Posts Tagged ‘academic practice’

Marathons and Mayonnaise: Digitally Mediating Academic Lifestyles

Tuesday, August 26th, 2014

Many of us have developed sufficiently sophisticated media ‘literacies’ to recognise that TV programmes, magazines articles and advertising about cooking, interior design and other recreational pursuits rely heavily on a narrative of constructed lifestyles, often directly linked to key protagonists. So much so, that the term ‘lifestyle’ is often adopted as a catch-all to collectively describe the genre.

Whilst academics have no doubt discussed their recreational activities with colleagues for many years, through idle chat in university corridors or over conference lunches, we are the first generation using social media to partly do so in globally distributed environments. I’ve been thinking about how this emergent practice might be mediating ‘academic lifestyles’ and how it might be contributing to a (re)shaping of their cultural norms.

To be clear, the performative context I’m talking about here is not one based on formal (or indeed informal) academic achievement or professional status, but one which relates to public profiles and digital footprints that increasingly include lifestyle revelations beyond purely academic roles and activities. These provide an everyday insight into readily shared selves that are also becoming increasingly quantified. Some of us may even adopt a form of online ‘life laundering’ that is almost confessional, warts and all, and tags such as ‘micro-celebrities’ have been assigned, disparagingly and often uncritically, to relatively high-profile and high-volume users of social media, including some academics.

It is only natural that we annotate the sharing of aspects of our professional practice with recreational footnotes, such as the perks that go with travelling to overseas conferences. In addition, emergent ‘life hacking’ exercises – with their focus on tricks, shortcuts and skills to increase personal well-being and productivity – constitute an interesting and increasingly visible subset of academic ‘lifestyling.’ But I’m increasingly aware how these can (consciously or unconsciously) involve the nurturing and (re)constructing of the self, often (re)affirming one’s social and cultural capital.

Academics are generally well versed in online identity management, and often at the forefront of advising students over digitally mediated threats to personal and professional reputations. Drunken Facebook photos and inappropriate tweets have become clichés of the genre. In the main, academics are content to adopt modest, balanced and guarded approaches to the way they present personal aspects of their lives and their recreational activities – in particular, making conscious decisions over the identification and participation of spouses, children and other non-professional relationships – whilst adhering to the expectations of professional conduct and confidentiality regarding aspects of their studies and work.

The way I see it, most forms of academic shared practice are not overtly prescriptive, dictatorial or self-promotional, but can be viewed as contributing to a wider communal resource from which others can make informed decisions about the usefulness and relevance of individual contributions. And whilst I’ve previously expressed concerns about the potential for cultural hegemony, most of these are motivated by genuinely altruistic instincts and ethics. Further, many academics are often deliberately self-effacing and self-depreciating online. There are plenty in my Twitter feed who admit to unproductive days, unhealthy eating and excessive bouts of procrastination. In doing so, we are reassured that they are presenting more rounded, authentic and honest personas.

But how much might we admit to certain activities, personal traits and lifestyle choices to the point that we may consider it compromising professional reputation or career progression? Instinctively, it doesn’t do us any harm to project ourselves as confident, fit, healthy, efficient, productive, socially well-connected and culturally rich individuals. Ok, it’s unlikely that anyone’s professional status will be significantly enhanced by accounts of running marathons or making their own mayonnaise. But do we run the risk of contributing to increasingly narrowly defined cultural norms of what constitutes ‘ideal’ scholars, creating academic lifestyles that are increasingly ritualised and consensual? Further, do these reinforce lifestyles associated with predominant academic demographics (you know, the usual suspects).

From the moment we enter university, we conform to social and cultural norms of behaviour and self-representation. Yet progression towards postgraduate and doctoral studies requires increasingly important work in establishing one’s own professional identity/ies. In comparison to many workplaces (and I’ve worked in quite a few), an academic environment remains a generally supportive and inclusive working environment; one that embraces diversity and is tolerant of multiple perspectives, even if, as some would argue, these values are being increasingly inhibited by neoliberal and managerialist agendas. Crucially, academics are also contributing to a wider sociocultural shift in scholarly discourse beyond core practices, highlighting – and indeed personalising – important issues related to the academic environment, such as mental health, everyday sexism and the precarity and exploitation of academic labour.

Digitally-mediated academic lifestyles increasingly constitute expressions of individuality and performativity that challenge existing work-life binaries, institutional roles and formal professional identities. We should ensure they remain authentic, diverse and inclusive.

On Blogging Frequency

Saturday, November 30th, 2013

Just a quick post in response to a question at my recent workshop regarding increasing blogging productivity. We can challenge the view that we need to blog frequently and regularly, but I appreciate how this expectation is based on a cultural norm that concerns new academic bloggers particularly.

I see three interrelated contextual factors that underpin an attempt to blog more frequently:

  • The capacity to share ideas, thoughts, work in progress etc.
  • The scope or range of blog post topics and themes
  • The flexibility of the style or genre of blog posts

These constitute personal choices and circumstances that are fundamental to the aims and purposes of developing a blogging practice, and point to broader themes I’ve discussed previously on this blog and elsewhere. But with these in mind, here are a few common practices that academic bloggers regularly employ, which can help increase blogging frequency:

Serial posting
You can break up long texts into several posts. These may have to be published consecutively and within a relatively short timeframe to ensure currency or maintain interest, though ‘occasional’ posts in a series around a common theme are also optional. Either way, these should be appropriately linked, within the posts and/or with a unique tag.

Repurposing comments into posts
Commenting on other blogs is a useful way to interact with other bloggers. It supports the participatory nature of the social web and connectivity within the blogosphere. However, in some cases, it may be desirable to repurpose an intended comment into a new post on your own blog (such as I did here), especially if it represents a substantive enough argument to warrant an entire post, or if you wish to shift the context. Whilst it is expected you provide a link to the original post, a brief summary within your text can be useful. Trackbacks often ensure a link to your post is provided on the other blog, though a brief comment with the link may be required.

Reproducing / annotating other blog posts
You can choose to reproduce significant excerpts from another blog post (or indeed, any text), annotated with summary text and/or your own arguments or thoughts. In reproducing other blog post texts (which quite a lot of bloggers do), you should ensure that they are appropriately attributed with a link to the original source (which not all bloggers do). And whilst many academics blog under a site-wide Creative Commons license, it is worth checking before reproducing any content.

Updating old posts
With their reverse chronological structure emphasising latest posts, blogs often get overlooked as key resources for ongoing documentation and reflexivity. Updating significant old posts (particularly in response to new ideas or opportunities) can revitalise key content and underline the role of the blog as a platform for professional development.

Posting quick and informal short ‘texts’ (such as quotations, event notifications, and Slideshare embeds) can help ‘fill-in’ between more substantial and time-intensive posts. Whilst these will add variation to your blog, some may consider them trivial or inappropriate.

Guest blogging
If you don’t have time to blog, invite someone else. You can promote guest blogging by a call for posts or by approaching potential authors directly. And whilst we might associate guest blogging with high profile or group blogs (see below), inviting academic colleagues to contribute can add to the diversity of your blog and provide them with an opportunity to blog – perhaps for the first time – without the necessity to establish their own sites. Guest posts are sometimes themed and can be combined as serial posts. Whilst the content of posts can be informally negotiated during the publication process, it may be advisable to clarify any editorial constraints or changes you might impose with the guest blogger from the outset.

Group blogging
Group blogs are highly effective at sharing the responsibility for blog productivity across multiple authors and, as above, they can provide bloggers with an opportunity to contribute without the commitment to regular posting. Some academic bloggers republish posts from personal blogs on group blogs (often to reach larger non-specialist audiences), though this may require making changes to the texts.

Blog drafts and reserve posts
This final tip is more to do with maintaining regularity than increasing frequency. Many bloggers it seems, tend to have multiple drafts under development at any one time (which I discussed here), and having several blog posts ‘in reserve’ enables you to continue blogging during those busy periods when you can’t find the time.

No more blurred conference slide photos

Saturday, October 12th, 2013

Here’s a thought. A conferencing web service, where slides of (pre-submitted) presentations from registered conferences are systematically coded. The codes are included in the corner of each slide for delegates to reference in a simple URL when tweeting during the presentation.

Conference: X456, Presentation: B4, Slide: 3

Conference Slide:



Web Page:




Thinking about interdisciplinarity and compromise

Wednesday, July 10th, 2013

In a new article for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Nigel Thrift documents the apparent rise of ‘compromise’ as an emerging intellectual trend, driven by a new political pragmatism and the interconnectedness of increasingly globalized societies. He concludes with potential implications for Higher Education:

We can see the foundations being laid for a public conversation that unites universities’ academic discourse with a new appreciation of certain forms of political conduct, in ways that could ultimately prove genuinely productive.

There are clearly implications here for the nature of dialogue and collaboration between academics and external partners. But Thrift’s notion of compromise offers an interesting perspective with which we might equally view different aspects of interdisciplinary practice.

Terms such as interdisciplinarity, multidisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity are often used interchangeably, though these are distinct definitions (see for example, Dyer, 2003, Stock & Burton, 2011). In representing increasing levels of integration, each of these essentially describe what disciplinary values, beliefs and practices are contested, i.e. how much are participating academics willing to compromise.

If, as Thrift suggests, compromise constitutes “a set of productive alliances that are only ever loosely brought together through various acts of diplomacy,” two things occur to me.

Firstly, how the apparent ‘distance’ between participating disciplines is conceptualised. There is, for example, an increasingly rich heritage of collaboration between the Arts and the Sciences, though from my own limited experience, projects often explore largely abstract ideas at a thematic or conceptual level. Contrast that with, say, activities associated with the learning sciences, in which participating disciplines (typically education, psychology and the computer sciences) tend to engage in purposeful, problem-based practice, potentially exposing raw disciplinary differences.

Secondly, Thrift references Robert E. Goodin’s book, On Settling, which posits a ‘making do’ attitude; accepting when something is ‘good enough’. It may be easier to ‘make do’ with compromising disciplinary values in relatively short term, project-based activities than it is when committing to establishing sustainable long-term collaborative practice and generating new knowledge.


Dyer, J. A. (2003). Multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary: educational models and nursing education. Nursing Education Perspectives, 24(4), 186-188.

Stock, P., & Burton, R. J. F. (2011). Defining terms for integrated (multi-inter-trans-disciplinary) sustainability research. Sustainability, 3, 1090-1113.

Social media training: developing ecological perspectives

Wednesday, June 12th, 2013

Academics who actively engage in social media often get asked how they manage to find the time. I hear this quite a lot in my workshops. Such concerns are understandable, yet are often raised under a misconception that participating in these activities necessarily constitutes additional workload. I tend to argue that over time some of the academic practices you can develop through using social media can replace, supplement or enhance existing tasks. But how do we go about developing concrete examples, and what’s the best way of communicating them?

In a recent workshop, I explained how participating in academic-oriented networks (such as through Twitter or Facebook) and following multiple blogs (most efficiently aggregated through an RSS reader) can significantly contribute to resourcing new publications in one’s research field. Examples such as these relate emergent social media practice to existing problems that academics encounter in their everyday work, in context with the methods they may already employ to resolve them (in this case, using established database search and alert systems).

Generally, academics will only consider integrating social media in these types of activities if they are seen to be either a) adding more value or quality (however these are perceived), or b) providing more efficient (i.e. time-saving) methods. In reality, such transition is rarely straightforward, and its effectiveness may not be immediately realised. It may be partial i.e. new activities may augment rather than replace existing methods. (In the example above, it may be necessary – and indeed well-advised – to continue using database systems, albeit at a reduced level.) Further, social media are multipurpose, in quite complex and ambiguous ways. The initial motivation for adopting specific platforms may constitute one of many potential benefits and risks. Therefore, any shifts towards social media-facilitated activities will tend to be multiple and interrelated, within various loosely-connected timeframes.

This highlights the limitations of instrumental perspectives inherent in learning and adopting new technologies, and the problems associated with attributing affordances to social media. This is often accentuated in training environments, which tend to be incentivised towards rather abstract and non-contextualised learning outcomes. Therefore, we might need to emphasise a more ecological perspective, which positions the role of social media within the emergent socio-cultural shifts taking place in academic practice. Thinking about the example above, increased engagement with social media represents a shift from purposeful to speculative or opportunistic ways of sourcing knowledge, which are reliant on (and only realised through) developing online networks and communities, which invariably involves a period of maturation.

With this in mind, training programmes can incorporate more inclusive forms of shared practice and opportunities for ongoing mentorship and peer support (some of which might be appropriated through social media themselves). I explored these ideas further here (towards the end). Crucially, in relation to communicating how activities might be facilitated by social media, we should not necessarily focus on convenient ‘before’ and ‘after’ comparisons, but acknowledge and incorporate the messy (and sometimes unsuccessful) periods of transition, recognising also that these are multiple, interrelated and ongoing as new social media and related practices are considered.

If it quacks like a blog… Problematising social media genres

Wednesday, May 15th, 2013

What are the most useful criteria for categorising social media? What characteristics help define or distinguish specific tools or platforms? What, for example, is most typical or unique about a blog? The reverse chronological ordering of posts? The ability to comment? Or something more related to its social or cultural significance? In other words, what is it that essentially determines the ‘blogness’ of a blog? But then, how does a WordPress blog differ from a Blogger blog? How do we distinguish a blog from a tumblog or a microblog?

If it quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck. But the delineations between social media are increasingly blurry. This is partly down to the mixed and often interchangeable ontological approaches we take in defining social media – by platform, brand, modality, community etc. In addition, within these often reside multiple components or features that may be common to several social media.

Therefore, we might choose to define or categorise social media by how and why we are using them. Some in the educational technology field have adopted the idea of affordances within user-centred design paradigms in an attempt to correlate specific tools and features with specific purposes and activities. But as Martin Oliver (2005) suggests, interpretations of Gibson’s original notion of affordance have been problematic (and often uncritical), describing one attempt as a “conglomeration of claims about perceptions, actions and characteristics” (p.409).

Many research projects in the ed-tech field also tend to focus on a specific platform (tool etc.). This is understandable, given that they may be oriented towards supporting its adoption, development and/or evaluation in a particular educational context. In addition, tight budgets or timescales can limit the scope of research to single platforms. But in my own PhD research with doctoral students, where participants were actively using a range of social media, I was keen on challenging this platform-specificity. Through reviewing the literature and conducting my pilot study, I came to recognise a number of key factors that indicated researching academic uses of the social web may be best facilitated by examining multiple forms of social media:

  • Underlying technologies and related processes (e.g. aggregation and tagging) provide effective means of interconnectivity between different social media
  • The adoption and use of social media is transient in nature, and subject to changes in technologies and design, and to social and cultural trends
  • The communities and networks in which individuals engage through social media encompass multiple, overlapping professional and social contexts

Crucially, adapting a holistic approach in this way supports attempts at framing the categorisation of social media within dynamic and contextualised sociocultural practices. Recalling Latour’s notion of ‘assemblages,’ we can think of any digital artefact (such as this blog post) as incorporating a history of multiple sociotechnical and cultural arrangements, processes and influences. In choosing to use Activity Theory in my analysis, I attempted to unpick these by constructing multiple and interconnected activity systems oriented towards key doctoral practices.

But in developing such activity systems, one has to attempt to delineate the social and cultural parameters that situate the practices under investigation. I recognised that my participants’ digitally mediated communities and networks did not only overlap, as suggested above, but they were also characterised by different levels and types of interaction, participation and audience. In addition, whilst specific social media (especially recognised ‘brands’ like Twitter and Facebook) have their own cultural identities, these exist and are constantly reconstructed and influential in the wider cultural norms of web 2.0 generally. Often in my study, key catalysts for change in my participants’ social media practice (manifest as ‘contradictions’ in the activity systems) arose through a coupling of:

  • Conflicts between the platform-specific and general web 2.0 cultures and the (often deeply embedded) cultural norms of academia
  • The participants’ need to negotiate the professional, social and cultural landscapes of multiple practice contexts

During the early stages of analysis, I was drawn to the genre studies literature, particularly key texts (e.g. Berkenkotter & Huckin, 1993) which represent a shift from literary and formalist genre traditions to more sociocultural and dialogical perspectives. These recognise the complexity, spontaneity and interconnectedness of genres (Spinuzzi & Zachry, 2000), and support studies which are inclusive of, and focussed on, the social interactions, activities and practices in which genres are embedded. Given the similarities with Activity Theory, I began to use genre, not as a specific analytical unit, but rather to inform my activity systems development. (For activity theorists out there, identifying these genres presented me with a way of addressing the dual conceptualisation of the ‘Tool’ component of the activity systems, that is: (i) in conceptualising the materiality of Vygotskyian mediation, and (ii) in constituting, or at least contributing to, the development of cultural tools.)

In time, I became aware of my participants’ conscious and purposeful refinement of what could be seen as emerging social media genres, and with it, their awareness of the representational and performative roles they play – akin to what Berkenkotter and Huckin (1995) describe as ‘genre knowledge.’ However, I found that these genres were challenging existing conventions of genre definition. For example, I found the notion of blogging as a specific genre of writing (or if you prefer, the blog post as a specific genre of text) ineffective in addressing the nuances of my participants’ blogging practices. Multiple and distinct forms of writing styles, formats and motivations were emerging, often in context with other, non-blogging texts, and occasionally transcending multiple platforms. I for one, have advocated single-author academic blogs as personal spaces for freedom of expression and experimentation. Compare for example, the length, format, modality and style of this blog post with this one. Further, whilst blogging in particular is still dominated by text, social media generally are becoming increasingly multimodal and multipurpose, and as such, increasingly disruptive in terms of genre definition. (Read the account of one of my participant’s ‘scrapbook’ style blogging in my last post.) As Clay Spinuzzi suggests, social media genres are becoming increasingly multiple and complex in relation to frequency, context, social interactions and audiences. This would suggest that in any analysis of this kind, we are looking at multiple and hard-to-define, interrelated and potentially conflicting sets of genres.

Why, one might ask, is this at all important beyond these predominantly theoretical and analytical concerns? Partly I think, because the way social media genres are defined and socially constructed influences our perceptions of how we use (or ought to use) these digital tools and platforms in various contexts, which within academic environments often become manifest in the form of best practices, which, as I have discussed previously, are themselves culturally loaded. This social construction often draws from popular discourses on the transformative, radical and disruptive potential of social media, in which seemingly new technological trends often represent a cultural (re)branding of established practices. These can become powerful cultural artefacts in the marketing of technological development within educational and research contexts, as is evident in the institutional leveraging of social media towards impact and outreach agendas, and in the commercial redefining of MOOCs.

Academics have generally used genres to reinforce the values and belief systems of the (inter-)disciplinary cultures in which they participate. For doctoral students, increased familiarity and engagement with established academic genres is seen as a crucial part of their learning trajectory and socialisation within the scholarly community. The emergent genres that are thrown up by participating in social media can challenge, augment and subvert these established genres and their role in reifying academic practice. In negotiating these new spaces of contestation, genre knowledge – or as I see it, the ability to recognise and contribute to the social construction of these genres – becomes an increasingly important digital literacy.


Berkenkotter, C., & Huckin, T. N. (1993). Rethinking genre from a sociocultural perspective. Written Communication, 10(4), 475-509.

Berkenkotter, C., & Huckin, T. N. (1995). Genre knowledge in disciplinary communication: cognition/culture/power. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Oliver, M. (2005). The problem with affordance. E-Learning, 2(4), 402-413.

Spinuzzi, C., & Zachry, M. (2000). Genre ecologies: An open-system approach to understanding and constructing documentation. ACM Journal of Computer Documentation, 24(3), 169-181.

Curation – new social media workflow or another web 2.0 buzzword?

Sunday, April 28th, 2013

I’ve been asked to present various aspects of how I use social media at a number of academic events and training sessions recently. I’ve always been reluctant to over-emphasise my own social media practice in my workshops for reasons I’ve explained previously, but I welcome any opportunities for shared practice when it allows for multiple and diverse perspectives.

If I have to nail it down, there are only four platforms I would really call essential. This blog and my Twitter account are those most known to external audiences. I use a desktop-based RSS reader, Vienna (Mac OS X only) to aggregate feeds from approximately 200 blogs (listed here in my blogroll) and various additional websites, and for many years I have used social bookmarking for collating and managing web resources (I switched from Delicious to Pinboard in response to the much-publicised ownership and design changes, though keep both sites active). Many academics are rightly concerned with how time-consuming social media might be. Therefore, I’ve found it useful to conceptualise how I engage with these key platforms through varying schedules within an informal workflow of key interrelated academic activities.


In developing this, I’m reminded how I have so far chosen not to routinely use any of an increasing number of emergent social media such as Pinterest, and Bundlr (beyond the usual playing around with them). These and other sites represent a diverse range of ostensibly visual platforms that have been loosely referred to as ‘curation’ tools. One can see how they might fit conceptually in such workflows, but do they offer us anything original? How does one attempt to contextualise the potential of these sites within established social media practices beyond that of a reified set of new tools or just another web 2.0 buzzword?

The term implies the addition of a more purposeful creative output or narrative. In short, we might refer to curation as the collecting and managing of web-based resources but with added context, or:

Curation = collecting + managing + context

These social media offer the potential to extend the type of time-efficiency processes of sourcing and collating content described above by incorporating enhanced social and performative affordances. In doing so, they introduce new opportunities for educators and researchers to organise and themetize resources, synthesise key concepts and narratives, and develop personal and collaborative digital ethnographies and datasets.

Here’s another angle. One of the participants in my PhD research (let’s call him Jack) pre-empted the emergence of these media in his explorative blogging activities. An interdisciplinary PhD student with an Arts-practice and teaching background, Jack began developing a ‘scrapbook’ style blog (using Posterous) with numerous and frequent posts comprising short notes and ‘jottings’, digital photos, short videos, and visual scans of sketches and mindmaps. He then began tagging these posts and reassembling them thematically through some quite extensive experimenting with third-party gallery themes and the digital note-taking site Evernote.

He primarily used these as part of a daily exercise to explore wider conceptual themes related to his research, often through the development of visual metaphors and various pattern forming techniques. Jack drew on educationalist Joe Kincheloe’s interpretation of ‘bricolage’ as a holistic framing of research project work, in which the positionality of the researcher is seen as a legitimate methodological tool. He explained to me:

“I just see it as a way of expanding on the potential conceptualisation of the project, the PhD generally, and where I am right now… a way of sort of re-establishing myself in the project everyday.”

Jack had originally developed these activities ‘offline’ using paper, pens and clippings, and the shift to a digital space enabled him to develop a more sustained and reproducible platform for documenting the process. The widespread emergence of the aforementioned curation tools coincided with the tail end of Jack’s participation in my research, and I left him contemplating their potential usefulness. He has recently launched a new Pinterest site – no doubt partly hastened by the imminent shutting down of Posterous – where he is currently exploring similar creative processes.

There is no doubt that Jack’s prior explorative work represents a far more nuanced, purposeful and practice-led approach to his current activities with Pinterest than can be claimed by most users. How many of us adopt specific social media without prior recognition of a need? Often it seems, they provide solutions to problems we didn’t realise we had. At least in Jack’s case, Pinterest provides a ‘ready-made’ approximation (of sorts) to a process he had previously attempted to resolve in his Posterous/Endnote work-arounds, and there is a lot to be admired in that personal trajectory. There is now perhaps the danger that in the transference of this activity to Pinterest, it may represent a form of reification, which, as Wenger (1998) suggests, can ‘ossify’ the creative and productive process.

My continued reliance on feed reading and bookmarking web resources seems positively ‘old school’ in comparison, but I believe these are reliable and effective methods which I have been able to integrate and refine within reasonably efficient everyday activities. I’m yet to be convinced how the current crop of curation tools can add value to what I personally want to do right now, but I remain open to future developments.


Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning and identity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

On being resourced

Tuesday, February 5th, 2013

Tomorrow I’ll be contributing to an Information Services training session at the University of Nottingham for PhD students in Engineering, Medicine and Science. Its theme is ‘keeping up to date’ with resources, and I’ll be presenting how social media might be used to augment the use of database search and alert systems for sourcing formal publications. In particular, I want to emphasise the role various social media can play in accessing and managing more informal genres of academic content, and explore how these emerging practices are challenging the notion of what it means to ‘be resourced.’ I’ve put together a few preliminary slides to help establish context.

I’m particularly pleased to support this session as it is an example of integrating social media practices into core doctoral training programmes; something which I argued for in a recent post.







Social Media Best Practices: Challenging Cultural Hegemony

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

As an educational researcher, I often find the notion of ‘best practices’ problematic. The effectiveness of any particular educational practice in one context may not necessarily apply to another.

When it comes to using social media in academic environments, we recognise that practices are emergent; subject to the relatively new and transient nature of the technology, and its tentative adoption by the academic community. As such, ‘good’ or ‘best’ practices tend to be instigated – formally and informally – by early adopters, and are therefore heavily influenced by the cultures of the academic disciplines and specialist fields in which they reside. This allows for biases, assumptions and prejudices – however unintentional – to factor, even to a point where best practice claims can become ritualised as forms of cultural hegemony. This risks marginalising those from less represented disciplines who tend to follow on later (typically under the influence and guidance of the early adopters themselves, who by this time have often ‘moved on’ to the latest technology or trend).

To an extent, this can be seen as a necessary process, particularly by the ed-tech community, who are actively engaged in adopting, promoting or integrating technologies and related practices into institutional platforms and pedagogies. It can be argued that, in contributing to best practices, early adopters are providing a service for other academics and researchers who are too preoccupied in their own work to do so themselves. Further, by drawing on their informed knowledge and expertise, they provide guidance that is both authoritative and trusted.

I’m particularly mindful of this as someone who – as an early career researcher loosely associated with the educational technology field – is active in advocating the use of social media through workshops and other activities, often to audiences from other disciplines. With this comes a responsibility to recognise the privileged position and perspective within one’s own social media practice, which are manifest in a number of ways:

  • Social media practices are culturally normalised within my field
  • I can draw on a critical mass of users within my online communities and networks
  • I have a professional interest, and am well–informed, in the latest advances in social media and related web technologies

A few points to note at this stage. Firstly, it is easy to homogenise the ed-tech ‘community.’ As Selwyn (2010) indicates, it often serves as a flag of convenience for a loose assortment of technologically minded educators, researchers and developers, with different and potentially conflicting roles, affiliations and policy agendas. Secondly, there are other academic disciplines and fields in which early adopters of social media predominate, such as Cultural and Media Studies and Journalism. Thirdly, influence is not exclusive to particular disciplines. For example, increasingly pervasive neoliberal models of networking, social capital and identity production are permeating research practices and academic training, often at the neglect of discourses on the participatory affordances of the social web, and the collaborative and egalitarian scholarly traditions it can potentially support.

These observations also raise fundamental questions over the nature of the relationship between technological developers and invested communities. Critical theorists such as Andrew Feenburg (2002) argue for more participatory and inclusive forms of technological design and development. As Friesen (2010) reminds us, social media represent an ecology of tools and platforms that are essentially founded on a ‘commercial imperative.’ Yet it has been suggested that the ‘perpetual beta’ of social media development – shaped by user trends rather than necessarily ‘hard-coded’ into original technological design – presents a more democratic process. Think of how the emergent practice of retweeting became formally integrated into the Twitter toolset. However, this only emphasises that it is often the early adopters who establish the most sustainable shifts in design change.

So whilst a professional elite of technologists and the ‘media savvy’ will invariably be the first academics to engage in new technologies, they should recognise the cultural baggage that comes with how they use them, and support opportunities for inclusivity, engagement and discussion in establishing best practice claims. In summary, I draw on my own research into how PhD students are using social media to offer a few suggestions relevant to the context of academic training:

Focus on ‘shared’ rather than ‘best’ practices

Adopt critical approaches to considering what constitutes best practices by incorporating multiple subjectivities and perspectives. Above all, support opportunities for sharing practices that may be comparative or conflicting, and include experiences of discontinuation or non-use of social media.

Promote inclusive and participatory approaches

Develop opportunities for cyclical, ongoing processes of shared practice that are participatory and culturally inclusive of different research cultures. Identify the cultural norms of social media practices in specific academic disciplines, whilst recognising the advantages of sharing practice in interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary environments. Engage sources of expertise such as learning technologists and educational researchers, whilst encouraging opportunities for participation from other disciplines. In particular, champion early adopters from under-represented disciplines.

Provide timely and sustainable support

Make opportunities for shared practices relevant as social media are adopted and used. The identification of key concerns, problems and potential solutions that characterise good (and just as importantly, bad) practices should emerge from experiencing the everyday use of social media in real case situations. Here, social media practices are authentic and essentially peripheral to ongoing academic activities, unlike many training scenarios where, as the focus of attention, they are abstract and prioritised tasks. Mentorship programmes can be particularly useful here.

Integrate training programmes

We should work to integrate (basic) social media practices into established training programmes. How often, for example, is the use of social media considered in graduate training sessions around conferences? Such a joined-up approach to training can be effective in normalising social media practices, contributing to their wider adoption and integration, as well as potentially enriching professional development in specific academic activities.


Feenberg, A. (2002). Transforming technology: A critical theory revisited. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Friesen, N. (2010). Education and the social web: Connective learning and the commercial imperative. First Monday, 15(12).

Selwyn, N. (2010). Looking beyond learning: Notes towards the critical study of educational technology. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 26, 65-73.

Free Academic Books Here!

Wednesday, November 14th, 2012

Informal file sharing practices amongst academics are not widely discussed. George Veletsianos blogged about how researchers use crowdsourcing on Twitter to access academic papers – an activity I also discussed a couple of years ago. The #ICanHazPDF hashtag has been created specifically to facilitate such exchanges. What I’m particularly interested in here is the role of file storage sites in the exchange of academic content, and specifically, academic e-books and their various digital formats (PDF, ePub .azw etc.)

Following the introduction of the SOPA and PIPA bills, the authorities began flexing their muscles early this year, most notably in the shutting down of the file storage service Megaupload for facilitating copyright infringement through open file sharing. Some of the most popular file storage services immediately responded by disabling their file sharing functionality, and thereby restricting downloading to the personal files of registered users. Some sites however continue to operate open sharing services, providing potential access to digital content (including academic books), most effectively sourced through third-party search engines. As with all content on these sites, specific books are routinely removed – presumably at the request of publishers or the authors themselves (see the Digital Millennium Copyright Act) – and then reposted. Cat and mouse.

For affiliated academics, there are legitimate avenues for obtaining books and other texts that are not readily available institutionally. In the UK, the Inter-Library Loan (ILL) service enables university students and staff to request any book from the British Library, though it may take several weeks or even months to receive the most sought-after books and loan periods can be very short. Therefore, it is not uncommon to see a PhD student stood for hours at a photocopier meticulously copying every page of a weighty volume of text.

I recently went to a university training session on academic copyright, in which it was specifically stated that we are expected to copy only a ‘reasonable amount’ of any text, without indicating what a reasonable amount might be, or on what ethical or legal grounds such an evaluation may be determined.

In addition, dedicated ‘e-library’ systems can provide institutional access to digital books and texts. Though typically restricted to online viewing only, some enable the printing of one or a limited number of pages at a time. Therefore, an entire book can feasibly be saved to PDF or other formats in this way, but it is a repetitive and time-consuming process.

It is perhaps assumed that the technological limitations ’embedded’ in these various methods of copying (Latour would have something clever to say at this point) are sufficient to deter wholesale copying. This might apply to busy and waged academics, who will probably just buy the book instead (or at least try and convince their department to). But what about the research student, who is (relatively speaking) time-rich and financially poor? Academic textbooks are notoriously expensive, especially niche or out-of-print titles.

Under these circumstances, we might not feel we are flouting the ‘rules’ (however ambiguous they are) by engaging in the practices described here, particularly in a climate increasingly dismissive of academic publishing hegemonies and supportive of open publishing / access agendas. But is it fair that a book that may have been written by a professor in your own department, a colleague or supervisor, or yourself for that matter, can be obtained in this way?