Academics’ experiences of professional networked learning

The project team have been presenting our findings on academics’ experiences of professional networked learning at the 2016 Networked Learning Conference. The slides can be found here: NLC10may2016_slides

It was a thought-provoking conference overall, with many sessions, including Helen Beetham‘s and Magda Bober‘s talk, echoing some of the themes that have emerged from our research. Helen talked about the disaggregation of professional roles in academia, including the blurring of boundaries between personal and professional time and identities. This is a major concern for our own participants – almost without exception, people talked about the pressure / drive to check email using portable digital devices, even when when not ‘at work’, and about concerns around the ways their identity could be constructed online. Magda talked about the ways in which students and staff in HE use mobile devices, and the symbolic meanings these held for these two groups.

To blog or not to blog, that is the question

Our PI Karin participated in a public lecture in Lancaster last week on the theme of Teaching, Tweeting, and Trolling – Our Online Worlds.  In addition, I had the pleasure of going to Sweden to give talk at Stockholm University’s department of English on behalf of the Academics Writing project. In both of these talks we shared findings on how academics’ writing practices have been affected by technological changes.

We asked our participants if they did any writing on digital platforms such as Twitter, blogs, and Facebook, and found a bit of a trend across the disciplines (bearing in mind that our sample is too small to draw generalisations). Not many of the mathematicians used these platforms, while historians tended to speak rather more positively about them, even if they didn’t actually use them much.

The reasons our participants have given for not engaging with these new genres of writing include a perception that they were trivial or inconsistent with their professional identity. For example, one participant (a statistician) said, “I don’t necessarily approve of Twitter and Facebook so I tend to avoid them”. But these feelings of disapproval were not shared by everyone, and others were keen to use these platforms.

One History professor said, “I lay awake sometime last week thinking maybe I should have a blog. Haven’t got around to it. But the blogs I do read, some of them are terrific.” Another historian expressed similarly positive views: “I am really interested in the idea of blogs and sometime, maybe when I retire, I might get into blogs. I think they are really fun. I don’t do Twitter either. All those modes of communication seem quite interesting.”

The language these historians use speaks of the potential pleasures and creativity of these forms of writing, yet their take-up is constrained by the need to produce other, more privileged genres. This was particularly clear in David’s comment, “A lot of the work is grey literature where people have written blog pieces. I think that’s opened my eyes to what’s possible in that area but yes, if there’s time – I think it’s always a question of time. Again, that work is not valued by the university as far as I can see.” Although he saw potential in these forms of writing, particularly in terms of communicating to audiences beyond the academy, he acknowledged that peer-reviewed, scholarly publications take priority, partly driven by institutional demands to produce REF-able research outputs.

Where do you stand on these hybrid genres? Are they appropriate for academics? Should institutions value them more or would this simply add to already heavy workloads?


The long word club

One of my pet peeves is conference speakers who sit down and put on their reading glasses. This is a sure sign that they’re about to eschew slides and read their paper aloud. Moreover, the paper will be crowded with abstract concepts described entirely through words of 8 syllables or more.

It may be called “a conference paper“, but this does not make it acceptable to inflict 30 minutes of unsupported listening on a tired audience. The projector is there for a reason.

I’d been moaning about this when my colleague Mary sent me a link to a blog post by Mark Carrigan,  in which he discusses  sociologists’ habit of writing in unsociably dense, turgid prose.  Carrigan quotes Les Back in the Art of Listening,  comparing academics to “bookish limpets” (2007, p. 163).  So if we recognise our own weaknesses in this regard, what should we do about them?

James Mulholland  has argued that rather than attempting to make complex research more accessible to general audiences, we should simply embrace esoteric knowledge and technical language as intrinsic aspects of dealing with complex ideas. Stay in your ivory towers, he urges, and write books that few people will read.

Carrigan suggests that blogging and tweeting offer possibilities for making academics’ writing more engaging and opening it up to a wider readership. While I’m not completely convinced that that academics who blog are not already preaching to the converted, I do think that Mulholland is missing the point somewhat. The debate is not about whether we should change the books we write, but how we might persuade more people to read those we do write.

The title of this post was inspired by / stolen from:

Gardener, S. (1992). The long word club: The development of written language within adult fresh start and return to learning programmes. Brighton: RaPAL.

‘Technobiographies’ as a method of researching digital practices

When did you first use a mouse? Send a text message? Search for something on the Web? Set up a social media profile?

What caused this first usage? Was it mere inquisitiveness? Or did you have to?

Can you remember the first [essay, email, and shopping list] that you wrote? How did you write it? Is it different to how you would do it now? What has changed over time?

The above are just a few of the many questions you could ask yourself (or someone else) as part of a technobiography, one of a number of methods we will adopt in the ‘Academics Writing’ project.

A technobiography is about researching your own practices with digital media, the phases of change over time, in different domains of your life, and how and why your habits of use emerged. Reflecting upon our use of digital media in our past and how we approached technologies can help us understand our use of new media today, and its anticipated future use. The use of technobios as a research method can add new dimensions to ethnographic exploration of digital literacy practices, especially when looking at ‘habits’ as opposed to ‘skills’ and how these are played out over time in people’s lives (Page et al., 2014).

According to Page et al. (2014), this method of researching oneself begins as “a participant-centred way of documenting change over time in social practices, especially as these relate to people’s lived experiences with technology and their language use online” (p. 128). More broadly, technobios can also be a useful component of an ‘autoethnography’. Insights gained from technobios can therefore be used to explore commonalities between different people, identify how digital literacy practices are situated and located in particular times and spaces, and how everyone has an individual profile of literacy practices in their life history (ibid).

In this project, their adoption as one of our research methods is designed to provide insights into how the writing practices of academics have evolved through time in their professional lives, the challenges and opportunities different academics face, and how these have shaped the work of knowledge production.


Page, R., Barton, D., Unger J. W. and Zappavigna, M. (2014). Researching Language and Social Media: A Student Guide. Abington and New York: Routledge

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