I learned something about the truth and significance of these insights from the reaction to a recent blog post. Hopefully you will indulge me if I tell the story…
Our most recent assignment for my OU course included an analysis of the pros and cons of eportfolios in a context with which we are familiar. I chose to write it using my own context, being employed to design courses and teach at a for-profit, professional education company. In the course of researching and writing it, I think I convinced myself that there may well be a role for formal eportfolio systems for us in helping staff development and assessment. I argued that Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon had been successful not by inventing products but by taking existing products and making them simple to use. The real breakthrough will come when someone does the same for eportfolios.
As I was writing it, it also seemed a bit of a shame just to submit it as my assignment. Maybe there were ideas here that others would find interesting. So I decided to post a version to my blog. I had to edit it, partly because it was a bit long for a blog post, partly because it included some slightly sensitive information and partly to make it more focused. I wasn’t sure, and still am not really, whether we are “supposed” to do this with our assignments. It doesn’t seem common practice. But surely this is what academic work is all about – it should be published so that others can read it, respond, criticise, develop it etc.
Saturday 29 October was a working day for me. Many of our students work full-time and can only make classes at weekends, so weekend teaching is a regular feature of our job. I made the final edits to my blog post that morning and published it before heading to work, also tweeting a link to my followers.
To give some context for the next bit of the story – I am very far from being a “big name” blogger. I know that posts on the top blogs on education and e-learning (from the likes of Wheeler, Hopkins and Weller himself) get thousands of hits, sometimes tens of thousands. By contrast, I only started blogging last September and my audience is much more modest. It had started with some of my fellow students on the course, and expanded slightly to include some friends and work colleagues. On 29 October, my most popular post to date had had 21 hits, and I was pretty chuffed with that.
In this context, the reaction to my eportfolio post was, to me, startling. Over the course of the weekend when it was published, the link was retweeted four times and I had 66 hits on the post. Links to my post found their way on to aggregation sites, notes on other blogs and all sorts of places. I have written several posts since, but this one continues to be by far the most popular, and to date has had 117 hits – nearly six times my previous “highest”.
What I have witnessed, I think, is the power of the new publishing channel known as blogging. I do not have a track record of publishing on this topic and the piece I wrote is quite short. I might have struggled to get it published anywhere, it would have taken time to get it published, and if 116 people had actually read my article, well, I would have been pleased. Instead, within hours of finishing the article, it was available to the world and reached a reasonably wide audience, simply because some people read it and liked it. Along with millions of other bloggers, I have the chance, in a small way, to join in the world of academic research and publication. That, surely, is one aspect of the digital revolution. And it is only getting started.
Weller, M. (2011), The Digital Scholar, Bloomsbury, London. Available at http://www.bloomsburyacademic.com/view/DigitalScholar_9781849666275/book-ba-9781849666275.xml (last accessed 17 November 2011)